October 12, 2005

A shortlisted essay

I promised to post here the shortlisted essays in the recent Citizens for Peace/Indian Express essay competition on "A Secular Rethink". Here's the first of those, by Amit Gawde of Pune. Congratulations, Amit!


I want nothing to do with any religion concerned with keeping the masses satisfied to live in hunger, filth and ignorance.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru

Fifty-eight years of freedom.

I am grateful to my ancestors, my freedom fighters and all those people who had fought for my country and freed her. I am a new breed of "Indian". Thanks to our culture that stresses on knowledge, India is at the threshold of becoming a technological superpower. I find people from all over the world coming down here, and respecting me, and my kind for doing seriously good work in every sphere of activity.

And yet, I find that all my brethren aren't happy. I still find bitterness, sadness around me; and tears from the past that haven't dried as yet. But fifty-eight years is a pretty long time.

Today - Part I

The situation is grim. Certain vested interests are still following the tactics of the Raj - to divide on the basis of religion. Religion has become a commodity that is being sold in our cities, towns and villages, and vote banks are the institutions, which exchange votes with power. Political power. And like shepherds, these vested interests carefully keep their herds intact by wielding the staff when a rebellious animal tries to make a dash. Once in a while, these herds are told stories of wolves and dogs that the shepherds protect them from, and how dangerous the outside world could be. The seeds of mistrust are sown and watered. Animals multiply. The mistrust of all other creatures is passed on genetically. And yet, its not that their life is a bed of roses. Most of the animals in a herd are fleeced for as long as they can be. And when they're done with them - it's the knife. But animals being the dumb things that they are - go on with their grazing and ruminating. The garlanded painting of Jawaharlal Nehru is a piece of furniture in the halls of Power; the hallowed halls which his words haunt.

Today - Part II

But that isn't the coin - its just one side of it. On a day to day basis, I see religion differently. I see what Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan meant to say, when he said: Religion is behavior and not mere belief.

I need several people in my life, apart from my family, of course. I need Glenn D'Cruz, the punctual paper delivery boy, for my daily dose of newsprint. I need Sachin Jadhav for my veggies and greens. And though the veggies are good, one has to watch him like a hawk, lest he slip in that odd rotten tomato, or a dried bunch of coriander! Mr Balwinder Singh - the milkman, and his bovines, give me my morning cuppa to go with the newspaper. He's getting old though, and his son - Lucky, often drops in with the milk-can. And I've noticed that on those days, my tea tastes better!

Sometimes, I give my motorcycle for its periodic check-up. At such times, I need the public transport system to take me to my destination. I'm afraid that I have never known the names, or the religions of the drivers or conductors. This may be because of the simple fact that one can only do so many things. For example; it is beyond me to handle the change, hold my wallet, my handbag and look out for pickpockets at the same time! And irrespective of their religious status, I reach my destination almost every time; apart from when the bus breaks down!

Coming back to my motorcycle, D'Mello's garage has been attending to our vehicles since years. And yet, they often end up charging me for some problem or the other that I never knew existed. As I grumble and settle the bill, I find a Mr. Diaz expressing his disapproval of a botched up repair job. And yet, I return to his garage, the next time my mobike stutters. I wonder why?

Everyone bends his head in front of Mr. Ramzan Ali, the barber. He is my informer for Bollywood's latest gossip, or the latest election results, or simply the one person who knows the reason for Sachin Tendulkar's elbow problem. He calls my father "Chacha", although he may be just a few years younger! And even with a dozen barbers or so, we invariably wait till he's free to attend to us.

I need my tailors to dress me up. Rose tailors, with Iqbal, the young assistant writing numbers as fast as he can, which the owner, Mr. Patil reels off. A chat with him often almost ends up with him berating the Maratha youth, that has no initiative or dedication, that took him to where he was - namely, the top, in a voice that carries all the way to the desk, where his son would be dozing off! As I smile, he introduces me to his daughter, who he assures me, would manage the affairs of his establishment in the future. Now this, I have to see!

