The rapacious monster that lurks beneath Indian towns and cities, its long-winding appendages that lie quiet and biding time beneath the villages, reared its head for a brief moment last week. Its pulse, so slow for the better part of the last decade, raced and its maw opened briefly. That hungry mouth, a passage to the heart of darkness this country knows so well, was denied its prey. It rolled a bit, within view, a Jaws monster torpedoing under the waves. And it sank, returning to the depths.
In living rooms and in teashops and outside newsagents, those who’d trembled at seeing it again - that unwelcome, unwanted shadow citizen of this country - whispered thankful prayers.
And then, on Thursday, I read this.
I read it again. What was I missing out? Why did this magazine publish it?
Kavita Buggana, the author of the piece, has a Muslim aunt who went to book readings and spoke Urdu well and married a Hindu man. And that aunt, when one reads the piece, had transmitted her perceptions and prejudices to her niece:
““You should have seen his father. He was so different; a scientist, an artist, well-travelled and well-read. My cousin was like that, too. Suddenly, 10-15 years ago,” she swept the air with her wrist, “poof — he got the beard, the cap.””
Buggana goes on to wonder about the man’s “overt declaration of religious identity” that “was a jarring rebuttal of a treasured family culture”. In Buggana’s mind, clearly the “Good” Muslims are people like her aunt who is part of a family where “Islam meant an ancient culture of poetry, fine art and subtly-flavored cuisine — a blend of the Hindu, European and Persian ethos”.
She then proceeds to ponder why the man made her uncomfortable. Only she doesn’t ponder long and she doesn’t follow through on this train of thought. She doesn’t attempt anything to overcome her prejudices. At least she doesn’t describe any such attempts in her piece, because the essay inevitably goes into 9/11 (because anything that is written about Muslims these days has to shove in a 9/11 angle) and the prejudice she, as a brown woman in the West, faced.
She then concludes how, once more, her view of Islam is tempered by her book reading attending, play watching aunt. For Buggana, all the weighty concerns she touched upon in this essay, melt away by eating a nice meal.
How good it would be, you think, if everything just melted away with the consumption of food.
The breathtaking shallowness expressed in this essay leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Islam, for this woman, is epitomized by her aunt. An aunt who is the “liberated” Muslim woman, who is able to criticize the bearded cousin. The bearded cousin, harmless, just makes both women uncomfortable. What has he done to them? Nothing. They just think he doesn’t fit in their perceptions of what a Good Muslim is. And besides, the curry is too good and that’s what a whole religion is traduced to: tasty food. Food that the majority of Indian or any other Muslims might find alien to their own local cultures.
The two women, then, retain their flawed assumptions of Islam and there’s no corrective, no dawning of realization at the end. There’s no breaching of their fossilized views of acceptable Islam and its good practitioners. Because, you see, the “Muslim” curry is too fragrant.
Of course, it’s not just these two women who hold these views of what makes a Good Muslim. Plenty of the book reading attending, play watching crowd think like this. They will fight for the rights of the bearded and the hijab wearing, yes. But they would not want them in their social circle. They would prefer if they, with their visible expressions of religious devotion, were out of the way, on the fringes of the world in which they inhabit. Planets on different orbits.
The well-read, left leaning liberals who are that magazine’s readership can only permit certain kinds of Muslims into their world: part of or products of inter-community couplings, those who are cuddly Sufis, those who don’t recite the Qur’an unless to show they speak and understand Arabic and give erudite commentary on the Suras. Shias and Sunnis are acceptable so long as they don’t pray visibly, say inshallah in a non-religious manner and as an elegant ending to a wish, drink and have a sizeable library at home to show they are not uncivilized savages and totally fight for the right causes and not questionable ones. For these liberal, broadminded Indians, when it comes to Islam, syncretism is the preferred way to go.
So keep the burqas at home and mothball the hijabs. Shave off that beard. If you want to be accepted by liberal India, hew to what they think is the idea of a “Good” Muslim.
Oh, and don’t forget the curry. NEVER forget the curry.