Rakhshanda Jalil’s new book, But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim, bursts the bubble of stereotyping. In conversation with Saimi Sattar, the author talks about a plethora of issues including what ails the community
But you don’t look like a Muslim,” is a phrase which any liberal follower of Islam can certainly expect to hear at least once, if not several times during the course of her life. If you ask, “What am I supposed to look like?”, the person more often than not beats a hasty retreat. However, the reason that the phrase has been taken out of everyday life and makes an appearance in writing is because as a shared resonance, it is the title of Indian writer, critic and literary historian Rakhshanda Jalil’s latest book.
The 40 essays in her book under the four broad topics of identity, culture, religion and literature were written over a long period of time where some were commissioned, others were in the nature of academic papers, some others she wrote or read at seminars. “These were tweaked to suit the tone and tenor of the book. The chapter on Jamia, for instance, was written right after the Batla House encounter. One can discern a thread that runs through all of them,” says the author whose book on the lesser-known monuments of Delhi, Invisible City, is a bestseller.
Rakhshanda, who has also worked on translations of books by well-known names like Krishan Chander, Ismat Chughtai, Shahryar and Intizar Husain, says that the idea of the book is to break down the stereotypes that surround the community, especially the one that imagines the Muslims to be a monolith. “A lot of people have written to say that it strikes a chord as they have heard this all their lives. Of course, there is the benign form where you are just calling out stereotypes, that you don’t look like a Sikh or a Tamil. And then the slightly less benign ones, where that remark comes from two positions. It is supposed to be a compliment and the subtext then is ‘if only all Muslims were normal like you, we wouldn’t have a problem.’ But I want to ask, ‘How do you know what is in my heart?’ What is an appearance supposed to tell?” she asks.
“Everyone seems to think that all Muslims are cut from the same cloth. My section on my nani and the other gharara wearing ladies of UP would be very different from a Muslim of Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu or Rajasthan. In my section on travel, where I talk about my visit to Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, I have highlighted that religion does not mean a shared commonality,” she says.
And it is in this attempt to break down the stereotypes that she mentions in the book’s afterword, “This collection of essays — of varying lengths on vastly different topics — is in the nature of a celebration. It is akin to opening the doors of my house and saying: Come in, come and see who I am. Celebrate my festivals, relive my memories travel with me, share my doubts and dilemmas.”
Sitting in her well-appointed house in a gated enclave in a tony South Delhi colony, Rakhshanda tries to break down the walls of otherisation, in housing, culture, education and more that seem to have become the norm in the country by what she knows best, the power of her words. “There are two Delhis. This complex for babus is crazy — the street lighting is solar powered and there are three different ways to manage waste. If it can be done here why not for the rest? Jamia, where I stayed before, there is a cordon sanitaire that defines and discriminates between Pocket A of New Friends’ colony and Zakir Nagar. The two are divided by a narrow street but when it comes to street lighting, garbage retrieval and civic facilities they could be different worlds. We need to talk about these things and address that communalisation, discrimination and othering is a fact of life. Once we accept it, then we can move forward,” she says waving her hand and without a touch of rancour in her voice.
Neither does Rakhshanda shy away from any issue, nor does she desist from calling a spade a spade. “Muslims wear it as a chadar of victimisation. There are ways and means to bring this otherisation to notice which is possible only if you are educated. On the other hand, it harms not just the community, but the nation at large as these communally charged ghettoes are waiting to explode. Why create them in the first place?”
Parts of her book reminisce a softer, gentler and almost Nehruvian time where people looked out for the other and at the same time were more in touch with nature. The descriptions of white chandnis being spread out during summer nights or earthen matkas tied with garlands of mogras (Arabian jasmine) are sure to invoke nostalgia for anyone growing in times where air-conditioners rarely made an appearance in offices, leave alone homes. The reference brings a genuinely warm smile to her face as she seems to be looking back. “I did grow up in a family where my parents admired Nehru and we were told things like don’t leave the tap open as there is a drought in Orissa or in UP people travel long distances to fetch water. I am sure this was a pan-Indian phenomenon as was Nehru. Why have we, as parents, stopped telling our children to finish the food on their plate? Partly, it is consumerism, partly it is the global effect where it is okay to throw things. Nehruvian India was not such a bad thing as it looked out for smaller people to weave a narrative which was kinder and softer,” she says.
