Small Town Girls, an Intimate Portrait: ‘A More Sophisticated Language of Stereotyping’

This is the third article of a five-part series. Read the first here, and the second here.

I only remember Hiba through memory – her tall, slender, smiling self, confidently walking around college. In all my memories of her in public spaces, she was always at the centre of attention. Her warmth and her chitter-chatter meant that people were always flocking around her.

In our more private memories, where Hiba and I spent time walking or eating together, I remember her stories were more like the wind, blowing in all directions, and Hiba sometimes soaring with them and sometimes struggling to stay put. There were parts of herself she carried with a weight not many understood. Ever since I had known her at Hansraj College, I remember her grappling with the question of where she wanted her life to go. A lot of it was ambition, but a lot of it was also disorientation. In some way or the other, she was always asking, “Where is this going? What am I doing?”

From Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, Hiba always found Delhi accessible. It was just two hours away, and she would visit regularly. Hiba wanted to study literature and always assumed that Delhi University was an obvious choice. Now, when she looks back to it, she says, “I never realised I came from a small town until I moved to Delhi. There was judgement around being from Uttar Pradesh, and it made me realise, ‘Oh, I am in fact from UP’.”

The most common statement Hiba encountered was, “You don’t look like you’re a Muslim girl from a small town. You look like a Hindu Punjabi girl from Greater Kailash.”

The conglomeration of these questions and statements implies that Hiba looked different from other small-town girls. Or more importantly, she did not look like what she was supposed to look like. Hiba says when she moved to Delhi, she became aware of something she did not know existed in her. She is referring to an awareness of feeling separated.

I’ve always known Hiba as confident, as the girl who puts herself out there, and she knows what she wants. As someone who blended in easily with Delhi, who was always friends with its people and part of their inner circles, it comes off as surprising that she felt distant. However, her camaraderie, a lot of it, she realises was only possible because of elimination. She says, “It is 100% true that even though I felt strongly about religion, I did not want to look like a Muslim. My Muslim identity is definitely mellowed down.” While this may have been a dilemma for Muslims who are not even from small towns, Hiba’s identity is slightly more muddled.

In moving from Meerut to Delhi, she looked at Delhi as a place where people did not care where you came from. Small towns, with their narrow networks, are almost always places where everyone is entangled with everyone. The familiarity people exercise with each other is to a degree incestuous. A person can always be placed like a quiz: ‘Oh you’re Ms. XYZ’s daughter’s neighbour’s uncle’s sister’s daughter’.

As places, they lack a fundamental aspect of freedom: anonymity.

Also read: Small Town Girls, an Intimate Portrait: ‘Dreading Where You Come From’

In relation to small towns, cities like Delhi offer an escape from the congestion and strangulation of familiarity. When Hiba chose to come to Delhi, she did not expect the confinement of Meerut to follow her. In Meerut, she tells me there were always jokes, sometimes crass, about her being Muslim. She hoped that Delhi would be different. She did not know how to respond to the Islamophobia back then. In Delhi, she always thought that she could always pick better – “I could choose the people I wanted to be friends with,” she says.

Delhi, however, had different plans.

In her conversations with her closest friends, she recalls how friends would often ask her a lot of questions about Islam. They would turn to her with stereotypes, and when she would try to answer or counter their language, they would often push her to agree to the stereotypes. “It made the conversations very taxing. It just became so much easier to say – I am not a practicing Muslim, so sorry, I don’t really know that much about the history of my religion. Here, the language of stereotyping was just more sophisticated compared to Meerut.”

Meerut, like many other cities in India, is a function of ghettoisation. Localities are marked out prominently for Hindus and Muslims. It is located at the fringes of Uttar Pradesh, a state that has acquired a reputation for being hostile towards religious minorities. Delhi, though it pretends to be progressive, is largely an echo of similar boundaries. In fact, when Hiba first moved to New Delhi and found herself a PG, her landlady called her and informed her how her roommates’ parents were not comfortable with her living with a Muslim. Hiba then had to look for a new place to stay. She feared her religion would be a problem again, and found herself grateful and ecstatic when she found a landlady who wasn’t bothered with religion. “In retrospect, I think I shouldn’t have been so excited. Shouldn’t it be normal for people to offer a home to Muslims?”

Year after year, Delhi sees an influx of numerous Muslim students. And year after year, they struggle to find homes where they feel safe. Often, they choose to settle in areas where they feel they will be surrounded by people from their own community. Localities such as Jamia Nagar and Shaheen Bagh become preferred choices. Experts have written about how it is this ghettoisation that was strategically put to use during the Delhi riots in 2020. And even though Delhi is not ruled by the BJP, the Aam Aadmi Party has also come under scrutiny for its ‘soft bigotry’. In their public posturing with Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal reciting the hanuman chalisa, and meeting Home Minister Amit Shah during the Delhi riots, the party has not given any much confidence to Indian Muslims.

Also read: As a Muslim Woman, My Achievements Are Recognised But Never Respected

In moving from one place to another, the feeling of home for Hiba is always in transit. She says she comes of age every time she changes cities. Currently living in Berlin, Hiba admits that her religious identity has always walked like a shadow because she has never really been a very religious person. The friends she has made have also always been distant from religion. But she accepts the question is always lingering somewhere. She says her closest friends are friends she made in her PG. “They understood a certain context no one else did.”

They knew what it felt like to be othered, to not belong.

The capital of the country, Delhi is considered the heart of multiculturalism. Over the years, with the city establishing large corporate centres through a fluctuating economy, it has been home to many small towners. Where they moved in search of better working opportunities, and a better life, Hiba’s generation was also hoping that Delhi would be a place where she would be able to articulate herself better. And where she hoped that Delhi would help her feel less alienated, it only made her more aware of her fragmentary self. Slowly and gradually, Delhi’s syncretism has eroded. It estranged Hiba in the same way that Meerut did. “People in Delhi just know how to speak better English,” Hiba concludes.

When she thinks of home, and of her parents in Meerut, she tells me they are both very successful. It worries her. “In everyday conversation, the problem is when Muslims are in positions of power. If you see a Muslim rickshawallah, it’s completely fine. But educated Muslims doing well in mainstream careers is seen as threatening,” Hiba says.

The last six years have not been easy. She says the decisions she makes in her life are no longer determined by what she wants. She is always thinking about where her parents should be too. Her leaving Meerut, leaving Delhi, and moving to Berlin are consequences of those decisions. The future of her migration and her belonging is entwined with the question of where India sees itself going as a democracy. When I ask her what it would mean for her to truly belong somewhere, she simply says, “I want to have people to love, and have them love me without any judgements. I want to be around people who make me feel safe and protected.”

Muskan Nagpal is an English Literature graduate and a Young India Fellow.

Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty