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This Instagram account chronicles the daily lives of Muslims living in Mumbai

What is it like to be a Muslim in Mumbai today? An Instagram account puts the spotlight on the common man

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Mar 17, 2017 19:28 IST
Soma Das
Jumana Abedin (right) is a designer of jhabla and izaar, traditional clothing that Dawoodi Bohra girls wear on sacred occasions or their weekly outings to jamaat-khana, a community mosque.
Jumana Abedin (right) is a designer of jhabla and izaar, traditional clothing that Dawoodi Bohra girls wear on sacred occasions or their weekly outings to jamaat-khana, a community mosque.(Photo courtesy: Shaikh Ayaz )

One of the posts on Chiliya Chai, a two-month-old Instagram handle (@chiliyachai) shows the pages of a diary scribbled with Urdu, Hindi and English scripts. The accompanying text reads: “Pages from a forgotten, secular Urdu diary where English and Hindi can coexist peacefully.”

The handle features tales of ordinary Muslims from Mumbai. There is an HR professional who moonlights as a dancer-choreographer, a raddiwallah who doesn’t understand the hype about International Women’s Day, and a girl from Mumbra (the area is labelled a Muslim ghetto) who loves all things Japanese, but fears being ridiculed for it. There are snapshots of things chanced upon — the dua inscribed on a door (a prayer for safety from the Quran), a writer’s desk spotted on the road near Manto’s erstwhile home in Byculla. Some of the posts also talk of significant personalities from Mumbai, such as artist Tyeb Mehta and film-maker Muzaffar Ali.

Chiliya Chai is run by freelance entertainment journalist Shaikh Ayaz (34), who is assisted by photographer Devang Vyas (he has shot some of the photos). Ayaz, who grew up in Byculla and now resides in Versova, considers the photographs and posts his love letter to the city. “This is a secular, humanist project. I wanted to narrate the story of the city through tales of one community, and show how Muslims have contributed to Mumbai,” he says.

The title, Chiliya Chai, refers to a form of milky tea, but also denotes certain restaurants in Muslim-dominated areas of Mumbai where people hang out.

In a 2015 ground report, The Hindu newspaper declared Mumbra, a north-east suburb of Mumbai, "India’s largest Muslim ghetto." It is the ultimate black hole which also sometimes gets charitably described as "blacklisted area/mini-Pakistan/of Ishrat Jahan fame or as Basharat Peer puts it in The Hindu essay, "a Mumbra address often carries a degree of prejudice and suspicion." Tasneem Ansari, 27, is one of the thousands of young women enjoying what you would imagine a life of luxurious poverty in Mumbra. It’s a place where most Muslim girls her age would by now be "married and settled with kids." Ansari says she wanted to do something "different with my life." In 2015, she got introduced to Japanese and soon found herself sucked into the oriental culture. She also took a liking to the Japanese cuisine, which is more rabidly anti-Muslim than Mr Trump can ever imagine. "Muslim and Japanese food are mutual enemies. Theirs is bland and ours, colourful and spicy." Last year, Ansari was given the responsibility of taking Ms Chika Nakagawa, Miss World Japan 2015 on a Mumbai tour as a translator. "She taught me new words, including one for temple (otera, in Japanese)." Ansari is aware of the dark fate that awaits Muslims girls like her. "Marriage is the future but nobody can stop you from hoping for a supportive husband." She wants to work for the Japanese embassy in the future, claiming a fluent command over Hiragana and Katakana scripts but Kanji, the toughest one, still eludes her. In Mumbra, if caught speaking in a foreign language you can get trolled for what locals would interpret as indulging in unMumbra-like behaviour. Simply put, it’s No Country for Linguists. "You get laughed at," Ansari puts it candidly. "But I can abuse them back in Japanese. They won’t know." #india #japan #japanese #japanesefood #mumbai #mumbra #Thehindu #basharatpeer #muslim #oriental #bombaydiaries #Chiliyachai #Islamic #Islaminindia #Trump

A post shared by Chiliya Chai (@chiliyachai) on

The Instagram handle comes at a time when the community is facing issues across the globe — US President Donald Trump’s ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries, the Syrian refugee crisis — and battling stereotypes within India. “The religion is often thought of as regressive. It is time to have a discussion about Islam, to talk to the man on the ground,” says Ayaz.

Chiliya Chai also highlights the struggles of the community, be it urban loneliness (a psychiatrist speaks about how digital media alienates us from real contact) or the consequences of redevelopment in Muslim-dominated areas. “Life will be quite different once tall buildings replace the present housing. It will change the community and life as they know it,” says Shaikh.

I recently asked a cabbie who drives an old kaali-peeli (taxi) in Bombay what will happen to men like him, now that Uber and Ola have eaten into their businesses. He simply shook his head and said, "Saab, pata nahin aage kya hoga. (Sir, I don’t know what the future is going to be like)." Though I have moved on from Gaman I did wonder what it would be like if the same film was made today. I do know that men like Ghulam (played by Farooq Shaikh) will fail to make the switch. The conflicts may be different but the emotional angst will be the same. Gaman was about the helplessness of migration. That’s an eternal truth which we somehow cannot come to terms with even today. At the same time, the issue of migration is becoming larger-than-life. When I made that film, it suggested the impact migration had on local people. Migration now is leading to further migration. It’s also creating resentment. It’s politically appealing to be anti-migration. Take America. Our whole politics is shifting towards migration – filmmaker Muzaffar Ali on the effects of migration and why Gaman (1978), one of the most definitive cinematic records of Bombay, remains relevant than ever. The film turns 40 next year. Mr Ali is pictured here at his Juhu home. #MuzaffarAli #Bombay #Gaman #FarooqShaikh #bombaydiaries #India #IndianMuslim #Migration #Bollywood #TaxiDriver #Trump #Muslim #Uber #Ola #ChiliyaChai

A post shared by Chiliya Chai (@chiliyachai) on

Some of the posts are comic as well. One recounts an overheard conversation between two Muslim boys; one of them says, “Life bhar jitna tune bike chalaya hai agar utna Uber chalata toh tera abhi Maratha Mandir ke saamne bangla hota” (If you would have driven an Uber instead of a motorcycle, you would be rich by now). “It’s an attempt to capture the unique sense of humour of the community. “Muslims are morbidly funny. Humour is our defence mechanism,” says Shaikh.

The accompanying text with posts includes Ayaz’s original text as well as extracts from books by authors like Salman Rushdie and Mohammed Hanif. But the one thing that Ayaz is particular about is that the posts remain objective: “There is no sentimentality to the posts. The idea is to present a portrait of people and depict the changing colours of society. I am not trying to solve the problems of the community; politics is a more powerful medium to do that.”

Follow Chiliya Chai on instagram.com/chiliyachai

Shaikh Ayaz (Photo courtesy: Shaikh Ayaz)