Similarities and Differences

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?

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36 responses to “Similarities and Differences

  1. A beautiful post. You really raised a very important question – if we can live in harmony outside India, why can’t we do it inside India too? Of course it’s always harder to face adversities when you are actually in the place where they are taking place. And this in turn fuels more hatred between people.

    I think part of the reason Indians and Pakistanis outside India are able to accommodate each other and learn from each other is because they are living OUTSIDE the “problem”. It’s always easier (and better) to come to a working solution when you step away from the issue, and approach it from an objective point of view. You can actually see the problem for what it is and then come to a conclusion together on how to solve it – that is, live together in harmony by appreciating each other’s differences. But when you’re living WITH the problem, when you’re INSIDE the problem, it’s hard to tear yourself away from the basic raw emotion that emanates from such terrible acts of terror. After all, it’s much harder to handle the heat when you’re actually in the fire as opposed to watching the fire from the outside.

    That said, I hope everyone in India can follow this example of how Indians and Pakistanis (and Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans) live together outside of their home country, and then bring this example “home”. Our cultural landscape at “home” would be so much better then, and we would definitely emerge as an infinitely strong world power because of this unity.

  2. Thank you for your wonderful comment Sindhu. I can see you’ve really thought it out here and I mostly agree with you. But I’d like to make one point – all the people I was talking of here have spent all their childhood and some part of their adulthood in India/Pakistan and still have all their family there. So the objective point of view is there to an extent but we are not completely unbiased either – we all still live in India in our minds in some ways. The big difference is the interactions we have here – the absence of our families and a community forces us to seek each other out and look beyond petty differences. In India, on the other hand, I hear of separate Muslim areas, exclusive Jain townships and so on. It’s sad actually, I don’t remember things being this way in my childhood.

  3. Thanks Nita!

    Gosh M, it does sound very similar yaar! I didn’t copy your post – truly! 😀 On a more serious note, I remember reading your post and it struck a chord in me bigtime. What’s happening in India is actually troubling a lot these days and I am struggling to find something positive to say instead. 😦

  4. very beautifully written, especially the beginning.
    Why we do not get along in our own respective countries is simply because we tend to live in our own small ghettos.Outside India, we communicate well, because we are one big ghetto there.
    I wish we saw sense.

  5. I have never felt hatred towards any particular religion or community at any point of time. Even a few years ago when I was living in India and even with all the riots and blasts. Don’t know why. I continued to be friends with my Muslim, Christian and ‘non-Tamilian’ friends and never had any problems from their side as well.
    First of all, I was just a kid when Babri Masjid happened. Also Chennai is a few thousand miles away from Bombay or Godhra. I am wondering if things would have been different had the riots happened in chennai. Would I have been wary of my Muslim neighbours?! Maybe, at least for a while…Distance makes a difference I guess…And being in the middle of a crisis is not the same as reading about it.

    But I think fundamentalists will be fanatic no matter where they live. A Hindu who hates non-Hindus is going to do so, whether he lives in India or America or Africa…And the good people cannot have hatred no matter where they are…

  6. True Mampi, ghettos might make us physically safer, but the psychological rift they create only make matters worse! And thank you.

    I understand your point about the fundamentalists Jira. But what’s sad is that these guys get so many of us, the basically ‘good’ people to believe in their rhetoric! And you are right about distance making a difference too, but the distance factor works in strange ways sometimes. I find myself agonizing over Mumbai sitting here these days when so many folks I know in the city seem to have moved on, at least on the surface! Fear of the unknown?

  7. This is so true – abroad its just some vague geographical line … in India people are killed for it. I wonder if its severe competition for jobs and space that makes it so unpleasant. Perhaps if we were not an overpopulated nation, things would cool down …. perhaps ….

  8. everyone has said what i would have liked to.

    you know its like we dont dare throw kachra in singapore, even though we spit in mumbai without a worry!

    and like some said, when you are right there, the reactions are instant i guess. while in another country we are all outsiders.

    hopefully the coming generation will appreciate the differences and how enriching they can be.

    i still remember how even in a school i was never the kind who made friends with just maharshtrians. my group was full of people from different cultures.

    and it continues to be true even today. while i have a cousin who moved to bangalore from kolhapur and has made friends ONLY with people from Maharashtra Mandal!

    that they give you comfort level is understandable but refusing to expand your way of looking at life?

    it will take a loong time for mindsets to really change, because the habit of diffrentiating by caste is almost in our DNA.

    best thing to do is to make the coming generation realise that its GOOD to be alag and appreciate those differences!

    sorry for a confused comment!

    cheers!