I also need my friends: Ashutosh, Aminder, Jimmy, J.K.Rowling(!), Kuldeep, Milind, Mrunalini, Ninad, Rubin, Sameen, Trupti and others. (In alphabetical order). Sticking to me through thick and thin, and fighting with me every now and then, irrespective of anything. And now that I think of it, neither our families, nor we, ever looked at one another, through a lens that distorts, or in a mirror that reverses. We used our own eyes, our interests and our intelligence to bind us. We fight, as friends may, but then we patch up and never let things out of hand. Respect and tolerance can take you long way, in case of such inter-personal relations. And this is the norm in most cliques, rather than an exception.

Secularism: The Keystone

What I want to say is very vague, formless to my eyes also! Like a vapour, I see it floating above my head, and I shall now try to bottle it.

It is fear of the other religion that makes us act the way we do. Communal hate crimes, or communal intolerance is rooted in fear. And as Emerson would put it: Fear always springs from ignorance.

It is the interpretation of the fore-mentioned vested interests, that drives us on to kill and maim our brethren. There is a simple solution to this: transparency. Everyone should get a chance to see what the others are up to. So be it guided tours to vedashalas, madarassas, convents and similar institutions of learning of all religions, or any other method that is able to tell our herds that the world is not filled with wolves and dogs alone, but consists of similar other herds as well.

Harmony is essential - for a musical instrument to be a part of a symphony! If any instrument decides to speak out, or rebel, or try to drown out the other - then the whole thing falls on its face. In my humble opinion, I am the world, but all the people I come into contact with, populate it. My life is complete only when every single one of them is there with me. There are bound to be disagreements, as two vessels make a clang when they meet. However, it is also true, that empty vessels make most noise. A person who hasn't a job in this world, but to try and mis-interpret what the other has to say, is bound to create communal strife. What is important, is to silence such a person through gentle persuasion, and re-education. "A single stick is easier to break than a bundle of them", was what my elders have often told me. So why be myopic and break the bundle?

We must learn to question, to use our brains and think for ourselves, if we are to be truly secular.

"And just how are we to do that?", asked Rubin, exasperated.

"Well, charity begins at home, and so we start with our own families", I heard Sameen say.

"Hey Rubin, Vasudaiva Kutumbakam, man!", said Mrunalini.

"Hey don't give me that 'The whole world is my family bilge' ", said Rubin.

"Nice, bro! I can't believe it that you actually understood what Mrunal said!", said I.

" Well, there's a lot of things that you don’t know about! ", sniggered Rubin, with the rest of them nodding in silent approval.

"Et tu Brute!", I say in desperation, as I see Ninad nod with the rest of the guys.

As we laughed, I guess that each one of us was contemplating what the other had to say. There may be doubts and disagreements, in fact there MUST be. But the real test of our friendship is secularism. Of us accepting what the other has to say, without being partial to anybody or any religion in particular.

"So lets start from today!", said different voices, in offbeat unison.

"Well, I agree, that I don't know a lot of things, but I am just as ignorant as the rest of you!", said I.

"Point taken", said Rubin, as we walked towards our class.

"Hey, I'm definitely cleverer that the rest of you ignoramuses", said Jimmy, "so don't you try to get me down to where you are!"

We laughed as we went into the classroom. As we opened our books, we heard Ashutosh sum it up succinctly: Who's got the time for checking out the religion of the guy/girl sitting next to you? All that matters is that he/she be good enough to lend you his/her notes when you need them!

This is my world, my perspective. There are bound to be disagreements - in fact somebody MUST disagree with what I have to say. But in such a case, I have to respect the other's point of view, as must the other person. Tolerance is my synonym for secularism. The keystone to my bridge over life.


wise donkey said...

Thanks for posting. And it must be one of the most beautiful, powerful, sets of words I have ever come across.
Congratulations Amit.

Pareshaan said...

Thanks for the posting,
lots of fun going through Mr. Gawde's essay. Like his idea, that exposure to madrasas and vedshalas may help.
Intimacy may or may not breed contempt, but it can definitely eradicate ignorance.
Very nice Mr. Gawde, Very nice Sir.