Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Living With Differences

This was my entry to the Indian Express Citizens for Peace Essay Competition 2007. I was one of six finalists to be shortlisted among 326 from around India. The topic was Secularism - Living with Differences. The experience was great. The judges' panel included Indian filmmaker, Shyam Benegal.

It's very dark outside. Very still. Very quiet. A few birds have started chirping in the trees. Faintly. I'm lying awake in bed. Something made me stir a few moments ago. I've been up since. Somewhere in the distance I hear a sound. It isn't the chirping this time. The sound of a tiny bell has dispelled the silence. Prayers have begun at the nearby temple. In my mind's eye, I can see the 'pujariji' standing before an idol, bare-chested with a thread worn across his torso, clad only in a white dhoti, holding a decorated platter in one hand, and the tiny gold bell in the other. He is performing the morning's 'aarti' to an adorned deity. In a few minutes, thousand of devotees will throng to the temple. A large bell chimes once. The temple has received its first visitor of the day.

As if on cue, the muazzin sounds the morning prayer over a loudspeaker, placed high on a minaret adjoining an ivory mosque. The stillness has vanished. The two sounds merge. One, a small instrument without any lyrics and the other a musical recitation, sans any instrument. I can't hear church bells at the moment, but I'm sure they would make for a perfect accompaniment to this impromptu concerto to which I hadn't paid attention before. This symphony, which occurs every morning. This sonata, that knows no difference between the communities for which it is performing. This concerto that serves as a clarion call at the dawn of a brand new day. This harmony that drives away the darkness and welcomes the light.

There really isn't a country quite like India. In the past, we've been ruled by various Hindu dynasties, the Mughals and the British. Three entirely different groups with very different religious affiliations. Our present is a tapestry of a predominantly Hindu population, the second largest Muslim population in the world and religions such as Christianity, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism. It really doesn't get more diverse than this. In fact, India is the second most culturally, linguistically and genetically diverse geographical entity after the African continent. Our festivals are global news. People flock from around the world to soak in our culture. We're striving, we're thriving, we're growing. And ever since we gained independence and the world's lengthiest constitution was framed, we've been a secular nation. So then, what's happened to us?

Why did India witness an Ayodhya? Why did India see a Godhra? What were the Mumbai blasts about, 1993 and 2006? Over the past decade and a half, India's secular foundation has been rocked. Not destroyed, but undoubtedly threatened. Not fragmented, but fractured. Its secular spirit hasn't been extinguished but it has dimmed. A series of world events have scared us all – 9/11, 7/11, the blasts at Bali and Madrid. They've translated into serious repercussions within our own borders. They've made us wary of our own social structure – the one that we've lived as a part of all these years, and never questioned before. Our tolerance levels have dipped.

It is against this turbulent background that our challenge takes shape. It is in the face of this turmoil that the need to revive and redefine this country's secularism arises. It is this tumultuous atmosphere that is necessary to spur us on to create a secularism that can withstand bombardment from factors that attempt to disrupt the natural rhythm of this nation's pulse.

Secularism is a strange word. The connotations associated with it, of personal freedom, choices and limitless possibility, are so romantic that it's hard to accept wholeheartedly, at first encounter. For the majority, religion is such an intrinsic component of public life, especially in a country like India, that the convenient solution the word secularism offers seems born out of naiveté. Almost as though a child suggested it. Ironically, it is in these bursts of innocence quite often that lie the greatest lessons.

Those who believe that India is meant only for people of one particular faith, must be asked: What if the one billion plus of us were similar? Would it solve all our problems? Since most of our conflicts seem to arise from our differences, would all of us being alike take care of the issue? Frankly, the thought scares me. Because for me, India is all about its differences. I can't imagine an India that doesn't celebrate Christmas and Holi. Where khakhra and dhokhla is not available alongside idlys and vadas. We proudly point out that our Parsi Tatas and Gujarati Ambanis are recognized by the world. We revel in the fact that our women dressed in jeans and saris walk down the same streets with men dressed in dhotis and business suits. It's the stark contrasts, the diametrically opposite coexisting elements, the dissimilar entities that are violently held, side by side, by the love of the people of this land, that defines this country. Without its differences, India is not India. It loses its identity. It almost ceases to exist. Which reinforces the comforting conviction that it is unity, and not uniformity, that will help in driving out forces that seek to drive us apart.

We can't let them win. We won't stand for it. We were meant to live together. We're programmed to stay that way. Any other arrangement would be messing with nature. I couldn't imagine it any other way. I wouldn't want it any other way.

And therefore, it’s up to us to embrace another’s differences and imbibe from it that of which can enrich our souls. To be wary not of our neighbour and the faith that he practices but of the efforts that try to defile the duo’s sanctity. To be wary of a growing tension that will explode and consume us all if we don’t purge it from our society now.

It's now officially dawn and the faintest beams of sunlight are spreading across the sky. My neighbour across the street is already pouring large buckets of water down her driveway. She cleans the space as she has done for many years and will soon cover it in an intricate pattern of 'rangoli'. Her dainty fingers will pinch the white powder and transform it into an expert design on the ground – an art that she learnt from her mother who learnt from hers and will one day pass on to her daughter.

Eid was two weeks ago. We sent a steaming hot dish of biryani over to this neighbour's house, just as we do every year. I'm already looking forward to the next Ugadi when a tray will arrive from hers, laden with sugarcane, sugar candies and coconut. It's a tradition that we've engaged in ever since our houses have faced each other. A tradition we plan on continuing. A tradition we intend to pass on to our respective children one day.

Because that is the India we want the coming generations to enjoy. Because that is the future of India. Because that is what India is all about.

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