I will always call a spade a spade: Naseeruddin Shah

I owe the discovery that I am a Muslim to the Hindutva brigade

Actor Naseeruddin Shah (Photo: National Herald Archives)
Actor Naseeruddin Shah (Photo: National Herald Archives)

Naseeruddin Shah

Something is [definitely] rotten in the State. . .’

Before this is interpreted as the whining of an aggrieved Muslim, let me clarify that my being a Muslim has never ever been a guiding factor in my life. The proliferation in recent years of young men in skull caps and beards and girls in hijab bothers me as much as the saffron tilaks and headbands flaunted by the ‘opposite camp’.

Never, even as a child, did I identify solely with any sect, even though I was born and reared in an orthodox middle-class Muslim household.

My mother and father through their lives stayed dogmatically religious—praying five times a day, fasting all 30 days of the Ramzan month and subjecting the three of us brothers to a medley of maulvis who not only taught us the Arabic alphabet and to read the Quran but went way [beyond] the call of duty to also insist that the earth had to be flat, it was ridiculous to say it was round and that it moved, it was the sun that moved.

On the side, of course, they gave us visions of the hordes of hoors who awaited us believers in paradise—images I have to confess I was never exactly bewitched by. Even at the age of 10, handling a bevy of unbelievably gorgeous women seemed to be far too much trouble.

And then the thought of the old man upstairs watching over all the festivities did put a sort of dampener on the whole thing. Would it really be fun to keep bowing and scraping and praising his goodness and beneficence nonstop?

Along the way I also wondered if hell could really be that bad considering that all my friends would be there! It wasn’t long before I lapsed from religious practices—they seemed like blind rituals conducted without any understanding of why they originated, and prayer of every kind seemed to be nothing but a litany of grovelling and beseeching and forgiveness-asking which I felt no need for.

It really put me off and I abandoned my Muslim identity when I was 20 because it didn’t seem important for the kind of life I wanted to live. As it happened, I found in my work fulfilment of a kind I could never have found via religion.

Therefore, more than anything else, there was a sense of immense bewilderment when I was first being castigated for being a ‘bloody Muslim traitor’ and advised to shift my baggage to you-know-where.

In fact, freeing myself from religion had given me the freedom to no longer belong to a club which excluded ‘others’ from membership. In any case I didn’t necessarily feel a special kinship with others who were Muslim, except in commonalities of language and habit (culture I suppose) and even in that area several Hindus and Sikhs I met spoke far better Urdu than many Muslims, myself included, did.

We are all only now beginning to realise the toxic fallout of Mr Jinnah’s decision to declare Urdu the national language of Pakistan and thus brand it as ‘Muslim’, to the point where in some places in India, unbelievable though it sounds, Urdu is now categorised as a foreign language. A ‘foreign’ language, ironically, devised in and spoken only in this country!

I deeply resent having to prove my patriotism by stating innumerable times that no one in the five generations of my family that lived here—not a few of whom were army, police and government officers—ever felt their careers hindered because of being Muslim. I will fight to the death for the right to live in this country in whose earth they are buried. And I’ll continue to call a spade a spade.

I had no compunctions or hesitation about marrying a Hindu, and vice-versa. I didn’t dream that some put-out-to-pasture spouse of an ex-cabinet minister would, 38 years after my marriage, threaten me with ‘no one said anything when you married outside your religion’, stopping short of accusing me of love jihad but clearly implying that my time was now up.

I will always call a spade a spade: Naseeruddin Shah

As it happened, the subject of my wife Ratna converting to Islam was brought up just once by my mother and that as enquiry, to which on receiving a reply in the negative, she concurred with a “Haan, mazhab kaise badla jaa sakta hai (Yes, how can faith be changed)”. Whether this statement of a woman weaned exclusively on a diet of the Quran makes more sense than the hate-filled rhetoric of ‘Hindus and Muslims cannot live together’, I will leave to the judgement of the reader.

