This article series is about how I discovered that I was living in many kinds of bubbles, how I stepped out of them and what I learnt along the way.
I was raised in Ludhiana, completing my entire schooling in this city. I had never known any Muslims in Ludhiana – not in my locality, not in my school, not in any meaningful way in my life. The only occasional Muslim that I would come in contact with would be a tailor. Muslim tailors in Ludhiana were sought after by the ladies for their “haath ki safai”.
Then I went to college in Bathinda. I knew a couple of Muslims, but just as acquaintances. There were no conversations about their life experiences – either the differences or the similarities from my own, about religion, their way of life, festivals or beliefs. The same continued into my post-grad in Patiala where I did not come in contact with any Muslims.
As you can see, I was well into adulthood without having any noteworthy interactions with Muslims. It must seem like there are none in Punjab or I was the one who was out of touch. The first part is true as Google says that the percentage of Muslims in Punjab is 1.93. A significant number of them are in Ludhiana, but they are mostly migrants here for work who intersected with my life only as tailors.
Then I moved to Mysore for training period of my first job. I used to play basketball in the Infosys campus and there was a solitary Muslim guy among the players. We had a good on-court relationship, but no worthwhile interactions off the court. There was a Muslim guy from Kerala in my training batch and I remember having a brief conversation with him about how women in his clan got married early.
Post that, I joined full-time work in Bangalore campus of Infosys. There, among the freshers shortlisted with me for a particular client, was Syed. He was from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. We both got assigned to the same project. We got along and became friends. I felt no hesitation in asking him about all the vague ideas I had about what being a Muslim meant.
I asked him about polygamy among Muslims. He took a pause, gave me a look and said, “Having multiple wives is not really a thing”. I told him about the law and how Dharmendra had converted to Islam to marry Hema Malini. I pressed on and asked him if there were any men among his relatives who had multiple wives. He gave me an emphatic no. I was flummoxed. I had carried this idea all my life that polygamy was common among Muslims and consequently, so was having droves of children. And here I was encountering a specimen who was denying that. He had just one sibling and said that was the norm for his generation.
He was not off the mark as research into the topic supported his assertion of polygamy not being widespread among Muslims. I came across a surprising historical fact: the last census to look at marriages by religion showed that Muslims were less polygamous than Hindus.* (Yes, apparently Hindus are polygamous too, and so are Buddhists and Jains.) Quoting from the source article about polygamy, “More than the religion of the parties involved, determinant reasons were not having a child or a male child from the first wife, education and the age of first wife.” Further, researching about fertility among Muslims as compared to other religions also did not give credence to the “Muslims are baby-making factories” rhetoric.**
As Syed and I became better friends, I realized we were not that different. We both wanted to have careers and our respective set of parents had worked hard to give us an education and a start in life. Somehow Muslims seemed like an alien species before, and not knowing any had allowed for mistaken ideas to hold sway.
Bangalore, being the cosmopolitan city that it is, provided the perfect framework to broaden my horizons. I met diverse people and experienced myriad cultural elements. Here I experienced iftar feasting during Ramadan for the first time. Temporary stalls are erected in multiple parts of the city where all imaginable iftar delicacies are served. I used to love going to these stalls after work and partake the food and enjoy the joyous vibe of breaking of roza. I went looking for my favorite iftar treats in Ludhiana during Ramadan last year but I couldn’t find anything – no mouth-watering haleem, no sizzling kababs. I miss the syncretic ethos of Bangalore and hope it never changes.
Syed used to fast for the whole month of Ramadan which had me in awe of him. It was something I couldn’t imagine ever pulling off. He also attended Friday prayers every week and to a non-practising person like me, it was something novel. To me being a Hindu meant celebrating the festivals, maybe an occasional fast, but not much more. I had no religious practise whatsoever. As I have leapt deeper into spirituality, I see the beauty of having one. I think it is something to aspire to, not something to be wary of.
I did witness some harassment directed towards Syed because of his Muslim identity. Our project leads were both from Uttar Pradesh just like Syed, and thought of themselves as bhais or some such. They detested Syed talking to me. It was very natural for us to talk and support each other since we were two freshers in a four person project. But the leads viewed any interaction with suspicion and derision.
Once they cornered him while we were chatting in a lunch break and told him, “Love jihad karoge? Tumhe pata hai na tum jaiso ke sath UP main kya karte hain?”. They gave each other a mischievous smile as they said this. It was so ridiculous that I laughed nervously. Syed wasn’t laughing. I don’t remember him saying anything. He just waited for the moment to pass. He was very patient and didn’t let such jeers bother him. He made a lot of progress in our field. (I detested this casual misogyny and bigotry and also our manager who had enabled such behaviour. I left the client soon after.)
Looking back, I think Syed handled all these incidents with such calm because he may have experienced such sneers before in his life and had made peace with it. Or maybe he was just zen – able to shut out the noise, put his mind to work and do what was needed!
Becoming friends with Syed is the one major event that made me step out of my bubble. Even before meeting Syed, I wasn’t a bigot. I was curious about what lay beyond my horizons. I had misconceptions but when shown the right path, I was happy to give them up.
These days, among my relatives, I observe so much polarisation. I see, “They have multiple wives. They produce children like rabbits. They are going to overtake Hindus in population” bandied about carelessly. You would think it would be difficult to radicalize well-to-do Hindus in a milieu without any Muslims around, but it seems to have happened overnight. Once, when I confronted a relative about his Islamophobic musings at a wedding, he straight up told me, “Your name should be changed to Fatima and you should be sent to Pakistan.” When I protested to what he said as being unacceptable, he said he was only joking. (“I was just joking” is the most pervasive gaslighting that I have heard being used to mitigate all kinds of faux pas.)
A cousin told me, “Our country is called Hindustan and it is meant for Hindus”. That took me aback. In getting the etymology wrong, he displayed the ignorance and naivete exploited by nefarious elements to spread hatred and dangerous ideas.
There is a definite hardening of tone that I have noticed since last year. The challenge is in fighting propaganda with compassion and emphasizing the humanity of people before their religion. The Buddhists say, “All beings are same because we all want happiness and do not want suffering”. That could be our guiding talisman as we navigate the world of incendiary whatsapp forwards and hate speeches.