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The Prejudice



Eminent playwright Vijay Tendulkar on how anti-Muslim prejudice makes deep inroads into the Hindu psyche

Muslims and I

Vijay Tendulkar is India's greatest living playwright. In this fascinating first person account, he recounts the story of his life to illustrate how anti-Muslim prejudice penetrates the Hindu psyche early on in life.

I was born in 1928 in Mumbai in a Maharashtrian middle class family. Except for the Marathi-speaking families of Maharashtra, Mumbai was known and spoken of as Bombay.

Even those Marathi speaking gentlemen who had higher education -- which had its accent on English -- and wished to show their proficiency in the language of the rulers, would fondly call the city Bom-bay.

Bombay was fashionable with us, Mumbai was natural. And, of course, the original. It was turned into Bombay by the white sahibs first and then by the brown sahibs as was the normal practice.

The Mumbai of my childhood was not as sprawling and overcrowded as it is today. The city was limited to its core area which was sparsely populated. You could walk on the roads at any time of the day without fear of being bumped off by a speeding vehicle or colliding with another pedestrian rushing to reach somewhere. Even with clocks and watches around, life was long enough to be enjoyed with its simple comforts and to be lived without the persistent feeling of anxiety.

We still had to learn and recite, by heart, a poem eulogising George the Fifth, the then emperor of the British empire on which the Sun never set. The poem was a part of our school curriculum.

At the same time the air outside was charged with Mahatma Gandhi's movements of non-violence and memories of Lokmanya Tilak and Shaheed Bhagat Singh which were still very fresh in the minds of the elders.

My mother, who was a housewife and, like most women of the time, barely educated, talked fondly of the meetings she had attended of Tilak and his powerful oratory and the terrible night on which Bhagat Singh was hanged. 'Bhagat Singh! Hai! Hai!' She would tell us how these muffled slogans of the mourners echoed on the roads of Mumbai throughout that night. My college-going elder brother was already in the freedom movement and had pledged himself to swadeshi and chakra, the spinning wheel that Gandhi had turned into a household item.

Once in a while the atmosphere would suddenly get tense. I remember one such occasion. I was hurriedly brought home from my school nearby, and my elder brother who had grown a beard was pressurised by the family to shave it off for the time being. These were sure signals that a communal riot had started in the city.

On such occasions, Hindus would shed any resemblance to a Muslim, take extra care to look thoroughly Hindu and make it a point to avoid Muslim localities till things got normal again. In their routine existence, most Hindus had very little to do in Muslim localities anyway, except passing through them in a tram or a bus. For them, it was an alien part of the city, segregated in their psyche like the prostitutes area.

During riots, one strictly avoided even passing through the Muslim area for safety's sake till the end of the tensions between the two communities were officially over. Withdrawal of curfew was a sure sign of the situation returning to normal.

The media strictly avoided any mention of the community background of the aggressors or the victims so there was no way of knowing what happened to the Muslims in the city during the riot situation. But even as a child I would hear of incidents in which a Muslim hawker or a beggar who strayed into the Hindu locality was promptly stabbed. As a rule, any recounting of such an incident would necessarily involve recounting a similar incident of a Hindu being stabbed in a Muslim locality. It was perhaps necessary both for the Hindu listeners and narrators to convince themselves that violence against a Muslim was simply a case of squaring of the account, a tit for tat and therefore perfectly justified.

I clearly remember the hush that would precede or follow any conversation about communal violence. This hush was not out of any doubt about the wisdom of such a justification but probably because the white collared clerks and their families felt uncomfortable even talking of violence. They had got so used to the smooth working of the law and order machinery of the British Raj and the peaceful existence of the politically uninvolved middle class under it.

Truly, life then was paradise for my family and for families like mine when compared to the routine gang wars, murders and dacoities in white-collared middle class localities of Mumbai today and the much publicised complicity of the police in such terrible happenings. One could not even dream of such complicity then. Not only the police, but the government machinery as a whole was taken to be above board in its functioning. Whether it was, in fact, so is anybody's guess.