All I can say is that my union (accepted unquestioningly by both families) with a Hindu woman for 40 years so far is proof— if proof were needed—that it is not only possible but desirable for Hindus and Muslims to live together. So, from where did this poison appear? Or were the seeds of hatred planted during Partition slowly germinating all that while?

Did we really mean it all the years when we sang “Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega, insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega (You won’t become either Hindu or Muslim, being born of a human, you will become human)” or were we just consoling ourselves?


In 1982, before our wedding, Ratna and I consulted an elder, a family friend, with a somewhat scandalous past, who confidently assured us there wouldn’t be any religious or political problems, but what we might face would be problems of a social nature— does Diwali have more significance than Eid, will alcohol be permitted in the home, what religious upbringing will the children have, will the home have a Muslim or Hindu ethos, etc.

We are proud of the fact that our home has always proclaimed itself as belonging to no dispensation, no icons adorn the walls (a beautiful wooden statue of the Buddha, there for aesthetic reasons, excepted), our children have no religion but have been told about all, though I have not shared my own cynicism about religious rituals with them.

Diwali and Eid are celebrated with equal fervour in our home, not as religious observance but as family gatherings. ‘Namaste’ and ‘Salaam Alaikum’ are heard with equal frequency and the only prayers ever said are said in gratitude. Our children, accustomed to inter-faith marriages, were actually taken aback on discovering that there are actually Muslim–Muslim and Hindu–Hindu couples!

We were convinced we were setting a healthy precedent by marrying each other and even more so when we surmounted the social issues with ease.

The last thing we expected was a diktat that would not only make the thought of an inter-faith conjugal union unthinkable but actually attempt to stigmatise Hindu–Muslim social interaction, a further manifestation of which is evident in the proposed stricture that restaurants must now announce whether the meat they serve is halal or jhatka.

The family elder was dead wrong, it seems. Some time ago, my brother, who, naturally had the same upbringing as I did but who, unlike me, has remained religious, wrote me a very disturbed letter which included the following passage:

‘Suddenly our Muslim roots have assumed importance for friends who never gave a damn about religious backgrounds but are now ready to brand us anti-national for any criticism of the ruling deities. More mortifying is the fact that this change is not limited to a few who can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

‘During my student days at IIT, I belonged to an eclectic gang which was a microcosm of a multicultural and multireligious India. There were Bengalis, Sikhs, Punjabis, Malayalis, Goans, Tamilians and a UP bhaiya (me). All of India’s religions were represented— Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims, Jains, Parsis. We remained a happy family until we had our 50th graduation reunion in 2018. Thereafter, things were never the same. Couples now don’t talk with one another because discussions reveal deep seated differences about what is happening in India.’

I still haven’t recovered from the shock and sense of loss. I can empathise with these sentiments though I’ve not had the same experience. I still have friends who are hardcore BJP supporters and devotees of the PM. Our mutual affection remains despite the differences in ideology, though it remains to be seen for how long.

My brother, however, doesn’t live in India, so he is spared the disturbing reminders of how things here are getting worse by the day.

It is perhaps pessimistic and premature to state that we are turning into a fascist state but the signs are clearly visible—the talk of purity and racial superiority, the free hand given to police officials and progovernment lynch mobs, the incarceration of journalists and rights activists, the contempt for intellectuals and universities, the rewriting of history, the dismissal of dissent, the prosecution of chosen enemies, the muzzling of certain sections of the media and the mollycoddling of others, the creation of imaginary internal enemies, the propagation of the fallacy that the majority is under threat, the cult of an infallible supreme leader.

It is more than evident that the fascist playbook is being carefully studied by the powers that be; it’ll be good if they also study the fate that ultimately befell those past leaders.

(Extracted from Delhi’s Agony: Essays on the February 2020 Communal Violence; Editors: Brinda Karat, Vijay Prashad; Publisher: LeftWord Books, New Delhi)

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