I was maybe eight or nine years old when an older second cousin told me to never eat at Salma’s house. Salma was a school friend who didn’t live very far. The context of the discussion was my mom’s refusal to allow me to go to other kids’ homes. She never said yes to playdates at Priyanka’s house. She had made me decline Vrinda’s invitation for a sleepover. And she was not going to let me go to Salma’s Sunday brunch either.
My cousin Bobby was visiting us that day and he didn’t understand my mother’s overprotectiveness. He didn’t understand her concerns for my health issues or for my safety considering that most of my friends had older brothers and I had already been subjected to an abusive situation as a toddler. My mother was not about to let that happen to me ever again and she was rather firm about it.
Bobby told my mother she was being silly. There was no harm in going for a playdate– provided I didn’t eat anything at Salma’s house.
This I didn’t understand. Part of the reason I wanted to go was because Salma’s mom was a great cook and knew how to make paneer cutlets.
“Why can’t I eat there?” I asked him.
“What if they feed you beef? You never know with these Muslims….”
This made zero sense to me. Why would they feed me beef? And even if they did, why would that be so wrong? How was eating beef any different than eating chicken? But most importantly, Salma’s mom knew I liked her paneer cutlets and vegetable frankies. Why would she make anything else?
My mom didn’t let me ask any questions and told me to go to my bedroom. I think she didn’t want me to hear any more of my cousin’s bigoted ideas. But back then I was mad at her. I wanted to stay and to understand what exactly I never know with “these Muslims.”
Another time, I was being driven to school by a classmate’s father. Our school bus had broken down and he was the only parent around who could take the six children from our area to school in his car. On the way, he exposed us to his rather colorful tongue. He called people Madarch*d and Behench*d and ch*tiya for not honking, for overtaking, and other traffic-related offenses that are common on Indian roads. I, who had never heard an adult in my family talk like that before, flinched the first few times at his language. After a while, his expletives felt routine. That is, until he called a bearded man in a skullcap a “katua.”
I didn’t understand this insult but I could hardly ask him what it meant. So I forgot about it for a few years– until my dad told off one of his workers for referring to Muslims with that epithet. I was 16 by this point, my mom had been dead for two years, and I had learned to ask my father all sorts of questions about all sorts of topics from safe sex to boyfriends to the meanings of various unfamiliar “bad” words.
“It is a disgusting word, never use it,” my dad said.
“But you never get so angry when the workers use abusive language otherwise,” I argued. “What is so much worse about this.”
“It is used only for Muslims,” dad answered uncomfortably. “Because they are circumcised. Like I said, pretty nasty.”
I took a few minutes to swallow that. This was so crude that I didn’t even know how to respond. My dad spared me the horror of having to continue that conversation and changed the topic.
Over the next few years, I encountered a different sort of Islamophobia– a relatively subtle one. Every time our family was invited to a Muslim wedding, only my dad, my sister, and I attended. Others gossiped about it for days. When I ate lunch and breakfast at my friend Razia’s home on Eid, people thought it perfectly okay to ask me if I had been served beef. When I started reading about Islam and liked some of the tenets, people went hysterical and asked my bemused father if I was converting. When I went out with a Muslim man, people pitied me because obviously, it had to be a case of Love Jihad.
In turn, I always wondered if these people had lost their minds. How was it that similar interactions with Christians, Jains, and Buddhists didn’t generate such extreme “concern” from the neighbors? How was it that my intellectual and spiritual interest in Wicca and Methodist Christianity did not lead to fears of conversion? How was it that eating at random food stalls didn’t create a mini scandal even though there was an ongoing rumor that the Anju Biryani Corner served crow meat instead of chicken.
What was it about Muslims that made our neighbors and acquaintances feel so… so… unsettled. How could they have lived in India all their life without getting over this strange, irrational fear of perfectly ordinary people like themselves.
The #TalkToAMuslim campaign seeks to arrest this process of “othering” by encouraging people to talk to Muslims.
However, the tragic irony of the whole thing is that these so-called educated people have always had enough opportunities to interact with Muslims. In their classrooms. In their grocery stores. In their workplaces. In their neighborhoods. In their public parks. In their DTC buses. In their Metro rides. In their movie theatres, restaurants, and shopping centers.
But of course, if they chose to remain distant, a #TalkToAMuslim campaign is not going to do anything for them. They have always talked to Muslims. Small talk– while asking the price of an article in a shop, while sitting in a seat next to a burqa-clad woman on the bus, while eating at the same Chhole-Kulche stall as a kid in a skullcap.
What they haven’t done is to make the effort to know a Muslim– because why should they?
I don’t think any campaign can cure indifference.