Shah Rukh Khan is not just “every star”. Still, Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s poetic sigh at the unmistakable targeting of one of India’s most loved individuals is sharp political analysis as well. “Every star,” Mehta wrote, “must now be dimmed by an ideological shadow.”
How true. Simultaneously, however, other utterances have jumped out of the media to remind me of a more positive, but equally rhythmical, thought that I’d come across in my youth, which was that even “the hour that darkest seemeth” would prove our universe’s “changeless goodness”.
Thus I was pleasantly surprised when I actually heard Amit Shah address Kashmir Valley’s residents as his “sisters and brothers”. Whatever else he may have said or done in Kashmir, or not said or done, Shah did once say to the Valley’s Muslims, “Sisters and brothers!”
Soon after, following a cricket match in Dubai, Yuzvendra Chahal tweeted this message to fellow brilliant bowler Mohammed Shami, who had been shamelessly and viciously trolled: “We are so proud of you @MdShami11 bhaiya.” Meanwhile we had all seen Pakistani cricketers and Virat Kohli join one another in hugs.
Not that there’s the slightest danger of bhaichaara clearing South Asia’s barbed-wire borders without scrapes or injuries. Still, the happy sights you and I saw, and the cheery sounds we heard, were real. They actually happened.
There was more. Irfan Pathan reminded us of the “spirit of cricket”, adding, “Spirit of human beings. #remember don’t let people fool you.” In different parts of the world, Indians and Pakistanis seemed pleased as they exchanged videos from Dubai of friendship in a context of contest.
Just as impactful, if not more so, were the torrents of messages of empathy for Shah Rukh Khan, his son Aryan, and the others subjected to the Narcotics Control Bureau’s invasive and seemingly unessential probes. It was as if millions, literally, of Indians, most of them Hindus, were saying “Enough!” to what appeared to them to be a bid to besmirch the reputation of a beloved actor for no real reason other than the fact that he is a Muslim.
For the moment at least, the Indian mind felt that a line had been crossed in what till now seemed to be a widely tolerated march, an unrelenting and unconstitutional procession, apparently condoned by the state, to keep India’s Muslims in an inferior place.
From any “justice” angle, India’s ecosystem has seemed seriously flawed. Neither growing joblessness, nor the rising price of fuel, nor even the shortage of oxygen at critical moments, has been seen to exact a political price. It appeared, too, that the state could keep dissenters, students, and protesters behind bars and out of sight year after year, without provoking questions from the average Indian.
However, the outcry over Shah Rukh and Aryan has shown that while insaniyat can remain buried and silent for a period, it does not die. No, madam and sir, not in India. The sights and sounds I have picked out are proof of insaniyat’s immortality, of the changeless goodness of the spirit of India, even if much that is harsh and cruel scars India’s life every day.
Cricket and Bollywood do not attract me the way they did during my boyhood and youth. The pyramids of money with which both cricket and movies seem connected at the highest levels of these two worlds do little to win my admiration. Yet I know that only astonishing degrees of talent, discipline, training, and will power bring success in sport and Bollywood. More importantly, we can all recognize that India’s buried insaniyat has been resurrected, at least for now, by these two worlds.
Individuals like Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, as also our superstars of bat and ball, not only symbolize India; they are a part of our lives. Our spirits rise or fall with them. When they are victorious, or gallant, we feel good. When they are in misfortune or poor form, we feel sad or even angry. But if they are slandered or ill-treated, we are enraged. In such times, we become Shah Rukh Khan, we are Aryan Khan. Our insaniyat, and our Indian-ness, merges with theirs.
Two other thoughts may merit attention. Insaniyat is an Urdu word. It’s a beautiful word. No Hindi or English alternative conveys what insaniyat conveys. It is also, of course, a very Indian word, just as Urdu is, above everything else, an Indian treasure of measureless value.
The other thought is about the place where the current great sporting contest is taking place. A Muslim chief runs the princedom of Dubai. Muslims probably constitute its great majority. It is surrounded by Islamic nations or emirates. And yet some of us use the arithmetic emanating from Dubai to slight Muslims, including our own. It’s an irony every bit as odd as the fact that the kingdom of cricket over which India now reigns is, or at least was, an imperialist realm.
But what I am enjoying most is the taste of the widening admission that all Indians should be bound to one another in mutual goodwill and equal respect. With luck the infection may even spread to policemen and judges. Rhetoric and chatter of the opposite kind will probably soon overtake the current sentiment. Let me relish it while it lasts.
(Rajmohan Gandhi is presently teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)
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