Being a “Banu” in Bombay

Here’s introducing the Guest Post Series on “My Favourite Things”, which will have contributions by those sharing my interests, and writing about issues that I am passionate about. These guest posts will not necessarily be by fellow bloggers; they could be by anyone who has interesting experiences to share.

The first guest post on here is by Ashabanu, who writes about the prejudice and bias she has faced because of her name. Prejudice and bias in the supposedly liberal city of Bombay (or Mumbai, if you please).

“B…a…n…u”. This is the second part of my name, Ashabanu.

I never thought that part of my name will seek so much of attention in the city of Bombay (or Mumbai if you please), when I stepped into the city about 8 years back. This name of mine has never intrigued anyone in the small town I hail from, near Chennai, or in any of the places I have worked or studied in Tamil Nadu. However, it has puzzled almost everyone in Bombay. From the day I landed in Bombay, I have had to keep explaining the “Banu” part to people.

On my very first day at work in Bombay, a colleague asked me, “Oh…You are the Banu? Sorry I did not realise that, as we were expecting someone with a burkha.

I did not realise that this was only a trailer of the bigger picture that was to unfold over the years. When I agree to conduct training sessions in external agencies, they are very hesitant and sympathetic about fixing a session on Fridays. “Oh… Friday will not be convenient for you, will it? Aapko to namaaz padhna hoga, na [You’ll have to go for prayers, na.].”

I have been denied housing, as the landlords had doubts on my “identity”. “Aap to mohamadian hain na?” (You are a Muslim, na?).

In the bank, I was asked to bring another photo ID, when I was withdrawing cash from my account, because the cashier could not reconcile the “Banu” in my name to the cross on my chest.

In church, even the big, bold cross on my chest is not enough to declare my Christian identity, because it is subsumed under the overpowering and deadly “Banu” in my name. I am often asked, “How come you are in church?”.

These days, I am waiting for my renewed passport to reach me, but I know it is going to take a long time. Many rounds of police verification, and enquiries and formalities later, I was told, “Banu dekh ke man mein kuch badal jata hai.” (After seeing the name Banu, something changes in our minds)

I have been ridiculed for my name, have seen people look at me quizzically, been given suggestions on including an ‘h’ next to B, so that it becomes “Bhanu” and sounds nice. Others have suggested how, Deborah, my Christian name should be my official name. At 37 years, I am preparing for one more christening ceremony.

These are just a few of the many instances that I, Ashabanu, born to Lakshminarayanan, a Hindu, and Chandra, a Christian, have faced in Bombay. Rather than celebrating my secular background, I am fighting at multiple levels for my identity. Reflecting on this, I genuinely feel sad on how we discriminate and form stereotypical views on certain communities and how we make many innocent souls struggle to achieve what they deserve because we box them up in “identities” as we see fit.

The city, which accommodates and accepts everyone despite the class, caste and gender, with open heart has not accepted this community. Is it justified?

Ashabanu

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I have known Ashabanu for the last 7 years or so and have watched with amusement the confusion her name created in the minds of people. But over the years, this amusement has turned to consternation and dismay, as I saw her battle stereotypes and prejudices. I have seen people’s face change when she would introduce herself, as I have seen relief on other people’s faces when they realise that she is not from a particular community.

Names are our identity, an identity that begins with our parents naming us with love and hope. Over the years, we build an identity for ourselves, an identity that is sometimes threatened, questioned and stereotyped.

Is it fair that Ashabanu be stereotyped for a name that in “wrong” in people’s minds?

Is it justified that Ashabanu’s passport be delayed because the verifying authorities are confused about her identity?

Is it correct on people’s part to suggest Ashabanu to change her name or spelling?

37 thoughts on “Being a “Banu” in Bombay

  1. Whether it is justified for people to suggest or not is again an individual choice… but I do understand the pain it causes to be discriminated. And cities like Mumbai are no exceptions than the rest of the world… sometimes you are discriminated coz u are a woman, sometimes because you are neither white nor black but brown, sometimes coz you are married, sometimes coz you are not married… and sometimes because of your name… there are a lot of “reasons” for it and none of them are just or right. But it IS a reality of life… there is no escaping it… all one can manage, it ignore and live on; or even take a shortcut to avoid pain… but then again, it also becomes a matter of individual choice.

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    1. Yes, it is a reality of life, Shraddha. We all face discrimination, stereotyping and prejudice all the time. And yes, to a large extent how we react to it or choose not to is an individual choice. But don’t you think that for certain things we have to go beyond such choices?

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  2. “What’s in a name ?” , the good Bard said..
    He perhaps lived in a consistent
    and monochromatic society..
    which did not need to celebrate variety

    Today, we say, that we belong
    as flowers to a bouquet, notes to a song
    but alas, just scratch the surface
    and all eyes tend to rivet

    Upon the One who happens to be
    the way we feel is suitably
    in congruence with the changing times
    when intrinsic values are meant to shine

    If all roads truly lead to the same
    Place we crave, no matter the Name
    If the One who oversees our world
    is not relegated to a certain word

    or a certain music, or a certain dress
    then why this unnecessary distress
    When the best is when all flowers bloom
    together in the Silent Room

    A name should be celebrated for its beauty
    rather than ruminate on its clarity
    For isn’t the Universe one family
    binding all of us in the same tapestry?

