The summer that I was 5-years-old, I took my first flight alone because I wanted to spend my holidays with my grandparents. My parents prepared me well—they even read aloud and recorded my favourite stories on an audio cassette which we put into our Walkman for my long solo journey. But there was one question they neglected to answer. “What should I do if the flight crashes?” I had asked. “It won’t…” they had brushed my question away. So when the flight attendant came out into the aisle and announced that one of our engines had failed and we would have to turn back to our point of origin to make an emergency landing—I wondered what I should do.
A man a few rows ahead of me got up from his seat and started shouting at the flight attendant. He was obviously afraid and seemed to hope oddly that he could frighten some comfort out of her. I remember him saying over and over again that he had a young child with him on the flight and that made me conscious of both the gravity of the situation and the fact that I was so young and all alone. I felt tears start to well up in my throat and took small sips of my orange juice to wash down the urge to cry. And then, out of the blue, the young man sitting beside me started talking to me. He asked me what I was studying at school and when I told him our theme for the last term had been pirates he exclaimed that he was a ‘shippie’ and knew all about them.
For the next couple of hours, as we wove our way anxiously back across the South China Sea, landed sans one engine in Hong Kong, remained seated inside the aircraft as repair work took place, and then made our way bravely out again and into the Bay of Bengal, reaching brightly lit Bombay airport in the early hours of the morning, the young man engaged me kindly in a lively conversation about shipwrecks and sunken treasures that allowed me to forget that I was in trouble. Without a doubt, he too had reason to fear for his life—but somehow he found the courage to overcome it and comfort the small child sitting beside him.
As I skipped into the delighted embraces of my grandparents who had spent a harrowing night at the airport with scant information about my whereabouts, I turned back to wave at my new friend and knew that I would never be able to capture in words the full measure of the compassion that he had extended to me though I tried. My grandparents thanked him profusely but I think they too realized that what had transpired between us was beyond simple comprehension for where they had been expecting a frightened and distraught young child—they had found me in good spirits, full of stories about ships and gold coins. “I’m hungry…” I told them and we hurried home so that I could be fed. And as my friend walked towards the line of black and yellow taxis and disappeared into the dawn that broke over a familiar Bombay sky, I sensed that I had dodged a bullet.
When I heard about the horrific hostage situation at the Holey Cafe in Dhaka a few months ago, I felt a familiar pang of panic at having had a narrow escape. My husband and I had dinner at Holey earlier this year while we were in Dhaka for the Microfinance Network’s annual conference to which he had been invited. If we had been there on that fateful night, our table with people from Nigeria, Egypt, Mexico, Armenia, India, and our gracious Bangladeshi hosts, united by their mission to alleviate poverty around the world, with so many foreigners and women in western clothes, would have likely borne the wrath of the militants. Fortunately, we were not. Nonetheless I felt heartbroken about Dhaka because the city had welcomed us so warmly. Our hosts from BRAC were extraordinarily hospitable—making us feel very much at home in their city, their country. Perhaps, even more than that, with all Bangladesh’s resilient and creative efforts to pull itself out of poverty, I felt terribly sad that it should have to go through a manmade setback like this.
I also felt startled because I had returned from Bangladesh feeling so hopeful about the possibility of a secular Islamic country. Our tour guide, Mahadi, took us to the Star Mosque, the Dhakeshwari Temple, the Armenian Church, and our hearts were warmed by his unwavering pride in Dhaka’s composite culture. And Bengali culture, as I had expected from conversations with my Bangladeshi friends, seemed to hold our two neighbouring countries together—from bhapa aloo and macher jhol, to exquisite jamdani weaves and bright Dhakai sarees, and Bengali language and literature.
But the thing that moved me most of all was the truly heroic tale of the Bangladeshi young man, all of 20 years old, who refused to leave behind his two friends—young women from India and the United States—and escape to safety even though the militants gave him a choice. To be told that you have a way out but not to take it if it means leaving ‘others’ behind is, perhaps, at the very heart of what it means to be human, to be humane. How many of us can say that we know what we would choose if confronted with that most impossible choice between life, for the love of ourselves, and love, for the rest of mankind. I suppose the real question is whether there can be a dichotomy between the two at all. For aren’t we, each of us, the rest of humanity? Apart from the labels—Hindu, Muslim, Indian, Pakistani, American, Afghan—aren’t we all just a bunch of friends sitting down to dinner together at a table somewhere? Where does the self end and the other begin?
I teach history to the 8th grade at an unusual school in Bangalore founded by the philosopher J. Krishnamurti who believed firmly that divisions between human beings are the root cause of so much of the world’s suffering. To teach history to 13-year-olds with their fresh eyes and keen senses of social justice still intact is an extraordinary privilege. And we are fortunate to be exploring together the story of India—one of the oldest continuous civilizations and most diverse composite cultures in the world—at a time when history, like so much else, is being fiercely contested all around us.
As we sit down together twice a week, we pause to think of the people who paused themselves to ask the question, “Why must the world be this way?” As my students create their own pastiches of the Buddha’s teaching about compassion, of Ashoka’s edicts about his change of heart as he chose the path of nonviolence, of the conversations in Akbar’s court about oneness and multiculturalism, of Sufi songs and Bhakti poems about unity in diversity, of Gandhi’s revolutionary ideas of nonviolent civil disobedience, of Ambedkar’s inspiring constitution, of Nehru’s thoughtful letters—we cannot help but ask the same question ourselves, “Why?” We cannot be unmoved by the universal in each of those unique quests for meaning.
