Home Blog Identity A brief contextual history of the blogger, in the light of Islam (ism?) and literary spats
A brief contextual history of the blogger, in the light of Islam (ism?) and literary spats

by Annie Zaidi

(Originally posted here.)

I grew up with nursery rhymes. My mother says that I had begun to recite four-line rhymes (and was very annoying, am sure, but she doesn’t say that) by the time I was two. These were politically incorrect rhymes. Like Ten Little Nigger Boys.

I didn’t know what ‘nigger boys’ were. I only learnt the rough meaning when I began to read some American literature, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Even then, while it had entered my juvenile brain that black people had been oppressed unfairly and that white people back then didn’t like them, it still hadn’t enter my head that ‘nigger’ was not an acceptable word. I saw a few movies and read more books, where there were plenty of references to the word — black people calling each other ‘nigger’.

It was much, much later, when I used the word once in conversation, that some NRI-type student — freshly politically sanitised in the USA — told me that it was, indeed, unacceptable. You can’t say it.

But, I protested, they say it.

Yes, he said, they can. They’re it. You can’t say it. It’s offensive.

 

***

I grew up thinking of myself as ‘mozi’. Not Muslim. My mother hardly ever used the word ‘Muslim’ to refer to our family. We were ‘mozis’. Actually, she hardly ever referred to us as anything at all. She just made sewaiyyan twice a year, and gave me glass bangles to feel happy in. But there was no escaping it, was there? In this country, with this name, with that festival, you had to be something.

Similarly, she never called a Sikh a Sikh. She called them ’surds’. It was apparently a Delhi thing. A college girl thing that clung to her and all her sisters over the years.

But, I digress. Where was I?

Yes, so we were ‘mozi’. I didn’t realize that meant anything much. Except that we also celebrated Eid. We celebrated Diwali and Holi and Christmas too. But there was one vital difference between us and the others.

They celebrated only Diwali and Holi. They did not celebrate Eid.

Over the years, it slowly, very slowly sank in: we weren’t like the other kids in the colony. We dressed up in our shiniest best on Diwali, took our firecrackers to our friends’, made a common pool, watched the lights, gorged on sweets. Ma put on a silk saree and went to visit other people. She also waited at home, knowing other people would come, and laid out sweets. Some namkeen too, because they would be tired of sweets by then.

But on Eid, we celebrated alone.

Almost. There was one other Muslim family in the colony. Mujib bhaiyya’s family. He was my brother’s classmate. His sister, Nusrat, was a year younger to me. (She died one summer in a road accident, during the summer vacations.) My mother had little in common with their mother, but twice a year, we’d go to their place for lunch. I still remember that their rotis were tougher than I was used to and Mujib’s elder sister would tear them up into morsel sizes for me, laughing at how plump I looked but how my fingers had no strength at all.

Still, after Eid and before, I was like all other kids. And towards middle school, my friends had started asking curious questions about Eid, asking me to bring sewaiyyan the next day in my tiffin.

My mom said, just ask them to come over.

Apparently, they’d been waiting to be invited all these years. They came over.

The next Eid, they didn’t show up. Apparently, because I hadn’t extended a formal invitation. I remember thinking, you don’t need to invite me over on Diwali; I just come to wish you, don’t I? But I didn’t say it. I just made it a habit, telling them to come over.

***

The first unpleasant memory associated with being ‘mozi’ came in…. the fourth standard?

The memory is a vivid one. I was at the ‘matka’ — our school didn’t have fancy filters then; we just drank from an earthen pot, using our palms as a cup — with Rimjhim, a junior in school. (She was a very pretty girl and would ask her fan-friends to tie her shoe-laces, when they came undone on the playing ground.)

She said, you’re Pakistani, aren’t you?

I said, no. Of course not.

She said, no, I know that you people are Pakistani.

Even then, I knew that I was not Pakistani. I was such an overt patriot that I cringe to think of it now (had Saare jahaan se achha by heart — the whole six verses). But in that instant, looking at her face, her smugness, the authority with which that child of eight (I think) spoke, I also knew that there was nothing I could say or do to win this particular argument.

Almost two decades later, I cannot forget. She was a child and I have forgiven. But I have not forgotten.

***

Over the years, I learnt not to speak of religion in public.

My mother never mentioned her religion when we traveled by trains — going to Lucknow to visit our grandparents twice a year. She hardly to talked to anyone, anyway.

