In the eyes of the other


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I feel ambivalent about this business of ‘community’. Community can be a powerful tool for transmitting cultural values, bonding and sharing; it can be an equally powerful catalyst to create division and distrust.

One of the most maddening things is trying to explain to the majority that the scary stereotype of the Muslim – fanatic, backward, dirty, violent, with multiple wives and multiple children – is not necessarily the norm, and that most of us Muslims are, quite literally, just like you and me!

Pat comes the answer, equally maddening, ‘But then you are really not a Muslim’, i.e., that I don’t wear a burkha, haven’t borne those multiple children, don’t believe in reservations or ‘appeasement’, am liberated, educated, happily unmarried – certainly not oppressed, reactionary, or ghettoized. Nor is my difference from the stereotype entirely due to my social strata or family. In fact, working and living as I have done with craftspeople all over India for the last four decades, many of them Muslim, I don’t know a single one who fits that scary profile.

Yes, some of the Muslims I know grow beards or wear burkhas, many are uneducated except in their professional skills, quite a number pray five times a day and keep the Ramzan fast, but I have not yet encountered anyone with latent terrorist traits, and even on those intimate evenings around the village fire, where someone from one community will naturally tell jokes, or bitch about the other, I have not heard even the most orthodox mullah supporting the kind of mindless violence now bracketed with Muslims all over the world. Possibly, I am a lucky exception – though I would like to think I am the rule.

Why these myths and bogeys? Mostly it is ignorance. We all think that in this globalized world of instant electronic communication, we all know everything about each other. Far from it, the increase of so many different forms of media and information, the mushrooming of local newspapers, magazines, TV channels, websites and blogs in multiple regional languages, each catering to particular interest groups, means that people are even more boxed into their own blinkered mindsets, getting information and images that subscribe to their own world view.


Travelling by air to Mumbai some years ago, I was sitting next to two young marketing interns. They’d just made their first official trip for the company. I couldn’t help smiling at their excited chatter. One was sharing his experience of being in Chennai in a fancy hotel with everything paid, including room service. The second guy exulted that he had stayed with friends in Hyderabad, and had been able to claim expenses without actually spending anything. The other guy exclaimed, ‘Hyderabad! I believe the women there are really hot?’ The second said, ‘Hot? What yaar, they are all Mohammedans, wearing black burkhas.’ There was a short silence. Then the first one exclaimed, ‘You know what I would do if I ruled this country? I’d take a machine gun and go thak, thak, thak and kill all these bloody Mohammedans.’

What I heard was so jarring and unexpected that I tapped the young man on the shoulder and said, ‘You are entitled to your views but in a public space do remember that there are other people around. I am a Muslim and don’t particularly enjoy hearing that you want to machine gun me, so do save your plans till you disembark.’ Both the young men were aghast and stuttered out profuse apologies. What was disarming and a paradigm of all our muddled misconceptions and misinformation was the supposed assassin’s final sentence as we collected our belongings, ‘Ma’am, I am really, really sorry. I didn’t know that Muslim aunties travelled on airplanes’!

In the mid ’80s, I was conducting a design workshop with a group of women doing patchwork appliqué work in a resettlement colony outside Ahmedabad in Gujarat. Three days into the workshop, a communal riot broke out in Ahmedabad city. Arson and looting turned into mob warfare and killing and the trouble spread into the slums in the suburbs. The women doing patchwork were Muslim; most of their husbands and fathers worked in the city. They drove bicycle rickshaws, sold vegetables and groceries on small handcarts, or were unskilled labour in factories. Now they were trapped: unable to go out for fear of reprisals. I spent a week there, trapped along with them.


Every day people were brought into the community centre, where we sat matching colours and cutting patterns – burnt, wounded, maimed. A child’s eyes had been gouged out; the brother of one of the women had been burnt alive in his cycle rickshaw. The reality was dreadful enough but the rumours and counter-rumours made it worse. The local maulvi made a rabble-rousing speech, claiming that one Muslim was equal to 10 kaffirs. Horror stories abounded; spread and circulated by pamphlets, cassettes and the local Urdu radio station.

