Caught in a Pitying Gaze
An endless wait for Kaifi's New India
By Saeed Naqvi
On his return from Pakistan some years ago, my brother Shanney made an observation which his JNU friends preserve as something of a gem. "Nice country," Shanney said thoughtfully. "But too full of Muslims." It pains me to reflect whether it would be possible to extract from Shanney a statement of such exquisite simplicity in the post-Gujarat context.
The spontaneity of what Shanney said is not a function of wit. It is the expression of his entire being, of which the Hindu-Muslim cultural strands are an organic part.
In Pakistan Shanney found himself shorn of the multiple identities which define all Indians: he was perceived as an uni-dimensional Muslim. He had grown up with Jatin, Raghu, Farid, Nasir, George, Rukhsana, Gillian. He found a total absence of non-Muslim names an unfamiliar, even disconcerting, context.
But after Gujarat and the high tolerance level in New Delhi for the atrocity? Mind you, Gujarat is not the only pain we carry. But all the other hurts, including Partition, we glossed over because the task at hand was an engaging one.
Wrote Kaifi Azmi in 1949: "Naye Hindustan mein ham/ nayi Jannat basaayen ge." (We shall build a new paradise in our new India.)
Imagine the pain Kaifi must have felt, as he groped his way on a dark night of the 1993 Bombay massacres, up the staircase leading to the apartment of his mentor and friend Ali Sardar Jafri. Jafri's Kemp's Corner apartment block was threatened by arsonists. Did you ever hear Jafri or Kaifi complain? Or take my friend Jawed Laiq who, along with his wife Bharati, held my hand one terrible night last week. His late father, Professor Nyyer Laiq Ahmad, was principal of Bombay's Elphinstone College in the '50s, a historian with a catholic vision. His mother was a Congress MLA and among the earliest delegates to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
During the Bombay riots Jawed found himself in the entrance hall of his Churchgate apartment building, elevators in front, the walls on either side lined with nameplates of the occupants, mostly owners. Rusted screws on old nameplates are difficult to pull out. Here was Jawed, candle in one hand, a screw-driver in another, diligently pulling out the nameplate, Prof N.L. Ahmad, so that arsonists and murderers may not find the way to his mother on the floor upstairs. Pulling out your father's nameplate must be like leaving a gap in the heart. But have you ever seen Jawed beat his breast? My daughter Farah, after eight years of education in the US, returned with a much prized immigrant visa, the stepping stone to the green card which opens the door to paradise for every young aspiring Indian, even those related to prime ministers.
One day Farah asked me if I could speak to Frank Wisner, then the American ambassador in New Delhi. A thought crossed my mind that my daughter was possibly exerting pressure on me to facilitate her transition from immigrant visa to green card. "No, no," she said. "On the contrary I feel extremely incomplete carrying an immigrant visa on my passport."
At least until then, the immigration department of the embassy of the US in New Delhi had never received such a request. Farah wished to surrender her immigrant visa which, she said, made her feel like she was keeping a dark secret. Since she was travelling to the US on a private visit in the next few weeks she wanted an ordinary visitor's visa. Oh, how proud my mother was of her grand-daughter's wonderful attachment to her Indian nationality.
The ironic twist to the story came years later. Farah began to work for Nirantar, an NGO dedicated to working among rural women. Returning from Banda, UP, by train one day she had her first rub with communalism. Being a social worker she was comfortable talking to the passengers, many of them women. They were average sort of people, not rich, not the poorest. At one station they all unanimously resisted into the compartment the entry of a family which was quite obviously Muslim, since the woman wore a burqa. Farah thought they had not been allowed to enter because the compartment was full until an anti-Muslim tirade picked up as soon as the train left the station. A kindly looking elderly man, noticing Farah's silence, offered her an apple which she gently refused. "Lay leo bitiya, ham bhi to tumhare tarah Hindu hain, koi Mussalman to nahin hain." (Take the apple, daughter. After all I am also a Hindu like you, not a Muslim.)
Notice the irony? Here is a Muslim girl who has proudly asserted her Indianness (the visa incident), faced with the first signs of prejudice against her community. Has anyone heard Farah rue her decision? The other day our youngest daughter, Zeba, visits her gynaecologist in New Delhi. The nurse announces her name, muttering loudly enough for all to hear. "Where have these Muslims come from?" Zeba's bewilderment has to be seen to be believed.
Why, remember when my wife and I hunted for a house in Delhi. Ultimately, Kuldip Nayar, my resident editor then, intervened to get us a house in South Extension in the '60s. We did not make much of it.
Every now and again my uncle sighs when he talks of Mir Taqi Mir's grave in Lucknow. Mir would be to Urdu what Wordsworth was to English literature. A rail track cuts right through the spot where Mir's grave would have been. Just imagine how Bengal would have reacted to such desecration of Tagore's memory. But have we said anything?
Voiceless wailing has no audible amplitude. During the ongoing, continuous, Gujarat massacres and pogroms, choreographed I presume by Ahmedabad as well as Delhi, the mobs destroyed the grave of Wali Dakhini. Dakhini comes from Deccan because legend has it that Wali was born in Aurangabd but lived all his life in Ahmedabad and Surat. He was Urdu's first great poet, rather like Chaucer in English. "Koochai yaar, ain Kashi hai/ Jogia dil wahan ka basi hai." (My beloved's neighbourhood is like the holy city of Kashi where the yogi of my heart has taken residence).
Oh, how I used to show off the fact of my being an Indian Muslim. Statesmen, politicians, journalists, diplomats of every conceivable country (particularly from Pakistan) were constantly subjected to my original mantra: Indian secularism protects, among a billion others, the world's second largest Muslim population and every issue, including Kashmir, must be addressed keeping this fact in mind.
Just look what you have gone and done. In Gujarat you robbed me of my mantra. How will I cope with all those people I once confronted with rare self-assurance when they now fix me in a questioning, pitying gaze?