‘How is one supposed to look like one’s religion?’ With these opening lines, the author, Rakhshanda Jalil sets the premise of her book which questions the common imagination of Muslims as a community. Through various essays, Jalil stresses that all the Muslims are not cut from the same cloth. The book is divided into four broad themes of identity, culture, literature and religion containing ten essays in each chapter. The essays are written over a period of time containing her life experiences. The book cannot be categorized as a memoir, a book of anecdotes or a political commentary as it is a mix of all this and more.
In the chapter titled ‘The Politics of Identity’, Jalil gives references to all those incidences from her life where she had been ‘othered’ because of her religious identity. These may not be very stark instances of discrimination in the sense of approaching the court of law but are still important for one’s life of dignity. In the introduction itself, the author marks the perceived distinction between ‘they’ and ‘us’. All the bearded people with surma (kohl) in the eyes or skullcap on head are ‘the terrifying other’ whereas ‘us’ are those who are vegetarian and hence considered ‘nonviolent’.
The book traces instances from popular culture and media. Cinema has a power to shape people’s perceptions and ideas therefore it should abstain from stereotyping. Indian Cinema in pre and post-globalization era has manufactured a certain stereotypical image of Muslims. The only transformation in this image over the years is from paan chewing to tech savvy yet devout cold-blooded jihadists. This steady and subtle infiltration of ideas in public discourse has done more than alienate Muslims. On the same note, in one of the later essays, ‘Of Kings, Queens and Invaders’ in Part 2, Jalil highlights the mass hysteria created by recent movies, most notably by Padmaavat. Other than misogyny and the narrative of the chaste and the promiscuous, Padmaavat creates a notion of ‘native Hinduism’ and ‘foreign Islam’: the sinister, bestial, slanted kohl-lined eyed, raw meat-eating pervert versus sanskari native ruler. Following this, the author takes a strong position on the episode of the Charlie Hebdo killings. The author condemns the killing but at the same refuses to call herself ‘Je Suis Charlie’ because of the ‘irresponsible, inopportune and imbecilic’ stereotyping by the magazine ‘with strong political subtext’ (p. 29).
In ‘Living in Jamia, Coping with Ghettoisation’, the author talks about the realities of living in the Jamia Nagar neighbourhood post the Batla House encounter. Along with the prejudice faced on a daily basis, the residents on the left side of Jamia are left far behind in terms of civic amenities than those on the right-hand side. In this sprawling yet invisible neighbourhood, there are no fair price shops, no government funded training institutes, no Safal and Mother Dairy outlets, and hardly any drinking water—amenities which are taken for granted by the residents of other neighbourhoods of Delhi. The author calls these unaddressed discontents serious urban unrest which has the potential to spill over into something ‘extreme’.
The title ‘But You Don’t Look Like A Muslim’ stimulates many debates in one’s mind regarding intersectional identities but the book takes a different course and deals mostly through personal accounts. More perspectives on women might have been expected but it has just two chapters, ‘Separate But Equal: The Struggle for a Normal School for girls’ and ‘Burqa: Moving Tombs for Muslim Women’. It is disheartening to read that the project of educating Muslims only meant educating Muslim men which is apparent from the dialogues between Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Shaikh Mohammad Abdullah as cited in the book. It was realized very late and by very few that ibtedayi taalim (elementary education) to girls was also necessary rather than the trickled down knowledge from male counterparts or the deeni taalim (religious education) given by ustanis. Separate but equal is the way of justifying the discrimination against women but it is important to understand that that ‘which is separate is inherently unequal’ (p.22) and there comes a point where seclusion and discrimination keep getting blurred.
In the next part on culture, the author takes the reader deep into the culinary, linguistic heritage of Muslims. Food nostalgia spreads over four essays describing foods to be eaten in ramzaan, during summers, winters and during the ‘gharelu dawaat’ (feast prepared at home). This part could be really interesting for those who wish to read about the food traditions of shariif families (upper-class Muslims) of Rohilkhand, Oudh, and Bengal. The author provides a trajectory from pre-green revolution and pre-globalization times to the modern days when culture and geography are losing their indigenenous place in food, clothing and language and are getting homogenized.