Just across the road, separated by a line of police trucks, was a Hindu slum. I had worked with some of the women there too, so on a relatively calm afternoon I nipped across. Over cups of tea I heard identical counter-horror stories – with Muslims as the villains this time (as an educated NGO lady from Delhi, my own Muslim status was temporarily forgotten!) When I told Vimla ben, one of the women, that Sakina’s little son had been killed, her eyes flooded with tears, all animosity was forgotten; only shared experiences of working together were remembered. She insisted on coming with me to condole. Others followed. That evening the women of both communities got together and swore not to let violence enter Juhapura again. Even after the terrible pogroms of 2002 in Gujarat, the women stayed united, travelling together to bazaars, protecting one another.


Kutch is a part of India where for centuries a couple of dozen different tribal and other communities have lived in extraordinary amity together. Shared economics and differing but compatible skills helped mutual bonding and trust – the Muslim khatris dying and block printing for the Vankar weavers and Rabari and Jat embroiderers, the mochi community supplying beautifully worked footwear and saddles. Isolation from mainstream politics helped too. In 2001 a devastating earthquake had suddenly put Kutch on everyone’s front pages. I was there a few days after the event. The different agencies that came into the region for ‘relief’ work, each had their own agenda. They attempted to create conflict between the different castes and communities. Rumours of fabricated ‘incidents’ were rife, and both the locals and the outside agencies were playing one off against the other – for everything from tents to spiritual solace.

Relief was doled out as per religious denomination or political affiliation. The BJP under the aegis of Sahib Singh Varma were vying for ‘adopting’ Dhamadka, and dividing it into Muslim, Harijan and upper caste Hindu camps, World Vision was busy distributing Bibles, and RSS and Jamaat-e-Islami banners were everywhere. ‘All we want is the means to stand on our feet again; we will rebuild our own lives ourselves,’ said one exasperated ajrakh printer from Dhamadka village. Nevertheless, it created fissures that still exist. Today there are two separate block printing villages – one mainly Hindu, the other Muslim, competing instead of working together.


It’s not entirely a coincidence that those centres of India largely unaffected by communal violence are where the different communities are economically interlinked and interdependent. Banaras for example, where the silk weavers are Muslim and the dalal (wholesalers) are Hindu, or Lucknow, where Hindu traders market the chikan embroidered by Muslim karigars. Nor is it a coincidence that Ahmedabad, routinely disrupted by communal tensions, is where Muslims and Hindus vie with each other more or less on par – sharing similar professions, incomes, educational levels and aspirations – competitors for the same turf, rather than essential economic links in a value chain.

I come from a family which chose multicultural India over monotheistic Pakistan. Despite our home being attacked and looted, and my father almost killed (a Hindu saved him by gunning down the man who was trying to shoot him), my parents and our large extended family of Tyabjis, Latifs, Alis, and Hydaris, all decided to stay in India. We were proudly Indian, celebrating its syncretic culture, festivals, monuments, music, art, literature, even its gods and goddesses… (I have a particular affection for Ganesh). It never occurred to us that for some we were ‘the other’. An occasional snide, ignorant remark by a stranger in a train, a vegetarian village hostess reacting apprehensively to a meat eating ‘Mohammedan’, a chronic inability to pronounce or spell one’s name correctly, were just funny anecdotes to counterpose incredible acceptance, sharing and warmth, and an amazing, common yet plural culture. Its richness made every other country seem insipid and dreary.

With the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the unthinkable happened. With its collapse the India of our aspirations and certainties also splintered and broke. Instead of a dream we seemed to be living a nightmare. Breaking the masjid seemed to free unsuspected venom in the most unexpected people. Even in my sanitized upper middle class Delhi life, I received a stream of anonymous hate mail telling me to go back to my ‘dungheap in Pakistan’, and threatening everything from rape to extermination; culminating in a box of human turds (disarmingly packed in a Kwality Sweets dabba!). It was easy to begin imagining oneself a victim.

But in the days following 6 December 1992, my organization Dastkar and I received countless letters from craftspeople all over the country, deploring the demolition of the masjid as an act against all faiths, and appealing for peace and the brotherhood of man. A typical one came from two Brahmin weavers in Karnataka, written for them by the village ‘English speaking’ scribe. ‘God is all wheres,’ it said; ending with, ‘Do not worry, we are praying.’

It is these voices, less strident, but mercifully still in a majority, that we must listen to lest we fall into the fatal mindset of ‘persecuted minorities’ – a ghettoization of mind and spirit that inevitably leads to further alienation and marginalization. It would make us truly the second class citizens some want us to be.


