A North Indian friend with two kids and a packed schedule offers to drive fifteen miles out of her way to pick me up for a movie outing. She knows I am itching to join the movie plans but cannot drive myself over. Didn’t she hear Raj Thackeray was hounding Northies like herself in my hometown of Mumbai?
A Muslim friend from Tamil Nadu brings over an extra helping of kheer for us over Eid. She knows the husband has a sweet tooth and would love to take some kheer home. Did she forget Babri Masjid and Godhra?
All our other Indian Hindu friends are horrified to hear of this same friend’s daughter suffering a nasty head injury while playing at her babysitter’s. Each one of us can imagine the mother’s pain and offers to help in any way we can. Why didn’t we think instead of the several terrorist attacks that take place with alarming regularity back home in India these days?
Our Pakistani friend is constantly beseiged at lunch with requests for his wife’s sumptuous gajar halwa and other Punjabi delicacies. The sociable and generous soul that he is, he promptly obliges. Didn’t someone tell him Indians and Pakistanis were supposed to be fighting each other?
Living outside India, one comes across South Asians of different cultures and nationalities. Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, people from Delhi, U.P., M.P. and Mumbai. And then there are the Americans whose country we live in of course.
But thousands of miles away from home and our loved ones, the barriers seem to melt away. It is no longer important that my Muslim friend celebrates Eid, not Diwali, or that our North Indian friends do not understand Marathi. It is enough instead that we can share some laughs over the new Bollywood comedy. It is comfort enough that a group of ladies from these diverse backgrounds can come together to host a baby shower for a pregnant woman whose own mother cannot be with her during this special time.
Even as the barriers fall, the cliche of celebrating our differences becomes true too. Be it the variety of cuisines at the office potluck, our American friend taking us hiking in the mountains he’s been scaling since childhood and which we’d never know how to explore on our own otherwise, or our lengthy lunch-time discussions on South Asian politics with each nationality bringing a fresh perspective to the table, differences are good, they open up our minds, we realize.
Most importantly though, sifting through the differences, we understand how similar we all really are. That a mother will always grieve over her child’s pain, be she a Hindu or a Muslim. And that kheer will taste just as sweet, whether it is prepared by a Hindu for Dussehra, by a Muslim for Eid or as a Christmas pudding by a Christian.
Living and working next to each other, going on picnics and for movies together, celebrating our festivals and caring for each other’s kids, past wounds hardly seem to matter. And with the understanding and empathy built from such interactions, it becomes easier to accept our troubled history and move beyond it towards a more harmonious future. Yes, terrorist attacks are ruthless and hurt us all, partition was horrible, 1984 was shameful, the Babri Masjid and Godhra riots were horrific, forced conversions and violent methods used to protest against them are both wrong and if one chooses to go all the way back in history, the Mughal destruction of Hindu temples was wrong too.
But the bottomline is that we are all good people despite all this, we are all human beings with hopes and fears and loved ones and dreams just like each other – this is the understand we gain living in such close proximity with one another. It’s not as if diverse communities do not interact in India, but the interactions are becoming rare and increasingly fraught with suspicion these days I hear. Which is what saddens me the most. If we can all live together as friends, as a community and even as a surrogate family in this strange land, why can it not happen in our own countries I wonder?