Of love’s austere and lonely offices
The film Aligarh has ruffled the feathers of conservatives within and outside Aligarh Muslim University.
For me, an iconic scene in Hansal Mehta's biopic on Professor Srinivas Ramchandra Siras, titled Aligarh, is a fleeting snapshot of Siras' démodé dressing table with a distinguishable blue jar of what can only be coconut oil sitting on top of it. It is only natural to associate routine objects we encounter on a daily basis, to personal experiences, people, and places. Spotting the blue jar of coconut oil instantly transported me to a shoebox corner of my ancestral house that belongs, exclusively, to my grandmother. In particular, it conjured the image of my grandmother's soaring mahogany cabinet where a host of items of daily use sit proudly, commanding a space they know is off-bounds. Among these items, below a rack of neatly stacked siparas and a tin box of cookies that now house knitting supplies, is an identical blue jar of coconut oil; it stands in stark contrast to the bashful peach tint of the cough syrup and the unobtrusive yellow of the petroleum jelly, pale in front of the greasy, blue, plastic frame. As I walk back home from the theatre, I fixate on that scene which is, admittedly, just one among the many passing visuals in a drama that produces far more compelling and profound vignettes from the kaleidoscope of one human's experiences. I think about the blue jar, my grandmother, a woman mired by loneliness, and by that association, a woman, perhaps, in a far better position to understand Siras' anguish.
Siras' solitary hours spent singing along to the tunes of old Hindi songs hit home, finding a parallel in my grandmother's imagined conversations with the politicians on TV who leave her largely unimpressed. On any given day, you can pass her by, lying in her signature foetal position on the sprawling divan in the living room, wagging a frail finger at the TV screen split into six boxes, asserting her political agency. On the surface, both these scenes generate a laughter born out of endearment – a cursory reaction from otherwise well-meaning individuals. After all, who wouldn't love an old man smitten by antiquated love ballads, or an old woman bursting with opinions on the latest parliamentary debate? It's the stuff of tea-break conversations, points of reminiscences for the next grand family get-together. However, if one were so inclined to do a deeper character study, they would find the veneer splitting to expose pitch-black isolation. Siras' song sessions, and my grandmother's parley with her political adversaries are, after all, coping mechanisms to stave off loneliness.
And so, in being able to associate an artefact from Siras' home, an inanimate object representative of his simple life preoccupied with music and poetry (and hardly any activism of any sort, as one would expect in a stereotypical narrative), with my own grandmother's struggle with loneliness, I was, perhaps, able to reach the heartfelt message the movie tries to convey all along. The sympathetic portrayal of the homosexual professor who was caught in an act of consensual sex in a 'sting' operation, suspended from his job, reinstated and finally died in a suspected suicide, has been termed a conspiracy to malign the reputation of a city, home to a renowned university, and the values and traditions held sacred by both. The spokesperson of the Millat Bedari Muhim Committee (MBMC), a fringe group, has in true chest-thumping style, declared that a protest carried out by members of his organisation deterred local cinema halls from running the movie, and it's true, an "unofficial" ban on the movie was instituted in the city. In a letter written to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, members of MBMC expressed their concern over people permanently associating the city and the university with homosexuality, which, they said, would discourage future enrolments and tarnish the international image of the city. Another voice particularly loud within this backlash is that of the mayor of the city, Shakuntala Bharti, who, earnestly devoted to protecting "cows from slaughter and Hindu girls from love jihad" and sincerely petrified of the Mughal Raj resurfacing in India, has also voiced her concern over the title of the film. Regurgitating a done-to-death argument, the mayor spoke of the "tameez" and "tehzeeb" intrinsic to the moral fabric of the city, that would be stained should the world learn that "people like" Siras live in Aligarh, unrepentant and in brazen disobedience to its social mores.
On February 19 2016, hardly a week prior to the controversy surrounding the movie, the mayor, flanked by several right-wing activists, demonstrated in front of the office of the Senior Superintendent of Police demanding to file an FIR against the contractor of the canteen at the AMU medical college for, allegedly, serving beef biryani. Beef is banned in the state. While the proctor and other official representatives of the university have jumped to the institute's defence and blamed internal politics for these rumours, the local leaders of the BJP were quick to fan the flames of the controversy and use it to strengthen their propaganda against the status of AMU as a minority institution, part of a targeted, nation-wide campaign to saffronise education. The University takes the battle of protecting its minority status extremely seriously and is devoted to resisting the right-wing forces of the ruling government that seek to bring it down. However, Hansal Mehta's movie has unwittingly forged a curious comradeship between these two erstwhile warring factions, which have now allied to cry themselves hoarse against the title of the movie. Beneath the political antagonism, the hardliners against Aligarh, whether adherents of the saffron brand of fanaticism or the green, have a lot more in common than they care to admit. They both imagine a world purged of 'moral turpitude' in all its forms, and homosexuality is pretty high up on their list.
