The Alchemy of Identities


In 1996, a day after India’s fantastic win over Pakistan in the Cricket World Cup Quarterfinal, I was sitting in the offices of a leading English daily in Patna, the capital of the northern Indian state of Bihar. At that time, I used to be a freelance contributor to this national paper’s local edition. The paper’s features team and I were, of course, discussing cricket. Everybody was trying to guess which strategy the Indian team would adopt against a resurgent Sri Lankan team in the semi-finals.

All of a sudden, the discussion meandered to a new topic: is it true that every Indian Muslim secretly cheers for the Pakistan Cricket Team? Later, a more specific question was thrown at me by one of the sub-editors: “Tell us what’s more important to you, being an Indian, or being a Muslim? If you had to decide between one or the other, which one would you choose?”

An Indian cricket fan. Photos by Hash P. via flickr (daarkfire).

“Both my identities are significant to me,” I replied, explaining how a person is capable of belonging to multiple communities at the same time. For example, my identities as a Bihari and as an Indian were not contradictory. Even in my personal life, I could simultaneously be a father, a son. But not everybody was convinced by my answer. I could see that some eyes contained traces of doubt about my unflinching loyalty towards my country. This wasn’t the first time my sense of devotion to a secular country had been doubted simply because of my religion.

Years ago, while I was studying in a school in a small town in provincial Bihar, my history teacher, who was known for his anti-Muslim bias, put forth a similar, tricky question towards the Muslim boys: “Are you Muslim first or Indian first?”

Some of the boys said, “Muslim first.”

A few of them said, “Indian first.”

Some didn’t say anything and remained silent.

My reply was altogether different. “I am both Muslim and Indian at the same time. I was born to Muslim parents, so I am a Muslim. I was born in India so I am an Indian. In fact, in the precise moment of my birth I automatically acquired both the identities.” At that point in time, I was a boy still, and I didn’t understand the intricacies and complexities of individual identity. That particular response, in fact, had been appropriated from my Granduncle, and he had read it in a magazine called Al-Risala, which was published by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a renowned Islamic scholar who had been internationally recognized for his contributions to world peace and promoting religious harmony.

A Pakistani cricket fan. Photos by Hash P. via flickr (daarkfire).

During my formative years at college, I always pondered over the question of identities and how a person’s identity influences his thought process or molds his perception about anything and everything—how a person’s identity culturally conditions his individuality. As I grew however, I realized that we are not always consciously aware of all the facets of our identities. In fact, there are many layers of our identities—sub-identities and super-identities—of which we remain ignorant. Strangely, it sometimes takes other people’s prejudices and insecurities to reveal these hidden aspects of our identities to ourselves.

I was born in a small village called Pindari near Motihari, which is a small provincial town bordering Nepal, insignificant from any point of view apart from its historical value. Mahatma Gandhi had chosen this very place for his first experiment of the “Satyagraha” movement against the British landlords who were forcing the local peasantry to grow Indigo. Interestingly, George Orwell, one of the great authors of 20th century, was also born here.

I remember as a child, when I started going to Madarsa (religious school) in my village, I identified myself as a Pathan. In India, Pathan, a so-called upper caste, is part of a caste system of Muslims who claim their ancestry to the Pashtuns of Afghanistan. Film star Shahrukh Khan and cricketer Irfan Pathan are some famous Indian Pathans. As a child, I, along with my cousins and neighborhood boys would think that being a Pathan was the best thing in the world. Whenever we got into a fight with the boys of other castes we would abuse them using their caste names. For example we would call a Sheikh, Sheikh Shekhari. Sheikh is another caste among Muslims. The Sheikhs are believed to have either descended from Arab immigrants, or their forefathers were high caste Hindus who converted to Islam. One corner of our village had a predominantly Sheikh population referred to as Sheikh Toli.

