Writer, literary historian Rakhshanda Jalil on being Muslim in modern India

“The government doesn’t need to appease Muslims; it simply needs to be even-handed in its dealings — if it decides to ban azaans on mikes, it should also ban loud music and bells in temples,” she says (illustration: Binay Sinha)
She’s a literary historian, writer and translator who’s equally at ease with baking sourdough and quilting. As founder of Hindustani Awaaz, she’s often regarded as the voice of the intellectual, “modern” Muslim in India today. Rakhshanda Jalil is a woman who wears many hats but the one that rests particularly heavily on her head is that of being “secular”.

In her book, But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim (2019), as well as in her other prolific writings, Jalil has questioned why the onus of secularism has been placed so squarely on the shoulders of the Indian Muslim.

At a time when the cacophony of strident illiberalism is drowning out other voices in the country, I’m looking forward to meeting her for lunch at La Piazza at the Hyatt Regency, Delhi. Even more so, as this is the first time since the lockdown that I’m dining out. “So am I,” she exclaims after we’ve settled down, all properly distanced from each other on a large table. The menus arrive virtually on our phones. After a contactless ordering of lunch, we begin.

“Growing up, I saw my father at pains to demonstrate how secular he was,” Jalil says. “We’d celebrate Diwali, Christmas, Holi, every festival including our own of course!” It was a lovely childhood but soon the cracks started to show. “When Ayodhya (Babri Masjid demolition) happened, the gentle Siya Ram I’d known and adored since childhood began to take on the more aggressive persona of Shree Ram,” she says.

Lal Krishna Advani’s rath yatra and the growing saffronisation of public discourse made her wonder what it meant to be a Muslim in modern India. Just then, our salads (quinoa with asparagus for her and smoked salmon with roast baby potatoes for me) arrive and we take a minute to relish the novelty of being served in a fine restaurant. Jalil asks for a fresh plate of bread: “I’ve been baking sourdough these last few months and am longing for bread made by someone else!” she laughs.

As she takes pictures of her plate, I ask her about her book, But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim. Over the years, Jalil has repeatedly been told she doesn’t look like a Muslim. “It’s often meant as a compliment,” she says. “The subtext, however, is that if Muslims looked more ‘mainstream’ and less ‘Muslim’ like I do, people would find it easier to accept them.”

What can be done to bridge the gap, I ask? Bringing compassion back into religion could help. “Also, we need to call out bigotry, even when within the family,” Jalil says. Hindustani Awaaz, the organisation she’s founded to promote Urdu literature, is her personal bridge-building effort. 

“We organise a popular annual Urdu festival, Afreen, without sponsorships and in a free venue,” she tells me. “It’s so well-attended that we often don’t have standing space!” This has cemented her view that the distinction between Urdu and Hindi is artificial. “Today I see young Urdu poets composing in the Devanagari script,” she says.

Meanwhile, the La Piazza special — pizza with tomato, basil pesto and goat cheese — that we’ve decided to share, arrives at the table. “Look, it’s like the Tricolour!” Jalil exclaims delightedly. A quick photo session later, she tells me of the time when she felt immense pride at being Indian. “Whilst on the Haj, I found the Indian camp was one of the best managed. We prayed for forgiveness in the plain of Arafat under the shade of neem trees that provided respite from the scorching sun,” she says. “These were a gift from the late Indira Gandhi for Indian hajis.”

This interfaith sensitivity sharply contrasts with the appeasement politics that so many politicians have been guilty of. “The fact is that the government doesn’t need to appease Muslims; it simply needs to be even-handed in its dealings — if it decides to ban azaans on mikes, it should also ban loud music and bells in temples,” she says.

The best-received and longest-lasting social changes come from within. “Which is why the recent Supreme Court ruling on Muslim Personal Law on triple talaq.”

It’s time to wind up. Jalil finishes a plate of chocolate fondant announcing that she has to get back to her writing. Over the years, she has written and translated over 30 books and is currently working on multiple writing projects, including a translation of Gulzar’s collected works. “I’ve been the butt of too many jokes among friends about my productivity,” she laughs. “To them I say, I write and therefore I am.”

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