My first name was chosen by my mother because it was, as she put it, a “secular” name. Being a mildly religious woman, that really meant the name came as close as it could to a Hindu one, without sounding like a complete cop-out to some of her more orthodox Muslim relatives.
At any rate, it was better than the more spiritual name that my father, an atheist working at a bank, had in mind: Khusro, which, she said, would have been a pronunciation nightmare (besides being, as I later realised, egregiously Muslim-sounding).
While the turmoil of 1992 was still a few years away when I was born, my mother, unlike my father, seemed to have foreseen the times to come. However, as I was soon to find out, while first names can be chosen, there are no such secularising remedies for family names.
At my Delhi school one day, a seven-year-old in my class found out that my middle initial “A” stood for “Abdul.” He declared it was something to be ashamed about – rather viciously for his young age and in the unrelenting manner that children do when they pounce on an embarrassing secret. I realised at that early age that my Muslim surname was unlikely to ever be an asset and was best kept to oneself when it could be helped.
Subsequently, I introduced myself only by my first name. Once, when pressed, I lied about the “A” standing for “Agarwal,” before eventually dropping the inconvenient middle-name altogether. Of course, there were more such instances along the way to high school, from being bestowed with nicknames pertaining to stereotypical Muslim occupations, such as Darzi (tailor) and Naai (barber), to the now all-too-common Pakistani.
I also became familiar, much to the horror of my scandalised parents, with the more unsavory pejoratives for Muslim men, thanks to some of the older boys in my Delhi locality.
In college, stereotypes dressed as harmless “jokes” were routinely flung in one’s face. With my Muslim name, they came in the form of gags centered on terrorism – about hijacking small vehicles, a supposed proclivity for explosions, and so on. My surname provided a sustained spark for creativity of this kind, and not wanting to be perceived as unsporting and risk isolation, I played along.
More dismayingly, India-Pakistan cricket matches soon became a tricky wicket, and my having been an ardent supporter of the Indian cricket team during my childhood suddenly counted for little. Watching the match on the television in the common room with everyone else came with the risk of humiliation at the hands of some of the boys who, if the Indian team won, delighted in mocking me as though I were a Pakistani supporter. But absence from the common room, if noticed, would be even more perilous since it would, regardless of which team won, lead to questions being raised about one’s true loyalty (as a Muslim).
Work was worship, literally
After college, I joined a public sector company as an engineer (after an interview which touched more on my Muslim identity than I would have cared for), and was posted to Kanpur. Until now, having lived a sheltered life, first in Delhi and then on a secluded college campus, all the communalism I had experienced (if it could, at all, be called that) had been mild and came my way in the form of obnoxious jokes and insinuations of dodgy patriotism. Kanpur changed all that.
It made me aware for the first time just how big a disadvantage a Muslim name carried with it in India – particularly in the Hindi belt. As I went about looking for apartments and met prospective landlords, a pattern emerged. I would make my usual first-name introduction (the import of which the owner would not grasp immediately), the terms would be verbally settled, but then, sometime later, I would get a call from them enquiring about my last name. Soon, there would be another call, inevitably making a polite excuse for why they could not rent out their place to me. Only a few were honest enough to tell me to my face that the name was the real problem, that the prospect of a Muslim resident was anathema to others living in the building and the neighbours (perhaps even the entire locality).
One of them went so far as to let me know that, as a Brahmin, he was loath to having a tenant who consumed onion, let alone a meat-guzzling Muslim. It was by far the most humiliating experience of my life. After a month spent living at a colleague’s house, I eventually had to settle for a small hostel room.
Life at work was not devoid of regular reminders about my identity either. To begin with, casual communalism was commonplace. From jibes about how the law allowed me the luxury of keeping five wives to those about how easily I could get rid of them (“just one word repeated thrice!”), even the otherwise well-meaning colleagues failed to remotely consider the possibility that such jokes could be offensive. Another self-styled comic at the workplace would insist on loudly addressing me as bhai-jaan and would regularly ask me in the office canteen for all to hear if I had brought goat biriyani to lunch. My exasperated response on one occasion that I’d given up eating mammalian meat years ago did worse than falling on deaf ears. A militantly vegetarian, overtly religious senior colleague latched onto this defence, citing it as proof that not all Muslims were barbaric after all. “As some people make out to be the case,” he hastened to add. I immediately wished I had not said it.
The prospect of being a Muslim Uncle Tom ingratiating himself to bigots seemed far more uncomfortable than enduring vacuous biryani-taunts.
But a mere lack of sensitivity at the state-run firm was hardly my biggest concern. Some senior officers routinely espoused discriminatory views, and thought it fit to bring religion to the workplace. It was as if the whole notion of keeping the church separate from the state were an alien one.
On one occasion, I myself was tasked by my manager with organising one such “auspicious ceremony” before we started excavation for the foundation of a structure. Apart from managing the logistics (from priest to the coconuts), I then had to actually sit through the whole ceremony and pose for photographs since my absence would, in my manager’s words, have sent the “wrong message.” People with Muslim names being so few and far between at my company and in the public sector in general, I felt like I was an ambassador of sorts – one who could ill-afford sending out “wrong messages” lest it allow others to tar the community as intractable and their prejudiced notions to become more entrenched.
Of course, in hindsight, it was naive to have felt singled out for this unwelcome scrutiny. The one time I remember someone’s face light up (instead of dropping) at the mention of my surname was when I had visited a company-designated doctor soon after joining for some procedural formality. Asked my full name, I answered with the usual apprehension. To my surprise, the doctor looked up and smiled. “Merit candidate?”, he asked, beaming. Seeing me nonplussed, he had to spell it out: “You must be from the general category, right?” Taken aback, I answered in the affirmative. Lowering his voice a little, he said “Good, I hear it’s tough these days for general aspirants to get in – you must have had to work doubly hard to get here”.
He seemed to mistake my shocked reticence as a shy nod to engage in this problematic camaraderie he had unilaterally decided to build. Without waiting for a response, he proceeded to utter a few more thinly veiled anti-reservation remarks, before eventually catching on to my steely expression. He then backtracked hastily, couching his prejudice as well-meaning concern for the new Scheduled Caste recruits (he referred to them as “category candidates”) who, he implied, often found it difficult to cope with the demands of the job. Because of reservation.
I later wondered if indeed this were a zero-sum game: that someone simply had to bear the brunt of majoritarian righteousness for the names they had been born with, and that I should be thankful for emerging unscathed from such encounters myself.
The corporate headquarters weren’t much better. I once overheard an employee remark without inhibition that, technically, Muslims were invaders and could not be considered Indian. Technically.
Needless to say, I was glad to leave when the chance came.
I have, over the years, endured considerable discomfort and faced discrimination on account of my Muslim name – despite being wholly irreligious, despite having had a sheltered upbringing in a big city and access to education and employment, and despite having had many Hindu friends over the years who stood up for me.
Extrapolating from these personal experiences beyond my narrow prism of privilege, I can only imagine the horrors that the less fortunate Muslim men and women in the Hindi heartland would have had to endure. Especially, those who try to exercise their so-called freedom of religion and, unlike me, choose to assert their religious identity.
Sure, they are free to practice their religion and there are no legal obstacles (at least not yet), but for minorities in general and the beleaguered Muslims in particular, what this freedom essentially translates into is little more than the freedom to suffer marginalisation and humiliation.
And most of them do not even have “secular” first names to hide behind.
This article first appeared on Quartz.