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  3. Interesting read and it pains me more as it was not the India that I grew up in or at least I believe I grew up in. The feeling of being singled out manifests itself in many ways – for me personally in the Gulf it was being a “Indian Hindu”; in US, like India in spite of all that is good, being brown. And rather ironically I on many a occasion, either, consciously or sub-consciously behave precisely in the same manner on the basis of colour, race, ethnicity and … name.
    All I pray now that as I raise my kids I end up making them a better person than I’m today.

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  4. My dear, dear Ashabanu – you must also remember the even greater number of people in amchi Mumbai who have completely celebrated the intergration of diversity represented in your name! As you know I am one of this group. So, Mumbai has those who understand and accept diversity, and those who don’t. Every city has that. Isn’t there far greater acceptance in Mumbai than in other cities in India? In my experience, that is so. I just focus on those with breadth of vision, and keep away from the narrow-minded. Take care and don’t bother about those who don’t understand. It is their loss, not ours. Best wishes, Rajshri.

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    1. Yes, I kept away from the narrow-minded in silence..But I realised keeping away is not a solution, when certain things are deprived based on identity.

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  5. First, what a timing ! I have also scheduled a series of guest posts to be started from today. 🙂

    Second, what a thoughtful post.
    Ashabanu, I hear you & I can feel the pain. You are very much right. Not only Mumbai, it’s the same story in other cities too. I had a neighbour named Mehru-nisa and she was reluctant to tell her name to others. First time when she met me, she said “My name is also Nisha”. Later I came to know her actual name.
    She always requested people to call her by this acquired name, lest, she thought she’d be an object of unwanted questioning. I didn’t see any wrong in her name, but many others saw. She was right.
    I fail to understand why people judge a person by his/her name instead of what person s/he is.

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    1. Its true, even I felt in a similar manner, like your friend. I never wanted any problems. Once I remember in a meeting subsequent to terror attack in Mumbai, I swallowed my Banu in fear, while introducing myself.

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  6. is’nt it such a disappointment for a nation that speaks for secularism, we are still anchored down by names and outfits and social stigmas.I thought the maxim city would be the one with the largest heart but its saddening to read this experience.

    came here though indiblogger and i am going to be a regular now…your writing has a way of touching ones soul with its simplicity

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  7. Lovely post..Banu.. You poor thing ! People still find it so difficult to accept secular names derived out of cocktail marriages. Though nowhere comparable to your trouble, I have had a hard time with my name .Many bloggers have thought of me as a senior citizen just because of my name :0

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  8. Really shocked and surprised to hear about what is written in here. Your friend only had a name which had a different identity to it. I feel sad for the people from that community are so discriminated against because of their religion. Not all of them are terrorists people!

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  9. I should say that i had the privilege to be in the same classroom with Ashabanu. We never ever thought her name would bring such constraints in her personal and social life. I appreciate her boldness and the way she had presented the case, simple language but thought provoking manner, narrating personal experiences. Her student life was very challenging, starting from commuting from home to college, the longest distance, i would say one travels everyday and much more, which i see had molded her to be what she is now. Thought NAME – Not A Main Entity for experiencing discrimination, at least in the secular India, at least in Amchi Mumbai – a free city i heard. But Asha, you disproved it. All that you see and all that you hear may not be the truth. One has to experience it to know what it is.

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  10. Stereotyping is something that comes naturally to people, and is definitely found every where!
    The upbringing and societal conduct that gives us interim discipline, also gives us stereotyping, and I would be lying if I had not thought of someone, someday, sometime in my life, perceived him/her in some manner. But then again, acting on those instincts is wrong. It should never become an imperative to act on those perceived thoughts, and an understanding should always arise, to distinguish between what’s right and wrong. It amazes me how some don’t even realize that other is hurt, they believe such is the conduct. Although, Ashabanu ji, in your case, I sense that people are very much guilty. It of-course saddens me.

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    1. Welcome here, Harish, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. You are right when you say that it is instinctive to slot people in categories and stereotypes when you hear about them or see them, but acting on those instincts is wrong. I wonder when people will realise this.

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  11. I know of cases where maidservants in Delhi give themselves Hindu or Christian names to get employment. It is sadistic to be discriminating against someone because of the name and what it implies. Sad in a supposedly cosmopolitan city like Mumbai.

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    1. Well, even actors and actresses have changed their names to make it more appealing like a la Madhubala or a Dilip Kumar. Mumbai may be better than other cosmopolitan cities, but then other cities also do not pretend to be open like Mumbai.

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  12. I could understand how does it feel to be singled out and seen through a prejudiced lens only after shifting to Italy. Majority of persons here are catholic and sometimes they think that I am a particular kind of person from my name and from what they have heard about Hindus in terms of caste discrimination and treatment of women, though majority of persons are not like that. However, increasingly I meet multi-religious families like my own and find persons with all kinds of unusual names – may be one day persons like us will be majority! 🙂

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  13. It is sad that in our secular state and after many years of independence, we couldnt get over these prejudices! We can open up the economy, open up arms for development but sad we could not open our minds and hearts against seperatist feelings

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    1. Welcome to my blog Subhashree, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. I may be cynical but I know that we will never truly open our minds and hearts to people who are “different” from us. Any so called understanding, empathy, whatever will always be at a superficial level.

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  14. We have many Banoos in our community. I honestly never once heard of any of them being discriminated against. Or if someone tried to, we completely failed to understand the subtle nuances. We are Parsis. Sorry to hear about the idiots who made you feel “different”

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