Why are there only narratives of feeling ‘the Other’? Of social tags marring the persona of the individual in front; of community ghettos in our cosmopolitan cities? This is not to trivialise or dismiss blatant discriminations and injustice but the dominant narrative comes to vitiate the atmosphere. The malady penetrates deeper though with well-meaning intentions to the contrary.
I was always proud of the diversity of my country but felt deprived of its experience. Born and brought up in a homogeneous locality and having studied in the neighbourhood school I yearned for a Muslim friend. I wanted to know Islam, of what it was to be a Muslim; of why in a country of many religions does Islam become the face of antipathy to the majority faith. Luckily, I did get a friend who was a Muslim. In early adolescence and particularly in an all girls atmosphere, petty quarrels erupt which dissolve as uncharacteristically as they arise. On one such instance where my Muslim friend was on the other side of the dispute did she comfortably take recourse to her “Otherness” and charged me with discriminating unjustly. Thus was a puerile confrontation blown up to communal proportions. I’m sure she wouldn’t have steered in this direction if she had been a Christian or Sikh or Jain or Parsi. That was my first experience of communalism in our society. I don’t blame her. That’s how she had been taught to perceive the world around, that’s how entrenched her religious identity had gotten into everyday affairs. I wasn’t lucky a second time. I did cross path with many Muslims in life but none progressed to a concrete association and I was mindful of not looking at them as exotic beings out of an innocent curiosity.
As I started reading obsessively, layers of Islam and the Muslim identity drew me closer filling me with awe. Best moments in company have been the times spent in relishing Urdu poetry with a friend, with the help of our Hindi and the Internet. We have deeply regretted not having been schooled in Urdu and not having a Urdu scholar to guide us into the enchanting world of Shayari. We have marvelled at the depths of surrender that a believer of Islam can go to. The trailing breath of ‘Fida…’ throbbed our hearts more than any poem of love.
Why don’t we have narratives of the likes of Sardar Singh and Manto anymore? Why don’t people take the cue from a small report tucked in a corner of the newspaper about a Muslim family securing a Hindu marriage in the thick of the Khishtwar violence? Rushdie wrote of a Hindu-Muslim romance in Kashmir not as an exceptional event but as one very natural occurrence. Why do we hail Dr. Kalam for being a liberal Muslim who reveres the Bhagavad Gita? Countless Hindu families in Punjab pray to the pirs buried in their villages. I met a Hindustani musician who had a garlanded image of the Hindu goddess of learning Saraswati at his home, not to mention that his faith was Islam.
Of course the pen draws from reality and the literature of every period in history reflects the then existing scenario. But the written word is potent enough to create an intellectual and social climate. It’s a cyclical relationship. What we need is an atmosphere of normalcy that’s not self conscious. Isn’t everyone a human being first before getting ascribed to social identities handed down by birth? So Salim is Salim and a man wearing a white cap is A man wearing a white cap. Right to dignity implies to be respected for the individual we are. By emphasising on Muslim identity we are only alienating those of our Muslim countrymen who have faith in humanity, who proudly sport the Indian flag on August 15, who value the nation for what it has given them and who believe there’s not a better land to live in. May all fortunate people tell the story of vibrant syncretism in their lives to drown voices of cynicism and truly celebrate the richness of this land.
It pains me to do something that I have learned is not right, or at least not desirable. Like any of you, I have read a number of articles on environment and how so many things that we do on a daily basis, if avoided can make you responsible citizens and some tiny difference to this earth. Like closing the tap when you rub soap onto your face or taking a bus when there is one going on the same route you take.
My friends chide me saying I decide on a place of outing depending on the bus connectivity. That’s very true. It has become a way of life. Of course, people who have a personal vehicle and know to ride it do not have this necessity as mobility is never a question. But for walk-only women like me, it’s a big question every time we have to step out of home and when there is no male relative around. This limitation actually threw up great discoveries for me. Living in Chennai, bus is the best mode of public transport. So whenever I’m shifting Home, I make sure there’s a bus stop within 10 minutes of walk. Having done that, one of my favorite pastimes is hunting out events for the day from the newspaper and finding the bus route from Google Maps. I must say Google Maps has improved much. It is nearly accurate compared to listing non existent bus stops and not-prevalent buses a few months back. And those bus journeys give me the much needed time and space for myself and my soliloquies. I have made the most important decisions in my life in those moments of rhythm and tranquility. The sounds of the street and the lulling sense of movement have a remarkable effect of calming the mind. Also the peculiarities of human nature of complete strangers that you get to observe lighten the day. The other day, I saw an old man with a black muffler and thick glasses feeding biscuits to a dog in the middle of the road. It was such a street-photography moment. Another day when a day laborer was walking with his daughter on his shoulders and that child had the most innocent and beautiful smile I have seen to this day. These are such human moments that you miss if you are inside an air conditioned cab poring over your digital updates.
Taking public transport is also a great way of knowing a new city. The infamous Bombay suburban network was also where I had people help me get to the door of the train in time for my station. A lady in the bus in Hyderabad politely pointed out that I was occupying the seat meant for senior citizens and went so far as to find me another vacant spot instead. Traveling by the ferry in Fort Kochi was a memorable experience where I saw motorcycles being taken along like they were bicycles. The Metro in Delhi makes you believe perfection that you don’t have to be in foreign lands to experience world class infrastructure and clock work precision systems.
When you take a bus or a train, it is inevitable you walk some distance and this throws open other wonderful possibilities. I wouldn’t have seen the incredible flower market of Bombay if I hadn’t taken the local train. Walking those few meters to the bus stop or railway station, you realize what a blessing trees are amidst the concrete jungle our cities have become. Getting under that sliver of shade is like finding an oasis in a desert.
What actually impelled me to think about this is a passing remark by a friend that stung and pestered me over and over. It made me wonder why development and progress in life is taken to mean graduating from buses to taxis. While a truly developed country is one where even the richest man takes the public transport for its sheer efficiency. It makes much economic sense to travel with 100 other people than spend that fuel on one bloated individual. Not only that, public transport takes off that tension of driving in these days of nerve racking traffic and congestion. By being kept farther from the engine and the driver, you are also far removed from the scene of road rage. The possibility and impact of accidents are much lesser too. Now, I am not saying that you take the bus at any cost of convenience. But only if you appreciate the goodness of public transport will you pause a second to weigh your options and not jump into a cab instantly. Most often, people do not even attempt to find out the bus connectivity in a place. I agree that our public transport systems leave much to be desired but sometimes they satisfy your travel requirement. In fact, many times they do. Spend that one minute to find out and then make a choice instead of blindly riding on your own because you can afford it.
Progress is about greater efficiency. It is not about being too clean for that occasional grease but about the mental elevation to look at things beyond the surface.