This has never happened to me before. But then, there is always a first time for everything in life.
My name is Zainab Bawa.
“Are you Punjabi?”
“Are you Parsi?”
“What are you?” Arjun bhai, the hawker outside VT station had once asked me. “Muslim,” I had replied. And then, very bashfully, he said to me, “Just asking. Could not make out. You speak such good Marathi. And then, after all, we are all of the humanity kind – you cut my finger, the blood that oozes out will be the same as yours.”
I used to feel quite amused. Each time I walked into a government office, I would see puzzled faces and expressions, the officers trying to place me in terms of my religion. This was the Bombay I had experienced, particularly between 2002 and 2006. Each time I was asked about my religion, I would feel amused rather than nervous. And then, I used to be told what a wonderful name I have – no one can make out who I am in terms of my religious identity.
Cut to Bangalore – February 2009
“You are looking for a place to rent? Try calling this couple. They are very sweet and they have a few units to rent out in Jayanagar. You might like their place,” A’s acquaintance told me.
So I called, a couple of days later.
“My name is Zainab. I heard that you are renting out your place,” I said.
The man on the other line said, “I am travelling right now. Can you call my wife and speak with her.”
I called his wife.
“My name is Zainab. My husband and I are looking for a place to rent and we heard that you are renting out your flats in Jayanagar. We are interested.”
The wife on the other end of the line asks, “Where are you from?”
“We live in L T (which happens to be one of the affluent Muslim and Christian neighbourhoods in the city). Our workplaces are moving towards South Bangalore and therefore, we want to move to Jayanagar.”
The wife says: “Sorry, but our current Madhava Brahmin tenants are very particular. We can’t have non-vegetarian tenants.”
“But we are usually vegetarians. Only when friends come home, once a month, we cook non-veg. Is that still a problem?”
“Sorry, but I better be honest. Okay, thank you,” she said and hung up.
I was fuming, holding the phone in my hand. I knew at once that she had discriminated against me on the basis of my name (and obviously my religion). But I wanted to verify. A friend whose cousin was looking for an apartment to rent at the same time had asked me for this lady’s number. I gave it to him and told him to tell me whether she would raise the veg/non-veg question after he uttered his (Hindu) name. And sure enough,
“I called her. Told her my name and said that my cousin was interested in renting her place. I even helped her when she was struggling for a word in Kannada during our phone conversation. She said she would personally come and show us the place. Turned out that my cousin and she had some native village connections. Towards the end of our visit, she told my cousin and me that a lady named Zainab had called this morning. ‘But I find it better to rent the place to known people'”, my friend narrated.
Sure enough, it was discrimination and I did confront the house-owner next morning by sending her a text message, telling her how she had discriminated against me only on the basis of my name (and my religion). In the next fortnight, finding a rental place became a nightmare in South Bangalore. Real estate agents would openly ask if we were veg/non-veg and accordingly show us places. In one instance, a broker even questioned without asking my name,
“Are you a Muslim family?”
” I am Muslim and my husband is Hindu. What does that make us?”
“Sorry madam. The owners don’t want Muslim family.”
In another instance, a broker asked me,
“Madam, are you okay with a Muslim landlord?”
After the first incident of discrimination, I became afraid to utter my name during the later house hunts, lest the owners say something about religion which would make me very angry. And it was not just about me being Muslim. Jayanagar is notorious towards Christian sounding names too. Gradually, I discovered that Jayanagar was a planned area. When the first land sub-divisions took place, the Brahmins and Jains had monetary capital to purchase land and carry out building activity. The monopoly of Brahmin and Jain landlords coupled with increasing conservatism over time, has made Jayanagar an unfriendly rental market.
In the second last house hunt, the owner of the building openly asked my husband and me,
“Are your Brahmins? We prefer to give the place out to Brahmins.”
My husband read this as a veg/non-veg issue. He said,
“I am a Telugu Brahmin.”
“Ah good,” said the owner.
“I understand that you may have an issue with us cooking non-veg. But we have foreigners coming over and living at our place time and again. We can’t impose vegetarianism on them. I am veg, my wife eats non-veg sometimes though.”
“Ok, let her eat,” said the owner.
My aim in writing this post is not to rant about my experiences. However, many questions have arisen in my mind through the course of this house hunt. I have gone back and forth between my experiences in Bombay and have wondered why I did not feel discrminated against when I was asked about my name and religion in Bombay. Why did the sense of exclusion and discrimination did not strike then? I have never been fastidious about my Muslim identity. In fact, it occupies a very late place in my sense of who I am. My family has conducted pujas as part of our trading traditions. Our own Muslim practices stem from Gujarat, making us more of Gujaratis than Muslims. However, the curent trend appears to be an increasing emphasis on the base religious identity, irrespective of how distorted that religious identity may be owing to local influences and cultures.
It has also struck me how people shut off from others on the basis of hearing a name, and that too often on the phone. If our levels of mental closure have reached a stage where a name uttered on the phone is enough to dismiss the person entirely, then what hope do we have for ourselves and for our society?
Does property ownership reinforce conservative and narrow beliefs? If yes, then does occupancy of urban space unsettle conservatism arising from both property ownership and fundamental traditional/religious beliefs? I have been wondering about this last question, particularly in the context of neighbourhoods such as Shanthinagar, Shivajinagar and Viveknagar in Bangalore. These are occupied areas, with slum and squatter settlements as well as vibrant with street vending activities. A particular form of Mother Mary worship has emerged in these areas. These areas have several shrines of the Infant Jesus, who is worshipped by Muslims, Hindus and Christians alike. The worship and faith in Infant Jesus extends beyond the narrow conceptions of religion – these practices bear a local history that has evolved via migration, trade circuits, monetary networks and other inexplicable factors. The history of the Infant Jesus worship has not been documented much in Bangalore. But it represents a beam of hope because it indicates that religion moves beyond the boundaries of the book and the institution – that traditions can be locally invented and can be inclusive.
There is no conclusion to this post. And I hope there is never one, because space will evolve as much as practices will. Meanwhile, I continue to live with my name …