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Musings III: Of Prejudices

My mother informed me in a hushed tone, “It’s a proper Muslim driver, dress, white skull cap and all.” I smiled back. There could have been a trace of condescension in my smile. [I wish I carried a mirror all the time. I suffer from what one might call thought narcissism, a slightly less naive, but by no means, less acute, variant of the ubiquitous and perhaps compulsive looks narcissism. The latter, as we all know, is fostered by retail therapy, social networking sites, smart-looking indigenously produced herbal cosmetics, Fabindia, digital photographic revolution, affluent single child nuclear family structure, sixth pay commission, peer pressure … I could go on] My mother is unselfconsciously and unaffectedly middle-class Bengali, in the way in which she chooses to extend or withhold liberality. Her choice is dictated by a minutely mediated adjustment between inherited prejudices, reinforced by experience and reading, and acquired or habitual reasonableness, equally informed by experience and reading. [Reading, as we all know, can be equally instrumental in the making and unmaking of prejudices. Reading one’s way to generosity and tolerance of one kind tends to breed intolerance of those less tolerant towards one’s acquired set of liberal values. Thus radicals hate conservatives no less than conservatives hate radicals]. My smile was meant to brush aside my mother’s apprehensions about sending her daughter and six-year-old grandson out into the rude wide world for six hours in the family car driven by a conservatively dressed Muslim driver. She added reassuringly that he was very “mild” and that he’d been sent by this dependable hiring agency in response to her request for a “good” driver. I sensed immediately that my mother was just as eager to put my mind at rest about the credentials of this casually hired driver. I’d read a trace of anxiety in her eyes and tone. My condescension notwithstanding, she on her part had assumed that I’d harbour the same worries, different, if at all, in intensity.
The pressures of post-modern urbanity did not spare much time for the mutual dispelling of prejudices. I stepped out after my son and we made our way downstairs towards the locked entrance. As we unlocked it, the driver came round to check if we were indeed on the point of availing his services. I looked at him unsmilingly. I think I wore my habitual scowl. I’ve always found it a useful mask in public, effective in warding off all kinds of attention, curious, admiring, bemused, hostile or lewd. The driver looked most unprepossessing, neither mild nor aggressive. I remembered a similar moment at Chandipur recently. We were on the paved concrete pathway, something of a modest strand, overlooking the sea. It was a pleasant summer afternoon and the beach was teeming with local revellers. As we approached a tea shack for refreshments, I saw three men in white, “skull cap and all”, socializing over cheene badaam (or was it chhola mixture?), comfortably sprawling on those moulded plastic chairs that have conquered India, (or were they just wooden stools?). I looked at them. They looked back, I looked past them. I looked away. Hence my incertitude about the seating arrangement and the nature of the snack. Theirs was an interesting negotiation of ordinariness and exceptionality. Their sartorial choice could be ordinary, natural and habitual or the reverse, or both. After all, the aesthetics and the politics that shape our sartorial habits tend to be unfathomably complex: part personal taste, part custom, part cultural milieu, part corporately engineered ocular desire for wealth and beauty. On the beach, though, among those tawdrily dressed revellers, all zari and chiffon, they stood out. To my prejudiced eye, theirs was almost a censorious presence, boldly, self-consciously conservative in brilliant white kurtas and pyjamas. Choice of clothes defines identities more potently than even inherited physical appearance does. The men were seated in a recognisably Indian style of insouciance, popping the popular and plebeian Indian roadside and railway snack, cheene badam or chhola mixture, into their mouth periodically with a practised expertise unmistakably Indian. Clearly, they had chosen the same moment and site for recreation as the more flashily dressed majority. They were hardly the killjoys that I imagined them to be. And yet, silently, though surely, the sartorial difference offered a statement of contrariness.
My mother was looking out from the balcony, silently praying, I’m sure, for our safety. She sees us off from that balcony oftener than not. But I couldn’t help thinking that her presence this morning was uncommonly motivated. My son rushed to the front seat of the car. Usually, when our full-time driver is around, we don’t think twice about letting my son enjoy the luxury of the front seat. Today, however, there was a chorus of disapproval, prompted, I’m sure, by the presence of a stranger in the driver’s seat. Or was it just that? I joined the chorus, but in my unflaggingly wary self-consciousness (an aspect of that thought narcissism I mentioned earlier), I desisted from repeating the instruction as zealously as I normally do. I was afraid of betraying my anxieties and alienating the stranger in the process. I was in jitters for the rest of the trip and back, lest my irrepressible son should ask the driver why he wore a cap, a white outfit and a beard, so unlike Shambhu-mamu, with whom he is particularly friendly.
The other day, on our way back from somewhere in a taxi, my son had asked how Allah Rakha and Zakir Hussain, with their “Arabian”-sounding names, could live in the US. My son does not know of multicultural America and is inclined to associate the West with Caucasoids and English names. I corrected my son, saying that there were Muslims among all nations of the world, all the time hoping that the taxi-driver was not Muslim and that, in case he was, neither I nor my son had said anything objectionable.
