My father, a retired army officer, feels I shouldn’t write about religion. When he read We Are Leaving Bombay, about a Muslim woman facing discrimination, it was difficult for him to separate the narrator from his daughter. He was displeased, and I understood. We expect stories to liberate us, to give wings to our imagination. Not to be so true as to offend our finer feelings. And yet, fiction is art.
A writer, said Ayn Rand, should regard language as a tool of honor. “To be used as if one were under oath, an oath of allegiance to reality.” My allegiance to reality has earned me differing reactions. What some have judged as racist and reductive, others have called humorous and clever. My husband often jokes that a fatwa is just around the corner. For that, I reply, I need more followers on Instagram.
Jokes aside, I was once asked at a literary event, “Why are you not more famous?”
A loaded question, that. The answer, perhaps, can be found in my aversion to labels. My identity — as an Indian, a woman, a Muslim —serves my work as a writer in that it gives me a perspective, but what I put on a blank page needs to work on its own without relying on my background. Also, I do not see myself as marginalized.
I grew up in the army, studying in eight Kendriya Vidyalayas. My days started with Asato Ma Sadgamaya, and my earliest memories of worship are from a temple in Manipur; the battalion panditji had assigned me the duty of starting the evening aarti. Looking back, I realize how special that was: the daughter of a Muslim officer from the Sikh Regiment praying to Hindu gods in a predominantly Christian village. Syncretism was not a buzzword for me, it was a way of life.
It is that point of view that stops me from spelling it out that Meera from Combat Skirts (Juggernaut Books, 2018; Quignog, 2018), married to Vikram, is a Muslim. It is a minor detail and does not affect the overall narrative of the book. But it acquires significance in a world where advertisements are being banned for showing interfaith families.
It is not a secret that social media controversies are anything but arbitrary. The triggers are tactical, resulting in chaos that is usually coordinated. Unwittingly, most of us end up participating in these highly emotive debates, amplifying negativity. And that is a trap.
Call me old-fashioned, but I value my equilibrium. For my work to be credible, even as a writer of fiction, I need to preserve my objectivity. And part of being objective is being fair. So, if a friend tells me that she allows me to live in her country, I will write a poem about it. And I will go to Shaheen Bagh, and Park Circus, for a safer future for my child, but I will not be blind to the sanctimony of Muslimness. I will come home and write another verse.
All those writings need readers, and social media has been invaluable. Combat Skirts has been able to reach a wider network of people on the back of Facebook testimonials, and I am extremely grateful. However, my short pieces have attracted trolls, and I have been called everything from pseudo-sickular to anti-Hindu. Speaking up is not easy, for my truth can be the bone stuck in your throat. It really is a social dilemma.
I am not immune to the charms of Twitter though. If ever I am incarcerated, I hope you will campaign for me. May I suggest a hashtag?
By Sahana Ahmed
Sahana Ahmed is a fiction writer and poet based in Gurugram. Her work has been featured in publications in India, UK, USA, Australia and Canada. Combat Skirts, her debut novel, is a coming-of-age story set in an army girls’ hostel in the Calcutta of the nineties. Please visit her website for more information: www.sahanaahmed.com.