Lunch with a bigot
Mr. Barotia was talking to someone when he opened the door. Speaking into the phone that he held in his left hand, he gave me his right fist, which I couldn’t quite decide whether to touch or to hold. Mr. Barotia said to the person on the phone, ‘Haan, haan, we will sit down and talk about it.’
The apartment, with the sunlight falling on the bulky white furniture, some of it covered with transparent plastic, appeared clean and bright, especially after the darkness of the corridor outside with its musty carpeting. I was happy that I had gotten so far. I had spoken to Mr. Barotia for the first time only during the previous week. On the phone he had called me a haraami, which means bastard in Hindi, and, after clarifying that he didn’t mean this abuse only for me as a person but for everyone else who was like me, he had also called me a kutta, a dog.
Although I had no idea of Jagdish Barotia’s identity till recently, I had wanted to meet him for well over two years. I wanted to meet face to face a man who thought I was his enemy, to see if I could understand why he hated me so much, and why he hated other people who were different from him. My name had appeared on a hit-list put on a website in the year 2000. The website belongs to a group called Hindu Unity – none of whose members, including Mr. Barotia, were named on the site – and it presented links to other right-wing Hindu groups. My name was on a list of individuals who were regarded as enemies of a Hindu India. There was special anger for people like me, who were Hindus but, in the minds of the list’s organizers, traitors to Hindutva, the ideology of a resurgent, anti-left, ultranationalistic Hindu cause.
The summer after the site was established, The New York Times carried a report on the alliance that Hindu Unity had formed with Rabbi Meir Kahane’s group. This is how the article began: ‘A website run by militant Hindus in Queens and Long Island was recently shut down by its service provider because of complaints that it advocated hatred and violence toward Muslims. But a few days later, the site was back on the internet. The unlikely rescuers were some radical Jews in Brooklyn who are under investigation for possible ties to anti-Arab terrorist organizations in Israel.’ The Zionist organization as well as the Hindutva group had come together in New York City against what they considered their common enemy, Islam.
The news story had mentioned that Hindu Unity was a secretive group. It had been difficult for the reporter to meet the men who ran the website. I had sent several e-mail messages to the address provided on the site – the address where one was supposed to write and report the names of the enemies of the Hindus – but no one had responded to my requests for an interview. Then, while I was having lunch at an Indian restaurant with a leader of the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Mr. Barotia’s name came up. The BJP is the right-wing Hindu party in power in Delhi; the Overseas Friends is an umbrella organization of Hindu groups outside India, zealously presenting to anyone who cares to listen the details of what they regard as the menace of the minorities (that is, non-Hindus) in India. When I told the man that I’d like to meet Mr. Barotia, he gave me his phone number and just as casually, mentioned that Mr. Barotia had been instrumental in establishing the website for Hindu Unity. (When I asked Mr. Barotia directly about this, he said, via an e-mail message: ‘I am a supporter of Hindu Unity and all the organizations which support the Hindu cause… I think there is a difference between being a member and a supporter. I do not pay any subscription for membership in Hindu Unity.’)
Half an hour later, I was on the phone with Mr. Barotia. When I gave him my name, he recognized it, and his voice lost its warmth. He told me that he had read an article of mine describing a visit to Pakistan, and he asked me to confirm what he knew about me, that I had married a Muslim. When I replied that I had, he said, ‘You have caused me a lot of pain.’ I didn’t know what to say. It was then, after I told him I wanted to meet him, that he called me a bastard and a dog. He also said that people like me were not secular, we were actually confused. We would learn our lesson, he said, when the Muslim population increased in India, and the Muslims came after us and chopped our legs off.
I guess I could say that I felt his pain when he said that he didn’t understand what had happened to the Hindu children, how it had come to be that they were surrounded by so much darkness. I said to him that I was not a child any more, but I sounded like one when I said that. Mr. Barotia invited me to his home, saying that he was sure that after he had talked to me and given me ‘all the facts’, I would change my mind about Muslims. He was the secretary of an outfit which he called the Indian-American Intellectuals Forum; he was also the organizing secretary of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, the overseas wing of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Voluntary Organization), a militant group to which the murderer of Mahatma Gandhi had once belonged. The internet was a gift to Mr. Barotia’s propaganda. It made him a better long-distance nationalist. He said to me, ‘If the Hindus will be saved, it will be because of the internet. I send out an email and am able to talk at once to 5,000 Hindus.’ And so it was that less than a week later, I went to Elmhurst, Queens, to meet Mr. Barotia.