I did not get an opportunity to meet any Muslim or even see one in real life and from close quarters till I was over 12 years old. Not many from the white-collared middle class got to meet and know a Muslim on a personal level, not even in the normal course of growing to be an adult in the so-called cosmopolitan city of Mumbai. One was only aware of a Muslim presence in another part of the city and inherited some stray ideas about them while he or she grew into an adult.

What were these ideas like?

Let me recount from my own experience.

A Muslim meant someone with a beard. The word also conjured up an unclean appearance, uncouth behaviour, lack of education and culture. A Muslim was someone you stayed away from. Contact with them in any form was supposed to be dangerous. I still remember a common expression very frequently heard in casual conversations among white-collared adults: "Manoos Ahes Ka Musalman?" (Are you a human being or a Muslim ?)

This was seldom said seriously; the tone would be light; half jocular, even frivolous, casual. Once this was said in my class -- I was in the first standard then -- by my teacher to one of the troublesome students. The student did not mind it, he just grinned sheepishly. In fact, no one seemed to mind. It was a way of saying someone's behaviour was most unseemly.

My first education on Muslims began with historical plays of the time. Those plays invariably dealt with the ascendance of Shivaji, the Maratha king who freed the Hindus of Maharashtra from Mughal rule and established his own rule which came to be known as Hindu pada padashahi -- the empire of the Hindus.

The first such play I saw had Shivaji's son and the Maratha emperor after him, Sambhaji, as the hero. According to the history of that period, he was a passionate womaniser and an alcoholic and a generally irresponsible young man who preferred a martyr's death in Mughal emperor Aurangzeb's prison to conversion to Islam. It was staged in our school as part of the annual day function.

All the actors were school children (older than me) and they were directed by one of our teachers. The play originally written for adults had earned acclaim on the commercial stage. Like any Marathi historical play of those days, this one too portrayed the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, Shivaji's arch-rival in his fight against the tyrannies of the Muslim religious fanatics against Hindus, as the bad man of the play.

He was painted in loud colours, a religious fanatic, a ruthless tyrant, an obnoxious figure with a long white beard on a crooked face, wearing garish costumes and shouting swearwords supposedly in Urdu and Farsi (I did not understand them but felt very piqued by them;) at Shivaji's son and the ruling Maratha emperor Sambhaji and his men. In short, he was like the villain in any commercial Hindi masala film of today, alternately comic and repulsive. The rest of the Mughal characters in the play were drunkards, lechers, capable of any dastardly act and big-mouthed cowards who always lost in a fight with Sambhaji's brave little men (mavlas, the Maratha soldiers were small in stature).

The Maratha mavlas stood in sharp contrast to these Mughal ruffians and buffoons. All the applause-winning dialogues were given to Sambhaji and his men by the playwright; the `enemy camp' only spouted hatred toward the kafir Marathas, their holy cows and showed contempt towards Hindu religion on the whole.

As children we were made to participate in and watch many such baffling (baffling for us children) specimens of adult theatre; this was only one of them. After watching the first of these, I brooded over it for days.

You can imagine my reaction at that age to this mind-blowing theatre experience. Being a school production the audience was mainly of children in the 6 to 16 age group.

Apart from this, our school text-books carried excerpts from Marathi historical plays which shaped our ideas of our past and also the present to a large extent. Access to authentic history at that age is out of the question. Even if one gets access to them at a later age the ideas -- some of them weird and twisted -- are already formed at an early age and though they can change over time, I doubt whether they disappear entirely from one's psyche. Our attitudes have a lot to do with what we internalise in our early formative years.


'The word Muslim had a familiar connotation for us. It meant uncultured, illiterate, undeveloped minds, full of perversities, driven by violence and always ready to go berserk'

The first real Muslim in my life was a boy in my class. This was after we left Mumbai for Kolhapur, a small town and a separate state during British rule with its own king. My new school had boys from lower castes who were the sons of lorry drivers, tailors, carpenters. We also had a girl in our class who was the daughter of a concubine of a rich man, a novel experience even for the more knowledgeable among us.

