I wonder how early in life we begin the process of defining ourselves. Is it the same with all children, or are some of us burdened with it before and more than others? I remember I was aware of the baggage I carried when I was as young as 6 or 7 years old. The awareness crept in because, like other kids my age, my life was divided into two spaces, but I was conscious of the fact that, unlike other kids, I couldn’t be the same person in both the spaces. The baggage I carried consisted of coming from a family of practicing Muslims, and living in, what they call, a “Muslim-ghetto”. Basically, my background was too Muslim to allow me to merge with the other kids in my school effortlessly. Surprisingly, this was when, even though our school was Christian, it had a good number of Muslim students and there was no blatant discrimination happening around me. As our school bus picked most of us Muslim kids from Jamia Nagar, we would be Muslims till we reached school in the morning, and after we left school in the afternoon to be dropped back to where we truly belonged. The boys would get down at the Masjid on Fridays for their Jummah namaz.
I was not a Muslim in school, and in retrospect I realise; nobody else was either. You may argue that one should not be a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Sikh in school — we should all just be students. I would have agreed with you had there been no display of any other religious identity around, but that was not the case. There were students who would come to school with a tilak after an early morning pooja in their homes, there were Sikh kids with their patkas, then there were teachers with their sindoor, magalsutras, and choodas, and as the school was Christian our morning prayers, and the songs we sang revolved around the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I enjoyed it thoroughly; I still sing all the carols that I grew up singing in school. Christmas was in fact the best time of the year. We celebrated all festivals in school. For Diwali and Dusshera we would start preparing weeks before, Ramlila auditions and practices were looked forward too. We would have diya painting and rangoli making activities. Gurupurab was similarly celebrated and I still remember the shabads I sang. Dressed up in a patiala suit, my head covered with a chunni, I remember sitting in the first row of our group singing Mitti dund chak chaanan hova. It would be followed by distribution of the Kada Prasad which my teacher would give me some extra of because I had performed well! Hindu teachers took on the charge for Hindu festivals, and Sikh teachers for the Sikh’s festival. Christmas was of course another ball game all together.
We also celebrated Eid, but not every year though. While Muslim kids were included even for lead roles in Diwali and Gurupurab assemblies, surprisingly Eid assemblies were handled by only Muslim kids. There would be an azaan, 4 kids would offer namaz; once in a while there would be a nazm and we would be done. Almost half-hearted and absolutely lackadaisical. Why didn’t we do more? I talked to some of my school friends and they said there was no Muslim teacher who could take that responsibility. We never questioned why there was no Muslim teacher. We were of course thankful, like we were back then, for the inclusion.
However that is not the only thing I was thankful for. I was thankful that there were no hate comments floating around, there were no visible anti-Muslim sentiments, except that one social science teacher who would bring up “Muslim issues” in class and expect only Muslim students to defend/explain. We were in class 7th or 8th and she would pin-point the wrongs in and of our “community”. While some Muslim students would get into the debate and argumentation, others would quietly sit in silence, half embarrassed, half infuriated. One day my younger sister, who was in another school, had come home disoriented and upset. When asked, she told our mother that her friends had refused to talk to her and it had been going on for some time till one day they finally decided to befriend her again. The reason according to them for doing this was that my sister was not like the “Momdons” their parents had warned them about; she was different and hence deserved their friendship. They were all in junior school studying in class 5. After this episode, my gratitude for my friends, classmates and schoolmates only further increased. I was so glad that I had been accepted wholeheartedly, or I had successfully managed to hide from them what I really was. Years after I had passed out of this school, my youngest sister, who is now studying in the same school, came home crying one day. Same story here too. One of her friends told her that she was asked to not talk to Momdons, and hence they would have to stop being friends right away. My sister was in class 3, just 8 years old. On hearing this my mother’s heart broke, and she decided to call up the mother of this kid and gave her a long lecture on the values of our secularism, and the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb etc. To me it felt like begging, for my mother it was playing her part to save the ethos of the country we lived in.
