Illustration: Amili Setalvad
Noted playwright, VIJAY TENDULKAR, recounts the story of his own life to illustrate how anti-Muslim prejudice makes deep inroads into the psyche of a middle-class Maharashtrian Hindu at an early age: through an upbringing which “prohibits any contact with Muslims”, the teaching of distorted history, Partition, and, “most of all, because of the total lack of contact between us and the Muslims among us, as people”
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 Bombay.
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.
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 Lokamanya 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 pressurized 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 clerics 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 the 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, is anybody’s guess.
To return to the topic of my paper, 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.
“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?)”
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 the Mughal rule and established his own rule which came to be known as Hindu pada padashahi i.e. 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 to-day, alternately comic and repulsive. The rest of the Mughal characters in the play were drunkards, lechers, capable of any dastardly act and bigmouthed 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 was 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 6-16 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 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 kept woman or 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 pyjama, 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 s and felt terribly disappointed He was no patch on those foul-mouthed villains I had seen and heard in the historical plays.)
“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”
As the days passed, I also found that Sheikh was a studious boy, who spoke my language i.e. 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 the 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 cooperative. 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 note-books. 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 with his big black frame and his profession 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 mean 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.
“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.”
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 civilized, 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.
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 appreciate 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- 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.
“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”
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 i.e. 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 the 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, a 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 suite 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. This entire 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.”
Hamid 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. 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?
“Muslims were 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.”
While writing this, I am reminded of a Muslim character in one of my plays written in my later years; the only Muslim in my plays as far as I remember. The play is Sakharam Binder and the character is Daood – Daood Miya as he is fondly called by the central character of the play, Sakharam.
I did not consciously have this in character my mind when I began writing this play. That he has to be a Muslim was decided at a sub-conscious level. Therefore, my reasons for doing this are not known to me. It has happened to most of my characters. They get ‘born’, enter and exit as if by their own choice, so to say. I only see them entering and making their exits – like a member of the audience, which I, in fact, am while the play comes to me. This is not to suggest that I do not wish their movements; I do but at a sub-conscious level rather than at a conscious level.
When I thought of writing Sakharam Binder (The title came to me after writing the entire play), I had in mind Sakharam as the central character in the play. In fact I plunged into the unknown depths of the play holding on to this man about whom I had heard little and had imagined a lot before writing this play.
In the play, he enters his house on the outskirts of the town with a woman who was literally on the road after being thrown out by her husband. Sukharam, the unmarried male, is unmarried partly because of his meagre income as a book binder in a printing press, and also because of his complex personality, which is basically of a loner. He is a man who has always lived outside the established norms of a decent society and has learned to challenge them in words as well as in action.
He needs a woman in his house for sex as well as for taking care of the household chores. For this he picks up a married woman who is in the dumps, who has been driven out by her husband lock, stock and barrel. He takes her home to live with him till one of the two decides to end the ‘contract’ and call it quits.
In his relationship he observes a code of conduct and insists that it should be observed by the women till they cohabit. He makes his code of conduct known to every new woman he brings home before she formally makes her decision to stay. Generally, the woman has no other option but Sakharam insists on her being told the terms and conditions of the contract. This is done solemnly almost in the manner of a religious ritual.
I did not plan who the first woman in the play or the first woman in Sakharam’s house will be. The one before her has died in the local government hospital imagining her husband by her side and clutching Sakharam’s hand in hers.
Laxmi enters the play after this woman has died and her last rites have been performed by Sakharam. She follows Sakharam into his house like a sheep following the master.
Sakharam in my concept was a loner and an outcast from the local society but such characters, in my perception, invariably have one more person near them, a man, who is their link with the rest of the world and a vital outlet for voicing their anger against its ways. They share their innermost secrets with him and have utmost confidence in him.
This man is generally commonplace, unassuming, more of a listener than a talker, somewhat inferior in status to his mentor – cum – friend, willing to please him for minor gains and small favours and is faithful to his mentor. This character had to enter the play at some stage and he does at an appropriate point – as Daood, a local poor Muslim who earns his living doing odd jobs and is a bachelor. Sakharam, incidentally, comes from a Brahmin family; a legacy he has disowned at an early age by running away from his house for good.
