Hartman de Souza reviews Seema Mustafa’s memoir Azadi’s Daughter – Being a Secular Muslim in India (Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2017; Rs. 299).
Let’s cut through the bullshit. I am biased, prejudiced and one-sided when it comes to Seema Mustafa. She can do no wrong in my eyes, she’s most definitely, someone I would want my family to meet. Which may sound strange given that most of my old Lefty friends all know her and I only met her face to face for the first time early last year.
Till then, ‘Seema Mustafa‘ was just a very important ‘byline’ in my life.
You saw that name fronting an article, you read it. That was true for a lot of the old Lefty friends, they’d read it if they saw her name. In fact Seema was much more. She was definitely good enough, any day of the week, to prevent me rapidly scanning the first page and heading straight to the football news – not too many people I allow to do that to me.
So meeting her in Delhi – let me say this simply – was a privilege and an honour. But seriously, I mean look at the exalted company I find myself in, those totally unafraid to look you in the eye.
When you meet Seema for the first time therefore, watch her eyes carefully. They are the most alive part of her. They shine, give you the feeling they can bore into you. She has convictions: it’s there in the book, its there in her eyes. Yet, for all that tempered steel, there at the ready, you can’t imagine her going overboard. Unless of course, she’s writing about our right-wing, home-grown fundamentalists, and then – ask them, in fact – her venom is strong enough to make them quake all the way down to their toes.
A lot of this book is ‘memoir’ – where she sets her family history against a bigger backdrop that dwarfs her own coming of age – the young college-going woman who gets to her dream of being a journalist.
What will of annoy most of the Hindutva sympathizers is the fact that Seema is so laid back when she talks about herself. She does not beat her chest, and ululate in strong scale, which is what they would expect. She just lets us know the simple fact, that she’s someone born into a Muslim family in muffosil India. She makes little of the fact that she’s born into prosperity at a time when many, by a nasty quirk of fate, were not. The humility is a given, and her track-record, to those who know her, only a very strong endorsement.
Also never forget that many privileged Muslim families on the days before we got independence – like Seema’s too – put their necks on the line. They did not live in a Hindutva dreamland, writing letters of flattery to their erstwhile British rulers pledging total obeisance on the one hand, showing their fealty to Fascism, on the other.
More importantly, for a young girl wanting to think, Seema was blessed with older relatives who encouraged her to think and gave her the confidence to speak her mind. For a girl who thinks, who feels free to do so, will also known diversity in her own life, family elders displaying varying kind of radicalism from both sides of the spectrum. They didn’t kill each other. This inheritance, her idea of religion, her culture – our ongoing Modern Indian culture – is set against the fact that she’s a young woman in Delhi. One, who like so many today, became a ‘City’ girl living on her own with her own ideas on life, with her own life.
She would refuse to answer the question, I suspect, whether she believed in God, saying that was a personal, private matter. If you asked her whether she was a ‘feminist’, she would frown, yet you can so easily see her facing a long trial bench, and ranged against her, ‘leaders’ of all the major religions practised in this country, men who hate and despise each other, but more than willing to come together for common cause – against a disobedient woman.
Seema is far more than that. She’s a dangerous woman, which is precisely why this book must be read. These are dangerous times we live in. Is Gauri that far removed from all of us?
On the other side of Seema’s world, is something that angers the Hindutva right wing ideologues – is that term ‘Secular’. It gets their khaki shorts in a twist because God knows that they have tried and tried to do to the understanding of this term, what they have tried to do to all memory surrounded it in fact. They can’t ignore it, they can’t deal with it. They have never managed to use the term ‘secular’– some would say, feel the term – in such a way that they ‘change’. Because ‘secular’ is ‘change’: not to one uniform colour, plain, almost without life, but to be open to change. They’ve never been able to wish way their rigidity, and outdated dogma.
A strong thread running through the book – Nehru may have referred to it as a ‘palimpsest’ – is ‘Discovery of India’, a book, thank God, that started the thinking around secularism for a lot of literate Indians between the ages of 45 and 70, and of course, those of their younger relatives they recommended it to.
Never mind what the trolls come up with, those Indians wanting to guard their families against the bigotry we are faced with, can do no better than to give copies of ‘Discovery of India’ to their 15 year old relatives, and copies of ‘Glimpses of World History’ to their 17 year olds. You know any non neoliberal Hindutva commentator (a new breed!) who’ve managed to come to terms with those books? Can one of their leaders write like that, with such eloquence, such passion, and not make it feel like you’re reading the work of an embedded, ordinary to middling speech-writer.
But here too, Seema doesn’t make a big hoo-hah about Nehru. The trolls can’t just away by calling her a ‘Congresswali’. she just pays her dues, as they say, and then meanders – like a good bass-line taking a solo – interspersing within her journey, her comments and heartfelt reflections on our social and political worlds, and then, as if banging in nails, telling us how we cannot take our ‘secularism’ for granted.
