“We are always on the back foot, trying not to make mistakes. There is always this apprehension inside of us. We don’t know how people around us will perceive us or what they might do about it...”
This account, by Farah Jamee, of being worried about her four-year-old child uttering something positive about Pakistan, is one of the most disturbing things in Mothering A Muslim — The Dark Secret In Our Schools and Playgrounds.
It paints a dreary, scary picture of the strange standards and loyalty tests Muslims in India are put to, especially, as the book notes, with an unprecedented intensity and regularity in the months leading up to the 2014 elections, and thereafter.
To watch your every step, every day, in your own country; to have to prove that you love your country, that you will not set off a bomb under your neighbour’s chair one day should not be any citizen’s burden. Farah, who found a house on rent in Gurugram after much struggle, worries that she and her child might face social ostracisation.
A hundred pages are not enough to do justice to this topic and so, at the very outset, I will say that Mothering A Muslim, though lacking in some respects, carries an important and urgent message, and no flaw can take away from that.
Over the last decade, increasingly, the author heard stories of religious bullying of Muslim children from her friends and extended circle, and was surprised to note that no one was willing to acknowledge it as a well-defined pattern.
As a new mother, she began wondering about her daughter’s future as she grows up in India, and eventually gave her a not-so-Muslim name out of fear of what her daughter might face in school.
The same fear also spurred her to do something more concrete about this hidden abuse in the everyday life of innocent children. She decided to chronicle the abuse.
Nazia Erum’s book is an appeal to all mothers, from all religions, to do something about this disturbing phenomenon before it is too late. It is the twin exploration of bullying in schools and playgrounds — where facing affronts like “You Paki!” are only too common for Muslim children — and the increasingly hardening religious policing within the Muslim community itself.
In equal parts, the book deals with the problem of religious alienation Muslim children face from non-Muslims and the constant scrutiny they face from what the author calls the “haraam police”, unreasonable voices within the Muslim community quick to label some Muslims “not Muslim enough” if they don’t pray five times a day or don’t cover their heads or even, for instance, celebrate birthdays. The author wonders where the dual effect of this aggression and regression will lead the Muslim child.
Perhaps the most disturbing portion of this book is one that talks about the division of classes according to language options (Urdu or Sanskrit) in schools in Bhopal, leading to automatic segregation of Muslim and Hindu children. It shows how several little everyday factors, which would have been ordinary in ordinary circumstances, can lead to dire results in today’s India. While classes the world over are routinely divided according to language choices, in the current “Us vs Them” atmosphere in the country, this separation of Muslim and Hindu children leads to a kind of ghettoisation within the school.
The future is dark, the present is dangerous, and there is an urgent need to do something in the now. This makes Mothering A Muslim a very important book. But does it make it a good book?
Casual sentences like “Wondering why? Read on” in the middle of the book makes the narrative jerky, as we jump from person to person, story to story without any lead up or immediate follow up.
The most devastating flaw, however, is that there are no stats or figures, no deep dives and no supporting or validating evidence, except for stray quotations from opinion pieces.
There is a list of 25 schools appended to the book — schools like Delhi Public School, Modern and Vasant Valley in Delhi — where the author has come across instances of discrimination. In this list, 22 schools are from Delhi NCR, with three schools from other parts of the country. The effort, evidently, is to showcase that this is not just a Delhi-only phenomenon but the list ends up looking skewed with not enough representation from across India.
Sweeping claims, at times, are not backed by research or facts. Midway through the book, sandwiched between paragraphs, suddenly the author says: “Across India, especially in the north, any CBSE school that has 30 or more Muslim students in a class clumps them together to form a new section…” No evidence follows this sentence. No CBSE person is interviewed or asked to comment on this shocking claim and it is never brought up again.
Another factor that does a disservice to the cause is the in-your-face privilege rampant in the stories. In describing the problems faced by Raiqa Saulat Khan, whose son Faizan called her up from Daly College, Indore, and asked if they were Pakistanis because everyone keeps saying so, Erum tells us that Raiqa “…belongs to the extended royal family of Bhopal” and “lives in a large, old, stone-walled house with high ceilings and fireplaces”. She also says that Daly College is where “the children of the elite from all over the country study”.
Bullying is not equally bad for the mental health of rich and poor children. Rich children will have more support, and means, to cope. The fact that Nazia Erum decides to talk to mostly upper middle class mothers seriously damages the narrative and one has to struggle to muster empathy at some of these stories.
This lack in writing and research leaves one dissatisfied with a book that should otherwise serve as a wake-up call for schools and parents across India.
Kalyani Prasher is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She writes on literature, culture, travel, food and life.