Nazia Erum’s hard-hitting new book Mothering a Muslim (2018) is an eye-opener about what religious polarization in national politics is doing to innocent children in schools. Here is an excerpt:
“Are we Pakistanis?” Raiqa Saulat Khan felt her eyebrows rising in confusion and anger. Had her son, Faizan, asked this in person, those arched eyebrows would have been all the answer he needed. But they were on the phone, the mother in Bhopal, her son 200 kilometres away in Daly College, Indore.
Through the haze of her emotions, Raiqa had discerned the slight tremble in the voice of her son across the school landline. She repeated each word with a weighed pause. “Are – we – Pakistanis?” Then added, “Why do you ask?”
His dorm mates at the prestigious boarding school had said that day, “Yeh toh atankwadi hain… Yeh toh Pakistani hain… ise maro. [He is a terrorist. He is a Pakistani. Hit him.]”
It had been just another argument during a basketball game. But the boys had ganged up against Faizan. He was the only Muslim boy in his dorm and he faltered when the sharp accusations came his way.
He felt insulted, embarrassed, singled out, cornered and unsure of how to respond.
This was not something he had ever been accused of before. There was no reference point to weigh this against. Why was it said? What did it mean? In his six years in one of the best schools of Bhopal, he had experienced all kinds of boyish banter and bullying. But not this. Why had the word terrorist entered this conversation? Did the boys know something he didn’t? Why did they sound so confident?
Raiqa Saulat Khan is an elegant lady in her late forties. She belongs to the extended royal family of the erstwhile state of Bhopal. She lives in a large, old, stone-walled house with high ceilings and fireplaces, located on the grounds of the Ahmedabad Palace.
Daly College, Indore, is steeped in history and family heritage. It was established with donations from ruling families for their scions to study with an entourage of caretakers. Today children of the elite from all over the country study here. Raiqa was only following family tradition when she sent her son to Daly College. Faizan was the third generation of his family to go to this school.
At ten, Faizan was under tremendous pressure to conform, make lasting friendships and be part of this legacy. Yet in a flash he had been branded, made to feel like an outcast. He could sense all eyes on him as he made his way back to his room. He felt anxious, even a little ashamed of committing some unknown crime. It was then that he called his mother. “Are we Pakistani?” he asked, in a tone laced with anguish and anger. Why had this information been denied him?
Raiqa’s outburst left him even more confused. She thundered that they had no ties with Pakistan and she had never even thought of setting foot in the country. Faizan was ready to respect her words and move on but there was a second, more troubling, question. “Am I a terrorist?”
Raiqa became even more incensed. Had he lost his mind, she bellowed into the phone.
How could they be terrorists? They came from an aristocratic family. How could anyone say this to him? The situation was both absurd and deeply painful. At a loss for words, Raiqa reassured her son that she would visit him as soon as possible and continue the conversation in person, and ended the call.
Then she broke down and cried.
Shortly thereafter, Faizan was withdrawn from the boarding school and brought back to Bhopal.
Excerpted with permission from Mothering a Muslim (Juggernaut, 2018). Published in the April 2018 issue of eShe magazine