Sartorial switch

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Last week I got an e-mail from a reader in Lahore. “Mayank! Last night I saw you in a dream and you were wearing a beard and a cap and you were with me going to a mosque to offer a prayer. I am still confused about it. By the way, why have you added the suffix Soofi to your name?”

What should I reply? Who am I? What has Soofi to do with my name? Does this reader know that ‘mayank’ is a Sanskrit word? Is he asking me if I’m a Muslim?

Umm, there are no definitive answers. But I know one thing: I’m a product of North India’s Ganga-Yamuna culture. I have been raised in a Hindu family and that Hinduness is a part of my heritage that will forever remain with me. At the same time, something happens inside me when I spot a minaret, or when I come across a sufi shrine. How can I explain this feeling? It’s like coming home.

A few years ago, I decided to play a Muslim man in this Hindu majority city.

In a time when Barack Hussein Obama was trying to play down his middle name, when Bollywood superstar Saif Ali Khan was rejected from buying property in Bombay’s Hindu housing societies, and a group with a name like Indian Mujahideen was claiming – and still claims – to bomb Indian cities, I moved around in Delhi donning a Muslim skull cap.

First, I decided to shop for attractive Muslim headwear in the bylanes of Nizamuddin Basti in central Delhi. The Ajmeri topi shimmered with coloured sequins. The Sindhi cap impressed with its reflective mirrored inlay. The cane-made Bangladeshi topi invoked scenes from Bangladesh’s rice fields. These were headgears designed to attract the eye. If you were a minimalist, the simple, white handmade caps from Thailand were for you. I got one.

Brought up in a Hindu family, I wanted to find out how it felt like to be perceived as a Muslim.

But, piddle-poo. Nothing dramatic happened. Neither was I denied admission in restaurants. Nor anyone whispered ISI agent on my back.

And yet, something was different – in the bus, in the bookstore, in the park. People looked at me. I could feel an invasion of several eyes gashing into my back. Was I imagining things?

I called a Muslim friend if what happened with me also happens with him when he goes out with his skullcap. “Yes, people look differently at you,” he laughed. “They seem scared but I enjoy the attention.”

I, too, started enjoying the attention. I would enter into a bookshop and all eyes would turn to me. I would climb a crowded bus and people would suddenly go silent. It felt masculine. One evening, a bunch of silver-haired walkers in Lodhi Garden were discussing “Those bloody Muslims”. Poor things! They were so embarrassed as I overtook them. An acquaintance, a self-proclaimed secularist, asked me, “Have you really converted to Islam?” I nodded and she leaned close to me, sniffed and said only half-mockingly, “But you don’t stink of maas (flesh).”

She was one extreme. Some were from the other – politically correct to a painful extent. The day after a minor terrorist blast in Delhi, when the morning newspapers were full of stories about how Muslim suspects have been held by the police in the Muslim part of the town, I was in a Khan Market café. A guy came to my table and intruded into my personal space. “I’m sorry your community is being targeted,” he said. “I know Muslims are normal people.”

Thank you!

One day, I found myself in a Defence Colony living room amid strangers. The topi was in the pocket. The conversation steered towards “Islamic terrorism”. In the middle of a “There’s surely a problem with Muslims” session, I took out my cap and revealed my ‘identity’. A few looked embarrassed, while one ‘secular’ soul, drinking a Bloody Mary, assured that “I’ve many Muslim friends and I enjoy having sewaiyan and kebabs in their homes.”

How nice.

However, a week later, I found that the cap was weighing too heavy on the skull. Was the public gaze different because I looked like a Muslim or because I had become a different person in my own mind? Was I becoming a phantom of other people’s inner eyes? The skullcap drained out my individuality and no matter how much I flaunted my English or hip clothing; I felt I was only viewed as just another ghettoized Muslim. I became a punching bag of the mainstream conceptions of being a ‘typical’ Muslim.

Scared that people were refusing to ‘see’ me, that I was becoming an invisible man, I threw the cap away to become visible.

Today I feel that topis – or for that matter a typical Hindu moustache (the kind that is sported by BJP leader L K Advani) – are just external symbols of our identities. They do not make us a good Muslim or a good Hindu. They are just for public consumption.

Ramzan started yesterday in Delhi. I’m keeping the rozas. Wish me luck.

 

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website (The Delhi Walla) and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.

 

1 COMMENT

  1. I totally agree with ' I feel that topis – or for that matter a typical Hindu moustache (the kind that is sported by BJP leader L K Advani) – are just external symbols of our identities. They do not make us a good Muslim or a good Hindu. They are just for public consumption.' In fact I think that people who display their beliefs on their person like this are for public consumption. Its all about what's inside.

    Good luck with the rozas! They ain't easy.

    And can you please explain what it means that you 'live in a library'? Is it just that you spend a lot of time there, or are you something like a custodian/librarian?!

    Enjoy your articles

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