Why is it that the moderates and the liberal minded among the Muslim middle class do not write and speak more frequently to put matters in perspective in a world that is increasingly becoming bigoted towards them? This perception is based on my response to newspaper editorials and television debates, as well as mainstream everyday discourse. I feel so because it has become almost obligatory for Muslims to put their liberal cards on the table to overcome what has developed into universal censure. Within this context, Rakshanda Jalil’s new book is timely and unerringly appropriate, as she says: “Far from camouflaging my identity, I want to celebrate being an Indian and being a Muslim. And I wish to do so in the only way I know—through my writings.” Jalil belongs to the middle class, virtually wiped out during Partition, a class India needs to recognise and respect.
But is that possible at all? Jalil raises questions whether the polarisation between India’s two major religious communities, as depicted in films, allows at all for one’s perception to change. What of the fashioning of public discourse replete with stereotypical images of beef-eating Muslims desecrating Hindu sentiment; the conscious build-up of outrage at the crowds that fall into prayer on streets every Friday; or the nefarious Muslim plans to ensnare Hindu girls as part of a “love jihad”— all this, and much more, has squared up with a certain ‘otherness’, now firmly ascribed to the Muslim community.
Jalil’s book is a collection of essays linked with the themes of the vilification of Muslims who chose not to go to Pakistan, their ghettoisation in India and the construction of the environment of Islamophobia. There are also other “less serious” topics of interest extending to her childhood, her extended family, feast days, women’s education and Muslim culture in general, which I suspect are placed in the middle of the book to invite readers to partake of the pleasures of an ordinary Muslim household, to visualise and celebrate difference, not otherness. And so, Jalil provides picturesque details of the ingress of the ubiquitous tomato and the appearance of large quantities of zeera or cumin into conventional Muslim kitchens where once seasonal vegetables and gharelu dawats were the order of the day. Other light-weight essays reminisce of Begum Akhtar’s extraordinary ghazals, and her popularisation of the thumri and dadra, which have the power to send one scurrying to one’s own antique collection of records, to relish that yesteryear’s guttural voice again.
The tempo of the next section on Urdu writing veers from this remarkably lazeez reverie to build up a case for how Urdu lives on in the hearts of many. Jalil presents short essays on Shakeel Badayuni and Ahmad Suroor, both from Badayun, the former who resisted the temptation of revolutionary poetry through romanticism even as his contemporaries — Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Jan Nisar Akhtar and Sahir Ludhianvi — were riding high on the crest of the Progressive Movement; and the latter who revived Iqbaliyat, and thereby literariness, at a time when Iqbal was being chastised as an anti-national. Urdu’s all-seasonal contribution to the socio-political currents of the time are evident when Faiz predicts that the path to freedom would be bloody and bitter: “Woh intezaar tha jiska, yeh woh sehr toh nahi”; or when Sahir Ludhianvi writes:
Jung to khud hi ek masla hai
Jung kyun maslon ka hal degi.
It is a paradox indeed that music, art and literature, which are most vulnerable to ideological manipulation are also most open to “mixed marriages” between many dialects and cultures. So it is that both Ram and Sita are celebrated in Urdu yak-qafiya just as the Urdu baramasa draws upon the popular Hindavi traditions.
Clifford Geertz writes how culture is a mosaic of “the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” In her endeavour to tell her stories of Muslim culture, Jalil opens the doors beyond religion onto a syncretic and composite culture that is India. She poses the question: “Does my being a Muslim make me different from others, to the extent of constituting a threat to the idea of being Indian?” “I sincerely hope not,” she answers. To the conundrum whether she is an Indian Muslim or a Muslim Indian, I think the answer is clear. The racist undertones in the puzzle posed in the title of the book itself brings home the urgency of a counter discourse to the common attitude of turning the Muslim into the other. The book overturns this stereotype in order to set the course towards a broad and liberal culture of seamless coexistence.