Reclaiming My Family Name

A few years ago, I sent my passport in for renewal. I filled in all the forms, checked and double-checked all the details, using my trained editors’ eyes to their fullest capacity. I can, with utmost confidence, claim to have submitted a perfect form. However, things like that rarely ever matter when it comes to dealing with the Government. Some underpaid, overworked employee somewhere managed to omit my surname from the new passport, and just like that, I was transformed. From Haji Mohammed Usman, I became Mohammed Usman. I could, as the reader will point out, have applied for a correction, but the red tape I had to navigate to get my passport at all had been such a dreadful ordeal, I decided my surname was the lesser sacrifice to make.

At that moment, it was a simple decision, borne out of laziness and a reluctance to deal with bureaucracy. However, as often happens with these things, the true significance of my actions (or lack of) came to me quite some time later. How was it, I wondered to myself, that an irritable, nitpicky guy like myself had no qualms giving up something that was so integral to my identity? How was I lounging nonchalantly in my bedroom, knowing full well that the incompetence of a nameless employee had robbed me of my familial name? Did it mean that I did not value my family? Did it mean I had already severed ties with them mentally, and this accident was only a happy coincidence?

On reflection, the case appeared to me to be the very opposite. It did not bother me to lose my surname on paper, because to me, a Haji was not a title, or a surname, or an identity, but a way of living. A way of being. A weltanschauung.

I was never one for identity labels. I never found the solace of communal harmony in being called a Muslim or a Kashmiri or an Indian or even a human being. I never tried to hide my origins, I am not ashamed of them in the least, but I never wore them as badges either. They were circumstances, not defining traits. My surname was another title, a label, one that mattered only as far as official records go. What mattered to me was how I felt, and no passport would change that. That was the reason behind my equanimity. It did not matter whether my name officially contained the word “Haji”. What mattered was that I felt like one. As a person, I live as Hajis live.

This train of thought naturally led me to consider what Haji-ness actually means in my book. I have tried to capture it as faithfully as I can. It is never easy to describe what is felt innately. And I have never felt anything more naturally and unconsciously than my own Haji-ness.

As a rule, our over-riding trait is stubbornness. As is usually the case, extremes of any trait usually cause as many problems as they bring benefits, and this case is no different. If a Haji is convinced that it is right that he try and get a boulder to the top of the mountain, then the eternal nature of the Sisyphean task is no longer an absurdity, but simply the logical outcome of his stubbornness. The image of Andy Dufresne chipping away at the prison wall for nineteen years is one a Haji will feel quite at home with, provided he have the conviction in the worth of the endeavor.

There are the usual cons to this behavior. A Haji can seem pig-headed, obdurate, obstinate and all the usual adjectives that apply. It is easier to convince a lioness to give up her cubs than to convince a Haji to concede a point. But this stubbornness does not exist as an anomaly, all by itself. It is carefully fostered, from the very beginning of our lives, in tandem with our other over-riding trait: Confidence.

When I think back to my earliest memories, it is clear to me that even then, as a bumbling, clumsy, forgetful, stupid little child, there were not too many feats that I considered to be beyond my capability. And this was not something I was born with, but something that permeated the very essence of the way I was brought up. And the living examples of my paternal grandfather, my father, and my sisters waltzing through achievement after achievement without a fuss only served to reinforce that self-belief. However, I do not use the term “self-belief” in the manner that it is commonly understood. The construct of my self-confidence has a bit of a military feel to it. Individually speaking, at core, I was and still am more prone to self-doubt than self-confidence. However, there is an external wall, a shield of confidence, not in myself, but in my breeding, so to speak.

In case that was not clear, allow me to elaborate. When faced with the prospect of a task I am not accustomed to, I face two thoughts, one internal and personal, and the second almost imposed upon me, as if by a disembodied superego.

My first and personal thought would be along the lines of, “I don’t think I can do this.”

And almost immediately, the external thought follows, “You’re a Haji, you’ll manage just fine.”

It is this confidence, often bordering on arrogance, that propels me daily to do things I would shrink from, had I been born to different parents. And this confidence extends to the entire clan. The expectation of excellence prevails whenever any member of my paternal side of the family is in the equation. It is almost an assumption.

Another offshoot of this confidence, one that has since been pointed out to me, is the need to strive for extremes. The application of this dictum is felt in the littlest things. If it is considered normal to eat half a pizza, a Haji will try to eat two or abstain completely (Hades forbid). If a task is assumed to take two days, a Haji will try to finish it in half, or not do it at all. If a man normally sleeps for eight hours, a Haji will sleep for either two, or sixteen. There is an aversion to the golden mean. It is always all or nothing. This is viewed sometimes as a need for attention, however, personally, it has more to do with a constant fight to find my limits. To push and push till I have reached the edge. One could almost call it a result of morbid curiosity.

And, naturally progressing from the above two traits, the third trait is pride. Every Haji has a supreme sense of self-worth, which allows them the ability to stare down the entire world if need be, without batting an eyelid. Our family is diverse; my immediate family is almost unbelievably so. No two people are even remotely alike, and yet there exists a mutual respect and confidence that each has the capability to forge their path with the customary Haji flamboyance. We may disagree on the very fundamentals of what we are as people, but I cannot recall a single instance where I felt afraid that a particular situation was too much for a member of my family to take.  That elementary fear of their basic survival somehow being threatened is completely absent. Even against the most incredible odds, I am always upheld by this feeling that they will pull through, and with style, at that.

Of the other traits, less pronounced and more prone to variations, Hajis tend to be reactionaries. Every generation, there is not just an evolution, but a right obliteration of the principles and values set forth by the previous generation. This makes for great drama, but also guarantees exceptional individualism. Because their stances tend to be reactionary, they are constantly challenged in their choices, and forced to justify it and defend it over and over again, which has no other effect than to steep it ever more firmly into their psyche. Ideological trench warfare is a constant battle. It has no victors, but both parties become hardened veterans in the art of justification.

The forming of judgements and opinions is a deeply rooted tradition, and one that has seen no decline in favor, despite public trends making it almost criminal to judge anyone on anything. A Haji will, with an absolutely clear conscience, judge people on any criteria whatsoever. They will later gladly admit they were wrong if they happened to be mistaken in any case, but this never deters them from making the original judgement. You’d be hard pressed to find a topic a Haji doesn’t have an opinion on.

And lastly, a trait shared by Hajis the world over is a sense of detached harmony with one another. There is a marked absence of emotional intimacy between Hajis. There is mutual respect, general affection and silent support, but none of the expressiveness of other, more emotionally evolved families. Our language of love is sarcasm, our encouragement takes the form of banter, and our constructive criticism can only be viewed as constructive by people whose skins are as thick as ours.
This often makes an outsider, or an initiate into our family, think that we are cold-hearted or emotionless. I, personally think it is just a difference in modes of expression. When you are reared with the inability to crumble, then superficial niceties do not need to be observed in expression of feelings anymore. Hajis can be, and usually are, scathing. But threaten one, and you have a formidable host staring you down.

Personally, when my exposure to the non-Haji world was limited, I never quite realized how much I valued it. Adulthood and separation from the family home brought to light the easy brilliance of Haji wit and its relative scarcity in others. I had often wondered where my need for a crowd that most would consider “brutal” came from. I wondered why I could never gel with the “nice” crowd. It took me a while to make the connection. In essence, I am a Haji looking for home away from home.

And so, though my passport may tell you otherwise, I reclaim for myself Haji-ness.

I am a Haji.


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