The piece first came in Outlook Turning Points, a joint issue with NYT
An unwelcome invitation to Shahrukh Khan from 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed. A testy, ballistic volley of words. All set off by a piece he wrote for the Outlook-NYT year-end issue. Here we reprint the essay. Part testament, part self-parody, it’s classic ‘SRK speak’ on what it is to be a Muslim icon. The mock-serious writing shows up the specious reaction in starker relief.
I am an actor. Time does not frame my days with as much conviction as images do. Images rule my life. Moments and memories imprint themselves on my being in the form of the snapshots that I weave into my expression. The essence of my art is the ability to create images that resonate with the emotional imagery of those watching them.
I am a Khan. The name itself conjures multiple images in my mind too: a strapping man riding a horse, his reckless hair flowing from beneath a turban tied firm around his head. His ruggedly handsome face marked by weathered lines and a distinctly large nose.
A stereotyped extremist; no dance, no drink, no cigarette tipping off his lips, no monogamy, no blasphemy; a fair, silent face beguiling a violent fury smouldering within. A streak that could even make him blow himself up in his God’s name.
Then there is the image of me being shoved into a backroom of a vast American airport named after an American president (another parallel image: of the president being assassinated by a man named Lee, not a Muslim thankfully, nor Chinese as some might imagine! I urgently shove the image of the room out of my head).
Some stripping, frisking and many questions later, I am given an explanation (of sorts): “Your name pops up on our system, we are sorry”. “So am I,” I think to myself, “Now can I have my underwear back please?”
Then, there is the image I most see, the one of me in my own country: being acclaimed as a megastar, adored and glorified, my fans mobbing me with love and apparent adulation.
I am a Khan.
I could say I fit into each of these images: I could be a strapping six feet something—ok something minus, about three inches at least, though I don’t know much about horse-riding. A horse once galloped off with me flapping helplessly on it and I have had a “no horse-riding” clause embedded in my contracts ever since.
I am extremely muscular between my ears, I am often told by my kids, and I used to be fair too, but now I have a perpetual tan or, as I like to call it, an ‘olive hue’—though deep in the recesses of my armpits I can still find the remains of a fairer day. I am handsome under the right kind of light and I really do have a “distinctly large” nose. It announces my arrival in fact, peeking through the doorway just before I make my megastar entrance. But my nose notwithstanding, my name means nothing to me unless I contextualise it.
SRK’s call to include Pakistani cricketers in the IPL drew fire. (Photograph by Fotocorp, From Outlook 11 February 2013)
Stereotyping and contextualising is the way of the world we live in: a world in which definition has become central to security. We take comfort in defining phenomena, objects and people—with a limited amount of knowledge and along known parameters. The predictability that naturally arises from these definitions makes us feel secure within our own limitations.
We create little image boxes of our own. One such box has begun to draw its lid tighter and tighter at present. It is the box that contains an image of my religion in millions of minds.
I encounter this tightening of definition every time moderation is required to be publicly expressed by the Muslim community in my country. Whenever there is an act of violence in the name of Islam, I am called upon to air my views on it and dispel the notion that by virtue of being a Muslim, I condone such senseless brutality. I am one of the voices chosen to represent my community in order to prevent other communities from reacting to all of us as if we were somehow colluding with or responsible for the crimes committed in the name of a religion that we experience entirely differently from the perpetrators of these crimes.
I sometimes become the inadvertent object of political leaders who choose to make me a symbol of all that they think is wrong and unpatriotic about Muslims in india. There have been occasions when I have been accused of bearing allegiance to our neighbouring nation rather than my own country—this even though I am an Indian whose father fought for the freedom of India. Rallies have been held where leaders have exhorted me to leave my home and return to what they refer to as my “original homeland”.
Of course, I politely decline each time, citing such pressing reasons as sanitation works at my house preventing me from taking the good shower that’s needed before undertaking such an extensive journey. I don’t know how long this excuse will hold though.
I gave my son and daughter names that could pass for generic (pan-Indian and pan-religious) ones: Aryan and Suhana. The Khan has been bequeathed by me so they can’t really escape it. I pronounce it from my epiglottis when asked by Muslims and throw the Aryan as evidence of their race when non-Muslims enquire. I imagine this will prevent my offspring from receiving unwarranted eviction orders and random fatwas in the future. It will also keep my two children completely confused. Sometimes, they ask me what religion they belong to and, like a good Hindi movie hero, I roll my eyes up to the sky and declare philosophically, “You are an Indian first and your religion is humanity”, or sing them an old Hindi film ditty, “Tu Hindu banega na Musalmaan banega—insaan ki aulaad hai insaan banega” set to Gangnam Style.
