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A few months back, when the local elections were being held in my city, I met people from my old housing society at the voting booth. They were all happy to see me, as was I, to see them. This was the society where I spent almost eighteen years of my life, most of it, the formative years. It was cosmopolitan in the true sense. Families belonging to different states and communities lived here in wonderful harmony and peace. Needless to say, my siblings and I had a lot of friends to play with.
The reason I am writing about this now is that I have realized that I never grew up with any caste or religion based prejudices. (This realization has come from the discomfort and sadness I feel at the increased caste and community based hate being spewed on social media.) At home, I don’t remember my parents ever discussing this topic. My mom would get recipes for fish from one neighbour and guidance in getting admission for my brother in a good school from another. One aunty had lovely diamond and coral jewellery sourced from her native place, which we would all admire; she also gave us, our haircuts. One “dada” (older friend addressed as elder brother) would lend me his imported story books while one “didi” would take my French language revisions. Our society would have a common Ganpati festival, where the idol would be installed in the parking space and the decorations and daily Puja would be done with great fanfare. The kids would be in-charge of the decorations and the adults for everything else. All families took turns with distributing the sweets (“Prasad”) that were typical to their native place and religion. There was always an interesting historical anecdote to be enjoyed with the delicious offerings.
There were no elevators in our building, so we would be going up and down three floors using stairs. That meant meeting a lot of the neighbours on the way and chatting with them. Everyone knew everyone else very well. School was also like that; our class was a mix of children from diverse backgrounds. I led my life blissfully unaware of caste and religion-based discrimination. It just did not exist in my limited world.
When I reached professional college, my friend circle consisted of like-minded people from various backgrounds. My first brush with casteism happened here, when some students were harassed by a couple of teachers. Some of the external examiners too shared this bias and would start the oral exam by asking the student’s last name. It was a very depressing scenario for these friends as they would study hard and answer all the questions, but would still get low marks. Unfortunate prejudices were being imprinted on young, impressionable minds.
While studying in the USA, I came across another monster called racism. Here again no one talked about it but it was like the elephant in the room. I would often get asked questions about India like what is Hinduism and what did I know about Mahatma Gandhi. Once I was asked whether casteism existed in India.
By then I had come across quite a few instances of people talking about their caste and religion biases. It’s always rolled off of me like water. I think that because my childhood was free of all these issues, now in adulthood, they refuse to bother me. I find it all very unnecessary and a waste of time. There are good and bad people everywhere. A religion or caste or region does not make a good or bad person. A good or bad person gives that religion, caste or region a good or bad name. There is so much conflict going on nowadays in our country and all over the world and we must do what we can to minimize it.
As I wait outside my child’s school, I look across and smile at another lady; I see an anxious mother wondering whether her child is fine and whether they ate anything in school. I see a loving wife and a devoted daughter and daughter in law. What I don’t think makes a difference is the religion she belongs to. That’s what we need to remember. We have too much in common and very little by way of differences, which, if we give them a chance, will only enrich our lives. We all want to give our kids the best possible upbringing, we all want to look after and help our aging parents, we all want to have safe and secure homes, we all want to live peacefully and happily. We want to pay our bills on time, have some savings in the bank and go for holidays with our friends and families. We want to celebrate our festivals and share our food and homes with our friends. If we focus on how similar we are, the differences will not matter.
It’s natural to feel affinity towards people who appear to have similar lifestyles but let that not be a limitation too. The lesson I learnt from reflecting on my own childhood is that we must encourage our kids to become friends with people from all social and economic backgrounds. Let them interact with the families closely and see the humane similarities and admire the differences. These experiences will teach them to keep an open mind before judging someone on their surname or attire. I think it’s an important lesson to learn in childhood itself, so that when they grow up, they will contribute in extinguishing the flames of discord instead of fanning or justifying them.
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