My Grandmother, Dadi, told me she came from the family of Yusufzai Pathans, a superior sub-caste or clan of Pathan. And my Grandfather was not Yusufzai but was among the superior categories of Pathans. Right now I can’t recall what type of Pathan he was.

The neighboring village, Chandanbara, was a big one with the predominant population being Sheikhs. In the early-80s, a big Madarsa was built here. In that Madarsa my maternal uncle, my mother’s cousin, was a teacher. He taught Mathematics, English, and Hindi. I happened to visit my uncle one day and was impressed by the ambience of the Madarsa, where, along with religious subjects, secular courses were also taught. I decided to join it. At that time, I was studying in class four in the same village’s Government Middle School.

For the first time, I found myself in a classroom that was predominantly Sheikh. A few boys from so-called lower castes also studied there. But they kept a low profile and always sat on the back-benches. I was the only Pathan and sat on the first bench. Although I was below average in Arabic and Persian, I excelled in Mathematics, Hindi, English, and Science. The boys who had always been topping these subjects before my arrival were jealous of me. And to harass me, they identified something, which would allow them to rally the majority of the class against me. My caste. They called me Pathan Shaitan in order to tease me. In fact they pronounced Pathan as Paithan which rhymed perfectly with Shaitan. Their insult meant “Devil Pathan” or “Pathans are devils.” Their collective attempt to humiliate me only reinforced the prejudices I had acquired while growing up in my village. “Sheikhs are stingy; they are cruel and exploit poor people. They indulge in un-Islamic things like usury. They are more poisonous than cobra.”

Another point on which I was teased was for my being Barelvi, which is a school of thought among South Asian Sunni Muslims, venerating Sufis and approving visiting of Sufi shrines. The Madarsa was run by people following a school of thought called Ahle Hadith. In contrast to Barelvis, Ahle Hadiths reject Sufism and oppose excessive veneration of Sufi-saints, as they claim that all these go against the basic tenets of Islam. Chandanbara was predominantly Ahle Hadith. The boys ridiculed me saying that I was a Kabarpujwa—a grave worshipper. Within two months I left the Madarsa and returned to my old school.

At the age of 11, when I left my village for Katihar, a small district town in North-East Bihar, I became conscious of my Muslim identity. In my village and also in the neighboring villages, the entire population was mostly comprised of Muslims, so it never occurred to my juvenile mind that somebody could be other than a Muslim. Yes, my village did contain a few dozen houses of low caste Hindus like Noniyas, the saltmaker caste, Telis, the oil presser caste, Badhai, the carpenter caste and a few more. But they all lived on the fringes of village society and had never made it to the map of my imagination.

In the neighborhood at Katihar, there was a Hindu gentleman who always brought me chocolates or sweet candies and affectionately called me Miyan Ji. Miyan, now considered slightly offensive, is a slang word used for Muslims by non-Muslims. He often told me stories. Most of these stories centred around a cruel Muslim king. He would tell me graphic details of the torture and killing of Hindus under the rule of such kings. He also told me stories of Muslim invaders plundering India, destroying and looting its temples. At that time, I had little sense of history. Being in class five, I hardly knew anything about Mahmood of Ghazani, Muhammad Ghauri, or Nadir Shah. But the way in which he told his stories made me feel miserable. I felt as if he was holding me responsible for all the unfortunate events of the past just because I shared the same religion with those kings and invaders. For some time, I harbored a faint resentment towards him for demonizing Muslim kings. I secretly believed that he was telling lies. A Muslim, I believed, couldn’t be that cruel.

In my class at New Pattern English School in Katihar, a few Hindu boys bullied me and called me Miyanwa, a derogatory term used for Muslims in the provinces of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. I couldn’t dare to confront them.

Azmal was my class monitor. He sat on the first bench and always stood first in class. He was tall and physically robust. He was also a Muslim. I decided to complain to him about the boys. He immediately called the boys and threatened that he would break their neck-bones if they ever teased me. He also threatened to complain to the principal.

