Years back I interviewed Syed Ali Shah Geelani at his residence. Now old and ailing, then he was relatively younger (actually less old) and healthier. In the middle of the talk, my phone vibrated over and over again. It was a little improper on my part to attend a phone call in the course of a discussion which goes against the very protocol of famous people, but given his simplicity and humility I could take this liberty and I was conscious of that. I respectfully requested Geelani Sahab that he may not mind my attending the call as I am getting repeated calls from the same number and I suspect some emergency. With all grace, he asked me to attend the call and see whether all is well. The person on phone said in a breathless tone. `There is a sad news. Geelani Sahab is reportedly dead'. I shifted to the corner of the room, cleared my throat, lowered my voice lest the old man listen to what the caller said, and whispered into the phone, `Reportedly I don't know, but actually he is alive as I am right here, with him'. To my shock he insisted that his source is reliable and his report can't be false. Before I could switch off my cell in frustration to continue my unfinished interview, Geelani Sahab – seeing me worried, asked. Gobra, Khairiy Cha? (Son, is all well?). Sweating from all holes, I returned him his own line. Ahnaz Khairiy Chu (Yes, all is well). How could I tell him what the man said?
Call it comedy or tragedy or a sheer accident of information, but since then I use this episode as an ultimate comparison between what you see and what you hear. I recall the story every time I encounter people who prefer their ears over their eyes. Can there be a weirder specimen of irrationality than the one who accepts what is reported and rejects what is seen. Well, about being dead or alive we may not insist as crazily as the man did on the phone, but about our perceptions on people around us we can sometimes be even more enigmatic in our irrationality. And infact that is the secret of our failure.
Irrfan Khan is no more. (This news is authentic and doesn't require a source to be verified from). Like millions, I too am a fan of his. I fall upon his films. His dialogue feels like a punch in my gut. A few days after his death I received a message from someone who had once heard me quoting a line from an Irrfan Khan starrer Paan Singh Tomar. This man had heard somewhere that `Irrfan had once spoken against Islam, denounced fasting, condemned the way Muslims offer sacrifice and dismissed the way God ordains us to offer prayers. `Your Irrfan was an enemy of Islam and you quoted him like a saint', he hurled this line to my face. He called him `your Irrfan' as if Irrfan was my brother separated at birth or my third cousin's second cousin's first cousin who I claimed to be my own cousin. Art apart, this disclosure evoked an instant dislike in me for Irrfan. It was unacceptably ugly compared to the beauty he was as an artist. Though I had no role in making him say what he had (reportedly) said, but I was put off. I felt a change of taste as if someone had dropped a pill of vinegar in my bowl of honey. This was nothing new as Indian Muslims in general and Indian celebrity Muslims in particular have a problem of proving themselves – as they say – more loyal than the king. It's with many Muslim actors, politicians, bureaucrats, sports stars and all who enjoy success and celebrity. They are too apologetic about being Muslims. They are loud to condemn any act of terror done in the name of Islam, but silent on seeing brutality done by the Hindu right which happens right under their gaze. Irrespective of what Irrfan is alleged to have said, such selective condemnation is a fact which merits an independent debate. (SRK is an abject example of that apologetic and opportunistic secularism displayed by an Indian Muslim to pander to the wishes of the Hindu right). Hindu or Muslim doesn't matter, but honour matters, sense of belonging matters. An apologetic Muslim who denounces his roots to stay relevant in a Hindu-dominated market deserves no respect the same way as an apologetic Hindu who denounces his faith to score a point in a Muslim-majority state. Both are rootless, both weightless. The secularism has to be even if it's really secular in spirit. Selling your belief (or disbelief) to appease the powerful is too cheap to be called serious. But here the point is different.
The message of my friend split me in my opinion about Irrfan Khan. But before I could condemn Irrfan for what I have heard about him and before I could call him a conscience-less sycophant sucking up to powerful, I recalled that Geelani episode. Reportedly or actually? I wanted to reassure myself whether the man has really said what he is accused of saying. I didn't have to derive some religious philosophy from a film actor's statement, I was only interested in checking the veracity of the statement.
Thanks to Internet as you don't have to dig acres of land to reach your inch. Today the inch comes to you at a click. I watched a detailed discussion where Irrfan was asked to explain what he said and what he meant. It was perceptibly different from what was written in the message. What Irrfan said was this. `Whether it's fasting or sacrifice, rituals don't count, spirit does'. Although Irrfan had earlier phrased his idea in an unclear way which had a good scope for being misinterpreted or distorted but the essence of his idea was no way blasphemous as it was twisted to be. Why see heresy when the heresy is not there. The problem with hasty statements is that they invite a hasty response. The speaker has no time to explain and the listener no time to understand. There lies the rub. We don't pause, we pass it on. I requested the man to watch the video and then we can issue a joint condemnation against Irrfan Khan (but only after watching the video). He stuck to his guns. `No I can't change my opinion, he has denigrated Islam'. As he said this I remembered that good old caller who chose to side with REPORTEDLY DEAD even after the man was ACTUALLY ALIVE. Here again a person was defending what he had heard, not interested in what the fact is.
Pairing Geelani with Irrfan is crazy, but through the two I have a point to hammer home. Should I believe my eyes or my ears? Should I condemn someone for saying what he reportedly says or listen to what he actually says. Before jumping to the moral of the story, why don't we first know the story. We fly, we need to walk. The traffic rule applies here also. Speed thrills but kills. Slower the better. Rejecting or accepting after watching or listening or reading will be a great intellectual exercise which is enriching, but a summary rejection goes not just against intellect, but against reason, against honesty and the last is a greater loss than the first two. Don't agree, but listen at-least. We spend all time on trivialities, but we lock our minds, shut our eyes towards anything that merits a curious, serious response.
The opposite of ignorance is not knowledge, it's curiosity. Curiosity breeds knowledge, knowledge breeds ripeness and ripeness (says Shakespeare) is all. We love the dark and plug all holes through which we fear the light may enter. We need a cake just baked not knowing what has gone behind baking it. Geelani experience taught me a lesson that Irrfan experience reaffirmed. Before you trust what your source reportedly says, see for yourself what actually is. Hear me first, hang me later.