I have vague memories of my mother silently sitting through a conversation in which other co-passengers spoke of how muslims should be killed. She wore sarees and no purdah, so they assumed her was one of them.

I was too engrossed in my Agatha Christie novels to know. Later, between adults, I heard hushed whispers recounting the conversation.

***

I still don’t tell anyone my religion when I travel. Recently, in the waiting room at Gwalior, a young Punjabi girl — a schoolteacher — plonked herself down next to me, noticed my laptop and decided she wanted to get to know me.

She asked me, what are you?

I said, a writer.

She asked, no, but like, what are you?

I said, I told you… what do you mean by what?

She said, like, I am a Punjabi Hindu.

I said, like that, I am nothing.

She asked, what’s your name?

I said, Annie.

She said, are you Christian?

I said, no.

She said, but how can that be? It doesn’t make a difference to me, what you are, but you must be something.

I said, I am — writer, journalist… woman.

She said, but your family must be something?

I said, no.

She said, but everyone is something… born something.

I said, I don’t know.

She said, what do your parents say you are? What are they?

I lied. I said, if they were, they never told me, and I never asked.

She finally shut up.

***

We never fasted during Ramzan as children. My mother didn’t either. We went through a brief phase when we dabbled a bit in roza-keeping. I did too. But by that time, I had outgrown the phase in which I said the namaaz.

My grandmother used to call my ramzan ‘kutte ka faaqa.’

People who fast but do not pray are likened to starving dogs.

I laughed. I liked the idea of ‘kutte ka faaqa.’ I still do.

***

When the Babri Masjid was brought down, I was still a schoolgirl, and not very interested in newspapers. Nobody even told me that it had happened. And I don’t know if I would’ve felt particularly dismayed if I had heard: mosques didn’t mean much to me. There were places where women don’t enter (in most places). I had only gone to dargahs and imambaras so far. I hadn’t even heard of the Babri Masjid.

Since I watched Ramayana and Mahabharata every Sunday on Doordarshan., I knew more about Ram and Krishna than I did about mosques or Babar or Mohammad. Nobody had ever told me that I should know more about one or the other.

The idea of a secular nation hadn’t meant anything until then, because it had never been challenged — on a notional, national scale — until then. But that year, the riots broke out.

I wasn’t affected, but my brother was a young college-going fresher. In Bombay. Panic struck as we struggled with telephone lines and reassurance.

For the first time, the word ‘riot’ meant something to me.

***

We still didn’t fast. We still didn’t pray in Arabic.

***

I went to college in Ajmer. It was a convent, and so I went to kneel in the chapel when feeling particularly devotional. Or went to beg favours from the khwaja at the dargah.

We all wore shalwar-kameez with dupatta, in college. I was the only girl in the hostel who did not wear a dupatta that first year. And was teased and ragged about it quite often. Eventually, I wore dupattas because it was the fashionable thing to do.

We were not allowed to walk about in shorts even though it was a girls college and there were no men at all except the watchman. We weren’t allowed to step inside the mess if we wore shorts, pajamas or short skirts. We were discouraged from wearing sleeveless clothes.

I finally told the warden as nicely as possible that my mother herself made all these sleeveless kurtas and really, my people didn’t mind.

She told me there was no point, I’d achieve nothing except getting a tan.

I laughed and told her I could afford to get a tan.

We were warned against going to the dargah. We were warned against hanging around outside in Ajmer. We were warned that if we met boys outside, the nuns would find out and we would be thrown out.

In third year, a girl went outside to meet a boy and stayed out beyond the stipulated time. The nuns found out. She was thrown out.

***

I was already a journalist when Godhra and the Gujarat riots happened.

Nothing happened to my immediate family. I was in Lucknow when the news broke and missed much of the madness on the ground. When I returned, it was just an overwhelming barrage of words that didn’t seem to register.

I do not have a single coherent, logical memory of this entire time. Those two months are a blank in my head, even now.

***

After the Gujarat riots, I remember visiting a friend in Pune who was doing her MBA at Symbiosis. We were hanging out with a couple of her friends — sitting near Khadagvasla, talking, joking.

We started talking about taboos and I happened to quote Mark Twain.

‘You know what they say…. Holy cows make the best hamburgers.’