In light of this truth, and in the context of Aligarh Muslim University in particular, it becomes imperative to address the elephant in the room. Though Aligarh might not be just about homosexuality but about social isolation and loneliness, the film is located in the attitude of the University towards homosexuality. The discourse, even among those who strongly support Siras, revolves around the injustice meted out to him by way of a breach of his privacy, physical abuse, humiliation and subsequent suspension from the university, without addressing the root cause of this behaviour: homophobia.
As an alumna of AMU, I have many stories of my own about the growing social conservatism within the University, which is at odds with its liberal foundational ethos. I have often swept these personal narratives under the rug in apprehension that these stories may be misused by those outside the University, waiting to pounce on any form of dissent from within. I have also been wary of those inside the University who would, perhaps, accuse me of dragging the name of the University through mud for personal fame. These apprehensions have, on occasion, forced me to check myself – like when I wished to speak of the violent mob that came after me and my friends because we "transgressed our limits as Muslim girls" and "dared" to hang out with boys on the university campus after sundown. Never mind that these flag-bearers of morality used only the most derogatory language and attempted to intimidate us by snatching the keys to our vehicle. Never mind that they assumed we were all Muslims.
Aligarh made me realise Siras' story will be told, whether or not the city of Aligarh decides to tell it. The struggle of a man, who perhaps unwittingly challenged the prevailing status quo of the University when so many of us have failed to do on so many occasions, needs to be recognised. In a time when people's open declaration of their true selves is a revolutionary act, and no meaningful conversations begin until a life is lost, turning away from Siras' story will be nothing short of a betrayal of one man's struggle against a society that did not even give him a chance, and the larger struggle of those "like him".
One may argue that AMU lacks the fiery passion of institutes like Jawaharlal Nehru University or Jadavpur University. But one must also acknowledge that unlike these universities, which are bastions of the Left, the 'Aligarh struggle' constantly wades against a tumultuous tide of religious dogma, both within and outside the university, and the flutter of its sails is slowly beginning to be heard. The recently surfaced hash tag #ALIGARHinaligarh is part of an ongoing campaign by a small section of the AMU students, alumni, and teachers, who are mobilising public opinion to persuade the local cinema halls, as well as the university administration, to screen the movie. The members of the campaign recently organised a cultural event as part of the movement and to honour Siras' memory. It was a small event, with around fifty people in attendance, and an impressive line-up of open-mic poetry readings, musical performances and nukkadnatak-style dramatic performances on the theme of freedom of expression. This is not the first event of its kind to be organised in the AMU, and it certainly won't be the last. But what sets this movement apart in the history of the University is that it champions a cause that many University 'activists' have kept away from and that it is led by a group of women.
When it comes to campus activism in the AMU, women have been grossly underrepresented. Women students taking to the streets to protest various campus-associated issues is a fairly recent occurrence. In the past, marches, rallies and even candle-light vigils have been largely, often completely, male-dominated. Even the obligatory one-woman representation in the cabinet of the Students' Union (forget being the president, vice-president or the general-secretary) is a position requiring appropriately 'modest' behaviour. In other words, if you don't wear a headscarf, you lose some serious leverage. Compared to the students' movements in the rest of the country, the victories in AMU may be seen as being small, but the dissenters in AMU stand and strive for the same values as espoused by other students' movements across the country.
Many of us have been indoctrinated with the belief that we cannot criticise that which has nurtured us, let alone that which we love. But there is a need to reject the propaganda of forces that seek to impose "true values", not knowing that the University, from its inception, was imagined as a safe space for free-thinking and inclusivity. We need to reclaim this space to further voices and representations that accord every human being the respect and dignity they deserve, irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender. The self-proclaimed watchdogs of the University forget that the "legacy" they so loudly and violently claim to preserve has no origin in the history of Aligarh Muslim University. They fail to consider that the founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, whose portrait adorns every department of the University, whose birth anniversary is celebrated with much pomp and show every year, and whose mission and vision are the subject matter of countless essay-writing, poster-making and debate competitions, would probably recoil at the flagrant breach of the tolerance he practised and preached his whole life. One can only wonder what those who seek to deracinate Aligarh Muslim University from its liberal roots have to say about the same man who, in his time, was declared a kafir by clerics for his unorthodox interpretation of Islam, and who once wore anklets and danced in the middle of a crowd, in the true style of courtesans, to raise funds to set up a progressive educational institute.
~The title of this article is from a poem by Robert Hayden titled 'Those Winter Sundays'.
~ Samiya Javed Akhtar is an English graduate from Aligarh Muslim University. She currently works as a programme coordinator with the NGO Vatsalya on water, health and sanitation issues in Lucknow.