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.

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

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