If you’ve been to the city of Hyderabad, you would have seen the sheer diversity of entire India cozily bundled up in this metropolitan city. The city has a healthy mix of people from the various states of India, and also all religions- and the bonhomie between all these religious groups has always been taken for granted. Since the days of my childhood, it had never seemed to me that we were all people from different faiths following different ways of life; it all seemed like we were just a part of one, big family. So it was quite shocking, when recently, a senior professional I knew, in the midst of casual conversation, told me, “I believe we should help one another; after all, we are Christians, aren’t we?” I couldn’t think of an answer, for, I had never thought religion would be the criterion that determined if you would help someone. Taking my silence as cue, he continued, “I’m sure you would have noticed, that it is always other Christians who help us, not people from other religions. And that’s why I believe, I should help our people, and not-” At this juncture, I interrupted him, and said that I had never noticed such a difference. I had received help, and given help, and never did it once occur to me that religion played a role. He refused to agree, and I had to abandon the topic altogether.
But it set me thinking: why have we come to a juncture where we wear religion on our sleeves, defensively and aggressively? Faith is personal; if it must be public, why use it to discriminate, or to find differences? Until recent times, I have never been pointedly asked about my religion. I still remember that during Deepavali, every household in our colony celebrated it, by lighting diyas and bursting crackers, irrespective of their faith; and Holi was another fun event where none of us stayed home; we would be busy smearing colour on every face that joined the celebration (whether it was a known face or a stranger), and the rest of the day would be spent in visiting every house with an agenda to involve all those who had missed out on the fun. When the Tam Brahm families in our colony kept “Kolu” for Dussehra, we were invited to come and see the display, partake in the poojas.
Eid was generally looked forward to; apart from the Haleem, there came our way tasty Sheer Korma that our beloved Muslim friends prepared and brought home, and the occasional leg of mutton. If it was a regional festival like Sankranti, the kite flyers would be on our terrace, my uncle leading the gang. Christmas had our friends, neighbours, colleagues and well-wishers dropping in to spend an entire evening feasting on plum cake and other delicacies; trying out our home-made wine, and special care was taken to decorate the Christmas Tree differently each year. A survey of the best stars hung up at various places all over the city was a must.
We watched the Mahabharat too, when it was aired on National Television, with as much interest as anyone else. For us, it was one of the most famous Indian epics; therefore reason enough to watch. We never restricted our reading; with Amar Chitra Katha to the rescue, we read all the interesting stories of Hindu mythology.
I studied in a Christian missionary girls’ school, and we had girls of all faiths: Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains- but no one refused to say the morning prayer of “Our Father in Heaven”, citing it to be against their belief. Once out of school, they must have stopped saying it simply because it was not in the routine anymore; but when they did say it in school, it never was as an enforcement of a particular faith; it was just a morning prayer before starting school, and everyone went about it cheerfully. There were occasions when Sanskrit shlokas were recited too, though it was rare.
If our friends from other communities spoke of their practices or ways, questions asked were more out of curiosity to learn about them rather than to find fault. Today, every religion’s ways and practices are analyzed minutely, not to objectively learn about them or accept them, but to ascertain what’s “different” and hold it against them. All of a sudden I find people unwilling to mix with those who belong to another community, and prefer to stick to people of their own kind.
I’m sure that, during the 1990s and the early 2000s, religion was the last thing on anyone’s minds. There were communal problems in different parts of the country, for sure; but that never became a reason to discriminate against our brothers and sisters back home who belonged to different faiths. It was never the criterion to judge who we would make friends with or who would be our foes. Why then, do we concentrate so much on this aspect today, making it the focal point of our existence? Let faith remain where it belongs: in our minds and hearts.
While the people of Hyderabad are still highly tolerant, and in fact, a place where there is a high acceptance of other faiths and beliefs, the reverberations of incidents happening elsewhere in the country are reaching the city too. All of a sudden, everyone wants to know if you eat beef; if you are even a non-vegetarian, and then decide whether they should maintain a distance from you or not. I wonder how my dance teacher allowed me to touch the idol of Nataraja when I joined as her pupil years ago, ever smiling and encouraging, though she knew what faith I belonged to. Never did that become an obstacle.
And that brings me to the conclusion: trying to restrict yourself to one’s own faith, and refusing to see or learn about others, is where the damage starts. Probably, some believe they’re teaching their children to be devout and true to their faith by limiting their interaction and exposure to other faiths, but all it breeds is intolerance and an illogical tenacity to see other people by their caste, creed and colour rather than as human beings . By excluding others from getting close to you too, you’re doing a disservice; if you don’t allow others to know and understand your beliefs, how can you expect acceptance and tolerance? This applies to every religion, and this is how misconceptions build up, leading to hostility.
And finally, all my teachers, professors, all those loving “uncles” and “aunties” in the neighbourhood, the doctors who have treated me, the friends from over the years, and almost 95% of all those I have come in contact with, did not help me or guide me based on my faith or theirs; it was simple and plain humanity. As for the remaining 5% who insist on letting their faith colour their view of India; well, you’re just being blind, and missing out on the most beautiful aspect of being an Indian.