Let’s get this out of the way first: I am not Muslim. I do not hold Muslim religious beliefs. The sole reason why I visit a dargah (about once a decade, at that) is to get my hands on that sweet, sweet sugary thing that they distribute like it’s confetti. I learnt the difference between Shia and Sunni from a decidedly Hindu classmate, and about Muharram from the newspaper.
I do, however, have a Muslim name, courtesy a Muslim parent, and as we all know, names are more important than they seem. (Shameless plugin time!) Plus, in this country, possession of a vaguely Islamic name is all people need to assume you’re an immigrant from Iraq. Or Bangladesh, depending on which part of the country you reside in. Here are some of the funniest moments that I’ve faced over the past few years:
- The “Why aren’t you wearing a burqa?”
All things said, my family doesn’t really fit the mold of the TV Muslim family. Nobody wears a burqa or a hijab or anything that might even be accidentally associated with traditional Muslim wear. The most Muslim thing I’ve ever seen anyone in my extended family wear is that skullcap that people don on the day of Eid namaaz. As a result, the only time I’ve actually seen burqas is when I go to Jama Masjid to pay homage to the wonder that is Karim’s.
A few years ago, I was at this birthday party. It was summer, and hot, so I was wearing what any person might have worn on that day – shorts and a t-shirt. It was the first time I was visiting this particular person’s house and meeting her family, and her sister gave quite a start upon hearing my name.
“But you’re Muslim!”, she exclaimed.
Given the fact that my name reeks of a random Middle-Eastern country, I chose to go down the oft-travelled path of just nodding my head instead of trying to explain complex religious identity to a perfect stranger.
“But, like, isn’t it haram to wear something above the ankle in your religion?”
Now let me get this straight. I mean no offence to actual Muslims here. I do not know what construes as haram in your religion. The only thing I was taught since childhood was
1. Don’t eat pork ‘cause pork baaaaaaaaad; and
2. Sleep with your head towards West because well the explanation is too long bas kar de na beta questions mat poochte reh.
The last one pretty much doesn’t apply anymore because we’re in college and sleep is something that’s as rare as a blue potato. I sincerely curse myself for all those times when I missed naptime as a child, because my sleep-deprived brain is convinced that accrued sleep from when I was eight years old would totally carry over to the present day.
Getting back to the point: wearing something burqa-ish in my family is only likely if I’m entering a fancy-dress competition or something.
I tried to explain this to my friend’s sister, whose guava-juice hazed brain simply couldn’t seem to comprehend what she considered my rebellion. The conversation ended with her telling me about how she was glad I was “rebelling against the forces” and “becoming totally, like, new, dude”. I guess it wasn’t the best time to tell her that my mother would probably have been way more horrified and called an intervention had I suddenly started sporting a niqab.
- The “Muslims scare me”
I spent two of my teenage years in Gujarat, which, all things considered, wasn’t bad. Sure, those guys treat vegetarianism like a religion (which, I guess, it kind of is…) and there’s no decent chicken tikka to be found anywhere, but the non-rapey attitude of the people was pretty nice. Gujarat is a strange place that way – you can feel almost completely safe in one aspect, and like you’re about to be lynched at any moment in another.
Before my first day at school, an adult made me sit down and gave me certain pointers on How To Not Look Muslim If Confronted By An Angry Hindu Mob. Now, it’s important to point out that I did not, in fact, encounter any Angry Hindu Mobs during my stay in Gujarat, but such instruction is important nevertheless. I was told to pretend that I wasn’t Muslim, say that my parents were ordinary government employees, and recite the Gayatri Mantra and parts of the Hanuman Chalisa (which he made me learn by heart; I can still recite them), and perhaps most importantly, to say that I was Parsi because a) there’s no way I could’ve passed that name off as Hindu and b) Parsi people are totes cool.
(The author does not intend any offence to Parsi people. You really are totes cool.)
Anyway, so off I traipsed to my snobby, very Hindu school. I’m really not kidding when I say it was very Hindu – apart from a significant Jain population, the only non-Hindus there apart from me was this lone Sikh guy and a couple of Parsi people.
