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Religious tolerance begins at home

It's imperative that we teach our kids to be accepting of all faiths rather than fixating on communal differences. The world we manifest into being today will be the world we send them out into tomorrow. Let me begin with elaborating on the place of religion in my own upbringing.

I come from a large business family. My grandparents came to Delhi just before India was declared independent, amidst the chaos and deluge of refugees migrating to India during the partition. Appropriate or not, those used to be my bedtime stories. I heard about the mayhem, siblings lost to hunger or disease, people stripped of wealth and identity, displacement, hopes of returning coupled with uncertainty, random allotments and sometimes luck favouring squatters. I loved my grandma. She was the most positive woman I have ever come across. Her narration was reportage, not one-sided hateful speech. I used to listen to her stories, enthralled, about how she met my grandfather for the first time on their wedding day. This was rather amusing for me as a child, when I pictured love as the bawdy Bollywood, dancing-around-the-trees sort. It’s embarrassing to admit but I would blush while watching a movie like Maine Pyar Kiya. My grandmother would lament how lyrics used to beautiful in her time but were now vulgar. She was always reading something––which initiated my love for stories as well. I loved hearing all the mythological tales and watching them re-enacted on TV. As a child, I saw festivals as more to do with feasting, gifting, dressing up and family-time rather than a religious event.

Personally, religion has never defined me, which is why I got married into a Bengali family the first time around and a Marathi one the second time. My family opposed my first marriage not due to religious concerns but they couldn’t fathom how we’d bridge our differing cultural traits, partly because I was raised in a conscientious vegetarian family. I, being an atheist myself, didn’t give it that much weightage and politely sat through all the pujas that took place in the new household. I needn’t have gone through the motions but it just felt like I was being included in a family ritual. That’s all I saw it as. Then, I got divorced. My parents were upset at first but were quite supportive after getting over the initial shock. I was glad my grandmother wasn’t around to see the day. It would have caused me immense guilt to be the cause of her heartbreak. Anyway, I am the black sheep of the family. None of my dozen or so younger cousins have chosen love marriages. I guess it’s good that they don’t have lofty, lopsided expectations from marriage to begin with. My second marriage is a success, partly because I’ve been myself and not been eager to please anyone. Needless to say, we all get wiser as we age and give each other room to follow our own individual beliefs.

My parents, who I’m getting to know all over again as we all evolve, are probably more chilled out than I give them credit for. Especially dad. He’s worked hard all his life, first setting up a pharmaceutical business from scratch, then exiting the family business to start over on his own, starting yet again in real estate, reinventing himself and toiling untiringly because he had a family to support. For him, work has been religion. His keen interest in current news has neither been inherited by me or my brother. He can rattle off the entire history of events between warring nations. It still brings a smile to my face to think of the days when my dad would be upset to find a gaping hole in the newspaper because I’d taken a clipping for my homework. I’ve always felt that religion has been the opium of the masses and a tool for politicians for dividing rather than uniting people (to put it simplistically). These days, we all read the news on our individual phones. In a way, technology has brought with it boundaries and a need to respect each other’s privacy. Unlike the days when the entire family watched the same family sitcom in the living room, and dissected it together. Guess it depends on which side of the glass you’re looking from. I’d rather follow my tribe of animal lovers or print-makers than get into unfruitful, hateful debates around temples and mosques. On the other hand, I do applaud the continuing humanitarian efforts by Gurudwaras in recent times, offering daily langar to the poor. I wish that charity, a concept advocated by all faiths, was actually adopted by more people.

Only recently did I learn that my grandfather used to be in RSS and was taught latth-baazi. I was a little dismayed because of my opposing political leanings but also amazed to picture the now stooping, 95-year-old figure––a revered man in our ‘minority status’ religious circle––to once have been an active youth with high ideals. Jains have an almost atheistic religion, according to me. Our sect does not visit temples or worship idols. We celebrate secularly––wishing friends on Diwali, Gurupurab, Christmas and Eid. I personally never felt the need to follow prescribed religious things like fasting and chanting. What I chose to pick up instead were my grandma’s pearls of wisdom––to always hold kindness and compassion in my heart, to knowingly not bring harm even to an ant, to respect and embrace others as they are. I’m tickled at the quizzical looks we get when we travel (my husband, daughter from the first marriage, and me), with our different surnames.

