Long, long ago in 1961, the Indian High Commissioner to Nigeria had a party in Lagos. His wife introduced their daughter, barely eight years old, to one of the dignitaries, Uncle Hussain. The girl was silent, confused. The mother nudged her to shake hands, but the little girl was troubled and asked loudly: “How does he have an Indian name?”
That little girl was me.
For me, Hasan, Hussain or Sakina, Ahmad were common Indian names, so how on earth did a person in Africa acquire one?
My mother’s parents were from Lucknow, historically the seat of the Ganga-Jamuna Tehzeeb – the syncretic culture of the region. I remember Hindus setting up piyaos, or water kiosks, for Muslims on Muharram.
There is a well-known story about a time during the reign of the last king of Awadh Wajid-Ali-Shah. Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, happened to fall on the same day as the Hindu festival of Holi.
The king got up in the morning and realised that people were not on the streets playing with colours. He asked his secretary who told him that in solidarity with their Muslim king, the people had decided not to play Holi as Ashura is a day of mourning.
Touched by this, the king threw the first colours of Holi. The Hindus celebrated Holi in the morning and then later joined the King in mourning and other Muharram rituals.
There is a similar spirit of love, respect and sadness for Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet, in Lucknow. Lucknow also boasts of several Hindu “imambaras” or assembly halls that are usually associated with Shias. One such is the “Kishnu Khalifa ka Imambara” in the old city area. The Imambara, built in 1880, is famous for its Hindu “azadars”, or devotees, who observe Muharram with the religiosity of Muslims.
In Lucknow, the seat of the Shia Nawabs of Awadh, Hindu noblemen such as Raja Tikait Rai and Raja Bilas Rai built Imambaras to house alams – the standards representing the Karbala event.
In the 1970s, when I helped to organise women in Nangloi, a slum in West Delhi, Dussehra and Eid fell on the same day. The administration said police would be deployed to protect the Muslims when they offered namaz.
But our women’s organisation, under the leadership of Shahjehan Begum – Aapa to me – decided that we would guard the mosque. The Muslims living in the area said they would finance the Ram Leela.
In Karnal, the effigies of Ravana, Meghnand and Kumbhakarna for Dussehra celebrations are made by Muslim artisans. In Mathura, my ancestral home, Muslims make delicate clothes for Krishna.
The Krishna Janmabhoomi and a mosque stand side by side. Now, there are, instead, calls to demolish the mosque.
As a schoolgirl in London, when my diplomat father was posted there, I had an opportunity to see the Kohinoor diamond and other treasures stolen by the British and exhibited in their museums.
One exhibit that caught my imagination was Tipu’s tiger. This is the description at the Victoria and Albert Museum:
“Tippoo’s Tiger’ was made for Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore in South India from 1782 to 1799. It is one of the V&A’s most famous and intriguing objects. The tiger, an almost life-sized wooden semi-automaton, mauls a European soldier lying on his back. Concealed inside the tiger’s body, behind a hinged flap, is an organ which can be operated by turning the handle next to it. This simultaneously makes the man’s arm lift up and down and produces noises intended to imitate his dying moans.”
Later, I read a book, The Dreams of Tipu Sultan. Its introduction states:
“Court historians have eulogised not only Tipu Sultan’s character but his scholarship and literary skill, and his mastery of the Persian language has been taken for granted. British historians have reviled his character, disregarding the views of the court historians, but they have accepted their contention with regard to his scholastic attainments.
Of the 37 dreams recorded, most are concerned with his wars against the British and their allies. “...The dominant note throughout these dreams is what was uppermost in Tipu Sultan’s mind – how to free his country from the foreign yoke. Whatever the psycho-analyst may have to say about them, to a student of history it is of greater importance to discover how Tipu Sultan himself interpreted these dreams and how they influenced his actions. From a perusal of this register it becomes clear that his hours of sleep were as devoted to the cause of freedom as the hours while he was awake.”
Tipu Sultan was my hero and I dreamt of fighting a case in the British court to get back Tipu’s Tiger. In 2015, on the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan, Jnanpith awardee and playwright Girish Karnad had urged the Karnataka government to rename Bengaluru international airport after the former ruler of Mysuru. “If Tipu Sultan was a Hindu, he would have been given the same stature as Shivaji Maharaj enjoys in Maharashtra,” Karnad had then said, referring to the Maratha warrior king Shivaji revered in Maharashtra.
