‘You are Muslim, not Indian’

In the raucous din over the forthcoming elections, the T20 cricket World Cup has been relegated to second place with a dramatically reduced number of tweets and articles. Our minds engulfed in NaMo, RaGa, JaDu, LoTa (the last two are not real people!) that many of us may have missed an advertisement for this World Cup.

The advertisement takes the audience through the last over of a nail-biting match between India and Pakistan. Created in a fast-paced snappy style, we relive every ball, as the balance of the game keeps shifting until India wins with a six off the last delivery. Though most Indian fans are shown without any overt religious identities, we cannot but notice the Sikh, a woman with a bindi in the background and one possible Hindu actually praying. Of course, Kapil Dev’s presence as spectator is not to be missed. All these establish a clear religious baseline for the Indian audience.

Almost every Pakistan fan is equally unmistakable: a devout Muslim, a young man with beautifully drawn kajal in the rim of his eyes, sporting the Muslim cap, elderly Muslim cleric look-alikes, many men with the classic Islamic beard and cap, a Muslim home where the camera focuses on Islamic writing and a woman clad in a green sari covering her head whose husband is a Pakistan cricket fan.

What does this imagery — along with the Pakistani flag and the reactions of the characters to the happenings on the TV screen — establish? That every Muslim in the frame supports Pakistan. On the other side, there is not one identifiable Muslim among the Indian supporters and not one religious Muslim cheers for India. It is as if India is a non-Muslim nation or that the Indian Muslim is, by definition, a Pakistani sympathiser, if not a Pakistani.

As much as the ad forces us, absurdly, to identify the Pakistani Muslim with Pakistan cricket fan-hood, it ignores, most objectionably, the Indian Muslim. Was its intent to portray India as secular and Pakistan as Islamic? Even if it was, the intent did not quite work, for the Indian fans shown did not include India’s largest religious minority. Moreover, isn’t our secularism a .celebration of all identities and not a negation?

The fact is, the ad left me wondering: What has gone wrong with our sense of India? And I found myself thinking about my idea of the Muslim Indian.

There are localities in my city where Muslims have lived for centuries. They belong as much to this land as I do; they are part of my culture, my own sense of the city. Yet when they are in the majority, even if it is just a by-lane, suddenly I feel that my space has been invaded. I am intimidated and insecure. Irrational and utterly trite as this might seem, my ‘majority’ eyes search for a Hindu. Because, the appearance of the people in that locality seems different from mine, and their language, somehow, sounds different and disorients me. The celebration of a Muslim festival is not a national celebration; it is a minority event. I even find myself saying in private that this area is a mini-Pakistan. I am constantly observing their actions, wondering if they support Pakistan during a cricket match.

You will notice that I have inadvertently used the reference ‘their’, and separated myself from ‘them’. But who is this ‘I’? This is the ugly ‘I’ hidden within many of us with secular credentials. The one who believes that he has first rights over this land. The ‘I’ who dances with the communal forces, but only in disguise and in silence, not to be caught by himself, let alone others. We need to recognise this ugly creature within and swiftly lay him to rest.

I recently watched a video where a speaker said that Muslims are guests in this country; that “they” must realise that “we” are the hosts and hence must submit to our (read Hindu) way of life. I am quite tired to hearing this cliché; that Hinduism is ‘a way of life’, unlike other religions. Every belief system, religious or otherwise, is a way of life. It is this same ‘way of life’ that has made us intolerant and created the religious bigot. Every religion can be read in multiple ways and hence can be a source of inspiration or manipulation.

Reading this piece, some will quickly begin the ‘tu tu mein mein’ rhetoric. I refuse to point fingers at Tughlak, Babur, Aurangazeb, the British, Congress or BJP. I am disgusted with myself, my wilful segregation, my human degeneration and the surrender of my mind at the altar of religion. I am not a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Parsi, agnostic or atheist; I am just tired, angry and hurt.

Rama, Rahim, Eshu, whoever you are, if at all you are, I seek your forgiveness.

Originally written for The Hindu

Do we really care?

It was a morning ritual, at least in English-speaking South Indian households — a cup of filter coffee and The Hindu in hand. That was the time to review the state of politics, the economy, society and, of course not to forget, sport. This morning dose of news was our connect to the world. But today, news is a 24×7 happening and all of us are connected with the people of the world, feeling a common sense of partnership, empathy, joy, sympathy, anger and frustration, thanks to TV stations, social media, blogs and websites that feed us non-stop ‘breaking news.’ The feed can reach us anywhere, anytime. Sitting in a small village, Thirupandurthi in Thanjavur district, I knew, in almost real-time, of the Malaysian airline crash on the South China Sea. Almost every day on Facebook, my friends discuss articles on women’s rights, child abuse, Ukrainian politics and the travails of minorities anywhere. The ‘like’ button signifies much more than its linguistic meaning. Intense and profound ‘status updates’ are noted with the greatest interest and the Internet has replaced the drawing room. I receive numerous petitions from Change.org for many worthy causes. We are one with everything and everybody, participating in the happenings around the world and raising our voice at least in virtual public spaces. But the question that begs to be asked: Does this connectedness and participatory nature of the new media make us really care about life beyond ourselves? Are we more sensitive than when all we had was The Hindu or Hindustan Times, with a few radio and TV bulletins thrown in?

What a question? When Aamir Khan brought to light the struggles of so many men and women, did I not say ‘Bravo!…Never even knew you existed…’? When Abdul Kalam spoke about ‘Vision 2020’ did I not get so excited as to blog about it? I supported Anna Hazare actively online. I even sent out emails regarding the need for saving India’s beaches and, let us not forget, I tweet!

The saddest funny thing is that I have almost begun to believe in this virtual bubble.

But the fact is that, inside all this, the divisive, self-centred, hierarchical ‘me’, who will not see that every small act of negligence towards the real life that exists around, is a violent one. The earth does not seek a virtual vote, comment or a discussion over dinner. She only asks us to open our minds to her. Once we do that, it will not matter whether or not we actually signed an online petition.

Has all this information that is constantly fed to us made us even fractionally more sensitive to the vegetable vendors on the sidewalk or the human ruins we see such as the ‘halt and maim’ stopping us at street corners? At the sight of an approaching transgender we roll up our car windows with the same disgust with which we avoid the stench of garbage. Nothing seems to have changed. Much of what we will see and pass by is exactly the ‘cause’ for which we would enthusiastically sign on an email request or have an animated discussion about on Facebook. But do we actually sense the condition when it presents itself? I am not talking about things that directly affect us but of facets of life that at least at that moment seem beyond my personal purview.

A few months ago I was driving down a busy road in a newly developed Chennai suburb. As we stopped at a traffic signal, I noticed a young girl clutching ‘Angry Birds’ colouring books, rushing to almost every car. She was asking the ‘car people’ to buy at least one from her. Even as I sat in my vehicle, about 10 cars behind, I could see her crying and imploring the inhabitants of a Mercedes Benz, Maruti, Honda, Ford and Audi. Nobody was interested, which was understandable. But the most disturbing aspect of this incident was the fact that not one person even lowered the window to give her, a visibly distressed teenager, the courtesy of a moment’s hearing. No one took the time to ask her “Why are you crying”? She ran from one car to another keeping an eye on the timer under the signal. She came to us and my friend asked her that very question. Through her tears and her exhaustion, all she could say was “I have been standing under the sun all day and I haven’t eaten; I am hungry.” Do we really care?

Originally written for The Hindu