Being Gujarat, the schools were, of course, a no-meat zone. All meals found in the mess were vegetarian, and we weren’t allowed to take any non-veg to school. I’m not sure if there was an official rule about this, but the other students would have most certainly shunned you had you dared to smuggle in a delicious chicken leg inside the hallowed school boundaries, so no one did. We were all still at that sad stage where having friends was more important than having chicken biryani for lunch.
But a mere ban on all things delicious didn’t mean that we didn’t have conversations about them. We used to have passionate debates about the meaning of life and how we would totally sell ours in order to get our hands on some decent meat in this godforsaken state. Finally, matters came to a head in this conversation:
One of my friends, H: But meat-eaters are totally not cool because they’re strange and violent.
Me: (striving to explain that my lust for meat does not correlate with wanting to chop someone’s head off) But what does that have to do with eating delicious animal flesh, H?
H: I don’t know, I just don’t like these strange, violent people. Especially Muslims. They eat meat and they’re violent ugh they scare me.
Me: … H, I’m Muslim.
H: This is a joke, right?
Me: … Nope.
H: I thought you were Parsi!
Me: (secretly pleased that I can pass off as Parsi and can now evade Angry Hindu Mobs, should they ever appear) Nope, I’m Muslim.
H: … Oh.
I wish I could say it wasn’t awkward between the two of us after that but it was. It really, really was.
- The “You Must Know How To Cook Chicken Biryani!”
There are certain foods associated with Muslim culture, and I love them all. Biryani, korma, pulao – you name it. Most of it involves animal parts, which just makes it more delicious to me.
In any case, I’ve discovered that loving Muslim food and having a Muslim name is often also correlated with knowing how to cook Muslim food. On multiple occasions, I’ve had this conversation with friends/friends’ relatives:
Them: Arrey yaar Eid is coming haha you must make us chicken biryani.
Me: Haha yeah chicken biryani fo’ lyf but we’ll have to order it ‘cause I can’t cook for shit.
Them: Haha u kidding us right?
Given the fact that the most complex thing I can cook is Maggi (#BringItBack! #IDon’tCareAboutLeadPoisoning), I was most certainly not kidding.
Them: But isn’t that like a rite of passage for you guys? Like, don’t you learn how to cook chicken biryani when you’re like five years old or something?
I don’t know where this particular rumour sprung up, but believe me, you guys, there is no unwritten rule that every Muslim family must teach its children to cook biryani before they grow up because it’s a part of their important cultural legacy and they must learn it because they become attracted to other food like, ugh, those soya koftas.
I’ve had this conversation with far too many people, and it always ends the same way: with them getting unreasonably angry.
Them: What do you mean you can’t cook koftas and kebabs and biryani?! What kind of Muslim are you?!
Me: … The kind that has trouble lighting the stove?
No seriously, the last time I tried to cook something beyond instant food, flesh was burnt, and unfortunately, it was mine. Now I’ve resigned myself to instant food.
But not instant biryani. Because that’s sacrilege.
- The “Go to Pakistan, you bloody Paki!”
This conversation starts either of two ways: you can either discuss religion and secularism, or you can discuss cricket.
#1 usually involves someone who has way too much saffron in his closet. This is usually how this conversation goes:
Random Saffron Samaj-wala (RSS): Arrey yaar but why can’t you call yourself Hindu all Indians are Hindus na, Swamiji said so.
Me: (Tries to explain complex identities and how adoption of one label has a larger effect regarding minority identity in the long run.)
RSS: Arrey but Hindu = Indian aren’t you proud of India lolz.
Me: (Tries to explain how words that may have had one meaning earlier now may connote different things).
RSS: Lol you chutiye you hate India go to Pakistan you fuckn Paki.
#2 involves something far simpler:
Rabid Cricket Fan (RCF): Shit dammit man the Indian cricket team is doing so badly.
