"But You Don't Look Like a Muslim" | “Come in. See who I am”

A view past shallow perceptions of appearance, a read to demolish stereotypes and acknowledge some genuine uniqueness, spotlights Kavya Dubey

Price:   599 |  1 Jun 2019 2:15 PM GMT  |  Kavya Dubey

“Come in. See who I am”

Ironically, in a plural, fast modernising and a superficially homogenising society like India, it remains expected that one’s religious identity will be their foremost introduction – not so particularly in case of a Sikh for his turban, but quite certainly for a Muslim for all their trappings, real and imaginary. There is nearly always a standard list of how a Muslim is supposed to look, and that applies indiscriminately to an ordinary Muslim anywhere in India. But when a Muslim appears to not be in conformity to this list of basic qualifications, it opens up another discussion about how such is the case at all. Rakshanda Jalil has addressed this perplexity effectively in her book. 

Stereotyping looks to a certain community and its sanction to common imagination engenders, to a considerable extent, from cinema and popular culture due to which demonisation of Muslims has pushed them further to the brink of isolation and victimhood. Contrarily, the depiction of people based on religion and community for popular consumption includes others like Parsis who are also largely understood through stereotypes: an elegantly dressed lady (always well off) calling out to “Rustam”; but the weight of stereotypes and the sheer numbers of Muslims in India make them far too defined to just be. The film industry in the pre-liberalisation era depicted Muslims as smugglers or paan-chewing Pathan suit-clad debauches who divorce their wives for the most trivial reasons. Post globalisation times saw an upgrade: sinister dons ensconced in west Asian havens plotting destruction of Indian cities, to the recent tech-savvy devout Muslims radicalised and morphed into cold-blooded jihadists – although an overwhelming majority are as opposed to terrorism just as any normal person is. Some of the social spill-overs of such generalisation with grave repercussions that have meandered their way into common public discourse are consuming cow meat as a mark of defiance to the majoritarian society, keeping their children from polio shots, love jihad, a situation every Friday owing to their routine religious congregation. The majority, too, implicitly needs them to fit in their stereotypes to reinforce their misconceptions.

Like it is for an Indian Hindu, there is, in fact, no particular order of identity for an Indian Muslim. The compelling personal account of the author speaks of how Muslims in India can be generally vulnerable, given the steady infiltration of misconceptions and notions and images stacked against them. They are characteristically associated with a language that has no moorings in their religion. Urdu is a popular language of a region and of the people of that region. Muslims of other regions speak the language of their respective regions, but defying common sense, Indian Muslims are expected to be Urdu-speaking. This bias is presumably rooted in the phenomenon of Pakistan, carving out a homeland for Muslims of the Subcontinent and that those who chose to stay where they belonged are believed to be from ‘that’ side of the border but didn’t go. Notwithstanding the rich literary and culinary traditions, among many others, all Muslims are not cut from the same cloth. The ethnic and social differences, even of social class, financial standing, and education are the more obvious primary determinants of these individuals.

As a voice of the Muslim middle class, an entity that is steadily being restored after it was decimated with the Partition in 1947, Rakshanda Jalil’s collection of essays is essentially of the nature of jubilation, as she says, it is akin to opening the doors of her house and saying “come in, and see who I am”. This book is a view past the shallow perceptions of appearance. From demolishing the stereotype of the different to acknowledging the genuine uniqueness of people, having freed oneself from the Muslim “look”, the thought of breaking out of the tag of “Muslim Indian” is a beckoning challenge.

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