India Deals With The Fires of Religious Diversity

In December of 1992, my family stood on the balcony of their Bombay apartment and watched as the apartment building across the street burned. Eyes wide with horror, hearts beating like fists against their chests, they watched as the flames rose higher, sheltered in the protective darkness of their own apartment from the eyes of the mad mob that danced on the street below.

I had left India many years before the outbreak of the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992. And so I was not an eye witness to the madness that briefly seized what had erstwhile been India's most cosmopolitan, secular city. But I heard the stories in the weeks that followed and I could see that fire on the streets of my childhood as vividly as if I had been there that night. And when I visited Bombay a few months later, I could see for myself what the fire had taken. Did I imagine that my father's index finger trembled as he pointed to the space where three tall coconut trees had once stood? Those trees, part of the burned building's garden, had been a source of inspiration for many an adolescent poem, a vital part of my childhood landscape. Sitting on the balcony in the evenings, I would watch those trees--whom I'd always thought of as the Three Sisters--sway and rustle in the breeze. And now the Three Sisters were gone.

But other things were also lost in that fire and in the carnage of those days, things that were a little harder to define and measure. What the fire had taken: that ridiculous, cocky self-assuredness of Bombayites who believed that we had been blessedly spared the communal hatreds that gnawed like a cancer at the rest of India; that easy, nonchalant tolerance that made us celebrate Christmas and Id and the Hindu festival of Diwali with equal gusto; that swaggering superiority that made us believe that we were too smart, too sophisticated, too cosmopolitan to fall for the petty manipulations of politicians who pitted one group against the other. That Bombay was different from India. What the fire had taken: my innocence. My childhood. The city of my childhood.

The city of my childhood was a place where we swapped politically incorrect ethnic jokes with impunity because we skewered all groups equally; where it was common for a middle-class Parsi girl like myself to go to a Catholic school and have friends whose religious and ethnic backgrounds you never cared to ask about; where we were bound not by religious zeal but by our zeal for cricket and where we spoke the common language of Bollywood-speak. I can recall only one childhood incident when reality infiltrated my innocence. It was during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and I was in fourth-grade. One afternoon, I was holding forth to some of my classmates about how India was gonna beat the pants off Pakistan etc.--blithely parroting the jingoistic rhetoric of the adults around me--when a Muslim friend spoke up. Yasmin was her name and I still recall with a shiver the clenched fury on her face as she said, "Pakistan will crush all of India, you'll see." There was a long, embarrassed silence as all of us groped for what to do next. This is not the way the script was supposed to go, with a fellow-middle-class Indian declaring her allegiance for the enemy. Yasmin stood waiting for me to answer, her small body heaving with passion but I was crushed, deflated of rhetoric. Compared to the red-blooded Yasmin I felt small and passionless and pale.

Luckily we were children and nobody expected us to defend our nation's honor. Whatever differences we had were settled on the playground among endless games of hopscotch and tug-of-war. But I have never forgotten that look on Yasmin's face and it was a look I would see many times again, in many corners of the world.

And now, from the depths of memory, arises another, long-buried incident: It happened during an out-of-town college trip. There we were, close college friends, a motley crue of Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Parsis, riding together on a train. I can no longer recall what the conversation was about but suddenly Shiv--slender, sweet-faced Shiv, who had acted in so many of my theater productions--turns to me fiercely and tells me that as a Parsi, I am an outsider to India, not an Indian at all because, after all, everybody knows that India belongs to Hindus. I am stunned, bewildered, concentrating more on keeping the tears from rolling down my cheeks than with coming up with a fiery comeback. So it remains unsaid: that the constitution of India establishes India as a secular nation; that it recognizes 21 languages as official languages; that although my ancestors came from Persia over a millennia ago, India belongs to me as much as it does to him. Or rather, the others say it for me, the other Hindus in our group looking at Shiv with distaste and contempt.

So, I suppose there were warnings. But these were isolated incidents, easy to brush off because there was so much other evidence to counter these brief outbursts of fanaticism. And after all, they were confined to words and although words have the power to wound, they usually do not kill. vNo, it took the fires and killings that swept like cholera through the streets of Bombay in 1992, to steal from me in some intangible but real way, the city of my birth. A few months later, over 13 bombs went off all over the city within two hours and destroyed what little was left of the talisman that had always protected Bombay from itself. The Bomb in Bombay, ticking for so long, had finally exploded and my city was gone. In its place was an impostor city where people glanced worriedly around them before telling an ethnic joke and crowds took to the streets to celebrate India's successful nuclear testing and even sensible, educated people talked about the need to 'restrain' Pakistan in fateful, apocalyptic terms.

And yet, no death is final. America may have mastered the art of reinvention. However, India still is the master of reincarnation. And so Bombay reincarnates itself daily. Like a weed that refuses to die, like a wily child that refuses to cry "Uncle," Bombay staggers to its feet over and over again. The riots have lowered the voices of Bombayites. But they have not silenced them. It is impossible to bomb this city into submission.

Cities like San Francisco and Paris are monuments to beauty that you love for their wealth. Cities like Bombay you love for their poverty because within the heart of that poverty are valor and resourcefulness and the indomitable human spirit. To me, Bombay has always been an epic city, full of melodrama and chaos, as dazzling and contradictory and larger than life as a Hindi film. If there is a way to eke out a living, no matter how meager, chances are a Bombayite has thought of it. People here earn a living removing wax from other people's ears. Or selling four sorry-looking heads of cauliflower a day. Life may be cheap in Bombay but the living is hard. And it is this aspect of the city of my childhood--the daily struggles, the desire to get ahead, the search for joy among abject misery, the plain, never-say-die hardiness of its citizens--that will survive a hundred riots and bombs.

The city that I still love and recognize is the city where strangers will come to your help for no good reason; where, when the monsoon rains brings life to a screeching halt, a spirit of camaraderie springs up; where children in slums display a bright-eyed sense of joy that would be the envy of more affluent parents everywhere; where a cricket test match binds together young and old, poor and affluent; skyscraper and slum.

Perhaps it is the disease of the immigrant, this desire for your homeland to be constant, to stand still, even as you change. But what I love most about Bombay are the things that have not changed--the bindaas, carefree attitude of its citizens, their can-do spirit, as constant and unchanging as the gray, muddy waters of the Arabian sea that frame the city. Sometimes, when the noise and heat and pollution and crowdedness of Bombay get too much for me I go and stand before the wide, heaving sea and stare at its foaming waters until I feel my heartbeat slow down. Then, the sea talks to me and tells me what I need to hear: that some things stand outside time; that the human spirit is eternal; and that despite the permanent scar left on the body of Bombay by the 1992 riots, the patient is alive and kicking and lives to face another day.

The Memphis Flyer
May 11-17, 2000