Since the principal too was a Muslim, the boys were frightened that severe action might be taken against them. They asked me to forgive them, which I finally did. After a few months, we forgot everything and became friends.

A few times I had a fight with some of my classmates and some of them teased me with a poem:

Chai Garam Chai Nahi Hai
Miyan Beta Mar Gaya Parwah Nahin Hai

(There is no cup of hot tea here. If a bloody Muslim dies, I don’t care.)

I would immediately retort with the same poem just replacing Miyan with Hindu.

Chai Gram Chai Nahi Hai
Hindu Beta Mar Gaya Parwah Nahin Ha

When my father was transferred to Patna, I was already in class eleven. The city of Patna is situated on the banks of the river Ganges, one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. A city with a glorious past, now it is the capital of one of India’s most impoverished states, Bihar. My father, a two time President medal awardee, was an Inspector with the Bihar Military Police. His image of being a man of honesty and integrity had won him a lot of admirers within the department cutting across caste and religion. In the Officers’ quarters of the Police colony of Patna, we were surrounded by Hindu neighbors, and there were only a couple of Muslim families including ours and one Christian family.

We celebrated the festivals of both Hindu and Muslims with verve and enthusiasm. For me each festival held the same significance be it Holi, Id, Durga Puja, Deepawali, and of course Chhath.

During the holy month of Ramzan, or Ramadan, when Muslims around the world fast from dawn until dusk, everyday some Hindu friends of my father would drop in at our place for Iftar or the ritual breaking of fast. We also sent Iftar items, food items prepared for breaking the fast, to at least two-to-three Hindu families daily.

During the Hindu festivals we were inundated with invitations. During the Chhath, my room would be full of buckets full of homemade delicacies: sugarcanes, coconuts, apples, and other fruits. All these things are offered as prasad to the Sun God during Chhath puja, the most sacred Hindu festival in Bihar. Amma, my mother, believed that the sacred offerings should not be wasted. She would call a few poor women from the neighboring mohalla to take the major part of the prasad. They were happy to get so much to eat. Amma ensured that not even a single piece of prasad was wasted.

While living in the Police colony, I was never questioned about my identity as an Indian. But when a cricket match took place between India and Pakistan my loyalty was questioned. Back in those days we didn’t have a television at home. So, I used to go to the Police Canteen to watch the matches, which used to be crowded when the two contemptuous siblings took to the cricket field. An India-Pakistan match used to be very difficult to watch. Throughout the match, many viewers would attempt to discern whether I was supporting India or Pakistan. The tyranny of peering eyes made me behave in odd ways. If I clapped on the fall of a Pakistani wicket many of them suspected that I was simply pretending. At that time Azharuddin, the Indian cricketer and later the captain of Indian Cricket team, was an icon for Muslim youth, and I too took pride in the fact that a Muslim was out there fighting our arch-rivals, Pakistan. But I avoided praising Azhar out loud because I feared that people around me might interpret it the wrong way. They might think I was praising Azhar because he was a fellow Muslim and not because he was a fine player.

When Azhar played well I heard people wax eloquent. But when he failed he was abused (however not every time) as Salaa Miyan. It was not that other players were spared when they failed to perform, but their religion was never used to slander them.

My friend’s elder brother, whom I fondly call Bishambhar Bhaiya, is a Kankubja Brahmin Hindu, pure vegetarian, a fan of the right-wing nationalist leader Atal Bihari Vjapayee and a great believer in the secular structure of India. He is also a great fan of Pakistani Cricketers. As a team he supports India, but he appreciates the individual brilliance of many Pakistani players, especially Imran Khan. His room is adorned by a man-size poster of Imran Khan. I couldn’t afford to hang the same poster. Being a Hindu and a high caste Hindu, Bishambhar Bhaiya’s loyalty towards India was taken for granted. If I had shown any enthusiasm for the dapper Pakistani cricketer, I would be declared a traitor.

