By Mosarrap H. Khan
You read about a Muslim woman being denied an apartment in Mumbai.
Hashtags such as #MisbahQadri, #ApartheidTruth lasted for about 72 hours on social media.
Raging, raging, gone…
You know you have been there; you have heard that; you have been asked to f*** off. Because you are a Muslim.
You also know social media outrage is incapable of devising a language of pain. Yes PAIN, which lies at the heart of such experiences.
Are our personal narratives just one way to grapple with that language of pain, you wonder.
You are at the University of Hyderabad. You have just completed a master’s and are brimming with idealism. The highs of university life have made you confident. You think you can take on the world. At least, that’s what the university community made you feel.
You have left the memories of 1992 behind. Somewhat.
You want to spend an additional year in Hyderabad. Because your girlfriend is still completing her master’s. You drive a hard bargain with your dad, who isn’t very keen on funding your stay in the city for an additional year. Hyderabad is not yet a booming tech city, where you could at least land a language trainer’s job at a call center. But you somehow manage to convince your dad. You tell him you are preparing for Ph.D. admissions. And, of course, the Ph.D. would have to be funded through a scholarship. Goes without saying.
Since you have completed the degree, you can’t live in the university hostel any longer. You go house-hunting in the city. Mostly you look for modest places. “We don’t rent our house to Muslims,” they say. You are young. You are full of hope. You are never bitter. You have made good friends at the university. They never considered your religion important. And, of course, you are dating a non-Muslim woman.
You feel despondent at times. In moments of frustration, you want to paint all of them with the same brush. You don’t. Because friendship and love have taught you to cross boundaries. Friendships falter. You have had a few cases after the Kargil War, when you spent time in Delhi. Love, too, mutates, grows, flattens, and dies. They leave a lesson in negotiation of temperament, class, region, religion etc. Religion, in your case. You’ve dated mostly non-Muslim women. There is an unspoken code of ‘SOCIAL CONTRACT’, you tell yourself. You press on.
Winter, 2011. You are on a research trip to India from NYU. You’re not sure what exactly you will do there. You have some vague ideas. You want to do ethnography among Muslims. You want to consult libraries in India. You want to meet some of the scholars and resource persons who have worked on Muslims in India. You travel constantly for four months, crisscrossing most of the major cities in India. You also manage to squeeze in a trip to Bangladesh. You either stay in the university guest houses or hotels.
Between your travels to different cities, you live with your sister in her modest apartment in Calcutta. Your trip is almost coming to an end. You want some uninterrupted time to focus and write. You want to move to an apartment but stay close to your sister, who is expecting her first child. You want to be part of the excitement.
Could you find me an apartment, you ask the broker over phone. Nischoy parbo, he assures. You say nothing about your religion. You reach the broker’s office, sign the papers and make an advance payment towards brokerage. He sees your name and says nothing. And then you ask the obvious questions, trying to be as cool as possible. The rickety man in thick glasses and faded pants lights a bidi. The wait adds to your tension. Muslim? A little problem, he smiles.
He starts making calls to apartment owners. You hope for the best. Every time, the man mentions Muslim apologetically, you notice his calls end immediately. This goes on for a while as you shuffle in the plastic chair. You light a cigarette. The rickety man’s eyes light up. Let me not mention Muslim, he says to you conspiratorially. You agree tentatively.
He makes a call to another broker. You’re on your way through the maze of an impossible Calcutta traffic. Your man rings the bell. You stand there half-smiling at his 80s bell-bottom pants. Time stands still in this city. A young woman leans from the balcony on the first floor. Her father is taking a bath and would be coming down soon, she shouts.
Moments become minutes. A short, plump man with well-oiled hair approaches you. Your man takes him aside and talks to him as if they have been discussing state intelligence. You light another cigarette. And then you hear an agitation in the man’s voice. Your man is trying to pacify him. Why didn’t you tell me before coming he is Muslim, he looks at you as if you have been infected with an incurable disease. You mutter an invective.
