Rakhshanda Jalil's latest book, But You Don't Look Like a Muslim, is a beautiful collection of essays dealing with many aspects of modern Indian life. Her joy and pride in her identity, both as an Indian and as a Muslim, shines through the book. She is, like so many of us, deeply distressed by the 'othering' of Muslims that has been the leitmotif
of the past few years. Her book is hard to put down, being eminently readable: entertaining as well as highly informative. There are some delicious walks down memory lane, for example when she speaks of gharelu daavat,
a special, celebratory meal for the immediate family, with no other guests! The beautiful quilts her grandmother made for each member of the family, a very different rhythm of life at her grandparents' home in Aligarh, the difficulty of getting her daughter's friends to attend her birthday party when they moved to the Jamia neighbourhood, her own childhood memories of being ostracized by schoolmates during the 1971 war with Pakistan: Dr. Jalil shares many vignettes of her own life as an educated, city-bred,middle-class Indian Muslim.
The book is divided into 4 sections, the chapter headings telling a story in themselves!
In Part 1, The Politics of Identity, we have My Father Did not Take the Train to Pakistan, Living in Jamia, Coping with Ghettoization, Burqa: Moving Tombs for Women, Busting the Myth of the Monotonous Monochromatic Musalman, among others.
Part 2, The Matrix of Culture, is perhaps the most entertaining. We have Memories of Summers Past, Fasting, Feasting: Foods for the Faithful, From Amma's Razais to Jaipuri Quilts, Cooking in the Age Of Homogenization, The Bad, Mad World of Jasoosi Duniya, Telling the Story of Ram-e-Hind, and others. The Begum Who Sang of Love and Longing is a beautiful, poignant chapter, but also one that had me laugh out loud!
Part 3, The Mosaic of Literature speaks of Urdu and Urdu literature and poetry, in chapters such as Urdu: "Rest in Peace" or "Work in Progress"?, Abdur Rahim Khan-e Khanan: the People's Poet,
Nazir Akbarabadi: Voice of the People, Poet of Protest, Ale Ahmad Suroor: The Grand Old Man of Urdu Tehzeeb, Shakeel Badayuni: The Resolute Romantic, Batwara vs. Azadi: Two Versions of a Cataclysm, and others.
Part 4, The Rubric of Religion is most enriching and enlightening. 'On Sighting the Eid Moon' brings alive the suspense of not knowing whether the next day is one of fasting or celebration. This section is rich in the eclectic poetry of many Urdu poets, such as Hasrat Mohani in "When Hasrat Pined for Krishan Ji Bhagwan." Independent and liberal-minded, he was a practising Muslim who had performed the Haj all of eleven times yet liked to call himself a 'Sufi Muslim' and an'Ishtiraki Momin'
(communist Muslim)! And to top it all .......he was a devout Krishna bhakt
who went to Mathura often to celebrate Janamashtmi and also wrote the most lyrical ballads devoted to Krishan Ji Bhagwan. In his poetry, Hasrat shows how it is entirely possible for a panch-waqta
Musalman, one for whom worship of any deity is kufr
, to adore the 'other'. In 'Bada Din: Rejoicing the Birth of Ibn-e- Maryam', she writes of Jesus as a recurring figure in Urdu poetry. Ghalib's lines, of course, are well known. Darshan Singh Duggal wrote an entire poem describing Jesus as rooh ki azmat ka aina
(the mirror reflecting the greatness of the soul), ahinsa ka payami
sof non-violence), the one who gladly wore the crown of thorns upon his head. The Urdu poet, forever subversive,.........is irresistibly drawn to the figure of Christ on the cross. The greatest sense of ownership by far comes from Mustafa Zaidi who says: Mere maathe pe jhalakta hai nadamt ban kar, Ibn-e-Maryam ka woh jalsa jo kalisa mein nahin
(Like the patina of penitence, it glimmers on my forehead
That lustre of the Son of Mary that is not found in any church.
The chapter, Holi: Celebrating Gulabi Eid is a joyful one. The coming of spring, traditionally marked by Basant Panchami,was celebrated with gay abandon by the Sufis whose dargahs
became great melting pots where cultures and civilizations met and flowered. Amir Khusrau and Baba Bulleh Shah's compositions celebrating Basant and Holi are sung to this day. There is such beauty in these lines: Rang rangeeli ohi khilave, jis seekhi ho fanaa fi Allah
Only he may play with these colours who has learnt to immerse himself in Allah.
Many other Urdu poets have written with passion and verve on this most fun-filled of all Indian festivals. The author ends this beautiful chapter with these poignant lines from Saghar Khayami:
Nafratke taraf-dar nahin sab-an
Detey hain sabaq pyaar ke Gita ho ki Quran...
(The supporters of hatred are not people of discernment
Both the Gita and the Quran give lessons of love...
This section concludes with chapters on 'Diwali: the Night That Dispels Darkness', ' On Nanak, The Mard-e-Kamil', and, finally, ' Dil ki Kitaab: The Gita in Urdu.
I cannot do justice to the beauty, elegance and deep knowledge with which Dr. Jalil has written this extremely readable book. Her Afterword is both moving and en pointe.
This collection of essays is in the nature of a celebration.It's akin to opening the doors of my house and saying: Come in, come and see who I am. Come and celebrate my festivals, relive my memories, travel with me, share my doubts and dilemmas. Yes, I am different, but then who isn't in a country as plural, as multi-cultural, as multi-lingual and multi-ethnic as ours? ....... Are geographical, cultural, linguistic differences erased by the commonality of religion alone?
I sincerely believe in celebrating differences and enriching our lives as we do so. Thank you, Dr. Jalil, for this truly delightful and enriching book.