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My letter to Alia, Malia, Jamalia

LiveMint logoLiveMint 11-07-2017 Priya Ramani

Dear girls,

You were in the news the other day when Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah yelled out your names at least three times in a fiery speech: “Ever since Narendra Modi formed a government, no Alia-Malia-Jamalia dared to carry out communal riots in Gujarat.” It’s not a phrase he invented. Prime Minister Narendra Modi used it in 2002, but maybe I missed it because you girls were born only several years later. This time I took the phrase personally.

Alia, I’ve always referred to you as Babyjaan. When we had to come up with a name for you, I wanted Noor but that was a friend’s daughter’s name too. Your father picked Alia and I liked it because it’s a name used by Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus across the world. We were brought up to be global citizens and we want the same for our daughter. We preferred to spell it Alia over the more traditional Aliya.

Your best friend Malia was born around the same time and was named after the oldest daughter of former US president Barack Obama. In Swahili, her name means queen. Malia is also another name for Mary or Miriam. When we moved into our new apartment a few years ago, you picked your room for the view: a statue of Mother Mary smiling at you from across the road. You used to call her Maryamma.

By 2009, the popularity of the First Family made many Americans name their children Malia. That year Maliyah became the fastest growing name for girl babies, according to official data. Babyjaan’s bestie Malia happened to be in Canada then, and her Indian Roman Catholic family became a tiny part of Obama’s hope, change wave.

I still remember Obama’s letter to his daughters when he became president in 2008: “And I want us to push our own human boundaries to reach beyond the divides of race and region, gender and religion that keep us from seeing the best in each other.” That’s the only kind of message any father should have for his children, but you can never tell with parents. “My mother says ‘you people’ are responsible for bad things,” is a refrain Muslim children hear even in posh south Mumbai schools.

As for Jamalia, you girls haven’t met her yet. Thankfully we live in a mixed neighbourhood where you have every chance of bumping into her at the park down the road. Of course, you are more likely to meet a Jamal (beauty) or a Jamelia (beautiful); Jamalia is an uncommon name, Muslim or otherwise. It’s a tribal village in Gujarat and maybe it came to Shah because it rhymes so nicely with both the other names.

Babyjaan, I want you to understand that no matter what happens, we will always live in an India where Alia, Malia, Jamalia represent eternal friendship and mutual respect between the country’s three biggest communities. In fact, I want to thank Shah for introducing me to this trio—it’s got that woman power vibe that Amar, Akbar, Anthony could never fulfil. Besides, the three brothers in that 1977 Manmohan Desai film that became a classic when I was not looking were caricatures of their respective religions. Keep your religion private, girls. Write “how does it matter?” in every official form that asks for your religion, like I did when I was growing up.

I’m thankful you have friends from all communities. As a member of the country’s majority community, Babyjaan, remember, it’s your duty to speak up and ensure your friends don’t feel scared or persecuted. I hope all of you live, love and marry outside the boundaries set by conservative bigots. I pray you don’t get harmed in the process.

I recently discovered If A Room In Your House Caught Fire, a poem by Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena, when author and artist Daisy Rockwell translated it. There’s nothing greater in this world than human life, Saxena says. Remember that girls. Here are the first two stanzas:

If a room

in your house

caught fire

Could you just

sleep in some other room?

If a room

in your house

was filled with rotting corpses

Could you just

pray in some other room?

If yes

then I have nothing to say to you…

Please learn to appreciate good poetry. All of life’s toughest questions have been answered in poems.

Never slot anyone by the sound of their name, the way they look or the religion they practise. All my life people have taken one look at my curly hair and jeans and refused to believe I’m a yoga-loving, naturopathy-practising, old-Hindi-music-loving, vegetarian, teetotaller (okay scratch out the last one). Babyjaan’s father spent years telling people he would never marry a vegetarian. Look how that turned out for him.

Religion aside, Shah’s vision of Alia, Malia, Jamalia (AMJ) is anti-woman. Women have been known to riot for food, against liquor and for the right to vote. Yes they are Naxalites and terrorists, and they participated in Bhagalpur and Gujarat, but in testosterone-fuelled regimes their role is usually confined to looking after the men, producing (and brainwashing) the children and tolerating/justifying violence. In Nazi Germany, they had no power. In the Sangh Parivar, their status is defined entirely in relation to the family.

Girls, this brand of identity politics can be overhauled only when Indian women come together and fight back. Then a government that promotes girl-child campaigns like Beti Bachao won’t dare make statements such as the one Shah made in Gujarat. Grow up quickly and do your bit. We need girls like you.

PS: I’m headed out to make AMJ stickers to distribute to friends and family.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

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