Described with evocative imagery the author recounts Ramleela tableaux as an important occasion of community gathering and also as the place where intermingling and usage of dialects like Brijbhasha, Haryanvi, Oudhi, Khariboli, Dehalvi, Hindavi happened. Conflict brings awareness amongst like-minded people, and Jalil highlights the transformative forces of the 20th century.Writings by Premchand and socially purposive literature by the Progressive Writers Movement were considered social movements of the time in themselves: ‘Urdu shed its cosmopolitanism and began to speak for rural India like never before’ (p. 102). Movies like Mother India, Mazdoor and Upkaar not only reflect the agrarian society of the time but also questioned the existing system of the time. The verses of Josh Malihabadi, Sahir Ludhyanawi, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz spoke of the plight of dehqaan (peasants) and mazdoors (labourers) in the common tongue which could connect the masses of the time.
The third part deals with the mosaic of literature and languages where the author presents the politics of Hindi, Urdu’s association with religion and a perplexity around the existence of Urdu. She tells the story of the glorified history of Urdu, its usage in Indian national movements to the times of erosion of common syncretic space of languages; of times when there was no blasphemy in blending languages, and Amir Khusrau devised ‘Mukarni’ which is the synthesis of Persian and Hindavi, understood by common people. Jalil also introduces the Bhakti traditions of sakhis, dohas, horis, jhoolnas, ulatbanis, manglas and baramasas which influenced the successive Rekhta and Hindavi traditions.
The book has essays on poets like Rahim, Nazir Akbarabadi, Ale Ahmad Suroor and on Shakeel Badayuni and their styles. Rahim wrote for inclusivity, Nazir Sahab refused to reminisce the imagined glory of the past and focussed more on social ills, Suroor wrote with both emotion and reason, Shakeel Badayuni stuck for Shabab (romance) over Inquilab (revolution).
The author argues that a great mass of Urdu fiction developed around the theme of taqseem (i.e., Partition) but relatively very little poetry was written on the issue. The author also marks the evolution of language as the medium of resilience and resistance. The role of Urdu poets had progressed beyond the ‘shama-parwana-bulbul’ of conventional romanticism to a questioning force. But the author also briefly critiques the overuse of violence and communal tension in Urdu literature. Along with it, she holds Urdu writers responsible for not being able to focus on the reasons for Partition, causes of failure of the power-sharing mechanism instead of only writing about the impact, consequences of Partition.
Jalil observes an interesting allegorical shift in the greeting Jai Siya Ram (i.e., inclusive of Sita and Ram) to Jai Shree Ram (i.e., the militant and masculine version). In highlighting evidence of a syncretic culture as against the neoteric waves of extremism, the author presents couplets from Urdu poets depicting Sita, Ram and Lakshman as part of ‘Hindustaani’ culture rather than just ‘Hinduism’. This essay is a compendium of works correlating the narrative of Sita with every Indian woman.
The book presents tazkira (literary historiography) along context-specific quotes from Urdu poetry and couplets supplemented with their translations, which makes the reader aware of several styles like thumri, dadra, kajri, hori, nazm, sher, ghazal, rubai, marsiya, naat, manqabaat and khwani.
Jalil concludes with ‘The Rubric of Religion’ which shows a yearning for the past, celebration of all the festivals independent of communal feelings, excitement attached in community festivities for Holi, Diwali, Eid, Guru Nanak Jayanti and Muharram. There are essays on the love of Hasrat Mohani for ‘Hazrat Shri Krishna Alaihi Rahma’ (The Venerable Shri Krishna Blessed Be His Name), Guru Nanak, ‘Mard-e-Kamil’, and on the Gita, ‘Dil ki Kitaab’.
The essays tend to be disconnected and give the impression of jumping over different debates at the same time. The author is fond of quoting to show the Indianness of Muslims through the same framework of discriminations which are extended against them.The book can be criticized mainly for giving glimpses of upper-class Muslims of central and northern India but it should also be seen as an attempt to write about Muslims beyond prejudices.
Sabah Hussain has a PhD in Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.