How Do You Say Papa is Dead?

He stopped breathing. I was chanting in my head – not on my watch, not on my watch, my hand on his knees. He was opening his mouth like he wanted to say something, which was impossible as his tongue was swollen. He hadn’t said a word in two weeks. Just that afternoon we were playing a ‘help us guess what you want Papa’ game. He was flailing around like he was having a spasm attack. He was having a heart attack. I was holding his knees. Ma was sleeping on the cold bench on that cold night. December 13. It was 2.40 am when his eyes glazed over and I ran like mad to the doctors. Cancer had crept up on him and swallowed him whole.

My soul walked out of my body and stood a little away from it all, watching the doctors give him injections and oxygen, splashing light on his light brown pupils. Mom was awake. He went still. Soon the lady doctor declared my father dead. It was like she was declaring a part of me dead.

I am now an old person. My Father just died on my watch. Mom whimpered, “So soon?” caressing his near-bald head of salt-pepper, before breaking down. He must really be dead. My Ma never cries. I moved and closed his eyes with my two fingers. Perhaps the most important task my fingers had ever performed. Closing the eyes of my dead father.

There was a scream trapped somewhere in my chest, in my throat. Hold Mamma’s shoulders. Find your voice. Make some calls. Call one sister. Call sister’s husband. Call someone. How do you say Papa is dead? What combination of words is the most dignified? Do I say it in English? Do I say it Hindi? What do you do when your father dies? Right after he dies? Don’t look at the pitying eyes of the nurses. Don’t cry. Check his pulse again. Maybe they are wrong. He’d smiled that evening, didn’t he, his first in months.

Look at his long nose. I have his nose. Look at his beautiful, beautiful light brown eyes. Baby sister has his eyes. Look at his body. Hardly any flesh left. All bones. A sinkhole of blood and platelets and glucose vanishing at lightning speed to someplace mysterious in his body. His long fingers, his hands. They couldn’t find his veins, in the end, something to do with his smoking. He needed us to turn him over to the other side. He needed two of us to take him to the toilet. When he soiled his clothes one day, baby sister had made him wear her sweater. She is a size 6.

I must have called someone and said the right thing because of my sister’s husband, his father and brother arrived. It was a full cold, weepy moon. I was frozen. I found Naina, my niece crying on the stairs back at home, my sister had left her alone and she’d woken up scared. I picked her up, took her to my bed and hugged her. I was in the hospital for two days straight with no sleep. I needed to sleep. It was 4 a.m. I slept and woke up at 7 a.m. Fatherless.

I woke up with a start because I wanted to kiss him before others would descend and tell me I can’t. I kissed his forehead, his nose. What and who is squeezing my heart? Who is strangling my throat? How do you breathe? How do you grieve? I don’t know the ropes.

Three long days of crowded rooms and weeping relatives, my eyes just moved over them lifelessly. Did I stop breathing too when he did? I need to scream, I need to scream. The scream is rattling my rib cage, trapped. No voice is coming out. These tears aren’t even ruffling the surface of what is buried inside me. What if I had come a month sooner? He would have died a month sooner. What if I had never left for New York? He would have died sooner. He was waiting for me.

Elder sister is grumbling about something in the kitchen, and I snap back (nothing matters but the loud, deafening scream that I haven’t yet let loose. I want to scream, I want to scream. Half blind, half deaf, half dead, I snapped. She slapped me. I tried to hit her back like a blind person would. She didn’t expect that. I don’t do that. I never did that. But Papa wasn’t dead then. Eldest sister is pulling me off. You don’t understand, I am chanting. Nobody understands. Apologize. I have to apologize.

I am sorry I hit you. I am sorry I snapped. I am sorry I didn’t come sooner from my selfish trip to New York. I am sorry I let him die on my watch. I am sorry I didn’t run fast enough to the doctors. I am sorry I didn’t run sooner to the doctors. I am so glad you guys weren’t there. The scream, like a child ready to be born, is gurgling in my throat. I scream. I scream. I scream. Mindlessly. Madly.

He’s not dead. I am dead. I am dead. He didn’t love me like I wanted him to. He didn’t love me as much as I wanted him to. But it doesn’t matter, I loved him. And he’s dead. And he has my first silly poem in his drawer. And he has all the imperfect paintings I tore to pieces in his files.