My friend didn’t get it and asked what that meant — ‘Holy cows?’

A young man in the group cut in and said, very soberly, ‘It’s a joke. Against us Hindus.’

My jaw fell.

***

A year after the Gujarat riots, visiting a friend, I found myself saying that for the first time, in this country, I have begun to wonder where I belonged… if I belonged. Why was I made to feel like I didn’t?

She wisely pointed out that perhaps I should think, then, of where else I would belong.

There was nowhere else. You just belong where you belong.

***

When the Bombay serial blasts happened, one of our relatives was badly injured. Very badly injured. She worked in an office with lots of glass. The glass shattered. Splinters.

Shatters. Splinters.

***

When the bombs went off in the local train last year, the panic was a personal one.

I have college-going cousins who use the local trains. I have close friends who use the local trains.

***

A young writer friend wrote about her experience in Nizamuddin. She had gone there and decided to buy a burqa. She’s not Muslim. The article was an exploration of her own desire to buy something that is clearly an identity-marker for the ‘other’, something she is not and something that is not considered desirable for her.

When she read the piece out in a small gathering of aspiring writers, an older woman decided to initiate a discussion about Islam and gender, Islamism, and the conversation immediately turned to terror and 9/11.

Apropos of nothing.

***

The same older woman came back to the next gathering with a poem. About bombs and veils and the need to stand up and take a stand against this sort of thing. Terror. For the sake of our freedom.

***

You may have heard about Martin Amis. And how he’s decided that he doesn’t like Islamism very much. Terry Eagleton has decided that Mr Amis is a racist, an Islamophobe, and a lot of other things besides .

Emily Hill has said some other, more mixed, things. Such as “Amis’ literary reputation, meanwhile, has gone the same way as the World Trade Center.

The spat is a very public one and perhaps, an ongoing one. It doesn’t particularly perturb me. It doesn’t surprise me either.

The Hindu carried an edit piece outlining Mr Amis’ views: “There’s a definite urge — don’t you have it? To say: ‘the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation — further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.’”

Hill’s article explained further: Islam, in Amis’ view, ‘is a religion that’s having a nervous breakdown’. And Islamism is a variation on a death cult — an ‘ideology within a religion, a turbo-charge, steroid version of murderous belief’. He made some interesting points about suicide bombing, describing it as a ‘paltry’ act, signifying nothing but a ‘besplattering’ of the self. What the Islamic world needs, he said, is dramatic progress: ‘Martin Luther, John Calvin… religious wars, then Enlightenment, then you enter the modern world 300 years after that.’ He argued that it is the Western world that is giving Islamism its power to commit atrocity, even helping to legitimise that atrocity, by trying to ‘understand it’.”

***

In some ways, he is right.

We will have to pay the price. I don’t think it is fair. I don’t want to pay the price. But I will.

I will suffer a little bit more for being born to a Muslim mother (who never used the word Muslim, and who wore silk sarees on Diwali and first taught me how to make baatis out of cotton-wool for the diyas, and how to make Valentine’s Day cards, and how to bake a cake for Christmas) because of the idiot fatwas and the crazy bombings. I could well be strip-searched if I traveled abroad and if that happens, I will grind my teeth and bear it.

Oh, yes the larger Muslim community will pay the price alright. Is there an alternative?

***

Amis says the community has to get its act together. That parents have to teach the children. Sometimes, I wonder… what sort of writer is he if he doesn’t know that nobody has ever been able to teach anyone anything, especially if it’s about non-violence. Gandhi tried and failed.

Each generation rebels. One generation migrates, the other becomes too liberal, the next one too conservative. One wants to slash at roots, the next one wants to find them. It has always been like that. And each generation has suffered. How can any Muslim parent prevent a child from turning fanatic? Does Amis seriously imagine that Muslim mothers preach bloodshed at home? Or does he seriously imagine that Muslim children are any more or less obedient than kids anywhere else?

I don’t blame my mother for me. And if I ever have children, I hope I won’t get blamed for them. I don’t blame terrorists’ families for them. I don’t blame the white parents of children who attack black children. I don’t blame the black parents of children who attack white children. What will blame achieve?

I think that it is funny that Martin Amis should not understand. Writers know these things. But, I don’t blame him either. What will blame achieve?

***

For a moment, I wondered if Amis has close Muslim friends. I am convinced that he has never loved a Muslim woman. He can’t have. Love twists your mind around, even against yourself.

