I’ve been in a chaotic state of mind for the past week or two, primarily because of two books that on the surface have barely anything to do with each other but in which I found certain themes that intersected. They are, bizarrely enough, Yasmin Khan’s The Great Partition of India and Anupama Chopra’s King of Bollywood: Shahrukh Khan and the Seductive World of India Cinema (reviews forthcoming). History, politics and cinema – of course I could relate them!
And of course, this is going to be more than a bit choppy but let’s see if I can put a few of my thoughts into words.
The attempt to create homogeneous populations on the ground and the way cinema or rather Bollywood, the ultimate escape from reality on the subcontinent, became a direct challenge to that concept is what caught my eye as I read these two books together. Added to this was a post written by Jawahara Saidullah, about living life as a minority:
How would it be, for instance, if I became Ms. White or Ms. Hindu? It’s a powerfully seductive thought.
Here is my reality: I’ve never been part of the majority. I am an Indian Muslim and a brown person living in the West. I don’t how it is and what it is like not to be a minority. I don’t know how the majority would feel, does feel.
I know that my worldview, my reactions, even the way I see myself perhaps–consciously and unconsciously–is born out of my place in the world. This was not always so. I remember the first time I became aware of it. It was at school.
Funny thing about school, love it or hate it, it’s always the place where you first meet the life you’re going to live as an adult. The world is full of the kids you went to school with, just taller, with different accents, faces and ambitions. And sometimes, they appear in different permutations than the one you are used to.
On the one hand, I suppose I am Ms. Hindu. But here’s the thing about growing up as Ms. Hindu in India: it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. I guess it’s better than being Ms. Muslim in certain aspects (the law definitely takes better care of me) but there were always caveats. I might have been in the majority racially and religion-wise but there was always some sort of club that I missed out on.
For one thing, I was a South Indian growing up in the Northern heartland and no matter how well I spoke the language (which I both did and didn’t depending on the circumstances) or understood the culture, there was always going to be an element of “passing” involved. I was never one of Them in some mysterious, undefinable way no matter what I did.
I’m a person who mostly lives in her own head so this was a realization that crystallized rather late. I suppose I’d always been aware of it, but it wasn’t until my father’s best friend, a Malayalee who’s lived in Delhi for nearly 50 years, whose grown children not only live there but are married to Delhi-ites, confessed that he’s always felt like an outsider and that Delhi could never be his home, that it really struck home.
Here was a man who spoke Hindi like a native, whose friends, job, children were located there, his wife had lived and died in that city, there wasn’t a corner of it that he didn’t know like the back of his hand, he’d seen it evolve from a refugee town to an overcrowded metropolis, he hadn’t lived in Kerala since forever – and it wasn’t his home.
Something about living in Delhi made him feel like an outsider. And it’s not just him – I’m constantly running into people who feel out of place even though they fit into the local culture in so many other ways. The most famous example, of course, is the NRI who thinks of India as home even though s/he has spent their entire life abroad.
My memory of the India in which I grew up is one of homogeneity. In Delhi, I had exactly one Muslim classmate – we weren’t pals and he transfered to some school for gifted children in the fifth grade, I think, but I still remember his name (Asif) because he was the only Muslim kid I’d met in school. At home, there were my father’s friends – the ones he’d made at Aligarh Muslim University, yet another bit of homogeneity – but at school? Asif was it.
So religion-wise, especially considering the fact that my school was run by an ashram, we’re talking conformity city. Everybody sang hymns in the morning assembly and studied the Ramayana and the Mahabharata for Hindi class. We were also a South Delhi school, so it was a given that everybody there came from a certain class. And the couple of times some kid had the bad taste to mention caste, it emerged that they were Thakurs or some such, so I’m guessing most of the kids were upper caste. Certainly, in typical Delhi fashion, an increasing number of caste based jokes and epithets were flung around as we got older.
On the other hand, the school was run by Bengalis and the kids were primarily of Punjabi, Sikh, Sindhi and UP origin with a smattering of South Indians, mostly Tamilians with one or two Telugus and Malayalees and the obligatory Bengali (I’m talking about my batch here). Some of the kids were the children of wealthy industrialists, while others were white collar spawn and a big bunch were bureaucrat babies. (Alliteration yet!)
I don’t know what a male, Hindu, upper class, upper caste, urban Indian (or should that be male, Hindu, lower class, lower caste, rural Indian?) would be able to tell Jawahara but it seems to me that the “majority” of us are people who have to constantly find their feet in the shifting sands of Indian society. What often seems like the majority is merely a mob – one that has great power when it loses its collective head. But apply a little thought and it all fractures into a million fragments.
Rather fitting really, given that every human is unique.
Perhaps this is why I’ve never really thought of myself as a minority when it comes to race and the United States. Because I’ve never thought the reverse – of myself as a majority in India. I remember, I was once at a mall in Michigan with a couple of my (white American) friends. I got something to drink from the food court, paid for it, turned around and there was a sea of white in front of me. It was actually disorienting. For a second, I couldn’t break the whole into individual faces and I was sure I’d lost sight of my friends. One skipped heartbeat later, I saw my friends, one blonde, one brunette, waving at me from a table somewhere in the middle of that pale humanity.
Isn’t that how most of us live our lives?