A Haunting in the Homeland

A “ghost” story sent chills down my spine every time I heard it as a child. It was vastly more paralysing than the other more well-known one which went something like this: 

Two people are sitting in a train compartment. One asks the other, “Do you believe in ghosts?” The other says “No” and disappears. Scary, but the trick ending had an element of humour.

Not so the grim ghost story from my childhood. 

A girl is walking home in the dark. She feels she is being pursued so she turns around. Her stalker has no features, only an egg like oval for a face. She runs from the horror towards a woman further down the road, breathlessly telling her about the spectre. The woman turns around to reveal the same ovoid visage. The screaming girl runs into a couple more faceless creatures and so on. The phantoms didn’t do anything, but I was so petrified that the ending remains a complete blur.

Was it a story that went beyond its obvious shock value? Who wrote or created it? How did it spread? Spread it did, another friend or two had also heard it told. Was it cautionary? 

Whatever it was, it remained buried. Until resurrected lately in India. And most recently last night by a spooky phone call here in the US. which left me with the same cold dread as I had felt as a child. 

Awareness of a bizarre turn to the Righteous Right in India dawned on me slowly but surely after some scary encounters on my winter sojourns there. The first I remember was when a friend in New Delhi organised a long overdue reunion for a handful of us old friends and colleagues. We were soon chatting nineteen to the dozen, no holds barred, all professional women, successful, strong and liberated, kind and compassionate. Prime examples of the new India.

We had so much in common.

Or so I thought. 

Somewhere between dessert and coffee someone made a comment about my beloved valley, Kashmir. Rather, about Kashmiris, more specifically, Kashmiri Muslims. 

“Kashmiri Muslims, they have had it good for so long and yet they feel no allegiance to India. You know, you can never trust them. Islam, terrorism, Muslims, same thing.”

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I almost choked on my coffee at the sudden damning accusatory blanket thrown over a swathe of humanity, my people, the ones I grew up with. Not a homogenous lot as I remember them, rather a motley crew, good and bad, kind and cruel, warm and cold. Impromptu they were all guilty as hell in a moment, judging from the silence that followed around the table. Attempts to prove otherwise or show the ignorance of generalisations was quickly brushed aside by the very person who in her halcyon college days had said she would die to protect a different point of view.  

In a feeble attempt to restore perspective, I said, “Does that justify butchering innocent Indian Muslim boys taking water buffaloes to water? Or burning alive a Christian missionary in a jeep along with his entire family?”

The only concession I got was, “Hinduism is no longer tolerant. No nice weak Hindus now, we are in your face, we are the world sixth biggest economy. The tail cannot wag the Dog.” 

Countless incidents of brutality by Hindus came to mind but this was not the venue to air them. Silent acceptance of dogma all around as if nothing had been said. Faceless faces. Where had my fellow travellers vanished?

“These people have to be brought down to size,” said the former debating champion.   

Was this new intolerance an aberration, early onset of something, a reversal brought about by a rightwing spouse? Where was that bright eyed and bushy tailed girl I knew and looked up to?   

The lunch hostess still had her socks on, but she changed the subject. Later she said, “It happens, more often than not, one gets these hate outbursts. You live in America, so you have no idea, it’s getting worse here, even among those who should know better.”

I had developed some idea. My favorite deity the Healer Hanuman had been reinvented in a disorienting ferocious Robo Killer avatar, life-giving Sanjeevani tree missing from his hand. Splashed on every scooter and taxi rear window, on city walls, he now scowled down murderously at everyone. 

No more Mr Nice Guy. 

Ominous signs popped up increasingly in unexpected places. A rambunctious woman, of latterly free and unorthodox views, the very attributes that endeared her to me came over for dinner. It was going well until she suddenly said, without a ‘by your leave’, as if the idea was self-evident, “The Muslims in India are hardly Indians, what to say of patriotic? They spread COVID-19 after a meeting at Nizamuddin. They do whatever their mullahs tell them, no loyalty to India. Wouldn’t surprise me if it was a conspiracy.” 

“Who tells you these things?” I asked incredulously to one of my most open-minded colleagues. “Do you really believe that in every heart of Indian Muslims is a traitor waiting to burst out?”

Having delivered the party line, seemingly a de riguer ritual at any gathering, she swiftly moved on to lighter things. I couldn’t see her face.

Perfectly good, sane, intelligent people involuntarily parroted fed, venomous rhetoric.  

Not only friends and colleagues, relatives – mercifully not all – were also singing from the same songbook. No succour to be found in a tribe that I proudly considered broadminded. No wonder I felt a rising sense of panic and spine-chilling helplessness. The air was rife with an unproven obsession with incipient Muslim treachery.  

Did no one realise how far to the right they had floated during the ascendancy of the Hindu Right in the secular democracy of India?   

More importantly, what were they afraid of? 

What was the solution?  

Responses were as irrational as the convulsion. 

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“They should go to Muslim countries. Maybe Pakistan or the Middle East where they will feel at home.”

“All? More than 14% of a billion and some 220 million souls?” I ventured.

Catastrophic exodus was justified according to A, a dear woman with proven brilliance.

“The problem with India started when the Muslims established the Mughal Empire here and we have suffered ever since.” 

She is a science type so I forgave her ignorance of history and suggested, “Islam came to India a few centuries earlier.” 

Made no difference. I couldn’t see a face now but there well telltale signs of Kool Aid on the smooth egg-shell face. 

Never in a million years did I expect her to speak this way, I looked at her sharply. She had no eyes, nose, ears or mouth, just a blank appearance and a disembodied voice.

About last night’s call. The most recent encounter of the ghoulish kind. 

A well-educated, well-travelled, and dare one say, modern, acquaintance was just back from India. We talked as per usual of ageing parents back home, their disposals and dispersals, our cuisine, and the world under COVID-19. Then, out of the blue, unbidden, he segued into a familiar paranoid anecdote. His rather well-known New Delhi doctor had pointed out a young woman wearing a hijab scarf in his waiting room.

“See that patient of mine? Last month she was fine, quite normal. Now she has also put this thing on her head. They don’t care how they look, they are not afraid. Everyone is going nuts.”

Shaken, I asked my friend, “What did he mean?” 

“Don’t you see? No matter what, these Muslims will always owe allegiance to Mecca. They can never be part of India.”

“What?” said I, the daughter of a 98% Muslim Valley and used to such sartorial observances. “So what if their religious center is in Mecca? Patriotic Catholics feel extra territorial religious loyalty to the Vatican.”

My objection was so quickly countered, obviously it had been fielded many times.

“Ah, but that is different. Jesus said, Render unto Caesar etc.”

I said, “That did not prevent preteen crusaders from pillaging a swathe through Europe while handily setting live Jews on fire, did it? Or the persecution of Pagans by Constantine after his conversion to Christianity, or the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, did it?”

Deaf to my words he went on, “The Romans had the right idea. Make your sacrifices to our gods, they said, then go home and practice what you want. In the public domain there must be uniformity. Wearing a hijab is a provocation.”

“In that case the Sikhs must lose their turbans, the Hindus their bindis etc.” said I. 

Try as hard as I might now I could not see my caller. He had faded, no eyes, lips, nose or ears now, just an automaton voice. Sickened by the Fascist twist in the conversation, I begged off.

 I said, “Sorry I have to go. Call of nature.”

Now Gandhi’s iconic monkeys have been dismantled from their obligatory mantelpiece perch in the Land of See no Good, Hear no Good and Speak no Good.  

The author is the first woman IAS officer from Kashmir. 

Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty

This article was first published on The Wire.