I was asked why I wear a bindi: Navjot

In this interview from 1994, artist Navjot tells Communalism Combat co-editor Teesta Setavad, about the challenges of being a Sikh woman married to a Muslim man practicing secular values in wake of the Babri Masjid demolition

What’s in a name?

For many people in India after December 6, 1992, as in November, 1984, the world was easy to comprehend. You were either a Hindu, a Sikh or a Muslim. Your name said it all and did anything else really matter? But there were many many more human beings around then, as they are today, who simply, would not be pigeon-holed into an ‘us’ or ‘them’ compartment.

Two years after thousands of deaths, and much more, followed the demolition, Combat spoke to four individuals whose life experiences and values can never be encapsulated in a name

Hope amidst fear           

Its two years since the sacrilege in Ayodhya and the countrywide conflagration which followed. Ten years after the anti-Sikh carnage in the capital of the Republic and elsewhere, traumatized survivors are still crying for justice. November, 1984 and December, 1992 must never be forgotten for both showed how shaky the foundation of India’s secular-democratic state is.

But nor must we fail to recognise hope amidst fear. In a civilization spiritually fertilised by the bhakti-sufi tradition, there never was and never will be a dearth of decent human beings.

This special year-end edition of Communalism Combat felicitates the true inheritors of our compassionate tradition even while it commemorates the victims of prejudice and hatred.

‘Though my parents were uprooted by Partition, thanks to my upbringing, never since my childhood have I ever felt that as a Sikh I am distinct or separate’.







You know mine is a very strange, funny kind-of experience. I am neither a Hindu nor or a Muslim. I am a Sikh married to a Muslim, (who is also a painter of repute). Though my parents were uprooted by Partition, thanks to my upbringing, never since my childhood have I ever felt, that as a Sikh I am distinct or separate. We have always lived very close to Hindus and Muslims. Diwali, Eid and Lori were all celebrated in our home.

Whenever my father and mother talk about Lahore, it is with so much fondness. You know, they never talk about Partition-time riots. Imagine my mother, who was then only recently married. She had to flee home with the home fire burning (she was in the midst of cooking food), a six-month-old baby (my elder sister) in her arms. Apart from one feeding bottle, all my parents carried with them was a bit of my mother’s gold.

But they never ever talk about what they lost. They have no bitter, negative feelings. They did not like Partition at all, but it was Muslims who protected them and who brought them under cover to the station and helped them get out of Lahore.

On returning to Ludhiana, my mother was witness to Hindus butchering Muslims from her five-story high, ancestral home. Earlier, Punjab and Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims living together – there were lots of Muslims in Punjab. Over the years, whenever someone opened the subject of Partition and invariably began apportioning blame, my mother always said: “Who can I blame? Muslims? I have seen our own neighbours in Ludhiana butchering Muslims and I have also seen Muslims in Lahore hurting Hindus. And we ourselves were all saved by Muslim friends. How can I take sides?”

After living for a few months in Ludhiana, my father (who has a government job) was transferred to Meerut. There, they decided to share a haveli (large house) with other families in an entirely Muslim-dominated locality. I was born there.

Meerut, always communally tense, would have spurts of violence every so often. Each time such a situation arose, our neighbours would always tell us: “You don’t get out of the house, we’ll get you vegetables or whatever you need.”

Daddy also told me this other story: One day, when he was walking home, another Sardar from a gurudwara followed him and finally asked: “What are you doing here?” “I live here.” my father replied. “You live here? Get out, quickly. You’ll be killed, hacked to death.”

The man refused to accept that my father was happy in a Muslim area. “Do you need money? I’ll assist you to leave,” he urged. Finally when he realised it was no use, he left.

My father has always told us fond and loving stories about Lahore, and the many Muslims friends that he still has. I believe that our backgrounds, enriched by these childhood stories, are very important. I think we must go on telling these real life stories again and again to our children and create living symbols for our times.

It was recently, after that terrible winter in Bombay, that the value of what I possessed struck me. I found myself telling my father, “Thank God, I am your daughter.” I felt I had to thank him for my upbringing. My father who is not sentimental had tears in his eyes.

It is so ironic that despite this upbringing today I feel no one takes me very seriously. If I talk to a Muslim, there is the attitude of, “Usko kya faraq padta hai? (What does it matter to her?) and if I talk to Hindus, they say, “Oh, but she’s married to a Muslim.”

I recall some very very close family members saying things to me after the Babri Masjid demolition that totally jolted me. It was about the way I dress, my bindi. It was a rude shock to me since they have known me for 22 years. I was very, very upset.

This was in December 1992, at a family gathering. A close family member commented, “Why should you dress up like this today?” “Why not,” I replied? But I was very hurt. The comment showed that after 22 years of association (my married life), people have not understood me, not appreciated what stand I have taken as a human being. Today the whole thing is reduced to why I wear a bindi. It is something I love doing, something that is an essential part of my dressing up as a woman.

Even a close artist friend, Tyeb Mehta, has said to me, “Tum nahin samjhogi.” (You will not understand). Why not? This kind of statement makes me very angry. What about all the non-Sikhs who worked day and night in Delhi during the pogrom against Sikhs in 1984. Did they not understand the tragedy and misery around them?

I feel my position is very odd. I am nothing. And then I ask whether it is it better to be something? I feel quite alienated. Today, after two years I choose to remain silent when such comments are made. Maybe my silence will convey my feelings.

You know, we were always advised by close colleagues and family members that by not bringing up Sasha – our daughter who is now 20 – with a sense of belonging to a particular community, we would confuse and unsettle her, not give her strong moorings. Bringing her up was a challenging experience. And believe me, it has not affected her one bit. She is as normal or as difficult as any other child of her age. So we have in our own lives consciously experimented with an alternative identity formation and it has worked.

(P.S. Altaf, Sasha’s father had a standard joke, which he shared with her as she grew up…Before you were born, I used to say that if ever I have a daughter I’ll name her “Piduratalagala” (the the highest mountain peak in Sri Lanka).

Writing to her parents in late 1992 from Baroda, where she studies art, Sasha lamented : “People here are so narrow-minded, they refuse to accept that I have no religious identity just because my name is Sasha Altaf. I think the time has come for all of us to give ourselves names like Piduratalagala.”

NOV-DEC, 1994, Monthly Journal, Communalism Combat, Cover Story




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