I was born in a lower middle class Jain family about 31 years ago. For 17 years, we stayed in a narrow galli, an intersection on M.G.Road in Kolkata’s Burra Bazaar area. The locality used to be heavily populated with both Hindus and Muslims. Our building was placed in such a way that we were surrounded on three sides with Muslim households. The loud speaker for azaan was right behind my house; azaan was a part of our daily experience.
Since the lane was narrow, during Durga Puja, Kali Puja, Saraswati Puja, etc. pandals used to take up its entire breadth. Often during Eid, mehfils were organised and shamiyanas would be built, much the same way as the pandal. Every year, before Eid, a goat would appear at the shop run by one of the Muslim neighbours, at the corner of the street. I remember, while crossing that shop on our way to school, how we used to giggle at the goat, “Ye bechara jaane wala hai thode dino mein”. And, during Muharram, I remember getting scared at the sight of people’s bloodied backs.
One of the bigger Puja pandals of Kolkata used to be erected at Mohammad Ali Park near my house. On Eid, the road running parallel to this park used to be shut for traffic for morning namaaz. During India-Pakistan matches, there used to be tension in the bylanes of my galli – because some Muslim neighbours would invariably support Pakistan. Sometimes, there would be a minor scuffle also.
My mother tells me that during the riots of 1992-93, though everyone was prepared for the worst, Muslims in our neighbourhood, whom we used to chat with from our bedroom window during curfew, assured us that they wouldn’t let anything happen to us. Our galli escaped the riots, like many others.
From a kid I became an adult in these bylanes, watching people make adjustments for each other. In college, because I didn’t have enough money then, I used to often share my coffee with someone so that I would have to pay half its price. The person with whom I used to share that coffee, which by the way cost just Rs.5 then, was a Muslim. We used to spend hours at each other’s homes, studying together. Her mother would cook food for me and themselves in different vessels because I was a vegetarian. In winters, I would look forward to the kahwa they used to serve after lunch.
When I got my first job at a stock broking firm, my senior, who supervised and trained me, was a Muslim. Actually, there were a lot of Muslims in that small office. During Ramzaan, evenings were a jolly affair as iftaar would be laid out in the conference room and everyone would take part. Diwali puja and Mahurat trading were enjoyed much the same way. In my present job, many of my colleagues and even my reporting manager are Muslim.
When I started earning, I adopted a baby through an NGO. Adoption basically meant funding the kid’s expenses according to one’s ability. I used to send money for this child’s education. His name was Roze Khan. I used to get progress reports with postcards on which the child would scribble something. Seeing the illegibly written alphabet on those postcards was a beautiful experience. I supported Roze for about three years until circumstances brought me to a point where I could not support even myself for a while.
A lot happened in between and then I finally arrived in Mumbai. For about two weeks, until I found a place for myself, I stayed at a friend’s house – again a Muslim. When I moved to Thane, after my wedding, the society in which I lived was a mix of Muslims, Bohras, Gujaratis and Marathis. The man I married used to live happily with a Pakistani Muslim among others, back in the US. He considers an Iraqi Muslim colleague like his elder brother.
My in-laws’ house is in Howrah, West Bengal. It is one of the most densely populated places of India, housing both Muslims and Hindus. In fact, the area has a huge concentration of Marwaris and Jains. Culturally, there cannot be a starker contrast. Beef is sold openly (as it is legal in West Bengal). All festivals of each religion are celebrated with fervor. At the same time, during India-Pakistan matches there is always tension and crude bomb blasts are not uncommon if India wins. The amazing thing is people expect this to happen, and there is no shock value in these bombings or scuffles.
There is nothing unique about what I have written above. It is more or less the story of every Indian; this is how we live – adjustment and tolerance, despite our differences, culturally and politically. In fact, the very reason why we move on after each riot – and there have been way too many, though the media remembers only one – is because of this ethos. Not every Muslim in Gujarat is ghettoized in Juhapura, like the media will tell you. They have moved on wherever they were, just like their Hindu neighbours whose loss of lives and property doesn’t even figure in media’s riot reports.
The mob that killed Akhlaq in Dadri was Hindu, but so were his neighbours who were the first to attempt to help him, though they failed. I am yet to find anyone I know who has not condemned this incident. Yet, instead of treating it as an exception which it really was, this incident is being used to define India. Instead of treating this as a one-off heinous, motivated crime, it is being projected as a practice. Not that such incidents haven’t happened before, but media and intellectuals outrage when it suits them. And, to assume that one man or one party could brainwash a billion people (i.e. if at all they are trying to do any such thing), is an insult to the latter. It not only reeks of this ‘eminent’ club’s arrogance, but also its stupidity.
In every job that I have taken up, and I have taken up many, I have seen many Muslim colleagues going for namaaz every Friday during office timings. During Ramzaan, they go for namaaz every day. Special arrangements are made in offices for iftaars. I haven’t seen a Hindu asking for or being allowed to take time off from office to go to temple.
Azaan is not a particularly pleasant thing to hear when it wakes you up from deep sleep at dawn (though I personally like it when it is recited well), and it is not even part of your religion. Yet, no one ever complains. We may not wear burqa, we may not wear skull caps, but we do not stop others from wearing them. There are probably more Hindus visiting Haji Ali and Ajmer Shareef every day than even Muslims. During Ramzaan, one might want to do a survey of how many Hindus are found on Mohammad Ali Road in Mumbai, savouring the delicacies.
You have to go only as far as Bollywood to realize how little a role religion plays for the common man in India, when it comes to public life. Nobody cares about the religion of a person before buying tickets of his movies and eventually making him a superstar. If today Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan cry victim, in my opinion, it is only because they are astute businessmen, actors in their fading years, who will do whatever it takes to stay relevant.
Hindu-Muslim chemistry in India is a complex affair, to some extent naturally, but largely because of the mess created by our political and intellectual class. Neither of the two religions can claim to be exclusively secular or communal. The man on the street is aware of this reality and knows how to handle it. We somehow manage to put every tragedy behind to go on with our lives. And, that is the beauty of India. But, there is a parallel universe in which the media and intellectuals live.
The intellectual’s yardstick of secularism and “Idea of India” is all about wearing or not wearing skulls caps, attending or not attending iftaars. If you haven’t married a Muslim, you aren’t that secular. If you haven’t attached “bhai” to a Muslim name, you aren’t secular. If you are a practicing Hindu, you are not secular enough. A Muslim saving a Hindu is pathbreaking; Hindus making adjustments for Muslims is news.
The media and intellectuals have an agenda to fulfil, and we have a life to live. They are secular; we are Indians. For them, tolerance is a fashion statement. For us, it is a way of life.
PS: I feel sick to mention the word, Muslim, so many times instead of just people or their names. But, such is the nature of discourse today that if one wants to respond, she has to get dirty. What is also pathetic is that for the media, secularism, minorty, tolerance – everything is in reference to Muslims alone. Therefore, this post mentions only them.
Note: This article was first published on my personal blog