  9. Loved this post. Summed up my angst too. I think in India we’d live far more peacefully if we are left alone. Most of the time it’s the Political groups that emphasize the differences, and aggravate the existing differences.
    The sad part is we let them. If we were not so shallow in our unity in diversity nobody would succeed in dividing us into these identity based groups. India would have got much better politicians. Way more efficient and better if we all voted for efficiency without any other bias 😦

  10. Hmmm… competition, mindsets, divisive politics – it must be a combination of all this and perhaps more Ritu. But I really really wish we’ll rise above all this soon. I don’t see a way out otherwise. 😦

    Not confused at all Abha, I get just what you are saying.

    I agree IHM. But don’t the politicians worry about the consequences of their actions I wonder? I mean, they and their families have to live in the same society they are tearing apart na? It’s like destroying your own home, nahi?!!

    Okay, I knew you’d understand M but just wanted to make sure anyhow!

  11. Hey jottings&musings, I have been following your blog pretty much since the last time and I miss the warm living room profile picture you had – this one looks nice too, but I liked that one better, and I’d sneak in to your blog, just to see that picture often!

  12. Jumped here for the first time. Great post, I should say. But I am cynical because living together and the feeling of oneness is just not about sharing a kheer. Only during a crisis, one’s real character comes to the forefront. Unless one is willing to put his/her life in the line for people he/she has no affiliation in terms of religion or race, I would not agree that a real sense of family and friendship prevails there. Occasional bouts of love only underscores our differences!

  13. Thank you Raaji. I hopped over to your blog too, and was extremely touched by your letter post. It was beautiful, heartbreaking and very very true.

    About your comment, I understand to an extent what you are trying to say but I’ll differ on one point – we may not be willing to put our life on line for one another, but how many of us would be willing to do that for ALL our family or friends anyhow? Is it not enough that we can live together, happily and with love and faith? I may not die for you, but I should be willing to let you live your life in your own way at least!

    And I’d really like you to clarify your last line if you visit back, I am honestly struggling to understand it completely.

  14. Thanks for visiting my blog and your comments.

    I kind of expected the question “how many of us would be willing to do that for ALL our family or friends anyhow?”. Very true. But is it not something we all need to think about? How limited our definition of LOVE has become? However, I was talking about an ideal state of family and friendship.

    The last line is similar to “Exceptions only confirm the rule”. These exchange of greetings on a Diwali or an Eid are no doubt great, but they also remind us of our differences. Unless we strip ourselves of all these made-up identities of religion and race, we shall hand-shake at one place and arm-twist at another.

    Hope to see you hop around my blog regularly. 🙂

  15. Okay, thanks for clarifying Raaji. I see your point, but I am willing to settle for a happy compromise that we all can live with for now. Only with that done can we work towards nearing the ideal state, don’t you think? We are only struggling with the basics right now!

    And I assume you don’t mean the ‘strip ourselves of all these made-up identities of religion and race’ literally? Because differences are mostly good, as long as they are accompanied by tolerance and mutual respect I think.

    And yes, I will drop by. Hope you do too. I enjoyed our discussion a lot. 🙂

  16. Lovely Post! It is definitely possible to live in harmony in India as well..After all, do we really look at the religion, nationality of a person while talking to somebody? I was brought up in a small town in India – but we had friends from all over – admittedly – no Non Indians – but all the same , religion, regionality etc just did not figure in our friendships.. And I really believe that, we – the people donot actually harbor such feelings.. There is so much to learn from every community.. It is mainly the uneducated, desperate people that get misled by rhetoric…who are abused so that some people can get their political mileage..

  17. Hi D,
    You’ve been awarded! I know you have already got this award but, thanks you your encouraging words, I pushed myself to start blogging all over again.

  18. Exactly what I remember from my own childhood Smitha. I am simply puzzled listening to all that’s happening these days but! 😦

    Thanks POJB! Doesn’t matter if I’ve already been awarded, feels nice to know you even thought of me. Thanks again!

  19. thats a beautiful post and believe me its not impossible to live in harmony even while living ‘within the problem’. within my group of friends we celebrate all festivals from Eid, to Christmas to diwali, Holi and Gurpurab…and we believe our differences make us richer instead of dividing us.

  20. Three cheers to you Pinku! I wish everyone thought that way!!!

    Santa? Wow, I am excited and curious. Coming right away IHM!!!

  21. “Unless we strip ourselves of all these made-up identities of religion and race, we shall hand-shake at one place and arm-twist at another.”

    I’m not sure I understand this, Raaji. Which identities are “made up” and which are not “made up” and how does one distinguish between the two? Is one type of identity “better” than the other, or more conducive to peace and harmony? I don’t really know.

    As you interact with others, if someone mistakes you for a female (I’m assuming you’re a guy), would you not correct that person? How about if someone thought of you as Bangladeshi? To be a human living in the thick of things is to embrace multiple identities – with all their pros and cons. C’est la vie.

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