By Satish Chandra
“Do you know Urdu?” asked a fellow-passenger on noticing me reading an Urdu magazine in topsy-turvy position. It was in the Coimbatore Express train that we both boarded from Mumbai. During a very long train journey, like the one taking 24 hours from Mumbai to Banglore, Indian passengers eventually loosen up for small talk and exchange of snacks. After all, how much can one read/write and stare at the changing panorama of life out of the windows.
His curiosity was natural as I was figuring out an Urdu calligraphy in a circle. I told him that I had learnt Urdu from my grandfather nearly 60 years ago. The man being in his twenties had no idea of such bonds existing even in India two generations ago. Not feeling satisfied, right away he asked for my name. He was quiet afterwards on this topic as he was convinced that Satish Chandra could not be the name of a Muslim.
Urban Hindus, by and large, do not display their religious identities. In contrast, a growing number of Muslims of every age group are seen wearing skull-caps, long overalls and flowing beards with/out shaved moustache. It was not that much noticeable in the past years. Of course, adult Muslim women are seen in full burqas. I wear a French beard with moustache but shave the area above the chin and below the lip.
Urban Hindus, by and large, do not display their religious identities. In contrast, a growing number of Muslims of every age group are seen wearing skull-caps, long overalls and flowing beards. It was not that much noticeable in the past.
The conversation is associated with a general belief that only the Muslims study Urdu language that historically grew out of Hindi written in Arabic/Persian script. Such a divisive thinking reminded me of a scene in a recent movie on the life of Mirza Ghalib. He was a great poet and far greater a liberal Muslim during the reign of the last Mughal Emperor of India, in the 19th century. In the movie scene, Ghalib quipped to his Hindu and Muslim friends since when barfi sweet became Hindu and jalebi sweet, Muslim? He ridiculed a classification of candies on the basis of religion!
Within a week, a second identity encounter took place in a pearl jewellery showroom at Bangalore airport. I was the lone customer browsing around the showcases before the flight to Mumbai. Pearls always fascinate me. Most salesgirls are good at reading the personality profiles of their customers. On inquiring the origin of the pearls on display, a small conversation ensued and suddenly a salesgirl started praising my Urdu accent! That raised my alarm guards as I was specifically examining a unique pearl set with a red coral rose and two green jade leaves around it in the necklace and ear-rings. My wife loves anything that looks like a rose.
My mind was made up for buying it. The salesgirl sensed it too, but was somehow convinced that I was a Muslim! Knowing the tremendous margin of profit in this business, I asked her for discount before making an offer. On her telling that none was given, I countered it to buy the set at 25 per cent discount. Immediately, she started fiddling with her calculator and finally agreed to sell at 20 per cent for my being a Muslim. I told her that I was not a Muslim. She and her fellow salesgirl refused to believe my words. In a playful mood, I said how about giving me 25 per cent discount, if I proved that I was not a Muslim? She then blurted that I got 20 per cent in the first place for being a Muslim.
It was an amusing moment for me; not a deja vu. I had encountered this situation in Ambala Cantonment nearly 25 years ago! In order to not let down a beaming face in a function, I had said ‘yes’ to a question from a young man, that I was a Muslim. My wife also remembers it. We had since several rounds of arguments and discussion on it.
However, here I pulled out my photo ID. The girls held it in their hands and kept gazing at it in disbelief! I could read the magic of ethnic identity from their faces. They still wanted my advice on good Islamic literature! I wrote on a piece paper about a monthly magazine, the Islamic Digest. Nevertheless, I must leave a life-time impression on them once they get hold of this magazine. Only six days earlier, I had bought a copy of the Islamic Digest from a railway bookstall to brush up on my Urdu. I myself had not heard of it before!
It is of paramount importance to know one’s identity and be proud of it. Living up to its potential is nothing but self-realisation. But foisting symbols of ethnic identities is a different game. In the post 9/11 era, the symbols that unify one ethnic group, the same symbols can send signals of fear and intolerance to the other ethnic groups.