The Laughter Of The Interrogator

He is waiting for me in the hotel lobby, but barely lifts his head to acknowledge me when I come down from my room to meet him. His face, decorated with a pair of plastic sunglasses, is perfectly round. An equally perfectly round chin, nose, pair of cheeks and eyes but an incongruously square mouth complete a the face of my interrogator. A mustache covers his upper lip, and his middle age is betrayed by his receding hairline and thinning hair. His police uniform is sharply pressed, its starched perfection suggesting professional dry cleaning. It clings to his frame like shrink-wrap and suggests a tailored fit measured to accommodate the demands of his large frame and without a hint of being ill-fitting. The buttons are well polished. His black, patent leather shoes equally well buffed. A fastidious man, I think, one that may be equally fastidious when he question me about my reasons for being in his city.

After some three years working in India I have become accustomed to being questioned by the local Police and Intelligence authorities whenever I arrive and check into a hotel. The presence of a Pakistani-born man traveling alone raises concerns, and within 24 hours of checking in I can usually expect a call from the hotel front desk telling me that I have visitors and that I need to come down with my passport and any other relevant paperwork.

And though I expect these calls, I still remain wary of the process that follows. I am filled with dread because I can’t tell the temperament and prejudices of the men who arrive to question me. Their attitude can be anywhere between politely inquisitive to accusatory interrogative. As a ‘Muslim’ and of Pakistani origin I know that I possess the two elements certain to raise suspicion and concern. I always feel that it is up to me to prove my innocence rather than up to them to justify their suspicion.

Inspector V., – I have read his name from a large name badge he wears on his uniform, is sitting deeply ensconced in the hotel lobby sofa, the length of his body embraced by its deep cushions. He has not looked at me, even as I address him and pass him copies of my documentation. He ignores me, and continues flipping through some papers on the table in front him. My documents lay between us waiting for his attention. I realize that I am being put in my place, the order and hierarchy of the conversation being established. He will turn to me when he is ready, and in the mean time I must wait. I sit back and say nothing.

The hotel manager floats nearby, obsequiously making offers of chai and samosas for the inspector, who declines his offers and continues to sift through the documents that he seems to have bought with him. I notice that a copy of my ‘Form C’ is amongst them. The infamous ‘Form C’, to be completed by all travelers of foreign origin, and later sent directly to the local Police and Intelligence Bureau for review. The hotel manager’s deference suggests that the Inspector is a man to be feared. Or at least to be respected. I wonder what he has done to earn this reputation, this servility from the hotel staff. Perhaps he has done this many times before. Perhaps he has caught culprits in the past. Regardless, the hotel manager is attentive and prepared to serve should he be called to do so. The inspector behaves as if that is what he expects the manager to do. Some 15 minutes pass and my mind is starting to drift back to the writing I was doing in my room before I was interrupted by this visit. I know that there is nothing I can do to speed this along. The inspector has still not looked at me, though he has interrupted his reading for some quick chit-chat with the manager about the growing heat of the city, and the difficulties of finding a decent handyman to help with home repairs.

And then all of a sudden he asks “Why are you here young man?”The question takes me by surprise because it is asked while his face is still turned towards his papers. For a moment I think that he is reading something before I realize that I am being addressed. I explain the nature of my travels, the research project that I am working on, the fellowship that has allowed me to be here in India and anticipating further inquiries based on my previous experiences, tell him about my future travel plans. His face has now turned towards me, but his body remains immobile, seemingly trapped in the depths of the sofa itself. In fact I am distracted by how little his body seems to move throughout our conversation, or even when he reaches towards the table to pick up a paper or later, a cup of chai. I retain an impression of arms that extend outwards from his large frame, as if connected to bellows, enabling him to reach great distances without having to actually move the rest of his body. This ability is distracting me, and I fight to retain awareness of my answers. The wrong word, the wrong phrasing can get me into trouble and bring down the weight of the Police and the Intelligence Bureau. I have to remain alert, pleasant, congenial and cooperative.