In 1998 when I joined a public sector bank and travelled across the country, I realized how biased the country was against Biharis. From MP to Maharashtra, Punjab to Gujarat, I found many people making a mockery of Biharis and the state of Bihar. They considered Biharis corrupt, uncouth and uncultured. In Delhi I was shocked to learn that the word Bihari was a swear word. A Punjabi gentleman at my bank’s canteen tried hard to explain me, over a delectable meal of Rajma-Chawal—curried kidney beans with boiled rice—that though I was from Bihar, I was not a Bihari. Because, according to him, Bihari meant uncultured and rogue. I was, instead, decent and cultured. Infuriated by his comments, I shot back, “That way, you are not a Punjabi. Because Punjabi means a motherfucker.” He got angry and walked away saying, Salaa Bihari.

When I was posted in a small town in Punjab, which was once a hotbed of Sikh militancy, I came across many people who thought that Biharis were only agri-laborers, masons, or rickshaw pullers. They praised me for being so decent despite being Bihari, and that disgusted me.

While the city folks made a mockery of my Bihari identity, the Sikhs of rural Punjab respected me when they came to know that I came from Patna, the birthplace of the tenth Guru of Sikhism. Some of the veterans of those villages even kissed my hands. They said since I was coming from the Holy City of Patna Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Gobind Singh ji, I deserved respect. During those rare occasions I felt genuinely elated.

Otherwise, most of the time, wherever I was in Punjab, I was asked strange questions about Bihar and my Bihari-identity with an unnerving regularity. At times, in sheer frustration, I would shoot back at people, “Before leaving Bihar I got my horns sawed off and tail chopped off, so I don’t look like a Bihari.” Sometimes, the strange questions would be about my being a follower of Islam.

The city of Gurdaspur, where I lived in Punjab, was hardly twenty miles from the Pakistan Border, and a sizeable percentage of the place’s population had migrated from Pakistan at the time of partition. And many carried horror stories with them. Stories of their houses set ablaze by Muslim league supporters, of Hindu and Sikh women raped by Muslim goons, of innocent Hindu and Sikhs hacked to death by Mobs screaming “Allah-o-Akbar.” When they told the stories, they stressed the word Muslim, as if to see how I would react. Most of the times, I felt guilty for something, something which had happened decades before my birth.

It was the summer of ’99 when I had gone to the nearby village of Gurdaspur to recover a loan. On the outskirts of the village there was a small market that housed a branch of a nationalised bank. The manager of the branch was known to me and was recently transferred to this place. When he saw me standing outside his office, he sent a peon to fetch me. I went there and was made to sit in his cabin. On the chair next to me was seated a genial faced old man with a brown turban and a flowing off-white beard. The manager went outside for some work. He didn’t return for a while. To break the silence, the old man, a Sikh, asked my name. “Abdullah Khan,” I replied. At once, he held my hands, kissed them, and said, with tears running down his eyes, that my name was very nice. Surprised by his gesture, I asked him what was so special about my name. He told me some story from his past about one Abdullah Khan, his childhood friend in a village near Lahore, now in Pakistan but then in undivided British India, and how this friend, despite the risk to his own life, had helped his family to cross the border to India.

His cheeks were soaked with tears as he was talking about his friend, Abdullah, whom he had last seen in 1947. He wished to meet him before he died but he was not sure if he was alive.

He wiped his tears and said smilingly, “May God bless you my son.”

The old man’s predilection for the name Abdullah made me proud of my name.

For a few minutes, I relished the joy of being Abdullah Khan. And during those glorious moments I was not an Indian. I was not a Muslim. I was not a Bihari. I was not a Pathan.

I was just Abdullah. Nothing else but Abdullah Khan.

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Abdullah Khan

A banker from the north Indian city of Patna, Abdullah Khan has written for the local editions of The Times of India and The Hindustan Times. He is working on his first novel and can be reached at abdullah71@gmail.com.