***

I’ll concede that the community (but which community?) has to get its act together, for there are identities beyond religion, and sooner or later, they will assert themselves. Already, they do. Shias kill Sunnis and Sunnis kill Shias. Kurds. Various clans and tribes in many, many African nations. Genocide is not always about religion. And religion is also not always about religion.

Religious wars, did Amis say? Yes, we are having religious wars.

Breakdown, did he say? Yes, the religion is having a nervous breakdown.

***

I think Muslims (and non-Muslims) need to let their hair down and have fun. I think they need to stop attempts that seek to turn them into a homogeneous mess. To be many other things besides Muslim; to refuse to be tacked down to that awful phrase ‘Muslim community’. To prove that there is no one ‘Muslim community’.

The community needs to stop being a community, a vote-bank, a lump or a mass. It needs to reject responsibility thrust down our throats if it is based on identity.

Sure the community that isn’t a community needs to change. It needs to laugh at itself and its fracturedness, and its idiosyncrasies. It needs universities and investment in culture and art. It needs to run about in the sun and plant shady trees and fragrant flowers and respect all sexes.

***

I have never read anything Martin Amis has written. (I might now, seeing that there’s so much fuss.) Even if he had been one of my favourties, what difference would it make? I don’t break bread with him. He does not come to my place to talk about poetry. Like we say in Delhi, saannu ki?

***

Yet, there is this business of Islamophobia.

You see, I don’t like most organised, violent groups, especially if all members come from the same religion. I am afraid of fanatics. I don’t like aggression or imposition.

I don’t like most preachers. But I see the need for priests and preachers. I am annoyed by tradition. I follow tradition. I break rules. I know the rules. I don’t like violence. I am surrounded by violence.

Am I Islamist? Am I Islamophobic?

Do I hate myself because I do not like organised religion, and yet, cannot find a way to break out of ties that depend on religious ritual?

Do I hate myself because I do not identify with organised religion?

Can I bring myself to hate those in my family who like the organised part of religion and who want to go strictly by the book?

What does faith have to do with any of this?

My faith is closer to Sufi. Are Sufis Muslim?

Sufis did not like mullahs and mullahs did not like Sufis. Are Sufis Islamophobic?

My faith is selfish. My faith often does the disappearing trick. My faith is tender and fragile and unbreakable. It is plastic. It is solid. And I cannot bring myself to feel enthusiastic about Ramzan. But I do not like Lord Ram or think of him as either a god or as ‘purushottam’. I do not like the word ‘Ram-janmabhoomi’. Does that mean I am Hindu-phobic?

I am scornful of young, Israeli tourists who flock to places like Manali or Pushkar, stoned out of their minds, rude to the locals. I pity these young Israeli tourists who have just finished serving in a compulsory army and who seem not to know what to do with themselves, or where to go, barring to the places where others have gone before them. Am I an anti-semite?

I pity Palestine too, and all the young people there. I pity those who live on the border. I pity their fear. I empathize with their fear.

During Durga Puja, I had gone to C.R. Park and offered ‘anjali’ to the Goddess. What does that make me? Secular?

If I am asked my religion when I go to temples, I lie and give them a Hindu name. What does that make me?

I don’t like the idea of Pakistan. I detest the idea of religious states. Does that make me Islamophobic?

I want to visit Pakistan. I have family there. What does that make me Islamist?

Sometimes, I want to kill all the Taliban. If it were possible to kill a mindset, in one fell swoop, I suspect that I could be persuaded to kill. Am I Islamophobic?

***

What is Islamophobia?

What can you fear, if you don’t know it? Or can you only fear what you don’t know?

I know the fanatics as well as one can safely know them. I know them as they bomb the shopping complexes in my city, the trains in my brother’s city, the dargah where I went, the cinema in a city I travel to for work. And knowing what they do, I know that they are ordinary young men with half an education and maybe only a little money, which is not any antidote to fear. Or hatred.

What does that make me?

 

The view above are the views of the persons named as authors. Their appearance here should not be read as unconditional endorsement by Citizens for Peace. All that can be concluded is that we think that they have an opinion worth listening to. The copyright for these essays stays with their respective authors. Should you wish to reproduce these essays, please contact the authors for permission, or let us know and we will put you in contact with them.

 

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