I grew up ignoring subtle hatred and discrimination– others were much worse of. When I was in class 8th the Batla House fake encounter happened. For me it only meant that now I had more to hide, much more to be ashamed of. Every time I wrote my address in the school diary, my hand trembled before writing Batla House. I would make sure nobody could open my diary to see where I lived. The encounter happened at L-18, Batla House, and L-19, Batla house was where I was born; it was where my father lived jointly with his brothers before we shifted to our then current home, which too was in Batla House. I was so conscious and embarrassed of the fact that I lived in a Muslim-ghetto that I had decided I would never call any non-muslim friend home, and my apprehensions were not without reason. Once one of my friends had decided to visit me and I could not say no to her. We were not more than 10 years old then. Her father had come to drop her, she stayed only for less than half an hour and then left. The next day in school, when our PT teacher was substituting a period, my friend decided to talk about the visit. She said how she felt so uneasy while moving through my locality, with so many meat shops on the way (though she was a non-vegetarian). The PT teacher then replied why she decided to visit me in the first place, because Muslim-localities are like that. He then laughed, as did the other students, while I melted away in shame. I was ashamed that I had failed at hiding my baggage, I felt exposed. I had always felt like an imposter, and the syndrome only worsened after that episode.
The lack of representation at the level of teachers bothered me no end, I wished there was someone I could run to and talk about this. I would realise only years later why this was the case, when I sat for an interview for the position of an English teacher at my sister’s alma mater. I had grown up, I was confident, I had my qualifications and was eligible for the position. But at the interview the principal was surprised that my parents had allowed me to work. She repeatedly asked my why I wanted the job because my parents would anyway marry me off sooner than later. When this happened I only felt these were sexist remarks, I was exasperated as a woman. But then they employed one of my seniors who was a woman. Later they employed another friend of mine. And that was when I began to feel like an academic imposter too. I did not realise it was because of my visible Muslim identity, till my friend who was working there informed me that I was being refused the position because of my hijab. The Head of the English Department had explicitly asked my friend to find out if I would be willing to take off the hijab. I read all of this on text messages and broke down, because ultimately everything had come down to my Muslim identity.
However, this was not the first time that I was refused a job due to my hijab, neither was it the last. Before this I had been refused the position of an Editor at a publishing house. They printed school textbooks, and the Director asked me to remove the hijab if I wanted the job. This made me realise why our textbooks too never provided us with any relatable representation. In the chapters on different kinds of clothes that Indians wear, I do not remember seeing the hijab/burqa.
All my life I tried to convince others that I was more like them than they thought, that I was worthy of being included in their circles. I have grown up with gratitude for anyone who saw beyond my religious identity, I felt obliged by non-muslim friendships. I performed in their festivities with utmost fervour, I flaunted my knowledge of their religion, I spoke their words for their benefit and shunned my own. I tried to not cause any discomfort. Then one day I decided to stop living my life in gratitude, to stop being apologetic for what I was. I began to say salam in public, I started saying the words ‘khala’, ‘appi’, ‘phuppo’, instead of ‘didi’, ‘bua’, ‘maasi’ that I earlier used for fear of alarming my friends. What should have been insignificant, had been marking my life ever since I was a child. As a kid, I was burdened with performing my secularism, any showcasing of my identity would raise suspicions, cause alarm, bring undue attention. When I grew up, I was rejected by this school for exactly these reasons. The teacher said that my hijab “would raise suspicions, alarm the kids, and would be a cause of undue attention.”
Hiba Ahmed is a research scholar and Assistant Professor of English at the University of Delhi. Her research revolves around the politics of the Indian Muslim’s identity. She has published and presented papers discussing various strands of this issue in several National and International Journals and Conferences. She did her post-graduation from Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and that is where most of her own politics was shaped.
3 thoughts on “Tracing the Trajectory of Growing up as the Other”
a completely overlooked issue, very nicely written and presented
When I was in class 10th my frnd came to my house not bcz she really wants but it’s our grp project so it’s more compulsion for her…everything was going good until her brother called her …don’t knw wt he said but probably he didn’t knw her sister’s frnd was Muslim ..she said nothing n leave my house. ..next morning she apologized n said it’s jzt my family opinion abt Muslims .”.jzt opinion”….if this is opinion then opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge…no accountability… .no understanding
Read it half but I could already relate !