I suppose the first signs of my awareness of being Muslim must lie in a story my parents often repeat at family gatherings. I must have been three or four and was at a children’s birthday party, the table loaded with goodies. And then a plate of sausages came around and I loudly proclaimed that I did not eat “piggy-wiggy”! Being Muslim then was about food. That, and my name.
What does identity really mean? And how do we get a sense of it?
When I think of my childhood, I do remember a very strong sense of being Indian. The kind of nationalistic feeling bred at schools through Sara Jahan Se Achcha. I knew Iqbal had written it, and I remember feeling sort of sorry that he ended up on what we thought of as the wrong side of the border. This sense of being Indian also came from the fact that my great-grandfather had been President of India, Dr Zakir Husain. But feeling Indian is not the only thing I remember. I also remember feeling not too rich or too poor – because we didn’t own an air conditioner but did own a car. I remember feeling smarter than many in my class – because I could speak better English. I remember feeling like a girl – because I wore skirts and wanted to prove that I could do anything I wanted to. In my everyday life, these feelings were much more frequent and so, much more important to me. For strangers that I encountered, though, these strands of my identity were not as important as my name. That was what the first question was almost always about. Samina is so obviously a Muslim name, and Mishra a Hindu caste name. It is rare for this to be treated casually in India.
I grew up as a Muslim but my father came from a Maithil Brahmin family from Bihar. It was a fairly orthodox family, but not orthodox enough to have transmitted a sense of brahminical legacy to him. And so, when my father fell in love with my mother, he wasn’t about to stop himself because she wasn’t Hindu. His background was upper-class landed feudal, but he had been to a residential missionary school in Patna. In the 1960s, what mattered most to people like my father were Western liberal principles.
My mother came from a feudal landed family as well. She had also studied in English-medium public and convent schools. The everyday landscape of my father’s life was not unfamiliar to her. But her belief in Islam made it impossible for her to consider a marriage that was not Islamic. Intertwined with that, perhaps, was also the assumption that it was the woman’s place to subsume her identity. Since most women take on their husband’s surname and most children carry only their father’s surname, it is assumed that children of mixed marriages will also be identified with the father’s religion. But my mother was uncomfortable with the idea of her children growing up as non-Muslims. And my father was comfortable with the idea of his children growing up as Muslims. So, he converted to Islam to marry my mother and to bring up their children as Muslims.
For my father, the choice was less about religion and more about familial relationships. My father’s family, perhaps, felt that rejection of Hinduism much more than he did. But they did not allow their grief to overwhelm them. They exhibited grace and restraint, and after a period of time, those relationships were recovered. Changed in form, perhaps, but strong enough to sustain my father through his life. And so, as a child, I remember my father’s eldest brother making sure that we visited him, my grandmother, and my cousins. I remember feeling a sense of family not just because my uncle looked so much like my father, but because he also smelt like him when we hugged him, and because my grandmother also told us the same stories of my father’s childhood that we’d heard from my father.
And yet, I knew there was a difference. When my sister and I went to celebrate Diwali at my uncle’s and arrived while the Laxmi puja was still being done, we did not become part of the puja. I didn’t know if it was because we were Muslim and couldn’t worship idols or because they were Brahmins and couldn’t have Muslims in the puja. That was sensitive territory to tread on and no one ventured there. After the puja, however, we were all one big family.
We followed my older cousins in much of what they did, including going to the same colleges, reading the same books and watching the same movies. Those shared experiences defined us in similar ways, even as not sharing the puja separated us. But while we could speak of what brought us together, we couldn’t speak of what separated us. Regardless of India’s constitutional longing for ‘Unity in Diversity’, somehow difference is always seen as a threat
In the mid-1980s, I moved with my parents to an apartment building complex called Zakir Bagh. Named after my great-grandfather, Zakir Bagh is located in an area sometimes referred to as the “border”. The border between South Delhi’s Friends Colony and Okhla. Between houses that mostly display names like Singh and Sehgal and those that mostly display names like Zaidi and Khan.
