From “Mohammedan Areas” to “Madrasis”: How We Let Everyday Racism Slip By

Social Commentary

From “Mohammedan Areas” to “Madrasis”: How We Let Everyday Racism Slip By

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Md Meharban, a fearless young photojournalist, posted images from the Delhi violence on Instagram. A street looks like it belongs in a war-torn country. A desecrated mazaar. Oranges spilled out in a sea of colour from the guts of a shop charred black.

I double-tapped it. Shared it to my Stories. A friend replied, rhetorically asking, “How did we get here?” I double-tapped that too.

How indeed? We shake our heads, speak our minds on social media. We consider ourselves champions of equal rights. We’re the liberals, the only hope for a country descending into chaos. And yet, if the last week has been any indication, we are.

We are not part of the mob that beat up an innocent man, who was out on the street buying treats for his children. We do not belong to the bigots who shout “Goli maro” and bay for blood. We do not discriminate. But how different are we?

That answer might need a bit of introspection.

Like so many others post-Partition, my family abandoned their home in Bangladesh and moved to Calcutta. Muslims had fled in the other direction. And we came to live in houses previously part of the Baser Ali Estate. I remember the two-storeyed redbrick building, its white marble floors tinged brown, dirt-coloured hollows having replaced the colour of floral inlays. It was flanked by more humdrum two-storeyed houses with rough cement floors and open courtyards in the middle. This is where his relatives lived. Then there were the single-storeyed tile-roof rooms that apparently housed the help.

Growing up there in the ’90s, I’d try to imagine the lives of the original inhabitants. I had little to go on. No Muslim families lived around us now. Baser Ali Estate was simply part of Bagmari Road now. My closest reference was the North Calcutta neighbourhood of Rajabazar. A place — it was impressed upon my young mind, was full of “chhokras” (delinquents) to be viewed with suspicion. A place to be seen from the windows of a bus, not one to be gotten off at. A couple of kilometres away in big old Calcutta, we were already inhabiting two worlds. The distinction between “them” and “us” started early. And even without the incendiary statements of politicians and trolls of today, the educated middle class drew the lines just the same.

For years, Muslims have been ghettoised in our metros.

For years, Muslims have been ghettoised in our metros. Discriminated against when trying to rent or buy houses, they’ve been forced into pockets or fringes. In Calcutta, we unflinchingly called them “Mohammedan areas”. In Mumbai, decades after the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts, a part of Mahim, which earned a bad rep in connection with the mastermind of the bombings Tiger Memon, is still nicknamed “Chhota Pakistan”. And this is not true only of Calcutta and Mumbai. Across India, Muslim localties are branded “unsafe” – places you should be careful venturing into. Just a few years ago, while briefly considering buying an apartment in Navi Mumbai, the express advice was to avoid parts of Kharghar that were “Muslim-dominated”. On online forums about real estate, that casual racism is still just that — matter-of-fact, offered without reproach or censorship. So what do we do? Most of us don’t question or condemn it, we just let it go.

The truth is our drawing-room-variety racism is deep-rooted. At dinner tables — or as muscular arms on TV struggled to break sticks tied together by a thread in “Unity in diversity” ads — we continue drawing the lines. Based on religion, language, food, skin tone, and place of origin. Muslims are “Mullas”. Anyone from a southern state a “Madrasi”. Anyone from the north-east “Ch**ki”. The Marwaris, who had come to become Calcutta’s dominant trading community, “Maora”, or “Hindustani” (denoting people who spoke Hindi; what that made us Bengalis is hard to tell). Those from East Bengal were “Ghoti”, those from West, “Baati”.

These words would hardly be used with malice. That they were flavouring the conversation seemed to make them alright. And the ones who didn’t use them didn’t check others either. They became part of our everyday lexicon and the discrimination – the “us” and “them” a part of our psyche.

In my neither-posh nor-expensive CBSE school, I had just one Muslim friend in a class of 40-odd children. My intellectual, liberal English Literature class at Presidency had none. Was my school or college discriminatory? Not in any evident way. They seemed to believe in the same principles we recited in the school assembly, of a world “not… broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls”.

We practise our armchair activism through Twitter and Instagram.

But unity is abstract. It’s some sticks held together by a thread. Making it easy to ignore the ones left out. Like the clusters and fringes unfamiliar to the middle classes – the Seelampurs and Jaffrabads of Delhi, the Rajabazars of Calcutta, the “Chhota Pakistans” of Mumbai. They are nothing but our versions of Bong Joon-Ho’s Seoul of the semi-basements – which we consider unsafe, unclean, and a hub for nefarious activities.

I came closest to looking at the big city from the semi-basement during my first job in Mumbai. In Bandra, a stone’s throw from Candies where the cool kids hung out, is one such tiny pocket called New Kantwadi. Sandwiched between posh streets with boutique stores and hipster coffee shops are a labyrinth of narrow lanes — so narrow you’d have to turn sideways in places for two people to cross. I stayed in a one-room there for six months. That’s all I could afford on a meagre copy editor’s salary.

The building looked like it would take a good shake to bring down. There was no running water. So the familiar Mumbai water tank over the bathroom was fed by a long pipe that ran all the way out to a communal tap. Every day, you’d get 30 minutes to fill up. For me, it’s a romanticised story of roughing it out, and a reminder that even as cities become “smart”, its poor are ignored, sometimes in ghettos, sometimes with walls to block them from the view of visiting Presidents.

We, the polite, educated middle-classes cheer for diversity when Parasite wins the Oscar. We practise our armchair activism through Twitter and Instagram. And we go back to the cool, casual racism by practising it, or allowing others to practise it — the vicious thing called a family WhatsApp group an extension of the living room. Oblivious of the people in the basement, of the “others” we ignore or demonise. We are the parasite. We are the answer to “How did we get here?”