The siege within: Who is really under siege?
Why do they hate us, asked American scholar, a Christian. Why do they hate us, asked a childhood friend, a Hindu. Why do they hate us, asked my cousin, a Muslim. Why does everyone hate everyone else?
My third cousin was upset.
He came loping down from his third floor flat in East Delhi when he saw me walking down his alley, and caught me by the sleeve. Why are they always after us, he demanded.
Who is after us, I asked. Them, he replied. Liberals, Macron, Trump, editors, twitterati, cartoonists, all of them! All of them are always after us Muslims! Whatever we do is wrong; whatever we consider sacred has to be mocked! He gestured with both arms, encompassing all the world around us, and half of the sky, in which there were some clouds and crows as well.
Not the crows surely, I remarked.
Stop being facetious, he said. Don’t you see what is happening? Muslims can be killed anywhere, Palestinians or Uighurs or whatever. But the moment an Islamist does something stupid, all of us have to account for it. We cannot even just condemn that stupid Islamist by saying that his understanding of Islam is wrong.
No, we have to criticise Islam itself, or we are not doing enough! As if the choice is between renouncing our faith or embracing the Islamist interpretation. We are under siege 24 hours, all over the world! Third Cousin, I said to him. Are you not overreacting?
After all, the world is full of Muslim countries, where Muslims cannot possibly be under siege. And, you know, a lot of the actual besieging is done by Muslims to other Muslims. Take for instance, what the Saudis have been doing in Yemen. Now, Third Cousin, there is Islamophobia in many circles, including some liberal ones, but what you are displaying right now is far in excess to all that.
How can you forget people like Noam Chomski? There are thousands, millions, like him. We are not under siege, partly also because ‘we’ are too varied to be just one thing. There is really nothing like one ‘Muslim’ rubric, and hence all Muslims cannot be under siege, in any case, can they?
What you are displaying is a kind of siege mentality, Third Cousin. Ha, he said. Talk, talk, talk. They hate us, but you NRI writers will never see it. We are under attack, but you writerly lot are safe in your ivory towers. What do you all know? Then he stomped away, back into his building, from where he shouted to me: And, by the way, I am a fourth cousin to you. Third cousin, my foot!
I shook my head sadly and proceeded on my way. I was going to a restaurant to have lunch with an old school friend, whom I had not seen for two decades.
It was a good restaurant. My friend had invited me out. He had made a small fortune in the intervening years. He had also put on weight, grown a moustache, and changed his wardrobe. Now, he told me, he only dressed in Indian clothes.
He was wearing white pyjamas with a saffron kurta. Ah, I said, delightedly. I am so happy, Old Schoolfriend, that you consider these Indian. Of course, they are Indian, he replied. Yes, of course, they are, I agreed.
I just said so because you see these show Muslim influence, and, you see, ahem, some people do not consider Muslims to be Indian even after more than a mil lennium in India. Who told you all that, my friend laughed. No Muslim influence in these. None at all. I mean, you lot like to claim them, like you claim the Taj Mahal, pulao and what not, but these are Hindu inventions. They go back to the Vedic Age. I can show you a dozen WhatsApp postings to prove it. They are as Indian as potato curry.
There was little I could say to that, so I helped myself to the delicious aaloo dum.
My friend noticed my silence and relented. He was a nice considerate boy in school. Don’t take it askance, he said to me. I know you are not the type.
But your lot are a threat to our culture. You hate us. Not you, I know, but your lot. We have to protect ourselves. No choice. We are under siege in our own country.
All 1000 million of you are under siege by 140 million of us in India, I asked wonderingly.
My friend shook his head vigorously, because his mouth was full. Pass me the vegetable pulao, I said.
Next, I had an appointment with an American student who was writing a thesis on my work. This is rare. Let me explain how it happens. Say, you want to write a thesis on a contemporary author. You do some initial research work. This consists largely of making a list of contemporary authors and the theses already written on their work. You arrange the list in order. It looks like this: Bret Easton Ellis: 157 theses; Jonathan Franzen, 154 theses; Hilary Mantel, 149 theses;.. Salman Rushdie 51 theses;… Vikram Seth, 17 theses; Arundhati Roy, 17 theses… Tabish Khair, 0 thesis. So, being smart, you choose to do a thesis on Mr Khair, because that would mean considerably less secondary reading. This smart scholar met me in the lawns of India International Centre, New Delhi, which is the preferred spot (in India) for all such meetings.
It was sunny. We sat there on wicker chairs, surrounded by a flock of mynahs, with Indians dressed like Americans and Americans dressed like Indians sauntering from one building to another
She asked me a few questions which, given her nationality and my name, inevitably led back to 9/11. I don’t understand, she said. Why do they hate us? Who hates you? I asked, alarmed. I am referring to 9/11, she explained. I was only ten or eleven years old then. But I remember it clearly. My mother, who loves ethnic cuisine and Maghrebi music, she absolutely does, was in tears. She kept saying, Why do they hate us?
And she gestured, exactly as my third (or fourth) cousin had done, at the buildings, the sunny sky and the hopping mynahs, to indicate the extent of ‘they.’
But they don’t, I hastened to explain, looking away from the mynahs. I mean, yes, there are some extremists who might, but most of them dress like you, and eat hamburgers, plus or minus the pork and the beef.
And, you know, 9/11 was a tragedy, atrocious, but it was the only time you had external aggression on American soil. Just one. When, to be honest, many of them get their asses whipped by American bombs at regular intervals. She did not appear to have heard me.
It is a pity, she murmured sadly, why do they hate us so much?