In the summer of 1999, when India and Pakistan were engaged in a conflict near Kargil, in Kashmir, I had gotten married. In the days leading up to my wedding, I often told myself that my marriage was unusually symbolic: I was doing my bit to help bring peace to more than a billion people living in the subcontinent because I am an Indian Hindu and the woman I was about to marry, Mona, is a Pakistani Muslim.
The wedding took place in June, and it was hot when I drove up to Toronto, where Mona’s parents had recently moved from Karachi. Driving home alone (Mona had stayed behind with her family for a few days because they were returning to Pakistan), past Niagara Falls, where I had heard that honeymooners often go, I felt good about myself for marrying ‘the enemy’. The thought gave me a small thrill. I began to compose in my mind a brief newspaper editorial about how my marriage had opened a new track for people-to-people diplomacy.
Every day in Toronto the news bulletins brought to us the war in Kashmir. But we had other preoccupations. Along with Mona’s brothers and father, I would wake up at five in the morning to watch India and Pakistan fighting it out on the cricket fields in England, where the World Cup tournament was being played. A day before our wedding, India beat Pakistan in the match in Manchester. During that match, one lone spectator had held a sign, ‘Cricket for Peace’. Watching the match on television, I wondered whether I too could walk around with a placard hung from my neck, saying ‘Marriage for Peace’.
The article I eventually wrote for an Indian newspaper was what first brought me to Mr. Barotia’s attention. We became enemies.
At least, that is how he thinks of his relationship to me. We hardly know each other. The issue is not personal; it is political. After reading my articles about my marriage, and later, my visit to Pakistan, Mr. Barotia denounced me as an enemy of India. I went to meet him in his apartment in Queens because I wanted a dialogue with him. I also wanted to see his face. I found the idea of a faceless enemy unbearable. That wasn’t a psychological problem so much as a writer’s problem. I wanted detail and voice. Mr. Barotia had said to me on the phone that the Hindu rioters in Gujarat, who burnt, raped, or slaughtered more than a thousand Muslims earlier that year had taught the Indian minorities a lesson they would never forget. I wanted to meet Mr. Barotia so that I could ask him about the process through which he had come to think of the Muslim as the enemy. I did ask him, but his response revealed little to me that was new.
Nevertheless, our meeting was a discovery because it made me think not simply of our differences but also our similarities. What is it that divides the writer from the rioter? The answer is not very clear or simple. There could be more in common between the two than either might imagine – a vast hinterland of cultural memory and shared prejudice, for example. Was it an excess of sympathy on my part – or, on the contrary, too little of it – that made it difficult, if not also impossible, for me to draw a plainly legible line between a man in a mob and myself?
There was a woman in the house, she was Mr. Barotia’s niece, and she called out to him when she saw me enter the living room. He was being asked to put on a shirt. Mr. Barotia was short and had a round face with grey eyebrows. He put on a pair of gold-rimmed glasses after I told him that I doubted his statement that we had met before. Mr. Barotia touched his glasses and frowned. He said, ‘But your face looks familiar.’ I suddenly thought of the Hindu Unity website, where my photograph had appeared, picked up from the newspaper pieces. Perhaps that was the reason why Mr. Barotia thought that he had seen me before. He had seen my face on the site’s so-called black list, along with my name and address. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that. Instead, I drank the tea that I was offered. And then, Mr. Barotia began to tell me about what he called ‘the poison of Islam’.
The litany of complaints was familiar and quickly wearying. Mr. Barotia began with the names of all the male Indian film-stars who were Muslim and married to Hindu women. ‘Sharmila Tagore is now Ayesha Begum and that pimp Shahrukh Khan is married to a Hindu girl. Her name is Gauri.’ These women had been forced to convert, he said, and now Muslims were having sex with them, thereby defiling them. When Mr. Barotia told me this, he moved his right forearm back and forth against his paunch in a pumping action. He was using a vulgar Hindi word for what he was describing, a word common on the streets in India, and he said it so loudly, and so repeatedly, that I was startled and immediately thought of his niece in the kitchen. I was a stranger and she had not come in front of me; it was Mr. Barotia who had to get up and go to her to fetch the tray with tea and biscuits for us. Her manner had suggested that there was a great deal of traditional reserve in the household. What did she think of Mr. Barotia carrying on so obscenely about circumcised cocks and f***ing?
