Today or tomorrow, depending on the sighting of the moon, is Eid al-Adha, a day of celebration for Muslims worldwide. This year, December is also the month of Muharram, a religious event of lament and mourning observed by the Shia Muslim sect.
I recently finished reading The Girl From Foreign by American documentary film maker Sadia Shepard which I had previewed here a few months ago. Shepard's journey in search of her Indian born Jewish/ Muslim grandmother's roots crisscrosses through western India and the Pakistani city of Karachi. It is a fascinating story which I plan to describe at a later date. Today however, I wish to bring up a little known fragment of Indian history that had laid buried in my memory for decades and which an anecdote in Shepard's book helped shake loose.
The student population of my school in New Delhi was composed of girls from practically every part of India belonging to several different linguistic groups and religions. Nearly fifty percent of the Punjabi and Bengali students came from families who had lost their ancestral homes in the partition of India in 1947, my own being among them. In middle school, a class mate whose folks had moved to India from the Pakistani city of Lahore, once casually commented that her father's family used to observe Muharram in their hometown before the partition. At the time I didn't think much of what my friend had said. We were young and many of us had heard interesting pre-partition tales from our parents. It is only now, on thinking back, that her story acquires a special meaning and given the subsequent deterioration in Hindu-Muslim relations in general and between India and Pakistan in particular, also a certain amount of poignancy. You see, the remarkable thing about my friend's Muharram story was that she was not a Muslim, but a Hindu Brahmin.
My class mate belonged to the Punjabi community of Dutts, in more communally harmonious times also known as the Hussaini Brahmins. They, along with their Shia Muslim friends and neighbors, used to commemorate and grieve the deaths of Imam Hussain and his disciples in the bloody battle of Karbala during the 7th century power struggle among early Muslims. Of the Dutts was said the following:
Wah Dutt Sultan,
Hindu ka Dharam
Musalman ka Iman,
Wah Dutt Sultan
Adha Hindu Adha Musalman
[Oh, Dutt the king,
follows the religion of the Hindu
And the faith of the Muslim.
Oh, Dutt the king,
He is half Hindu, half Muslim.]
I do not bring up my friend's story in any specially sentimental way. Looking back on her simply told tale with the political events of today as the backdrop, evokes more wonder than sorrow. I was born a few years after the tumultous partition of India. The political and psychological wounds of that cataclysmic event were raw on both sides of the divide during my childhood. Yet amazingly enough, there probably was more mutual understanding between the two battling communities then than there is today. After decades of mistrust and alienation, the line in the sand that was drawn across Hindu and Muslim identities around 1947, has now hardened and appears set in concrete. As one of the linked articles explains in its somewhat flowery text:
The Hussaini Brahmins, along with other Hindu devotees of the Muslim Imam, are today a rapidly vanishing community. Younger generation Hussaini Brahmins are said to be abandoning their ancestral heritage, some seeing it as embarrassingly deviant. No longer, it seems, can an ambiguous, yet comfortable, liminality be sustained, fuzzy communal identities giving way under the relentless pressure to conform to the logic of neatly demarcated ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ communities. And so, these and scores of other religious communities that once straddled the frontier between Hinduism and Islam seem destined for perdition, or else to folkloric curiosities that tell of a bygone age, when it was truly possible to be both Hindu as well as Muslim at the same time.
I am not a starry eyed optimist. I harbor no illusions that the complicated politics of the Indian subcontinent are going to be solved simply by harping on the feel-good history of shared culture - of food, music, language, ethnicities and sometimes even religious celebrations. Nonetheless, those who have turned the region into a powder keg of hostilities and have fueled communal fires with lies and revisionist history, need to be reminded perhaps, that if the present mayhem is always the consequence of past injustices, there are also many examples of peaceful co-existence that could serve as the model for reconciliation between south Asian Muslims and Hindus.
Eid Mubarak to our Muslim readers and to any one else who may wish to rejoice with their Muslim friends on this day.