I arrived in Cologne (or Köln, as it’s called in German) after sunset and so, in many ways, my first steps on German soil were cloaked in darkness. It seems almost fitting then that the first words I heard outside the comforting blank walls of the airport were racial slurs telling me to go back. There was a clenching of the fists, a gritting of the teeth, a subtle reaching into the pockets, searching for potential weapons. There was a look exchanged between my father and me and a soft, but stern, ‘pay them no mind’. There was a breath caught in the throat and a rage demanding a loud, ravaging outlet. But first, more importantly, there was the darkness and the sound of running footsteps –our harassers were not bold enough to take a stand — and my father’s reassuring presence and the open door of the car ready to take us away.
I expected the harassment. It is a strange feeling: to expect a different, harsher treatment from complete strangers. But it’s also an expectation I share with more than fifty percent of the world’s population. Women, minorities, migrants. And it’s an expectation I developed long before I was consciously aware of these boxes we create to put ourselves and other people in. I’ve since been harassed on the street a meager three times and I count myself amongst the lucky. Twice it was because of my gender. Once it was because of my brownness, or more accurately, the scarf on my head. They weren’t major incidences. But they made my blood boil and seethe all the same. It was not the fact that this stuff happened which angered me. It was the fact that I expected it. That I was expected to let it slide, because words can’t hurt you but humiliated, angry men can. There are different kinds of harassments and it is a weird feeling to be able to experience more than one of them simultaneously.
In second grade, a teacher called my home to tell my mother that she was raising a bigot. That while we (Muslims) cry about being discriminated against, it is we ourselves who reinforce our otherness. What provoked her angry tirade was my denial of the Prasaad she had brought for the entire class. I was seven. Far too young to grasp the dynamics of navigating a world drowning in colorful, confusing ideologies. Far too young to know that some things were more than the sum of their parts. That the Prasaad my teacher offered me was not just a thing which I disliked eating, but a vessel for kinship and ironically, in this instance, a seed for hatred. The matter was resolved. Lessons were learned about consideration and kindness and humility. And for a seven-year-old, lessons were learned about differences and overcoming them. I didn’t actively think about what being Muslim meant for years afterward until an offhand conversation with some girls a few years younger than me ended with them mentioning how they would never have guessed that I was Muslim because I didn’t ‘look the type’.
My neighbors here in Germany are kind. They tolerate my broken attempts at conversing in German with patience and a smile. They hold doors open for me and say Guten Tag whenever we cross each other in the stairwell. They ask me how I’m doing and make small talk about the weather. We nod if we spot each other in supermarkets or on the street. They have a quiet life. And I have slipped into the quietness too. It is safe, I tell people back home. I can walk to the ice-cream store after sunset and be only slightly nervous. I can take Taxis after midnight and be nearly certain of getting off at the other end whole. I can board an empty bus from a deserted bus stop in the darkest of nights and breathe without panicking. It is safe, I tell people back home. Like you wouldn’t believe.
My cousin was kicked out of her paying-guest accommodation. Her hijabs were too bright to be ignored. Too visible. Too provoking. She didn’t find out the reason for the termination of her contract until her roommates told her. They were offered to keep their places. It was only the other girl the landlord had a problem with. They all left. A big apartment can feel small with fewer people. Some ideas and ideals suffocate.
My hostel in Delhi had different problems. The coolers malfunctioned. The dal had too much water. Cockroaches roamed disturbingly close to the rice containers. We complained and whined about it, secretly reveling in our privilege. At least there was no othering. We walked the streets (always during the day) and we ducked into eateries and restaurants (in groups) and we took metros (ladies coach, rush-hour) with cautious abandon. We were armed with pepper sprays and the wisdom which is whispered from one generation of women to the next. At least there was no (ostensible) othering.
For three years I lived in Delhi, taking care to avoid certain people and certain places because I expected harm. Despite that, it became a sort-of home, an almost-sanctuary, a nearly-myplace. I was getting comfortable in its harsh edges and reformable squalor when the first major rightwing wave hit, disrupting the organizable chaos of Delhi, transforming it into a much more dangerous, revolting one. When it did, there was a tensing of muscles. A repetitive looking over the shoulder. A stiffening of resolve. An ending of college.
I was done with my undergraduate degree. And just like they wanted, I left. Not for Pakistan but for Germany. The bitter taste of discord in my mouth and a seed of anger buried in the pit of my stomach.
Every year on the fifteenth of August for many, many years, we hoisted the tricolor in our yard and sang the national anthem. No one forced us to do so. There wasn’t a state mandate requiring Indian citizens to pledge allegiance to the flag. We were Indian. It was as simple as that. And this was home. It amuses me to think of that now. How we clung so ferociously to the idea of My Country and My Home and My Duty. How I still cling to the idea of going home because Home –however battered, broken, bigoted it is — is mine.
It is easy for me to say all these things. From my perch atop this privileged hill, I can make statements and cast judgment with little consequence. It is true that I have lived a sheltered life. I am fortunate. But the shadow of this growing divisiveness hangs over us all. The larger divisiveness of the world and the smaller, knottier one within us. When I started writing this piece, I wanted to write about Roorkee and Aachen, my old home and my present base, about the sky which covers both, about the scent of mangos which I miss and the cobbled streets which I’ve come to adore. I realized I couldn’t write about home without writing about Home and all its shortcomings and abrasions. I couldn’t paint the pretty picture I wanted to, without acknowledging the filth. I am careful with what I say about Home because of my privilege and because of the disheartening fact that there is little in what I can do to affect change. Afterall, these are just words. And sometimes it feels like words are all I have.
I feel like I have meandered a lot. Happens sometimes. Anyway, The Bradbury Project is still going on, in case you were wondering. I’ve been reading a lot of essays lately (addicted to this particular website) and it was only a matter of time before all of that sadness and joy and hope and fullness compelled me to write something of my own. Hopefully, this isn’t as all-over-the-place as it seems.