The Story Of My Mother’s India – Of Riots And Of Kindness

The Clock

“Usko batana hai,

abhi kuch aur bhi dal hain,

ki jinko baan’Tne ka, kaaTne ka kaam jaari hai,

wo baTwaara toh pehle tha,

abhi kuch aur batwaara bhi baaki hai…

“I have to tell him,

That the job of dividing and cutting is still in progress,

That partition was the first one,

Some more partition remain…” Toba Tek Singh, Gulzar

In 1962 my mother lost her home for the first time.

Her hometown was engulfed in Hindu-Muslim riots that burned for a week. During that period, her family didn’t spend a single night in their home. Protected by their Hindu neighbours, they went about their daily routine during daylight and stayed the nights with one of them. More accurately, the children slept through the night and the women stayed up. But soon the violent mobs grew too big for the wooden “laathis” on guard and the neighbours reluctantly told my grandmother, “Bhabhi, we cannot protect you any more.”

Everyone, even the children, was asked to grab something valuable and my mother grabbed an alarm clock. The clock tick-tocked in the silence of the night, annoying everyone around her, but she held on to it. It was still in her hands when she woke up in the morning in a different neighborhood, in a different house.

Over the years, her family made fun of her choosing to take the alarm clock but this story seeped into my own riot nightmares post-1992. I once dreamt that there were riots all around me and I was asked to grab something valuable. I grabbed my baby sister who I carried in my arms to safety, a cooing child who grew up on the way but the riots never stopped. They stretched on and so did the road.

No one was on guard for me in 1992 — not in my dreams or when I was awake.

***

My mother’s India was still limping with the wounds of partition as it made its way to the future, but it had lost the frenzy that reigned across the country immediately after the borders were redrawn. The heat of communalism was steady, my mother says, but life ran on kindness. I have often wondered if it was because people saw an influx of traumatized citizens with empty hands and empty eyes that made them more empathetic or maybe it was the enormity of the tragedy that brought on an equal amount of empathy in the people who had lost nothing, bled nothing.

Whatever the reasons, the kindness of those times shaped my mother. The lack of it in my life shaped me.

***

Paper Flowers

“Maine sarhad ke sannaTo’n ke sehraao’n mein aqsar dekha hai,

ek ‘bhameri’ ab bhi naacha karti hai,

aur ek ‘latu’ abh bhi ghooma karta hai.”

“In the hush of the deserts of the border, I have often seen,

A bhameri still dancing,

And a top still spinning.” Bhameri, Gulzar

My mother and her 85-year old aunt remember Shyam Sundar well. He was an elected ward member of her area when he came across a Punjabi Muslim couple who had fled Patiala during the bloodshed of partition. The woman, known to everyone thereafter as Punjabi Badi Amma, had fresh sword wounds on her body and her husband, Abdul Gaffur, didn’t have anything except his wounded wife — no food, no money, no clothes, no children. Shyam Sundar took them to a man named Khursheed Ali, a prosperous businessman who was my mother’s neighbor.

“I am bringing guests for a few days,” Sundar told Ali. Ali took the couple in and took care of them like his own parents all his life.

The Gaffurs were from Patiala and had four sons ranging from the age of 9 to 19. In 1947, Sikh rioters attacked their house with guns and swords. Their sons were sleeping with their grandmother while the couple was in the backyard, near a door that opened into the back alley. When they heard gunshots, they ran out in the dark thinking they would come back for their family.

They never found them.

The Gaffurs went to Pakistan multiple times in search of their sons. (India didn’t introduce the passport-visa system for visiting Pakistan till 1952 and one could travel with a special permit.) Once, right after the partition, they searched the refugee camps with the help of my granduncle on the other side of the border. They only found one man from their mohalla who told them, “Apne mohalle ka koi musalmaan nahi bacha. (None of the Muslims in our neighborhood survived).”

And yet Punjabi Badi Amma would go to Pakistan on the faintest rumor of a Muslim kid from Patiala.

My mother said Amma went quieter every year and made paper flowers in her spare time. The only time they heard her voice was right after Eid-ul-Fitr prayers every year when she would fall down on the ground, screaming with grief for her kids.

Amma found purpose when Ali’s next-door neighbors were blessed with twin daughters. They needed help and Amma needed children. She helped raised the girls and spent her last days with one of them. She died not ten years ago. Gaffur a few years before her.

