Mumbai-based writer Annie Zaidi, who recently won the Nine Dots Prize, has just had her book, Bread, Cement, Circus published — a meditation on the idea of home, belonging and identity in India. Zaidi has written reports, essays, poetry and stories and has long engaged with questions around this. Her most recent book before this, Prelude to a Riot, deals with the more bitter and violent facets of identities clashing or finding themselves at dangerous odds with each other. She spoke to Seema Chishti:
Your new book has home as a broad theme, and you talk about times gone past but there is also hope and not lament that one experiences. What are things about India today that make you feel hopeful?
I find hope in so many people’s ability to grasp and enact justice and equality, when everything else in their environment suggests that these ideas are compromised at every level – at an executive and institutional level as well as in families. People who could enjoy their privilege while it lasts, instead step out and work towards systems that enable others, not necessarily their own clan or community. We saw a lot of that in the last couple of years, and we see it now during the pandemic. Solidarity, I suppose. If it wasn’t for overtly expressed solidarity, I would have very little hope.
You make a very important point about identity not being only about what is foisted on them because of the religion they are born into, their names or their families, but identity can also be forged. How did you think you choose yours?
Identity isn’t something we usually question in childhood. In my case, it was different because there already was a question mark about identity, since I came from a mixed background, and also because we moved to different states. So I had to confront and answer this question since I was little. We took our maternal Muslim surname, but my mother was also keen not to lock her kids into a singular identity, so this question was more complicated. However, culturally too, I identified with my maternal inheritance. It was a liberal inheritance, and I felt it to be a gentle one.
In my teens, I grew more curious, and, perhaps, also felt the need for a little more structure, so I asked to be taught a little by way of religious observance. I have to confess that I was most fervent in my prayers during the tenth/secondary school board exam year. By the time I was in college, I was okay with this cultural identity, as exemplified and lived by my maternal grandparents. Over the years, I have realised that this is not just a Muslim, or even Indian Muslim, identity. It is a more particular thing — Indian Shia Muslim, Hindi/Urdu speaking, literary and liberal (culturally rather than economically defined liberal). I cannot wear this identity in parts, it has to be the whole thing.
India is truly the tower of Babel and most of us are at least bi-lingual. Is the fact that we were able to handle our language differences in the 1950s and take it in our stride, as it were, helped India integrate and enjoy its diversity?
I don’t know if I have a clear answer to that. I will venture to say that we were able to handle language differences while retaining a broader sense of being ‘Indian’ only because it was understood that difference itself was not a problem in India. When it became a problem, it was fiercely, violently contested. Language is expression, and a different language signals the development of a different way of life too. It cannot be that a nation state wipes out other kinds of differences between people across regions and faiths, but allows differences of language to stay intact.
This is why language is key to the push towards homogenisation, and why there is so much stress on Hindi adoption in the south, and the north-east. That’s why there is aggression directed at the Urdu script. The ‘oneness’ project is different from the ‘unity’ project. Oneness hints at what Chimamanda Adichie described the danger of the single story. Unity, at least as we have understood it so far in India, implied diversity – we unite as an act of volition, not because we have no individual or sub-group differences. Homogeneity implies that none of us should have the choice to be different, which is a dangerous idea. A democracy implies changeability, flexibility. Diversity – of culture, but also of opinion, and of personal choice – is key to its changeability.
You speak of the power of love as a direct threat to politics. The journey from celebrating love to criminalising it — what does that say, generally about the evolution of politics in India?
Love (romantic love particularly, but it can also be platonic, spiritual or other forms of non-filial love) is the most individual decision you can make, or act upon. You might fall in love with someone your parents also like, or someone your political representative would fully approve of. But it is all very chancy. Politicians are often tempted to remove both chance and choice. If you don’t have a chance to think about what your true, meaningful community is, you keep voting for the guy who claims to represent your community. If you don’t have a choice to convert to another faith, the same guy can keep pretending that he is representing your interests, even if your interests are really not aligned. If you don’t have a chance to experience what another culture is like, you will never question old political schisms.
The anti-love agenda is basically an anti-liberty agenda. It signals to the citizen: ‘you are not who you say you are; you don’t know yourself well enough’. Aloud, it says ‘I represent you’, but what it signals is: ‘I shape you in my mould’. It’s a paternalistic approach, not very different from parents trying to control your marital choices. Not respectful of the personhood of each citizen, and therefore anti-democractic. The criminalisation of love and politicians tolerating violence against lovers if not controlling it (which is the same thing really), was one of the first signs that democracy might be at risk.
Your father’s Punjabi Hindu side, gets a fleeting mention, a tad too fleeting? Don’t you think Annie Zaidi is, emotionally — significantly, relating to different cultures and who she is — by virtue of being that child born of both very strikingly different identities?
To be honest, my engagement with my father’s culture is of a fleeting kind. My paternal grandparents weren’t alive by the time I was born, so I have no memories. I didn’t know a word of Punjabi. My mother made sure that we are aware of our history, and as kids, she let us participate in Hindu festivals. I may light a few diyas on Diwali, but I do it out of habit and perhaps as a nod to that other culture rather than as an articulation of something that I identify with. Like, I used to go to the Navratri dandiya dances as a child, which was a Gujarati cultural influence rather than Punjabi.
Even now, my mother tells me to join in dandiya celebrations if I want to. However, now everything is coloured by the awareness of how fraught identity has become. I cannot join the dandiya circle without remembering that Muslims – men particularly – are being barred from joining in such events. That identity cards are demanded at certain popular venues. There is no question of me feeling half-Hindu here; my response would be that of the average Indian Muslim who is exposed to and even enjoys Hindu culture but keeps matters of faith separate. In this respect, I believe, I was shaped more through being different from the norm rather than being a proper mix of two distinct cultures.
Spoiler alert – The last bit, when you speak of the land you have picked as where you wish to be laid to rest, as home, ties in with your Marquez-ian opening. To dust we return…how important is space for defining home? You have spoken on how home can be just about bodies…is land all that central to home?
Well, it is and it isn’t. Everything I say about land, or earth, of feelings about where I belong, come from experience and cultural inheritance, and from being alive in this moment of time. If, for instance, I knew that burial is no longer a possibility, would land and location matter to me in the same way? Probably not. However, as long as the possibility exists, anywhere on earth, the question of land – and respect due to the land – would remain pertinent. I suppose human beings being essentially land creatures, land itself will remain linked to home in the form of need and desire and the stability and nourishment it represents.
Conversely, landlessness will continue to represent homelessness of a kind, and eventually, people will feel most at home wherever they can access land without the constant threat of eviction. Imagine, for instance, that climate change affects us badly, and entire mountain ranges shift, or cities get swallowed up by water, or fertile land turns into a desert. It is such a real prospect, perhaps even in our lifetimes. Obviously, our attachment will shift. We can no longer think of the drowned city as home, not in any practical way. Wherever we go, however different the new landscape might be, we would have to adapt and make it home. We may not ‘feel’ at home in the new home. But it would give us shelter and we would strive to return to its safety. So, yes, land would still be pretty important. Until there’s oxygen and fruit trees in space.