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How A Muslim Man Brought Up A Brahmin Boy In A Conservative Family

Economic growth and religious fundamentalism are not inversely related.

26/10/2016 9:41 AM IST | Updated 26/10/2016 1:01 PM IST
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Representative image.

If you belong to the minority community, I suspect you feel an overhanging oppressive gloom in India. It seems overpowering, clawing itself precariously close with every passing day. Love jihad, ghar wapsi, beef ban and periodic reminders to move to Pakistan are frequently summoned to raise the communal temperature. A fear-psychosis is engineered on the rising threat of "Muslim reproductive growth"; Hindu families must increase family size to ensure a demographic balance, say religious bigots from powerful pulpits and raging loudspeakers. Crowds cheer, TV anchors hashtag, political leaders spew vitriol, and social media erupts. The continued psychological ghettoisation of fearful Muslims is perpetuated with well-choreographed political panache. It is meant to have a gradual debilitating effect on the targeted group. Even celebrity Khans are not spared. It is a free-for-all. Donald Trump could get inspired.

Mohammad Akhlaq is the face of Muslim victimisation and vituperative hate that has been systematically unleashed by the Sangh Parivar. BJP is a willing executioner. The Dadri lynch mob was a manifestation of what to expect. Amidst the cacophony of the threat of incendiary communalism and the stridency of the Hindutva brigade in our daily lives, basic human sensibilities take a back-seat. Hope dwindles, fears mount and dismay beckons. It is almost incomprehensible to imagine, thus, a Muslim man bringing up a Brahmin boy in a conservative household, being assimilated as part of the larger family. But this is exactly the way it was. Once.

He invariably calls me on every auspicious occasion, whether it is the New Year, Diwali, Ramzan or Independence Day. His voice has an unmistakable identity, deeply gruff and somewhat fissured, his long sentences punctuated by an intermittent hiatus. He speaks with the laboured precision of a man who has seen many moons, experienced vicissitudes of life. When he asks me about my family's whereabouts, it has a unique solicitude about it, a caring disposition that is indescribable. When I tell him that Insha Allah, all is well, he responds with deep satisfaction in his baritone: Bahut Achchha!

The conversations are usually one-sided as he enquires separately about everyone's health, studies, career, future plans et al and I utter monosyllabic responses with a calculated mix of restrained exasperation and smothered impatience. But he carries on notwithstanding, his relentless curiosity for the mundane and the meaningless quite unfathomable.

The joint family system had an extended appendage; Nurul Hasan was its inelastic glue.

Often I just interrupt and ask him a diversionary question to prevent explanations with an orchestrated artifice: What's happening otherwise? Is it really cold? When is he likely to go on a holy pilgrimage? He answers them all with perceptible exuberance, overjoyed at my seeming interest in his life. The conversations thereafter become like one long-winded monologue of a travel enthusiast returning from an adventurous spree but gives me enough room to navigate my e-mails/WhatsApp on my iPhone. Of course, I do the ritualistic interruptions to convey my active engagement with a recurring — Really? That's nice! When we do finally terminate the imbalanced exchange, he waits for me to hang up, perhaps secretly hoping that I would linger on, encourage his mindless intrusions into my structured corporate life. I don't give him that opportunity. This old gentleman who calls me with uncanny predictability and indulges in one-sided marathon conversations where I am a mere eavesdropper is Nurul Hasan.

In the mid-1960's Nurul Hasan had met my father when he was a professor of economics at Bhagalpur University, Bihar. He desperately needed a job, and apparently, my father had assiduously eked out a temporary role for him in the administrative department which subsequently became a permanent one. Hasan was overwhelmed, obligated beyond description.

But in those days, instead of attending to secretarial work, he spent more time taking us kids out for rickshaw-rides, cinema-watching, toy-shopping and generally entertaining us with story-telling. He was like a quasi-family supervisor, passionately overseeing the domestic constitution with painstaking involvement. The joint family system had an extended appendage; Nurul Hasan was its inelastic glue.

He was a Muslim, in a household where we were traditional, archetypal Brahmins but without the natural condescending streak normally associated with it. We grew up under his watchful eye, my parents fully reassured that we were in safe hands. Bhagalpur was always a communally susceptible zone and Hindu-Muslim riots had scarred the local population. But Nurul Hasan was our guardian angel. When my father died a few years ago, Hasan called to assuage me that the heavens will be in distinguished company. It helped. I know he still calls me as he thinks it is now his moral duty, an unfinished task as it were.

He was a Muslim, in a household where we were traditional, archetypal Brahmins but without the natural condescending streak normally associated with it. We grew up under his watchful eye, my parents fully reassured that we were in safe hands.

Hasan is now in his early eighties (I presume) but sheepishly confesses that matriculation certificates were usually buffered up to ten years in age to provide for extended career lifeline and higher pension benefits. But his monumental anxiety is getting his son a job as a computer operator. Albeit he is awkward when he talks about a favour, he seems an extremely worried man these days. For fear of nepotism and favouritism, I have told him that we cannot recruit him in our own organisation in Mumbai. I don't think he is entirely convinced, given his own delirious celestial experience with my father. Times have changed, I tell him. I will though check with others amongst fellow colleagues who could be more magnanimous. He nods patiently, perhaps telling himself that I am doing excellent cosmetic lip service or have insurmountable handicaps. But the fact is that I have done nothing for him. Till today.

In a country of 177 million Muslims, Nurul Hasan is not a solitary example of goodness. If you go to Mohammed Ali Road during Ramzan you will be submerged more by the prodigious warmth and incredible hospitality of the people than those mouth-watering delicacies at Sulaiman Mithaiwala. Some of the most endearing simple folk with a gentle refined sophistication in their articulation, reminiscent of the legend of Lucknow will come from bearded taxi-drivers in Mumbai.

Scott Eells
Morning prayers at Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi during Eid.

Muslims in India have added a majestic colourful hue to our social and cultural character. Besides three former Presidents, including Dr Abdul Kalam, top-notch civil servants such as Wajahat Habibullah, lyricists and music composers such as Sahir and Khayyam, Zakir Hussain, the inimitable Mohammad Rafi, the patriotic belligerence of cricketers Zaheer Khan and Yusuf Pathan, the cinematic charms of the three Khans, the mesmerising poetry of Javed Akhtar, it is one exciting, electric, eclectic mix. Azim Premji has made Wipro into a global software behemoth.

It is tragic that a divided society is allowing hate-mongers to exploit a few confused, potentially susceptible minds. The process of assimilation is never-ending. India's beauty lies in our unique diversity, in a world fractured with suspicion and rising extremism, we could be symbolic of a pluralistic, tolerant and thriving society. Instead, we are drifting apart.

As Dadri becomes symbolic of the escalating dangers to our secular multi-cultural diversity, one thinks of Hasan. I can hardly visualise him in a tempestuous state no matter how annoying the instigation. India's collective consciousness needs to embrace its multifarious mishmash and resist the diabolical virulence of those few nasties at the periphery. Will vote-bank politics of the pseudo-nationalists define our tryst with destiny? Will the expected outpouring of inflammatory sentiments from combustible communal quarters challenge India's constitutional values?

Economic growth and religious fundamentalism are not inversely related as some optimistically, fallaciously believe. On the contrary, affluent societies often recede into their conservative womb, post-material gratification. Thus, mere job reservations, FDI numbers, Ease of Doing Business and empty platitudes will not be enough. Maintaining social harmony is always a work-in-progress in an interconnected world, with communities interspersed all over. It is not easy. That's why Mohammad Akhlaq was killed. That's why Nurul Hasan lives to see another day.

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