Book Review: ‘But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim’ — an exploration of Indian-Muslim identity

The book consists of 40 essays on the Indian-Muslim identity. (Supplied)
Updated 18 October 2019

Book Review: ‘But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim’ — an exploration of Indian-Muslim identity

DHAHRAN: The cover portrait of a young woman — stained with colors, smiling and unrecognizable — at a Holi festival, encapsulates what the author believes a secular India should look like. Indeed, renowned writer, critic, literary historian and cultural commentator Rakhshanda Jalil’s latest book on being a Muslim in contemporary India hits home on many accounts.

The book consists of 40 essays on the Indian-Muslim identity, examined through a political, cultural, literary, and religious lens. The book opens with a casual statement, which can be delivered in tones ranging from surprise to approval.

“Oh, but you don’t look like a Muslim.”

Jalil goes on to explain how living in Delhi — through school, university, at the workplace, and in social situations — she has been subjected to a patronizing compliment that insinuates that is she is ‘normal,’ and — by extension — qualified to be considered as ‘belonging.’ The demonization and misrepresentation of Muslims in films and popular culture has birthed a narrative that often equates Indian Muslims with anti-nationalism. So much so that even something as simple as an appreciation for Urdu literature and cheering an India-Pakistan cricket match becomes a political discourse.




The cover portrait of a young woman encapsulates what the author believes a secular India should look like. (Supplied)

Jalil says that there is no duality: “I am a Muslim and an Indian, in no particular order. I am both,” she writes. She sees no reason to be either embarrassed or defensive of her religious identity. She explains that Indian Muslims fall into different spectrums, marked by regional, ethnic, social, and linguistic differences. But the entire community suffers as a result of stereotyping and alienation.

In four chapters — The Politics of Identity, The Matrix of Culture, The Mosaic of Literature, and The Rubric of Religion — Jalil addresses shared issues: Why, for example, the Muslim League’s demand for a separate homeland did not appeal to some Muslims and why some (like her grandfather, Ale Ahmad Suroor) chose to put their faith in a new secular nation. Or whether religiosity can be linked to external indicators, be it the hijab or the turban.

In other chapters, she recounts times when communal harmony prevailed and inclusion was the norm, rather than an exception.

And Jalil’s book is just as relevant to the Indian diaspora 3,000 kilometers away from the subcontinent as it is to communities within India. Can we — and should we — delineate identity?


Lack of spirit leaves World War II saga hanging midway

Roland Emmerich’s just-opened “Midway” comes nowhere close to the 1950s and 1960s war adventures. (Supplied)
Updated 14 November 2019

Lack of spirit leaves World War II saga hanging midway

CHENNAI: Movies on World War II have delighted cinema audiences for years. Nobody can forget the daring Allied escape in the 1965 “Von Ryan’s Express” with Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard driving a train through Nazi-occupied territory.

There were others in that decade and earlier such as David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” about British prisoners of war building a railway in malaria-infested Burma (now Myanmar). These were great classics, but recent efforts have not been as memorable.

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Roland Emmerich’s just-opened “Midway” comes nowhere close to the 1950s and 1960s war adventures. Despite audiences still being thirsty for WWII sagas and a star-studded cast (Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Mandy Moore, Ed Skrein and Nick Jonas), the film is unmoving, mainly because of the shallow characters. If the dialogues are stiff, the dramatic potential – including the relationship among the men – appears to have been left midway.

The film begins with Japan’s December 1941 air attack on the US naval base in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, which dragged America into the conflict, and the flick follows America’s revenge mission culminating in the June 1942 Battle of Midway.

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For the US, it was a victory against all odds giving them control of the Pacific’s Midway atoll. It was also a major triumph of human spirit, but the film does not quite capture it.

Most of the exploits relate to real-life fighter pilot Dick Best (Skrein), whose devil-may-care attitude earns him the title “cowboy.” His wife Ann (Moore), the only female character, urges him on but seems a washed-out figure. However, there is plenty of action in the air with dog fights, bombings and pilots ejecting from burning planes high above the ground.

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For fans of singer Jonas, his small but significant part may appeal. He is sailor Bruno Gaido whose spontaneous and heroic action during a Japanese raid earns him promotion.

“Midway” plays at three levels, including one about Japanese military officers, and was shot in Hawaii and Montreal with a lot of computer graphics thrown in. The camera work (Robby Baumgartner) is impressive, but somewhere the soul is missing, and the characters fail to come across as real people.

Despite this, the film opened atop the North American box office last weekend with a reported $17.5 million in ticket sales.