I met Sheikh here in the school. On the first day of school, we were made to stand up one by one and say, "Present, Sir" as our class teacher read out the roll call. When a tall, gaunt boy with high cheek bones and small peering eyes answered to the name of Aman Ali Izaz Ali Sheikh I looked twice, with utter disbelief at that boy wearing a home washed pajama, a neat cotton coat fully buttoned on a clean white home washed shirt and a black shapeless cap properly placed on his head through which his unruly pink hair sprouted out from all sides.

I simply could not believe my eyes. He did not fit into the concept of a Muslim in my mind at all. He was like any other boy. He looked so gentle and shy and soft-spoken in spite of looking bigger than us! (In my mind I imagined him as Aurangzeb or one of his hefty looking men with me as Shivaji's mavla and felt terribly disappointed. He was no patch on those foul-mouthed villains I had seen and heard in the historical plays.)

As the days passed, I also found that Sheikh was a studious boy, who spoke my language, Marathi. Later, I found that his Marathi had a natural mix of Urdu, but not of the Aurangzeb kind. He spoke in this mix when he was away from school, especially at his home and with his family. This mix of Urdu and Marathi sounded sweeter to me than my chaste Marathi.

Sheikh was very sociable, warm in his general behaviour, eager to make friends, a boy who never uttered a single swear-word and was very co-operative. When I was unwell and had to stay away from class, Sheikh would voluntarily help me in catching up with the backlog by offering me his notebooks. We became friends despite my deep rooted reservations about his being a Muslim.

He lived in a locality which was in the same direction as mine. He had to walk farther on. So we left school together every evening and chatted on the way. For days I could not make up my mind on whether I should invite him home or not. He was a Muslim, after all. Besides my own reservations about Muslims, I had apprehensions about how Sheikh will be received by others at home. I had even avoided mentioning our friendship to my parents.

One day during the lunch break he offered me something from his lunch box. I had not thought of doing so. I ate from my box and he from his though we would be sitting on the same school bench. That day when he took out something from his lunch box and held it in front of me I dithered. I did not know whether I should eat from a Muslim's lunch box. I did since I could not say no to Sheikh but my conscience troubled me that night for doing what I had done.

I even imagined in my sleep that I had turned into a Muslim and my family was blaming me for eating from a Muslim's lunch box. 'Good for you!' they were saying in a chorus. 'Want to eat from a Muslim, eh?' And my mother was crying her heart out as her son had become a Muslim.

But soon this feeling of guilt disappeared and I even invited Sheikh to my house one day to see my collection of kites. I did not inform my family about the religion of my school friend but they discovered it while Sheikh was at our house. Probably by his way of speaking or his appearance, I am not sure. To my surprise they did not object. But my mother took care to tell me that night not to go to his house and not to be 'very friendly' with him. `He seems to be a good boy ' she said, but these people (she meant the Muslims) are not our kind. It is better to stay away from them.'

If I remember correctly, he was uncomfortable and tense for a while in his first visit to my house. But he liked the house and my family and later came frequently to my house to play with me.

His father was a butcher by profession. I did not know this for months, nor did my family with their vegetarian habits, otherwise I would have been forbidden from mixing with Sheikh. I myself came to know of it when I was compelled to go to his house for the first time. I learned that Sheikh was not well and would not be able to come to the school for some time. After knowing this I wanted to help him in his backlog of studies. So I decided after some inner resistance to go to his house.

I remember the shock I felt on meeting his father. A typical village Muslim, dark of complexion, a large frame and a big belly, and a pink and black beard grown all around his face up to the head which had an upright growth of black and pink hair which matched with the beard and gave his face a fierce look. He reminded me of Aurangzeb and his men. But he was very warm, natural, robust yet gentle in manners, attired in a coloured lungi and kurta.

He was curious about me and my upper caste Hindu family. He had seen and even met Hindus but only as clients who came to his shop to buy mutton. He kept asking me questions about how we lived at home, addressed each other, what my father did for his living, how many brothers and sisters I had...

