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Living with Richard Parker

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Living with Richard Parker
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I had known Jassim during college days as a fiery left-wing orator on the campus. He was a passionate advocate of secularism and the rights of the underprivileged. After graduation, I was given sporadic updates about his metamorphosis as an Islamist by mutual friends. I remember listening with mounting curiosity about his growing religiosity and flourishing beard. It was all a long time back in the pre-Modi, pre-Gujarat, pre- Godhra era. Jassim had never been within my radar since, thanks mainly to my cocoonish life as a teacher.

It was a chance Iftar at a swanky restaurant that renewed our contact. He had changed with his old fleshy white face now framed by a thick black beard with occasional sprinklings of white.

At the first instance itself, I realized that I was wrong on two counts. Age and religion hadn’t stripped him of his penchant for witticism. Minus the beard and a few gray hairs, he was still the old guy.

He gabbed on endlessly about his whatabouts. It was thus that I learnt about the activities he was involved in. For one, he was an active member of a relief wing concentrating its attention on north Indian ghettos; their goal: setting up hospitals and schools in Muslim ghettos and far-flung hamlets; encourage parents to send their children to schools; arrange scholarships for them and attend to cancer and kidney patients.

He said: the situation there is nothing but appalling. While Muslims in Kerala are among the highest per capita spenders in the country, most of their counterparts in Bihar and UP have nothing on them to spend. Added to this is the constant sense of dread and vulnerability to which they are prone. Though it is the congress more than the BJP that has to be blamed for this, the BJP’s ascension has further fuelled the fear psychosis.

I thought Jassim had a point; having been a member on the college debating team with him, I couldn’t resist picking up a bone with him in between the sumptuous Iftar party. I said: why focus on Muslims. Does poverty have any religion? Isn’t starvation simply an endemic problem in India? I was reminding him of his old leftist rhetoric.

You are absolutely right my brother- Jassim countered (his language had acquired certain Islamist inflections; hence, the ‘brother’); but you should know about the plight of Muslims. It is worse than that of Dalits in urban India. There are thousands of Muslim refugees in most Northern cities; victims of communal riots and grand development projects living in abysmal conditions. At least in some instances, their condition is worse than that of the Palestinian refugees...

I cut him short saying: And your role is to feed and fatten them and ignore their Hindu neighbours. Jassim’s companion, a younger guy with a fearsome beard seemed to be losing his patience with me. But Jassim was composed as ever, he said: how shall I explain the situation? I don’t believe that poverty has religion. While distributing Zakat (compulsory Muslim charity) here, I make no distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims; but the situation is different in the North. What is at work is a deliberate process of Dalitization of Muslims: a systematic disenfranchisement at all levels. As you know the term ‘Dalit’ means something crushed to bits. The situation is partially reflected in the statistics that show Muslim representation to be as little as 2.5 per cent in the bureaucracy. Many a time proper roads and reliable electric supply ends at the very gates of Muslim ghettos. Do you know how the ban on beef has rendered thousands of them jobless? Is there any programme at any level for their rehabilitation? The worst thing is that there is an absolute silence on their problems and even people who advocate their cause are being systematically subjected to a witch hunt by right wing groups. How would anyone dare to speak with examples of Teesta Setalvad and J S Bandukwala before them? Muslims are even being hounded out from their places of refuge. For example in Juhapura, where the Gujarat riot victims had sought refuge, they are being evicted to build a massive sewage plant. Pardon me this analogy: Muslims in the North are living like Pi in the lifeboat; they have Richard Parker and even the hyena for company.

Obviously Jassim has not lost his interest in literature and films. He continued: the Hindutva posters showing images of wild beasts with bared teeth tell us about the Richard Parkers we have to put up with. Besides there are hyenas like Togadias. They don’t allow Muslims to rent houses and want all of us to be driven to the seas.

I countered Jassim saying his metaphorical zoophobia to be nothing but a form of paranoia: you are as prone to exaggeration now as you ever were. To say that the Muslim condition in India is as bad as that of the Rohingyans is nothing but a falsification of reality; at least you will have to admit that it is better than that of many Muslim countries. Next, you will be saying, Muslims should acquire swimming lessons like Pi instead of Modi’s yoga lessons, I said. Jassim laughed heartily at the sarcasm.

Back home, I went through some of the weeklies piled up on my table. The article I lighted upon was about someone whose name I had come across more than twenty years back --Malika Bano: the brave woman who survived the Bhagalpur riots of 1989 by acting dead. Though she lost a leg in the process, Malika Bano epitomized the undying spirit of our nation that refuses to yield before adversities. Now she was in the news for quite a different reason. Her children were among the kids seized by authorities on their way to a Kerala orphanage. According to Malika Bano, her penury didn’t allow her to educate them at home. Her only hope was their education in Kerala. Now since the children have been returned, she can do nothing but stare blankly into the dark future.

According to the authorities, her children didn’t have proper papers. Of course, papers matter when it comes to paupers. Nobody is bothered about the papers of rich children studying in swanky schools because everything about them/such institutions can be easily papered over. I thought of Jassim’s analogy: Richard Parker at least was kind enough not to demand papers of Pi.

(The views expressed are personal. Umar O Thasneem is an author and Assistant Professor of English, University of Calicut. He can be contacted at: uotasnm@yahoo.com)

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