Can’t I dig him back out of the grave? Breathe life into him somehow? Kiss him one more time? Start over? Be a child again? And not this old person his death has made me?

There are no five stages of grief. There is just one stage that stretches on like a rubber band. It is the offspring of pain and disbelief. I go limp. I stay in fetal position for three months. I stop sleeping at nights. Start sleeping at dawn. I wake up in the afternoons, I eat. And I curl up in bed again. He’s vanishing. His clothes aren’t on the clothesline anymore. I don’t have to fight with him for the remote. His side of the bed is empty. I roam the house like a ghost. Where is he? Where am I?

I haunt social media sites. It’s a whole new realm. A parallel universe. Everything is sunny, and normal and nice there. No one knows I am ill for weeks, wearing my Papa’s sweater because he’s dead and his fragrance is still trapped in the wool. I put on masks. I don’t lie. I don’t announce my grief either. People see you in a different light. Go easy on you. I don’t need their pity. My Papa gave me a strong spine. He was the chiropractor of our spines. I was lifting and carrying his weight on mine, wasn’t I? I just need to hide for a while. I can do that. I can live two lives. At least I am alive somewhere, and not dead because he’s dead.

With a memory like mine, there is no detail I can’t pull out to sketch him back again. Drop by reverse drop. Just the way we lost him. In tiny painful drops. Enough to lose hope. Not enough to lose all hope. I can still recall his voice, by the way. They are wrong. Their voice isn’t the first thing you forget. I can’t forget how he just slept under the effect of morphine all day, so I cry when I see some man lying down in a movie, I cry when I see a hospital in a TV series. I can’t watch “Grey’s Anatomy” anymore. Too many oxygen tubes.

Someone snores, it feels like Papa is wheezing. His lungs’ desperate attempts to draw some breath. I cry when his favorite movie comes on. I pre-ordered Dilip Kumar’s autobiography. He would have made me. I watch cricket now. Or try to. I cry. But I am still not grieving. I haven’t reached that stage yet. I am stuck somewhere on that cold night of December 13, 2013, while the world is whizzing around.

There are still people who don’t know he’s no more.

The phone is ringing.

Hello?

Hello, beta, is Papa around?

Yes, he is.

***

 

First published in Rediff.com on June 15, 2014:

http://www.rediff.com/news/special/how-do-you-say-papa-is-dead/20140615.htm

 

 

Lok Sabha Elections: The Sweet Hereafter

 

I wonder if you understand that all of us, that we’re all citizens of a different town now. A place with its own special rules and its own special laws. A town of people living in the sweet hereafter.” ~ Russell Banks  *The Sweet hereafter*

 

Doesn’t this election feel like the hereafter of a head-on car crash?

Some of us are bleeding, some of us are in daze, some have lost friends, and some have lost courage while staring blankly into unrepentant eyes of strangers.

After May 16, we all will carry on with our lives. We will go to work and the movies, laugh at parties, argue with strangers, and talk with friends. On the surface, the sweet hereafter will look much like the familiar everything before. But try as hard as we might, we won’t be able to shake the feeling that something has changed inside us. Like we lost something, or someone.

Like there was a death in the family.

It isn’t like bigotry, sexism, pettiness, victimhood, and bullying didn’t exist before these elections. We saw them in the drawn curtains of our neighbors during riots, we saw them in honest unguarded comments by our friends and colleagues, we saw them in the eyes of strangers and acquaintances, but we chose not to acknowledge them. They chose to keep these hidden under the wraps of civility, and we chose to live our lives around these unacknowledged blobs of ugliness. We compromised for the sake of decency, the everyday practicalities and our regard for camaraderie.

Then everybody got swept up in these elections, even those who weren’t interested in making comments or taking sides. We all felt that there was something different about this moment. It wasn’t the glitzy campaigns, their dubious claims, the incompetent politicians, the yearning for the new and brave. It wasn’t also our harsh realities, our photo-shopped illusions, or our compromised media eager to smother, silence and suspend those with differing opinions.

What these extremely polarizing elections did was all but drag and pull down the curtains of all our concealed hypocrisies. What we hid in our like-minded agreeable huddled whispers, all the snickers and snarky comments, all the clawing prejudices of clenched teeth, all the unacknowledged flaws, all the controlled bile of blame, all the blood oozing from the still-fresh wounds, these elections have forcibly unleashed it all in full public sight.

