What I learnt from Rakshandha Jalil’s ‘But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim’

Illustration by: Jenn Liv
Illustration by Jenn Liv

“Chaman mein ikhtilat-e-rang-o-bu se baat banti hai
Hum hi hum hai to kya hum hain tum hi tum ho to kya tum ho
It is the inter-mingling of colours and fragrances that make a garden
If there is only usher can be no us and there can be no you if there is only you”

The author, Rakshandha Jalil begins her book with this Urdu couplet by Sarshar Sailani and sets the tone for the same by communicating that the India we know today was built solely on the intermingling of cultures and heritage. The book, But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim, urges its readers to look beyond the religious stereotypes created by say, Indian films or popular culture over the years of a ‘Musalmaan’. Through 40 essays, she discusses how religion tends to cloud our perceptions of people and tends to put these people under umbrellas of certain stereotyped identities. Over the reader’s journey through the book, they are constantly reminded of the fact that in a country like India, where there’s no end to the co- existence of varied cultural and religious communities, diversity is something that’s constantly judged, particularly in the case of Muslims in India.

Today, India seems to have reached a point where the term ‘secularism’, would at no cost include the muslim community whatsoever. The common assumption of Muslims being violent, aggressive and regressive is an idea that not only right wing extremists but also popular culture and the Indian cinema has encouraged over the years. The CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) has been termed as ‘Islamophobic’ and ‘Unconstitutional’ in every sense of the words. The very act excludes citizens belonging to the Muslim community including families that had a line of generations living in India ever since the country’s independence, that perhaps don’t have papers to prove they were in India before said date. Even today, as the entire world faces a global pandemic, the biased Indian media and right wing extremists have shifted their focus on making the pandemic a communal issue. With the news around the Tablighi Jamat issue, where around 2000 people were found to be staying at Markaz Nizamuddin, the New Delhi headquarters of the group, the hashtag ‘Corona Jihad’ began to trend on twitter, with many tweets implying that the virus was spreading in India because of Muslims. I'm not saying that what they did wasn’t wrong, but what’s wrong is that the media isn’t focusing on the same done by the BJP, for an entirely irrelevant reason, half as much as this particular case. Shouldn’t everyone at this point be held equally accountable for their actions as they equally serve as a threat in further spread of the virus? The virus clearly doesn’t discriminate between Hindu and Muslim, we know that by now.

In the introduction of the book, Jalil talks about how she doesn’t want people to think that her identity is cornered to simply a ‘minority within a minority’, implying that she’s most definitely not just a woman who happens to be a muslim too. She wants the readers to know that she’s the voice of the Muslim middle class and that she uses this voice to celebrate the duality of her identity. She’s neither an Indian Muslim, nor a Muslim Indian; she is equally both. She wishes to tell all her readers that all Indian muslims cannot be put into the same umbrella as there are social and financial factors that classify them, like any other religion. The demonisation of Muslims living in India through Indian cinema and pop culture has only increased their sense of isolation and victimisation as the entire community has suffered because of it. Jalil also aims to communicate the fact that because of this, the Indian Muslims are scared and silent as their voices have been oppressed by the rest, majority of the country. They need their Hindu brethren to act as their voices to communicate the struggles they face. Reading the book gave me a clearer insight on the problems the Muslim community faces living in India. They exclusively need to prove their Indian-ness first and then resort to following their religion.

Jalil has divided the book into four main parts, discussing a variety of themes, namely identity, culture, literature and the religion on the whole. Out of all the stories that came under these particular themes, there were a number of additional sub themes that stuck. Following is a little write up on each and my understanding of the same:

1. A Singular Identity
Over the first quarter of the book, Jalil showers us with stories based on how Muslims are viewed to be people constantly living under a stereotyped identity which often leads to them willingly or unwillingly isolating themselves from a secular community. In one of the stories, Jalil writes about how the Jamia Nagar in Delhi has turned into a Muslim dominant neighbourhood and has been ghettoised by the Muslim community, which in turn separates them from the rest of the city, with not much urbanisation around it. When Jalil herself decided to spend lesser time commuting to her place of work and decided to look for another place to stay, landlords used to shrug on hearing her last name and associating her with her Muslim identity. “Perfectly decent people in their perfectly middle class drawing rooms froze us off when they saw our business cards or heard our names. Others reneged on deals worked out through property dealers saying they wanted ‘vegetarian tenants’.” Even in the case of muslim women, Jalil questions the existence of the Burkah and Purdah system in modern India even when there’s no direct mention of it in the Quran. She says; “The Muslim middle class, indifferent to community issues, engrossed in their pursuit of material acquisitions like member of the middle class anywhere in the world are scared to speak out against the mullahs’ obscurantist views and allow them to remain the undisputed upholders of Muslim faith.”; to reason with this issue. As a reader, these short stories gave me an insight on how difficult it is being a muslim citizen in India, as you’ll always be judged on your name first, regardless of what you’ve done or achieved in your life. As a Muslim, your name defines who you are.

