Meanderings of a Female Atheist Muslim Indian: Samina Motlekar
This is a guest post by SAMINA MOTLEKAR: I come with baggage, with tags not all of my own making. I was born female, and as much as I want to be acknowledged as a person, I learnt early that it was pointless to deny so physical a part of my identity. I was born to Muslim parents, but that does not make me Muslim, a distinction that is unfortunately far too subtle for many minds to comprehend. Complacent in their own inherited identities, they pile on the labels smothering me into little boxes of their making. Female, Muslim, Indian - all accidents of birth. But not all of me is accidental. By age eleven, the idea of a deity in the sky, concepts of heaven and hell, were at best stories, at worst ramblings of deluded minds to me. Not for me the fence sitting of agnosticism. I was an atheist before I hit my teens, and my belief system has endured the trials and tribulations of time. Yet they call me Muslim.
I lived in denial too long. I fought these labels, but it was an unequal fight with the weight of an entire society’s moral authority stacked against me. No, I am not Muslim, I explained politely at first, and then with increasing levels of defensiveness and earnestness. Not even a cultural Muslim, I insisted never having liked the idea of associating culture with religion. No I do not go into raptures over Urdu poetry, or even comprehend anything more complex than a film song. I grew up on Yeats, Eliot and Larkin and Ghalib and the gazal are way beyond my skill level. It’s a vacuum in my learning, but then the world is vast, and if I choose to fill it up with learning from distant cultures, it is my prerogative. No I do not prance around in green shararas with shiny nose pins. Where I come from women wear saris and men lungis, but I have chosen for myself the comfort of jeans and skirts for ordinary working days. No my mother does not whip up biryani and haleem on a regular basis. I would be ten kilos heavier if she did. And maybe she would if she was from Hyderabad or Lucknow, where these dishes are staple. I was raised on a humbler diet of unpolished rice, fish curry and pulses and a festive occasion meant a freshly slaughtered chicken smothered in a coconut gravy. I do not adaab every morning or spout poetic Urdu. My mother tongue is Konkani, a hybrid, colloquial version of Marathi, and the abhangas of Tukaram resonate more with me than the early morning azaan, whose only purpose it seemed to me all through my childhood was to disturb my sound sleep.
The term cultural Muslim, I think is an insidious one, and I have thought long and hard before refusing to appropriate it to explain my atheist Muslim identity. Having been coined by eminent poets and thinkers, it has gained quite a bit of currency in recent times. I am sure they see a warped sort of wisdom in the argument, but to me it equates the culture of Muslims to the culture of North India, as if a love of the Urdu language and galouti kebab were qualifications enough to be a member of separate cultural club. As if the Muslims of Bengal were uncultured. As if further down south, in Maharashtra and Karnataka and Kerala, the uncultured Konkani and Malayali speaking lot that were born into Islam the religion, had no salvageable vestige of culture.
This is the same mentality that pervades the aman ki asha debates whose underlying basis is our cultures are so similar so we should be friends with Pakistan. I am all for being friends with all our neighbours, and there are many who are worthy of friendship. But is similarity a pre requisite for harmony? The very idea is fraught with chauvinism, its basis being the idea of our own cultural superiority. I have not much in common with the loud, happy go lucky, aggressive bhangra culture that popular cinema celebrates and seeks to define as the basis of our collective culture. I do not know this larger than life existence except through film. I do not judge this culture, but it is not mine and do not like the presumption that we are all like that only.
But even as I continue to deny my membership of the larger Islamic religious community or the North India based Muslim Cutural Club, I am constantly being bracketed by those around, by those who should know better. I do not live in a ghetto. My friends and acquaintances are supposedly educated, secular, forward looking people. Most I have known for years. They do not even realise how narrow their minds are, minds so conditioned by a lifetime of prejudice, by their own need for identity, that they fail to see the person in front of them.
A big deal is always made when spare ribs or glazed ham is ordered in a restaurant, with at least a few people reminding me that I don’t eat pork and making it clear that other dishes would be ordered for me. The fact is that at least half the other people at the table, or at any given gathering in the city do not consume pork products, but their abstinence is not accompanied by the kind of fuss I face. Also what remains ignored is the fact that I do not eat beef, mutton or any kind of red meat, and I am never singled out for this kind of attention when they choose to order boti kebabs. Then there are other enlightened souls who have gone so far as to endorse someone of Muslim origin with a, Oh, he/ she is so cool. He drinks and parties like us. This is a world of us and them where alcohol intake and ingestion of dead animals are marks of secularism, where a whisky swilling Jinnah would have been cool, for carving up a country is no crime here, and carving up a pork roast actually proves you are secular. This is also a world where a warm beer drinking Thackeray is called secular at heart, for didn’t he have a Muslim doctor. It is as if bad taste in alcohol makes him human and the presence of one Muslim physician excuses his constant rants asking other Muslims to go back to Pakistan.
It is in this world of warped values when a neighbour, a famous painter of nudes, who happens to have a name of Islamic origins, bestowed eight decades ago by his long dead Muslim parents, was described as spiritual and secular because he also knew the Gita. How many centuries will it take for his karma to matter and not his dharma? What if he only knew the Koran or the Bible or like me nothing at all? Is the value of that secularism diminished? What if like me one put more value on the works of Tolstoy or Germaine Greer or gasp Salman Rushdie, than in the moth eaten, outdated anonymous texts that pass for holy books? This would be too complex a dilemma for a society, that likes to make simple distinctions between the self and the other.
