A house for Mr Azad
In NRC and CAA-racked Assam, a father tries to explain to his son why they had to leave their rented home and friends
Two years ago, I decided to move out of Guwahati to spend more time on my research and grass-roots activism. I was looking for a house in a town that happens to be a district headquarter. I finally found a place after several rejections. The quality of the house, its distance from the school where I was thinking of enrolling my then two-and-a-half-year-old son, the rent, the separate electric sub-meter—almost everything was perfect.
“Your house is nice but I would like my wife to see it once and decide," I told the landlord.The soft-spoken retired schoolteacher replied: “No problem. Just don’t take too long to decide. I have enquiries from many prospective tenants." I thanked him and said goodbye. But before I could reach the gate, he called out to me from the first floor and asked me to stop. He came to the gate and said, “Sorry, my wife is a religious person…."
I understood that my search for a new house was not over.
Finding a suitable rented house is always a challenging task and I have accepted this challenge since my early youth, having lived in a dozen rented places across Assam. However, as I get older, I realize that moving homes doesn’t come with just physical and financial challenges; it takes me through an emotional upheaval.
Whenever I speak to a homeowner, I make it clear right from the start that I am a Miya Muslim, a community often looked down upon in Assam, to avoid wasting time on futile negotiations. The landlord I spoke of earlier seemed to be okay with this initially, but his family probably had second thoughts about renting a house to us.
Fortunately, I soon found another (better) house on the same street at an affordable rent. The landlord was a young government officer. He explicitly told me that he had no problem with Muslims. He had many friends from my community. “My friends from the Miya community come here and we dine together," he told me. He also said that there were other children in the same compound—he had two children and his brother had a boy the same age as my son—and that my son would probably love to be friends with them.
We shifted to the new house. As predicted by the new landlord, my son started loving the company of other children his age. In a few months, he had picked up the local accent of Assamese, though my wife and I speak a slightly different Miya dialect. It was his new friends from whom he learnt the language so fast.
Almost every day after school, he would enquire about my landlord’s nephew and his daughter and after they had finished their lunch, all the children would get together in the living room of our second-floor home. They would play, cycle, sing and make a lot of noise.
Though everything was nice and warm inside the house, the outside world was changing fast.
In July last year, Assam was going through turmoil over the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (later passed; CAA). In the meantime, a controversy started over a new genre of poetry called Miya poetry, alleging that the Miya poets were portraying Assam and Assamese people in bad light.
I am one of those Miya poets against whom the frivolous allegations were levelled.
One day, I was invited to a prime-time television debate on the controversy. I was bombarded with questions and allegations, with little opportunity given to clarify that this poetry actually portrays the pain and suffering of my community, which they have had to endure because of the faulty implementation of citizenship contestation processes in Assam.
The next day, I realized that several criminal cases had been filed against me and my fellow poets and activists. I was in hiding, away from my family. I didn’t see and hear my son for days. One night, I managed to call my wife. Her biggest concern was what would happen if the landlord had watched the television debate. I comforted her. “Don’t worry, everything will be fine," I said.
But the reassurance didn’t work. As the months passed, the anti-CAA movement was gaining momentum in Assam. Simultaneously, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was escalating its anti-Miya rhetoric. On 15 December, I remember it was a Sunday, my son and I went to our landlord’s house on the first floor to call his daughter to play.
I rang the doorbell. The landlord opened the door and told me: “I have been thinking of calling you. Please look for another house."
For a moment, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “But why?" I asked him.
“We need the space," he said.
I insisted on knowing the real reason. Finally, he told me: “You know I don’t have any problem with Muslims. Miyas come and eat in my kitchen. But I am facing problems from society. I have been ostracized for renting my house to a Miya. People don’t invite me to social functions."
His eyes had welled up and both of us avoided looking at the other directly.
Meanwhile, my son was not interested in our conversation. He was busy calling out to his friend and trying to get into the house.
The landlord told him “she won’t come today" and closed the door.
We had to move out. My son couldn’t understand why. It was difficult to make him understand the concept of a rented house. And it was definitely a hundred times more challenging to answer his questions, like “how often will my friends visit the new house?"
How strange it is that my son and I stay in the same house but live in two different societies. I am sure the children in the previous house are going through the same confusion. Our children are living in their own society full of love, while we are living in a society of bigotry and segregation.
On this day of love, I hope my son and his friends will grow up to conquer our society with their love and compassion.
Abdul Kalam Azad is a human rights researcher based in Assam.