He had seven children. Aman Ali was number five. He had no qualms about his profession. He talked about it as casually as my father used to about his clerical profession. My father talked of files and papers; Sheikh's father talked of the quality of the mutton he sold and the intestines, the brain and the liver of the sheep he killed. His gentle nature hardly matched his big black frame and his profession which in my mind was a violent one.

"How can he kill the poor, innocent animals and be so gentle?" I used to ask myself in those days. Years later, I became a meat eater but have never cared to ask myself how I relish eating animals killed by someone, despite my gentle, non-violent nature.

Sheikhs's mother and sister stayed confined to the kitchen whenever men or even a boy like me was around. They wore burkhas and looked mysterious, even sinister, to my eyes because of that. I had not seen anyone in a burkha till then. Not even in a Marathi historical play. I could not imagine my mother or my sister moving in our house in a burkha. I imagined myself in a burkha and felt stifled.

Sheikh's mother called me beta (son) and gave me some sweet to eat. I had not eaten anything as tasty as that in my life or I thought so while I ate the 'special dish'. Sheikh was not keen to show me his father's shop. Out of curiosity I insisted that he should take me there at least once. I went with him and could not take in the gory sight of raw headless cadavers hanging upside down. It upset my stomach and I even felt that I shall throw up but managed not to.

That first sight of raw flesh and blood was so irresistible to me in spite of the revulsion I experienced that I wanted to visit that shop again and see a sheep being killed by Sheikh's father. For some reason Sheikh avoided it. May be he himself did not like his father's profession. Or he did not relish killing.

My friendship with Sheikh was my first genuine education on the subject of Muslims. Sheikh remained behind when we left Kolhapur for Pune, a predominantly brahmin city at that time. It was nearly impossible to get accommodation in a brahmin locality of Pune if you were -- no, not a Muslim -- a non-brahmin. You would be asked to state your caste before anything else was discussed and we were non-brahmins. Which meant that we were flesh-eaters. In fact, my family was strictly vegetarian but it took a lot of effort on my father's part to get a place for us in a decent 'no flesh' locality.

The next crucial influence in my life vis-a-vis Muslims was the experience of Partition of the country. We were given to understand mostly through the discussions of the elders, the media and all kinds of hearsay and we readily believed that Mohammed Ali Jinnah was the villain of the piece in this gory drama that unfolded before us. Even the most authentic accounts of the massacres that took place in this period on both sides of the dividing line read like cheap pulp fiction consisting of unlimited violence and the most perverted kind of sex.

For us Jinnah and his Muslim League was the cause of it all. The word Muslim had a familiar connotation for us. It meant uncultured, illiterate, undeveloped minds, full of perversities, driven by violence and always ready to go berserk. Hindus, though cultured and civilised, had no option but to retaliate with the same pervert violence.

Everyone around seemed convinced about this.

I was in my late teens then.

When we heard on the radio that Gandhi has been assassinated everyone around me knew for certain and made no bones of it that the assassin had to be a Muslim. When we were told that he was not a Muslim but a Hindu our benumbed minds stoutly refused to believe it. But, then, we knew why a Hindu had to kill the Mahatma: because of the pro-Muslim politics of the otherwise great man, a politics which pampered the bloodthirsty, wicked Muslims at the cost of well-behaved, gentle Hindus.

Those were the days of a rabid anti-Muslim feeling around me.

This was when I heard a new Marathi word for the first time. It was not new in that sense. I had heard and even used it before in a different context. The word was Laandya). It literally meant 'an animal whose tail has been cut', generally a dog. When I heard it for the first time in a new context to suggest a Muslim, I could not catch its meaning. Then I was enlightened on the subject by my Hindu friends.

Muslims were circumcised after their birth. I, too, tried to use this word in my speech that had acquired a new twist and felt very self-conscious, embarrassed and thrilled at the same time. That word became a household word during those days among the boys of my age. They would always refer to a Muslim as Laandya.

The bias which had been intentionally and unintentionally sown in our minds when we were children now grew into confirmed opinion. Muslims were an aggressive, rowdy, savage, rabid minority... dogs with a cut tail. Their leaders used them for their gains and like fools the secular Hindu leaders were playing in their hands at the cost of the interests of us Hindus who were a majority but suffered at the hands of a mere minority.