And we’ve seen the true faces of each other. No masks of civility. No regard for camaraderie. With all our beliefs and views and unvarnished thoughts, we went to battle. Every day, each day we fought – hurling abuse, blame, accusation, hatred, prejudice. We argued sanely at first, then angrily, and finally with viciousness. Even this taught us something about ourselves. We changed as individuals, as a community as a country.

Now most everybody around us is feeling this smear on their souls. Whatever surface emotion we will feel on May 16, deep down it will feel dirty. More importantly, it feels like we have lost a part of ourselves. Some part that was bright and light and decent. The joyful part that sat in our social media living room watching India win the world cup together, the curious part that listened without interrupting wise minds who brought different point of views to the table, the friendly part that reached out from the farthest corners of the internet and touched hearts, the Indian part that filled us with pride – all that has gone cold. Blank. As though we are mourning the innocence that we have all lost.

We can’t be friends with some anymore, because as it happens we were never friends with them in the truest sense. We all are hurt, merely by each other’s true faces. Shocked and disappointed and a little scared. Moreover, we are surprised by our own aggressive individuality, that which was chiseled in these polarizing elections by our true characters.

We can’t un-see the true faces of each other that we have seen. We can’t un-look, un-acknowledge, or deny what is staring us right in our eyes.

We can’t put the spilt milk back in the bottle.

How will we put together our pieces after this crash? How will we glue together these gaping cracks?

Maybe we should let the pieces be for now and like a shaken kaleidoscope yields new patterns of shattered glass, we will find ourselves a new compact. As long as the kaleidoscope doesn’t break, we will be okay. We will rearrange ourselves, our friends, our lives, and we will move on.

But we have lost the previous pictures and patterns. From here we can only go forward. As TS Eliot wrote: “So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna on the field of battle. Not fare well, but fare forward, voyagers.”

And for those who are willing to reach out to one another, we must remember that our hands alone cannot reach some of the wounds. We will need the very hands that have inflicted these wounds to slap the bandage on.

Be those hands.

 

***

India’s liberal Muslims: A minority within a minority

 

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

– Dylan Thomas

 

Sisters, do not stop your husbands. It is your duty to make them happy. Allow them to take up other wives if you are ill. They will be your sisters.

At this point, my mother – attending a women’s seminar where noted female Islamic scholars and historians were supposed to speak – had enough of this preacher who had literally hijacked the event.

She stood up – the only one in the room to do so – and said, “This is wrong. We didn’t come here to listen to this.” She later told me how she liked the shocked silence at her walking out of that room, with a few others behind her. She was so livid, she also filed a complaint with the organizers.

“He likely didn’t stop, Mamma,” I said to her, my blood boiling, “Even when you and the others walked out.”

“I didn’t speak up to stop him,” my mother said. “I said it because I couldn’t stay quiet any longer.”

_________________

Since well before the campaigning for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections even began, Muslims have become a focus of discussion for a party that proudly demonizes them and another that cynically manipulates them. This discussion inevitably involves the alleged “appeasement” of Muslims, the “special privileges” they supposedly receive, their failure to merge into the “mainstream”, their “unwillingness” to be treated as any other citizen and, the most important question, thrown like a wet fish on the face of every liberal Muslim: why are Muslims silent about the demons inside the walls their community has pulled up around itself. Why don’t they speak out against things like fatwas against books, performing the surya namaskar, and even against singing Vande Mataram?

My mother surely wasn’t silent nor was she an isolated example of someone standing up and calling a spade a spade. Many of us stand up to such forces in our own little ways every day.

Admittedly, this liberal protest is a stream rather than a raging river – voices of liberal Muslims who are a minority within a besieged minority. But it exists.

_________________

Those who accuse liberal Muslims of silence have fixed beliefs and closed minds. Nothing I say can make them see that there exist Muslims who do much of these things every single day: the Hijabi yoga instructor, my niece leading the morning choir, my mother standing up to that preacher, me standing up for Indian democracy to “concerned” Pakistanis in New York.

Muslims are standing up to the social demons in their own community. They don’t do this to somehow prove that they are liberal or modern. They do this because they have not yet given in to the shadows of a comforting silence. People are vocal but no one appears to be listening. Not every incident makes it to social media platforms or the newspapers.