And so, the Gaffurs lost their sons but found their daughters.

***

 Jindi’s Salt

“Jab tak mere saamne wale ghar mein roshni jalti hai,

mere kamre ki deewar pey

us ghar ki parchhaaiyaan chalti rehti hain.”

“As long as there is light in the house opposite mine,

shadows from that house walk about

on the wall of my room.” Neighbor (Padosi), Gulzar

Last year, I sent a link of BBC’s Partition Voices to my mother who started telling me what she had observed about Sikhs and Muslims post-partition.

“They were fearful of each other for a long time (Muslims and Sikhs),” she said. “All the fear was rooted in loss and trauma.”

But the fear faded away over the years.

Why? I asked.

“They were both from minority communities. They wore the same kind of clothes; they had the same family values. They worked hard and employed each other and lived in mixed neighborhoods,” she said. “And then there was this goodness in Sikhs.”

The communities interacted socially, which helped in dispelling the fears.

Right across from my mother’s house was a Punjabi family who had come from Lahore after the partition. Originally, they chose to stay in Allahabad till their father was alive before moving to my mother’s hometown. My grandmother used to say that their father had lost his mental balance after losing his home. He was happy in Allahabad because the neighborhood with a mosque and familiar chaos reminded him of Lahore.

One of their sons and my grandmother fell into an easy and charming routine. Every Sunday morning Jindi (Rajinder) would shout from the door, “Chachi.” And my grandmother would go out and give him Rs. 15 without saying a word. He would go to the “mandi” (wholesale market) and buy three sacks of salt with it. By noon, he would sell his first sack and come back and pay up his “loan” before going back to the bazaar to sell the rest of the sacks. Some version of this routine went on till he and his siblings all earned their graduate degrees and went on to have permanent jobs.

My mother’s family lost touch with them after communal riots broke out in 1962 and Muslims were forced to move to Muslim-majority neighborhoods.

***

Kindness runs through all my mother’s stories, even in the worst of times. This kindness united the Hindus who guarded her house when she was a child, the wounded Gaffurs of Patiala, Shyam Sundar who came to their aid, and Jindi who made a future with salt and sweat. My mother saw people who understood pain and took steps to ease it however they could.

My mother witnessed compassion in all kinds of people and therefore has this immense strength to forgive. I haven’t seen much of it so I am always, pitifully, surprised by it. She expects kindness and is offended when she doesn’t get it. I expect nothing and I am puzzled when I get it. My mother saw victims of displacement, riots and was forced herself to move to a ghetto. But she also saw humanity at work. I have seen riots and had to move to a ghetto but have yet to see the same kind of kindness that she did.

I have just now realized that I loved the India my mother painted for me and not the one I was living in. My mother’s India gave me the strength to forgive my India for its big and small cruelties.

And now my sisters are raising their children in a country where they are being asked if they are Pakistanis.

Not long after I wrote down my mother’s clock story, I dreamt I was my mother and was running away from a roaring mob in the middle of the night. In my hand was the same clock ticking through my fears.

That dream is my legacy. And I don’t want to pass it on.

***

 

First published in NewsCentral24x7 on Aug. 15, 2018:

The Story Of My Mother’s India- Of Riots And Of Kindness.

The Best Reporting on Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and, Of Course, George Papadopoulos

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, his protégé Rick Gates and the less well-known Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos have all faced scrutiny before Monday. Here are our favorite stories on them.

The Quiet American, Slate, April 28, 2016

“Manafort has spent a career working on behalf of clients that the rest of his fellow lobbyists and strategists have deemed just below their not-so-high moral threshold. Manafort has consistently given his clients a patina of respectability that has allowed them to migrate into the mainstream of opinion, or close enough to the mainstream. He has a particular knack for taking autocrats and presenting them as defenders of democracy. If he could convince the respectable world that thugs like Savimbi and Marcos are friends of America, then why not do the same for Trump? One of his friends told me, ‘He wanted to do his thing on home turf. He wanted one last shot at the big prize.’”

Paul Manafort’s Wild and Lucrative Philippine Adventure, Politico, June 10, 2016

“POLITICO found that Manafort worked more closely than previously known with Marcos and his wife, Imelda, in Manila, where Manafort and his associates advised the couple on electoral strategy, and in Washington, where they worked to retain goodwill by tamping down concerns about the Marcos regime’s human rights record, theft of public resources, and ultimately their perpetration of a massive vote-rigging effort to try to stay in power in the Philippines’ 1986 presidential election.”

