Hussain Haidry used to be a chartered accountant and an MBA from IIM Indore. He is today looking to break into Bollywood as a lyricist and screenwriter. (Image source: YouTube via Kommune) Photograph: (Others)
Had Hussain Haidry done so, it is possible the reaction to his viral poem ‘Main Hindustani Musalman hoon’ would have been very different
It had been an agreeable evening until then. The weather had been balmy, the conversation pleasant (never a guarantee in Delhi), and there had been alcohol.
But that's what threw a spanner in the works.
For in the mix was a Muslim man married to a Hindu woman.
So obviously somebody asked him: “I hope you're not kattar (fanatical)?”
“No I'm not,” he said. “Look, I drink.”
I jumped in. The question is unfair, I said. And the answer is unnecessary. “I've never heard a Hindu man have to prove his lack of kattar-ness by saying: 'Look, I eat beef'.'”
But alas, my little intervention – this was a few years ago – seems to have had little effect on the state of the nation for a few months ago another Muslim man was forced to declare his “same-ness” to the rest of us.
By way of a poem.
Hussain Haidry performed “Main Hindustani Musalman hoon” at Kommune in Mumbai on February 10. (The piece of spoken poetry soon went viral.)
In a sense – in the midst of gau rakshaks killing Muslim men, the RSS telling us the cow protection programme must continue, a silent prime minister, the Supreme Court telling us to stand before every movie, the ABVP hectoring us on the benefits of nationalism, mobs beating up people of African origin, and a former BJP MP saying Indians are not racist because they live with “black” south Indians – Hussain's musings on India’s plurality (and the fact that a Muslim can also be an Indian) were the silver lining on a dark cloud. (The reactions to his poem were largely positive.)
“Mera ek mahina Ramzaan bhi hai, maine kiya toh Ganga snaan bhi hai,” he says in it.
And yet, a darker undercurrent swirls beneath his words.
“Imagine if he had called himself a Muslim Indian, rather than a Hindustani Musalman? How would people have reacted then?” asks Professor Deepak Mehta. (Mehta used to teach sociology at Delhi University. One of his research interests is the sociology of Muslim groups in India.)
“I was just writing about myself,” says Hussain. Adding that he was trying to make sense of his mixed Muslim, Madhya Pradeshi, and Gujarati ancestry – Hussain is a Gujarati-speaking Bohra Muslim from Indore in MP.
But Mehta attributes some of his poem to the “minority syndrome”, the need members of the minority communities might feel to act more patriotic than their counterparts from the majority because they are seen (incorrectly) to not be patriotic.
Is that so? Is Hussain frightened to be Muslim in India today?
Hussain says he is not, because he comes from privilege. But from some of the stories that he hears – of long-time neighbour turning on neighbour – he thinks that “a certain set of people are”.
Was he, in his poem, proclaiming his nationalism?
“I was not talking about nationalism. I was talking about diversity,’ says Hussain.
But Mehta says Hussain’s poem is a reaction to the chest-thumping nationalism that we are seeing today. “Nationalism has to be proved only when there is anxiety about it.”
“I belong here,” says Hussain. “I know that. And anybody who might think otherwise, that is their problem. Not mine.”
Watch: Hussain Haidry performs 'Main Hindustani Musalman hoon' . (Video courtesy: YouTube via Kommune)
Hussain's poem asks:
“Main kaisa Musalmaan hoon bhai?
Main Shia hoon ya Sunni hoon?
Main Khoja hoon ya Bohri hoon?
Gaon se hoon ya shehri hoon?
Baaghi hoon ya sufi hoon?
Main kaumi hoon ya dhongi hoon?
Main kaisa Musalmaan hoon bhai?”
The questions are finally answered by:
“Main Hindustani Musalmaan hoon
Mujhme Gita ka saar bhi hai, ek Urdu ka akhbaar bhi hai
Mera ek mahina Ramzaan bhi hai, maine kiya toh Ganga snaan bhi hai
Apne hi taur se jeeta hoon, daaru-cigarette bhi peeta hoon...”
There! There's the mandatory reference to “daaru-cigarette”. (Somehow that continues to be proof of the “liberal” Muslim.)
Mehta says they're – the minorities – are forced to do it. That one section of the population talking about reading the Koran will be seen as a “betrayal”, while the other is forced to talk about reading the Gita. (Please refer back to poem.)
The alcohol vs beef parallel would work here too.
“We've stopped thinking about difference,” says Mehta. “There is now only one kind of (Hindustani) Muslim, as there is one kind of Hindu.”
An earlier piece on Hussain in Scroll alluded to that, asking him what the reception to his piece might have been had he sported a long beard and no mousache.
“That's a thought,” answered Hussain.
The sociologist Peter Ronald DeSouza wrote recently in the Indian Express that: “It is politics which is producing this perversity, a politics that has begun to transform the social fabric of our country such that the 'soft othering' that had hitherto defined relations between religious communities — 'they are like that and we are like this' — has now become a 'hard othering'.”
DeSouza's words will soothe a large section of Indian society for his piece blames our current state of affairs on the politicians, rather than on the people themselves.
But Hussain, who is soft-spoken and self-deprecatory, says he blames the people for falling for the divisions the politicians manufacture amongst them.
“If we stop falling for it, then it will not work.”
Does any of it make him angry?
“Anger is not the solution,” he says.
What we need to do right now is to pause, to think. If we just did that, we would be better off. “But we don’t. Even if you look at two people fighting after an accident on the road, we don’t.”
Hussain says he was “pleasantly surprised” by the reaction to his poem. “You could even say ki tukka lag gaya.”
That's the enjoyable thing about talking with Hussain. Without really knowing it, he evokes so many writers – Hussain used to be a chartered accountant and an MBA from IIM Indore, he is looking today to break into Bollywood as a lyricist and screenwriter – who have come before him.
There’s Pankaj Mishra, who too said he was surprised by the popularity of his first book “Butter Chicken in Ludhiana”.
There is of course Nehru, who called India a palimpsest. A county with layer upon layer. You can add on another layer, but something from the one before stays visible. And that the country only grows stronger from the addition of different cultures to it.
And there is Shashi Tharoor, who has written of how everybody in this country is a minority.
In the Guardian in 2007, he wrote: “A Hindi-speaking Hindu male from Uttar Pradesh may cherish the illusion he represents the ‘majority community’. But he does not. As a Hindu, he belongs to the faith adhered to by four-fifths of the population. But a majority of the country does not speak Hindi. And, if he were visiting, say, my home state of Kerala, he may be surprised to realise that a majority there is not even male.
“Even his Hinduism is no guarantee of his majorityhood, because caste divisions automatically put him in a minority. (If he is a Brahmin, for instance, 90 per cent of his fellow Indians are not.)”
Tharoor went on to say: “The whole point of Indian pluralism is you can be many things and one thing: You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once.”
Hussain says much the same thing:
“Mandir ki chaukhat meri hai, masjid ke kible mere hain
Gurdware ka darbar mera, Yeshu ke girje mere hain
Sau mein se chauda hoon lekin, chauda ye kam nahin padte hain
Main poore sau mein basta hoon, poore sau mujhme baste hain
Mujhe ek nazar se dekh na tu
Mere ek nahin, sau chehre hain
Sau rang kahe kirdaar mere, sau kalam se likhi kahaani hoon
Main jitna Musalman hoon bhai, main utna Hindustani hoon
Main Hindustani Musalman hoon, main Hindustani Musalman hoon.”