I emerged into the locker area from a revitalising shower after a marvellous chest and triceps workout. A middle-aged man whom I had seen often at the gym was on his mobile chatting with someone about how easy the present generation takes life and how they don’t value money because they haven’t seen their elders struggle to give them the life of luxury they seem so rightfully entitled to. While I was wiping my hair with the bath towel, I observed from a side-glance that he was assessing my shoes and clothes, and his lips broke into a half-embarrassed smile, like a thief who has been caught, when our eyes met briefly. Moments later I noticed that he was done with his conversation and his hand was extended in my direction, “I’ve seen you for sometime now and I haven’t got your name,” he said in a gruff, cold voice, devoid of even the minutest kindness.
“Fardeen,” I disclosed putting away the towel on the wooden bench nearby and shaking hands, “pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.”
“You are a Muslim!” he exclaimed at once, taking a step back as if he had made the gravest error. I nodded ever so slightly, angered at the uncouthness of his reaction and yet maintaining my composure.
“You must have seen the hate speech by that MLA bastard from Hyderabad then?”
“I am afraid not, although I am aware of the disturbance it has caused,” I mumbled softly.
“You are scared of watching it I see,” he said in a manner filled with belligerence, “or do you agree that if the police were taken away for fifteen minutes like he claims, you Muslims would butcher us Hindus?”
“I harbour no hate for anyone, and neither am I frightened of anything, sir,” I spoke as clearly as I could, “and as far as viewing the video is concerned, I suppose I am inclined quite by disposition to watch that which is uplifting,” I concluded crisply.
“I don’t know you, but from what I gather you seem to be an escapist,” he announced roaring with a provocative laughter. I inhaled deeply and felt trapped between feeling a certain sense of pity for the man, and sorry for myself, sorry mainly that I had to be subjected to this uncalled for interrogation of sorts for no apparent fault of mine. Further aware that it would pose a challenge for me to make the chap understand that love was my religion, and as Rumi had said, the heart of every person my temple, I let his insinuations pass.
“Well, I watched it and what a sly bugger he is,” snarled my acquaintance sternly, his nostrils now inflated, “he had a point about the Babri Masjid issue, but the rest wasn’t right.”
“I am sorry I haven’t seen anything and therefore I am not at liberty to comment,” I answered reaching out for my ear with my fingers and rubbing the drops of water away from the rim of my earlobe.
“Oh it doesn’t make a difference whether you have seen it or not,” lambasted the gentleman, “and what do you think the fucker is trying to do, eh? Incite us, the owners of this land, and expect that we would protect you?”
I preferred not to react, folded my towel and deposited it in the black leather bin that contained the soiled ones.
“You Muslim buggers must know that we Hindus are ten and you are only one,” he stated as I turned to him, staring into my eyes with a tint of resentment, “I’m sure you know what I’m saying.”
“I don’t think saying anything to evoke extreme reactions by anyone is correct, sir,” I suggested with some politeness.
“Are you talking about the chief minister of Gujarat by any chance?” he shot back sharply, and even before I could respond he went on, “he is smart. No one can accuse him of anything because there’s no proof of anything, while you Muslims are a foolish lot,” he laughed a sinister laugh, “you leave behind clues everywhere!”
“I am not talking about anyone specifically,” I reiterated remaining unnerved, “I am merely saying that the world has seen enough bloodshed due to religious intolerance over the centuries. Somehow I think the time has come where no one wants history repeating itself, don’t you think?”
“Just that you know, what he did was right. In fact he didn’t do enough,” he declared with an element of glee, “and let us not fool ourselves that the Muslims in Gujarat are in a better state than anywhere else in India. I feel that the ghettoes have done them much good.”
I stayed quiet once again. He misinterpreted my silence perchance and uttered scornfully, “See you have nothing to say because you know that all Muslims are terrorists.”
“I understand some terrorists are Muslims, and you know as much as I do that no caste is free of people who terrorise,” I added with austerity, “and––”
“Defend your community in whatever way you want, but to me every Muslim is a terrorist,” he butted in, cutting me off midway.
“I think young India knows better to see through the political games,” I expressed rather gently, “also in most of the cases such ideologies are aimed at whipping up the emotionally gullible. Let us not forget that such clowns use hatred as a method to get themselves some fame, momentary so to say, knowing full well that the consequences would lead to their arrest perhaps, and in extreme cases the hunt for their head. I reckon we must know better not to play into the hands of anybody whose aim is to meddle with the peace and amity of the society.”
“You are so naïve,” said the gentleman with a snigger, so very obvious that he was searching my countenance for a retort, and a retort was something I was not inclined to offer him since it would leave no difference between his upbringing and mine, and so I replied calmly, “If you think so, sir.”
“The minority cannot wag its tail in our country,” he conveyed with an air of arrogance, “we can crush you under our feet like an ant,” he made a gesture of the crushing movement with his hands, “and that’s something you Muslim bastards should never forget.”
“I’m afraid I better be off now,” I said and after having made sure that I had emptied everything into my gym bag from the locker, I proceeded towards the café to get a cup of caffeine thinking along the way about what a funny world we lived in indeed: if that was hate speech, then what different was this? At least for me both were a mirror image of each other and liable for punishment.
Farahdeen Khan is a painter, poet and writer. To his credit are the books Heartbeat (Unisun Publications) and Inner Voices (Mirage Books) and Chicken Soup for the Soul series on Friends (Westland), Chicken Soup for Indian Soul: Celebrating Brothers and Sisters (Westland). His articles, critique and reviews have been published in various dailies, journals and magazines. He holds an MA in English Literature. He blogs at http://farahdeenkhan.blogspot.com/ and his twitter access is @farahdeenkhan