How Paul Manafort Tried to BS Me—and the World, Mother Jones, July 21, 2016

“Manafort, who for decades has been an adviser to warlords and autocratic thugs overseas, including a Ukrainian leader allied with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, had been spinning furiously; some might call it lying. He probably had not even had time to read the full story and discuss it with Trump. Yet he went straight into denial mode, claiming the Times had misquoted his candidate. But it hadn’t. (Manafort later tried this stunt with other reporters.)”

Secret Ledger in Ukraine Lists Cash for Donald Trump’s Campaign Chief, The New York Times, Aug. 14, 2016

“Handwritten ledgers show $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Mr. Manafort from Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party from 2007 to 2012, according to Ukraine’s newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Investigators assert that the disbursements were part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials.”

Manafort Tied to Undisclosed Foreign Lobbying, Associated Press, Aug. 17, 2016

“Donald Trump’s campaign chairman helped a pro-Russian governing party in Ukraine secretly route at least $2.2 million in payments to two prominent Washington lobbying firms in 2012, and did so in a way that effectively obscured the foreign political party’s efforts to influence U.S. policy.”

Manafort’s Man in Kiev, Politico, Aug. 18, 2016

“All the while, Kilimnik has told people that he remains in touch with his old mentor. He told several people that he traveled to the United States and met with Manafort this spring. The trip and alleged meeting came at a time when Manafort was immersed in helping guide Trump’s campaign through the bitter Republican presidential primaries, and was trying to distance himself from his work in Ukraine.”

Washington Lobbyist And Trump Advisor Paul Manafort Owns Brownstone In Carroll Gardens, Pardon Me For Asking, Feb. 16, 2017

“According to ACRIS, The Federal Savings Bank provided funds of $5,300,000 on the property on January 17, 2017.  (The amount needs to be repaid by January 2018).  An additional mortgage of  $1,200,000 by The Federal Savings Bank was issued on the same day. Genesis Capital Master Fund II, LLC appears to have loaned another $303,750.”

Former Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort Took Out $19 Million In Puzzling Real Estate Loans, The Intercept, Feb. 24, 2017

“The raw facts stand out for their strangeness. Since 2012, Manafort has taken out seven home equity loans worth approximately $19.2 million on three separate New York-area properties he owns through holding companies registered to him and his son-in-law Jeffrey Yohai, a real estate investor.”

Paul Manafort’s Puzzling New York Real Estate Purchases, WNYC, March 28, 2017

“Nine current and former law enforcement and real estate experts told WNYC that Manafort’s deals merit scrutiny. Some said the purchases follow a pattern used by money launderers: buying properties with all cash through shell companies, then using the properties to obtain ‘clean’ money through bank loans. In addition, given that Manafort is already under investigation for his foreign financial and political ties, his New York property transactions should also be reviewed, multiple experts said.”

Manafort Still Doing International Work, Politico, June 15, 2017

“One of the people, a lawyer involved in the discussions, said Manafort indicated that he could convince the Trump administration to support any resulting deal, because he’s remained in contact with Trump’s team, and that he played a role in helping to soften Trump’s tough campaign rhetoric on China.

‘He’s going around telling people that he’s still talking to the president and — even more than that — that he is helping to shape Trump’s foreign policy,’ said the lawyer involved in the discussions.”

How the Russia Investigation Entangled a Manafort Protégé, The New York Times, June 16, 2017

“As investigators examine Mr. Manafort’s financial and political dealings at home and abroad, they are likely to run into Mr. Gates wherever they look. During the pair’s heady days in Ukraine, it was Mr. Gates who flew to Moscow for meetings with associates of Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch. His name appears on documents linked to shell companies that Mr. Manafort’s firm set up in Cyprus to receive payments from politicians and businesspeople in Eastern Europe.”

Trump Campaign Emails Show Aide’s Repeated Efforts to Set Up Russia Meetings, The Washington Post, Aug. 14, 2017

“The adviser, George Papadopoulos, offered to set up “a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss US-Russia ties under President Trump,” telling them his Russian contacts welcomed the opportunity, according to internal campaign emails read to The Washington Post.”

