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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 34, Dated 25 Aug 2012
    Kavitha Buggana

    A series on true experiences


    ‘I wondered why the presence of a Muslim man made me uneasy ’

    By Kavitha Buggana

    Illustrations: Samia Singh

    I LOVE my aunt’s rambling, charming house. A hundred years old, with vast verandahs, hidden rooms, and dramatically large, whitewashed walls, it is perched at the end of a winding lane in a hilly part of Hyderabad city.

    I was my aunt’s only guest for lunch that day. Even in her 70s, she wore her straight white hair stylishly shoulder length. Her quick smile dazzled. My aunt is Muslim, and her marriage to my Hindu uncle created quite a storm. But, to me, she is fascinating. She wears subdued cotton saris with sleeveless blouses and hosts evenings of Urdu songs and poetry beneath starry skies.

    As we sat sipping our nimboo-paani spiced with cumin and salt, I heard a sound in the adjoining room. A man walked by and passed through an open door. I saw a flash of flowing white kameez; a long, loose white salwar top; a crocheted cap and a long beard.

    “Finish your drink, I’ll be back in five minutes.” My aunt, usually unflappable, seemed disconcerted.

    They spoke softly in Urdu. Something smelled delicious. On the table, chicken flavored with saffron and cashews, a minced lamb kebab stuffed with yogurt chutney, and firni, an almond rice pudding — local Muslim delicacies.

    “Sorry, sorry!” My aunt said, “That was my cousin from Pakistan.” As we sat down to eat, the man had already left.

    “You should have seen his father. He was so different; a scientist, an artist, well-travelled and well-read. My cousin was like that, too. Suddenly, 10-15 years ago,” she swept the air with her wrist, “poof — he got the beard, the cap.”

    His overt declaration of religious identity was a jarring rebuttal of a treasured family culture, discordant in this house where Islam meant an ancient culture of poetry, fine art and subtly-flavored cuisine — a blend of the Hindu, European and Persian ethos. It disrupted a careful balance between differing ideas of modernity and history. But he had made me uncomfortable too; and I wondered why.

    A few years ago, just after the 9/11 attacks, my flight to Chicago was stopped on the runway in London. People were in a state of shock. I remember crying and saying over and over, “I can’t believe it,” as the attacks were replayed endlessly on TV screens near the luggage belt.

    As I bent to pick up my suitcase, a fellow traveller said, “Why do we even let the bastards into our country?”

    Yes, why did we let them in? I wondered. When I looked up, I realised he was referring to me. I am not Muslim, but I did not tell him that. I looked at him unwaveringly, till he looked away.

    Then, a week after the attacks, as I took my seat on the flight to Chicago, a flight attendant walked up to me. Everyone was jittery, and she looked terrified.

    “Are you Muslim?” She asked.

    So what if I am, I wanted to say, but didn’t. “No! No, I am not.”

    “Are you sure?”


    “Someone ordered a Muslim meal.”

    “It was not me.” A narrow, rigid identity, without nuance or an understanding of history, had been thrust upon me and I felt angry, fearful. Yet, oddly enough, I too shared with the flight attendant, a small fear of the lone Muslim on the plane.

    Chewing my meal, I wondered about my aunt’s cousin.

    “Some more chicken?” My aunt asked, interrupting my thoughts. I nodded and we chatted about a recent play, a book release, a dinner party as I scooped fragrant chicken gravy with soft sheermal bread. Identity, fear and all the things that seemed so heavy dissolved, in perhaps the only way they can ever really dissolve — in the rich textures of a meal cooked with care.

    Kavitha Buggana is 42. She is an aspiring writer and lives in Hyderabad

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 34, Dated 25 Aug 2012



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