On January 28, police in Madhya Pradesh’s Rajgarh district received letters from some Hindu villagers saying no Muslim should be allowed to enter their villages, following a Republic Day clash. On the same day in faraway Mumbai, an event was being held that went completely against such hatred.
The event brought together not just Hindus and Muslims, but those sections of both communities that have often clashed violently with each other in Mumbai. Yet, this was no self-conscious effort at communal harmony. It was simply an imaginative exercise initiated by a municipal corporator, which met with unexpected success.
Unexpected if you consider the main players involved. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which has been governed by the Shiv Sena for over 20 years. The mayor of Mumbai, a true blue Shiv Sainik. A whole host of municipal officers, most of them Marathi speaking.
On the other side was Rais Shaikh, elected from the heart of Mumbai’s old Muslim area. Nagpada-Madanpura are historical localities; the latter was once the hub of weavers owing allegiance to the CPI, and continues to be famous for its gosht bazaar or meat market. The former is home to two of the city’s oldest Urdu dailies, and was supposedly ruled by Dawood Ibrahim’s sister till her death five years ago. Shaikh belongs to the Samajwadi Party, whose head in Mumbai is Abu Asim Azmi, the businessman from Azamgarh, a man who has been, since he entered public life 25 years ago, one of the Shiv Sena’s bête noirs.
All these players, traditionally hostile to one another, came together to unveil a mural dedicated to one of India’s greatest poets, Mirza Ghalib, in one of the busiest junctions of Mumbai, where five roads meet and the traffic never stops. So there’s no way this memorial to Ghalib can be ignored by the lakhs of people—speaking various languages—who pass by Nagpada Junction everyday.
The mural depicts an iconic scene: A mushaira (gathering at which Urdu poetry is read, typically taking the form of a contest) in the Red Fort presided over by the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar. It’s a scene Urdu lovers have often imagined; the mural brings it to life in detail. No one would imagine that the two Marathi-speaking artists chosen by the BMC to sculpt it had never heard of Ghalib.
What followed the unveiling was equally remarkable: A discussion on Ghalib by Urdu litterateurs Javed Akhtar and Javed Siddiqui, not in the usual auditorium, but in the open space of the vast garden that houses Mumbai’s zoo. The audience: ordinary Muslims who live in the area, Urdu teachers and journalists, and a surprising number of young Hindus, women and men, including those whose mother tongue is Marathi. Their whoops of appreciation was an amusing counterpart to the conventional ‘wahwahs’ during the programme.
This time, the ‘wahwahs’ came spontaneously even during the speeches of the netas. When the mayor, speaking in Marathi, said he was honoured at having been asked to unveil the memorial to such a great poet, the audience applauded warmly. “So, you can understand Marathi,’’ the mayor noted with satisfaction. More applause followed.
The significance of these details lies in the history of Marathi-Urdu relations in Mumbai. The relationship between the two rich languages has been distorted by communal politics, which imposed an exclusively Muslim identity on Urdu, and a Shiv Sena label on Marathi. For a long time, Mumbai’s Muslims, a substantial section of whom hail from the North, avoided learning Marathi, even though ignorance of the official language cost them dear. They could not get over their perception of it as the language of a man, who along with his organisation continuously targeted them. It’s only after the 1992-93 riots that they realised its value, as they realised the utility of education.
Akhtar recounted how his youthful pride in Urdu being the richest language was humbled when he came to Mumbai and discovered a whole new world through Marathi icons P L Deshpande and Vijay Tendulkar. He also traced the origin of Urdu as an Indian language spoken by all, till the divide-and-rule policy of the British and the two-nation theory of Jinnah stamped it as a Muslim language. Urdu is the only language that is truly secular, he said, not only due to the range of people who once spoke it, but also because uniquely, its earliest literary compositions were not religious. In fact, in Urdu poetry, the maikhana (tavern) was the good place; the masjid its opposite. A poet like Ghalib, whose verses show the imprint of Hindu culture as much as that of Muslim, could only have been born in India, with its tradition of openness, said Akhtar.
To an audience of Muslims and Hindus brought up on stereotypes and linguistic chauvinism, Akhtar’s learned-yet-humorous speech was an education in the finest sense of the term. Listening to him in the front row were those who swear by Bal Thackeray, the man who had made a characteristically vulgar joke when Muslims had demanded Urdu signboards at the city’s railway stations. Next to them were the SP chief and the local MLA belonging to Asaduddin Owaisi’s party. Would the significance of the Ghalib mural and Akhtar’s speech have made all these politicians rethink their identity-driven politics, even briefly?
Freelance journalist based in Mumbai