Free to question India’s imperfections: Laila Tyabji

LAILA TYABJI in The Business Standard

Never in my 68 years have I thought for even a milli-second of living anywhere else except India. Not even when, in the wake of the Ayodhya agitation, I received a stream of poisonous hate mails and a packet of turds (in a mithai box!!) I love the multilayered multiplicity of India, its synergies & paradoxes, its many diverging & converging cultural streams, its colour & chaos, the hit-and-miss judaad of past and present, malls and mandirs, East and West; its unexpected but inherent certainties…. In any case, good or bad, it is MY country.

So it feels strange to be told, when I critically question any aspect, that I should go live somewhere else – Pakistan for instance. I am utterly amazed that Aamir Khan’s confession of momentary vulnerability should be termed a “moral offence” by no less a person than MJ Akbar! I used to so admire the reasoned clarity of his writing.

I have always over-used adjectives. My English teacher would red-pencil an acerbic commentary. A rebuke I secretly courted was “oxymoron”. I loved its sound as well as its meaning – two adjectives contradicting each other.

These days I am being turned into an oxymoron myself! “Indian Muslim” is an identity increasingly open to suspicion by self-proclaimed ‘patriots’; one’s own patriotism needing constant justification plus a certificate that one doesn’t eat beef or critique the nation. That a well-known Sadhvi can dub Shahrukh Khan a Pakistani agent and not be arrested for libel, instead accruing a trail of approving social media comments, or the Culture Minister awards A P J Abdul Kalam the accolade of being a good man “despite being a Muslim” is not exactly a comfortable feeling. That someone can be lynched to death for having meat in his fridge is even more eery.

I love India and intend to live and die here, but I also want to be able to freely question its imperfections. Just as I have the freedom to say that Islam has been hijacked by a gang of demonic and utterly vile hoodlums and that the rest of us Muslims seem helpless to combat this evil. One’s religion should have absolutely nothing to do with freedom of speech. Nor should ‘tolerance’ play a part in this equation.

‘Intolerance’ is a horrible word, even more horrible in practice. But ‘tolerance’ is only marginally better. I don’t want to be ‘tolerated’ in condescending, rather grudging acceptance – as if I (and other minorities) were something not very nice that won’t go away! I want my being here to be taken for granted. I feel an integral part of this nation, and I want everyone else to think so too. ‘Tolerance’ implies you can just about exist as long as you don’t step out of line. An attitude typified by the Haryana Chief Minister’s comment that Muslims can stay in India as long as they don’t eat beef! I think we need to do better for our minorities, be they Muslims, Christians, Dalits, transsexuals, tribals, women in mini skirts, people with same-sex partners, artists flying fanciful styrofoam cows in the sky…. None of us want to be ‘tolerated’. We want to be ourselves. It’s not a favour – its our constitutional right.

It’s not that prejudice didn’t exist before. Even in the sanitised bastions where Chetan Bhagat claims we phoney liberals are bred – boarding school, an English-speaking upper middle-class home, life as a design professional in Delhi, my work with craftspeople and DASTKAR, there was the occasional blip – landlords reluctant to rent one a barsati, overheard jokes about the violence, randiness, and breeding capacity of Muslims, the aforesaid box of turds…. These occasional infelicities were counterbalanced by great warmth and acceptance by most. These days, such crude generalisations, generally born of ignorance, seem to have hardened into a dividing of lines. An ‘us’ and ‘them’, escalating into violence as well as words – and given full licence. A tacit assumption that being a minority means being acquiescent and silent. There are new social media fatwas – youngschool kids sending chain WhatsApp messages urging their friends to boycott Shahrukh Khan films because he’s a “Bad Man”; a lakh offered to slap Aamir Khan. Urdu writers being whitewashed from the curriculum.

In 1947, my father, then a serving member of the ICS, wrote in a letter to my grandfather:

“You will I am sure not be surprised to hear that I have elected to remain in India (Hindustan) & not to go over to Pakistan. I am absolutely opposed to the Muslim League ideology & mentality & it would have been a gross betrayal of all my ideals & hopes if I threw them over for the tempting posts that they are offering to Muslim officers who propose to get themselves transferred there.”

My father later told me that one of his abiding sadnesses was how few of his Hindu colleagues understood why he didn’t opt for Pakistan – a country supposedly made for Muslims. For him, and the rest of our extended family, it was inconceivable they exchange the eclectic vibrance of India for the claustrophobia of an Islamic state.

68 years later, it still seems difficult for many to understand that, Christian or Muslim. Aamir Khan or Aam Admi, most of us are just thoroughly ordinary Indians, seeking happiness, sanity and security like everyone else. And wanting our own voice. Why can’t we all simply ‘adjust’ to each other and the cultural baggage we each carry – just as we do in our over-crowded trains and buses; amicably negotiating awkward tin trunks, crying babies, and strangely wrapped parcels; miraculously bonding over our tiffins.

And please trolls, stop twittering every time we try to course-correct India – it’s ours as well.

Laila Tyabji is founder of Dastkar and received a Padma Shri in 2012

5 thoughts on “Free to question India’s imperfections: Laila Tyabji”

  1. Why does a controversy arise when Aamir or Shah Rukh say that they are unsafe here? What happened when most –mainly hindus– personalities returned their awards citing unsafe to live here? The clear dichotomy of religious differences can be visible here. When a muslim (or any other minority or lower caste) expresses that he is feeling not safe in India, the fanatics go after him: but when a hindu expresses displeasure, no one labels him unpatriotic!! These fanatics should remember that the great scientists Khorana and Chandrasekhar were ‘unsafe’ here as the government could not provide them the necessary equipment. They left India leaving ‘patriotism’ to the wind. But we study them avidly as our citizens. Here are the artistes expressing hope of shelter and they are derided. ‘Patriotism’, the word, is being misused and abused continuously….!

  2. What a splendid piece of writing! Most admirable. As a non-Muslim I was gently allowed to get into the skin of a Cultured Muslim and view the Indian World through those truly very perspicacious pair of eyes. I am proud to be an Indian and more so because I tread the same soil as the writer.

  3. Laila, great piece, we grew up in a school that had no religious boundaries, Welhams Dehradun. Yasmeen Ariff sent me this on FB. Great article and I think we all agree to what you are saying.
    Mickey Jetpur AKA Gaffy/Gajra

  4. Great message. Why don’t people read Tolstoy’s ‘Patriotism’ essay and Tagore’s ‘Nationalism’ book?
    Tolstoy writes:
    “Whether people want it or not, the question stands clearly before humanity: how can that
    patriotism, from which result innumerable physical and moral calamities of men, be necessary and a virtue? It is imperative to give an answer to this question. It is necessary either to show that patriotism is such a great good that it redeems all those terrible calamities which it produces in humanity, or to recognize that patriotism is an evil that must not only not be warned and inoculated against in men, but from which we must also try to free ourselves at all cost.”

  5. The more important question that is not being asked here is: Why are comments made by Bollywood stars so important? Why does the media blow everything out of proportion and allow opportunists like Anupam Kher and SRK take advantage of this instead of having a proper public debate among people who are qualified to do so more intelligently?
    At a time when Tamil Nadu was being ravaged by floods, all that one could see on the media was insults being thrown from either ends by movie stars. Sad state of affairs.

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