June 18, 2017. Around 10.15 pm.
“Eid Mubarak ho bhai. Aap ki team jeet gayi.”
This was last year. It took me some time to recover from this congratulatory message. It was sent by a school classmate from my hometown Allahabad, after the Pakistani cricket team defeated us in the finals of the ICC Champions Trophy.
I am an atheist with an Islamic name: Someone who grew up in a Muslim family, recited “Our father who art in heaven” every morning for 13 years in an all-boys Catholic school in Allahabad, studied in an Arya Samaj college in Delhi, and who now works in an Indian-American corporate in Mumbai. It took me 23 years to realise the weight of my religious identity. It was only when I came to Mumbai, a city that self-identifies as a “cosmopolitan” and “liberal” place, that I was made to feel like a Muslim.
I was denied houses in societies because my middle name is Mohammad. In the event of an Islamic terror attack anywhere in the world, I was expected to be the first to condemn it. Even then, some people were openly taken aback, and some admired the fact that I was a liberal man without a skull-cap and the “Muslim beard”.
I took solace in the fact that this was in distant Mumbai, far away from my beloved Allahabad, where my Islamic identity had never really mattered.
Allahabad is a city known for its education and as the birthplace of Jawaharlal Nehru (for those of us who still remember him) and Amitabh Bachchan. Uttar Pradesh, as we know, is a state that often lives up to the stereotype of a land where people like Faizal Khan and Ramadheer Singh live and die by the gun. Goondaism – which thrives by employing “baalaks” and grassroots workers for almost all political parties – might be a persistent narrative from the state, but it’s not the only one.
In my perhaps hallowed imagination, Allahabad has a genteel air. It is a political city, where everyone has an opinion on the CPM-Congress-BJP clashes in Kerala or the Cuban Missile Crisis or Donald Trump. Any chacha in a chai shop knows more about politics than fancy TV panellists and open political debates happen at every adda with the passion and eloquence of Antony and Cicero. But even in such a political city, I’ve never had to go the extra mile and appear extra enthusiastic to support India in a cricket match against Pakistan. I have never had the added burden of proving my loyalty to the motherland.
Now, it’s more like home was Allahabad.
What people don’t get is, if I had to leave India, why would I go to Pakistan and not, say, the French Riviera where I could sip beer and eat tapas?
At the risk of sounding hopelessly naïve, Allahabad was a city where we celebrated kapda-phaad Holi with as much enthusiasm as Christmas. Around Eid, the whole city lit up; the night before, on chaand raat, people shopped and soaked in the festive spirit. Eid Mubarak rang in the air, along with “Saat Samundar Paar” and “Nakabandi” over loudspeakers. Everyone visited their Muslim friends in search of biryani, kebabs, korma and that Eid speciality, the diabetes-inducing sewain. It was a more innocent time, when people wearing kurta pyjama and skull cap were not looked upon with suspicion.
Things are different now. In the last few years, I could sense a gradual change in the mahaul of UP, but at least we were happy that the ultra-right wing was still the fringe. Then the fringe arrived near the centre, but it was still cool. And then, the fringe took over.
In March last year, Uttar Pradesh became a state ruled by an ultra-right wing Vin Diesel lookalike, who believes that cow urine is liquid gold. That SRK speaks like Hafiz Saeed. That when a Muslim man and a Hindu woman are together, love jihad is being waged. And most recently, that Taj Mahal does not fit in his picture of India.
I went home a month post the declaration of Adityanath as chief minister. Now, healthy political debates at chai addas have been replaced by Pakistan Immigration Agencies. The number of times I was offered a ticket to our friendly neighbour by the people I knew (or thought I knew), would run Thomas Cook out of business. The other day, I was chatting with someone about the glorious utopic days of demonetisation when we’d ride unicorns on rainbows in the beautiful long queues outside ATMs, and he asked me to shut up or go to Pakistan.
What people don’t get is, if I had to leave India, why would I go to Pakistan and not, say, the French Riviera where I could sip beer and eat tapas? But then, logic isn’t something modern Indians – who learn their nationalism from WhatsApp – are really known for.
The point is, my dear Allahabad has turned into a place where you can’t question the government and authorities anymore, because nationalism baby. A close entrepreneur friend, who voted for the BJP in the state elections, had a heated exchange with his client recently when my poor friend had had the audacity to merely question the GST. The client eventually cancelled the deal after lecturing my friend on how people like him were not allowing India to develop.
A few days into Adityanath’s takeover, came the real low blow – the shutting down of “illegal” slaughterhouses which slowly turned into a targeted campaign against Muslims. No slaughter means no dead buffaloes means no sexy food means life fucked. I am not even touching upon the mammoth number of people who’ve lost their livelihood or those who have lost the option of cheap protein-rich food. But I suppose nationalism will feed them.
“UP me rehna hai to Yogi Yogi karna hai” is chanted all over, from social media to random rallies. A classmate who shared the rites of passage with me – bunking school, discovering porn, smoking that elusive cigarette – recently put up a Facebook post: “Viraat Hindu Rashtra ka aagman Uttar Pradesh se hi hoga. Yogi Ji ke saath mandir yahin banayenge, Pakistaniyo ko bhagayenge (UP will be an example of the strong Hindu nation. With Yogi ji, we will build the temple here and drive away Pakistanis).” So after all these years, according to him, a Pakistani is all that I am.
On my visit, the number of people I saw wearing saffron gamchas, riding away on their bikes was scary. That they were riding without any fear of authorities was not what scared me – it was the performance of their aggressive right-wing nationalism.
Sitting hundreds of kilometres away in Mumbai, I fear for my family back home: Who knows what will set the bike brigade off? Could it be my father, who might accidentally bump into one of these men while driving in his car? Or my mother cooking her heavenly mutton korma whose aroma can travel miles? Our Muslim lives are now meant to be carried out in subterfuge. As I write this, Mughalsarai’s name is being changed to something more nationalistic, since Mughals apparently weren’t like the Aryans who came to India on proper visas and didn’t take the natives out. Maybe a change of Allahabad’s name is on the cards next.
Amid all this, Eid is here. My equally morally corrupt, anti-national, libtard Hindu friends have already made their plans to come over, not to meet me but for my mum’s biryani and sewain. Their favourite buff kebabs will be missing from the menu. This is how we all grew up; together, with no real distinction and differences. But now, even animals have a religion in UP: Goats are Muslim, and cows and buffaloes Hindu.
And Uttar Pradesh is like that cow. A creature that everyone has milked – from Mayawati to Mulayam to Adityanath – and who will eventually be left to rot. Just that this time, the rot is deep. Old wounds have been scratched open and new ones have been created, which are going to take ages to heal. Maybe some day, we will have a Patanjali balm to help out.
Until then, Eid Mubarak.