“What’s you name”, asks a fifty-sixty-something aunty living in my building to my kid as we get into the elevator. Never known to talk to strangers, he lets us do the talking.
“Rehaan”, says my wife.
Fifty-sixty-something aunty has an animated expression on her face — wonder concealing surprise, and the effort needed for that is not concealed — probably because no effort is made to conceal the effort.
“Isn’t that a muslim name?”, she asks, quite sure that we don’t look muslim.
“Yes. He’s Rehaan Phansalkar”, my wife adds.
I look away, trying to keep disgust about the line of inquiry off my face.
“It’s a persian name”, quips my wife.
Fifty-sixty-something aunty manufactures a smile at that escape route, as we get out at our floor.
The next day, she is back at it, “Rehaan Khan”, she chides him/me/both. Or perhaps no one really, Just jesting. Showcasing her sense-of-humor. However sick. And I keep looking away to hide the disgust.
But then I start thinking. Why am I offended? When we picked up that name, we knew someone like that was going to say/do something like that. It’s the most benign form of bigotry even. And being offended about such a line of inquiry is actually giving it a validity it does not deserve. So next time I see her, I manufacture a smile.
Same place, different time, different individual. Actually, we don’t really call the watchmen and the other helpers in the society — like that person who picks up the trash in the morning — individuals. They’re just people. They’re just the jobs, even. Watchman. Cleaner. Maid. Driver.
But anyways, this elderly guy who collects trash in the morning, and dumps it into the compost pits, and collects the compost at times, is an individual. I’ve seen him trying to clear up a road space for vehicles in Ganpati celebrations time, near where he lives — a basti through which a road that I have to take to visit my parent passes — trying to control rowdy/boisterous members from his basti, already high, I believe, on spirits other than the religious passions sparked by Ganapati visarjan occasion. When the road is partially cleared up, I pass him, thanking him silently for helping out, and saving probably half an hour of noisy celebration and traffic jam on a narrow road. I applaud him later in person, the day after for helping out so many people. Probably because of that interaction, for me, he is an individual. Not just a job.
But again, I digress. I asked him about the compost that’s generated from the pits and whether I can get some, and he brings me a polythene bag filled with compost a couple of days later.
“Just don’t use it in the Tulsi pot”, he requests.
“Why, does it harm the Tulsi plant in some way”, I ask instinctively, as that’s the only thing that I can think of.
“No. This compost is made from all sort of unclean things, no. Meat pieces and what not”, he says.
I smile. Not a condescending, I know better than that smile, but rather a “I know what you mean” smile. And I know, even the radical atheist (to borrow a category created by the great late Douglas Adams) like me, will think for a second, before adding that compost to a Tulsi pot — even if it’s only to remember the innocent faith that made the elderly individual to tell me, an almost total stranger, something like that.
Same place, or thereabout, different people.
We’re walking around the complex, taking my kid to the Ganapati temple in the complex, when another couple turns up with a boy, almost same age as my kid. We smile at them. The boy, in just the half minute or so he had to notice, notices that my kid was wearing a dark pink T-shirt.
“He’s wearing pink”, he says animatedly to his parents.
Me and my wife laugh.
His mother scolds him, “They heard you”, as they drive away on their scooter.
Yes. The only thing (probably) that they found objectionable in the sentiment (what else do you call it? reflex?) was that it was uttered loud enough for us to hear.
Pink is for girls.
And then, different place — or same actually, depending on how broadly you define ‘place’.
I switch on the TV and I find the great Farhan Akhtar sporing a thick mustache, later also adorned by the lovely (well, I’m not just cynical, you know) Preity Zinta. The MARD pledge. Is the irony of girls sporting a mustache, as a symbol for real maleness, the one that’s supposed to save girls from being molested/raped/groped, is it intentional? Wouldn’t it be better for men to sport bangles, say, claiming solidarity with the victims of a typical male thing. Wouldn’t it be better to challenge the whole stereotypes of bangles as sign of weakness, mustaches a sign of strength (mooch katwana and all that melodrama), or machismo (whatever the f it is). To reinforce, even if unintentionally, a much problematic stereotype, could very well be counterproductive. But then are celebrity social drives ever really supposed to be productive? Beyond counting eyeballs, that is.
Bangles are for sissies.
Mustaches are for the real men.
Men don’t cry.
Good girls don’t wear skimpy clothes and its corollary.
Men love sports and cars.
New religions are formed each day.
Sometimes they’re imported from more prosperous lands — like the great USA in the boys Vs. pink case — and hence come pre-approved. They get to bypass the usual slow organic decay that is necessary for other ones, produced locally, need to take root (which incidentally has just one o more than rot).
But organic, or GM, or hybrid, or whatever, they all seem to thrive in this land called India which is a fertile land for bigotry. Mohammedans are this, parsis are that, south-indians are what not, xyz is abc. Pink is sissy. Make him wear bangles. Blacken his face to shame him.
In all these fifty thousand shades of bigotry and stereotypes, there are a few innocent ones, like in the case of the elderly individual. But when one looks at the spectrum, how does one feel hope that the picture will be painted in better shades anytime soon?
For the picture looks pretty grim with all the shades of religions — godly or not, major or minor, deep or trivial.