Imagine “national” stormtroopers entering your home to snatch away your meal made of anti-national fruits and vegetables. Or strip you off stitched clothes. Or chop your tongue for using foreign words which define your daily speak. “Yeh Hindustani kis chidiya ka naam hai (what is Indian)?” asks Sohail Hashmi in a new YouTube series, Hindostan ki Kahani. Most “things” we deem Indian are not “originally” from this land we perch our derriere on.
About 400 years ago, there was no aloo in India. The Portuguese got patata (the Spanish batata) and chillies, from South America to Bombay. “If aloo is sent to Pakistan since it’s foreign, what remains of our food?” asks the 68-year-old. The French got cauliflower, the British, cabbage, and Babur brought pomegranate, grapes, plum, apricot, muskmelon, watermelon. Banana (except the red Kerala variety) is Indian. Sugarcane went from here and returned as crystallised misri from Egypt (aka Misr).
“Civilisations have given and taken from each other. Ussi se sabhyatayon ka vikas hota hai (that’s how civilisations grow). People travel and settle down all over the world. DNA studies date India’s antiquity to 50,000 years back. The Indus Valley Civilisation is 5,000 years old. The story of India is the story of evolution,” says Hashmi, who rejects the “historian” tag.
The “history buff or heritage enthusiast”, who has been conducting heritage walks for over 16 years, did his MPhil in geography. “My grandfather used to take his children to see monuments and explain things. Abbu continued doing that with us. I accompany him on his heritage walks,” says daughter Sania, 34, who along with Mohan Kumawat, 37, of Anhad Films, are producing the series.
“He’s a passionate storyteller. Sometimes I have to tell him, ‘Abbu, I’ve heard this before’,” she chuckles.
The seven 10-20-minute videos don’t tell the India story the way Bharat Ek Khoj (also on YouTube), the televised drama of Jawaharlal Nehru’s 1946 book, does. Hashmi’s narration is peppered with collages of images, much like the mythology TV show Devlok with Devdutt Pattanaik.
The first two episodes, on cuisine and clothes, shot at home and uploaded in November, have the most views — 9,990 and 4,675, respectively. Followed by architecture (3,260) and Urdu ka Safar (1,513), shot around monuments.
Sania, who assisted director Subhash Kapoor on the 2007 Sanjay Suri-starrer cricket film Say Salaam India, joined her phupho (aunt Shabnam’s) NGO Anhad in 2008, where she met Kumawat. She later joined him when he started Anhad Films as a separate media collective in 2010 and the two made films on Muzaffarnagar riots, Mirchpur attacks and Bol Ke Lab Azaad Hain Terey on sexual harassment for PSBT.
It’s happenstance that the videos coincide with the Lok Sabha election. “There’s no link. The idea is not to impact the winning or losing of any candidate/party, but to trace how Indian culture has evolved, underline the twisting of history, and dispel the myth of India as unique, or centre of the world,” Hashmi says.
“If he was a temple destroyer, why didn’t Aurangzeb demolish the Buddhist, Jain and Kailasa (Hindu) temples in the Ellora caves near Aurangabad, where he stayed?” asks Hashmi, adding, “majority of Aurangzeb’s army had Rajput commanders just as Shivaji’s artillery was commanded by Muslims.”
For a Muslim tenant, he says, it is still difficult to find a house in Delhi. “In 1991, I spent nine months looking for a house. Despite meeting the demands, my name was a deal breaker. This was in Rajendra Nagar. I choose not to live in a Muslim-majority area because I don’t want to be ghettoised,” says Hashmi, who had witnessed the 1961-62 Aligarh riots as a child.
Thirty years ago, his younger brother, theatre activist Safdar, was killed for standing up for workers’ rights, but “not for being Muslim. There weren’t lynch mobs. Today, it is a crime to be born Muslim,” he says.
“I come from a privileged background. I haven’t faced what a Junaid or an Akhlaq faces on a daily basis,” says Sania, “Though there were the usual snide comments during India-Pakistan cricket matches.” As kids, she and younger sister Sarah (Bollywood actor) were told by a shopkeeper: “We won’t sell to Pakistanis”. “The Kargil War was on. At various points, we were reminded we were Muslims. Whatever you do, you’ll be seen through that lens,” she says.
“We, however, grew up in a house where religion was never a matter,” says Sania, who, like her late Safdar chacha, has had an inter-religious marriage. The next episode in the series, out this week, is on conversions: why large number of people who were oppressed over centuries converted to other religions?
“Rhetorics display a mindset. I’m more worried about what happened in the past, which is impacting the current climate,” Hashmi says.