2. Cultural Importance of Food
Another theme that runs across the first half of the book is the high regard food holds in the lives of Muslims. As a reader, I found this very insightful and interesting to know, as before this, I didn’t give these cuisines much thought apart from when Ramzan came by. There were instances where she remembered how celebrations at home were so different when her family used to host ‘gharelu daawats’ that included members of the family and maybe two of the closest family friends as guests sitting together and having a feast. Jalil talks about how preparations were made for these occasions at home and compares the essence of these daawats to today, where her daughter wants to have her birthday party in a local restaurant. Jalil also brings up her mother’s experience with ‘aaj kal ke naukar’ who don’t seem to know how to cook dishes to perfection and use their own ingredients and methods to cook the same. She draws a parallel between how certain Indian foods need to be made with particular proportions of ingredients needed, and the domestic helpers that seem to use tomatoes to cook everything. Even with the way she describes her experience at home in the month of Ramzan as a child, I could clearly tell how much importance the whole culture of food hold in the lives of Muslims. Be it a fest for their daawats or an entire meal prepared and laid out for sehri during ramadan, one could tell the difference between the two depending on the kind of food that was prepared.

3. Reminiscences of Childhood
A lot of the essays in the book are based off of Jalil’s childhood days. She seems to be in a constant state of nostalgia, cherishing memories of the past from her very different childhood, and accounting on certain details from that point of time. She takes the liberty in telling stories about her father, mother, grandmother and sister and how big of a role they have played in shaping her opinion and curbing her observation. Stories about the traditions during the month of Ramzaan at home with her family, that of weaving razaais over the holidays at her Amma’s (grandmother) place and how they were replaced by Jaipuri quilts as she grew older, and remembering a set of books her father used to own called Jasoosi Duniya, who’s writer, Ibn-E-Safi created a world without religion and differences. She says, “ They (the books) remind us of an innocent time not so long ago when it was indeed possible — and given the popularity of these books, even acceptable — to be pluralistic. Set aside the lurid covers for a bit, I urge you to even set aside the improbable situations, and you will find yourself in a world that is deeply, intrinsically secular, a world where religion plays no role, whatsoever.” Remembering such instances from her childhood, Jalil attempts to draw parallels between how Indian writers didn’t use discriminative factors to make their stories interesting or easy to sell. It was really just the variety of detail and people in this world of Jasoosi Duniya, that made them so popular, without the use of any stereotypes. Overall, what she’s trying to say is that things were indeed very different back then for Muslims as they were accepted in a secular society to a greater extent in comparison to today, where the entire community is being blamed for the spread of a virus in a country.

4. Urdu — ‘The Muslim Language’
“ By my childhood, as Urdu became Muslim and Hindi became Hindu, and Hindustani became a casual of their war, the secular elements had leached out of Ramlila and while still a fairly inclusive community based neighbourhood celebration, it had become a religious festival.” In the first essay about Urdu literature in the book, Jalil speaks about how there are various of the Ramayana written in Urdu and tries to communicate the fact that of all languages, Urdu is the one with most emotions in its words. She describes instances from certain Urdu versions, talking about how much emotion these versions convey when compared to the repeatedly adapted versions of Indian television and Bollywood, where the Urdu language has been wiped off completely. She even mentions how the real and authentic Hindustani language was a beautiful blend of Urdu and Hindi, which came to exist amongst people that encouraged secularism, without having any religious intentions. Over the years, I remember coming across Urdu words only in my Hindi textbooks. The stories that followed definitely gave me a better idea insight into how the language came to be, was used by numerous poets, the importance it holds in Indian culture and finally, the way it was tagged as a ‘Muslim language’. Jalil says, “The schism between the two languages, (Hindi and Urdu) was marked by the Partition and the decades after 1947 saw a slow erosion of the common space between these two languages, a common space once called Hindustan but now virtually lost the Babel of linguistic and cultural politics.” What Jalil’s trying to say is that the Urdu language holds such great regard in the history of Indian writing and poetry and cannot afford to lose its importance just because it has been termed to be a communal language when in actuality, it is the v very essence of Hindustan.

Overall, reading the book But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim, has been an eye opening journey for me, Jalil has helped me as a reader, to look deeper into the kind of life a ‘musalmaan’ leads and how they tackle their preconceived and stereotyped identities, respect their culture and faith and hold high regard of the literature that came out during the Mughal era. This book should be read by each and every Indian out there, as the key motif of this book is to communicate the fact that the idea of India is built on secularism and shared heritage and history; and not on communal and religious grounds. Today, we see divisive forces trying to break away from this idea of a secular India and it began with the Muslim community today, tomorrow it could be someone else.

A Visual Designer that enjoys researching a bit too much.