I get many questions about my religion. Or more accurately, about how it is that I am and can be the person I am, the way I am, and still call myself a Muslim.
Being and living in India you get asked a lot of questions. Everyone is curious. Everyone wants to slot you into a pigeon hole because that makes life easy for them. They have a mental lexicon, thesaurus and library ready and waiting to absorb more statistics but not newer words, definitions or suggestions. I almost never make into any predefined category. I don’t meet the standards for certain labels to be pinned onto me. And I am the worst candidate for a pigeon hole position, be it race, creed, sexuality or preferences. Of course there are some exceptions such as gender, date and place of birth etc. But you know that is not the sort of decategorising I am discussing here.
When I ask people in India where they are from, they tell me about the place they grew up in. Where they studied, lived, made friends, went to college- that sort of thing. Despite this being the expected response I still wonder why they did not understand what my question was aimed at. I didn’t ask where they did all that, I asked where they were from. India is a casserole nation. There is a little bit of everything everywhere so flavours are ripe and rampant. From Biharis in Bombay to Nagas in Nellore, Malayalees in Mangalore to Gujaratis everywhere, Indians just cannot and do not stay put. I love that about this country. But ask them where they are from and the response you are most likely to receive will not have much to do with their origins and ethnicity, which, was really my question in the first place.
Now this is not exactly a problem. A little clarification and explaining usually gets me my answer. But then they ask me where I am from and that is where the trouble starts. I am from everywhere. I don’t mean that in some holistic, existential manner- I really have been in so many places that it is hard to pinpoint exactly where I am supposedly from. (By ‘from’ I am assuming they mean where I have spent the most time, studied, lived, worked, where family resides etc.) So I just reply logically and say I am Iranian because those are my roots despite the fact that neither my parents or I were not born there, nor did we live there too long, nor do I look strikingly Persian, nor do I speak the language fluently and I certainly do not wear the traditional hijab of Shi’ite Muslim women.
‘Muslim? Oh why didn’t you just say that in the beginning?’
Why? Because that is the religion I was born into. It is not where I am from. Muslims are people who follow Islam and they are everywhere. They do not originate from one place.
It’s so simple but, people do not get it. I just say ‘ I’m Muslim’ and that supposedly answers everything including the question that was asked and those that weren’t. Suddenly there is no relevance to where I am from, where I was born, studied, worked or lived. By saying I am Muslim, I have declared myself as a migrant in this so called democratic but realistically Hindu land. I am a migrant, an invader and a minority. They don’t say it. They don’t need to. I get it just like all the other millions of Muslims in India get it. That one word is all that is needed to earn us the label. The wary category. The infamous pigeon hole.
Yesterday I happened to go to this website: http://www.anniezaidi.com/ and what Annie Zaidi had to say, one must listen to. I resonated with much of what she had to say but nothing as much as this:
‘You see, I don’t like most organised, violent groups, especially if all members come from the same religion. I am afraid of fanatics. I don’t like aggression or imposition.
I don’t like most preachers. But I see the need for priests and preachers. I am annoyed by tradition. I follow tradition. I break rules. I know the rules. I don’t like violence. I am surrounded by violence.
Am I Islamist? Am I Islamophobic?
Do I hate myself because I do not like organised religion, and yet, cannot find a way to break out of ties that depend on religious ritual?
Do I hate myself because I do not identify with organised religion?
Can I bring myself to hate those in my family who like the organised part of religion and who want to go strictly by the book?
What does faith have to do with any of this?
My faith is closer to sufi. Are sufis muslim?
Sufis did not like mullahs and mullahs did not like sufis. Are sufis Islamophobic?
My faith is selfish. My faith often does the disappearing trick. My faith is tender and fragile and unbreakable. It is plastic. It is solid. And I cannot bring myself to feel enthusiastic about ramzan. But I do not like Lord Ram or think of him as either a god or as ‘purushottam’. I do not like the word ‘Ram-janmabhoomi’. Does that mean I am Hindu-phobic?’
Annie Zaidi is a woman after my own heart. She is not a hardliner like Taslima Nasreen or Salman Rushdie who insist on libertarianism in their work but want to keep their links with the faith- not that I have a problem with that or anything. It’s just that in Islam fence sitting is as good or bad as not being Muslim at all. There is very little room for personalisation in this religion, sadly. Because like Zaidi, there is a lot about my religion that I cannot identify with and yet, so much that I cannot bear to divorce myself from completely. I think this is the curse of the modernised Muslim. We are a confused lot. We struggle internally on a daily basis. We have to form arguments in our heads well in advance should we be cornered and questioned and we need to be sharp enough to slip away cunningly from direct questions like, “are you doubting the word of the Prophet? Do you want to burn in hell? Don’t you know that you are not to question God”
There is so much fuss about it all. Islamists seem to have a lot of spare time on their hands because they manage to seek out individuals who have dared to have an opinion and hand out fatwas like candy. And for what? To kill in the name of God? What kind of God wills you to do that? And you say we are the religion of compassion? The pieces just do not fit.
What is this whole concept of Hell? Anyone who has lived a life will tell you that the worst sort of Hell exists right here. Pain, hatred, disease, sickness, intolerance, cruelty – we humans are the most demonic creatures that exist. We are the only species that kill their own for no reason at all.
My God is not a jealous or vengeful God. My God doesn’t seem to be as stupid to give us free will and then threaten us with horrible deaths if we do something that is ‘not allowed’. What sort of childish, playground headfuck is that? I find it incredulous that we attribute human qualities to God in the first place. It does not make sense. It just doesn’t. Not to me.
I want to tell all the people who question my faith and beliefs, ‘Why can’t I keep my faith to myself? Why do I have to share my beliefs with you? You’re not Annie Zaidi and you will probably not understand.’
The next time someone asks me where I am from I am going to do what she did:
‘Recently, in the waiting room at Gwalior, a young Punjabi girl – a schoolteacher – plonked herself down next to me, noticed my laptop and decided she wanted to get to know me.
She asked me, what are you?
I said, a writer.
She asked, no, but like, what are you?
I said, I told you… what do you mean by what?
She said, like, I am a Punjabi Hindu.
I said, like that, I am nothing.
She asked, what’s your name?
I said, Annie.
She said, are you Christian?
I said, no.
She said, but how can that be? It doesn’t make a difference to me, what you are, but you must be something.
I said, I am – writer, journalist… woman.
She said, but your family must be something?
I said, no.
She said, but everyone is something… born something.
I said, I don’t know.
She said, what do your parents say you are? What are they?
I lied. I said, if they were, they never told me, and I never asked.
She finally shut up.’