That the internet makes dichotomies starker is truism worth repeating many times over. Except in India, that effect spilled over beyond the interwebs and got a crassness amplifying effect to make the internet appear nuanced. One can despair at the state of affairs and feel smug and superior about mathematically illiterate pundits and history-ignorant narrative pedlars on print and television, in the other places of popular culture and worse even in academia.
Yet, the wonder of such a highly populated place is that there are still enough people who truly make one proud of others’ thought in a way Rabindranath Tagore aspired. Sometimes one meets them when interviewing for a job or attending a conference. At others, a remarkably original paper or an auto driver. Or, Kombai S. Anwar. As Anwar mentions in his documentary, he is Tamil, Muslim and many other things. Among them, a man of that old City called Madurai. The most endearing aspect about his presentation is usually the thoughtful helplessness he displays when some opinionated blowhard tries to assert a certain view point.
The documentary itself is fascinating and you should buy it simply for the reason that as a society we need more Anwars doing even better historical research and they should see a way to sustain themselves doing that. As a frill, you get to listen to MS Subbulakshmi reciting the Alhamadhu Sura and that sort of indicates the tone for much his documentary — an honest and proud Tamil son’s exploration of his Muslim identity.
The relevance of Anwar’s research and exploration to Puram is slightly different, however. And that begins with his wry observation that when he travelled to a large Indian metro, other Muslims there asked him “You don’t know Urdu? What kind of a Muslim are you?” And how he struggled to explain that he came from a family that was a serious participant in the anti-Hindi agitations and that they were Tamil. That and his wonderful use of temple scriptures to point to how Muslims were integral to the village fabric in the Tamil country from the 10th Century on makes it apparent that unlike many of India’s Muslims in northern parts, Tamil Muslims did not come from invasions. Their presence, as noted by the temple inscriptions, came about in order to take pepper in return for gold. Later, they were settled close to the temple in every Tamil village, next only to the priests in many cases, because the Muslim brought in the horse for Tamil kings.
Anwar in reaffirming the closely interwoven nature of the social fabric in Tamil country, made one wonder about an uncomfortable question he did not raise: but what if that person isn’t as much a Tamil and is just Muslim? Does that make that late entrant any less worthy of celebration? The political loyalty of the Tamil Muslim, as Anwar mentions, is with mainstream Tamil parties and often indistinguishable from other social groups. In other parts of India, this is often not the case and their loyalties may strictly be against one group, if not for another. Whether this is attributable to later entrants being seen and invaders initially and not being woven into the social fabric early enough or if it’s simply attributable to Muslims forming a larger proportion of population in states like UP and Bihar is a question one then grapples with.
In the same Lit Fest, Rahul Pandita spoke about the silence of the majority Kashmiri Muslims in driving the minority Pandits out of Kashmir. That made one even more uncomfortable. Whatever errors of silent omission that are attributed to friends, neighbours and colleagues among the Muslims of Kashmir in 1991 is easily attributable to ordinary Germans in Nazi era, ordinary Serbs in Bosnia, Hutus in Rwanda and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. And the silence of ordinary members of the majority, not in commission but in omission, is what seems to always be a sufficiency criterion of violent oppression. And the necessary one — a sense of majoritarian victimhood. It’s deeply disturbing to think that is precisely what the BJP’s political rhetoric tends towards in recent times; more among their loud mouthed and astro-turfed Twitter gangsters than actual office bearers, though that distinction is fast eroding with a constant feedback loop that has resulted in more of the absurd M Lekhi and less of affable Nalin Kohli.
Whatever one may think about these questions, it simply is clear that the burden of cosmopolitanism is simply not on the minority. And is always on the majority. So the expectation of assimilation from the ‘other’ is idiotic, illiberal and chauvinist. And this especially when the minority in question, on average lives atrociously poor lives with appalling social indices.
 — Here you can listen to Kumari Aboobacker sing the Thirupugazh on Prophet Muhammad! His rendering of ‘kaapi raagam’ was quite good, too.
 – The mosque in Kilakkarai is beautiful and as Anwar points out, it’s built in Dravidian style.
 – Muslims as a group are worse off than the average in most measures.
 – Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour cites a slight variant where middle class residents of Delhi looted shops in the aftermath of 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom.
 – These are Muslims from the southern part of Tamil Nadu. As Anwar indicates elsewhere, some Muslims in Tamil Nadu from the northern part came in with Muhammed Ali Khan Wallajah as the Mughal Empire’s foray and thus descend from the same stock that Mulsims from other parts of India do.
 – And as a coincidence one such bleak and hopeless portrayal won the prize.