In 1985, I went to SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) in Lucknow to work with 100 chikan embroidery women. They were black burkha-ed, illiterate, earning about 100-150 rupees a month, housebound and previously totally dependent on the local mahajan to fetch their work, or pay them for it. Sitting together embroidering, teaching them new skills and designs, we naturally talked about everything under the sun. They were stunned that I, a well brought up, believing Muslim woman, could also be liberated, happily unmarried, earning my own living, travelling the world, untrammelled by purdah or convention.

Our first argument arose when I was furious with them for signing, unread, a petition about the Shah Bano judgment, just on the say-so and a biased and retrograde interpretation of the Koran by local male chauvinist maulvis. They listened to all this chat wide-eyed, somewhat disbelieving, a bit envious, slightly shocked. They certainly didn’t relate it to the realities of their own lives. When six of them bravely agreed to come to Delhi for an exhibition, the men of the mohalla threatened to burn down the SEWA Lucknow office, accusing us of corrupting their women’s morals.


Today, those 100 SEWA women have grown to 7,500. They travel all over India, happily doss down and sing bhajans in a dharmshala, or cook biryani at the Bombay YWCA. They interact with equal ease with male tribals from Madhya Pradesh and sophisticated buyers from Milan. They march in protest against dowry deaths as well as Islamic fundamentalism; demand financial credit and free spectacles from the government. They value their own skills, self-confidently refusing to give either Sanjay Singh or Mayawati a discount! They earn in the thousands rather than hundreds, have their own savings bank accounts, and have thrown away centuries of repression and social prejudice along with their burkhas. It has changed their attitudes to society, religion, marriage. But at the same time they realize that their own cultural identity – represented in their stitches and motifs – is also their strength.


When Dastkar started its project in Ranthambhore twenty years ago, I lived and worked out of a small one-room hut in Sherpur village. The women crowded around fascinated by this Delhi ‘behen ji’, while I taught them craft skills to help them earn for themselves and their families. Initially women of different castes and religions wanted separate timings to come to the room. The first time a Harijan woman came to work she crouched outside the door. It was she herself, not the upper caste women, who explained – with shocked disbelief at my naiveté – that she could not enter. I had to literally pull her in. When a Muslim child peed on the floor, the Hindu women fled in horror and wanted the whole place lippai-ed (sanitized using mud plaster)! Today, the 300-plus men and women in the project work, travel, cook, eat and drink together, marvelling at the folly that kept them separate for so long. At the annual picnic the men make the women sit, and serve them – Hindus and Muslims, Harijans and upper castes alike. Once again, sharing with, and actually knowing ‘the other’ has broken down all the silly phobias.

We too need to examine and re-evaluate some of our social myths and misconceptions, both about ourselves, and others. To see ourselves clearly and stop our ‘sentiments’ being ‘hurt’ every time someone shows us the other side of the coin.

Cultural identity too often seems something we feel proud of, but others use to box us into stereotypes. Jokes about Sardarjis, Gujju bens, and Bongs are legion. We love them, but feel outraged when they are levelled at ourselves. We Muslims talk proudly about our language, culture, tehzeeb, and food – others think beards, burkhas, violence, and multiple marriages. (Saleem Kidwai, a historian, once told me that homosexuality was also attributed to Muslims!) And yet the extraordinary mix of different races, religions, geographies, and cultures India encompasses is our greatest asset – an inheritance that we can shape into an incredible strength, or treat as a terrible liability.


A frequently aired advertisement on TV shows an adivasi woman exuberantly dancing in her tribal sari and cooking a meal in her village home. The camera then pans to her in a drab unisex uniform, driving a van. The voice-over has her saying that now that she wears pant-shirt and has a company job, people ‘give her much more respect’ and her own self-image has changed. For me, this ad is a paradigm of contemporary Indian attitudes, and the dumbing down of our values, attitudes and aspirations.

I’ve always thought the ideal for India is a salad, with each ingredient distinct and differently delicious, blended together with a truly secular dressing. But all too often we seem set on making it into a soup, all elements pulped into a homogenous, boring bland mush with a single dominating majority flavour. What a loss this would be!

Nehru is not much quoted today – for me he remains an ideal. Let’s remember what he said, ‘Culture is the ability to see the other’s point of view.’ We need to remember that ‘the other’ is just one more quite ordinary, sometimes tiresome, but potentially valuable person – part not just of the past, but also the fabric and future of this nation. The differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – of language, food, clothing, social practices – are what gives that fabric its colour, pattern and shape, and makes India so special – our truly ‘Incredible’ India.