These 13 Wire Transfers Are A Focus Of The FBI Probe Into Paul Manafort , BuzzFeedNews, Oct. 29, 2017

“The extent of Manafort’s suspicious transactions was so vast, said this former official, that law enforcement agents drafted a series of “intelligence reports” about Manafort’s financial dealings. Two law enforcement officials who worked on the case say that they found red flags in his banking records going back as far as 2004, and that the transactions in question totaled many millions of dollars.”

 

#MeToo and Child Sexual Abuse Survivors in the South Asian American Diaspora

On Oct. 5, 2017, the New York Times published an explosive report about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual offenses and systematic smothering of the victims’ voices. Ten days after the report which subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the #MeToo campaign—originally started by Tarana Burke and resurrected by actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet—spread across the world. In India, victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and physical violence raised their proverbial fists in solidarity. There were numerous stories of everyday harassment by men known or related to these brave women, as well as accounts of alleged harassment in academiacorporate world, and in the Mumbai film industry.

In Pakistan, the movement gained momentum after prominent celebrities shared their own stories of child sexual abuse in the wake of the brutal rape and murder of a seven-year-old girl. And in Bangladesh, it brought out secrets that had gone unnoticed for far too long.

Vandita Morarka who works as a researcher for Strategic Advocacy for Human Rights (SAHR), a nonprofit working on justice for gender-based violence survivors in India, says #MeToo not only started a necessary dialog around issues of sexual harassment and abuse in India, it also empowered advocacy groups with an active repository of powerful stories to show the need and legitimacy of their work.

“At the micro level, I’ve seen #MeToo start conversations within families that would never discuss sexual assault otherwise,” Morarka says. “In schools and colleges, it led to students reaching out and discussing this more actively with their peers as well.”

In the South Asian diaspora in America, however, the enthusiasm to claim #MeToo has been limited.

Secretive Communities

Rani* says most survivors didn’t use #MeToo because they didn’t find enough support in the community to reassure them that the abuse wasn’t their fault.

She understands that sentiment because of her own story.

Growing up, 22-year-old Rani’s life out West was not so different from any other American millennial. She was an active student in elementary school and was part of the Homework Club, Girls on the Run Club, and Sports4Kids Club. She won awards from time to time and her parents, who had divorced when she was four, acknowledged her hard work.

Things changed when she entered 7th grade.

Rani was living with her mother and her second husband then. When her mother became pregnant, her stepfather started sexually abusing her. She was 12 at the time.

Rani couldn’t tell her mother because she was abused herself—at least verbally— by her husband and was financially dependent on him. He would also threaten Rani regularly.

“‘No one will marry you,’ and ‘no one wants a used girl’ were some of the things my stepdad would tell me,” Rani said.

But there was another fear that kept her quiet — fear of what her community would think of the situation.

“Opening up to the community is the biggest issue,” Rani said, “because there is no way of knowing who will be there to support you when you need it the most and that’s the hardest part of growing up [in an Indian-American community].”

Saima Husain, Deputy Director of California-based advocacy South Asian Network that challenges systems of oppression and inequality, says that for someone to speak or write about their abuse or experiences publicly, they have to acknowledge it at least to themselves or some trusted confidantes.

“I haven’t seen many people from the South Asian community claiming #MeToo, and there are a lot of young and progressive people on social media,” said Husain. Some of this caution on claiming the hashtag is because the abusers are often in the family, close to the family or belong to the same community as the survivors. It is also tangled up in the dual cultural identity of the 4.3 million strong South Asian diaspora and its status and place in the American fabric.

According to a 2015 study on family violence and child sexual abuse, “there is virtually no research on this highly stigmatized public health issue among the growing population of South Asians in the U.S.” Lack of such research and data stems from the perception that all Asian Americans are well-educated, high income, and well-regarded community. This “Model Minority” status actually worked as a deterrent for survivors to come out in greater numbers to claim #MeToo.

Fear of Backlash

South Asian diasporic communities in the US tend to be small and intimate where immigrants huddle together for cultural comfort. Familiar ecosystems and close-knit social circles are essential, especially for aging first-generation immigrants. Before speaking out—online or in real life—victims of child sexual abuse have to weigh the fear that their whole family could be ostracized.

