I was twenty-four, fresh out of University and eager to put my skills to the test. My first teaching assignment was at a private college where my cousin, upon hearing about my incursion to the relative unknown, jokingly remarked, “There are colleges for First Class students, so there must be colleges for Third Class and Simple Pass students as well. If there aren’t any of the latter, you and I can establish one. We will have many takers. ” Her remark, while carrying a hidden warning for what I was about to do, reflects a rather dismal reality of education in Shillong. Most premier institutions cater to the “brilliant” students who have scored well in examinations while the rest are left with colleges that are more keen on making profit than in educating the young. Certainly, the latter was true of the college in which I was about to teach, though this fact did not bother me at the time. I was to fill in for a lecturer at the college who had aspirations of joining the Meghalaya Civil Services and who had hoped, thereby, to escape the fate of many teachers who were desperately overworked and underpaid. My task was simple: teach a class of five hundred or so students the value of literature. This was 2010 ― the second year of the Obama presidency in America and the age when newspapers would dole out generous helpings of the dreaded Muslim terrorist. Social media had yet to make an impact in our day-to-day lives. At least, the closest anyone got to making a presence on the virtual web were testimonials on Orkut. I was about to find out that I was deeply conditioned by the currents of the time.
The mood that registered when I first set foot on campus was one of apprehension. I had never, until then, entered a college campus that looked quite like this: there was a single concrete building in which both students (numbering by the thousands) and teachers (around fifty) were housed, a modest canteen and a library that would not have been missed if it had not existed (this was not the worst ―I would later teach in a college that called a single shelf of books a college library). What was immediately evident, however, was the fact that most students came from the working-class or the lower middle classes of Shillong. Most of the students I taught had day jobs, working as taxi drivers or engaged in construction work. It was also the first time that I saw women in burqas―which brings me to my next point.
I was raised in a fairly middle-class home. My paternal grandmother (Meikha) was a teacher as was my paternal grandfather. Although my mother came from a working-class background, I never knew enough of her background to form a connection to that aspect of my belonging. What mattered while I was growing up was the fact that my immediate family was comfortably well-off. We were by no means rich, but we were able to indulge in well-earned comforts from time to time. And like most middle-class children, I was brought up to think that I was among the most tolerant set of people around. So, you’re gay? That’s alright; being gay is a personal choice. It makes no difference of the church I go to thinks it’s a sin. Oh, you’re Muslim. That’s okay. My brother has a Muslim girlfriend. It was a case of my- best-friend-is-black kind of tolerance. So a close encounter with a couple of Muslim students took me by surprise.
I remember the day clearly. It was the month of Ramzaan. I had just finished conducting classes at 12:30 P.M. when I decided to go home. As usual, I decided to walk up to the bus stand which was around four hundred metres away from the college. As I passed the gate, a car came out of a nearby mosque, drove by me and stopped. The windows of the car rolled down and two students, both in burqas, invited me for a lift. I remember hesitating before finally entering the car. Almost immediately, my heart started to palpitate. I noticed a man in a topi seated at the wheel with his back to me; to us, the passengers. It seemed to me that the man had made a conscious decision to keep his eye on the road and not to speak to me, a guest in his car. Paranoia took over. While I was discussing literature with my students, I was assailed by a fear that I might be harmed. I never made it to the bus stop in the car. Halfway through the ride, I requested the car to be stopped, relieved that a waiting point for taxis was placed midway between the college and the intended destination.
The encounter took no more than two minutes, but it is enough to illustrate the pervasive fear of the “other”. How much of the world’s xenophobic attitudes have we internalised without ever realising it? There were many previous encounters that had demonstrated that Muslims are not necessarily the demonic creatures we have made them out to be. That people from other backgrounds are equally capable of terrifying acts as they are of acts of kindness and love. What futures will we have if our present is conditioned by fears of our own kind? Overcoming xenophobia requires that we be vigilant and critical of the messages that we are routinely fed day-after-day. Education should, ideally, equip us with enough critical insight to counter fear and anxiety especially about communities other than our own. But what if educators themselves are susceptible to such fears? Are orientation programmes and refresher courses for teachers tailored to deal with such issues in real time? Or should universities and institutes of higher learning continue to remain islands, shielded from the social processes that encourage learning? These questions require deep thought and consideration especially in times when minority communities are constantly at the receiving end of litigious blacklisting from the right. As for me, the incident with my students proved to be a wake-up call. Two weeks later I was on a plane on the way to Hyderabad.