As a growing boy in my teens, I too held this view though not with the fanatic rage of the typical white-collared Hindu of that time.

During this very period, another Muslim entered my life. He was leading the cultural squad of the undivided Communist Party in my state. He was Amar Sheikh Shaheer (the bard), popularly called Amar Sheikh. He came from a poor rural Muslim family and sang songs with a political message. He had a strong booming voice which thrilled an audience of thousands. You did not have to be a communist to feel charged by the magic in his voice. The `revolutionary' message did not mar the lilt and the roar of his singing.

I was so charmed by his irresistible voice that the fact that he was a Muslim did not bother me even in the midst of a climate rife with anti-Muslim vitriol. The songs moved me as they seemed to come straight from the heart. Once in a while, I did wonder how Sheikh, a Muslim, could put so much passion in some of the patriotic songs he sang. But his style of singing them was irresistible.

'We were born as Muslims and that puts a stamp on our forehead in this country: TRAITOR! Why?'

I began singing those songs, imitating his style. I would stand like him, upright, chest thrown out and then sing imagining myself to be him. (My fair complexion could not match his tan black. And he was too manly in looks compared to my vegetarian, adolescent appearance which gave me a terrible complex.) I was in my late teens now: still biased against Muslims in general but at the same time an ardent fan of a Muslim: Shaheer Amar Sheikh.

Many years later, we became friends; the relationship lasted till his death in an accident.

Incidentally, I came to know about his mother after he died. Munerbi, Amar Sheikh's mother, was an illiterate Muslim woman married to a small farmer and a poetess of unusual strength. The poems she composed had a natural mix, a captivating intermingling of both the Muslim and the Hindu cult. The imagery came straight from the Bhakti poets and the poems flowed from Urdu into Marathi and back to Urdu like a child frolicking between two sections of a house divided by a recently erected wall.

At times the meter is traditional Marathi, used by the Bhakti saints while the language is Urdu as spoken by Muslims in rural Maharashtra. In one of her poems she sees Krishna, the Hindu god, in her Muslim son.

In 1967, her Muslim son, the bard Amar Sheikh, poses a question to his readers in an article: How am I a traitor ?

He narrates a happening: 'I cannot forget that day. I had returned from an election meeting in which I had performed as usual and was taking a nap when I was awakened by some commotion. Then a kick on the door of my apartment in the chawl. Then another kick. The door gave way with it. It opened wide. Someone rushed in. Lunged at me. I sprang to my feet and grabbed him. A battle royal ensued. My attacker was in his early thirties. I had completed fifty. I did not spare him. Nor did he while letting himself go at me. It is not the beating I had to take that hurts but the words which he shouted at me, the mindset behind those words. 'Amar Sheikh is a Muslim' he yelled. 'He deserves to be lynched. He has married a Hindu woman. Haul me before a court and put me in a jail but I shall come out and lynch this man. I shall become a martyr for killing a Muslim.'

Amar Sheikh writes further in this article: 'I have been living in this locality for the last seven years. My attacker grew up watching me. My daughter grew up with him. And today he barges into my house after beating up three Muslims on his way. Why? Because I am a Muslim. And a Muslim is a traitor; an arch-enemy of this country. I with my record of service to this country and to my people am called a traitor and he who has never shown any concern for this country is a patriot because he is born a Hindu! We were born as Muslims and that puts a stamp on our forehead in this country: TRAITOR! Why?'

This excerpt says everything.

I came across Munerbi's poetry and this article of her son in a book which was given to me during the post-Babri Masjid days, when communal passions were running high once more in the country and a spate of communal riots was already on. The climate around me was once again rife with Muslim-hating and the word I had first heard used against Muslims at the time of Partition of the country was once again common currency: Laandya: The human dog with a cut tail.

The answer to Amar Sheikhs's question immediately came to my mind:

Because we were brought up that way. We, Hindu children; with casual remarks like Manoos Ahes Ka Musalman?

Because of our upbringing which taught and prohibited us to shun any contact with Muslims.

