The benefits of having a Muslim name in Bhopal outweighs the trouble it attracts
In many cities in India it is hard to find a house if you are a Muslim. It is best not to get your hopes up of finding a house in most of the nicer looking neighbourhoods — with dependable water supply, motorable roads and regular garbage collection — if you have a Muslim sounding name.
Muslim families who’ve shifted cities more than once will tell you that this ghetto-isation became prominent after the fall of the Babri Masjid. Not just Muslims but anyone with a Middle Eastern name, who’s hunted for a home in prime localities, would have heard responses such as: “You can find a house in the Old City/ Walled City”; “We have just given the house to someone this morning” and; “In this society you will not have any friends.”
Zoroastrians and well, people like me, then quickly explain that we’re not Muslim. There’s no point debating. A communal landlord is sometimes better than living in a friend’s friend’s hostel room.
I recently shifted to Bhopal, the capital of BJP ruled Madhya Pradesh — with a large Muslim population concentrated north of the city’s lakes. I got a sense of the Bhopali tehzeeb or etiquette as soon as I got off the Bhopal Express from Delhi. A young female scooter rider narrowly missed colliding with the auto rickshaw I was in. I expected the driver to yell at her. Instead he blew a kiss at the fleeing scooter and said, “Subhan Allah, maar dalegi yaar.” (Glory to God, she will kill us.)
The auto driver, though, fleeced me. He charged me Rs. 400 for a distance of roughly 13 km. We soon got talking. When I said my name is Pheroze, his whole demeanour changed. He stopped at a tea stall and tried to justify the exorbitant rate he was charging. In the conversation hence forth, I was referred to as Pheroze bhai.
He showed me around the city and gave me his number to call in case if I was in trouble. Pointing towards a predominantly Muslim ghetto close he said, “The police call this Chhota Pakistan. Total mian log (all Muslim). If anyone messes with you I can get 20 boys from here in 20 minutes.”
Unfortunately he was not in a position to get me house near the city centre. Finding a house took a while. I once had to explain that I’m a Christian. The caretaker replied, “It’s good that you’re not a Muslim.”
Once I found a house, the local grocer, conservancy staffer, auto drivers — most of them Muslim — assumed I am Muslim. They told me where the nearest mosque was and where the good restaurants were. One of them whispered to me where the nearest beef shop was. It was far enough to kill your appetite.
And whenever they see me they say, “Salaam Aleikum Pheroze bhai.”
When I went to service my bike, the attendant said they were full. By now I could recognise that the accent he spoke in was distinctly Old City. “Bhai, mera naam Pheroze hai,” (Brother, my name is Pheroze) I said. And right before my eyes the mechanic left the IPL match and fixed my bike.