None of this informs them with any clarity, it just confounds them some more and makes them deeply wary of their father.
In the land of the freed, where I have been invited on several occasions to be honoured, I have bumped into ideas that put me in a particular context. I have had my fair share of airport delays for instance.
I became so sick of being mistaken for some crazed terrorist who coincidentally carries the same last name as mine that I made a film, subtly titled ‘My name is Khan (and I am not a terrorist)’ to prove a point. Ironically, I was interrogated at the airport for hours about my last name when I was going to present the film in America for the first time.
I wonder, at times, whether the same treatment is given to everyone whose last name just happens to be McVeigh (as in infamous Oklahoma city bomber Timothy McVeigh)??
I am neither six-feet-tall nor particularly handsome (I am modest though) nor am I a Muslim who looks down on other religions. I have been taught my religion by my six-foot-tall, handsome Pathan ‘Papa’ from Peshawar, where his proud family and mine still resides. He was a member of the non-violent Pathan movement called Khudai Khidmatgaar and a follower of both Gandhiji and Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, who was also known as the Frontier Gandhi.
My first learning of Islam from him was to respect women and children and to uphold the dignity of every human being. I learnt that the property and decency of others, their points of view, their beliefs, their philosophies and their religions were due as much respect as my own and ought to be accepted with an open mind. I learnt to believe in the power and benevolence of Allah, and to be gentle and kind to my fellow human beings, to give of myself to those less privileged than me and to live a life full of happiness, joy, laughter and fun without impinging on anybody else’s freedom to live in the same way.
So I am a Khan, but no stereotyped image is factored into my idea of who I am. Instead, the living of my life has enabled me to be deeply touched by the love of millions of Indians. I have felt this love for the last 20 years regardless of the fact that my community is a minority within the population of India. I have been showered with love across national and cultural boundaries, from Suriname to Japan and Saudi Arabia to Germany, places where they don’t even understand my language. They appreciate what I do for them as an entertainer—that’s all. My life has led me to understand and imbibe that love is a pure exchange, untempered by definition and unfettered by the narrowness of limiting ideas. If each one of us allowed ourselves the freedom to accept and return love in its purity, we would need no image boxes to hold up the walls of our security.
I believe that I have been blessed with the opportunity to experience the magnitude of such a love, but I also know that ultimately its scale is irrelevant. In our own small ways, simply as human beings, we can appreciate each other for how we touch our lives and not how our different religions or last names define us.
Beneath the guise of my superstardom, I am an ordinary man. My Islamic stock does not conflict with that of my Hindu wife’s. The only disagreements I have with Gauri concern the colour of the walls in our living room and not about the locations of the walls demarcating temples from mosques in India.
We have a daughter who pirouettes in a leotard and choreographs her own ballets. She sings western songs that confound my sensibilities and aspires to be an actress. She also insists on covering her head when in a Muslim nation that practises this really beautiful and much misunderstood tenet of Islam.
Our son’s linear features proclaim his Pathan pedigree although he carries his own, rather gentle mutation of the warrior gene. He spends all day either pushing people aside at rugby, kicking some butt at Tae Kwon Do or eliminating unknown faces behind anonymous online gaming handles around the world with The Call of Duty video game. And yet, he firmly admonishes me for getting into a minor scuffle at the cricket stadium in Mumbai last year because some bigot made unsavoury remarks about me being a Khan.
The four of us make up a motley representation of the extraordinary acceptance and validation that love can foster when exchanged within the exquisiteness of things that are otherwise defined as ordinary.
For I believe, our religion is an extremely personal choice, not a public proclamation of who we are. It’s as personal as the spectacles of my father who passed away some 20 years ago. Spectacles that I hold onto as my most prized and personal possession of his memories, teachings and of being a proud Pathan. I have never compared those with my friends, who have similar possessions of their parents or grandparents. I have never said my father’s spectacles are better than your mother’s saree. So why should we have this comparison in the matter of religion, which is as personal and prized a belief as the memories of your elders. Why should not the love we share be the last word in defining us instead of the last name? It doesn’t take a superstar to be able to give love, it just takes a heart and as far as I know, there isn’t a force on this earth that can deprive anyone of theirs.
I am a Khan, and that’s what it has meant being one, despite the stereotype images that surround me. To be a Khan has been to be loved and to have loved back—that and the promise that virgins wait for me somewhere on the other side.