24-year-old Jannath Ahmed was born and raised in Queens, New York, in a Bangladeshi Muslim community. Her father started sexually abusing her when she was 11. Even as a child, Ahmed said, she knew her mother had no power because she was financially dependent on her father. So Ahmed kept silent, and the abuse continued for four years. In 2014, her elder sister got a job, and the dynamics changed. She told her sister about the abuse.

Ahmed and her sister filed a police report, but the charges didn’t stick because the statute of limitations had expired. Her father went back to Bangladesh eventually.

Her family that stayed back in the U.S., however, paid a steep price for standing up to the community.

“My mother’s friends cut her off completely,” Ahmed said. “My father made up stories about my sister and me. He said that we partied, that we were Americanized and went around with boys and that we were lying. My own family members were telling me that no one would want to marry into my family now.”

Ahmed, who has a thriving career in advertising now and lives with her mother, never used #MeToo. She says she’d rather speak about her experience to someone one-on-one than put it on social media where the word can get to relatives or inquisitive community members.

Unlike Ahmed, her best friend—a victim of sexual abuse herself—remained quiet all her life and met a different fate.

Shame vs Individual’s Well-being

Jannath Ahmed and Samiha Khan knew each other since they were 11-years-old. When Ahmed told Khan about her abuse, Khan shared her own story.

Khan’s father was abusing her since she was 8-years-old. According to Ahmed, her friend was suffering from depression and had attempted to end her life more than once. Ahmed says she encouraged her to speak up several times but she didn’t have any support from her mother. Her abuse was kept a secret.

Samiha Khan jumped in front of a train and died in Nov. 2016. Even after her death, the focus of the community was on her mental fragility than the abuse that caused it.

“It wasn’t shared with any of the boys,” Jannath said. “Nobody reported it ever. And no one even thought to report it. It was more like a family problem than criminal behavior…People care more about not bringing shame to the family than the well-being of a person.”

Saima Husain of South Asian Network noted that shame is a sentiment shared by all survivors of child sexual abuse regardless of their background.

“Shame and believing that it was their own fault, which is part of the abuse, is a reason why children wait for a long time to speak about the abuse,” Husain said.

Sharing their experience on social media platforms, Husain added, depends on how much pushback the survivor believes they will experience or how well they feel their story will be received which is also tied into their history of help-seeking and how people have responded to them in the past.

Anti-immigrant sentiments and underreporting of child sexual abuse 

#MeToo movement’s tepid impact in the diaspora has another reason: Survivors often find themselves trapped between calling out the evils within the community and staying silent as the diaspora feels under siege in the current anti-immigrant political and social climate.

According to a recent report by Maryland-based South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a nonprofit that advocates for the civil rights of South Asians, there were 213 incidents of hate violence against those who identify or are perceived as South Asians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Middle Eastern and Arabs in the year following the 2016 Presidential election.

Such anti-immigrant sentiment has collateral impact on victims of sexual assault and abuse. Saima Husain, who has been working with sexual assault victims for 20 years, says that even though there’s a current uptick in the anti-immigrant sentiment, victims have been hushed on this account for years—ever since 9/11.

“The community has this idea that there’s already a lot of negative perception and negative media coverage of the South Asian community and certain religious communities within the South Asian diaspora and that reporting child sexual abuse will add to it,” Husain said. “And so victims are blamed for bringing additional negative attention to the community.”

Even when they find the courage to talk about their abuse with authorities, an undercurrent of preconceived notions and even racism comes in the way.

“I had this experience of going to the police station to report about a [sexual assault] victim and there was an officer who said ‘Oh yeah, that happens a lot in your community’ as if gender-based violence happens only in South Asian communities,” Husain said.

Fears about immigration status and the legal system

Many first-generation immigrants, especially those who can’t afford attorneys, are unaware of the nuances of American law and the decision to report abuse poses more than one risk.

“There is a fear of legal repercussions that could affect their immigration status, especially if the survivor is from an already marginalized group. So in some ways, protecting the entire community does come in play,” said Sree Sinha, co-founder of South Asian Sexual Health Alliance, an online forum for South Asian youth focusing on stigmas around mental health, sexual health and sexual and gender identity.

With the Department of Homeland Security monitoring social media of even green card holders and naturalized citizens as well as their relatives now, using #MeToo to talk about their stories felt even more perilous for some.

A Need for a Cultural Movement

Vandita Morarka says India seems to have reached a point where women are saying that they won’t stand for sexual violence and abuse anymore.

