“Well you don’t need an alarm in the mornings in this apartment” said my mother as she slid the curtain open. A nearby minaret of a mosque with loud speakers attached in the four directions was standing tall amongst the rest of the buildings, like a glistening peak amongst the surrounding hills bathing in the beauty of the gentle light, of the early dawn sun in the torrid Indian summer.
A few hours later as I stepped out of the multi storied building it was as if I suddenly stepped in a sea of white. There were Muslim men of all ages wearing white caps, some on scooters, some sauntering, and the others just chitchatting. This was an area in Mehdipatnam probably named after some Nawab (the erstwhile Muslim kings of Qutb Shahi dynasty who built the historic city in the 16th century) a bristling suburb just a few miles from the renowned IT corridor (I am sure at that precise moment code was being written, or another one being supported for a Fortune 500 Major in the US) in the Southern city of India, Hyderabad.
It was obvious that this new home of ours was rented in a predominantly Muslim area, and the first time in my life I had an idea of how it felt being a Minority in India!
Hyderabad was listed by National Geographic Traveler magazine as one of the go-now places of 2015 in the whole world. From the Charminar that stands as an icon in this metropolis to the Salar Jung museum that displays treasures of ancient India, so replete in grandeur and magnificence that it would put to rest any speculation “If Columbus was really looking for India!”. The newly spawning neat and shiny structures of glass and steel in the midst of such annals of history make this whole city look like a myriad collection of silk threads in a richly woven shawl with rubies protruding out on the top of a vintage layer of gold spun embroidery.
Now enough of the poet in me (frankly it was the historic opulence of the city that brought out the poet in me). We were one among the couple of Hindu families who moved into the densely populated apartment complex of several hundred households with Muslim names on the letterboxes. And this apartment complex was just a drop in the surrounding sea of mosques, halal meat shops, small convenience stores that sold all and sundry, and tailor shops which to me strangely felt like all had named them in resemblance to each other. Every establishment, whether it was a shop large or small, or an auto mechanics shop or even a flour mill had one thing in common, a poster of Salman Khan a popular bad boy of Bollywood who incidentally also hails from the minority community in India. It was the first thread I had in common as I myself was a big fan of his Bollywood theatrics (I liked his off-screen ones more!).
This was the first summer vacation I spent here after the 1st year in my college and the tragic events of 2001 that had shook the world had just occurred (there was a murmur on campus that an alumni of our college was also amongst the victims in this ghastly act of violence, although never officially confirmed).
The people were almost always friendly and cordially greeted us wherever I went. In fact I felt they went out of their way in being nice to us especially given our minority report (No, Tom Cruise got the name later!). My mother had already known the next door neighbors on a first name basis. The early morning prayers blaring from the loud speakers aptly kept me on a routine to wake up early and prepare for the impending semester exams that happened right after the vacation. The holidays ended soon and I went back to college in a different part of the country where I felt like I was coming back from an altogether diverse setting. I was back to being a part of the majority. People were less nice, no one went out of their way to make me feel at home and the stranger on the streets would not greet me.
The following summer vacations also sailed smoothly. My mother had become good friends with many in the apartment’s complex. They would fondly call her “Rhee Madam”, being one of the highly educated women amongst the others she commanded even more respect. There would be exchange of desserts and sweet delicacies between us. The women in our adjacent unit would come to her for advice on several issues. Their religious festivities that were celebrated with all splendor would end up with several dishes of gastronomical delight at our home.
I would be very eagerly invited by other guys of my age playing Cricket, the popular sport of India. It comprises of a willow wood blade of few tens of inches and a cork ball weighing around 5 ounces that unites India irrespective of color, age, creed and community. Any cricket match that involves India would turn hundreds of millions of homes across India and their TV’s into temples of one religion, and their players into gods. A billion plus community of priests would chant one name “Team India” and one color would seamlessly fade away every riot, prejudice and suppression that ever occurred in this fascinating land into an encompassing sea of blue.
One particular incident that etched the spirit of harmony in my mind, which prevails amongst the ordinary men and women of India was during one summer when I saw our landlord, an elderly Muslim man of gigantic proportion very humbly open his shoes and carefully keep them aside as he entered our home, keeping in line with the prevalent tradition of forsaking them outside, mostly in Hindu homes.
My college ended in a whiff and I moved to the US for a further education, I later on came to know from my brother who followed suit that the Muslim families living around our apartment gave him an elegant sendoff as he set of for his higher studies, complete with garlands and bouquets that even an Indian politician would have unheard of which left him slightly embarrassed with humility.
I found the US true to its principles where an individual’s religion would never come into play. Everyone would practice their own and in the societal interactions this sort of background would never be of any significance. At the ISKCON (The Hare Krishna movement) Hindu temples which I frequented (mostly for the delicious free lunches!) I saw Americans getting inquisitive about Hinduism and its philosophy, while some of their fathers were pastors. Even in the Bible belt where I stayed for a while there was nothing that would make me aware of the name it had, except for the few polite offers of free Bible classes. I and my wife would religiously visit the neighborhood synagogue to haggle (just kidding, we wouldn’t bargain) on any cheap items we could lay our hand on in the sale.
As I reflect upon all of this for this piece of muse triggered by the highly evident debate of religious tolerance or intolerance in India bouncing off even into the international arena, it makes me think of how unmindful I was of as a child when my family went over to my mother’s best friend for celebrating Christmas (My way of celebration was gorging upon the cakes and other stuff they made shamelessly) about the various shades that separate us in this sea of humanity, although all of it driven by the same currents of love, kindness, jealousy, pride etc.
A funny incident I read on one of the leading websites that targets Question & Answers sums up the spirit with which we younger generations of the world seem such differences which are thrust upon, A multiracial class in London is put forth a question by the teacher who asks as to who the greatest person was in their views to receive a prize amount of 20 pounds, the Irish kid answers its St. Patrick, while some other kids answer as per their faiths, finally when it comes to the Patel (Indian) kid, he answers it as Christ, the teacher who hails from the same faith rewards the Indian kid who then contemplates from within, that although he knew it was Krishna (Hindu god), but business is business. With no offence to anyone, I am sure this funny episode can be permutated with the kid who answers the question correctly from a different faith and the teacher from another one.
Finally coming to whatever is being said about India both domestically and internationally, about the sporadic utterances and purported incidents of religious intolerance, it can never malign the larger Indian people who are spotless amongst communities for their endurance, spirit of brotherhood and harmony in spite of the various vagaries of life that is thrust upon them (the ordinary mortals).
As for all the discord emanating out of India on this front, it is nothing but a sustained by-product of decades of religious communities being used as voter bases mostly in competition against one another. Any extreme right-winger motor mouths on the fringe making such statements do not realize that nothing comes out of it except instant headlines in the elements of media which are hyper-paranoid, boisterous and thrive on controversies and sensationalism.
The ones who claim to be the so called copyright holders to secularism are the ones who are actually the most responsible for creating an electoral system out of this vote bank politics, which is worse than just paying lip service to it. Nothing is more common in India than all kind of politicians of all statures who have misappropriated funds, switched parties like playing musical chairs, committed fraud, planted institutions that supplanted democracy with their henchmen, passed on their legacies and posts to their sons, daughters, nieces and nephews, worst of all played caste politics on top of this, all in the name of “Protecting Secularism!”.
As for the senseless debate amongst some as to which reigns supreme, I once read an interesting explanation to why Zero factorial amounts to one, ‘Because there is exactly one way to do nothing!’