Daood is a frequent visitor to Sakharam’s house and is familiar with Sakhraram’s non-conformist, odd and colourful life-style. Seeing a new female – a haggard and emaciated one mostly – in Sakharam’s house every so often comes as no surprise to him. He even shows his attraction for one of them openly in Sakharam’s presence but Sakharam does not mind because he knows that Daood will be careful not to cross his limits.
Coming to know of a new development, Daood reaches Sakharam’s house. Laxmi, the new woman, is already in the kitchen when he arrives on the scene. Wanting to see the new find of his friend, Daood says: “They say you caught a new bird?” Sakharam casually quips, “Yes. Just now. About an hour ago.”
Daood asks “Where did you get her?” Sakharam tells him. Daood cannot wait to see her face. “Let us have a look!” he suggests. Laxmi is at the kitchen door with tea for Sakharam. Daood sees her and feels sympathetic. Sakharam dryly and casually describes the plight of Laxmi after she was thrown out by her husband.
That Laxmi can hear what he is being told makes Daood self-conscious and he gestures to Sakharam to stop but Sakharam is not bothered. He goes on.
The difference between the sensibility of Sakharam and Daood, as expressed here, is significant. Daood is shown as more ‘human’ and caring, more circumspect in such respects than his rebel Hindu Brahmin friend, Sakharam.
Soon after arriving in the house, Laxmi settles down in her new environment after being ‘punished’ by Sakharam for her lapses in observing the ‘code’. She picks up the code soon with its nuances and subtitles, learns to find her way through them, and takes charge first of the kitchen, then of the house.
It is the day of the annual Ganesh-pooja. It is a Hindu religious festival and like every devout Hindu, Sakharam ceremoniously brings the Ganesh idol home from the shop which sells these idols, to worship. Muslim Daood is his helper.
At the entrance to his house Sakharam religiously shouts ‘Mangalmurti’ and like a practicing Hindu chants the rest of the traditional slogan : ‘Moraya!’ (Both are the callings of the Hindu deity.)
Laxmi completes the rites at the door-step welcoming the idol to the house. Sakharam and Daood then enter the house with the Ganesh idol. Sakharam places the idol at the specially decorated place prepared by Laxmi and Daood’s help. Sakharam lovingly addresses the Ganesh idol: “Be seated Mangalmurti. Relax. Eat. Drink and be merry. You have your mouse with you for company and ready to pounce on your prasad (sweet offering).”
A disapproving Laxmi snubs Sakharam: “You shouldn’t talk like that to God!”
Sakharam, not liking her intrusion, growls back: “Why not? Daood, did I say anything wrong? You tell me.” He will take Daood’s word on what is proper on such occasions rather than what a woman says. Daood, being what he is, will definitely avoid embarrassing him in such situations. He will side with his friend.
Daood, in a fix, inherently diplomatic and experienced in slipping out of such delicate situations, responds without committing himself: “Better not say such things if they are not supposed to be said. Let us talk of the prasad (sweet offering). I have to go back to the shop.” (He has to be working in a shop.)
Laxmi now prepares for the aarti (The traditional ode to the idol to be sung collectively). As Sakharam takes the aarti things from Laxmi and Laxmi lights the niranjana (the oil lamp), Daood helps both. Then Laxmi gestures to Daood, though in a subdued manner, to move away and keep his distance now that the aarti is to begin. Daood is a Muslim after all.
Daood instantly understands Laxmi’s problem and readily moves away. He does not join in singing aarti. Sakharam does not like this. In his house he is the master. He will decide what is right and what is wrong. He refuses to begin aarti till Daood sings with him. Daood sensing trouble and wanting to avoid a tricky situation joins in, singing half-heartedly while standing at a safe distance.
“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”
Laxmi with her traditional mindset cannot accept a Muslim joining in aarti. She signals Daood to stop singing. Daood stops singing. Sakharam finding Daood’s voice missing looks back at him and roars “Come on Daood, why have you stopped? Sing with me!”
Daood does not, fearing a conflict situation because of him. Laxmi does not want him to sing, he being a Muslim. Unable to accept what is happening, she blurts out her objection and Sakharam goes wild with rage. “If I can sing aarti why not Daood?” he demands to know. But Laxmi just cannot think of a Muslim joining in a Hindu ritual of aarti. Enraged, Sakharam thrashes the frail but insistent Laxmi with a belt at hand. Not being able to stand it, Daood leaves.