“I’ve seen women without support, financial or otherwise, take up this fight just as much as those with the support,” she added.

The South Asian diaspora, on the other hand, is adamant about portraying itself as a model minority. In her 2010 survey of college going South Asians in the U.S., Dr. Shanta Nishi Kanukollu found that the more pride her respondents showed in their culture, the more they believed that family and community would take care of victims of child sexual abuse. Male respondents even displayed denial about the prevalence of such abuse in the diaspora.

“Our diaspora just doesn’t know how to respond to abuse survivors. There are a lot of calls for patience and prayers and they are told to ‘just get over it’ and that it wasn’t big a deal, and even that maybe the person really didn’t mean it,” Saima Husain says.

It’s perhaps for these reasons that #MeToo couldn’t find a solid foothold in the South Asian diaspora where the elders are firmly holding on to the cultural blindfolds of their native homelands, and the young are navigating the complex realities of being an American and a minority.

“If more people from the community were supporting each other, it would be different,” Ahmed said.

***

*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the survivor.

 

First published in NewsCentral24x7 on April 17, 2018:

#MeToo and Child Sexual Abuse Survivors in the South Asian American Diaspora

 

Finding My Voice As A Muslim In America

During my first semester at grad school, I hardly said a word.

It was part imposter syndrome and part a life-long belief that my opinion wouldn’t matter, that I shouldn’t speak until I could contribute something important or couldn’t bear bottling it in anymore. I was also acutely conscious of having studied in a government school in India and here I was among the best and the brightest, some with more experience than I had, others recently graduated from elite American schools. Why would they ever be interested in what I knew, what I thought, what I had experienced?

Turned out, they were.

I cannot recall any one specific incident when my professors and peers made me feel that my voice, my experience, my thoughts mattered. It was just a collection of encouraging nods from the back of the class during shaky presentations, genuinely interested questions, and most of all attention — without any intent to attack me or to say I am lying or denying my truth.

I was treated with respect and dignity — not looked down upon, and I was never excluded.

***

Earlier this year, I was working on a story on international students facing discrimination in the U.S. I came across an outspoken Indian student at an elite law school that had been shaken by a dog-whistle incident directed at immigrants and students of color. This student—a champion of free speech—was personally offended. Among other things, he told me how he felt while being at the receiving end of majority bullying.

“I am an upper caste male from India and for the first time, I felt like a Muslim Indian or a Dalit or a woman. That’s how I felt,” *Rakesh said.

He also mentioned another incident of discrimination which he experienced off-campus.

“Once I went to a pub with a Pakistani friend and we had every form of ID with us but we were still denied entry. I was humiliated,” he said. “I am a self-respecting Indian and when people ask me if I could choose a different religion or nationality, I always say I am very proud of who I am. For the first time, I felt brown.”

It dawned on me that he was facing discrimination for the first time in his life and had to adapt fast, and in that process, he found empathy for the minorities in India. I also realized why, as an Indian Muslim, I have had it much easier fitting into the fabric of today’s America, I have been trained for it all my life.

***

My parents, like most minority parents in India, had to anticipate discrimination we would face growing up and prepare us, sometimes protect us, from it. While this precaution seemed normal then (as we didn’t know any better), looking back now, I can see that none of it was normal.

Once when I was about 10 or 11-years-old, I missed an Independence Day celebration because I was ill. My father got a phone call from the headmaster of my school who told him, “We very well know why you didn’t send her. Why would you celebrate 15th August?”

My father told my mother to always send us to such events without fail, come hell or high water. Things apparently haven’t changed at all since then.

In her remarkable 2018 book, Mothering a Muslim, Nazia Erum interviewed over 145 Muslim school-going children across 12 cities in India who were bullied in the name of their religion. Muslim parents are proactively preparing their children, at a very young age, to deal with religious bullying. Erum finds it very disturbing.

“It’s psychological inoculation,” Erum said, “Can there be a best way to tell a three-year-old that she will be questioned on her love for her country [when] she’s only beginning to grasp the meaning of love and loyalty? And yes, this preparation needs to set in at three because kids as young as four come home and ask, ‘Mamma, am I a Pakistani?’”

My siblings and I were raised to not mess with those privileged enough to belong to the majority. My father often told us, “Work hard and be true to yourself. And keep your head down.”