The BJP leader in the Indian restaurant, when he had given me Mr. Barotia’s phone number, had told me that Mr. Barotia’s family had been massacred during the riots in 1947, during the partition of India and Pakistan. I found out now that wasn’t true. Mr. Barotia said that his family had left Sindh, in Pakistan, and crossed the border quite safely more than a year after the partition. This revelation left me without a convenient explanation for his bigotry. When I asked Mr. Barotia to tell me about how he had come to acquire his well-defined worldview, he sputtered with rage. ‘I was liberal like you, liberal like stupid, ignorant. In Islam, there is no space for your secularism. There is no humanity in it. They extol the virtue of violence, they want to kill infidels… Islam is not a religion, it is a political ideology to capture land and rape women.’
Ihad begun taking notes. Mr. Barotia would now and then point at my notebook and say, ‘Write!’ and then he would say things like ‘Hindus were being killed in Pakistan and Gandhi was giving speeches. Saala tum ghoomta hai haraami… When Gandhi was killed, that day I felt relaxed.’ A little later, a friend of Mr. Barotia’s joined us, a fat, bearded man with a red tilak on his forehead. This man pedantically recited Sanskrit shlokas – verses from the Vedas – when he made his polemical points, and I sometimes turned back to Mr. Barotia’s plainer speech, and his abuses, with a sense of relief.
Soon, it became clear that Mr. Barotia was going to buy me lunch. We walked to an Indian diner about a ten minutes away, in Jackson Heights. Mr. Barotia behaved like a friendly host, urging me to try the different dishes, putting bits of warm nan on my plate. He also ate with gusto, refilling his plate several times, and as I looked at him, his shirt front flecked with the food he had dropped there, I saw him as a contented, slightly tired old man who was perhaps getting ready to take an afternoon nap. Earlier, Mr. Barotia had told me that because the Hindus had killed so many Muslims earlier that year in Gujarat, a change had come about. ‘We have created fear,’ he boasted. ‘Yeh garmi jo hai, main India mein phaila doonga. This heat that is there, I will spread it in India. And those who write against us, their fingers will be cut.’ But, for now, he was quietly stuffing pakoras into his mouth: a retired immigrant worker eating in a cheap immigrant restaurant.
Mr. Barotia had told me earlier that day that he had come to the United States in 1972. For twenty-five years he had worked as a legal secretary in Manhattan – the BJP man in the restaurant the previous week had told me that Mr. Barotia had been ‘a typist’, and I had seen from the gesture of his hand that he was being dismissive. Mr. Barotia said that he had gotten along well with his colleagues at work and they treated him as ‘a partner in the firm’, and one of them had even called him after the attacks of September 11 to say, ‘Jagdish, we thought you were obsessed with Muslims. But you were right.’
After our lunch, one other matter of business remained. Mr. Barotia was going to give me newspaper-cuttings and booklets. We walked back to his apartment through the crowded streets of Jackson Heights. The exercise brought Mr. Barotia back to life. His home is in a locality where Indians and Pakistanis immigrants live together; Elmhurst is said to be the most diverse zip-code area in the whole of United States. When I asked Mr. Barotia about his experience of living in this part of the city, he looked at the Muslims milling around us, the men with beards and caps, women with headscarves, and he spat out abuse. They harass our women, he said, and there is a lot of tension here. Then, suddenly, he began to talk of my wife whom he has never met. We were passing in front of the Indian grocery and jewellery stores, and Mr. Barotia turned to me and said, ‘It is okay. You f*** her. And you tell everyone that she is Muslim, and that you keep f***ing her! And through her, you keep f***ing Islam!’
