Minority Thoughts

09 Nov

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?


Posted by on November 9, 2007 in Life, Personal


10 responses to “Minority Thoughts

  1. prasun

    November 9, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    I am a “male, Hindu, upper class, upper caste, urban Indian” but you know what, I’m also a diku (outsider) in Ranchi (even though I spent my entire life there) a hindi-speaking northie in Bangalore and a job-stealing Indian in the US.
    So, yes, I fully agree with the point you are trying to make

  2. Ahsan Zawar

    November 10, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    It almost showed the bitter side of the world that we live in…Though iam a muslim Pakistani male living in Karachi …but for various reasons of sect and caste i have been treated as a minority … The funny thing about being a minority is that your observations gets double and you start puttin sense and logic to most of the things earlier than ur mates… Its hard to spend most part of ur life on backfoot trying to defend wat u r with a bizzare thought that people will continue to streotype u….

  3. Archikins

    November 10, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    “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.”

    I can see that becoming a quotable quote!

    Well said, and resonates (as do many of your posts) with my thoughts. It baffles me that we cannot look at each other and say/think – oh there’s another human rather than the subconcious note of skin color and all the stereotyping characteristics that go along with it.

    I don’t know if we should feel proud about our deciphering capabilities or ashamed about our well developed and explicit caste system that Global Diversity: Winning Customers And Engaging Employees Within World Markets By Ernest Gundling, Anita Zanchettin brushes upon. Quote:

    “Indians are very proud of their regional or state identity. When two Indians meet for the first time, they often ask each other, “Where are you from?” even before they ask each other’s names. The reason is that each person immediately tries to do a quick cultural DNA scan of the other person and categorize his other personal traits based on the place of origin. The next step is to ask for a name. Very quickly, the last name or surname conveys some more cultural characteristics of this person. Indian last names, or surnames, more often than not, give away not only the likely state of origin but also the caste or sub-caste (not so much the class) background of the other person.”

  4. rAm

    November 10, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    what am i? a minority a majority??
    A telugu with considerable part of my life away from the land and community of birth, i was i guess a minority. but then i learnt the language the customs and the way of life. where today north indians mistake me to be a north indian.

    coming to my own feelings, i feel eqaully well in both the setups however, there are few moments when i get confused and fee l part of no one.

    but i can feel the difference,.. i feel at home in mumbai or delhi.. but when i am in the interiors of rajasthan or MP.. i am hmm an outsider..

    can i say i am being sterotyped?? am i trying to defend what i am?? yes and no. but is it a question i really want to know an answer? am I not responsible for this as much as others are?

  5. Gagan

    November 11, 2007 at 2:10 am

    This is fertile ground Amrita. Both yourself and Jawahara write so well on it. If I throw in my 2 bits its more a mish mash. early on In a rough part of London minority was something someone could remind you with their fists and boots. Still I made lot of friends there.And I can’t dish on all those working class yobbos in the UK cos I knew another side of them.
    Moving up in the world in a not great but not bad part of Canada it was still one of those oreo upbringings, probaly more so cos being good at sports lets u into places.

    I think the main schizophrenic thing is having an indian mother, cos u don’t really understand where the hell she is coming from but she plays such a large role in ur upbringing – anglo indians like Kunzru and kureishi may miss this with English mothers-

    Later spending an extended time in India it was strange as hell. All these young versions of your parents … i mean in the way of thinking that is. You start to get it. Then you bond. Some bonds stronger than others. After that you go back to ur western world and you’re just not the same person anymore. You can’t mock the accents, you get pissed off when people mispronounce your name in ways u did’nt before. You get a sense of the tribe. I mean in a good way. There are so many subtle ways that you’re left not quite feeling legit in western context- and most of it is wholly unintentional. At the same time I can’t feel the stupid loyalties indians may have. The communal ones. The north’s denigration of the south and the other way around, muslim hindu, hindu sikh, . I think its cos i met enough great examples of all those groups that I would feel like i was denying their existence, even when the temptation is there…ie being on the wrong end of it…so i guess i agree with mohsin hamid that tribes are important but then u can’t regress from a certain level of sophistication… i mean i no longer can get along with the punju pindu types cos i know how they think and it bores me…so i think there is a building community of people who think India first and not this or that group. it’s not small in absolute numbers but in relative numbers yes. So i understand completely how delhi could make someone whose roots are in the south feel like an outsider. still i think now that it’s important at some formative stage to know a place where you’re a majority. it gives you a little bedrock in all of those pale faces

  6. Amrita

    November 11, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    A big thank you to all of you who read this and a bigger thank you to those who left a comment 🙂

    Prasun – well, there you go! It’ll be interesting to see how things develop in the coming years as people begin to move about more and more and begin to settle down south, reversing the trend of the past 50 years when everybody was moving north.

    Ahsan – I hear you. I grew up thinking of Pakistan society as a monolith – and it wasn’t until I met Pakistanis in person that the thought came to me that hmmm, that’s not really possible anywhere.