Me: (as cavalier as only someone who gives precisely 0.00002 shits about cricket – or any sport – can be) Hmmm, accha?
RCF: What is wrong with you, why don’t you like cricket, hamare desh ka khel hai, the Indian cricket team is god, you must be a Paki go to Pakistan and do terrorism idiot.
(Note: The closest I’ve ever been to terrorism is when we were nearly caught in the 2008 Delhi blasts. And, I swear upon every type of food there is that I was not the one screaming “Allah-u-Akbar!” and lobbing the explosives. I was thirteen. Muslim kids don’t even start learning how to make explosives until they’re fourteen.)
(Note#2: Please don’t take that seriously and put me in jail. I am most definitely not a terrorist. Yaar, haath se cutlets nahin bante, bomb kya banega?)
One particular incident (apart from the two mentioned above – those’re all over Facebook) comes to mind, and of course it involves Gujarat. I was having a spirited discussion about the Godhra riots with some of my contemporaries who firmly believed that the riots were a good thing and had put “Muslims in their place”.
Bigoted Communal Acquaintance: But these Muslims have caused so much trouble, they even tried to kill Modi! Look at this Ishrat Jahan!
Me: … Dude, that was a fake encounter. She was murdered.
Bigoted Communal Acquaintance: No, how can you say that, do you believe in all the lies the media feeds you, god you’re such a Paki, go to Pakistan and be a terrorist if that’s what you want!
I don’t know why terrorism accusations go hand-in-hand with being from Pakistan, but they do. It’s almost like we believe that a country with 182 million people is composed of nothing but people with suicide vests tied around themselves, just waiting to barge into India and detonate themselves in the name of Allah. They couldn’t possibly have any doctors or lawyers or frustrated teenagers blogging about their life and talking about how the world is totally out to get them.
- The “Dude, I’m totes cool with you and your Muslimness”
On the other end of the scale are the people who are so sensitive about religion and communalism that they try extra-hard to be nice to you and totally assure you about how communal they are not.
I appreciate the support, I really do, you guys. It just gets a little weird when this conversation starts, and I’ve never encountered any Muslim who hasn’t experienced it before.
Me: (trying to do some normal thing like buying food at Dunkin’ Donuts)
Cashier: Name, please.
Me: (states my very Muslim name)
Person standing behind me in line taps me on the shoulder. After looking around:
Random Secular Person Who Knows It And Isn’t Afraid to Say It (RSPWKIAIATSI): Dude, I just wanted to let you know that I, like, totally think the Godhra riots were super-wrong and all this communalism bullshit is such bakwaas, you know?
Me: … Thanks, Dude I Have Never Ever Seen Before?
RSPWKIAIATSI: Yeah, and all this Modi-shodi business is so stupid yaa and all this communalism is such total bullshit I mean ugh you guys should get the freedom to worship and live your lives in comfort and everything yaa.
Me: (trying to inch past him with my burger) Haha yeah I guess it is pretty weird. Well, see you!
RSPWKIAIATSI: (places hand on heart) Just know that whenever some kind of bullshit like this happens, my people will be there to stand behind your people. (stares at me intensely)
Me: (sweating nervously) Hehehe okay bye! (escapes)
See, I get why this is really sweet, and I’m glad that so many of you genuinely believe in religious equality and freedom of religion. I just wish you didn’t feel the urge to shout your belief at every unsuspecting minority that walked past you. I’ve had this conversation in buses, in restaurants, in airplanes, and perhaps most mortifyingly, in a mall bathroom when I desperately needed to pee. I get why this conversation is incredibly important and why majority support for freedom of religion is essential in a democracy and why encouraging conversation about this will bring more people out of their bigoted shells, but all this kind of slips my mind when I’m jumping from foot to foot, surreptitiously trying to slip into the nearest bathroom.
So yes, secular friends: Thank you. I appreciate everything you’re doing. Just… maybe a hello would be nice before we embarked on a deep spiritual talk about What It Means To Be Truly Secular. Let’s save the conversation for after I’ve relieved my bladder.