‘What did you do when he said that?’ This is what Mona, my wife, asked me when she heard the story. I had called her from a public phone near Mr. Barotia’s apartment. Above me was a large sign with black letters painted on a white board, LEARN ENGLISH APRENDA INGLES. There was a pause before I replied to the question. I told Mona that I had done nothing. Wordlessly, I had kept walking beside Mr. Barotia. It would have been more accurate to say that I had made a mental note of what he had said. I said to myself that I needed to write down his words in my notebook as soon as I was back on the train. And that is what I did. Sitting in the train, with three men on the seat opposite me, each one of them wearing identical yellow jerseys and holding aluminium crutches against their knees, I took down notes about what Mr. Barotia had said during our walk back from the lunch. The strange thing is, although perhaps it is not strange at all, that later Mr. Barotia’s words crossed my mind, just when my wife and I had finished having breakfast in our kitchen and there, next to the sink with the empty bowl of cereals, I had begun to kiss her.
During lunch, Mr. Barotia had told me that I was ungrateful if I forgot how Hindu warriors had saved our motherland. He must have gotten to me because when he asked me why I believed in coexistence with Muslims, I said a phrase in Hindi that essentially meant ‘We are Nehru’s bastards’. It was an admission of guilt, of illegitimacy, as if Nehru, the socialist first prime minister of India, had done something wrong in being a liberal, and those of us who believed in his vision of an inclusive India were his ill-begotten offspring. Nehru is often accused by his detractors of having been a profligate person, and my remark had granted him a certain promiscuity. But the more serious charge hidden in my comment was that the former prime minister had produced a polity that was the result of miscegenation with the West.
Iwas being disingenuous – and so was Mr. Barotia. Our lives and our histories, with or without Nehru, were tied up with links with the wider world. I am an Indian writer who writes in English. Mr. Barotia’s parent party, the RSS, had been inspired by the Nazis and revered a German man, Hitler. Today, Mr. Barotia is a fan of the internet. We both live and work in the United States. We are both struggling, each in our way, to be like Nehru, whose eclecticism was exceptional. But Nehru was also exemplary because, unlike many of his Hindu compatriots, he had an unwavering belief that Hindu-Muslim conflict had nothing to do with tradition but was a modern phenomenon, which could be corrected by means of enlightened policy.
In the train, flipping over some of the papers that Mr. Barotia had given me, I began to read what the Hindutva brigade had to say about Nehru. An article provided ‘circumstantial evidence’ that Nehru was a Muslim. One item of proof offered was the following: ‘He had "Muslim" morals while "chasing and pursuing" a married woman (Edwina Mountbatten) and professing love to her. If he were a Hindu he would have respected married women and looked at the unmarried girls as "devis" (goddesses).’ Another piece, this one about Gandhi who had preached love among different religions, began by asserting that there are two kinds of bastards: those who are ‘born of illicit sex’ and those who are ‘despicable in word and conduct’. ‘The remarkable thing about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi,’ the writer said, ‘is that he was a bastard on both counts.’
Mr. Barotia had given me a set of typewritten sheets collected under the title ‘Wake Up! America! Wake Up!’ These pages, each one carrying exhortations printed in emphatic bold letters and followed by a series of mercilessly underlined sentences, were his response to the tragedy of September 11. (‘The macabre massacre of around 15,000 people (mostly Disbelievers) in less than 120 minutes. The inciter, the instigator QURAN is the CRIMINAL CULPRIT, which incites millions of Muslims around the World to the ghastly, ghostly crimes of this enormous destructive nature on the Disbelievers; and UNASHAMEDLY at the same time, tells these are all HOLY! So, Oh Disbeliever World! UNDERSTAND THIS COLD, CHILLING TRUTH.’)
As I read the following words, it was as if I could hear Mr. Barotia’s hectoring voice. His interest in alliteration had not been evident to me before, but it didn’t distract me from his real interest in producing a phony history and linking it to language. ‘As the history of Mohammed goes, he was a serial rapist, a serial murderer, a chronic criminal, a treacherous terrorist who was banished by his family and the society of his times,’ Mr. Barotia wrote. He followed a little later with a bogus disquisition on the etymology of the name for Muslims. The Prophet, in order to avenge the lack of respect shown him, founded ‘gangs of powerful youth (Muscle Men), offering them girls of their choice, food and wine.’ And, ‘the illiterate Mohammed mispronounced the word "Muscle Man" as "Musalman".’ Over a period of time, this mispronunciation became an accepted pronunciation!" The ten-page text ended with a question not about September 11 but an earlier unresolved crime that is still an obsession for many conspiracy-theorists in America and to which Mr. Barotia was only giving a new twist: ‘Who was behind the planning, plotting and planting the Death of the Dearest JFK?’ The answer: ‘It was ISLAM, ISLAM and ISLAM, the ever valiant villain.’