Daood re-enters the play again after a substantial lapse of time when Sakharam’s turbulent days with Laxmi are over for as he driven Laxmi out of the house, locked the door from inside and said good riddance. He knocks on the door. Not getting a response, the knocking gets louder.
Sakharam thinks that Laxmi is knocking on the door and having heard the commotion, Daood has come to see what is happening. Sakharam opens the door for Daood. From behind Daood, using him as a cover, Laxmi also enters and slips into the kitchen. Daood mediates on her behalf though with utmost caution and diplomacy, taking care not to rub Sakharam on the wrong side.
This is a characteristic of Daood. He prefers to avoid situations which can lead to trouble. In his meek and unassuming style he succeeds in negotiating Laxmi’s return to the house though only for a while. Laxmi has to leave soon afterward.
Daood is seen next with Sakharam just after Sakharam has returned alone, after leaving Laxmi at the door of her distant and only nephew as per her wish. Sakharam is in an introspective mood as he smokes his daily chillum. He admits, as if to himself, that Laxmi’s leaving has ‘left a mark’ on him. Daood, as the loyal and silent listener, empathises: “Yes, that happens.”
Both are smoking chillum as is their routine at the end of the day. Daood needs his peace at such times. He is seen enjoying his puffs as Sakharam is getting increasingly restless.
This is the end of the first act.
The second act begins with a new woman on the stage. She is brought into the house like the previous woman and introduced to its code of conduct by Sakharam in exactly the same way as at the beginning of the first act. This new woman, Champa, is unlike Laxmi. She is younger than Laxmi and vivacious. Moreover, it becomes clear that unlike Laxmi, who was thrown out by her husband, Champa has walked off on her alcoholic husband whom she casually describes as the ‘corpse’ and a ‘ninny’. He wanted to push her into prostitution and survive on her income. She deserted him.
As Sakharam is going through the ritual ‘code of conduct’ with Champa, his new woman, he cannot concentrate on what he is saying because of the ‘oomph’ this new woman oozes, naturally. As this is going on, Daood, curious as usual to see the new woman (“bird”, as he calls Sakharam’s women), appears on the scene and is instantly charmed by this new bird.
His eyes rove over her body. He cannot restrain his excitement and calls her a peach while talking to Sakharam. He immediately apologises for using this word and gladly offers to make tea for the two. He goes to Sakharam’s kitchen and does so. (Being a Muslim his easy access to Sakharam’s kitchen is significant.) Champa, too, has instantly accepted Daood as a member of the house and orders him in a special tone, “Be a pet, go get me a nice paan”. He finds this so bewitching that he runs for the paan without taking money for it from Sakharam.
Sakharam for the first time become conscious of Daoods’s presence around him and his woman and has to tell Champa, “I won’t allow too much talking to strangers.” This is his new and hurried addition to his code of conduct.
Champa changes into a fresh sari (women like Champa have a way of doing this without exposing any part of their physique) while Daood is around. In the presence of Sakharam, Daood has to try very hard to pretend that he is not looking at her doing this. Sakharam is getting more and more alarmed by what he thinks is developing between Champa and Daood – though not in an obvious manner – and has to tell Daood, “From now I will come to your shop. We will meet there.”
Champa is now very impressed by Daood. She repeatedly describes him as a nice guy. This irritates Sakharam in spite of Daood being his only friend and a confidante.
Though Sakharam does not want Daood to be around while Champa is alone or with him, Daood, because of his fancy for Champa, comes calling for his friend in a scene that follows and finds Champa’s husband in the house with Sakharam. (Champa has gone to the river to wash clothes.)
Sakharam, himself of a crude and abusive tongue, has run out of patience with this worm of a man who talks of his wife as if she is a cow or a buffalo. (The size of her buttocks and breasts etc.) As a shocked and angry Sakharam is trying to throw Champa’s husband out of his house, Daood arrives.
He sees Champa’s husband for the first time and without being told knows that he must be Champa’s husband. He says to Sakharam: “So this is the bird’s cage! If the bird comes, the cage has to follow. It looks as though this time you will be looking after the cage and the bird.” He consoles Sakharam, “You must learn to put up with such things.”
