What does being Indian Muslim mean?
What does it mean to carry this in your skin as you perform your identity onstage? In the public sphere?
I can safely say that being Indian-Muslim means saying “No, I am not Malay,” or “Yes I am Indian, but I’m not Hindu,” or “Yes I speak Tamil, no I don’t speak Malay, I speak Tamil,” or “Yes I celebrate Hari Raya.” Does it mean taking half-days on both Hari Raya and Deepavali, thanks to ignorant employers? Does it mean eating during Ramadhan and getting away with it without the casual stare, because it is assumed that you are not Muslim? Is it going out to drink and not getting the same double takes your Malay counterparts receive at bars?
These are amongst some of the first few ways one learns to defend their unique place in the public sphere. Amongst the damaging stereotypes out there about Muslim people, as well as Indian people, one becomes a double-barrelled caricature, if you will, of the worst things and aspects of both sides. It gets worse when you’re a woman, a liberated man, or the ultimate worst – a feminist man.
It is so confusing as I age, to situate myself in alignment with other Indian Muslims, because we are so diverse. There are Indian Muslims who are converts, ex-Hindus, Catholics, and then there are Indian Muslims who hail from North India, speaking Urdu, Hindi, and then there are South Indian Muslims, such as myself, who speak Tamil. There are so many individual types of the Indian Muslim persona.
I remember as a child: there would be grandiose speeches given by certain Indian Muslim organisations, calling for people to be responsible and moral individuals, to encourage inter-marriage within the community, so as to preserve Tamil, to a crowd of Indian Muslim women wearing the baju kurung at weddings. These weddings became a performative space for them, to deliver these speeches, funerals were another performance arena for them, affording them the kind of audience and stage that no other platform provided. They were always so passionate, about their love for the language, but the thing is: they were all men, and they constantly urged women to be gatekeepers for the children’s language acquisition and for their sons and daughters to marry within the community, so that they would not be diluted. I for one, never experienced a hijabi clad Indian Muslim woman in anything other than a baju kurung, till I mingled and socialised outside my immediate familial circle as I grew up to realise that the hijab and a saree or a salwar kameez WAS ACTUALLY POSSIBLE without giving up modesty, or any of the values that a hijabi woman subscribes to.
Given the complicated backdrop to the this, how then does this identity get further murkier in the theatre industry? Have we heard of original work speaking of the Indian-Muslim identity?
In fact, only a single work has claimed to speak of it : Talaq. I briefly read it recently, my wife prompted me to read this as a sort of a joke. I realise how heavy this text is: it is true, and I daresay, things are still not changing for our women.
How important are these narratives to the Indian Muslim community? Does it bother other Indian Muslims that there are almost no stories of theirs, presented in the public sphere? We are not represented in theatre or on TV. Vasantham carefully navigates representation of Indian Muslims. There is no drama, no show that has an Indian Muslim lead character. Our stories of navigating this murky sea of identities and clashing concepts, are not given any space for exploration or experimentation. Most of our Tamil-language theatre focuses on reworks of European classics, or Hindu mythology. So afraid are we, of the repercussions, to the point that Talaq was the first and last piece of its kind. And from what I heard, there were repercussions for both director and actress, so many people so angry that a wound like this was given some air to breathe.
What do our women have to undergo? Just look at our mothers, sisters, aunties, I refuse to indulge in the inequality that they experience, till now (horrid I know.) Men are still persistently functioning in a largely insular, patriarchal manner. I agree Talaq is only one single story, and yet there has been no dying need for alternative stories, of lineage, of narratives of the Indian Muslim identity in the performance sphere. Thus, the community itself has lapsed into the single story that is out there?
I don’t know where I am going with this: perhaps I am myself guilty of not pushing for this. How to begin? How do we begin to write original stories, localised in Singapore, reflective of our diaspora, of the Indian Muslim condition? Also, how do I situate myself amongst other Muslim artists? Or Malay artists? Or brown artists? Is there a need to consciously carry the burden of representation for my entire community? I can count the number of Indian Muslim artists working now in the industry on one hand. There are directors, writers, producers, actors, choreographers, and yet… where are we?
Is this a call to action to speak up? Nah, these are just questions I have. I can also count the number of times people have criticised my need to speak up for the use of Tamil, choosing to school me on what they think I am, rather than actually considering that I know what I am. I think there is so much more to the community than Talaq, of course. But I will not deny Talaq is important, as part of our cultural memory, in remembering all the fallen women, who have been wronged by patriarchy, for all the women who have raised me to be here, to be this, and yet who may or may not have witnessed the same kind of liberties that I have.