Rakhshanda Jalil is a translator, writer and literary historian. She has published over 25 books and written over 50 academic papers and essays. Her book on the lesser-known monuments of Delhi, Invisible City, continues to be a bestseller. Her recent works include: Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers Movement in Urdu (OUP, 2014); a biography of Urdu feminist writer Dr Rashid Jahan, A Rebel and her Cause (Women Unlimited, 2014), a translation of The Sea Lies Ahead, Intizar Husain’s seminal novel on Karachi (Harper Collins, 2015), and Krishan Chandar’s partition novel, Ghaddar (Westland, 2017); an edited volume of critical writings on Ismat called An Uncivil Woman (Oxford University Press, 2017); and in the past year a literary biography of Urdu poet Shahryar for Harper Collins, The Great War: Indian Writings on the First World War (Bloomsbury); Preeto & Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu (Niyogi) and most recently, Kaifiyat, a translation of Kaifi Azmi’s poems for Penguin Random House and Jallianwala Bagh: Literary Responses in Prose & Poetry (Niyogi Books). Her latest book But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim (Harper Collins), is a collection of 40 essays on religion, culture, literature, and identity. She runs an organisation called Hindustani Awaaz, devoted to the popularization of Hindi-Urdu literature and culture. Her debut collection of fiction, Release & Other Stories, was published by Harper Collins in 2011 and received critical acclaim. She was awarded the Kaifi Azmi Award for her contribution to Urdu and the First Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-Hindi Translation. She writes regularly for major newspapers such as Hindustan Times, Indian Express, The Hindu as well as Outlook, Scroll, The Wire, etc.

What pushed you, or, inspired you, to write ‘You don’t look like a Muslim’?

The book is a collection of 40 essays — divided under roughly four headings with 10 essays in each section. Some of these were written as op-eds or as articles for newspapers; a couple were seminar papers and some were written afresh for this volume. The ones that were written earlier, often in response to something — such as the Charlie Hebdo piece on the so-called Right to Offend or what it meant to live in the Jamia neighbourhood after the Batla House encounters  — were tweaked and in some instances revised or rewritten to make them not sound dated.

Regardless of when they were written, the over-riding impulse behind the collection is to call out — to call out the elephant in the room.

Mrinalini Sarabhai (left) and Jawaharlal Nehru (right)

Post 2014, we thought we were living in a time that was an aberration and the norm would be restored. 2019 taught us that this is the norm or the ‘new normal’ as it is being dubbed, that it is okay to be bigoted, prejudiced and insular. In a word, we seem to live in an age where it seems okay to be communal. So, this book is an attempt to call out the elephant in the room — the elephant being communalism and prejudice that is more widespread than ever before in post-1947 India.

Do you think that the current regime and its mobs and front organisations are out to brutalise Muslims in India? Reduce them into second class citizens? Can they succeed? How then can the secular society fight back and restore the pluralist secularism of the Indian heritage?

Certainly, every effort has been made for over the last five years to demonise Muslims. I say five years because that is when social media has come into its own and Facebook and Whatsapp have played a crucial role in not just disseminating false information, but proactively sharpening the divide between ‘Us and Them’. The differences have existed but they occupied the fringes of the popular consciousness; this regime has brought them center-stage from the margins, legitimised them, even institutionalised them, in many instances.

Post 2014, we thought we were living in a time that was an aberration. 2019 taught us that this is the norm or the ‘new normal’, that it is okay to be bigoted, prejudiced and insular. In a word, we seem to live in an age where it seems okay to be communal.

You are a fan of Jawaharlal Nehru. The current regime is attacking him constantly. Why do you think they are doing it?

Yes, I admire everything Nehru stood for. I grew up in a Nehruvian household. I like the way Nehru’s brand of secularism didn’t mean the absence of religion per se; it just meant the absence of religion from the public domain, especially a sharp and clear Church-State divide. I also like his idea of India being a ‘socialist secular republic’. Naturally, all of this is anathema to any Right-wing dispensation. Moreover, an age that encourages fascism cannot be an admirer of Nehru. They can admire and idolise Patel, but, never Nehru. Gandhi is a bitter pill they have to swallow, but Nehru is too urbane, too sophisticated, too liberal for them.

Rakhshanda Jalil
Rakhshanda Jalil, author of But You Don’t Look Like A Muslim

In your latest book, ‘You Don’t Look Like a Muslim’ you talk of Urdu, Bombay cinema of old times, the unhurried beauty of small-town memories, the idealism of post-Independence. Do you think all that is beautiful, innocent and sublime has gone out of our lives in contemporary India? How can we resurrect the past, or create a new present and future? Do you see hope on the horizon?

