This is a guest post by REENA PATEL
I looked around the room and my gaze was met with the kohl lined eyes and stares of bewilderment and distrust. My heart pounded as I listened to three Muslim women describe their latest attempt to find their father and brother after they disappeared in the riots. They were speaking to Rahidbhai* from a local NGO who was accompanying me into the Ahmedabad relief colonies for the first time. Why was I so scared? Why was my heart pounding? The eldest woman of the home disrupted my thoughts, she asked me for my name. I looked around and looked at Rahidbhai, who looked back uneasily. “Mera naam Reena hai.” I said, almost choking on the words, knowing what the next question would be. “Aap ka surname kya hai?” The room grew thick with silence. “Patel.”
As far back as I could remember, I was taught to regard Muslims differently from the rest of the general population. My parents, both from Surat, Gujarat moved and met in the United States in their twenties. They both lived in England and spent time in Gujarat, and had families that were deeply involved in the Gujarati community. My brother and I were born in Long Beach California. I went to Gujarati school on Sundays, went to every function, picnic, and cultural show put on by the Leuva Patidar Samaj in Southern California. Many of my family members were apart of the organization. In fact, my great grandfather Vallabhai Patel was one of the first Patels to land upon the shores of the United States, now estimated at a population of over 140,000. We went to religious camps that were meant to teach us about Hindu ideology, handed out saffron prayer books and modeled how to become ideal Hindu men and women for our communities.
We were defined by what we were not, just as much as our Gujarati label told me where I ultimately belonged. My parents were quick to point out on most occasions, that I was not white, black or Hispanic. Above all, I was not American but Gujarati. Most of my life, Gujarat was an ominous presence brought to life in Sunday school and in adult conversations at social gatherings. I could point it out on a map, and as a child I knew five other Reena Patels. I was taught to be proud of being from Mahatma Gandhiji’s birthplace, take pride in cultural values of family, duty and community. For years, I performed Gujarati folk dances, learned to read and write the language and could recite many prayers and songs—after all, that was what being a ‘good Gujarati girl’ was about. Children in the community joked that our parents would never let us marry ‘BMWs’ (Black, Mexicans or Whites), and even beyond those forbidden groups we were especially never to marry Muslims. It never occurred to me once that people of different religions and ways of life also lived in Gujarat. That part was never mentioned.
Then September 11th happened. In my city of Mesa, Arizona a Sikh man was shot in a hate crime incident down the street from the business my family owned. My father hung a large American flag outside our home the next day. I was confused by his reaction and asked him why he was participating in the call for patriotism, after all he worked so hard to make sure we knew that we were Indian before we were American. “Americans can’t tell the difference between us and the Muslims; we have to let people know we support the United States.” My parents would also not let us go out alone for a few months after the attacks; stares and tension in public places confirmed their fears. And my brother grew upset when he learned he shared a name with one of the men who hijacked the plane, Sameer. Hate talk against Muslims was at an all time high in our home and in the Gujarati community, it seemed September 11th further reinforced and exacerbated the prejudice that was carried over by Gujarati Hindus to the United States.
In January 2002, Gujarat was hit with a severe earthquake. The Gujarati community in California mobilized to donate thousands for recovery. I was sixteen years old at the time and I too raised money at my high school to help with relief aid. The riots only a month after the earthquakes were never mentioned in our home or community. It was only six years later when I moved to India that I would find out the tragedies and devastation that was so carefully ignored back home.
Five years later, I found myself in Bombay, India struggling with my own self-identity of living as a minority for so many years only to realize the estrangement I feel living as an American in India. My knowledge of the Gujarat carnage was non-existent at best, and it was only until a professor pointed me in the direction of Godhra train burning that I became almost instantly obsessed with the situation, and seeking out answers as so many have done before me. An excerpt from my field notes on November 7th, 2008 describe my mental and emotional state during data collection in Ahmedabad:
There is a distinct smell here that permeates the environment. It always smells like something is burning. I could not put my finger on it the first few times I was here, however, now, it is clear to me that the odor which haunts me whenever I recall my time here is that which signifies destruction. Today, on the bus to Lal Darwaja I was attempting to motivate myself and increase my self-confidence by dictating the reasons why I was doing this research, why I was further invading the lives of these people who have already suffered so much. When I came initially into this land, it was more about me, and I hope through this process it has become about them. However, it takes time for this transition to occur, because one cannot but help to try to understand the complexities and negotiations that must occur with one’s own identity and presence in such a space. No one is left unaffected. I have not yet had the courage to begin documenting my experiences here on a personal level, it is too difficult to document what is happening externally, and at some point these things blur for me and I am not sure what I am left with as a researcher and as a human being at the end of the day. My very humanity is questioned when I enter the world of these young people, and it continues to be shaken by the accounts of violence they face daily in the colonies, in the restricted mobility, in their constant fear and disability, and in their inaudibility to the state responsible for this.
I also vividly recall the compassion, hospitality and curiosity that greeted me each time I entered any of the colonies or ghettos. I became a familiar face to many and doors were always open to me for a glass of water or a respite from the Gujarat heat. I spent days wandering the colonies with the youth I interviewed and also eventually ventured alone, speaking to individuals and organizations regarding the aftermath of 2002.
I tried to speak to my family about my research. The initial reaction was fury and disappointment. Why would I spend my time learning about ‘these people’? As I became more vocal regarding Modi, so did the opposing voice of my family. After all, I was told, he was good for Gujarat and the Patels. Enough money can wipe the blood of even the most heinous murderer. Then there was silence. At most, I was harried with concerns for safety, and provided looks of puzzled hesitation. My responses to any concerns of safety: during my 51 days of data collection in Muslim relief colonies, the only man who actively harassed me was a male in a Hindu neighborhood.
When I look back at these experiences, I do not blame my parents or my community for the cascading effects of prejudice and fearful thinking that accompanied their dreams and passports to the USA from Gujarat. They are good people, and do not wish harm on others—so from where do perceived threats arise? I know these are attitudes and behaviors that are ignited generationally through our silence, and although I do not agree or justify such intolerance I also realize we need a radical shift in the Gujarati Diaspora for change to happen. The politics of hate can only be fueled by further ignorance and bigotry that aims to further divide the Gujarati community and weaken any hope of a equitable future. My experiences in India taught me above all else, to be critical of the information we are given, to know truth for your self and refuse complacency in the face of injustice. We must create spaces in the community to dialogue regarding the issue of ongoing segregation and isolation from people who are different than us; however, before doing that we must look in the mirror and question what it means to be in this Gujarat Diaspora.