It was yesterday. Just another Tuesday. The day had begun, well, decently – I went off to sleep by 5 am, which is earlier than usual after my night shifts; even given the wife’s early-morning shift, and what seems doorbells going off every 20 minutes, thanks to all sorts of everyday handypersons coming to collect things from your doorstep, I slept well; got up just before my daughter was to return from school; read the newspapers in time for her to tell me her tales and play shadow-wrestling on bed; and discuss her homework, etc, before she sat down for lunch
(late, nearly every day, I admit, for a kid of six and four months; but do not tell her mother that).
It was time to get ready for work, and I had seen the mail from her school. I had to get stuff for her projects the next day. On way to work. There was no other way. Some stuff to be had for a storytelling session at school, and five images each for Hindi letters ‘a’, ‘aa’, ‘chhoti e’, and ‘badee ee’.
Cut to the chase, and quite a chase it was. Five stationery shops, and not one had a booklet where you could get multiple images of words formed by the same letter. They all had ‘a’ to ‘ah’, and ‘sa’ to ‘ha’ charts.
Nope. Will not do.
Other items bought, I also had a masking tape to get.
Already late for work, I tried one last shop. In Mayur Vihar Phase-III, in east Delhi. A fairly big shop – bigger than the five I had been to thus far. Including two in my local market, which were closed. Being Tuesday.
Masking tape roll in hand, I asked the man manning the store – a young, fair, bucktoothed man, appearing to be in his late-twenties – whether he had the said charts, or booklet, of Hindi alphabets.
No, as expected.
“But you can get prints from here,” he said, indicating a printer.
Well, I was in no mood. Was getting quite late as well.
Have to download from the internet and get it from office, it seems, I told him. Only problem is, my Hindi is sort of lousy; and I have to look up even the given five words each. On the Net.
Smiling, he asked me, “Where do you come from (kidhar ke ho aap)?”
Delhi, I said, emitting a deep sigh, Bengali (Dilli se hi hoon; Bangali).
“Aap Musalmaan ho (Are you a Muslim)?”
Bang. Just like that. Without any warning.
I am 42-years-old, and shorn of 10 of those years in four other cities (give or take a year or so), I have lived in Delhi-NCR all my life, the last 10 years being in Vaishali, Ghaziabad, which is 1.5 km from Delhi border, and hardly 7 km from where we were standing on Tuesday late-afternoon, both him and I, and we call it NCR. And I have given that reply – “Dilli Bangali”, as opposed to Bengal Bangali, since I have only been a visitor to the state where I was born, and where my parents came/come from – a thousand times and more.
Never did I get a return question about my religion. This is my city, not some mofussil area. And I thought I knew it like the back of my hand.
Taken aback, I took a good 15-20 seconds — if not more; I remember my mouth puckering for a reply, which I did not eject — to reply: My grandparents were Hindus, my parents did not/does not believe in religion, and I am agnostic – “naastik” is the word I used, although that in effect means atheist, I presume. So, there, you have the details. Just short of my aadhaar card. Now, why do you want to know?
“Arre sir, nothing. Aise hi poochha (just like that).”
The man was still smiling, just as disarmingly. Two other men, sipping tea from thermocol glasses, smiled the same arre-sir-just-aise-hi smile.
I was running late, quite late, by then. I paid for the masking tape, told the man that ‘that’ question did not make any sense (“yeh poochhne ka matlab kya hai?”), and left.
Truth be told, I did not at that moment think of lynching incidents (that man, and the two others, apparently his friends, looked quite friendly and nice anyway), or how or what it would have felt like if I was a Muslim, or whether Bengalis face a khatra (danger), as the next targeted community.
I was getting late. And I had to get to work, fast (this last line is for the bosses, as the appraisal time is still around).
Story narrated in office, one colleague tells me: It’s an image they have, a narrative being established, about Bengalis. Reason and logic be damned. Someone asked my husband the other day, after learning that he, and we, are Bengalis, whether everyone in Bengal eats beef.
Colleague two: (casually) Bengalis, being always the ‘other’ from ‘their’ brand of Hindutva, will have it coming. Sooner or later. I was asked questions (the guy lives in south Delhi) about buying eggs during Durga Puja, when the Navratras are celebrated, and supposed to be vegetarian.
Colleague three: Good you did not get into an argument. You just never know these days…
Wife: What? You did not give them a piece of your mind? (when told that I had said naastik, and etc,) I told you (hints at example of some friends), we should have moved to Canada when you had time.
I am 42. I am not a senior citizen. At least not numerically. For logic’s sake, I have not list time. And I do not want to go some place that I do not know, in search of something I have not yet known.
And that’s why I took a day to register it, have the feeling sink in, and then react. Now. A day on.
Which brings me to the phrase “I have NOT YET KNOWN”.
# Why would you ask the religion of a man buying masking tape, even if he admits being a Bengali with not much knowledge of Hindi (and even if he has not shaved for a few days? OK, nearly 15 days, I admit. I am lazy.)
# Will I ever know it, given that I have the purported security of my surname, which was handed down to me?
# How will I react, otherwise (and that “otherwise” is a huge field)?
# How, more importantly, will I react if someone of a different – DIFFERENT – surname is asked the same question in my presence? Aise hi poochha, will I say?
# Am I overthinking? But, then again, why? Why would you want to know my religion, as I get back to the original question?
PS: We will not take names here of anyone but me. As that character of Mumbai police commissioner, played by Anupam Kher, in ‘A Wednesday’ said, “insaan naam mein mazhab dhoond leta hai (people look for religion in a name).”