We go through the standard set of question and I give my standard set of answers: yes, I was born in Pakistan, but over forty-five years ago; yes, I still have family there; yes, I do visit the country but mostly for professional reasons; no, I have not lived there since many years; yes, I am an American citizen and here on an American grant; yes, I have permission to be in Gujarat; yes, I have friends in India and yes I can provide you with their contact details; yes, I am traveling alone; no, my work does not allow me to travel with companions; no, this is a genuine Indian visa that allows me to travel throughout the country; no, I have no other documents other than my passport and a valid research visa; yes, I have enough funding to allow me to complete my work; no, I do not intend to go near any restricted areas; no, I am only a photographer and a writer; yes, my father’s name is Nave; no, I don’t know my grandfather’s name (he laughs, and to the hotel manager, says ‘He really has become Western!’); yes, I am from a Muslim family; yes, I have relatives in India. The routine is always the same, and everything I say or provide as documentation meticulous written down and noted onto various forms and sheets.

But Inspector V. Is different because he is listening to my answers but I can’t tell whether he cares. He takes no notes, but simply stares at me (I presume he is staring at me because I can’t see his eyes behind his sunglasses that he has not taken off) and occasionally nods his head. Sometimes I have to give the same answer a few times because he will ask me the same question a few times. Is this a trick to get me to slip up? Is it intentional, or simply indifference? The tone of his voice has maintained a surprisingly consistent combination of standoffish indifference and mocking curiosity. He has picked up and perused the relevant pages of my passport at least a dozen times during our interview. Each time he does so he rubs its pages with his thumb, as if expect the ink to simply rub off and reveal their illegitimate nature. Each time he has scrutinized the pages of the passport by holding them close to his face, turning them towards the light, and up towards the ceiling. Each time he has thrown it back onto the table, never just placed it there.

It has been an hour. He is getting restless and bored. But I sense that he is uncomfortable leaving. He is not convinced, and yet he cannot find anything that would require him to interrogate me further. And then suddenly he blurts out “Why don’t Muslims pray in temples?” The question is ostensibly aimed at the hotel manager, but I feel its barb. “Huh? You never see a Muslim enter a temple. We Hindus go to dargahs, we put our hands together and offer puja. But no Muslim will go a temple!” He smirks to himself, and I realize that this is not a question but an accusation, an indictment. And given the history of Ahmedabad and the violence inflicted on her Muslim inhabitants, an explanation and perhaps a justification.

I had earlier explained to him the nature of my research on pluralism in India and how I was exploring shared sacred spaces. I now want to respond to his challenge, to tell him that in fact there are plenty of examples of temples in India where Muslims frequent and make offerings. In fact, just the previous week I had been at one, and that the following week I was on my way to Mekandada’s mandir in Jhangi where the Muslim farmers are known to come and celebrate alongside their Hindu neighbors. But I say nothing, and nod quietly. I want to tell him about other locations that I have traveled to – Bahucharaji’ mandir in Becharaji for example where I have seen Muslim families leave offerings to the eunuch goddess. But these meetings are not places to prove a point. I have to swallow my pride and hold back my instinct to engage. I can feel that he does not just want to walk away, and leave me with a sense that all is ok and that I can proceed. He has by now finished two cups of tea and a small plate of samosas that the hotel manager had earlier placed in front of him.

My silence eventually compels him to stand. I am surprised by the swiftness, near elegance, with which he extricates himself from the sofa. Before I can fully get up he is in front of me, grasping me by my shoulders, his circular face mere inches away from me, declaring “Go my friend, you are free to travel here, party and make merry!” I try to explain that I am here to work and not make merry, but he interrupts me before I can open my mouth. “Here, in Gujarat, you Muslims are free.” He is looking at me with a look that is at once avuncular and aloof. “Just remember, that in any other part of the world, they would put two armed men to escort the likes of you at all times!

He laughs and without waiting for a response from me turns and begins to walk, swinging his arms with exaggerated movements, happy to have delivered a body blow to my dignity, towards the doors leading out to the street. The hotel manager, his body slightly bent in reverence, escorts him out and I hear him ask after the Inspector’s family. I remain standing and look down at my passport lying on the table. For just a moment I think that it belong to someone else. It appears alien. It strikes me, and not for the first time, that here, in this country, just as it has in many others, that I will always only be the accident of my birth.T

The hotel feels cold. I feel violated.

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