Tuesday, October 30, 2007

In My Wildest Dreams

I remember this old Eddie Murphy sketch from Saturday Night Live. He puts on white make-up (talk about the whitening of America, huh?), calls himself Mister White and sets out to compare these experiences with when he was just Mr. Black.

As soon as the last Black passenger gets off the bus he is on, a spontaneous party erupts on the bus. Champagne and streamers and all. When he applies for a loan at the bank he sees a Black couple being denied. The loan officer winks at him, however, asks him how much money he wants and hands it to him. In fact he even tears up the application and tells him not to worry about returning the cash.

As funny as it was I remember it because I also found it poignant and strangely quite relatable. This is the outsider's...the other's view. It is an exaggeration of how a minority might fantasize, if just for one day, they stepped into the shoes of power. How would it be, for instance, if I became Ms. White or Ms. Hindu? It's a powerfully seductive thought.

Here is my reality: I've never been part of the majority. I am an Indian Muslim and a brown person living in the West. I don't how it is and what it is like not to be a minority. I don't know how the majority would feel, does feel.

As I read article after article on DesiCritics about minority this and minority that, I find myself thinking about Mr. White and Mr. Black.

I know that my worldview, my reactions, even the way I see myself perhaps--consciously and unconsciously--is born out of my place in the world. This was not always so. I remember the first time I became aware of it. It was at school.

I was eight and some friends and I were talking the way eight year olds do. Until then I just knew that I was a Muslim and for some reason we did not eat pork and we had some festival named Eid that I hated because I can't stand siwai. That day I found out that I came from an evil, bloodthirsty lineage. That even though I had clearly missed seeing this at home, apparently we slaughtered cows on a regular basis and then boiled them whole (where we got a pot that large and how a kicking cow did not drag us in with it I don't know). I also know that we did not bathe everyday (except Friday because they're a holy day ya know), that we always smel bad and my little friend's grandmother had told her not to eat anything from our tainted lunchboxes. She told me this as we shared some cookies from my lunchbox.

I remember two feelings that day: 1. I was thankful that no one had figured out that I was Muslim. 2. I was very glad not to have an instantly identifiable Muslim name. I had found the magical conduit between our words. I had learned to pass.

From that awakening to many overheard conversations later, years later I finally piped in, "Uhmm...you know I am Muslim right?" And I heard the stammered responses, "Well, we weren't talking about people like you," or "Muslims? No, we were talking about Pakistanis."

And I realized that I had opened up something for these girls. They were traversing the reverse route of the the journey I had started at eight. The sudden and irrevocable awareness of one part of our identity. Did they feel betrayed that I had sat among them, listening to their innermost fantasies about the destruction of my kind? Did they feel threatened by my very presence? These were not my best friends....just some girls I hung out with sometimes, but still, perhaps they held their thoughts to themselves around me from that day?

I had learned to pass years ago. But in my fantasies, when I am not a minority I weave spells of what it will be like. And in my wildest fantasy there is just one word that comes to mind. Unaware. What bliss! The gift of not having to be aware.

If I really want to I can just be unaware. I can skate through life without really having to think about these elemental parts of my identity. I can slip like a fish through the nets of my identitities, the traps of my labels, and melt into the great waters of sameness from which I will be indistinguishable. It is such a delicious thought I almost melt with anticipation.

In India I would never cringe when asked for my last name. I could read the news and have an opinion or a feeling, express a thought without the weight of my identity pressing down on me. It hangs like an albatross sometimes. Despite my many lapses as a Muslim, including apostasy, I cannot escape the fact that when it comes to riots and analyses about the Hindu-Muslim equation, I always land on the right-hand side. I may be an agnostic or an atheist but during a riot the only thing that will matter to my interrogators will be my name. I will never need to justify my identity, never be asked to prove anything to anyone. I am who I am.

That day, years ago, when the kar sevaks came to town--on their way to Ayodhya-- and swarmed all over Civil Lines, in saffron, brandishing their trishuls I might not have felt that knee-buckling terror. I might have dismissed them as a nuisance, even had a strong political and secular stance against them but I would not have wondered if they could smell me where I hid in a shop? I felt like Jack hiding from the giant, even as his scent betrayed him.

In the U.S., and in Europe, as I step outside my house, I would never be aware of the color of my skin. I would just not have to think about skin at all, except to slather on some sun screen or put on my makeup. I wouldn't have to try harder, be friendlier, to take on this persona that I wear when I go out.

In this terrorism-obsessed world I would not have the tiny frission of fear handing over the my passport at international checkpoints. I would not wonder what someone else wonders when they see my brown skin and see my name.

I could walk outside, interact with strangers and never wonder these things. It's not that I don't think there are other identity issues that Hindus in India or white folks the world over don't deal with. It's just these two: the one that that is immediately apparent, the color I am; and the one that jumps out when I say out aloud who I am: my name, cannot be hidden away.

Skin color and identity that can be established by your name are the front-runners. They are the heralds that reach people before I do and announce who I am. After that, establishing myself is up to me...or perhaps it is de-establishing myself. But these two things have already established my differentness.

What is it like to be unaware? In my wildest fantasies it feels like a magic cloak that wraps me lightly and lets me slip invisibly through the world. It tastes like strawberries in summer. It smells of nothing at all. Pure, unperfumed and untainted. It feels like freedom, weightless. Soaring like a bird and see the world from a truly 1000 foot perspective, untouched and beautiful. All sounds muffled and indistinct, just the sun shining, the wind whistling around me. I am unaware of the wind currents that lift me up and let me dance in the air. They are invisible but powerful. But most importantly I don't even know...I don't know that I am flying. I don't even have to think about my freedom. It just is. It is a permanent state of being

Then like all fantasies, it ends, and I land back on earth in the middle of it all, acutely aware of it all, of myself. Perhaps that's the way it should be. Still...


