The year was 2002. I was a naive small town girl on her first solo trip to the big bad world of metropolises. Mumbai. The sight of people stuffed like sardines into local trains— pushed in and pushed out like clockwork— petrified me. If I had my way I would have stayed in the library all the while, just to feel safe. But I had to spend six months in this city. Slowly, I made friends in a completely new place.
One evening, one of these friends invited me home. It was just after Eid, I think. And I got to taste khichada from a Bohra household for the first time in my life. It was delicious and like nothing I had tasted before. It was a memorably warm evening and I chatted with him and his parents long into the night. We lost count of the hours and when I looked at my watch it was already ten. I panicked. I had never stayed out so late.
My friend walked me to the main road, and saw that I was seated in the right bus to Chembur, where I lived in a room allotted by my hospital. I was jittery but I couldn’t voice my fears to my friend and appear silly, because travel at this hour was normal and safe to every Mumbaikar. I waved bye to him with a weak smile.
I reached my room after eleven and called up my husband to tell him I was back safe. I sighed in relief and told him, “Until the bus crossed that area of Mohammad Ali Road, I was extremely nervous. I was scared as hell and kept praying. When I think of it now, no one did anything. No one said anything. Everyone minded their own business. I don’t know why I felt so unsafe.”
My husband could have responded to my statement in a thousand different ways, but what he said completely changed the way I look at the world. Sometimes I feel it is one of the most profound moments of my life.
He calmly said: ” You felt that way simply because you felt outnumbered in a predominantly Muslim locality. Perhaps it was ten minutes of your life. Now, think of all the minority groups anywhere in this world, who live within a milieu which has a different majority population. This is the unsaid fear they experience each day of their lives. Can you empathise with that feeling now?”
That was true. Even if all is absolutely normal on the surface, your mind creates these demons. Because of all that you have heard. Because of all that you have read. Beware of people who are different from you. The reality is no one wishes you ill. Everyone has a life of their own. No one is even bothered about you. And yet you feel insecure.
I experienced this feeling again. This time in 2007. I was in London on a fellowship. And every week on the Underground, there would be experiences where actions spoke so much more than words. You gradually acclimatized to being stared at, because you looked different. But London was still cosmopolitan. It wasn’t difficult to adapt.
There is this incident I distinctly remember. Shahrukh Khan was visiting London and Zee TV had organized some show in Olympia one Sunday. It was a crazy day, and all the Indians and Pakistanis were hyper. You got off at the station to change your train for Olympia, and the station staff would look at your bright clothes and brown skin and point to the platform where your train was waiting! We had a great time at the show. And then we all caught the last train back home. We were all strangers in that train. Mostly Indians and Pakistanis. And boy, weren’t we excited! Chatter in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu echoed through the compartment. Bollywood creates more bonds than you know!
“Did you get a picture with him?” “Gosh, did you see how the aunties crushed him. The poor chap didn’t dare to descend into the crowd after that.” “Did he give autographs?” “He’s such a modest guy yaar! I’m floored.” “I am in love with him.” Everyone was talking at once.
And then I noticed two locals cowering in a corner of the compartment. They seemed petrified. You could see it in their eyes. It wasn’t everyday that they were surrounded by so many brown skinned people speaking at the top of their voices in a foreign language.
I wrote about the show that night and a small paragraph included this experience. The next morning I woke up to flak on my blog. I had several British readers writing to tell me that we ‘terrorized’ the poor locals. With what? Our garrulousness?!
It was the same story as Mohammad Ali Road. Only this time we were in the majority.
The more you travel and see the world, you realize how like ostriches, we have stuck our heads into the sand. Falling prey to hearsay and rumours which are unvalidated. World over, no one has time to think of other people’s problems. They have enough of their own. And it is a struggle to earn a honest day’s living without trampling on other people’s toes. Look around and ask yourself. Are you different from anyone else? More privileged? More educated? Then where is your empathy and acceptance for people who are different from you?
Change is a constant. At some point in your life, you are going to end up being in the minority. It could be based on your religion, the colour of your skin, the language you speak, your gender, your nationality, your political leanings, your dress, your food, your festivity, your likes, your dislikes— the list is endless. The more of these judgemental boundaries you draw proclaiming the superiority of your ‘genus’ over the others, the more fear you induce. And of course, you will be at the receiving end of this fear when the cycle turns and you end up being in the minority. That’s what karma is all about.