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Home / Opinion / Views /  Fabindia and the fraying of our shared social fabric

Fabindia and the fraying of our shared social fabric

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No barriers can lock out memory though the Fabindia episode reveals a discomfort with the notion of a shared past that does not offer much comfort for the future of Indian diversity

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A few years earlier, my mother had presented to me my paternal grandmother Shyam Kumari Khan’s copy of Ahmed Ali’s The Land of Twilight, which had an inscription: “To Shammi, with love on this ‘Great’ day, The 15th of Dec 1937." My mother, when she presented me with the book, told me that Ahmed Ali was a great friend of my paternal grandparents, especially Dadi’s. Ahmed Ali was a leading member of the All-India Progressive Writers’ Movement and had on Partition moved to Pakistan. I had wondered what this ‘great day’ was, and then on the recent discovery of Dadi’s First class MA (English) degree certificate from the University of Allahabad dated 14 December 1937, it became clear. The fact that the degree was awarded to a “he", as printed on the certificate, makes clear how rare it was for a woman to do her Masters back then.

A few years earlier, my mother had presented to me my paternal grandmother Shyam Kumari Khan’s copy of Ahmed Ali’s The Land of Twilight, which had an inscription: “To Shammi, with love on this ‘Great’ day, The 15th of Dec 1937." My mother, when she presented me with the book, told me that Ahmed Ali was a great friend of my paternal grandparents, especially Dadi’s. Ahmed Ali was a leading member of the All-India Progressive Writers’ Movement and had on Partition moved to Pakistan. I had wondered what this ‘great day’ was, and then on the recent discovery of Dadi’s First class MA (English) degree certificate from the University of Allahabad dated 14 December 1937, it became clear. The fact that the degree was awarded to a “he", as printed on the certificate, makes clear how rare it was for a woman to do her Masters back then.

More recently, I came across a letter written to Dadi by Ali. Dated 11 January 1969, it was written from Karachi. In the letter, Ali writes of his latest book on Mirza Ghalib: “I am the only person in the world to have translated him into English." He then goes on to write of his longing to meet all his friends and asks my grandmother if she could help him be invited officially to participate in the Ghalib centenary celebrations being organized in India, perhaps by having a word with Dr. Zakir Husain: “I am sure he will help." I have no idea if he was invited, and indeed if our president was approached and whether he helped. What is clear is that this was a longstanding close friendship and Ali ends the letter with, “No barriers can lock out memory."

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More recently, I came across a letter written to Dadi by Ali. Dated 11 January 1969, it was written from Karachi. In the letter, Ali writes of his latest book on Mirza Ghalib: “I am the only person in the world to have translated him into English." He then goes on to write of his longing to meet all his friends and asks my grandmother if she could help him be invited officially to participate in the Ghalib centenary celebrations being organized in India, perhaps by having a word with Dr. Zakir Husain: “I am sure he will help." I have no idea if he was invited, and indeed if our president was approached and whether he helped. What is clear is that this was a longstanding close friendship and Ali ends the letter with, “No barriers can lock out memory."

This memory of shared friendships, a common past, history, culture, politics and language is at the root of what appears to discomfort India’s ruling party and its supporters today. This week’s controversy over the lifestyle brand Fabindia indicates how even the use of an (incorrect) phrase from Urdu as the name of an apparel collection, Jashn-e-Riwaaz, to celebrate this year’s festive season can be seen as unacceptable, as was a 2020 advertisement by the jewellery brand Tanishq that attempted to demonstrate acceptance and inclusion.

These episodes of ‘outrage’ cannot be viewed in isolation. Let us not forget that controversies such as the Tanishq and Fabindia ones serve political purposes. A large north Indian state is to go to polls just as some southern states were to vote when the Tanishq controversy hit us. Who gains from this is well known. Therefore, it is important to reiterate that to a large extent such outrage is manufactured for a rightist electoral agenda. It is not just a polarized polity that political players gain from, but also the normalizing of a particular kind of discourse. Fabindia and Tanishq both cater to an affluent class that may not be numerically significant but is vocal and dominant in the public sphere. What members of this elite think matters.

Fabindia may have opportunistically hoped to cash in on what it saw as a ‘quaint’ and ‘nostalgic’ nod to what is often regarded as ‘high culture’, especially in north India. Perhaps it was, as some cynics might suggest, a deliberate ploy to cause a furore to maximize impact and gain visibility (and customers). At the first sign of outrage, the brand instantly caved and withdrew its Twitter post on the new festive line-up.

Elsewhere, superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan Khan was denied bail on what seemed a mere suspicion that he may be part of a drug ring. Countless Muslim men and women are in jail on being denied bail in various “conspiracy" cases. The tropes are there for all to see: ‘love jihad’, ‘Kashmiri terrorists’, ‘beef eaters’, ‘anti-nationals’, etc. The list is endless. Many Muslims have come to see their livelihoods and lives as being under threat. Up until now, this was mostly among the poor. Aryan Khan’s case denotes a perceptual shift. Earlier, some of the better-off may have sought comfort in the hunch that their class, money, privilege and silence would perhaps hold them in good stead, but even this assurance is suspected to have vanished. The message driven home is of a growing demand for scapegoats, and, while the law must of course apply equally to all, who better than the son of Bollywood’s ‘Badshah’?

What Muslims seem to face, on an assessment of identifiable trends across large parts of the country, is a kind of erasure from the public sphere: of their language, food, contributions and culture, and of course, of shared memories too, the kind Ahmed Ali referred to in his letter.

Ali was right in a way. Shared memories have held sway, and we still have remnants around us, even though young generations do not necessarily share most of them. The erasure project, it appears, does recognize its own fragility, which might explain an atavistic need to constantly repudiate commonalities and keep alive a supposed enmity, even construct new sources of it. Observably, its aim is to reconstruct India with all its messiness and diversity into one kind of Hindu society. Deep sentiments that surround perceived historical injuries are assuaged this way. That in the end we shall all emerge the poorer for it, alas, is yet to be realized by the majority of us.

Radha Khan is an independent consultant working in the field of gender, governance and social inclusion. She tweets @RadhaKhn.

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