Summer journeys: In the fourth of a special travel writing series, Anjum Rahman recounts a return to her place of birth at the age of 12, and reflects on how the history of Muslims in India is being rewritten.
Generally I don’t do a pepeha to introduce myself. Partly it seems disrespectful in a colonised land to claim belonging to places and landmarks that were taken without consent. But more than that, it’s a struggle with a sense of my own heritage and connection to my ancestors who lived so far from my home.
If I did a pepeha, it could look something like this:
Ko Himalayas te maunga
Ko Ganga te awa
Nō Nonari ahau
Ko Anjum Rahman tōku ingoa
I was born in a village in northern India, in what was known as the Ganges Plain, in the shade of the Himalayas. But I left that place at less than two years old, migrating with my mother to join my father in Canada. A traveller from a young age. Then at five, we all boarded a plane again to arrive in Hamilton, New Zealand, the first Muslim family to settle here.
That pepeha has never resonated with me, either. It claims belonging to a land that has never felt like home, that has felt alien in so many ways. New Zealand is where I’ve grown up, where I’ve been educated, where I formed my thoughts and character. I’m a Kiwi at heart: the waters of the Waikato run in my veins, its soil is part of my flesh.
To say that I was an oddity in 1970s Hamilton is an understatement. I wrote about my early childhood some years ago. Needless to say, it was a difficult time for me.
I travelled back to India at the age of 12. I had no memories of the country I left 10 years earlier. All I had were descriptions from my parents and other Indian families, and the Bollywood movies played in hired-out theatres across small towns in the Waikato. Watching Hema Malini and Rajesh Khanna prance around the Brindavan Gardens and various mansions were hardly a full and authentic vision of the land of my birth.
My other connection to India in that decade were the regular letters I struggled to write to relatives I’d never seen – to my maternal grandfather in English and my paternal grandfather in Urdu. It was a feature of migrant life in the 1970s, this lack of family connection.
So there I was, just before my 12th birthday, landing in Singapore with my mother and little brother. As I got out of the plane on a July evening in 1978, I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe in the humid air. Singapore as a gateway into Asia was a bustling place full of Indians. Who can forget Mustafa Shamsuddin, in amongst all the other Indian shops on Serangoon Road. Eating Madrassi food on banana leaves at the local restaurants. Experiences to be repeated over many trips back.
Then we arrived at Delhi airport. My first thought as I sat on a suitcase waiting for my mother to finish the formalities at customs was: I want to go back home. Now. That didn’t change much as I stepped out of the airport into the heat and dust that was India. I remember being welcomed by relatives who were virtual strangers to me.
We went to the flat of my father’s friend from university days, what then felt like a cramped apartment in a Delhi suburb. Coming from the lush green quarter-acre suburbs of Hamilton, I can’t even begin to explain how hostile this country seemed to me. The flies blanketing food on street stalls, the smells from open sewers.
From there we travelled to Aligarh. Everything was judged by my western eyes. The squatty toilets that didn’t flush really did my head and my knees in. The packed streets were shared by cows, dogs, wild pigs and people. I was introduced to cycle rickshaws which seemed like such a difficult way to earn a living in the hot sun.
After a few days, we travelled by train back to my mother’s village, the place I was born. We arrived at the homestead in a standard yellow and black Ambassador taxi from Shahganj station.
Indian trains are an experience in themselves. The hawkers calling on the platforms “chai, garam chai”, sold boiling hot in clay cups. The peanut-sellers giving out roasted, unshelled peanuts in newspaper spirals. Coolies in their red shirts, being called to carry heavy trunks and bags on their shoulders. Such a cacophony of noise and colour, there is nothing like it.
The trains run on a wide gauge, swaying from side to side with a drumming pattern as they rush across the rails. The countryside rolled past, fields of sugarcane and villages. Uttar Pradesh is one of the most densely populated states in India. If it were a country, it would be the seventh most populated in the world.
My mother’s family home stands a little apart, on a rise, in front of a pond, with the village school behind it. It was a two-storey house made of mud, with a thatched roof in those days. There was no electricity, no running water, no telephone connection. The water came from a hand pump in the courtyard, which meant bathing with a metal cup and bucket. We slept on charpais in open verandahs, cooked on fires lit in clay ovens on the floor.
The squatting skills of Indian villagers are beyond compare; they cook a whole meal sitting on nothing but their haunches. This was one of the many skills I picked up in two months of village life, along with learning to make chapatis, grind spices with a sil-batta, sift rice in a winnowing basket, clean and light kerosene lamps, write on clay-washed wooden tablets with bamboo pens dipped in black ink.