Coming back to the present, she points out that while earlier this otherisation would peak during a cricket match or a war during Pakistan, it has now become the new normal. “In everyday discourse, we never used words like Hindu or Muslim. The tone was also set by newspapers who used words like one community. Now we use our religion all the time. It took me a long time to say, ‘Woh Hindu hain,’ because it was not done. The idea of a secular society was that you could be religious without broadcasting it,” she says and goes on to describe how even though she grew up in a home with practising Muslims, people did not make a big deal about it. “Log khamoshi se namaaz padhne chale jaate the,” she says. Incidentally, even though it is Ramzan, she is not fasting due to a health condition, which in no way violates the tenets of the religion.
She laments the drastic change. “In 70 years we should have evolved and matured in a direction that these differences should not have mattered. It should have been a given that we are a plural, multicultural society. The communal outrages of 1947 should have been an aberration,” she says and is quiet for sometime before going on to add that this did seem to be happening during the 50s and 60s when the talk was about unity and pluralism.
“The kind of division that began happening from the 1990s, where 1992 was the watershed point and things began to change for the Indian society, was not for the better. All the progress and development cannot take away from the fact that we are a more toxic society today,” she says.
She explains that pluralism could also be witnessed in films but at the same time these perpetuated stereotypes. “The affable Afghans or an upright policeman were fringe characters and never mainstream like a banker, a teacher or something that the great majority of Muslims do,” she says and goes on to add that the industry did exemplar service in keeping Urdu alive as the lyrics of songs as well as the dialogues were in Hindustani.
However, when it comes to words, she points out to a much-abused one that has lost its relevance — Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb. “I hate to repeat it as this has been repeated so often that it has lost its meaning. In UP where it actually existed, it no longer does as the State has become polarised,” she says, dressed in a dark blue jeans and a kurta.
Another fallout of this is that the liberal Muslim voice is being boxed in. “We have become silent. The attitude is kya faraq padta hai? The Muslims are completely marginalised. Did the Muslims ask for the tokenism, which the right wing has called appeasement, like the Haj subsidy, and justify this for the discrimination they practise? It was paid to keep the national carrier, Air India afloat. Islam is very clear that only those who can afford should go for Haj. So there should be voices from within the community that articulate that we never asked for it and don’t want it. Similarly issues like like triple talaq and all need not go to the Supreme Court too and the community needs to resolve it on their own,” she says.
The community comes in for its fair share of criticism as well. Rakhshanda, who started her career at the Khalsa college and went on to work with Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Milia Islamia, points out, “Muslim institutions are very insular. They don’t want to look out. They need to engage more with the world. They can’t just have mushairas and ghazal evenings. Why can’t you have a mainstream event? Khalsa too was a minority institution but the Muslim ones are inward looking.”
It is in such a scenario that she feels that there is a lack of leadership among the Muslim community. “The people who are treated as leaders by the government are nothing more than caricatures as they turn up at every do in full costume like jokers. People like us are not photogenic enough as we are too normal. And it is these people who are considered to be our representatives,” she says, shaking her head.
Given her stance, it is not surprising that the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid has come in for criticism in her book as well as when you talk to her. “Neither is he an alim (scholar of Islamic law) nor a hafiz (one who has memorised the Quran). And when was the position of an imam a hereditary one?” she questions and adds, “He certainly does not have the stature of Maulana Azad, who was an alim.”
She believes that for the middle class Muslims in India, it is education that is of primary importance. She also expresses her angst about the fact that not many from the community apply for government jobs or avail government schemes. “Why this ennui? Why this lethargy? It might be because of some nonsense coming from jaahil (illiterate) imams (one who leads congregational prayers).”
She believes 70 years after the creamy layer of Muslims migrated to Pakistan, India does have a substantial middle class of the community. “My book is targetted at them.We think we are a minority, but we aren’t. We are in fairly large numbers across the cities and towns. And the average Muslim middle class wants what the middle class all over the world does — better jobs, housing, education and civic facilities.”
But having said that, she does not agree with the approach that the community has adopted of keeping their head down and working towards economic betterment in the face of the militant right wing. “Is it good? What does keeping your head down do to the morale and the spine of the largest minority in the country? It is all very well for a stop gap measure but if this was to become our fate forever and ever, I do not see it as a good way of living. I wouldn’t want to tell my two daughters to do that. I agree Muslims should also not react. But at the same time, you cannot say lynchings or mob attacks are normal and you cannot. In the past few years we have witnessed events which are not normal but attempts are being made to normalise them. They happen so often now,” she says as she trails off.
She says that the otherisation is powered by fear and distrust. “Once I asked someone if he knew a Muslim or if he had been to a Muslim home. When he replied in the negative, I invited him to mine. Only when you go to a person’s home, eat with them or stay with them you realise that there is nothing to be afraid of,” says Rakhshanda as she signs off. Clearly the author and the person are cut from the same liberal cloth.