    Archikins – you know, when my dad retired and moved us back to our hometown (he was sorry later but that’s another story 🙂 ) I realized that people around me were so super sensitive to stereotypes that they’d somehow learned to peg a person’s region, religion, caste and economic status on sight. Their ability to pick up non verbal cues was a little scary. I got sidelong looks for a whole year until I showed up one day with a little tika on my forehead and my teachers (!) went: “Oh you’re a Hindu!” Thanks for the link!

    Ram – I can relate. I feel at home in the cities but the moment you put me in rural settings, I might feel comfortable (or not depending on the people around me and how welcome they make me feel) but I feel distinctly out of place. And I recently realized its because city living has turned me into a mongrel of sorts where I have taken on bits and pieces of other people’s cultures and added it to my parents’, which inevitably “diluted” it. So it’s not really the rural scene that makes me feel out of place, it’s the fact that I don’t identify with a non-cosmopolitan setting. Which makes me wonder what “home” means to me.

    Gagan – that’s fascinating (and LOL @ the mom thing). I think what you said there at the end is key. At some point, even if I didn’t think of it that way, I have been part of some majority or the other. And that does give you a certain kind of security.
    I don’t know how I would have felt if I’d been born outside of India or in Jawahara’s position, perhaps I would have felt like Ahsan above – but as things stand, it is true that my identity has never been questioned the way I have seen Jawahara’s for example. (Maybe my readers are nicer? 🙂 ) The odd time or two someone has issued a challenge of sorts, it’s been because they thought I was part of this or the other minority, which sort of carries out Jawahara’s point doesn’t it?
    And yes, there is a building community of people who think India first – and I couldn’t begin to tell you how happy that makes me.

  7. Jawahara

    November 19, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    I had commented on here earlier but for some reason that comment never showed up. A conspiracy? 😉

    Anyway, here’s what I remember from what I wrote. FIrst of all, I really enjoyed reading your take on this topic. Very well thought out and well written.

    “Because I’ve never thought the reverse – of myself as a majority in India.”

    I think that was the point of ‘un-awareness” that I was talking about. The majority never has to think of itself as such, but the minority in some ways is defined by being the other, by being “not the majority,” in some sense. Strangely, this is one reason that I’ve found some Hindus from India being more surprised and taken aback at suddenly losing that unawareness when they are confronted with being a minority in the U.S.

    Also, I never intended for the multiplicity of selves and identities to be lost in this Hindu-Muslim world view. Of course, there are other selves within me (ok, I am not schizophrenic…just sayin’), the short, cow-belt origin, non-vegetarian in many vegetarian settings, Hindi speaker in South Indian settings (and now a S. Indian family)fat in a size 8 world person exists as well. Some of those are minority selves, some are not, depending on where I am and who I am with.

    But I have to say all the experiences of those other selves kind of pales beside the Hindu-Muslim divide. I am thinking about writing about that aspect as well, just to be fair.

    Of course, strangely enough, I feel more of an outsider in most Muslim groups than I do in most Hindu groups. And, in fact, apart from my family, the only Indians I regularly interact with are Hindus…or lapsed Hindus.

    Ok, now I am clearly sounding like an anti-social freak…well, okay I am, mainly because I over-think everything. So, ciao, and hope the eye heals well.

  8. Amrita

    November 19, 2007 at 3:11 pm

    J – hmmm, usually it means there’s a link in the post and it’s being held for moderation but if you havent put a link in and it doesnt show up then it means there’s some sort of ghotala 😀
    Fair enough about the unawareness – i was reading a few articles last week on whiteness (because of that article on DC actually) and i’d never really applied it to my own case before because i didn’t think it really fit the model so to speak but the unawareness is something that struck me.
    as a minority in the US, i didn’t especially connect with either whites or blacks although each would include me in certain ways and exclude me in others. i think class was what really spoke to me in america, more than race. which is true of my indian experience as well so go figure.
    And no I didnt think you intended for “multiplicity of selves” (nice) to be lost – i’ve been reading you for a while now after all 😀 this is just something that struck me about my experience as i was reading yours.
    Interesting about your Hindu-Muslim experience. do you think it’s because you were surrounded by the majority which was Hindu? I find myself surrounded more by white people than any other color (including brown)

  9. Jawahara

    November 19, 2007 at 6:50 pm


    Gosh that was fast. Hmm…perhaps it was being surrounded by a largely Hindu world that led to that. Also because sadly I always found myself on the opposite side of every typical Muslim issue. I guess in India (despite some issues) I never thought of Muslims as being that different, at least the ones I knew. Coming to the U.S., I met some and was blown away by how vast the gap was between them and me. After I met someone who considered secularism a dirty word I gave up the ghost completely.

    But I suspect there are more hidden, more complex and soul-searching reasons as well. I must explore them sometime….

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