By Tabish Khair
(Excerpt from a talk given in 2005 at the Florence Poetry Festival, later also published in The Hindu, Chennai, on 1st January 2006.)
To be born into a minority is a blessing and a curse. I was born into a Muslim family in Bihar: Muslims are the biggest religious minority of India. But within the community of Indian Muslims, my family again belonged to a large minority: that of middle class, professional Muslims. My father was a doctor. His father had been a doctor, and his father’s father had been a doctor too. Before that my father’s ancestors had been impoverished but independent and proudly literate farmers. My mother had a college degree in political science and, for some time, ran her own business. Her father had been a police officer and his father had owned a small tea plantation in Assam.
When you are born into a minority that is a minority within a minority, you learn to belong in different ways. I grew up as Indian and as Muslim. I grew up speaking three languages and writing two scripts. I was told or I read stories and poems from the West (especially Russian and British) as well as the East (especially Hindi/Urdu and from the Sanskrit and Persian-Arabic traditions). I was brought up on a concept of civilization and modernity that was not spelled E-U-R-O-P-E or W-E-S-T, for while my family members spoke English, they also spoke other languages; while they had imbibed Western education, they often also had a sense of other sources of rational thinking and possible modernities.
It is this that often makes me frustrated even with much of acclaimed post-colonial literature, for very often this literature is only concerned about the bridge of West-and-the-Rest. In my family, over centuries, we had crossed many other bridges. It is also this that made me feel – when I grew older – that the India I had grown up in was a fragile entity: it was threatened by various kinds of fundamentalisms (Muslim, Hindu and Western); it was always in the minority. There were other kinds of threat too. There were Hindu-Muslim riots, which were more threatening to secular Muslims like me and my family members than to religious Muslims living in ghetto-like colonies. There were constant attempts to bracket our identity. Are you Muslim or Indian, we were asked – as if one could be only the one or the other. So, when the time came, it was not too hard for me to leave the geographical space of India – for the India that mattered to me was there in my mind and my memories.
Not that the questions got better. I was, after all, again part of a minority: the minority of coloured people in Denmark, the minority of immigrants, the minority of Indians, of Muslims. I was complimented on being taller than ‘most Indians’; I was praised for more liberal habits than ‘most Muslims’. And again and again I had to – I have to – read largely ignorant articles in newspapers denigrating Asians or coloured immigrants or Muslims. That is the curse of being part of a minority.
The blessing is that one belongs in different ways, one learns to see different perspectives, one speaks many languages, one is aware of many histories, one is both this and that. If you only stop to listen, you are blessed with so many stories. If you only shut out the screaming of those who will not listen, you recognise the blessing of a coherent identity: for the identity of a person from a minority does not depend on a piece of cloth or a ritual; it is part of his own lived being. It is not external; it is internal. And with it comes the blessing of having cause to write.
And so, in spite of the curses and the threats, in spite of the screaming and the swearing, this is what I wish for my son and daughter: may you always belong to a multiple minority, to the minority of minorities. For then you may learn to see – and feel.Show