It was after I instructed him to take us to ICCR on Hoh Chih Minh Sarani that I first heard the person’s voice. It was indeed gentle and soft, if not hushed. He suggested I take down his phone number so that I could call him after getting off. I asked for his name to save it on my phone, and he said, “My name is Laltu.” Many Muslims who serve households take Bengali Hindu names, much like expatriates from the Far East in America, the tennis player Michael Chang, for instance. The latter’s reason is partly the difficulty posed by unfamiliar Eastern names to the untrained Western tongue. I would always introduce myself as “A-naan-nya” in England. The former’s compulsions, however, have less to do with phonetics and more with the camouflage necessary for economic survival. I am yet to find out what Khokon-da, my mother-in-law’s loyal driver for the past eight years, is actually called. I remembered my mother’s saying that Muslims were admirably courteous and decorous in their personal manners. Safar Hussain, our virtuoso upholsterer from Park Circus, is the exemplar of these virtues. He never fails to greet us, nor to do a “Namoshkaar” before taking his leave. She often contradicts that statement in other contexts with the rejoinder that “they” can be hot-tempered too. Quite oblivious of making this completely untenable generalisation, my mother has since attributed the same oscillation between mildness and aggression to our full-time Bengali Hindu driver also. I could have named this essay, Of Generalisation, for all prejudice is founded on generalisation and vice versa.
As the car sped down the Lake Gardens flyover, I happened to notice a beautiful young model in mini-skirts posing on the fringes of the picturesque Lake greens. She was flanked by two men busy capturing her alluring poses on camera. I winced inwardly at the disdain our driver must have felt for the corporeal brazenness that modelling demands. The strangely detached corporeal narcissism that modelling for artists and film-makers demands from women has never ceased to intrigue me. The two photographers were probably just good pals of the pretty woman. It was all in a day’s work, posing for their cameras, like, say, going to a male hair stylist or fashion designer. But, how does one keep real, proximate, desire at bay in the process of manufacturing desire for the invisible spectator-consumer? How can that woman pout and smile for the male gaze and still just be “friends” with the two cameramen? Whatever prevented glass wall from being breached? Ah, the games we humans play. At that moment, though, I tried to look at the scene through our conservatively dressed driver’s eyes? Would his beliefs prompt him to condemn such brazenness? Would he rather be wistful for the apparent liberality achieved by a certain section of the Indian population? Had he even noticed it? I would not know. But I realised how the way he dressed had unleashed in my mind a flurry of idle speculations about his response to a different, if not, alien sartorial philosophy.
I wondered at the irony of the situation. To think that the hiring agency would send a driver in Islamic attire to take us to the ICCR which is located on the same permanently barricaded road that houses the British High Commission and the US Consulate! The driver who called himself Laltu was probably mulling over the same quirk of chance, for he soon asked me whether it was the road that’s guarded by gun-toting security personnel. I replied in the affirmative, with what might have been a touch of concern in my voice. I wondered if he was apprehensive about his reception by the armed security guards. A little later he proposed approaching ICCR from the opposite end of the road and I acquiesced, all the time thinking how I could allay his fears. On the way back, a motorbiker would pull up next to the car at the Southern Avenue traffic lights. He would turn his head to the left casually, as we all do when a vehicle stops next to us. He turned away and then looked again. This time, his glance passed from Laltu the driver to me, seated right behind. Who knows what he must have been asking himself? I was in the usual salwar kameez. Were not those words Arabic in etymology too? Had I not seen the same passing stare in a traffic policeman’s eyes on Shakespeare Sarani?
Soon I was passing through Andul Raj Road and I asked my son to look out, for it was his grandmother’s old neighbourhood. My son asked if it was Prince Anwar Shah Road and the conversation turned to Tipu Sultan and his sons. My son had recently read about Tipu Sultan in the Amar Chitra Katha series. His sceptical denial of having come across the name Anwar Shah in the comic title made me hesitant. The driver Laltu proffered “Siraj-ud-daulah” helpfully, but I corrected him. What, I wondered, was it that had drawn him into the conversation? Our enthusiastic smattering of historic Muslim names? Our interest in one of the heroes of the early Indian struggle against British domination? In my self-consciousness, I sensed that these were prejudiced speculations. I could not help feeling self-congratulatory. The fortuitousness of that unrehearsed, spontaneous conversation had, I told myself, sent the appropriate signals across about my liberal credentials. It must have removed from our escort’s mind all misgivings of misprision. Soon, we found ourselves inside the elegantly grand ICCR precincts.
The journey back seemed shorter. The awkwardness was almost gone. My son clambered over to the front seat, prompting the affectionate observation, “Front seats are so much more interesting, aren’t they?” After getting off, I found myself short of change. Normally, I would have walked upstairs and lowered the money in a bag held on a rope. Today, I waited with our driver, so that I could hand his wages over in person. I dared not leave without making a lasting impression of courtesy. I remembered Tagore’s Gora and the politics of personal gestures.
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