Even those who choose to remain silent don’t do so necessarily because they approve of everything they see around them. They are silent because they are tired of being attacked for things they have no hand or say in (for instance Imran Masood’s speech, attacks on Hindus in Pakistan, or even that Muslim rulers reigned for 700 years in India). They are tired that nobody believes them when they speak out. They are tired of being called “Babur ki aulaadein”. They know no one will protect them if something goes wrong, not “their” people and certainly not the law. Most importantly, they think their speaking out won’t make any difference.

Liberal Indian Muslims are too grey to fit into the black and white narratives of the Right and the Left. They are the visible tip of their community, taking the brunt of accusations, attacks and insults on social media, political debates in parties, and in the main stream media. In the current polarized political climate, they have been painted as villains even when they have done nothing wrong at all, and indicted for not speaking enough to satisfy strangers who sit in judgment over them.

I have been told repeatedly that liberal Muslims aren’t taken seriously. A minority within a minority, they might as well be ghosts. When others come across them, they are looked at with the same old lens of prejudice. They are required to publicly take sides and to constantly prove who and what they are to people on two sides: to their community, liberal Muslims feel forced to prove they are “Muslim enough”, and to everyone else, that they are “modern enough”.

Being held to account for things others do is an undeserved burden, while speaking up about our beliefs sometimes feels futile. Some get tired of this constant scrutiny, at being told “prove it” and “you have failed”.

It’s not surprising then that many prefer silence because, when under siege, humans circle their wagons and huddle with those who are similarly under attack or those who might just give them the benefit of the doubt.

But, no matter how difficult or futile this is, right now, many more Muslims must speak up, not because it will make any difference to the election or even their community, but because it will make a difference inside their own conscience.

More Muslims need to speak up because, if they remain silent, others will speak for them. When intellectuals, politicians, and academics talk about “root causes” that somehow drive terrorists to murder and maim Indians, when they talk about a “Muslim veto” in Indian politics, when they stereotype Indian Muslims in the language of victimhood and dependency, they are doing the community no favors.

It is time though that Muslims stand up against everyone and everything that is pulling them down, within their own community and outside of it. The day they start thinking about themselves – instead of letting patronizing do-gooders, cynical politicians, communal demagogues, and fundamentalist Imams speak for them – is the day they will stop being a part of a “vote herd” that is bartered for a price. In this election cycle, especially, where they are being demonized as traitors and courted as a vote bank, they need to speak up and their voices should be heard before canny journalists or vote-herd shepherds hijack it.

And when they speak, others should open their mind and ears to listen without shaking their heads in disapproval, without squinting their eyes in disbelief, without cross-examining their truth, without suspecting their motives, without patronizing them or trying to twist their narrative to pit them against the walls of solid bigoted thoughts . It takes two to speak the truth: one to say it, the other to believe it.

Liberal Muslims have been speaking. Have you been listening?

 

***

First published in DNAIndia.com on April 4, 2014:

http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-india-s-liberal-muslims-a-minority-within-a-minority-1975131

In the battle of victimhoods, the real victims are forgotten

Certainly we struggle as victims of other people’s unkindness. We have been sinned against. But we cannot excuse our sinful responses to others on the grounds of their mistreatment of us. We are responsible for what we do. We are both strugglers and sinners, victims and agents, people who hurt and people who harm.

– Larry Crabb

_________________

On the anniversary of the Kashmiri Pandit exodus, I tweeted an excerpt from Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots. The immediate response was tweets about continuing atrocities on Kashmiri Muslims. Even as I reeled from how it feels to pack a lifetime in a suitcase and to flee one’s own home like a thief at night, I was abruptly dragged across the other side to a competing victimhood.

On the anniversary of the Kunan Poshpora gang rapes, I mourned the unspeakable horror of a raped pregnant sixteen year old who subsequently gave birth to a baby with a broken arm. A friend speculated that the story was likely an exaggeration, if not outright fabrication.

In fact, he went on, every account that comes from “separatists” was to be suspected, that the “ripped fetus” incident from Gujarat is a myth, and that Muslim victimhood hurts secularism as it is “context-free” angst. Same goes for Hindu victimhood, he added.

_________________

Sandhya Jain, editor of Vijayvaani, writes, Hindu victims of the (Muzaffarnagar) riots were cold-shouldered and compensation was offered to Muslims only.

