I was at my neighbourhood grocery store last evening. The grocer is a very nice man, always at the forefront of all community activities. He’s extremely helpful, and was by my side, helping me organize my mother’s funeral. I have a great deal of respect for him. And yet that afternoon, he had posted something on a social media platform which assaulted my sense of right and wrong. My first instinct was to respond tersely to the post. But I held myself back, and decided that this needed a conversation, not a confrontation.
I asked him gently that evening, why he felt so strongly about this. “The immigrants must be thrown out,” he said. “But why only Muslim immigrants?” I wanted to know. “You do have immigrants who are Hindu too.”
“Arrey Madam, you don’t know,” he said. “They come here to these masjids as maulanas. They don’t even know the language in the beginning. Look around you. These people have bought land, and now the whole mohalla is full of Muslims. From one masjid, there are now three masjids in the town.” Clearly, his beliefs were too strong to be contested. And since other customers were demanding his attention, I felt that this needed another calmer place to talk.
As I walked back I couldn’t help but think about his statement. Was his fear about immigrants, or about people of a different faith? Was he worried about their increasing numbers, or about their gradual ghettoisation?
My thoughts shifted to another conversation I had had with a close family member. He was contemplating shifting to another state, simply because his children had found jobs there. But he was distinctly uncomfortable. “I have visited the place. It is small, clean and nice. But no one in the locality speaks my language. I will feel very lonely there after my children leave for office,” he said.
We live in a world which is shrinking. Travel is commonplace. And the pressures of hunger, economics and ambition drive us to live in places other than where we were born. And as we are social beings, we seek more of our own kind — people who speak our language, who have the same culture, who share the same beliefs. So we build communities in far-away lands — to feel loved, accepted and comfortable. The need to stick together comes from a psychological need to feel secure, and not from an intent to alienate the local people. Acceptance emerges from openness and reciprocation. Unfortunately the narrative around fear makes outsiders feel unwelcome, and the locals feel anxious. How much of this is real, and how much of this is manufactured?
On weekends during my short stint in London, I visited localities where Indians lived. But here too, different communities flocked together in different areas. So, in Southall you could greet a fellow human being with Sat Sri Akal and buy dahi for one pound, in East Ham you could bargain for free curry leaves and visit the Murugan kovil, and in Wembley you could find khakras and theplas at affordable rates. And on my way back to Central London to my hostel, on the underground, when local Londoners would avoid sitting next to me, I would wonder if I smelled of garam masala.
We live in a world of contradictions. Our identities are defined not just by the geographical boundaries of our nations, but by how we look like, what we wear, the languages we speak, and the faiths that we profess. While globalization is erasing the geographical boundaries, the barriers of skin colour, language, religion and more, are stronger than we want. This clash of ‘them versus us’ exists in our minds.
People the world over simply seek secure lives and safe existences for themselves and their families. Everything else is an add-on. This is such a small world. You are bound be an immigrant to another community sometime or another. Fear cannot dictate our reactions. And we cannot allow ourselves to be consumed by flames lit by venom-spitting serpents called politicians.
Every human being is a fellow citizen in this global village. Irrespective of the kind of cap one wears.