And we discovered these repeating motifs in history across time and place. Our preoccupation with social justice led us to read about Racism in America and the Holocaust. Moments in world history where prejudice led to the dehumanization of marginalized communities. We found all kinds of intersections in the different narratives we encountered—two boys in my class, one who explored the life of Abraham Lincoln and the other of Adolf Hitler, wondered whether, when faced with great adversity in one’s early life, one has the choice to either close one’s heart or to open it up.
We found powerful resonances between oral histories of refugees of the Partition, those who fled from Tibet, and Holocaust survivors, which were shared in our class by people who either inherited them or experienced the upheavals firsthand. Perhaps the greatest ‘aha’ moment came when an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor told us the fascinating and poignantly conflicted story of her family’s escape from Antwerp to New York where she lived before life brought her, serendipitously for us, to Bangalore. She told us how she still constantly asks herself what skills she should be developing in case she finds herself in a concentration camp. We were familiar with the horrors of Nazism but her pervasive anxiety brought home to us how deeply it wounded the psyche. And then a girl in my class asked her what she had found the most difficult to leave behind. She answered, without hesitation, “My German nanny. Because I loved her…” Because history is made up of the countless complex lives and loves of people like you and me.
Perhaps because I am the granddaughter of refugees who fled from Lahore to Bombay during Partition, I have always believed that the personal is political. I was named for the Indus river that unites the splintered Punjab by flowing through it by my father who did everything in his power to protect me from the inherited trauma of displaced people everywhere but could not keep from me a resistant and abiding sense of nostalgia. I cannot think of India’s Independence unfettered from the memory of my 17-year-old grandfather running through the streets of Lahore with a bullet wound in his thigh, knocking desperately on doors, seeking shelter from the senseless communal violence exploding around him. At one stage, he ran into a restaurant only to be thrown out by its British owner who rebuked him saying, “Now go to your Gandhi!”
The reminiscences of ordinary people can tell of great political and social events with an unparalleled human truthfulness. And the truth is that if you lay out high school history textbooks from both sides of the border on the floor beside one another, as a cousin of mine has done with a Pakistani friend, you will see how there can be entirely different accounts of the very same events even if nobody is ‘lying’ simply because history, like memory, like narrative, is deeply subjective. And perhaps, therefore, the best way to dismantle prejudice is to encounter as many pluralistic narratives as possible. To open up one’s heart when faced with conflict.
Our world today is increasingly divided along countless axes – nationality, religion, language, caste, class, race, gender, sexual orientation – and, truth be told, if we look for differences then we can find them everywhere. But, for all those countless differences, our lives and loves, our fears and wishes, our anxieties and aspirations, are surprisingly universal. Whether it is the growing heartbreak of the refugee crisis or the chilling spectre of radicalization, if we are able to see even a flash of ourselves in the eyes of the ‘other’, we will make more compassionate choices in our policies and practices, in the personal and the political.
For perhaps the most powerful response to a hate crime, is unflinching hope. As a young Indian Muslim Air Force Officer vividly demonstrated last October, when he said after his father’s horrific lynching over rumours of having eaten beef, “Saare jahaan se acha, Hindustan hamara… Mazhab nahin sikhata, aapas mein bair rakhna…” Because to go back, indeed, to Gandhi, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind”.
As the streets of our own Bangalore began to burn on Monday evening in response to a court verdict on how to share another conflict-torn river, the Cauvery, with our neighbours in Tamil Nadu, I could not help but think how each of us can become the ‘other’ in the blink of an eye. The most difficult part of escorting a school bus full of children home as the protests were beginning was answering questions like, “Why are they burning buses?” Later that night, as my husband and I made our way home through a maze of frenzied mobs, burning tires and coconut fronds, upturned cars on fire, Rapid Action Force vehicles at CRPF checkpoints, unfamiliar in our city, we felt shell shocked. We knew the mobs were targeting vehicles with Tamil Nadu registrations,suddenly the dehumanized ‘other’, but we were wary of rolling down our windows when the mobs banged on them because we worried that our Kannada would not be fluent enough to please them. We felt undeniably ‘other’.
Later that night, my mother told me that on their way home, in one of the upturned burning cars, she had noticed a basket so much like the one in our car. Each of those acts of senseless vandalism had destroyed a vehicle that someone had bought with their hard-earned savings, inhabited with their families, and filled with the little things that make us human—bits of paper, a couple of coins, a cushion, and a basket with an emergency medical kit, an extra cell phone charger, and a small folding umbrella—imagine the trauma of the innocent Tamilians being tossed out of their cars and seeing them set ablaze in the street. In protesting against ‘injustice’, had the angry mobs not committed their own equally big injustice?
When I feel melancholy looking at the charred streets of my city, I remember a morning not long ago filled with the songs my students composed inspired by the Sufi and Bhakti poet saints we admired together. With guitars, tablas, a harmonium and a keyboard, they set to tune poems that they had written themselves. One went “Between Sanskrit and Urdu, between Rumi and Kabir, between masjid and mandir, how many boundaries have we made? Nahin masjid mein, nahin mandir mein, dil mein hi hai khuda…” And another said “Religion, colour, boundaries and caste, do they really matter? Let’s get together, start anew, and not make divisions between me and you. We share the same sun, moon, and stars, so why can’t we share the same love?” I suppose there is no need to despair, at least not yet, for there are still 13-year-olds in the world with no room in their hearts for prejudice. Not yet.