That fabulous Oscar acceptance speech about Home being the Land of Om…How? (vulgar sub-text: You’re Muslim but you said that?).
That was not the occasion to thank my cat and dog. It was a chance to make a point to the watching world and I didn’t waste it.
I’m an Indian first, before Muslim and Malayali. I grew up with Hindus and Christians, went to school with them, I work with them. Religion never came in the way and it doesn’t now.
You waded right into hardcore religion with that? When it’s the thing in some urban circles to say, “Oh, I’m spiritual, not religious,” and hide out in a feel-good fuzzy bandwidth of pretty thoughts?
(Grins). My mother, Nabeeza Beevi, who died in early 2000, taught me that outlook. She was a devout Muslim who did namaaz five times a day. Her Islam made her a woman with a great sense of humanism and spirituality. She learnt her spirituality from religion. During Ramzaan, we’d call the Hindus and Christians over for aapam and curry (and guess who did the grinding for the batter: me!). And for Easter, we’d be called for more aapam and curry. We shared our lives. I sat up all night for Shivaratri, our village, Vilakkupara, up in the timberlands of Kerala, has a temple with Shiva as the pratishtham (presiding deity). And all the festivities during Makara Sankaranti (mid-January), I was part of all that. Personally, I think it’s important to have a religious identity. You can’t be afraid of religion. You have to deal with it, otherwise look what happens.
How do you deal with it?
I did my first katha-prasangam (performance of story-recitation) at our Shiva temple. My mother taught us the Quran (my father was a Communist and his brother, PT Pookutty, was the first Communist municipal councilor of Kayamkulam nearby). But my mother never forced religion on us. I learnt that all South Indian Muslims were Sunni in a very amusing way. Some years ago, a gentleman from Hyderabad called my elder brother, Shamsuddin, with a marriage proposal for me. I answered the phone and pretended to be my brother. When he asked if we were Sunni or Shia, I didn’t know. I only knew the Quran. So I said, “Shia!” in a wild guess. The man hung up at once. Only then did I discover this.
Why do you think things are so ugly in India now?
We have lost ourselves, the ability to accommodate others. We have become so conceited, we boast of our tolerance.
But in fact, we have all become more orthodox or we run and hide.
We are sexually frustrated. The way Indian men stare at women and misbehave with them is the most obnoxious thing we do.
Keep your religion and use it well as a personal matter. But don’t look for your identity in the agendas of those who run organised religion.
Look for identity in your work and in your relationships at home and with others.