Because of the biases knowingly and unknowingly sown in our minds at an early age by presenting and teaching us our history (in my case the Mughal and Maratha period of it) in a wrong light.

Because of the experience of the Partition of the country through its portrayal by the mass media and of the preceding years of Hindu-Muslim relations as they percolated to us through the attitudes of our elders.

And, most of all, because of the total lack of contact, the wide chasm between us and the Muslims among us, as people.

Yes, I am aware of the games politicians have played among both the communities from time to time and the communal passions whipped up by them to suit their politics of self-interest based on hatred. But those games would not have succeeded to the extent they did if we Hindus and the Muslims had known each other better; if we had grown together from our childhood as one community rather than two separate worlds within one nation, within one city.

After Amar Sheikh, I had the good fortune of having Hameed Dalwai, the Muslim reformer of the '60s in my life. We became friends much before he plunged into the Muslim reform movement. He was a creative writer. He wrote short stories. I was the editor of the monthly magazine in which they were published. I published his short stories. I was one of the first readers of his writing. He wrote about his community. His childhood. He wrote with anguish about his mother who was the third wife of his father. About communal riots. He wrote with a searing insight about his community, the Muslims.

My days with Hameed taught me the real lessons in understanding Muslims in my society. The working of the minds of the Muslims, their upbringing, what they were taught about us, Hindus, in their early formative years and the biases they were injected with at an early age. All this realisation came through Hameed. Through our long evenings and nights of intimate conversations.

Hameed had come to learn about my Hindu world more or less in the same way as I came to learn about his: through whatever little contact we could make with the 'other' world, the other side of the communal divide, by going out of our way in our adolescent years to know things by ourselves. His father was a Muslim Leaguer. A local leader of the League and a Hindu-hater. Hameed had grown up as a boy in this political climate. He grew out of it later, at a fairly young age.

When he worked for a better understanding between the two communities and propagated progressive social reforms in his own community particularly concerning the state of Muslim women, he was branded a traitor and a heretic by the majority of his people -- especially the diehard, conservative men of his community. He was simultaneously seen as an exception and a freak within his Muslim community by the Hindu intelligentsia.

I still remember. One of our senior writers who proudly proclaimed himself as a Hindu revivalist once advised Hameed with genuine concern: "You will always be an outsider among the Muslims. Why don't you become a Hindu? After all your forefathers were Hindu. You have Hindu blood in your veins. Come, I shall arrange for your conversion to Hinduism."

Hameed laughed heartily every time he heard this.

But he did say to me once in his introspective mood: "We Indian Muslims are a peculiar lot. Our forefathers did not come from across the borders of the country. They were not invaders but the invaded like the Hindus. They were Hindus. They were converted to Islam mostly under pressure; even by force. If this is true, then we belong here. We have Hindu genes in our system and a Muslim upbringing, a Muslim bias. We are a product of a mixed or hybrid culture which makes us an isolated lot; removed from the general reality, the general ethos. We belong nowhere. Not to the Muslim world outside nor to the predominantly Hindu world of this country. We have no roots to claim. And our loyalties will always remain questionable in this country. Not necessarily because of what we do but because of what we are expected to do -- as an alien race whose interests lie outside of this country. It will be presumed that we do it, that we have done it though we may have not. And we must not. Whatever happens to this country happens to us. Our fate is tied up to the fate of this society which may never accept us as its natural, integral part."

My friend Hameed died prematurely of kidney failure.

After him I have had many Muslim friends. Some of them mean much more than friends to me. But when I look back at our friendship, I find a subtle difference between them and my other -- I mean Hindu -- friends. When I meet a Hindu friend I am never conscious of his religion. He is just a friend. But when I meet a Muslim friend I never forget, never can forget, that he is a Muslim. Even if I forget this for a brief while, my upbringing reminds me that he is a Muslim. I feel proud of my friendship with him. I love him more for being a Muslim.

Ideally, it should be no less, no more.

A friendship is beyond all considerations, is it not ?


The Rediff Special/Vijay Tendulkar

By arrangement with Communalism Combat

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Last updated: February 26, 2000.