Published in: The Daily Star on December 30, 2015

A young man of 30, sipped his cha (not chai) in Kolkata yesterday morning at 6:00 am, in ‘Tiritty’ bazaar and told me, “The English don’t use the word “quintessential” anymore, but we do. Just as we stood beside the Chinese serving their “quintessential” morning momos and the Biharis imitating their recipes and serving their own “meed” (i.e ‘meat’) ball soup, he talked about anonymity and how anonymous we have all become. The red shot eyes of the 90-year-old opium addict, the Chinese steamed buns, the Chinese rice pudding, all completed the picture of Chatawala Road, which is one full stretch of Christians, Muslims and Hindus co-existing, and nothing has been able to change that. The club building, which stands tall in the area, hosts Pujas, Eids and Christmas, as and when they come every year, with puris, plum cakes or haleems. Right behind the Bow Barracks, it’s festive during this time of the year. Anglo-Indians, dressed in suits and their bowties still walk the street with a hope of yet another prosperous new year.

Our friend, a young man with an old soul, Arko Mukherjee, a brilliant young Bangalee musician who links rock to ragas, baul to reggae, while treating us to a full breakfast on the streets, spoke about how comfortable Kolkata is today because of an improved traffic situation, yet how alien it appears to be when one steps into the new “Rajarhat” area, unfamiliarly complete with its little touch of modernity while “Salt Lake” is technically the smart dash in the city. While we walked by the side of the Ganges and looked at Kumartuli, it was an “encore” that’s worth sharing. Amidst the gods and goddesses, we stumbled upon a Gandhi in white, sculpted by one of the brilliant artisans of Kumartuli, who apart from just making deities, had, at some point, decided to carve out the figure of the man who, till date, continues to shape India. In spite of the linguistic legacy, it is because of this same man for who, the Indian Constitution today names English as a co-official language, but only until all states accept Hindi as the sole official language. It is because of Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar, there exists, till date, a dichotomous pattern of native and the foreign, traditional and the modern, and inclusive and the exclusive in India’s engagements with foreign centres of influence.

So while Arko, my daughter and I walk around figuring out damming western fusions, the focal point of discussion hovers around the critical and the obvious: who are we today and how much anonymity have we, in Bangladesh, succumbed to? Which part of our identity, Bangalee or Muslim is under the scanner? Which one are we settling for?

I am much more conscious of my identity when I travel these days. I am critically aware of the fact that I am a Muslim and that, much to my discomfort, I will evidently be asked to take my shawl or scarf off at airports. I know for sure that I will also be randomly chosen for an additional security check or questioning. I also know that my fellow passenger will judge me, right before takeoff, when I say my prayers without which I feel doomed to a crash. I know I will be singled out as a Muslim. This is the exact feeling that pushes me to anonymity. This is the same insecurity that crafts the history of fear into my humanity.

Take for example, two incidents that I learnt of, right after I landed in Bangkok two weeks ago. While our Bangkok flight from Dhaka landed, the airport seemed to be in a flurry. An Aeroflot flight SU 271 bound for Moscow from Bangkok was grounded and a Turkish woman had just been detained for three hours at the Suvarnabhumi airport after a misunderstanding over a phone call that she had made. The 38-year old woman, Sefika Kanik, was taken to the Suvarnabhumi Police Station and questioned for three hours. Why had she caused this disruption? Truth was, a crew had suspected that Sefika said goodbye to someone she was speaking to over the phone and they had sounded like her “final words”. This mere suspicion had delayed the flight and caused havoc in air traffic control in Thailand that day. In reality, Sefika was speaking to her boyfriend on the phone and simply saying goodbye. The panic obviously was a reflection of the fear of Russia being targeted again, after 200 people were killed onboard an airline bound for Saint Petersburg from Syria.

The very next day, the Bangkok Post carried a story of one of four Syrians suspected of having links to the Islamic State. His name was Hagop Kassabian, who has had a decade-long connection to Thailand and runs a small trading company from the north-eastern province of Chaiyaphum and has appeared in commercials for ice-cream, yoghurt and a TV series. From December 6, 2015, Hagop has been all over Thai national media as one of the Syrians that Russia’s state security agency had warned could have links to the terrorist organisation. Hagop’s wife woke him up on the 6th and shared her surprise with him: “All these years, I didn’t know that you were a terrorist!” Quite ironically, Hagop is also Christian and that is a fact the Russian intelligence had ignored when they linked him to being recruited by the IS.

At a time like this, while our identities are subjected to microscopic assessment, it is incredibly important to aptly label our identities. Now . . . instead of a religious label, shall we dare to call ourselves South Asians and hashtag “OneSouthAsia”? Shall we? But then, can we, specially at a time when in a major development on Greater Noida’s Dadri lynching case, the Uttar Pradesh government’s chief veterinary officer’s report has just confirmed that the meat piece found in Mohammad Akhlaq’s refrigerator was mutton, not beef? Akhlaq was beaten to death by 200-strong mob barging into his house for having consumed “beef”. With instances of extreme religious intolerance on the rise, whom do we sync our identities with?

The answer may not be that simple. The alignment may not be tempting. But all of us must remember that when most of Asia today is being discussed for hosting pockets of religiosity, our choices are limited. At a time like this, we have fewer options other than crucially reminding ourselves that the little fences that run through our lands must not run through our minds and no one should be ever be allowed to divide a memory.

Happy 2016!