In his essay “The value of Hindu Life”, Rajiv Srinivasan writes, A Hindu’s life is without value as far as politicians and the government are concerned. But a Christian man’s life and a Muslim man’s eye are of great value.

Dalit rights activist Kancha Ilaiah in an interview to DNA said, “Backward caste students are generally discriminated against in these premier institutes. Instead of providing them a leg-up, they are made to feel unwanted.”

If you go looking for it, victimhood is everywhere in India.

_________________

As I reflected on my friend’s views, it occurred to me that he was speaking about victimhood as a political act while I was hurting for the victims as a human gesture.

Amidst the clanging of arguments over victimhood, we so often lose sight of the victims crouched in shadows. By dismissing victimhood, with good intent and sharp intellect, we forcibly erase the memory of victims. In the process of championing victimhood, somehow the victims are left far behind.

The Pandit leaping from the window of his burning house, the baby born with a fractured arm because the mother was raped brutally, the elderly widow struggling on behalf of her lynched husband, the frightened Kar Sevak trapped in the Sabarmati Express, the refugees trembling beneath the merciless winter sky in Muzaffarnagar. They are all individuals and their suffering should matter more than as fodder for collective victimhood.

Headlines in the newspapers, poignant photographs, screeching political debates on primetime seldom turn to look at the victim, who is as she was. And where she was.

Victimhood is born of inferiority, insecurity, and paranoia. When you step back and stare at it, victimhood sounds like a pathetic attempt to show whose scar is uglier, whose wound is deeper, and whose bruises are blacker and bluer. When you come closer, all you can smell is fear.

Those who scream hoarse about victimhood and those who smirk at it are seldom victims themselves. They merely reduce the suffering of others to clever arguments and the victims to forgotten afterthoughts, dismissing them as whiny.

Justice is a headless puppet in this country. When it is served, more often than not it is a political statement in the name of “appeasing the collective conscience”. Where the security forces should be the first circle of protection for victims and justice the next, both have been rendered powerless in the face of cold political calculation.

The struggle of man against power, Milan Kundera wrote, is the struggle of memory against forgetting. The debate over victimhood is a means of forgetting.

We must acknowledge the trauma of the victims, we must not forget them. Because it is likely memory is the only justice they will ever get.

_________________

The saddest fact is that competing victimhoods desperately try to prove that the “other” victims are not really victims. They are impostors. They are a political conspiracy. They are a fabrication.

They are everything except real human beings with names.

They are liars.

Vasudev “Vasu Toth” in the Mishriwala refugee camp for Kashmiri Pandits is a liar.

Satish Kumar Mishra, survivor of the Sabarmati express burning in Godhra, is a liar.

Vibha Sethii, who lost her son and husband in the 1984 riots, is a liar.

Zakia Jafri is a liar.

Victims are liars. Victimhood is standing strong and true.

 

***

 

First published in DNAIndia.com on March 5, 2014:

http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-in-the-battle-of-victimhoods-the-real-victims-are-forgotten-1967004

Emily Kessler

Emily Kessler, 99, has led an incredible life. She escaped the clutches of Nazis multiple times in her hometown Khmelnik, Ukraine, where the SS Guards were ordered to exterminate Jews immediately and completely. With the help of two brave women, she escaped the Khmelnik ghettos with her son and kept running till the end of war. Having lost her entire family except her son, she decided to migrate first to Russia and eventually came to the United States.

She now lives in New York. Her mandolin keeps the light in her eyes alive.

India’s Banned Voices: Who Is The Real Target?

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” – George Orwell

 

 

Salman Rushdie. James Laine. AK Ramanujan. Caravan Magazine. Mekaal Hasan Band. Evam Entertainment’s play. Taslima Nasreen. Wendy Doniger.

The parade of smothered voices followed by fleeting outrage is endless.

The growing intolerance in India is hardly news. It’s no insight to note that this is regressive. It is further futile to point fingers at appeasing politicians, meek judges, and publishers or organisers willing to compromise and knuckle under to avoid chaos. They have no one covering their backs and no intention of standing up to this darkness.

Those who protest are few and quickly sidelined. Those who don’t care are many and everywhere.

