My son was excited about the new essay he wrote in his English class. Titled “The tomorrow I want to see”, he definitely felt important having been finally asked about ‘his’ opinion about his tomorrow!
“ So what did you write ?”, I was curious.
“ Oh, I wrote quite a lot…the type of things I expect, I want. But I loved my conclusion the best. I wrote that I finally look forward to a time when there won’t be any barrier between people in terms of religion, caste, language – nothing at all. I look forward to a day when there will not be any fencing of barbed wire at the borders of nations, instead the people would together grow flowers of different colors”.
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Those days the summer vacations would be long without the threat of examinations looming over our head. The afternoons would be hot and inevitably interspersed with periods of power-cuts. During those very hot afternoons when going out was forbidden till evening, I would lie down next to my grandmother, placing my leg gently over hers. She would fan me with a hand-fan, with a rhythmic movement of her hand, opening her huge collection of stories at the same time. Her stories would mostly reach the blind alleys and grass-lands of Bangladesh where she had spent considerable part of her childhood. We would gape in wonder as she would animatedly describe the smell of the rivers, the red-hot curries prepared by the boatsmen at the river-ghats, the palm-sized pinkish white sweets at Charaibari and of the sweet prepared with garlic by her neighbor, Meherunissa. And every story of hers would end in the dense grove of mangoes and berries where she had left her six month old dead sister – buried in a small cardboard box, under one of the trees. Strong that she was, she would never ever show emotions except a short pause and a sigh.
“ How I wish I could go and find out that grove where my sister is! If there wasn’t a war, there wasn’t a partition I would have gone and searched for my sister’s grave”. She would rue till her last days.
“But you still can, Mamma”, we would coax her.
We knew she wouldn’t answer. The no man’s land between the two nations was too traumatic for her to travel back to her land of childhood! She could never accept the fact that religion could be a premise of building different nations.
I don’t know if this was one of the causes, but she vehemently hated the fact that people’s choices, beliefs and identifications are done on the basis of their religion.
And it was not just her, time and again it has been equally challenging for me to explain that my religion has nothing to do with my identity.
“A Christian, are you? I don’t believe this! All the while I was thinking you were a Bengali!”
“ A Christian ? How come you do not have a Christian name ?”
Worse – “ Do you speak English at home? “.
How do I really explain that being a Christian does not make me ‘English’ (when Jesus Christ wasn’t an English-man himself!) ! And no, we do not drink wine every evening – infact, my family has been teetotalers for generations! My mother has never, ever worn a gown and my father does not go to church wearing suit and tie!
When told that I would prepare special sweets for Bengali New Year’s Day , a surprised reaction was, “ But you all celebrate New Year on the 1st of January every year, don’t you ?”
I had a good mind to ask if her calendar dates actually begin with every Bengali New Year but merely clarified that ‘our’ New Years were same as ‘their’ New Years and the church service we do on the night of 31st December is a Thanksgiving Service for the year gone by!
It is exasperating at times to explain that I do not have any special feelings for the Queen of England, just because she shares my religion and Mother Teresa is my idol for the immense work that she has done and not merely because she was a Christian!
Most of my childhood was spent in an Ecumenical Centre in Bangalore where brass lamps, as seen in temples, adorned the little chapel and instead of the usual crucifix there was a beautiful picture of a Laughing Christ – not a smiling, calm one but one who has just shared a hearty joke with you. That helped me remove a lot of inhibitions about religion. It helped me grow up with the belief that religion is a matter of faith – your understanding with the supreme and is not a label for you. A faith is not about a set of rituals, it is about your belief in transforming your life according to some values that you feel are good for you!
When I grew up, I had a beautiful opportunity to attend a course and meet people from different parts of the world which changed my outlook forever. I met Simon from Kenya who would dance and sing as he worshipped. There I became friends with Noel who was a pastor from Phillippines and an avid mountaineer! His God was in the church, as well as up in the mountains! He introduced me to Khalil Gibran and helped me discover life through poems. Both Simon and Noel shared my faith and yet their ways were so different from mine! But at the dinner table when Noel and I both enjoyed our meals eating with our fingers rather than with the spoon and fork, I realized we come from different nations and yet we were so similar in our needs! And I felt how really restricted I was in my own thought process!
Right now, I have a group of writer friends, coming from exactly four different corners of the country and at times I am astounded by how they help me relook at life! We share nothing in common at all except our love for writing, books, movies and music perhaps…..But from Eid to Friday the 13th – they celebrate and wish for every other event. They don’t just celebrate they also do not let their personal beliefs come in the way of human bonding!
In every stage of my life I’ve discovered bit by bit the mystery called Life and I’ve come to believe that the barbed wires are actually in our mind. We create nations for political gains; we build a pre-conceived identity for individuals we do not know, based on religious tags; we cherish in the false pride of being superior to others!
The other day a television programme showed an interesting news that there is this group of artists in rural Bengal who make hand-painted murals about the life of Hindu Gods and Godesses. They go from village to village carrying the murals and then present a show using the pictures, accompanied by folk-songs about the Hindu Gods and Godesses. But what is interesting about the whole thing is that – all the families who are involved in this art are Muslims by religion! What a profound piece of learning from a handful of so called illiterate people from rural interiors!
But even after all these lessons from life, am I myself completely free of prejudices? Why do I feel strange and not normal if I see a Hindu praying fervently at the church alter? Why do I get goggle-eyed when I find a Muslim with a perfect Bengali name?
I haven’t told this to my son yet but I soon will – that his vision of an ideal tomorrow is possible…..if only we ourselves take an effort to remove the thorns stuck to our souls. The flowers will automatically follow.
Till then my grandmother’s little sister will continue to rest under an unknown tree, in an obscure village, in a nation that is separated from ours by a no man’s land!