More than this, I learned about being part of family. Of uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents. Even though I was still a bit of an outsider with my western ways, I finally felt a sense of belonging. I was with people who genuinely cared about me, who didn’t reject me or maliciously laugh, tease and bully. Finally, I didn’t feel ugly. Finally, my name was pronounced correctly.
Even so, in my heart, I missed New Zealand. My father finally arrived and I promptly burst into tears, for reasons I couldn’t even explain to myself. With him came the monsoon rains, the sky spewing water day after day. With water comes disease and mud. Travelling becomes more difficult.
Eventually we headed back from the villages, stopping in Lucknow for a few days. This is the capital of the state, a city steeped in the Muslim history of India, as well as being a strategic part of the independence struggle. So much language and culture developed here. We visited the Imambaras and the markets, then headed back to Aligarh.
I stayed a while in Aligarh. For much of that time, the city was under curfew due to sectarian violence. This was a time when I experienced that darker side of India, and it became much more apparent how dangerous it can be for a minority. Being from a minority community in New Zealand had been incredibly challenging and damaging, but I had never feared for my life. I still remember my cousins and I locking ourselves in a room in fear, as we heard the sounds of gunshots and rioting on the streets outside.
Being stuck in a house, not able to go to school or markets, not even able to play out on the street, was a stifling experience to a child who had grown up in New Zealand. I had taken freedom for granted, but never again.
I had reason to recall this experience many years later, when on 6 December 1992 the Babri masjid was illegaly torn down by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, sparking riots across the country. Forget about curfew, the city of Aligarh was now under Martial Law. Stepping outside the door meant being shot on sight by police, no questions asked. We sat watching on television news the massacre of mostly Muslims and destruction of their homes and businesses across the country.
During this time, our little family had to travel by train from Aligarh to Delhi. First, a police escort to the train station was organised. The morning we left, my mother-in-law handed me a saffron sari which she kept for occasions when she had had to travel in extreme danger. She insisted I wear it as protection from violence. So we went in a police jeep to the Aligarh train station, through empty streets.
That same train station which had been a cacophony of sound and colour was now empty, eerily ghost-like. I had been warned to be silent, to not enter into any conversation with strangers. In any case, there wasn’t much opportunity: we had the compartment to ourselves. Whether or not the saffron sari helped, I’ll never know.
Recently, the Supreme Court in India has ruled that a Hindu temple can now be built on the site of the toppled masjid, after decades of legal disputes. This comes on the back of the revocation of article 370, which stripped away the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, removing autonomy and opening up access to land and resources in those states. It comes on the back of a media and internet blackout, while local politicians were detained. It comes on the back of a rising tide of anti-Muslim violence.
Over the years, the history of Muslims in India is being rewritten, place names changed. The demonisation of all things Muslims has been a consistent political strategy used by the ruling Bharitya Janta Party. India now has a prime minister who was once banned from entering the United States and the United Kingdom for the horrendous killing and violence under his rule as the chief minister of Gujrat.
As I have watched the increasing polarisation in India over the years and the rise in marginalisation of minority communities, I have felt unwelcome in the land of my birth. There was no recognition of my belonging to that place, and so I lost all connection to it. I haven’t been back there since 2003, partly for personal reasons, but also because it felt so hostile. From the rise of the Shiv Sena to the re-election of the BJP government in 2019, India seemed lost to me.
Hope has finally been revived in the ongoing protests across the country that we have seen in recent weeks. The Citizens Amendment Act, in combination withe implementation of the National Citizenship Register, puts Muslim communities in a precarious position. Those Muslims unable to provide citizenship papers, which many impoverished people cannot do, will be classified as illegal foreigners and put in detention camps.
Finally, Indians have been galvanised to protest against a populist, discriminatory agenda and laws to implement them. This has given me a glimmer of hope.
In that first trip back in 1978, I remember standing in a crowded part of Delhi. For the first time in my life, I was in a crowd of brown people, not standing out, not looking different. It felt good and odd at the same time, an unusual experience for 12-year-old me. A feeling of belonging. It looks like India is regaining its soul, despite the police violence, Internet shutdowns, killing of journalists, tear gas. People, particularly the young, are showing a bravery and courage their forebears would be proud of.
Finally, that pepeha is starting to resonate, is beginning to feel like it’s really mine.