Suppose you happen to be descended from Mohammed Ghori, the Afghan ruler who struck terror in the subcontinent in the 12th century. If you also happen to be an Indian in a school history class, would you have an uneventful passage? Surely you would be hounded, wouldn’t you? “No, never! The most that ever happened in school was if some kid asked me if I was Pakistani,” laughs Tanzila Asin, a 25-year-old advertising executive who happens to have been in such a situation. Tanzila’s Pathan family located six generations ago to Bundelkhand, and she went to school and college in Delhi. “My name literally means ‘akashvani’, evoking the revelation of the Quran,” says this bubbly young professional. “It’s never been a handicap being a Muslim — in school, college or at work. The only thing that’s stuck in my mind from First Year was when some Sharma girl in Indraprastha College suddenly said, ‘I don’t like Muslims in general, but I like you.’ My other friends were livid and I wondered, where the hell is this coming from?”
Welcome to the tolerant, well-behaved, utterly silent world of the Mainstream Muslim. Not the New Muslim, emerging as an aspirational class along with the New Hindu, New Christian and New Sikh. No, this is the Old Muslim, the person that the mainstream (educated middle/upper class Hindu) has always known, gone to school and college with, works with (or for) and hangs out with. And sometimes marries, because class is its own caste, cutting across creed. There lies the heartbreak. The upper class, educated urban Muslim has always participated in the mainstream with confidence, patriotism, pride and good, old-fashioned liberalism. He or she has always belonged with a sense of utter Indian-ness and ownership.
“I’m a real ‘Darya’ (Old City girl),” says a jeansclad Umaima Anub, 25, whose family has lived next to the Jama Masjid in Delhi ‘since forever’. “I did not have even one Muslim friend until I went to college. I was away for 10 years at the Whynberg Allen school in Mussoorie... I work in a software company now. Listen, who has the time for religion, Monday to Friday?”
However, both Asin and Anub are deeply attached to their religion and culture. “I may not do namaaz five times a day, but every time I’m afraid or want to thank God, I say certain ayats (verses),” says Umaima. “What I detest now is that on weekends, when I want quality time with my family, somebody is always talking about the ‘Muslim issue’.”
“I must have chased away at least six maulvis in my naughty childhood,” says Tanzila of the Quranic study that is given to each Muslim child. “I’d wear shorts and they’d say, cover your legs; but I’d retort, I’m wearing a big dupatta over my whole body, so I’m covered. I love my culture. But never has anyone at home taught me to think ill of any other religion. So it horrifies me to see the rubbish they show now on electronic media... The other day, I refused to give my father change for Rs 200. He said, I’m going to call a TV channel and tell them how a ‘buddhe, mazloom baap’ was refused money by his heartless daughter.”
Like Asin and Anub, Firoze Zia Hussain, 40, who lives with his wife, Mehnaaz, in an expensive dupleix apartment in Gurgaon, has always swum in the mainstream. Born in Bodh Gaya, he joined the IPS and worked at keeping law-and-order in Pondicherry for 10 years. Into his late 30s, Hussain wanted a shot at the corporate life and joined an MNC. Posted to Colombo for a year, Hussain delighted the Lankans with greeting cards bearing a dried leaf from Gaya’s Bodhi tree. “I say namaaz and keep roza... [But] being a Muslim never got me any discrimination,” he says.
Like Hussain, Shabib Zaidi, 27, a chartered accountant in Mumbai and an ex-student of Mithibai College, affirms that though he knows people who couldn’t get jobs because they were Muslim, “I have never felt any discrimination.” And, “that day in 2002 when Gujarat was burning, the hotel where my brother had been put up was set on fire. He was trapped on the third floor. That day too, a Hindu family rescued him”.
Zaidi is conscious of the fact that people point fingers at his community every time there is a terror attack. “I think if some people criticise us it is probably justified. I don’t mind it. It forces us to do some introspection,” he says gently. “At some point every religion has gone through a violent phase. This is our bad phase.”
The long view comes from Ishaat Hussain, 61, finance director of Tata Sons. He was born in Patna, went to Doon School, St Stephen’s College, and then to the UK to study chartered accountancy.
“I was one of the 5 per cent of Indians abroad who came back,” says Hussain. “This is my country, how can anyone question my belonging? Nor need my community apologise for being Muslim — we are Indian.” Though he does namaaz and keeps the roza faithfully, the first time it hit Hussain that he was a Muslim was during the Mumbai riots of 1993. “I had to remove my name plate from the building and check into a hotel. It was unbelievable,” says Hussain. “To divide society was always the RSS agenda and the BJP has been a disaster. And the ulema have not behaved very well, I’m sorry to say. Truly religious people are really broadminded,” says Hussain. “If I had to live my life all over again, I would make the same choice. I am an Indian and shall always be one.”