There are various things that could be said about Mr. Barotia. One would be that he is a fringe element that gives a dangerous edge to an increasingly powerful and mainstream ideology in the subcontinent. His political affiliation is with the party that rules now in New Delhi, although it is in retreat in parts of India. Mr. Barotia is also a member of the group that claims success in raising funds in the West – including investments made by expatriate Indians, allegedly to the tune of four billion dollars – to support the Indian government after economic sanctions had been imposed on India following the nuclear tests in 1998.
But, what interests me, as a writer, are the words that Mr. Barotia uses. Their violence and ferocity – their absoluteness compromised and made vulnerable in different ways, not least by the repeated eruption of a sexual anxiety – carry the threat most visible in the rhetoric of rioters in India today. That rhetoric leaves no place for the middle-class gentility of Nehruvian liberalism. Indeed, its incivility is a response to the failures of the idealism represented by the likes of Nehru and Gandhi. Mr. Barotia’s voice is the voice of the lumpen that knows it is lumpen no longer. It almost has the legitimacy of being the voice of the people, which it is not, and its aggressiveness is born through its own sense that it is pitched in battle against those who held power for too long.
I am not sure whether I would ever, or for long, envy Mr. Barotia’s passion, but I find myself sympathetic to his perception that the English-speaking elite of India has not granted the likes of him a proper place under the Indian flag. Once that thought enters my head, I am uneasily conscious of the ways in which I found myself mocking Mr. Barotia’s bigotry by noticing his ungrammatical English. Like Mr. Barotia, I was born in the provinces and grew up in small towns. For me, the move to the city meant that I learnt English and embraced secular, universal rationality and liberalism. Mr. Barotia remained truer to his roots and retained his religion as well as a narrower form of nationalism that went with it. His revenge on the city was that he also became a fanatic. I do not envy him his changes, but I can’t think of those changes without a small degree of tenderness.
There is also another reason why Mr. Barotia’s words hold my attention. His stories about heroism and betrayal share something with the fantasy-world of my own childhood, whose half-understood atmosphere of rumour and prejudice was a part not of a private universe but a largely public one. What Mr. Barotia and I share in some deep way is the language of memory – that well from which we have drawn, like water, our collective stories. After my meeting with Mr. Barotia, I thought of a particular incident from my childhood and wondered whether he, too, had similar memories, linking him and me, all of us, to all the bigots of the world.
My memory concerned a dead lizard. I must have been five or six at that time. The lizards, the girgit, were everywhere. In the small garden outside our home in Patna, they would creep out of the hedge and sun themselves on the metal gate. (Many years later, in a mall near Washington, I saw the lizards being sold as pets, and was reminded of my childhood fear of them.) These lizards were yellow or brown, their thin bodies scaly, and many of them had bloated red sacs under their chins. Although I was scared of the lizards, I also wanted to kill them. I often daydreamed about killing one by throwing a stone at it when it wasn’t looking. I would try to imagine what its pale exposed belly would look like when it fell through the air, from the gate to the ground.
A boy who was a year ahead of me in school actually killed one of them, bringing it to me a plastic bag. It was he who told me that the lizards were Muslim. He pointed out the sacs under their chins and said that they used to be beards. Here is the story he told:
During the riots that accompanied the partition of India in 1947, the Muslims were running scared of the Hindus. If the Hindus found the Muslims, they would murder them. If the Hindus did not kill the Muslims first, the Muslims would instead butcher the Hindus with their swords. Or they would take the Hindus to the new country, Pakistan, where the Hindus would be converted and become trapped forever. One day, the Hindus saw a bearded Muslim running away. They caught him and were about to chop off his head. The man was a coward. In order to save his life, he pointed with his beard toward the well where the other Muslims were hiding. Because of this act of treachery, that man was turned into a lizard with a sac under his chin. That is why when we Hindus looked at these lizards, they bob their heads as if they are pointing toward a well.
* Excerpt from the author’s forthcoming work, Husband of a Fanatic (Penguin India, 2004).