Why should a hassled housewife trying to run her household, bring up her kids, and balance her budget care about Wendy Doniger? Why should a young professional trapped in his cage of business schedules care about the pulping? Why should a grandparent? Wendy? Wendy Who?

_________________

“Hope you are right about the samudra-manthan that is going on in our country,” a despairing friend said quietly, “I worry sometimes about the vish that will flow out of it.”

Who will drink that poison?

_________________

I want to speak directly to the hassled housewife, the business executive, the students, the teachers who must know about this poison.

When a group of people gets away with silencing a writer because “he/she hurt their religious sentiments”, and you nod in secret or in pride, you tell the world that this is alright. But tomorrow, who knows who might point to your beloved religious text or favourite writer and claim that these hurt their religious sentiments. You raising your voice in protest will not matter then, because you didn’t stop the storm when you had the chance.

Believe me, there is much in every religious text that can offend someone or the other. You often see these cited in the comments section of any publication.

What if those people said you cannot pass on to your children the stories you heard from your mother and grandmother, stories of gods and kings, because they are offensive to them? What if they said you are making up the story your mother told you when you were a child, like I was told, because they have neither heard that version nor does it fit into their interpretation?

What if the history you thought you knew was overturned overnight and your children were taught things in school that you know in your heart to be false?

Where will you go to fight, if you choose to fight at all?

This is not about Rushdie or Nasreen or Ramanujan or Doniger or Laine. Those who seek to silence them are not really after them. Their goal is something else.

You don’t need to know anything about these writers or care about what they have written. What you need to realise is that their voices were silenced because the mobs are interested in you.

They want you to practice their version of faith and share their understanding of history. They want to leave you no choice in this. No matter what your faith is or how you practice it, someone somewhere is plotting to impose their will on you. You should care, right now, right this minute because someone is writing a narrative for you without your permission, because they don’t think they need it. Nor will they wait for your permission to force their narrative on you.

They could tell you that the version of the Ramayana that you learned in your mother’s lap does not fit their grand narrative. They will come after the character you relate to the most in the Mahabharata because he/she is not of a certain pedigree or repute. The beauty of our timeless classics is in the spaces between their stories that allow us interpretation. But because these interpretations can offend someone, it won’t be long before they are stained by petitions and stopped by law.

You should raise your voice, right now, right this minute, because someone (perhaps sitting in America) is writing a history that will suit their ambition. A tweak here, a book pulped there, a movie withdrawn, a play squelched – that is all it takes. In small, barely noticed cuts, they are slashing away at your infinitely diverse history and treasured myths. And defending it in essays, even denying it.

There is a calculated thought behind their seemingly petty acts of intolerance. They have a belief, a misplaced pride, and an unhealthy determination to shape a grand narrative for India because every great power must have one. Any idea or interpretation that challenges this must be crushed.

Over time, they want to turn us all into closed-minded drones with pride in only carefully culled out aspects of history and rage over everything that dares to be different.

Civilisations thrive and minds expand when there is a constant, healthy exchange of ideas and interpretations. Great conversations are made of the exactly these ingredients.

All that we can really be sure of is what we don’t know. And that we can be easily wrong in what we do know. How then can these mobs come at us with the arrogant certainty that they know what is right, and everything else must be silenced? They even want to take away our right to be wrong. Their having an interpretation is acceptable, imposing it on us is not.

In their myopic attempt to control our understanding of our world they forget that India doesn’t need a plastic surgeon to sculpt a perfect past. Instead, its confidence should come from the vision of where it is going. By deleting tradition, history and ideas that differ from artificial grand narratives, they are hobbling us on the journey we are on.

We should all care. And we should be worried. Because someone else is writing an alternate narrative for us.

 

***

First published in DNAIndia.com on Feb. 16, 2014:  http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-india-s-banned-voices-who-is-the-real-target-1962617

Outsiders In Our Own Country

It has been a beautiful fight. It still is.

– Charles Bukowski

The invigilator stopped at my desk as I was scribbling speedily. It was my 6th standard Hindi exam, my favourite subject.

Ek Urdu-bhaashi ladki ki itni achchi Hindi dekhkar bohot achcha laga, beta (Glad to see someone whose mother tongue is Urdu writing such good Hindi),” he said, reading my name. I wasn’t sure whether to take it as a compliment or a reminder that Hindi is not “mine”. The hair on my neck rose with something that I couldn’t entirely understand.