Zakir Bagh had come up as a cooperative housing society and its members were mostly – but not wholly – Muslim. It was the first time that I was living with so many Muslim families as neighbours. I remember when friends came over and gushed over the flat or the building, it would always be followed with a question about it being a “Mohammedan colony”. That was always a little dissonant for me because I didn’t think I was like most of my neighbours. My years in Zakir Bagh saw me finish school, join an elite college like St Stephens and finish my professional training. They saw me try on make up, argue with my parents about party deadlines, acquire a boyfriend. They were also the years in which I began to be critical of religious identities. I remember being very determined about not using Hindu or Muslim as descriptive terms, as if those terms would obliterate all the other descriptions of identity.
In 1991, we moved to the old house that my great-grandfather had built, in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University. I was captivated by the exoticness of heritage. I had already formed some kind of a connection with the neighbourhood in my two years of being an MA student at Jamia. Living there made it possible to be both liberal-progressive and exotic. I was privileged enough to not feel oppressed by the comparative lack of civic amenities or the profusion of burkha-clad women in the neighbourhood. And then in 1992, the Babri Masjid was demolished and suddenly, a part of my identity that I wasn’t sure meant anything to me, often became the defining part. In a confusing sort of way. I wanted to condemn the demolition as an individual, a citizen. But that condemnation wasn’t always seen as coming from just a citizen. It was a package deal and being Muslim was part of the package, whether I practised Islam or not.
While I was still unsure about all this, I decided to get married to Kunal who was not Muslim and we decided to not have a religious ceremony. It made perfect sense to us, since neither of us were religious. But it was rare for even this to be treated casually. Suddenly, this act of marrying a non-Muslim was to become the defining marker of my identity. To be interpreted variously as a rejection of Islam or an embracing of Hinduism or a sign of India’s ‘composite culture’. I was uncomfortable with all of these perceptions. But it was difficult to find the words to explain why. And I think I muddled through it all – getting married, having a son, giving him a ‘Muslim’ name.
The growing polarisation in India, the Gujarat riots, my personal life and the discomfort with these essentialised understandings – all of these led me to make a documentary film, The House on Gulmohar Avenue. The film was intended to be a personal exploration of what Home and Identity can mean in the context of being Muslim in India today. Making the film was a struggle, not just because it was about my life, but because those terms continued to elude me. The descriptions that were available seemed self-conscious, limiting and antiseptic. Culturally Muslim, non-practising Muslim, hybrid Muslim. The qualifications seemed necessary as if Muslim (or Hindu) was a bad word to own as an identity. Yes, I was not the stereotype of a Muslim woman. But neither was I the stereotype of India’s ‘composite culture’? Stereotypes are singular in nature and I did not want to choose a singular identity.
In the last few months, I have been showing my film to different kinds of audiences. The responses have been vast and varied. In the old city of Hyderabad, a teacher at a college attended mostly by young women in burkha claimed that by showing that I’d married a non-Muslim, the film said that it was possible to maintain communal harmony only by giving up a Muslim identity. For him, I was not Muslim enough, and the film posed a threat to preserving what he thought was Muslim identity. A woman in a more diverse audience felt that the film did not show enough of multiple identities. For her, I think I was too Muslim and the film a rejection of what she thought was multiplicity.
Then there are those in the audience who have had close contact with neighbourhoods that are inhabited by poor Muslims in North India. Some of them have felt that the experiences that the film recounts are not the ‘real’ experiences of ‘real’ Muslims. For them, perhaps, my voice is not disempowered enough to speak of being Muslim in India. At a college in Delhi, one young man felt that I was “Othering the Other” by, for example, choosing to name my son Imran instead of a name that was culturally more ambiguous, like Aftab. For him, perhaps, the film threatened an amorphous notion of India’s composite culture.
Again and again, I encounter the desire to fit people into categories, whether it’s a category defined by religion or whether it’s one defined by secularism. We all own many words as our identities. I am: woman, Indian, upper middle-class, parent, book-lover, filmmaker. I am also: Muslim. The lines between these words are not rigid and straight. They crisscross, overlap, fade or grow bolder, as we move through our lives. Our identities are complex and entangled. Who is to decide which strand is more definitive? Who is to choose that one defining act to mark our identities? My history may be an obviously entangled one, but is there a history in which religion isn’t entangled with class, or political ideology entangled with personal politics, or caste with language politics? Is there a history that is simple?
Samina Mishra is a documentary filmmaker and media practitioner based in New Delhi. This article first appeared in Himal Southasian, March 2006. www.himalmag.com."