By Nazmul Hussain
‘We are all different from each other, at least in one respect,’ said my friend during the course of a debate in the Coffee House at central Kolkata. While this might be true, I couldn’t but help wondering how human beings are also similar in at least one respect. Who articulated this better than Amartya Sen, one of our preeminent thinkers? In Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, he pontificates on a person’s diverse identities in the modern world. The real success of this book lies in its ability to compel the reader to think beyond the boundary of the so called socially inviolable identities. Sen’s book allows me to think about our multiple identities where similarities are more prominent than dissimilarities within human races. But then why are we eager to magnify just a single identity or a couple of identities? Finding answers to such questions might not be an easy one, as we refuse to move away from the certainties of our fixed identities.
I learnt many lessons at Aligarh Muslim University, where I obtained my Ph.D. It compelled me to think beyond the caste, language, and religious divisions in our society. In my multiple identities as an Indian and, then, as a fish-and-rice eating Bengali, and a Muslim, I would like to view myself primarily as a human being.
Here I will narrate an incident that occurred recently and made me think of the identity question again.
After getting a new assignment in Kolkata, my primary concern was to resettle in a new house. Considering my financial potential, I would have preferred to settle down in a place where I could have easy access to the civic amenities and other infrastructural facilities. I am aware of the fact that Muslims in Kolkata, like in other Indian cities, live mostly in Muslim dominated ghettos. However, I was not very eager to settle down in these localities: first, because of lack of civic amenities; second, because of their distance from my workplace. The Muslim ghettos are overcrowded in most of the cities. Besides their regular inhabitants, the seasonal or long time migrated laborers, students, and job seekers look for accommodation in these areas. Zakir Nagar in South Delhi and Topsia in Kolkata are two classic examples in this regard. The condition of hygiene and communication in these localities is abysmal. Civic services are irregular and inadequate. Given an option, not many would like to settle down in these localities. Certainly, I would not like to, especially in a city known for its cultural heritage and tolerance. I would not like to be boxed into a particular identity in a place known as the ‘City of Joy.’
Some sociologists believe that large-scale mobility, both upward and downward, breaks down class structures, rendering a culture more uniform. I too believed that my individual mobility would align myself to a more uniform Bengali cultural identity. Once I settled down in the city, I discussed about renting a house with one of my colleagues and he helped me in locating a property broker. After our first meeting, on a busy Sunday morning, the broker took me to a rentable vacant house near Patuli Police Station. The house belonged to a couple whose only son lived outside Kolkata and the apartment was vacant for a long time. It looked good. As the location was near my institute and was within my budget, I was eager to seal the deal. I agreed to the terms and conditions like two months’ rents as security deposit and one month rent in advance. My would-be landlord asked me to hand over my identity and address proof and some token advance the next day. Accordingly, I submitted all the papers and a cash amount. After completing the formalities, I left the place in a rickshaw dreaming of a new beginning in a city I love so much. While I was leaving, the broker requested me to call him at night for some paper related issues. When I called the broker at night, he apologized and said, ‘Sir, please don’t mind, the owner will not rent out his house to a Muslim. I will try for you another one.’ I was shocked and utterly confused, unable to match the couple’s outer appearance and their parochial thinking in the ‘City of Joy’. Nevertheless, I hoped to locate another house.
After the incidence, I took a break for a while and, after about two weeks, decided to contact another broker in Garia area. Now, I was a bit cautious and disclosed my identity to the broker well in advance. I asked the broker to reveal my identity to the apartment owner, when he wanted me to visit the apartment. The very next day the broker said, ‘Everything went fine in the morning until I revealed your identity. As soon as they found you were a Muslim, the house owner’s wife rushed inside the house, and called her husband in. The husband came back after ten minutes. He apologized and said that his wife had given words to someone else for the apartment and he didn’t know about it. The truth is that they will not rent their house to a Muslim. I am sorry but I will try my best to arrange a house for you.’ I was happy that the broker was honest and he felt my pain. I thought that I found a man who was eager to change this unfair practice.
Next day, the broker called me and took me to a nearby two-room apartment on ground floor. While going with the broker, I asked him if he informed the owner about my identity. He assured me that this time the owner did not have a problem in renting out the house to a Muslim. In the house, the other two floors were occupied by the owner. Things went smooth and the deal was finalized. While leaving, I told the owner: ‘Please tell it right now if you have any problem with Muslims.’ The house-owner’s wife asked her husband to call up the secretary of their association. While he spoke on the phone, I guessed from his facial expression that the society mightn’t want to rent the house to a Muslim. I took a right turn and started leaving the house. Ending the call, the owner shouted, ‘Sorry. But if you have any Bengali friend who requires a rented house, give him my address.’
The statement shook me and forced me to think that the discrimination is not only based on religious background but also on culture and language, too. I felt a tremor but, taking control of myself, asked the couple gently: ‘Do you think I am not Bengali? If you don’t want to rent out your house to a Muslim, it’s okay. But, for god’s sake, don’t take away my beloved Bengali identity from me. I am both a Bengali and a Muslim. I have no problem with my multiple identities. I have no problem with your identity.’ I was not interested in discussing this further and started walking toward the bus stop. The broker didn’t try to console me this time but his face narrated it all. I shook hand and told him, ‘Thank you. Hope to see you, again.’
While returning from my office, I kept on thinking about my bizarre experience of house hunting in Kolkata. As I thought of possible reasons for the denial of a house, I remembered a Saadat Hasan Manto short story – ‘Ramkhelawan’ – set against the backdrop of Partition (1947), which could be one of the reasons for the gradual communalization of Kolkata. Ramkhelawan, a hardworking washerman, was indebted to a Muslim family for many reasons. Once he fell grievously ill after drinking alcohol, the wife of the Muslim couple took him to a doctor by taxi. He survived. As the partition approached, the wife left for Pakistan. The man went to collect his clothes from Ramkhelawan, as he, too, was planning to leave for Pakistan following the outbreak of violence. As he approached Ramkhelawan’s house, he could locate him among a group of people dancing with long, heavy wooden sticks in their hands. Suddenly one of them asked him whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim. The man replied that he was a Muslim. ‘Kill him, kill him’, came the response. As one of the washer-men raised his stick to hit him, suddenly Ramkhelawan stopped in his track and blurted out, ‘Sahib! He is not a Muslim; he is my Sahib, begum sahiba’s sahib…’ The man survived and safely left for Pakistan.
No man is indebted to me in this city. Only a few know me in this vast city. Am I safe like Sahib? Do I belong to this city? Can I live peacefully in the ‘City of Joy’? Or I will have to leave the city like Sahib? Can I fulfill my wish to stay in a better locality? When will someone call out, ‘He is Muslim but he is also my Bengali brother’?
Only time will tell.
An appeal: On behalf of Cafe Dissensus, we would like to appeal to the Chief Minister of West Bengal, other officials, and the concerned citizens that we must make a concerted effort to stop this discriminating practice against Muslims. Nazmul Hussain’s case is not a one-off incident but a recurrent practice in Kolkata, a city known for its tolerance, cultural heritage, and secular credentials. One of the editors of Cafe Dissensus had to face a similar situation in Kolkata, while trying to rent an apartment a couple of years back.
[Dr. Nazmul Hussain is a Research Associate (Empirical) at the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (India). He also worked as a Research Associate at the Association SNAP, Kolkata. He obtained his Ph. D. from Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. His research focus includes survey research, human groups inequality, and the minorities. He has published 1 book and over 25 research articles in refereed journals. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]
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