That one comment suddenly made me feel miles away from the love that I was spilling out with my pen on the answer sheet.

And so it began.

Growing up, I went into a phase of denial about incidents like these. The very idea that I could be made to feel like an outsider in my own country was ridiculous to my India-loving mind. These things don’t exist. They must not exist. These things do not matter.

_______

“I have to apply, can you imagine, for leave on Eid-ul-Fitr from among my 10 paid leaves. It hurts like hell”, a young woman said. “You can celebrate silly days like red shirt day, black skirt day but not Eid?”

“The Head of the Department was very happy that I was part of her class. She wanted me to be an honors student till she asked my full name. Then she made a face, right in front of me, and turned her back,” said a college student, with stubborn chin and trembling lips.

“My case is ironic,” said another student. “I was harshly treated by a Muslim professor who wanted to prove to all that she was unbiased. This affected my grades.”

The message that these young people are getting is one of exclusion. They are forever standing outside the circle of warmth. They can watch celebrations and lights from a distance, but somehow can’t be part of it.

Outcast – in the name of caution. Forgotten – because of numbers. Sidelined – due to prejudice.

Every Muslim youth I know approaches the corporate world with the single-minded determination of proving their worth and a hidden wish to wipe clean all prejudices against them.

“It is a layered battle,” a young Muslim woman said. “As a woman, I first want to be seen as a genderless asset for the company. But you have to butt your head with male counterparts who work on the assumption that all women workers are somehow lesser than them, except if they are their bosses. And just as important is to prove being Muslim does not have anything to do with doing your job.”

“It doesn’t matter if you are an atheist like me,” another said, “Faith is a label that does not come off.”

_______

The political coup against a just, legal process in the Shah Bano verdict was the first cynical move to appease traditional Muslim voters. This only led to their seclusion from the rest of the population. The Kane and Abel of Hajj subsidies and temple taxes started digging a grave which, with time and mistrust and resentment of every political favor given to Muslims, only grew deeper.

Instead of providing better education that Muslims most needed, support was extended for religious issues. Where the law should have come to the aid of a helpless woman, statesmen cheered a clever political victory. “We merely reminded you of your religious law”, they exclaimed.

India’s “secular” polity that claims to be the savior of Muslims, in my opinion, has a rich understanding of what they are lacking to fulfill their dreams on education and employment. They use this understanding for customized cultivation of just the right mix of hunger, need and dashed opportunities so Muslims can be in made permanently dependent on patronage.

Take the example of minority-only schools, yet another idea that has the wonderful mask of special development but is terribly segregating. Instead of understanding why Muslims hesitate in enrolling their children or figuring out if there are communal biases in the education system, here is a plan that will exclude them further, rather than include.

This exclusion is the punch line for the next elections and not a concern. From Ayodhya to Gulbarg to Muzaffarnagar, the singular purpose appears to be making the minority feel they don’t belong in this country, and even their constitutional right to vote is challenged.

In the guise of current economic needs, the new wave of communal polity is making Muslim Indians afraid for their lives and for the fast fading illusion of the safety net that they think they have from secularism.

Their political choice is a party that exploits religious exclusion and one that takes pride in it.

While politicians play these clever games, young Muslims seeking education and employment are refused homes for rent and are abandoned or even hounded by the police. No wonder many end up in ghettos where they feel safe from lynch mobs and a prejudiced community that views them with constant suspicion. This dynamic is so finely sewn into the fabric of our society that we don’t even pay attention to it. Muslims dodge and work around these biases with humor and everyone else rationalizes them in the name of security. And who can blame them?

In political discussions, most people wait for Muslims to play the ‘victim’ card. If they do, they are sneered at. If they don’t, a backhanded compliment of being “liberal” is slapped on their foreheads.

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Loving this country gnaws at one’s heart because, sometimes in a roomful of people, one is the only person who really does love it with all its flaws and is still asked to prove it.

Loving this country is looking up to everyone else and hoping the proud ink dot on their index finger is not plotting the next communal riot. That this time, they will consider pulling us in the circle.

Loving this country is like loving a father who has made it clear you are not his favorite child, in the hope that one day he will turn to you and say, I am proud of you.

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First published in DNAIndia.com on Jan. 30, 2014: http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-outsiders-in-our-own-country-1958299