Too much is also made of our syncretic culture which almost always assigns virtue to co-option of the majority culture. In a much awarded film, I remember a scene set during riot time, where a man waits in his Muslim neighbour’s house to revenge recent killings. The missing man, we the viewer know, is innocent but all around his house are signs of his piety -crude stickers of mosques and frames filled with gilded Arabic letters and we, like the man waiting to kill now begin to doubt him. When he does return, we are told he has been to Shirdi to offer thanks and our would be assailant is deeply ashamed that he suspected such a man. Indeed the audience is led to believe that as a devotee of Saibaba, he is a good man. By conclusion, it suggests that a devotee of Allah may not necessarily be so pure of thought. What if this man was away at a mosque instead? Would his killing then be justified? The film does not suggest this but its equating of co opting the opposite religious belief as a sign of an enlightened attitude, leaves little room for people of deep faith or indeed for people like me with none.
It does not bother me so much, this ghettoisation where one is refused admission into a building on account of religion. These are not buildings I would want to live in anyway. These are not people I want to deal with in any case. It is when among the people I know and like I discover buried currents of extreme religiosity that I bristle. So many times prejudice is couched as a joke that it seems almost churlish to take offence. Terrorist jokes are not funny and especially not if directed at me or my family. And what am I to make of a casual remark that my spouse is now a regular Hajiali visitor by virtue of his association with me. I fail to find humour in this. Do I joke about you crawling to Siddhivinayak every Tuesday? I recognise that like me, you are probably a rational human being with no need of rituals to define your life. I expect the same courtesy. Treat me like a human being.
Most times these incidents are mere irritants, hurriedly dismissed in the face of more pressing concerns. Only once have I ever felt fear. Only once did the labels I tried so hard to unpeel, manage to stick. It is my own personal deep dark secret I have never spoken about. My personal shame, as if it was a molestation I was responsible for. It was in the wake of the Gujarat riots. I walked into the grocery store down the road one afternoon as I had done countless times before. It was the fancy kind that carried olive oil and peanut butter, and had pretensions of being a mini supermarket. At that hour it was empty. A portable black and white television was blaring in the background. It had violent images playing, and at first I paid no attention. Kaapo, Maaro. Cut, Kill. The words bounced around the empty store like bullets aimed at me. I understood rudimentary Gujarati and the message was clear. These Muslims have killed us. Its time to find and eliminate each one of them. And this is how to do it. I was scared to look but I did, and the fleeting visuals I saw were of violence- swords and trishuls and men with murder in their eyes. The shop owner engrossed in the contents of the film paid me no attention. I wanted to leave, but I was suddenly scared. It would have looked strange if I left midway, as if I was outraged or scared. So I bought a few items on my list and paid hurriedly, trying to keep my eyes off the television, which was now blaring its right-wing rhetoric right next to me at the cash counter. I walked back home too shocked for tears and never went to that shop again. I also never had the courage to tell anyone about it. Would they mock me for my petty fears? Would they think I was creating much ado about nothing? I buried the experience away.
What troubles me most about the incident was my response. Had any of my friends encountered this, friends without the baggage of a Muslim identity, they would have protested loudly, unafraid. They would have been seen as secular for it, even righteous. I however needed to be brave. Why did I feel fear when the correct response would have been outrage? The label I had tried so hard to shed had stuck to my skin and was scorching. Cultural, religious, foisted, inherited – whatever I may call it, the identity was mine. Since that day it continues to haunt me, lingering on the periphery of my consciousness like an uninvited friend. It continues to define me and I can no longer live in denial.
The only time when I am free of the constant pressure to define my selfhood has been in the west. I read about their prejudices in the media, but am yet to experience a single one. They do not care enough to ask me about myself. To most this may seem callous. For me it is liberating. They never ask me my religion, for they assume like themselves, I am enlightened enough to have a moral code of my own making. The colour of my skin or my eyes means nothing to them, does not define region or religion. Nor does my name, which is at best exotic, at worst difficult to pronounce. Their brimming tables are laden with foods of every persuasion- vegan, vegetarian, carnivorous, sugar laden, sugar-free and I am free to take it or leave it. I am never singled out for security checks at airports, but that I suspect may be a consequence of my being female, rather than any fair-play on their part. Other than this, they do not regard me as particularly female. Men do not sidle up to me on crowded subways. They do not judge me by the length of my skirt, but actually dare to delve into the depth of my intellect. They have their prejudices for sure, but luckily for me the one I have encountered most is the myth of the smart Indian, courtesy the Silicon valley software geniuses, and I am very happy to play along.
As a female Muslim atheist, this is the kind of society I want to live in. And I don’t want to have to cross the seven seas for a little bit of respect. I want it here, in this country I love despite itself, and from people I love, regardless of their beliefs. I want them to realise that what goes into my mouth is not as important as what comes out of it. I want them to hear what I say. It does not matter where I came from. What matters is where we are all going together.
(Samina Motlekar is a writer and advertising film producer from Bombay. She blogs at saminasodyssey.blogspot.in)