Summer, 2013. You’re in Calcutta again. Whenever you are in the city, you make the most of it – walking around the city, drinking, eating in dhabas, watching plays…You just can’t get enough of the city. This summer happens to coincide with Ramzan. Your friend is an observant Muslim and is fasting. He invites you for an iftaar with a gathering of Calcutta Muslims, mostly professionals. You hesitate. You aren’t fasting and are generally uncomfortable in religious gatherings.
You reluctantly accept the invitation. On the day of iftaar, you try to look as pious as possible. You meet some wonderful people. You like it more when they talk about your work. You are introduced to a man, who looks important. He, along with some others, is doing fabulous work of disseminating information online to Muslim students in Bengal on admissions, scholarships, vocational courses, and other professional courses. They manage to reach the remotest parts of the state (West Bengal) through SMS. You are impressed. Then the important man asks if you would be willing to meet some others at the Calcutta Coffee House in the coming week. You agree.
Calcutta Coffee House. Once the hub of intellectual life in the city. You always like this stretch of College Street. Small stalls filled with books. Books strewn all over the pavements. Books, everywhere. Crossing the tram line, you get into the side lane to reach the entrance, which you could’ve almost missed because of the hawker’s stalls crowding both sides of the gate.
There is always awkwardness in meeting people you hardly know. And discussing Bengali Muslim issues is what you are supposed to do over sipping black coffee, buttered toast, and omelet. You scan your surroundings and know what others must be discussing. Liberalism, secularism, progress, Bengal’s unique tolerance for pluralism. You can only take a guess. What are these coffee houses for? For aantels, of course. There are a couple of Hindu friends who have joined in. We believe in pluralism, just in case you had any doubts.
Over time, the conversation meanders to the question of housing discrimination against Muslims. You meet a young man, who has just completed a doctorate from Aligarh Muslim University and joined the prestigious Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, as a research associate. You hear him narrate his harrowing experience of trying to find a house in a middle-class Hindu neighborhood. His tale prods another man, who is a school teacher (we will call him X), to narrate a similar experience when trying to buy a house in a Hindu neighborhood.
Having faced similar situations before, you aren’t surprised. What strikes you is how difficult it is to talk about such situations in Bengal, supposedly a progressive state. You ask them if they want to write about their experiences. They agree somewhat reluctantly.
You’ve already returned from India. You keep on persuading them for almost three months. One of them finally sends his piece. X never responds.
You publish the young man’s story (No Muslims, Please!). It’s picked by a mainstream national publication (without acknowledgement, of course!). The mainstream publication carefully edits out the last bit of the piece, where the young man talks about Manto. Why, you wonder. Is it because Manto’s lament about the breakdown of a ‘social contract’ doesn’t fit the sanitized language of abstraction? Does PAIN come in the way of liberal understanding of the world?
The story makes it to social media. There is outrage, just like this time. Yet, the language of social media is not a language of social contract. It’s a fragmentary language of abstraction, extremes, categories, and concepts: Hindu, Muslim, discrimination, segregation, apartheid etc. It’s like howling in the abyss of a social contract.
Those who gather enough courage to speak out, those who write about these incidents function within a landscape of pain. The faceless space of social media is incapable of articulating that pain.
Is the language of law then the only alternative in such cases of discrimination? But the language of law is a language of violence. When the unspoken social contract breaks down, we turn to the language of law.
You know why X didn’t write his story. Beyond the usual abstract categories employed for understanding the world, social contract is about pain and pleasure. You might howl in abstraction. But the pain of being denied an apartment is concrete. And trying to express that concrete pain in abstract language is a reductive endeavor. X has to look his colleagues in the eye next day.
How do you imagine a language of pain then? How do you articulate pain?
The abstract language of social media is incapable of pain and pleasure, you know it.
Is the violent language of law the only answer to housing discrimination against Muslims?
Perhaps Manto knew it. He knew how to articulate the language of SOCIAL CONTRACT and the associated pain when it breaks down, as our young friend seems to suggest in his anecdote at the end of his piece.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on the poet of love and protest, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, edited by Pooja Garg Singh, poet and writer.