Yamini Kaur said...

Hi Jawahara, Lovely post. Very touching indeed. I understand what you mean, as I am a Sikh, a minority myself. There have been times when I have cringed at the references made to my kin. Like you, my first name does not betray my identity, but I proudly write my last name, ensuring that everyone knows who I am. I don't believe in this lifetime, we'll be able to know what it means to be 'normal'.

God Bless,

Jawahara Saidullah said...

Thanks for your lovely comment Yamini. Great name, btw. Perhaps normal ain't all it's cracked up to be, huh?

Amrita said...

You know what the problem is with your blog? everytime I come here I go away thinking twice as hard and every time i go to write a response I invariably end up writing an entire post. Well, I guess that isnt really a PROBLEM. Similarly this time. But this time I'll put it up because this is something I've been kicking around all week.

Btw, you've been tagged on an entirely different subject :)

dipali said...

Wonderful post.
If only the people who go berserk during troubled times could let go of their preconceived, prejudiced notions of 'the other'.
If only they could relate to them as human beings, and not through the prism of their prejudices. If only they could try and walk in 'the other's' shoes for a while.
If only life could be reasonably normal, even boringly so, for everyone, even just for a while.
Things would have to change, for the better.
Do read Annie Zaidi's post (Known Turf):A brief contextual history of the blogger, in the light of Islam (ism?) and literary spats.

Sujatha said...


I just read your SILENCE!! post and as I was reading I thought to myself that we are so alike. Then on a hunch I checked your profile and find that you are an Aquarian too! When's your b'day? Send me an e-mail!

Coming to this post on identity, I loved it. Thoughtful, wishful and so practical at the same time.

Jawahara Saidullah said...

Sorry Amrita, but thanks. Glad to be of help. Will read your post. Just did your tag.

Dipali, let's hope things change for the better and thanks for the recco. Will try and get it here.

Jawahara Saidullah said...

Sujatha, I can't find your email address. I am losing my mind. Send it please.

Yay! We're both Aquarians. how cool! Mine's January 26th. Yep, a republic day baby. You?

Sujatha said...

Sent you mail to your yahoo address. :)

revathi said...

I have been a minority loads of times- (vegetarian in France, brahmin in Tamil Nadu, only colored person in a Zurich museum etc) mostly it depends on where you are. A white anglo saxon male said that he felt he was in minority when he travelled the new york subway. I think you shouldnt take the reactions of other people so personally.It may seem hard to have a muslim name now but perhaps in 10 years it would be hard to have a buddhist name. Parsis are minorities everywhere.
Whereever you are, you should be proud of who you are and then everything will fall into place. Didnt mean to advice though..

continued-contemplation said...

Hi Jawahara,
Poignantly written and somewhere I feel sorry that you feel like that…but do I agree with you as to your reasons of feeling like that? Not really.
Just to make my identity clear I was born a hindu and now I see myself swinging between atheism and more philosophies than religions, like Buddhism.
You recount an incident of when you were eight years old, which must have happened like at least two decades ago. I will tell you of something that happened to me two years ago, and I have been working for years now. A Muslim colleague who lived near my house hitched a ride back in my car. Later, he requested me not to drop him very near his place, as he was afraid his wife would see me. His fear was not that I was another woman, but that I was clearly (?) a non-Muslim. And his wife had expressly told him not to EAT food with Hindus or spend too much time with them. He wanted to avoid any kind of questions that my appearance might evoke. And how would she know I wasn’t a Muslim? Because of my clothes and because I was okay with driving a stranger in my car.
So much for being in the MAJORITY? What do I do know? Go and cry?
Also, Jawahara if you are honest to yourself, I am sure even your family (parents/grandparents) has some preconceived notion about the others much like your 8 year old friend’s grandmother. Say about Hindus’ “idol worshipping” about how we pray to a false god. As I have heard it again and again. And if not, then congratulations you are really LUCKY..as you belong to one of the FEW TRULY NON BIGOTED FAMILIES in the world, irrespective of the religious denomination….
Now let’s address the question of being in a minority. A friend of mine who flew to Dubai faced this. He is a devout Hindu and carries pocket sized idols of Hanuman, Shiv with him whenever he travels. He was FORCED to leave them at the airport by a customs official who refused to allow symbols of other religions in…Any ideas as to how my friend must have felt. I wonder if he wanted to be Mr. Muslim then?
Also, being a writer I am sure you read newspapers so I will spare you the details about temple demolitions in Malaysia. Or the story of a Muslim woman whose family took her child away from her when she converted to Hinduism. If you do need the links to these stories let me know and I can respond with the details..
EVERYONE IS A VICTIM SOMEWHERE….that is the kind of world we live in today…so WAKE UP girl, and stop carrying around a victim’s badge of honor..It is not UNIQUE any more
During a riot the only thing that would matter for ME TOO is MY NAME…which irrespective of my orientations is decidedly Hindu..
As for what happens at airports…., Brown or not, muslim or not fact of the matter is that planes are being flown into buildings, planes are being hijacked, entire countries are being held at ransom due to the acts of a few…Sheer poetry of your words apart, THIS IS WHAT THE TRUTH IS….I would rather any day be stripped searched, detained questioned than have another WTC happen…Like Revathi says….It is not personal….
And if you want to be a Ms. Someone, then develop the courage to be a Ms. Yourself, irrespective of where in the world or life you are.

Indian Home Maker said...

I think being a minority 'somewhere' and 'been a minority loads of times' is not the same as being a minority in your country, always, everyday. It's like you have no home.