A Case Of Mistaken Identity

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The landlord, after refusing to let out his house to the author, said, “No, you are a Muslim. But the Society will happily let it out to a Bengali.”

During his lifetime, a man can have several identities. That was the subject of an entire book titled Identity & Violence—the illusion of destiny by Amartya Sen. He cited instances to establish how the same person can have different identities in his lifetime and how these identities assume importance over others at different times. The book made me think afresh about my own identities—one as a Bengali who is a Muslim as well, one who grew up in a village, was educated in urban centres, who now has a doctorate degree and who is associated with a research institute.

I actually felt quite elated.

But the elation did not last for long. I had just acquired a job in Kolkata and felt the need to shift from my one-room accommodation in a coaching centre run by a devout Muslim on College Street. The room was too small for my needs and too far from my research institute. It was also difficult to host friends and relatives and, above all, I was spending too much time in commuting to and fro.

My research institute being in the Patuli-Baishnabghata township, my first preference was to look for accommodation in that locality. Not knowing too many people there, I fell back on a broker, who identified two flats within my budget. I liked one of them and had a cordial conversation with the landlord. He wanted an advance and I immediately agreed to pay it the next day. The smiling landlord came out to see me off.

At the gate I hailed a cycle rickshaw. Where would you like to go, the rickshaw puller asked. ” The masjid”, I replied. It was Friday and I wanted to offer Namaz in thankgiving. I waved to the landlord and was off.

Minutes later, my mobile rang. The broker was on the other side. He sounded grim. The landlord had refused to let out the flat to me, he informed. ” He will not have a Muslim as tenant; if you had told him that you are a Muslim, he would have told you himself,” he added.

Surprised, I retorted, “He too never asked me my religion and what has that to do with the tenancy?” “I am helpless. He is not going to let it out to you,” said the broker. Rattled, I asked him to confirm the other flat.” I am sorry, but I just spoke to the second landlord. He too is not ready to have a Muslim as tenant,” he informed me.

Disheartened, I again started searching for a suitable accommodation. And once bitten, twice shy, this time when I finally identified a flat, I bluntly told the landlord: “Before we talk any further, it is important for you to know that I am a Muslim.”

Visibly embarrassed, he replied, “Why should that come in the way ?”

“Well, I have had several bitter experiences of late and I would like to sort out this issue first,” I replied.

“No, no, that is not a problem at all. But since you have raised it, let me speak to the Secretary of the Housing Society first.”

His conversation with the Secretary did not last more than a few seconds. It was an emphatic ‘no’.

Strangely, I felt euphoric. “What did I tell you ? In this city, Muslims do not have the right to take a house on rent,” I said triumphantly.

The landlord was apologetic. “I hope you appreciate that this is not my thinking. But I do live in a housing society and must follow what the society lays down,” he told me.

I walked away. There was no point in arguing the point further. I need to now look for a house in a Muslim locality, I told myself.

The gentleman called from behind, “If any of your Bengali friends wants the flat on rent, let me know. I will be happy to let it out”.

I stopped in my stride and turned back. “What do you mean ?”

“No, you are a Muslim. But the Society will happily let it out to a Bengali,” he asserted.

I stood there, speechless. For whom does Professor Sen write his book, I mused. Does his books leave any imprint at all on the so-called Bengali middle class?

I lost my cool and raising my voice, I told the gentleman, ” If you do not want to let out flats to Muslims, it is your prerogative. But don’t you consider me even a Bengali? Do Bengalis have to be Hindu?”

A friend, when I narrated my experience, corrected me. “You must be a high caste Bengali to be acknowledged as a Bengali here. Otherwise you would be known as Chhotolok, Muchi, Bagdi or Bauri”.

My mother tongue is Bengali. I was born in Malda. If I don’t have rice and fish, my meal is incomplete. If I stay away from Bengal for too long, I feel homesick. And yet, I am apparently not a Bengali. My only identity is that I am a Muslim.

The story does not end there. When I finally settled down in a house in a Muslim area of Kolkata, Bekbagan, a colleague taunted me and said: “So, you too opted to stay in a ghetto? What is the use of your education if you cannot get out of ghettos? What makes Muslims so hidebound as far as religion is concerned?”

I didn’t know how to reply to him. An impotent rage convulsed me.

Source: Outlook India