To have a Muslim name -- or even a Muslim-sounding one -- becomes a terrible albatross round the neck during communally troubled times. Just bearing a Muslim name can pave the way for a crude joke or, worse, an insult -- such as when a journalist’s card evoked the comment, “We don’t allow terrorists here,” after last week’s blasts in Mumbai.
Even in normal times, a Muslim name is a handicap. Years ago, I was helping a colleague find a paying guest accommodation in Kolkata. I told her to use the personal ads column in the paper we worked in and she began drafting her insertion. “I’ll add ‘Call Naqvi at this number’ so that they know I’m Muslim. Many people don’t want Muslim tenants,” she said. I recall feeling startled that a 20-year-old from a privileged background already knew what it is to be a Muslim in India.
Yet, 60 years of nationhood have thrown up a myriad set of experiences. The most heart-warming one I have read is in a children’s story set in 1947. The voice in the story belongs to a little girl who, with her brother, goes bird-watching with Uncle Silly Molly -- a short, bespectacled man with binoculars around his neck. Tramping about in long grass near the new international border, they are stopped by a fearsome sentry who accuses uncle of being a spy. Uncle draws himself up and announces his name. To the child it sounds like Silly Molly but the sentry’s manner changes at once and he exclaims, “Ah, the great Salim Ali!”
The only person I know of who found his Muslim-sounding name an advantage on at least one momentous occasion was my father, Hamdi Bey. I heard of the incident not from him but from writer Nabendu Ghosh’s daughter, also a colleague. During the 1947 riots, Ghosh was trapped in a Muslim locality in Bombay. My father, assumed to be a Muslim, could move around freely and asked people if they had seen him. “We haven’t killed him yet,” was the reply. My father then inspected the bodies in the local morgue and reported back to Ghosh’s family that he was probably safe. Ghosh was in hiding with Muslim friends.
An atheist born of an agnostic, my father was taken to be Muslim even by many of his journalist colleagues. During the 1985 Shah Bano controversy, my news editor, who had also been my father’s colleague, visited my desk to ask if I could elaborate mohur, mehr and iddat. “No, but Saba can,” I replied. “Oh, she wouldn’t know,” he tossed his head and rushed off before I could explain that the previous day she had mentioned her father had, at his wedding, promised her mother mohurs in case of divorce. Hrrmph, I thought, strange that you should think I would know because my father never promised my mother mohurs.