We fight for it, is what Seema says quite unequivocally.
When the courier brought my copy, I was in Pune It was two days before I was to leave for Goa and a month of sulking and not talking to anyone. My old Lefty father-in-law was visiting for lunch. He is totally partial to my grilled chicken breast stuffed with a green cafreal masala – eased on the green chilly and pepper, and fresh coriander leaves and mint, but given a special twist with lots of fresh basil and some chicken skin and lemon grass stock. I don’t even have to tell him all that, just say “I’m making my chicken”…
Normally, nothing distracts him from the thinly sliced rounds of chicken, delicately layered on a bed of a salad, a thick slice of bread toasted with herbed butter on the edge of the plate – but Seema’s book did when I opened the packet. Is it my fault that every time the family visits, my father-in-law and I end up BJP-bashing? I smile at Seema on the cover, think it’s a great omen.
He pulled weight: took the book, left my chicken rounds long enough to say, “Oh, Seema Mustafa”. He tells me she’s a journalist. “I know,” I tell him. He tries seniority.
“I’ll take this home and read it first,” he says, like he needs to censor it…
“I’m taking it to Goa,” I tell him, “going to review it for Raiot.”
He’s miffed, goes back to my chicken rounds. But not as agitated as happens when he’s talking about the three senior citizens like him, or, how he will only rail louder at the attempt to narrow our horizon.
“Buy a copy,” I tell him, giving him another round of my chicken, and a light raita of layered brinjal and tomato grilled and generously powdered with sumac. “Buy a few, give them out as gifts”.
There’s something about Seema. I reach Goa and meet an old friend. I’m taking my present of Pune’s “Shrewsbury biscuits” for her out of my carry-bag, when Seema’s book falls to the floor and catches her eye. She grins back at Seema.
“Oh, I have nothing to read,” she tells me, picking it up, “I’ll get it back when I visit next week”. I am not complaining. I remind her several times to bring it with her, but am thinking more about reading a new novel of Henning Mankel I picked up before meeting her.
My friend is usually hyperactive and that’s putting it mildly. The day she visited, hugged and kissed, she unpacked the snacks from Dom Pedro – beef samosas and croquettes – while I poured the beer. But it seemed like she had forgotten something, and was unable to relax till she remembered.
“Oh yes,” she tells me, opening her carry-bag and taking out Seema’s book, “I brought it back, see?”
I had decided to give her the Henning Mankell. In fact it was below my packet of cigarettes. She’s given up buying her own fags so she lifted the fags several times, but not once did she comment on the stunning cover of Mankell’s book. Usually she would put it in her carry-bag.
She was more intent on talking about Seema’s book. I wouldn’t say she was relaxed. Still hyper, not tasting either the beer or the samosas, but very focused. Like she had something to say about the book and I had to listen. I wish I had the presence of mind to record it on my phone. Send out the transcript to Raiot instead, but fragments come to me.
“You know how I have this ‘girlie’ group I meet once a month, right? We keep the men away that night and just have an nice evening by ourselves. Well, this book got me thinking…a lot. We don’t have a Muslim in this group, isn’t it funny? It’s not that we don’t meet socially…I don’t know whether that’s conscious…did we do this deliberately??
“It’s strange how anti-Muslim we can be if the conversation gets diverted to terrorism! I mean we say some very nasty things about Muslims in the group. We’re divided as a group, almost half of us Catholic, the other half, Hindu. A lot of us probably agnostic, well-to-do, independent women who don’t have to take shit from anyone, who can think, who have ideas about lots of things, in our own way trying to make things better…all of whom would shout that we are ‘secular’…
“Hey, is there a word called ‘Muslimophobia’?? We should have one. I think a lot of times, now that I think of it, we can easily be that once a month, never thinking about the time between when we don’t meet…but God only knows thinking what when we hear the word ‘Muslim’…”
With questions from me, interjections along the way, we spent the hour and a half before lunch and a second, we talked about what she felt was important about Seema’s book, and its timeliness.
My friend tells me that Margao now has a large Muslim population. “They weren’t there fifteen years ago, now they live in Goa, their children study her, they marry here, what we are supposed to do, wait till everything explodes?”.
Reading Seema’s book, made my friend dispel the ignorance surrounding Muslims in India. “There’s so much I just don’t know about Muslims…
“I am buying copies of her book for my ‘girlie’ group,” she tells me mischievously, “better than buying flowers, or bloody chocolates which aren’t good for any of us. They’ve got money my girls, I’m going to ask them to buy a few extra copies and give them as presents to college kids they know…”
Where would I buy her book Is it available with Book depository? There may not be a word like muslimophobia but it sibling Islamophobia is alive and well!
Indian women intellectuals seem to me to be braver than the men