But why should we have to choose between Tipu Sultan and Shivaji – both fought valiantly against colonialism. I refuse to choose – both are my heroes.
They tell me that Hindi belongs to Hindus and Urdu is a “Muslim” language. But my grandfather, RN Haksar, a Kashmiri Pandit and owned a shop in Delhi’s Connaught Place, made nonsense of that notion.
When I visited him, I would see him reciting verses in Urdu or Persian. I would listen to animated discussions he had with poets or writers who dropped by on the meaning and nuance of the words.
Dada, like the Kashmiri Pandit men of his time, could only read Urdu and Persian and did not know how to read or write Hindi. The women, on the other hand, learnt Hindi and Sanskrit.
My grand-uncle, Anand Narain Mulla – Nandoo Bhai to most of us – lived in Lucknow and was a well-known poet. When he recited Urdu poems, people filled up at the coffee house and it is said that many stood outside listening to him. He had once said that if someone claimed Urdu belonged only to Muslims, he would change his religion.
How has Urdu become Muslim and Hindi become Hindu?
I was once in Manipur, staying in the compound of the Manipur Baptist Church. I shared a room with a Naga evangelist.
I felt lonely and the culture felt alien. It did not help that I was called a “mayang” or outsider. The young Punjabi Hindu wife of the then deputy commissioner had came to visit me. She too had similar feelings. She came to my room and asked: “Do you know it is Eid, today?”
I said: “Oh, I did not know. What should we do?”
She said we could make some kheer to celebrate, and we did. Our Naga friends could not understand why we were celebrating a Muslim festival.
This was the time I used to watch Mahabharat on Doordarshan. The script was written by the poet Rahi Masoom Raza. He wrote the dialogues and script that kept all of India glued to their television sets every Sunday.
When director BR Chopra asked Raza to write the script, he got letters demanding to know why he had approached a Muslim. Chopra sent the letters to Raza in the hope of persuading him to write the script, which he had refused to do because of the amount of time it would take.
It was then the Urdu poet decided to write the script and said: “I am the son of Ganga, who knows the civilisation and culture of India better than me.”
I heard the many protest songs written during the national protests against the amendment to the citizenship act and the proposed National Register of Citizens in December 2019 to February 2020. But the one that touched me to the core was the one by young poet Aamir Aziz:
Mai Adam aur Hawua ka Santan hoon
Mera madr-e-watan Hindustan
Muhammad mera nabi
Allah mera khuda
Ambedkar mera shiksat guru
Buddha mera shuru
Nanak mera guru
Aman mera mahzab
Isk mera iman.
I am the child of Adam and Eve
My motherland is India
Mohammad is my prophet
Allah is my god
Ambedkar is my teacher
And Buddha my beginning
Nanak is my guru
Peace is my religion
Love is my creed
I, too, am a product of these different histories and spiritualities. I am a product of Bhakti and Sufi saints, of socialist and feminist values.
Culturally, my roots lie in Hinduism and in Islam, but they also are nourished by Christian values and Buddhist ideals. I am not willing to give up any part of myself. It is my heritage and all these ideas, ideals, values and principles come together to make me an Indian.
I also draw inspiration from atheist and agnostic belief systems that have been a part of culture and spiritual journey as a country.
Once, I was giving a lecture in Hyderabad on Islamophobia. I had called my lecture “Muslims are coming”. Two young Muslim students came up to me at the end of the lecture and asked: “Ma’am, what do you think of religion?”
I said that personally speaking, I wish all temples, mosques, gurudwaras and religious institutions were closed down. I believe institutionalised religion to be the cause of many problems. As a woman, I think all religions are complicit in institutionalising oppression of women.
I looked at the two students. They were silent and I wondered if I had offended them. Then one of them said: “Even if you do not believe, may Allah bless you.”
I will celebrate Eid in my heart. I hope that the spirit of Eid touches all of us Indians and brings us closer. Somehow, the hatred that is surrounding us, the nightmare we are living in and the unsettling atmosphere of suspicion is dispelled. With these thoughts I wish you, dear reader, Eid Mubarak. Peace be upon you.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and award-winning author.