Abdullah Girgis was sitting at home, facing a small group of teachers and classmates who had come to complain regarding his daughter.
“When I had to keep her back to look after my parents, her Hindu teachers and classmates came home to protest, because they missed her,” says Girgis (55), a senior member of the Tamil Nadu Pradesh Congress Committee, wearing a crisp white veshti (dhoti), shirt and dark glasses.
“We are different in Tamil Nadu,” he says in a large cool room in Kumbakonam town, 300 kilometres south of the state capital of Chennai.
Muslims number about 35 lakh in Tamil Nadu — about 5 per cent of the state’s population of a little over 6 crore.
They say they have a different worldview from Muslims in some other parts of India, and have grown up on a culture enmeshed with values of other religions.
Muslims here quote ancient Tamil aphorisms freely from the Thirukkural.
Islamia Bhakti Paadalgal (Islamic devotional verse) is part of the Tamil syllabus.
The 17th century epic Sirah Puranam (Life of the Prophet Mohammed) by Umaru Pulavar (Omar the Poet) is modelled on the 9th century Kamba Ramayanam, with the marriage of Ali and Fatima described like that of Ram and Sita.
And when the ancient temple of Kumbakonam in the Kaveri Delta celebrated its Mahamaham (Kumbh Mela) in 2004, the town’s Muslims contributed 100 kilos of rice for the mandatory annadaanam (free meals at temples for pilgrims).
That syncretic upbringing has reflected in the way Muslims here cringe at religion-based politics.
“I find even Karnataka's Muslims tend a little towards extremism. But Muslims in Tamil Nadu are part of Tamil culture,” says Faizur Rahman (40), a civil engineer and social activist. “We want neither Hindu extremists nor Salafi (puritanical Muslim) extremists from other places to spoil our region.”
As a little boy, Girgis lived for two years in the house of a Vaishnava Brahmin in Kottayoor nearby.
“Though I had an uncle up at Dar-ul-Uloom in Deoband, we Muslims in Tamil Nadu know we belong here,” he says (Deoband in western Uttar Pradesh is home to India’s leading Islamic seminary).
“I live in the middle of an agraharam (Brahminical quarter). Everyone comes and goes freely at home and we in turn are considerate of our vegetarian neighbours. I am the guardian of that street; no loiterers dare show their face there,” he says, his forearm slicing the air assertively.
Girgis says he joined politics because of his fascination for legendary actor-politician Sivaji Ganeshan.
But it is tough being a Congress leader in Tamil Nadu, which has strong ties with regional parties, even though Muslims here say they prefer the Congress to the BJP at the Centre.
That’s because they have a strong tilt towards the ruling Dravida Munnethra Kazhagam (DMK), especially after it allocated 3 per cent government jobs to for Muslims since 2008.
The state is politically crucial.
“The Centre is pro-Tamil Nadu,” says Mani Shankar Iyer, incumbent Congress party MP from next-door Mayiladuthurai taluka (division) in Nagapattinam district, on his way to distribute prizes for a local competition in kolam (drawing floor patterns in rice powder).
Tamil Nadu has 39 seats in the Lok Sabha and the DMK-Congress alliance won all in 2004. It traded them for 13 ministerial posts in the Union Cabinet in return for its support to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government.
But politics aside, there is little that seems to bind Tamil Nadu's Muslims with Muslims in the north — and some are blunt about it.
“North Indian Muslims, because of poverty and no quality schools, are forced to send their children to madrasas.
Unfortunately, most of these madrasas are narrowly sectarian,” says Rahman.
“Who goes to madrasa in Tamil Nadu? Usually, it’s the dullard who cannot pass exams in general education.”