Thursday, November 17, 2016

In the course of time

I grew up in a slum in Bombay. The kind of place everybody wants to escape only to end up in a place—Nashik/New-Bombay/Pune/Gurgaon—that makes you nostalgic about your past. It had everything imaginable. The good. The bad. The makeup. People from all the three communities were present (nope, never met a Sikh/Parsi/Jew/etc there—perhaps the place was too poor for them). We never witnessed a riot, not even during Babri demolition or the following bomb blasts of ‘93. We may not have had the basic rights but we had our basics right. We respected and cared for each other. There was no scope for naarebazi. The Hindus in the neighbourhood lent their carpets for the grand namaaz on Friday afternoon while the Muslims helped with the pandals during Ganeshotsav and participated in the Holi pyramid. Well, the Christian community was the icon for the rest as far as the importance of education (read: literacy) was concerned. We effortlessly embodied the spirit of basti. People, back then, loved the city for accepting them the way they were—broken, luckless and hardworking. It’s easy to sit in an air-conditioned room in 2016 and blah about secularism while conveniently forgetting that the Western idea of secularism is bound to be counter-productive for a country like ours where religion is practically woven into our consciousness whether a person is rural or urbane. What these misguided conversations usually highlight is the distance between reality and notion. Fortunately, the chawl i was/am from didn’t care for such labels. Maybe that’s why there was no tension regarding who ate what or who prayed to whom. The Hindus were happy with their vegetarian/meat diet while the Muslims relished their beef and the Christians fearlessly showed their soft corner for pork. Non-Hindu kids gathered for prasad whereas the non-Muslim kids gathered for niyaaz. What mattered was the sweetness of the food offered, not the mumbo-jumbo of myths behind it. There was noise everywhere and yet, in that chaos, we found a diverse semblance. Things changed only after 9/11, thus proving once again the power (of narrative) USA enjoys. Suddenly, the conversations during lunch/dinner began to turn bitter and paranoid. Still, on the surface, there was no evident animosity. The walls that united the one-room houses remained polite but then, manufactured anguish has a way with our species. Interestingly, i left the place and moved to Nashik in 2002, the year that remains significant. My family moved to New-Bombay within two summers. I revisited my slum (the thing about this word is it sticks with you irrespective of the buildings that mushroom over time) in 2007 to teach secondary school kids English. I carried on till 2011, the year i joined journalism full-time. I haven’t rerevisited the place since. But what i noticed during those four years, in touch with the kids i taught, was the drastic shift in attitude. Something was clearly missing. When i was a kid, the friendship we built with our neighbouring kids triumphed our differences. The kids i encountered on a daily basis in a tiny classroom back then seemed to have let their differences triumph. Armed with with their limited vocabulary, they couldn’t even hide their prejudices. A perverted version of religion had become the norm. Some Hindu kids were suddenly proud of their perceived greatness. Some Muslim kids were seeking a hero in Zakir Naik. Some Christian kids were clearly brainwashed about the superiority of their God. And ‘some’ is more than enough to make the ‘most’ divided. An idea or an ideator refines with time, yes. However, if it’s not for the better, what’s the point of evolution? If it instills unwarranted fear of the unknown in children’s minds during their formative years, what good can possibly come out of it? Facts are going to be abused in places like these. The chawl i remembered was the one where only one thing got abused on a daily basis: English. We called chewing-gum ching-gum, station taeshun, brown-pao burun-pao, slice-pao si-lace-pao, lantern lal-turn, bottle baa-tal… the list goes on.