Sunday, April 13, 2014

Manto on Modi's Skull Cap Problem

The controversy over caps, communalism, riots and Modi, reminded me of a passage from one of Saadat Hasan Manto's short stories. The story is titled, Bāteñ (Manto ke Mazāmīn) and desribes the violent communal riots that Bombay witnessed during the 1942 Quit India movement.

Hindu-Muslim fasād ke dinoñ ham log jab bāhar kisī kām se nikalte the to apne sāth do topiyāñ rakhte the: ek Hindu cap, dūsrī rūmī topī. Jab Musalmānoñ ke mohalle se guzarte to Rūmī topī pehen lete the, aur jab Hinduoñ ke mohalle meñ jāte the to Hindu cap laga lete the. Is fasād men ham logoñ ne Gandhi cap Kharīdī. Yeh ham jeb meñ rakh lete the, jahāñ kahīñ zarūrat mehsūs hotī thī, jhat se pehen lete the. Pehle mazhab sīnoñ meñ hotā thā, āj kal topīyoñ meñ hotā hai. Siyāsat bhi ab topīyoñ meñ chalī ā’ī hai—zindābād topīyāñ!


During the Hindu-Muslim riots, whenever we would step out of the house for some work, we would keep two caps with us: one Hindu cap and the other, a Rumi cap. When passing through a Muslim neighbourhood we’d wear the Rumi cap and when we went to a Hindu neighbourhood then we’d put on the Hindu cap. In these riots (of 1942), we’d also bought a Gandhi cap. This we’d put in our pockets and whenever we’d sense a need, we’d put it on in a jiffy. Earlier faith would reside in our hearts, nowadays it resides in caps. Even politics, it seems, resides in caps. Zindabad caps!]

The first thing to notice is how the Muslim stereotypical cap has changed from the Rumi topi (or fez) to the "skull cap" (a perfect example of how things get destroyed in translation; in Hindi-Urdu, it is simply called 'topi' or 'cap'). The Rumi topi was a marker of status worn largely by the traditional upper-classes. The modern crochet cap, which so alarmed Modi, is of course cheap, handy headgear to fulfil the religious needs of covering one's head during the namaz. The end of the Muslim upper-class in India in 1947, it seems, also spelt the end of the Rumi topi.

Of course, while the topis have changed, mindsets maybe haven't. While Modi was very careful in not being seen in a cap associated in the popular imagination with Muslims, he has displayed a startling penchant for other forms of headgear, to which we smile wryly, echo the seer Manto and shout: zindabad topiyan!

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