“Keep your head down,” by which he meant don’t mess with the majority, don’t confront them. (Why? Because we are easy to trample. Because we don’t have the same rights). Growing up, I gave up eating meat for a significant number of years and, if I allow myself to be honest to myself, one major reason was that my minced meat and parathe or my omelet rolls would make my (upper caste) vegetarian friends uncomfortable. When you are a kid, you just want to belong. Editing my plate seemed like an easy thing to do for a seat at the table.

I never questioned why I was behaving like a polite guest in my own country. Today it makes me terribly sad for my younger, patriotic self. It makes me pity myself that I am always surprised when I am treated with courtesy in America. I don’t think I will get used to the fact that I can be treated with dignity without me fighting for it, working hard for it, demanding and defending my right for it.

I had to train myself to calmly validate my existence by explaining my religion, my festivals, and my food while fielding sharp questions about these from people we considered our own. I never questioned why those who were questioning me felt they were on a higher ground, why they were uncomfortable with my religion, why they were surprised by my “normality”, why they were shocked by my knowledge, and what gave them the absolutely misplaced confidence to question their friend, their fellow citizen like that?

***

It isn’t that I haven’t faced discrimination in the US. With skin like mine, with a name like mine, that is to be expected. It is humiliating and always hurts but not as much as it did in my own country.

I knew what was coming to the US — at the societal level — after the 2016 election. I had seen it after the 2014 election in India. I had seen the uptick in hate crimes against minorities and immigrants in India and anticipated the same in the US. I had seen families in deep conflict in India and expected the same in the US I had seen the mainstreaming of bold “fringe” groups in India and feared the same in the US. But even when you are expecting a punch to the gut, it hurts and creates fear when the fist lands. For a long time, I was scared all the time. When I was done being scared on Eastern Standard Time, I would start being scared on Indian Standard Time. I was squeezed between two countries—two countries that seemingly didn’t want me.[/perfectpullquote]

One year ago, I attended a Pen America event on the role of journalists and public figures when their communities are under attack. The event started with a reading by Afaq Mahmoud—a poet with roots in Sudan and Yemen—and sitting in the audience, I nodded and hugged these lines:

“I have yet to love a country that did not try to kill me,

which is to say I have learned to plant roots in all these soils,

even when they won’t have you,

because when grief makes a home out of you,

you learn to make a home out of everything else.”

***

It has taken me a lifetime and some distance from the homeland to realize that when our parents told us to forgive, forget and move on from everyday bigotry with a tired shrug of “that’s how it is” for everyone, they were not talking about everyone. They were talking about us, just us — the minority Indians.

I have seen a different kind of confidence (until it’s shaken by jarring experiences of discrimination) in immigrants to the US who hail from privileged majorities in their home countries. They carry it everywhere with a sass that makes me envious. When I first came here, I would often catch my own reflection in sidewalk mirrors on bustling streets and mumble to myself, “What am I doing here? I am not even supposed to be here.” I once mentioned it to an upper caste Ivy leaguer and asked if he ever thought the same, “No,” he said absolutely offended as if I was insulting him.

I once read how Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had to learn how to be black in the US and all the pitfalls of it. I understood what she meant. It’s because back in her home in Nigeria, she never stood out. She was part of the majority. She belonged.

Not everyone can transition from living in a safe bubble to suddenly be lumped together with less fortunate minorities. Especially when it means struggling to rescue your voice while losing your privilege and relevance.

An upper caste Hindu and fiery right-wing acquaintance of mine had a job, which a lot of Americans would have been grateful for and lived in one of the most diverse cities in the country and yet, couldn’t settle down here. I observed a change in him when he came to the US. He was suddenly reading and discussing articles about marginalised minorities. It seemed to me that he was trying to understand how an under-siege minority’s struggle to belong somewhere has its roots in being outsiders in their own countries. Last year he decided he had enough of America, left his job and moved back to India. There were a lot of reasons for his decision. But, I believe one that he didn’t accept, one that was so clear to me was that he, for the first time in his life, had found himself to be part of a marginalised minority. He had lost his voice, his relevance and chose to leave.

I am close to finding mine, so I don’t need to.

***

*Name has been changed on request to protect privacy.

 

First published in NewsCentral24x7 on May 23, 2018:

Finding My Voice As A Muslim In America