Category Archives: Muslim

Yes, I am a Pakistani

Are you a Pakistani?”
The first time I overheard this question, my daughter was five years old. We were attending a pre-wedding function at a friend’s home. It was 28 November 2008, and 10 terrorists from Pakistan had laid siege to the city of Mumbai with a series of coordinated shootings and bombings. Staff and guests of the Taj hotel were still trapped in a hostage crisis and rescue operations were being covered live on all news channels in India. Almost everyone at the wedding function was talking about the news. Besides the hundreds of injured, 166 people would die in this attack.
“What is your name?” an older child asked my daughter.
“Sahar,” she answered.
“Are you a Pakistani?” asked the child.
I gasped involuntarily but I was able to stop myself from jumping into their conversation.
“No,” said my daughter. “Aiman is a Pakistani. I am from Greater Noida.”
I didn’t need to rescue my child from this “slur” just yet. It was just a misunderstanding she was clearing. Aiman is her older cousin, who lives in Karachi and visits regularly. Aiman is my children’s heroine. They write school essays on her.
“Aiman is my best friend. She wears jeans and T-shirts and doesn’t like wearing skirts. My mother says I learnt to eat potato chips from her. Aiman loves to cycle very fast in her colony and has many pet animals. She has rabbits, a cat, and fish in an aquarium. She has to keep the rabbits and fish safe from the cat.”
Aiman’s mother is my husband’s sister. It is summer vacation on both sides of the India-Pakistan border these days and Aiman is visiting us with her mother.

My parents-in-law are hosting all their children and grandchildren in their home in a village in east Uttar Pradesh. The adults scan newspapers and check the news on their smartphones. A new government has taken charge in New Delhi. Heinous crimes against women are being reported from across the state. My father-in-law reads editorials in three newspapers, one in English, one in Hindi and a third in Urdu. He highlights passages for me to read and discuss with him.
Litchis, mangoes and melons are peeled and cut. Children run around us, playing hide and seek in the long afternoons, when they are forbidden from going out in the sun. Someone gets hurt. They are thirsty.
They settle down to choose a film from a USB drive an older cousin happens to be carrying. For some reason, the film they want to watch today, The Road To El Dorado, doesn’t play on the DVD player. I suggest Sholay.
“It has too much fighting and Amitabh Bachchan dies,” protests my daughter. Sholay doesn’t play either, it is in the wrong format.
The only other film available this afternoon is Gandhi. Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic on Mahatma Gandhi. It is just a coincidence, but here are a group of children from Karachi, New Delhi and Lucknow watching Gandhi together on a hot afternoon in 2014. I sit down with the children. It has been years since I have watched this film.
I explain events and scenes to the children.
“That’s Nehru, that’s Patel and that is Jinnah,” I say, the first time they appear after Gandhi returns to India from South Africa.
“Jinnah!” exclaims Aiman. “Quaid-e-Azam.”
The afternoon has come alive for Aiman. She notices Jinnah in every scene he appears. Sahar is too tense to be able to watch the violence. She runs off to reread one of the Harry Potter books. Another child runs off as troops led by General Dyer begin to march into Jallianwallah Bagh in the film. The rest of the children watch the scene of the massacre in stunned silence. Hundreds of bodies pile up as soldiers shoot relentlessly at unarmed people gathered for a protest meeting on Baisakhi.
“I have been to Amritsar many times,” Aiman says. She is 12 years old.
The film draws towards its end.
“After this, they will launch the Quit India Movement and then India will become independent,” I say to the children, preparing them for scenes of more bloodshed. “But, there will be the partition of India also. India and Pakistan will become two separate countries.”
Aiman claps her hands. “Pakistan!”
I am startled at first and then I realize that this is where this child recognizes her part of the story. I knock my moroseness out of me and celebrate with her. My mother was 4 years old when her family came to Amritsar as refugees from Lahore.
“When Aiman visits during her school holidays, she gets her holiday homework along with her. Her English books are just like mine. She studies Urdu and not Hindi like us. In her holiday homework, she writes about the things we do together. So do I.”
As I type this column on the roof of my parents-in-law’s home, it is close to midnight. This is the last night that the cousins are together. They have permission to stay awake as long as they want. I can hear them discussing stars in the sky. Hopping on barefoot toes, my eight-year-old comes to me and asks me if it is possible that some stars blink in the sky.
“We see something red that is blinking,” she says.
“Maybe it’s a shooting star,” I say, quite sure I am giving her the wrong answer.
She returns to break the news to her cousins.
“Mamma, in this world there are many different worlds like India, America, Pakistan, but everywhere there is the same sky,” my youngest child informs me.

I was born to write this.

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”.

This was first published on Newslaundry here: 
Say Sorry to Shahrukh Khan

5 Diwalis

He is a Muslim and I am Hindu. Both by birth and choice.
The first year after we were married, we went over to my parent’s home and sat with them for the annual family Diwali puja. We sing a bhajan and do a small pooja.

The second year, he was uncomfortable and he said, you go ahead and I will join the family later after the pooja is over. So he did not have to participate…… perhaps he felt coopted and pressurised to assimilate.

The third year I refused to visit my parents on Diwali. I called it cultural confusion…. and it depressed me. As the evening progressed, he just did not feel right about it and very belatedly, when it was all over, we turned up at my parent’s home to meet on Diwali. They were almost already in bed by then.

I cannot remember at all how we got through the 4th year….. which was last year. I think we attended, arriving decently after the pooja was over and just when the feast and firecrackers time started.

This year was the 5th Diwali. My original plan was to get away from it all by arranging to be in Lahore on Diwali…. for a workshop I have been invited for. So I thought, its a good way to avoid the confusion on Diwali. Could not get visas in time, so plan failed.
His mum was in town and ironically her enthusiasm seemed to give me permission to be happy on Diwali. We all dressed up (I wore a sari!) and attended the puja, I sang the bhajan along with my parents, my daughter’s sat in dadi and papa’s laps, my father put a teeka on everyone’s forehead, Mum gave us lots of presents….. and it was fun for most people. He and I were quite tense….. but it was much better. And all because the person we are afraid of offending was there and led the way.
Thanks, Ammi.