My mother, who probably had better educational qualification than my dad, never worked outside of home. She probably didn’t care much but my aunts were denied their calling too. It was not that long ago but they were different times indeed. Nobody was out to ‘smash patriarchy’ although it was an underlying problem at the time. In a way, I may have paved the way for the younger lot by insisting on joining a small design agency and stubbornly opening my own bank account. Stepping out from my cocooned world was like breathing fresh air. Of course, there were going to be pitfalls. Never having been allowed to mingle with boys as a teenager, I was socially awkward at the limited parties I attended, attracted the wrong men due to my naivety but consciously refused any drugs or smokes out of choice. I guess what I'm trying to say is that economic freedom and feminist concerns were more important to me than anything pertaining to religion ever was.

I’ve brainwashed my daughter about avoiding the peer pressure trap and making her own choices. I try to reason with her and answer all her questions. I’m accused of being a soft parent. It’s definitely a different approach than the ‘because we know best’ I grew up with. Well, parenting was never easy for anyone. But I’m still flabbergasted at the kind of violent content we were allowed to watch and the junk food we were allowed to consume while growing up. After all, my parents didn’t live in times of Google and online parenting forums. On the upside, we weren’t rushed from class to class, and had free time to daydream and invent silly games ourselves. It’s unthinkable not to know the whereabouts of my daughter, even though we ourselves were absconding during most of our childhood. I don’t know if the times have taken a drastic downward turn or we’ve only become more aware of the jarring stories reported in the media everyday. All I know is that while we casually played in the streets, these kids only have a virtual life. I knew neighbours, young and old. I made friends easily because I wasn’t hiding behind a screen. Even bullying happened in real life, not online, and gossip died down within your neighbourhood. These days everything is a little more polarised and you can't escape it, especially not if you're on social media.

I have fond memories of growing up in a joint family. I could accompany any of my aunts on a trip birthdays at home were a big party by default (everyone had shared responsibilities). Ironically, I have now grown accustomed to my own space and pace of life, and guard it fiercely. I don’t like the idea of TV blaring in the living room when I wish to read or write. My husband would rather zone out by playing games, after a hard day at work. So at times, we end up relaxing in different rooms. I understand why individuality is gaining popularity. But on the flip side, people have collectively become more intolerant, despite knowing that we are setting an example for our children. The days of community living and mohalla culture are steadily becoming things of the past. There’s less tehzeeb because we don’t know much about a neighbour’s family or about their accomplishments and hopes. When we don’t know their story, we simply can’t be empathetic. So, bitter stories of molestation and rape, road rage or aggression over parking spots keep increasing and we watch in horror.

Some of my cousins have settled abroad. Some are married and have kids who are now UK/US citizens, and keep changing countries according to where they work. I understand that they have aspirations to see their children become global citizens despite it being really hard work for them (as a first generation to try and settle elsewhere). We keep in touch via video calls. Back here, we’re privileged to have a strong support system. With good education backing us, we can afford to get home loans, travel, employ help for the house or for the elderly. Some of these are truly considered luxuries in the west. I myself am at an age when I’m likely to push away a job that takes up all my time only to promote consumerism. I’d rather use my privilege to spend time/effort into making that minuscule difference to my environment. I’ve never thought of any place other than Delhi as home, where dialects and neighbourhoods are familiar and where I’ve come into my own. At the cost of sounding idealistic, I have decided to put my faith in the younger generation, to be torch bearers to a genuinely more tolerant, caring and non-partisanal world. But first, it’s our job to admit to past mistakes, give up grudges, and show them how to move on.

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1 comentario

16 sept 2020

It's definitely an interesting , intelligent and somewhat bio-pic flavoured article. I am glad to have gone through it. It's definitely a privilege to know Ritika as a person. Keep it up. Many thanks for sharing your individual thoughts. Well done !

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