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The Rediff Special/Vijay Tendulkar

Muslims and I

Vijay Tendulkar is India's greatest living playwright. In this fascinating first person account, he recounts the story of his life to illustrate how anti-Muslim prejudice penetrates the Hindu psyche early on in life.

I was born in 1928 in Mumbai in a Maharashtrian middle class family. Except for the Marathi-speaking families of Maharashtra, Mumbai was known and spoken of as Bombay.

Even those Marathi speaking gentlemen who had higher education -- which had its accent on English -- and wished to show their proficiency in the language of the rulers, would fondly call the city Bom-bay.

Bombay was fashionable with us, Mumbai was natural. And, of course, the original. It was turned into Bombay by the white sahibs first and then by the brown sahibs as was the normal practice.

The Mumbai of my childhood was not as sprawling and overcrowded as it is today. The city was limited to its core area which was sparsely populated. You could walk on the roads at any time of the day without fear of being bumped off by a speeding vehicle or colliding with another pedestrian rushing to reach somewhere. Even with clocks and watches around, life was long enough to be enjoyed with its simple comforts and to be lived without the persistent feeling of anxiety.

We still had to learn and recite, by heart, a poem eulogising George the Fifth, the then emperor of the British empire on which the Sun never set. The poem was a part of our school curriculum.

At the same time the air outside was charged with Mahatma Gandhi's movements of non-violence and memories of Lokmanya Tilak and Shaheed Bhagat Singh which were still very fresh in the minds of the elders.

My mother, who was a housewife and, like most women of the time, barely educated, talked fondly of the meetings she had attended of Tilak and his powerful oratory and the terrible night on which Bhagat Singh was hanged. 'Bhagat Singh! Hai! Hai!' She would tell us how these muffled slogans of the mourners echoed on the roads of Mumbai throughout that night. My college-going elder brother was already in the freedom movement and had pledged himself to swadeshi and chakra, the spinning wheel that Gandhi had turned into a household item.

Once in a while the atmosphere would suddenly get tense. I remember one such occasion. I was hurriedly brought home from my school nearby, and my elder brother who had grown a beard was pressurised by the family to shave it off for the time being. These were sure signals that a communal riot had started in the city.

On such occasions, Hindus would shed any resemblance to a Muslim, take extra care to look thoroughly Hindu and make it a point to avoid Muslim localities till things got normal again. In their routine existence, most Hindus had very little to do in Muslim localities anyway, except passing through them in a tram or a bus. For them, it was an alien part of the city, segregated in their psyche like the prostitutes area.

During riots, one strictly avoided even passing through the Muslim area for safety's sake till the end of the tensions between the two communities were officially over. Withdrawal of curfew was a sure sign of the situation returning to normal.

The media strictly avoided any mention of the community background of the aggressors or the victims so there was no way of knowing what happened to the Muslims in the city during the riot situation. But even as a child I would hear of incidents in which a Muslim hawker or a beggar who strayed into the Hindu locality was promptly stabbed. As a rule, any recounting of such an incident would necessarily involve recounting a similar incident of a Hindu being stabbed in a Muslim locality. It was perhaps necessary both for the Hindu listeners and narrators to convince themselves that violence against a Muslim was simply a case of squaring of the account, a tit for tat and therefore perfectly justified.

I clearly remember the hush that would precede or follow any conversation about communal violence. This hush was not out of any doubt about the wisdom of such a justification but probably because the white collared clerks and their families felt uncomfortable even talking of violence. They had got so used to the smooth working of the law and order machinery of the British Raj and the peaceful existence of the politically uninvolved middle class under it.

Truly, life then was paradise for my family and for families like mine when compared to the routine gang wars, murders and dacoities in white-collared middle class localities of Mumbai today and the much publicised complicity of the police in such terrible happenings. One could not even dream of such complicity then. Not only the police, but the government machinery as a whole was taken to be above board in its functioning. Whether it was, in fact, so is anybody's guess.

I did not get an opportunity to meet any Muslim or even see one in real life and from close quarters till I was over 12 years old. Not many from the white-collared middle class got to meet and know a Muslim on a personal level, not even in the normal course of growing to be an adult in the so-called cosmopolitan city of Mumbai. One was only aware of a Muslim presence in another part of the city and inherited some stray ideas about them while he or she grew into an adult.

What were these ideas like?

Let me recount from my own experience.

A Muslim meant someone with a beard. The word also conjured up an unclean appearance, uncouth behaviour, lack of education and culture. A Muslim was someone you stayed away from. Contact with them in any form was supposed to be dangerous. I still remember a common expression very frequently heard in casual conversations among white-collared adults: "Manoos Ahes Ka Musalman?" (Are you a human being or a Muslim ?)

This was seldom said seriously; the tone would be light; half jocular, even frivolous, casual. Once this was said in my class -- I was in the first standard then -- by my teacher to one of the troublesome students. The student did not mind it, he just grinned sheepishly. In fact, no one seemed to mind. It was a way of saying someone's behaviour was most unseemly.

My first education on Muslims began with historical plays of the time. Those plays invariably dealt with the ascendance of Shivaji, the Maratha king who freed the Hindus of Maharashtra from Mughal rule and established his own rule which came to be known as Hindu pada padashahi -- the empire of the Hindus.

The first such play I saw had Shivaji's son and the Maratha emperor after him, Sambhaji, as the hero. According to the history of that period, he was a passionate womaniser and an alcoholic and a generally irresponsible young man who preferred a martyr's death in Mughal emperor Aurangzeb's prison to conversion to Islam. It was staged in our school as part of the annual day function.

All the actors were school children (older than me) and they were directed by one of our teachers. The play originally written for adults had earned acclaim on the commercial stage. Like any Marathi historical play of those days, this one too portrayed the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, Shivaji's arch-rival in his fight against the tyrannies of the Muslim religious fanatics against Hindus, as the bad man of the play.

He was painted in loud colours, a religious fanatic, a ruthless tyrant, an obnoxious figure with a long white beard on a crooked face, wearing garish costumes and shouting swearwords supposedly in Urdu and Farsi (I did not understand them but felt very piqued by them;) at Shivaji's son and the ruling Maratha emperor Sambhaji and his men. In short, he was like the villain in any commercial Hindi masala film of today, alternately comic and repulsive. The rest of the Mughal characters in the play were drunkards, lechers, capable of any dastardly act and big-mouthed cowards who always lost in a fight with Sambhaji's brave little men (mavlas, the Maratha soldiers were small in stature).

The Maratha mavlas stood in sharp contrast to these Mughal ruffians and buffoons. All the applause-winning dialogues were given to Sambhaji and his men by the playwright; the `enemy camp' only spouted hatred toward the kafir Marathas, their holy cows and showed contempt towards Hindu religion on the whole.

As children we were made to participate in and watch many such baffling (baffling for us children) specimens of adult theatre; this was only one of them. After watching the first of these, I brooded over it for days.

You can imagine my reaction at that age to this mind-blowing theatre experience. Being a school production the audience was mainly of children in the 6 to 16 age group.

Apart from this, our school text-books carried excerpts from Marathi historical plays which shaped our ideas of our past and also the present to a large extent. Access to authentic history at that age is out of the question. Even if one gets access to them at a later age the ideas -- some of them weird and twisted -- are already formed at an early age and though they can change over time, I doubt whether they disappear entirely from one's psyche. Our attitudes have a lot to do with what we internalise in our early formative years.

By arrangement with Communalism Combat

'The word Muslim had a familiar connotation for us. It meant uncultured, illiterate, undeveloped minds, full of perversities, driven by violence and always ready to go berserk'

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