It certainly has gone away for now; it had been fading away actually from the 1980s when India ‘opened up’ with a vengeance, not just her economy, but in every which way. Food, popular culture, languages, literature (post Salman Rushdie and Midnight’s Children, the only literature worth acknowledging is Indian writing in English, not the bhasha literatures, which is truly sad) — everything is slowly being absorbed into a monolithic idea of modernity. To my mind, modernity does not mean an effacement of the past or an eradication of tradition. In that you can’t blame any one political dispensation. I think it’s a juggernaut that is vaguely and ironically called ‘Progress’. 

Food is a great equaliser. It draws people together. If you have been to someone’s home, eaten with them, chances are you will view them differently. It may not be so simplistic in real life but there is something to be said for breaking bread together.

Every now and then, however, there is a cry in the wilderness. Some entrepreneur taps into a vein of nostalgia and lament for days gone past. A case in point is the fabulous products from the people behind the Paperboat sherbets. The much-maligned social media causes micro-products, niche items, to find larger audiences. So, all is not lost. Hopefully, once this relentless wave of mindless consumerism ebbs, we will realise the benefits of what we traditionally ate and drank and wore. As long as lumpen elements fostered by the State don’t enter our homes and tell us what we can and cannot eat!

There is one chapter about food cooked by your mother with local material and elaborate preparations, for friends, strangers and neighbours. You yourself celebrate different kind of cuisine, including from the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and the lost cuisine of the Indian past. How did food unite a society into a wonderful synthesis? 

Food is a great equaliser. It draws people together. If you have been to someone’s home, eaten with them, chances are you will view them differently. There’s a lovely ad by a tea company — of a Hindu neighbour who happens to go to a Muslim neighbour’s house for the first time, drinks tea with them and is completely drawn in. It may not be so simplistic in real life but there is something to be said for breaking bread together, not the fake bonhomie we see in the political ‘iftar’ parties with politicians wearing skull caps and Saudi-inspired keffiyeh (those checked scarfs have always puzzled me as no one I know wears them at iftar time), but something more homely and genuine.

Excerpt from But You Don’t Look Like A Muslim:

Be it films or popular culture, the demonization of the Muslims has only increased their sense of isolation and victimhood. In pre-globalization India, the film industry routinely depicted Muslims as smugglers or as paan-chewing, surma-wearing hoodlums dressed in pathan suits or as qawwali-singing debauched men who divorced their wives for the most frivolous of reasons. Post-liberalization, these caricatures were replaced by sinister dons sitting in West Asian havens planning the destruction of Indian cities and, more recently, as tech-savvy but devout Muslims who have been radicalized and turned into cold-blooded jihadists.

Subtly but surely, several motifs have crept into the public discourse such as: the strategic entrapment of Hindu girls by Muslim boys as part of a larger game-plan dubbed ‘love jihad’; the blithe disregard for Hindu sentiments in killing and consuming cows for meat; the sheer nuisance of causing a law-and-order situation every Friday when Muslims congregate in large numbers and listen to khutbas about all sorts of regressive things such as ‘don’t take your kids for polio shots’ or ‘don’t put your money in banks as interest is haraam’; their refusal to sing ‘Vande Mataram’ in a blatant display of their innate anti-nationalism; and so on and so forth….

While the entire Muslim community has suffered because of this steady infiltration of misconceptions and piling up of images and ideas − each more offensive and alienating than the other − a culture and way of life too has suffered due to this stereotyping. Urdu, which has no mooring in Islam, is identified with all Muslims − completely ignoring the fact that Muslims in Kerala speak Malayalam, those from Assam speak Assamese and so on.

Popular culture has long depicted Urdu poets and nawabs as sorry creatures steeped in nostalgia and pathos or, worse still, romanticized sherwani-clad heroes and heroines in ghararas in what were once euphemistically called ‘Muslim socials’. When not banal or limiting, some depictions are outright offensive, such as the recurring representation of Muslims as pillaging invaders who looted and burnt temples or lascivious medieval sultans lusting after chaste Rajput queens when not tearing off chunks of raw meat with their bare teeth like savages. Is this forsaking of reality for an erroneous perception not tantamount to aggravated assault? Is this deliberate othering not a form of violence: a violence to the mind and spirit?

Jawaharlal NehruLiberalismMahatma GandhimuslimsRakhshanda Jalil

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Rakhshanda Jalil in conversation with Amit Sengupta
‘Gandhi is a bitter pill… but Nehru is too liberal for them’