By RESHMA NASREEN CHOUDHURY SHAH
“Is Shaina a Muslim or a Hindu name?” asked my 8 year-old daughter, on the drive home from school. That jolted me out of my Whatsapp session in a split second. My first reaction was to give a quick glance in front at the rear view mirror, to check if the driver had heard her question. His face did not show it. I then turned to her and told her it could be a Hindu name.
“But why do you want to know?”
“Oh, she has recently joined our group and I wanted to know whether she is a Muslim or a Hindu.”
“ Is she a friendly and nice girl?”
“Then she could be a good friend to you.”
“ Yes”, and she took my mobile from my hand and started playing level 30 of Candy Crush.
I smiled and pondered over her question.
My parents’ closest friends were non-Muslims. I remember those evenings in the 70’s when entertainment meant two options: catch the 8:30 evening show of a Hindi movie at Anuradha or Apsara. And if not that, then an impromptu drive and dinner to one of my dad’s friend’s house at Assam Engineering College, Jalukbari or at Bharalumukh.
Magh Bihu had to be celebrated together with home made pithas and til larus and, of course, that mouth watering muri ghanta with rice and fried brinjal. I still remember sitting in that circle around the fire on those cold January nights. I can still hear that crackling of firewood and remember the warmth from the fire slowly touching the toes through the socks on our feet, radiating upwards and giving a reddish warm blush to our cheeks. Those games of dark room, categories, hide and seek played over and over again till they yelled at us to come for dinner. We would be fast asleep in the back seat of the Fiat by the time we reached home.
Years later, during Ramzan, when my father had to travel to their city for an official tour, auntie cooked sehri and iftar for him. And it was understood that the chicken would be halal.
My closest friend, who stays in Singapore now, is a non-Muslim. My next closest friend who lives in Delhi is also a non-Muslim. In school we used to say the Prayer ‘Our Father in Heaven’ together at assembly. We used to pray fervently to mother Mary at the school chapel before our weekly tests.
I grew up with these friends. We laughed and bunked and passed together through college. We had sleepovers.
During my college and university hostel days, I made many more friends who were non-Muslims. We lived out of each other’s pockets, sharing the same ice cream cone or paratha from the dhaba on campus. I joined them for Diwali and weekend breaks with their families. My roommate, a non Muslim, kept fasts with me. My hostel mates would buy me iftar goodies and we would break our fast together in our hostel room.
They booked train tickets with me and travelled with me on the infamous Brahmaputra Mail to my hometown, Guwahati. They stayed with my family, shared the same room with me and ate at the same table. We took them on the regular circuit reserved for visitors to the Northeast- Brahmaputra Cruise, Shillong, Kamakhya, Kazaringa not included as it was monsoon.
During all our time together, it never occurred to me to look at them as someone belonging to another community. Sure, we respected family obligations and religious compulsions but we made sure it never came in the way of our friendship.
During my six years in JNU at New Delhi, I have known friends from Shillong, Kolkata, Bangalore, London, Pune, Jaipur, Chennai, Amritsar, Luckhnow, Trivandrum, Iran, Patna, and of course, Delhi. And each friendship was based on common interests, hobbies or simply the fact that we were staying together at campus.
Office was no different. The only thing that mattered was your professional work. As an employee in a software firm with a Hindu CEO and CFO, I never felt that I was discriminated because of my religion or gender. In fact, I got one of the highest raises in the company during the late 90’s because of my performance. And yes, I did put in more than 100% into my work.
So, now, in these turbulent times, I am not worried about the future of my daughter in my country.
I see no reason to panic and think of migration. I see no reason to wear my patriotism on my sleeve or take up yoga to prove my secular credentials. The reason is simple. It is because I know that the people who matter to me care for me as a person. They respect me as an individual. They give me my space to practice my religion and do not make me feel like a pariah because of it. They never talk down to me, or I to them, because of any difference in what we wear or eat. They offer the same advice to my kids just as I share my experiences with their kids.
I am confident that no matter what the news channels tell us, or what politicians warn us about, some things will not change. Yes, there will be friction, caused by vested interests. But the fundamentals will remain the same.
I will still call up my friend in Singapore to seek her advice on a family matter. I will encourage my daughter to invite her friends over for Eid. I will teach my daughter to be as tolerant of different beliefs as they are. I will teach her to continue to love her country and her friends and never let them down. And I will teach her that she will have the same, equal rights of freedom of movement, of speech, of livelihood and of religion.
Not because it is guaranteed to her by the Constitution, but because it is the very soul of a civilisation that has weathered such storms over thousands of years.