Of Shared Spaces and Experiences in Gujarat: Ayesha Khan
This is a guest post by Ayesha Khan
The other day, my brother dug out an old DD animation film on unity in diversity – Ek Titli, Anek Titli… We replayed it umpteen times in a fit of summer nostalgia, until we got all the lines correct. We ignored the political subtext. But only until it rebounded starkly on us, with the wails of a baby that had newly come in to the family. The little one foisted on us the first ponderous responsibility – finding him a name.
The family brief for me, aunt to a six day old nephew, and equally to childhood pal Vandana, who is soon-to-be aunt to a niece in US, was to think up names resonating a core Indian-ness, the Muslimness, the TamBram-ness (in Vandana’s case), with a universal appeal and encapsulating everything that is pious, lucky and great.
Questions stared back – What kind of name would encompass all this? What kind of space are we offering to the newborns? All the lifelong gyan of pluralism was on test. Pluralism has various shades of meaning – the salad bowl to melting pot, which nevertheless means different identities sharing space but with a dressing coated over, lending a distinct flavour to each individual ingredient as well the combine.
It turned the name finding into a tug of war where local culture/religious identities engaged with global appeal. At a more mundane level, a name may be just an identity tag that fills countless application forms in a lifetime. But it is also the most visible claim as well as mirror of experiences that the baby’s parents/family have.
The parents involved, my brother as well as Vandana’s brother, had prosaic, arranged, same-religion marriages, which ruled out all whacky, political, exotic or experimental choices like Misa, Apple, Brooklyn or a Hrehann. Another friend, a Malyalee married to Bihari, both Hindus, had named their son Rehan during the time of terror attacks few years ago, discounting the protesting friends and families that a Muslim name put the baby’s future at risk. A quick check followed to find how many of us actually share the differences – of language, caste, religion, nationalities, and ethnicities in our daily lives?
Clinging to notional roots, increasingly in urban spaces we hunt for sameness – the sameness of language, religion and caste. It is with practiced ease news-reports routinely describe neighbourhoods as Dalit dominated, Muslim dominated, a Roman Catholic apartment, the Brahmin Wada and so on. Growing up in Baroda and a three year stay in Ahmedabad later, the experiences as a Muslim single woman were none too enviable.
But one needs to underline that the difficulties faced by Muslims or those with mixed marriages in finding homes or schools in non-Muslim neighbourhoods is no longer limited to Gujarat. If not your religion, what you eat can put you at a disadvantage – being a non-vegetarian, a gorger of tamasic grub, pitches you much lower than the rest of the hoi polloi. It becomes most palpable in Gujarat as it has institutionalized the differences. In the days of JNNURM funded urban development it there are ghettos not only of Muslims, but also of Dalits, the Patels, the Bharwards, the Rabaris and so on. Earlier the concept was of Pols, the urban settlements on caste lines, celebrated by the heritage walas. Irritatingly, it is perhaps only the market place, which has always turned a blind eye to identities.
The comfort zone for togetherness is the temporariness of the bazaar, shopping arcades, roads, railways and now malls, multiplexes and airport lounges. While business ties transcended religion and geography in Gujarat, it never led to social cohesion. Because there was never, ever anything close to living together. Since there is no living live together; there is little growing together, and naturally no dreaming, fooling, fighting and making up together.
The residential exclusion has organically extended to schools, colleges, with generations bereft of an experience in knowing, and dealing with differences in various shapes and sizes. Hostility and suspicion are a natural corollary when schisms are in the comfort zone. In that sense, ghettoes, of Dalits or Muslims after the riots of eighties and more recently in 2002 are no surprise.
The collective failure, more so of civil society, including the professed Gandhians has been the inability to fashion shared spaces in past six decades in Gujarat that would transcend the differences. There have been attempts to foster communal harmony, but they evoke little response. Understood, as outside’ intervention, they tend to irritate instead of creating comfort zones.
The scenario though is not as bleak. Pointers can be taken from two happy exceptions that often go unacknowledged in Gujarat, incidentally both are in Baroda.
One is the Maharaja Sayajirao University and other is the residence of the incorrigible activist couple Rohit Prajapati and Trupti Shah. With the MSU rulebook not allowing any other college in a radius of 16 km in its area, most Barodians end up doing college studies together at least for three years. With no other college within the city, the caste, class, religion factor gets dumped automatically, with science, arts and commerce students jostling with each other in same library and university events, forging friendships of kinds that would not be ever possible otherwise. There are umpteen examples including mine, and those of many others. The differences never mattered, not even in tenuous times of riots and blasts and terror attacks, the friendships cemented in the schools and college campus always stand as a bulwark.
And then there are Rohit and Trupti who chose deliberately to live in a lower middle class Muslim neighbourhood of Tandalja all these years even when they schooled their son in one of the city’s best schools. While Rohit has engaged himself with environmental issues and Trupti with women, they make a point by living what they believe in. The celebrated spaces of such living together relegated now to an occasional tele serial or Bollywood film of yesteryears, even if they were loud, caricatures, are a possibility. If only, a bit of trust is given space.
(Ayesha Khan is a journalist based in Baroda.)