A Postcard For Peace And Love
Muslims are not humans, they’re demons, violent. They do black magic. They’re inferior to us, Hindus. All of them are exactly our opposite; dirty, terrorists and won’t refrain from killing us. Eating us. They reproduce so much, the main reason for India’s overpopulation. I will never allow one of them ever in my home, drinking water off their hands is a far thought. They should all go to Pakistan.
Shocking? This was social common sense I learned as a kid. From my family, their colleagues, neighbours, neighbours’ colleagues, news, some of the friends and some political leaders. Born and raised in New Delhi, I spent early 25 years of my life living in a small residential area of Rani Bagh in North-West Delhi dominated by population migrated from states of Punjab and Haryana. Two kilometres East of my home was abandoned territory for me. Why? Because there lived Muslims. Shakurpur! Another Rani Bagh, but cheaper, less fancy and represented a better sense of community and diversity.
My father never allowed me to wander there even in daytime. Visiting that place in the night was a crime. My friends in school, neighbourhood, cousins, their friends – all represented same religious background. I dared to have three Muslim friends, out of his knowledge, but could never dare to invite them home or be seen with them. Then one day, my mother discovered me playing with Irfan and that day I had first elaborated conversation with her. I was eight-years-old, then. “They’re different from us. You can play with them, but make sure they never come home, or your father finds out. He won’t like this.” It was left a secret. Irfan lived in Shakurpur and would travel two kilometres every day to play with me. However, I could never fully trust him, as others I’d meet would send a different message. A message of a strong boundary, social imbalance, differences in our castes and economic status. Our friendship was unacceptable and deemed disrespectful to my family. We’d still play together, but never discussed our religions, rituals, customs, etc. They didn’t matter. However, we did celebrate Holi and Diwali together, and I did taste Kahk and halva of Eid more than once. His mother did invite once to have seviyan (vermicelli) once, but her place was abandoned.
Two years later, Irfan stopped visiting the park in front of my home, and I never checked Shakurpur to find him ever again. Neither did I ever see his little sisters again, Saba and Raziyana. What I knew about his mother was she used to work from home linked to embroidery and his father worked as cycle rickshaw puller. Years passed, and memories of Irfan were lost in time under piles of books, dreams, competition and expectations.
My father would do business with Muslims, but would never share a meal with them. He would visit business meetings and parties, but would not accept a drop of water shred from the hands of a Muslim. We had a maid, Rukhsana, who would help my mother with daily chores twice a day, but wouldn’t be allowed to use a toilet or a glass in the kitchen. Later, she was assigned a rusted bowl and plastic plate for her meals, that either she’d bring from her home, or my mother would provide her with leftovers of last night. She’d be the recipient of milk and other cooked stuff, that was partly spoilt or succumbed to cat’s evening delight.
Where all this became a regular day in the life, I’d enjoy my father doing business in the region of Nabi Karim, because I’d get sweets from Mohammad Usman Uncle in Eid, Holi and Diwali. Usman never visited our home, but I did have a long conversation with him about their workplace, the people, Ramzan and delicacies of the festival of Eid. My father would enjoy conversations just a little and the gap would be ensured to stay widened. “I don’t like them. They are dirty, violent and eat cow meat. Not worth being friends. I hate them. You should too.” A big part of me believed this was true, and I learned to live with this as a fact. He ended the conversation with the words “I do business with them because he gives good deals and provides decent quality luggage bags. If I had an option, I’d never see him again”. Usman later invited us to his son’s and daughter’s wedding; I do not recall if any of us visited on either of the occasions. He had his reasons for his beliefs on Islam, that he never shared.
Hemraj Madaan. Village Vasu, District Jhang, Punjab. Nearly a century ago, this was the address my grandfather would provide to anyone if he was asked, where he lives? Decades later, unfortunate partition happened on eve of August 14th, 1947, and from being a resident of British-India previous night, he became a resident of Islamic Republic of Pakistan. These were the last memories of the home he shared with my father and cousins before he passed away four decades ago after moving to Delhi. 15 years later, I was born amid his stories and grew up with the traumatizing tales of gore, bloodshed, partition, lost lands and them witnessing gruesome murders on their escape to India. During the grand escape, all the land and money was lost, brothers were separated, some were even kidnapped and sold into slavery. Decades later, in a fancy series of fortunate or unfortunate events, the big family was reunited. Scarred by atrocities of past which were dominated by religion, I believe, framed their belief in a fashion that established the seed of hostility for the other religion.
I believe, my father derives his strong aversion to the stories he was born and raised amid. And I was framed with the same belief as a layer of protection from what he and other elders in my family experienced. However, a major role to fuel its sustenance was played by society and mainstream media, that more often than not maintained an environment where such beliefs were normalized and hatred against Islam became unabashed. Something, I got in heritage.
As I grew up, I denied to stick to his beliefs and got curious to explore what lies in the streets of Shakurpur, Nabi Karim, Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi) and Jamia. At the age of 18, I began running and explored the city for the first time in its raw. I was scared to enter those streets as I was laden with prejudice, so the only goal on the first attempt was to come back unscathed. Asking for an apology would be a better option (if caught) than seeking permission, I thought. It was decided one night, I would run through the, deemed extremely unsafe, streets of Shakurpur and explore what demons resided in this third world I was kept so protected, not even in the sight. Three minutes later, I was chased by the stray dogs who did their best to grab a bite, and I did return home unscathed, but with little understanding of what was hidden inside.
Following years, running marathons and ultramarathons exposed me to entirely different world than what I grew up in. My reach of the world expanded to different cities, schools, colleges and universities, however, interaction with new friends like Haaris and Tanvir, were very warm, yet limited. After all the effort put in to learn more about the customs, food and the Islamic people, I land in Mumbai for the marathon in January of 2011. My life’s first solo trip, away from Delhi. In the morning of the marathon, while walking towards the marathon venue in darkest hours, I discover large cauldrons in middle of the street, six feet tall, set on fire with very strong-tall-middle-aged men around it. Two of them are holding machetes. I freeze instantly in fear and recall all those messages I had got since childhood. “Are they really cooking humans? Are they going to kill me? I must run away. NOW!” I talked to myself. Being vegetarian, I had little information about how flesh is cooked. “Is this mere biryani? God knows what’s happening. Better they shouldn’t see me.”
As I start to move swiftly, I accidentally drop my bag and expose my running bib to one of them. “Are you going to run a marathon today? Need a ride? We’d leave in next 15 minutes to drop my son, you can come along if you wish” I not only shared a quick breakfast but post-race lunch of delicious biryani at their restaurant, amid tons of talks about their family, marathons, education, their recent Haj pilgrimage with some exciting insights to Mecca and history of Mohammad. My first introduction to Islam, from a Muslim himself. But, did this change anything when I returned home? Stay tuned!
Feature Image: Mengenal Islam