A friend sent me this sms today.

6 am rush hour. Getting stuff ready for school. I get a call on my cell. A polite male voice wishes me ‘salaam walekum, bhai jaan hai?’ … I stammer ‘nahi, nahi’. My mind is blank, being yanked into a different world. I search earnestly, is it — salaam walekum or walekum salaam? .. What was the right thing?… Only when the voice asks for bhaijaan again that I remember to say wrong number. He says sorry .. I go back to world but thoughts creep between my stupidity of salaam or walekum and my son’s lunch boxes.  Could that be a terrorist? .. Strange how easy it is to make me suspicious,  even with all my intellectual upbringing which seems so skin deep.. How easy it is to break my faith on the other Indian who i’ve never learnt to wish ...’

It prompted me to write this.

In Agripada, where I lived until I was 12, we lived amongst Anglo-Indians, Catholics, Parsis, Hindus, Muslims, all of them having their own smaller, distinct communities. When we moved to Pune Cantonment, to the list were added Tamilians, Iranis, Sindhis, Punjabis, Kannadigas, Konkanis. It was not only that people of different religions and regions jostled with each other, but also people of different classes. Around us, there were children who were richer than us, children who were poorer than us, even the children whose mothers worked in our homes, and we played in each other’s houses, ate at each other’s houses, slept over at each other’s houses and often, studied in the same schools and colleges. It didn’t seem like a big deal, then.

When I go back to Agripada now to visit some relatives, I can see only Muslims there.

When I go back, I myself feel like an outsider. Even when I make a long dreamt of visit to Mohammed Ali Road for Ramzan Iftar, I feel like a tourist, thrilled with the crowded markets, the food stalls, the smells of the food that belonged to my childhood.

I feel the same when I speed by in the car over the JJ fly over, on my visits to South Mumbai. Seeing Saifee Lane, where my grandmother lived, Nakhuda Mohallah from where we caught the tonga from for our Sunday ride to the Gateway of India, Nagpada street which led to the theatres on Grant Road where I watched my first films, along Mohammed Ali Road, seeing the windows, the ‘chaalis’ where friends and relatives once lived – now seeing it from the top, seeing it more crowded, wondering ‘Was it always like this? Did I live amidst this?’

Once when we walk through Chor Bazar, my husband, Vivek, and I, the dirt, the trash around appalls me. But I walked here everyday, my uncle still lives here, even though I rarely visit anymore.

In Old Bhuj, the old ‘mohallahs’ nestle side by side, demarcated only by invisible community lines. After the earthquake, the people are rehabilitated community-wise. The areas don’t collide with each other. It’s 7 years since I went there last. Perhaps the people don’t look into each other’s houses anymore. And perhaps they have forgotten how to greet each other.

In Baroda, all our family and extended family lives in areas where only people like them live. Housing colonies that even overlook ‘the other people’, have lesser realty value.

In Bhopal, feeling very brave, I walk into a RSS office for an interview. My name is not immediately recognizable as a Muslim name. They mistakenly hear it as a Hindu name. I do not correct them. They rave and rant about ‘those people’. They say ‘We should go and rape their women, burn their houses.’ Yes, they say it, and I hear them. They say, ‘They never let their women marry Hindu men’. Someone mentions Nargis and Sunil Dutt. They say, ‘Oh, those film people, they do anything.’ At the end of the meeting, I say, ‘Shukriya’ instead of ‘Dhanyavaad’. A man’s ears perk up. He starts to whisper something to the person next to him. I hurry away, scared. They are 12, I am alone with 1 assistant.

I feel like the Pakistani spy (Priya Rajvansh) in Chetan Anand’s Hindustan ki Kasam who says ‘Hai Allah’ and is caught out. Or was it the other way around – an Indian spy who says ‘Hai Ram’? How does it matter really? It’s hard to say who is ‘the one’ and who is ‘the other’, whether I am ‘the one’ or ‘the other’.

Used as I am to say ‘Hi’ and ‘Hello’, I fumble too when I have to say ‘As-Salamu Alaykum’ or ‘wa`Aleykum As-Salaam’. I also fumble when I have to say ‘Namaste’. Strangely, ‘Khuda Hafiz’ comes easily to me. Strangely, because my belief in God is at its, best, shaky. Perhaps, it is in these confusions that peace lies.

Or perhaps not. As in my short story, Alias

* I have changed some spellings in my friend’s text message from SMSese, in the interest of easy comprehension.
* As-Salamu Alaykum (Arabic) – Peace be upon you
* wa `Aleykum As-Salaam (Arabic) – and upon you be peace
* Khuda Hafiz (Arabic) – May God be your Guardian
* Namaste (Sanskrit) – I bow to you