There is a song in Chak De! India that has a very unexpected effect on me.
It happened first during a car journey. I was travelling to the Tees Hazari District courts with my 3-year-old daughter by my side. We were going to provide company to a friend who was fighting a bitter custody case for her daughter in the family court. I was already feeling very emotional. Both parents have been my friends and I have loved them dearly. Now I was being forced to choose a side in public. It was terrible to watch my friend, the father of the child, helplessly from a distance without being able to reach out.
The songs from Chak De! India were playing in the car as we drove from Noida towards north Delhi.
teeja tera rang tha main toh – 2
jiyaan tere dhang se main toh,
tu hi tha maula tu hi aan,
maula mere le le meri jaan…
Just like that tears started rolling down my eyes. I didn’t understand why. We reached the court and spent the day trying to negotiate the bewildering and aggressive justice system. Later in the day, the song played on the car stereo again. I felt the pangs again. Tears came again.
I have lived my life coated in your colours
I have lived my life in the way you wanted me to,
You were my God, you were my pride.
Oh my God, take my life, if you want,
Oh my Maula, take my life if you want.
What we have with each other, no one else can understand,
It is with you that I fight, It is with you that I want to make peace.
(tujhse hi roothna, tujhe hi manana).
Who is this person, I thought? What memory were these words stirring? Who is it that I feel misunderstood by? Who do I want to make peace with? It took a while for the answers to emerge in my mind.
My parents are Punjabis. My mother was born in Lahore, a few years before Partition. She grew up in Amritsar, living close to the Golden Temple. For her, going to the temple means going to a gurdwara. Her Hanuman Chalisa lies next to her Sukhmani Sahib. There’s plenty of space.
When we would travel from our childhood home in Ranchi to visit family in Delhi and Punjab, we were called Biharis. “Here come the rice-eating Biharis with their ek tho, do tho, teen tho”, my mami would say. So we were Hindu-Sikh-Biharis.
When I grew up and first visited Lahore, I tried to prepare for a visit to a “Muslim” culture. I was amazed to find myself in a vibrant Punjab, where I discovered my own urban Punjabi identity for the first time. Everyone spoke like my Mamajis. But of course! My uncles had been Lahoris. I became a Hindu-Sikh-Bihari-Punjabi.
In Lahore, we had a taxi driver called Javed. He would pick us up from The Pearl Continental, admire our TV equipment and watch us interview very important people. He took me to the best eateries, told me about his romances and of course shared his political insight on the state of the subcontinent. When it was time for us to return, Javed gave me some advice for my future.
“Be careful who you marry”, he said to me, “most men who woo you will probably do it for your money. Besides, I hear those Indian men beat their wives. Take care of yourself.”
I laughed out loud. The shock of this statement stayed with me for a long time. Especially because it coughed up the latent bias that I had grown up with: that most Muslim men ill-treat their wives. We think we know it all till we discover that most of our knowledge is just a truckload of biases. Just another way of hating the “other” to avoid focus on the trouble within.
My husband is a Muslim from Uttar Pradesh and our children are Hindu-Muslim-Punjabi-UP Delhi kids. My grandfather speaks Punjabi with an Urdu accent. He reads the Gita in Urdu everyday. My father-in-law recites Persian poetry. My father speaks Hindi with a Punjabi accent and our children speak English with a Walt Disney accent. In an individual way this feels unique, but actually there is nothing extraordinary about it.
Our syncretic roots combined with the choices we make give all of us a multi-dimensional identity that is an everyday fact of our lives. To lead a creative life, we often make the critical choice to not belong. To not conform to the dominant value system.
Being singled out and facing discrimination for one or many of these identities is an equally common experience. Some of us deal with it by denying it, others choose to express and share. Some confront it, others hide till it is safe to come out. One doesn’t need to be uprooted to know what homelessness feels like.
Of course, there is always the inevitable longing to belong. To belong in equal sum both to our private world – and to the public one, outside.
In a recently published essay on his life, Shah Rukh Khan, the superstar-actor has written:
“I sometimes become the inadvertent object of political leaders who choose to make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in India. I have been accused of bearing allegiance to our neighbouring nation rather than my own country. This, even though I am an Indian whose father fought for the freedom of India.”
In the same essay he writes about the Pathan identity he has inherited from his parents, his marriage to Gauri, who is a Hindu and how he answers the questions his children ask him about their identity. He sings them a song that at its core means “Be a good human being, the rest will sort itself out”.
The abusive backlash on him started with one article where the writer, Venky Vembu, accused him of being ungrateful and thankless. He uses words like mediocre and boorish to describe the actor. “So, grow up, Shah Rukh, and learn to take it on the chin like a man”, he writes. “Don’t bite the hand that fed you – and made you who you are – by running off to an overseas publication and crying your heart out, thereby providing the space for low-life terrorists like Hafiz Saeed to take potshots at India.”
In essence, he implies, if you talk openly about being a Muslim in India, we will mock you and show you up as a traitor. Instead of dismissing and standing up to terrorists who don’t need a valid excuse to take pot-shots, we will turn our venom towards our own. We are clearly not man enough to allow for differences to be expressed.
This shockingly boorish analysis brought back the song from Chak De! India to my mind. My brain strained itself to understand my emotional response to it. Who is this person in my life whose approval was so important to me? Who was I willing to die for?
“I have lived my life coated in your colours
I have lived my life in the way you wanted me to…”
The answers came together like pieces of a puzzle. The words evoke the struggle to belong to one’s homeland. To one’s society and culture. To authority figures who may have rejected us for the choices we make. For being who we are.
We demand to be independent and we insist on being accepted. This is how it works in the best relationships. We adapt to the way of life around us, yet often we are painfully singled out and ridiculed for that which makes us unique.
In the film, Chak De! India, Shah Rukh Khan plays Kabir Khan, the captain of the Indian hockey team. When he fails to score a goal with a penalty stroke, he is accused of having sold out to Pakistan to deliberately make India lose in the World Cup final against them. In the film, the media uses a photograph of Kabir Khan accepting a handshake from the captain of the Pakistan hockey team to label him a traitor to the country. The captain’s hockey career is over and he is forced by his neighbours to move out of his ancestral home. Singled out for being a Khan.
In a statement to the press clarifying what he had written for Outlook’s Turning Point, Shah Rukh Khan has said, “I am an actor and maybe I should just stick to stuff that all of you expect me to have a viewpoint on. The rest of it…maybe I don’t have the right kind of media atmosphere to comment on. So I will refrain from it”.
That’s not fair at all. Come on, Shah Rukh Khan, tell us more stories. Speak from your heart. Bullies are cowards, their words are empty shells.
When confronted on a show called The Social Network on NDTV, the opinion writer, Venky Vembu, has admitted that when he had written his opinion on Shah Rukh Khan’s essay, he had not even read the entire piece written by him. He says it as if to defend himself, but it shows him up as worse than before. When and how did these spaces get created in the media? Commenting before reading?
Life is complex. Stories are multi-faceted. The movies try to simplify narratives, but real life doesn’t need that treatment. Each of us has the power to resurrect the lost parts of ourselves with our imagination. We also have the power to redeem ourselves and undo some of the hurt we cause. Start by saying “Sorry”.