Champa appears on the scene. She flies into a violent rage when she sees her husband. She beats him up with a ferocity which shocks even Sakharam despite his own violent nature. He has not seen anything like this in his life. He tries to restrain Champa but cannot and Daood has to take Champa’s unwilling, bloodied husband away for safety’s sake. Daood then returns to warn Sakharam: “Watch out, this bird is different from the others.”
“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 suite 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”
Sakharam, totally sold on the vivacious Champa’s, is in no mood to take cognizance of Daoods’s warning. He spends almost all his time at home with his beauty, makes her drink alcohol and lose control. He does not attend to his work for days. Champa has taken to alcohol like a fish to water. Once, while she is heavily drunk, with Sakharam by her side, an unknowing Daood comes to the house. Champa in her drunken state provokes Daood: “Who is it? Daood. Come. You want to have fun with me? Have it. Take me.” A dumbfounded Daood stands there with Champa’s arms thrown around him and her clothes in disarray. A stunned Sakharam is watching all this.
A scene and some days later, Daood, the faithful friend, is seen trying to bring Sakharam to his senses by admonishing him: “You can’t afford to sit at home. You have got to work. There’s this house to run.” Sakharam refuses to budge from his present way of life.
Out of concern for his friend, Daood even tells Sakharam what people in the locality are talking about him. Sakharam explodes: “What do I owe them or their fathers? Did they feed me when I was hungry?” Daood reminds him of earlier days, days with the previous “bird” – Laxmi Bhabi, as he nostalgically calls her. Sakharam roars: “Laxmi is gone. She is dead as far as I am concerned. Now it’s Champa.”
A resigned Daood says, “It worries me what I see and hear. It’s up to you. I am off.” Realizing that his worldly wisdom gained through experiencing and watching life through the sensibility of a person born in a poor minority community – that too the Muslim community – is not going to help this man, Daood immediately distances himself from Sakharam’s fate. He withdraws from Sakharam’s present state and involves himself in his routine work. He does not meet Sakharam as he used to.
At the beginning of the third and the last act of the play, we find that Daood has not been to Sakharam’s house for days after their last meeting. Laxmi has unexpectedly returned on the scene. Her nephew refused to keep her in his house and she has no other place to go. So she is at Sakharam’s doorstep wanting to be taken in.
Sakharam, still under Champa’s irresistible charm, does not want Laxmi in the house. Laxmi is turned out of Sakharam’s house unceremoniously, and violently, by Sakharam for the second time. But Champa’s compassion is aroused by her pitiable state. Using her hold on Sakharam she convinces him to keep Laxmi in the house as the second woman who will take care of the domestic chores.
Sakharam has given in though most unwilling. He is still seething with anger and feeling very disturbed by the unexpected intrusion of this bygone, unwanted woman intruding in his present life. (Laxmi is a religious, god-fearing, and devout Hindu. She symbolises a moral and spiritual way of life for Sakharam which he does not want to be reminded of especially in his present state.)
In the midst of this, while Sakharam is in a restless mood (he looses himself in playing mridanga, a percussion instrument, in such moods) Daood enters. Sakharam has missed Daood for a long time. He growls when he notices him: “Found time to come to-day, did you?” Daood meekly replies: “Heard the mridanga and felt as if the old days have returned.”
What old days? Scowls Sakharam. He is not interested in any old days.
From inside the kitchen Laxmi hears Daood and eagerly comes to the kitchen door to greet him: “Daood Bhavjee!” (Bhavjee, a Marathi word used by women to address their brother-in-law.)
Sakharam is already in a deep spiritual crisis since the return of Laxmi and her constant presence in the house. He cannot indulge in his lust for Champa as freely with her around. Laxmi has no other place to go so she wants to hang on to this last outpost of her life at any cost. And she senses a potent enemy in the form of Champa., the other woman in the house. This is despite Champa’s compassionate gesture in allowing her to stay in the house with her.
Now comes the crucial scene. Laxmi enters the house (Sakharam’s house, (there is no one in the house). Her face shows extreme revulsion. She is breathless with excitement. Her eyes look hysteric. She speaks to the pictures of her gods in the kitchen. (In the play, she has a habit of speaking to ants and other insects).
Hysteric and in ecstasy, she narrates something which she has just seen or imagines that she has seen. (It is not clear in the play). But she narrates it as if it has happened. Lately, she has been keeping a watch on Champa and has finally been successful in catching her sleeping with Daood. She has seen them but has not interrupted their love making.