Also See: 'We In India Are Extremely Safe And Happy'
This letter comes from an Egyptian. We were introduced to India through Shahrukh’s movies (Inside My Khanate, Feb 11). We learned about your society, culture, civilisation, festivals, morals etc all through his movies. Many of us first thought of visiting India, learning your language etc just because we loved the image that he gave us about India. We loved India through his heart and eyes. Believe it or not, my daughter changed her plans and decided to do her masters in India instead of Germany because of SRK. He couldn’t have planted all that love for India in our hearts if he hadn’t had a true, deep, sincere and rooted love for it himself. So cherish him. Of course, he is not a perfect god. He has his mistakes and defects. After all, he is human. PS: A person’s religion is between him and his God only. Only God can judge us. So please hold on to each other and never allow anything or anyone to separate you Indians.
Aliaa Ahmed, via FB
Shahrukh seems to suffer from a persecution complex, forgetting that he owes his success to the masses who loved him without heed to his religion. By not responding to Hafiz Saeed, he did a great disservice to the country.
Sudhir Das, Assam
Funny and articulate! And conclusive proof that Hafiz saab does not ‘get’ subtlety or have a sense of humour.
C. Ramesh, Bangalore
I missed Shahrukh’s piece when it was first published in the Turning Points issue. Many thanks for repeating it.
M. Ratan, New Delhi
The core of the article is
"For I believe, our religion is an extremely personal choice, not a public proclamation of who we are. It’s as personal as the spectacles of my father who passed away some 20 years ago that I hold onto as my most prized and personal possession of his memories, teachings and of being a proud Pathan. I have never said my father’s spectacles are better than your mother’s saree. So why should we have this comparison in the matter of religion, which is as personal and prized a belief as the memories of your elders?"
Attaboy! This article should be made required reading for all Indians!!
Being a fan of Khan from his 'Fauji' days I had
immense pleasure in finding you so articulate in venting up
your true feelings. God is Great and blessed you utmost.
Do think as a 'Victor' Than a 'Victim'.
The real Hero need be like that. Cheers to you and Outlook
SRK seems to be contradicting himself in this article. On one hand he says that religion must be a private affair of an individual and on the other he repeats again and again the he is a Khan (5 times in all in his one and half page article). Why this emphasis on his religion? He seems to have been suffering from a persecution complex like most of the Indian Muslims who very often look forward to Pakistan as if that counntry is their saviour in chief. He should not have forgotten that he owes his success to the Indian masses who loved him irrespective of his religion. His religion never is an issue with the vast majority of of his fans. If he is complaning about fringe elements of Indian politics opposing some of his actions there are such Muslim leaders like Akbaruddin Owaisi too who never let go an opportunity of passing derogatory comments on the Hindus and what is wonderufl is there was no widespread violent retaliation. India is basically a secular country and all the minorities enjoy freedom of expression like anyother citizens of India. SRK by not responding in a befitting manner to the invitation of Hafiz Sayeed has done a great disservice to the country.
Funny and articulate! And conclusive proof that Hafiz Sahib from across the border does not understand subtleties, and has no sense of humour.
"I learnt that the property and decency of others, their points of view, their beliefs, their philosophies and their religions were due as much respect as my own and ought to be accepted with an open mind." - Where is this spirit in India today? All are included, in my rant, including the Modis and the Senas.
Shri Shah Rukh Khan is absolutely right in his assessment of his predicament as an Indian Muslim and as an Indian citizen. But, unfortunately, today’s scenario is far more complicated and is something like this: (a) Terrorist organizations like LeT and Taliban are openly supporting violence in the name of Islam. Saner elements in Muslim nations over the world are not actively contradicting this view of terrorists. (b) The extremists in Muslim communities all over the world are not ready to accommodate a view that is different from theirs and they (extremists) are often proclaiming that non-Muslims have no right to live in this world. (c) More worrying is the fact that saner elements in Muslim communities in our country and elsewhere are being weakened day by day.
What is the scenario on the political front? Muslim leaders all over India are simply not able to separate politics from religion and as a result they are unable to convince the majority of Hindus that they (Muslims) accept limits imposed by our Constitution on their freedom regarding Muslim Personal Law. They have also been wasting their time and energy on agitations of little relevance and hence are not able to achieve much for socio-economic progress of the poor Muslims.
Concerned citizens’ feeling is that actors like Shah Rukh Khan must use their influence over Muslim masses for the right cause.
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