Published On : Tue, Mar 17th, 2015

Not a country I was born in




Reading Julio Ribeiro’s first person story in Indian Express yesterday, captioned ‘I feel I am on a hit list’ where he goes on to say “And as a Christian, suddenly a stranger in my own country” I felt really saddened.


He may not remember it I am sure, but he and his wife attended my wedding reception 36 years ago. He was a Police Commissioner then and my grandfather who had worked as a Dy Superintedent of police, Bombay, during the British period, suddenly realized Ribeiro had been one of his juniors and went and invited him for the reception. Not only did he come with his wife, but we also had the police band playing at the venue, as a very gracious gesture from him. He mingled with the whole family and really enjoyed the Maharashtrian food that was being served.

This was in the late 70s. We lived in such different times then! In Nagpur where I went to school, we lived in a completely Brahmin dominated area, thus an RSS stronghold. There was a ‘shakha’ held in a school right next to my house, attended by many men in khakhi shorts, but I don’t remember seeing any of my friends’ fathers or any neighbor there in the evenings for the ‘sabha’. (We often sneaked into the school playground to see them parade, exercise and say prayers). Frankly, they appeared a little absurd to us, like grown ups pretending to be school going kids!

We were one of the very few non-Brahmin families living there, but we did not particularly feel out of place. My parents never mentioned caste to me- thus I did not know what it was.  (My friends enlightened me soon enough, also pointing out that ‘I was not one of them’ and this rankled me for a while – I became more acute to social nuances.)

I studied in missionary schools  and learnt Piano playing at home. There was a  large and vibrant Catholic community living in Sadar area and my piano teacher lived in a big British style colonial mansion there. Her house was beautiful but sparsely furnished with one or two rooms almost bare – I always wondered at their utility. They had large black and white tiles though and flowers arranged tastefully on a central table. She was a spinster but had adopted many children  who lived in her out- house. She was the true proto-type of what we called an “Anglo-Indian”. She taught only girls and many seemed to study with her – though I never met them since she took individual lessons. Once a year, a white British man representing the Trinity College of Music, London, came to take our exams.

We could not afford to buy a piano ( a good one costed Rs. 50,000/ + even then) so had rented a cheaper, local made for just Rs. 30/ a month! This included tuning services that the owner – another Catholic living in Mohan Nagar – rendered himself once a month. My Brahmin neighbors were amused and entertained by the piano ‘noise’ they heard whenever I sat down to practice! If they didn’t hear me playing for a couple of days, they never failed to enquire about it.

That was the milieu then – people were stricter about religion I suppose, but it was a personal thing followed at home. There was general bon homie  and mutual respect for people you lived with in the neighborhood , people you worked with etc. It did not matter what you ate, whom you worshipped, what you did for a living and even how rich you were.

Speaking about food,  forget other non vegetarian stuff, even eggs were not available openly in stores. A vendor would go around selling them and called out ‘Badami halwa’ which was a deceptive name for his actual ware! To buy chicken, we had to go to Seminary Hills at the veterinary college!

But still we never heard of any religious fanatics – least of all the Hindu variety. Like I said before, even RSS shakhas were attended by only a minority of the Brahmins – and very seldom by a non Brahmin. By and large everyone voted for the Congress, or Socialists or Communists – in that order. The BJP was called Jan Sangh then, and its candidates won about 2000 votes maximum and did not win any seat from Nagpur – neither Lok Sabha nor Vidhan Sabha. I cannot say that as a fact, but I think same was the case with ‘Muslim parties’ like Muslim league – they too were fringe elements.

I made Muslim friends only when I went to college. I did my graduation in Science from the St. Frances De Sales – SFS – college on Seminary Hills and we had two Muslim girls studying in my class. Also, two Christian girls. They were all my friends though we rarely invited each other home. But that was because, barring one or two living close by, we girls never socialized outside school. Birthday parties were unheard of!

My parents never discouraged me from making friends with anyone of any religion – girls from other states, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsees who ever they were. Every friend was welcome as long as they approved of her sensibilities from the description I gave them.

We did not have these free and ‘secular’ customs of wishing each other on their religious festivals – forget  going to their houses for the ‘feasts’ and parties. But religion never came into our daily conversations or marred our friendships in any way. Later, I attended some of the girls’ marriages too. 

Speaking of marriages – we, my immediate family and distant relatives too – did not need horoscopes to finalize alliances. Most kids did not have their horoscope made. Not difficult to believe since parents never remembered their offspring’s birthdays or how old they were! The ‘issue’ of horoscope only arose when you wanted to reject a proposal and could give the ‘lame excuse’ that ‘horoscopes don’t seem to match’. 

I look around me today and everyone is so conscious about each other’s caste, religion and political affiliations too. You hear kids talking about ‘others’ and most of the time it is uncharitable criticism. One chat I overheard at a restaurant some years ago cut me to the quick. This was in Nagpur, the second capital of Maharashtra and these kids at an upscale joint were saying “ Maharashtrians are so strange! Even the rich ones follow these ‘horrible’ customs. If you eat at their place, they serve you rotis cut into four pieces, water is served in a steel ‘lota and glass’ – one glass going around everyone…etc. etc.”  They failed to appreciate that it was not small ‘phulkas’ but bigger chapattis that are split four ways for serving so each person gets a hot piece and food is not wasted. The point is, that rather than understanding the spirit behind the custom, it is much easier to mock at it. And everyone who is not the same caste AND social and economic strata as you is ‘other’. Marathis are ‘others’, marwaris are ‘others’ Bengalis are ‘others’ – so are Brahmins, scheduled castes, telis, malis etc. etc.

Where are kids learning all this from? Naturally from the attitude they see in their parents and other relatives. May be also from Television? Can’t blame books, because no one reads them any more!! Unless it is porn may be or trash romance.

Among Hindus, every family, apart from its family deities has at least one ‘Godman’ or ‘Guruji’ they revere. They go annually to ashrams for ‘pligrimage’ – when I do not remember my parents going to Pandharpur or Benaras or Kashi annually or even once in ten years.

All the traveling we did was to close relatives’ houses for summer vacations and for weddings. That was a MUST. 

I often wonder at the change? How come? Why? What caused this? 

We are all more educated, better placed financially, we have many more means of communication and information and entertainment like cell phones, internet, cable TV and access to international films too. Instead of making us more broad minded and appreciative of all cultures, languages and people, why is it making us narrow minded, superstitious, clannish and such believers in ritualistic religion?

Surely, it cannot be just our politicians who are responsible for this? I believe they are a reflection of who we are rather than a result.

And I look around the globe and I find other countries no different. Religious fanaticism seems to be on the rise everywhere and of course intolerance to ‘others’ even hatred follows in logical course.

Whatever happened to that wonderful feeling.

Viva la difference ?!

…Sunita Mudaliar