“Terrible! I shouldn’t have followed her. I couldn’t keep the man I married. For me this one (Sakharam) was my husband. Even when I was away (he had driven her out of the house), I worshipped him in silence every day.”
From inside her choli she produces a cheap mangalsutra (black beads strung on a cotton thread, a symbol of a married Hindu woman) and holds it before her Gods. “I wore this in his (Sakharam’s) name,” She tells her Gods in the most solemn tone. “I belong to him. If I am to get kicked let him kick me. If I have to die let me die on his lap – in full glory of a married woman.”
Her case against Champa (who has graciously allowed her to share the house with her;) is that she has not only spoiled Sakharam, her (Laxmi’s) husband, who is basically a good man, but has also been unfaithful to him. And she has been sleeping around with Daood, a Muslim.
While she is talking to her Gods as if they are listening, there are knocks on the door which he had locked from inside. Someone calls for Champa. A man. Laxmi meets Champa’s husband for the first time. He is back once again after being thrashed and thrown out by Champa earlier. He cannot live without his Champa, he claims.
Champa and Sakharam are not around. That he is Champa’s abandoned husband (she herself is the abandoned wife of her husband) produces an immediate empathy in Laxmi for the pathetic looking man. Besides, in the heart of her heart, she already has nothing but contempt for Champa who has enticed her (Laxmi’s) husband. (Her lawful husband has walked out on her for another woman.).
She cannot bear to see Champa’s drunken husband sobbing in grief. A man must never cry; must never look pathetic, she has been taught to believe. He must be proud, arrogant, and upright. Now she has more than one reason to act against Champa, her rival. The whore of a woman has already destroyed one man and is in the process of destroying another.
After Champa’s husband leaves, Laxmi vows to herself; “She will pay for this! The sinner! She will suffer. She will go to hell for this -Walks out on her husband, lives with another and carries on with a third!”
Laxmi has not yet decided on a course of action but she is already feeling triumphant. She has the trump card now and she can play it at her will. But before this can happen, Sakharam has reached a point of exasperation after a spell of impotence he has experiencing in his relationship with Champa. Champa too cannot take this any more and is resisting his sexual advances. A maddened Sakharam reaches a conclusion: all this is happening because of Laxmi’s presence in the house.
He virtually kicks Laxmi out of the house for good. A desperate Laxmi plays her trump card. Half-terrorised by a ferocious Sakharam bent on seeing her out, she blurts out what she ‘saw’ the other day: Champa sleeping with Daood.
The balance tilts immediately. “This is why the bitch (Champa) has been resisting my advances!” Sakharam assumes and in his impotent and chaotic mental state throttles Champa to death in the following scene between the two. Laxmi, at the end of the play, is his willing accomplice in his confused effort to cover up the murder after he realises what he has done.
The play ends with an ecstatic and hysteric Laxmi digging a ditch for her dead rival in a triangular relationship; and Sakharam, the male in the relationship, is seen standing by her side “as if all the sap has been squeezed out of him. He is just an empty shell.”
I have narrated the play with Daood as its focal point in the context of this paper. In the play itself, Daood is at the periphery of all the happenings though at the end he comes to the centre stage, though not in person. He, of course, has no knowledge of this since what Laxmi claims to have seen is quite possibly her fantasy, something she wants to happen.
As I have stated earlier Daood was not a conscious choice when I began writing this play. He came by himself; out of some necessity dictated by the play. Sakharam had to have at least one confidante and friend. His being a Muslim was not imperative to the play. He stepped in to the play as a Muslim, without this having been a conscious decision on my part.
He, with his minority mindset and all its subtleties, got woven into the play through some unknown process. The role he plays at the culmination of the play, whether actual or a product of Laxmi’s sick fantasy, also evolved out of some internal logic of the play, whatever that may be. It was not the result of a conscious decision on my part. And yet, the play happens to be my brain-child.
I am deliberately avoiding any self-analysis of this occurrence. I would like someone else to do it in the light of my sensibilities vis-a-vis the Muslims as described in this paper.
Serious plays are complex creative works while commercial films provide shallow entertainment. But both can be valid subjects for sociological analysis and debate if looked at from such an angle, since both have social content and carry a social message whether their makers mean it or not.
Quite often, they do not.
As told to Javed Anand; Archived from Communalism Combat, April 1997, Cover Story