The phone rings one night when I was a little boy. Maybe it was my dad or my uncle who picked up the phone, I don’t remember. The message was an urgent message for one of the resident employees of our neighbour. The caller was probably asked to call back in 10 minutes while someone went to look for this man and inform him that there’s a call for him. When he showed up, and attended his call, he asked to sit down and glass of water. It was bad news. As a kid, it was easy to sense the tension, the silence and the facial expression. You absorb that and be quiet and whimper in silence as well, with big eyes watching what every adult in the room is doing and reacting. You try to make sense of how everyone is feeling and making sense of the situation.
When the man left, the steel glass of water that he drank from was kept outside in a corner. Probably to be cleaned later, separately. In hindsight, if we were filthy rich, maybe we would have thrown it away. I know this because I was the one who served the glass of water. When the man had asked for it, I was asked to go bring water from the kitchen by asking mom to give it to me. So, when my mom, in a sparingly weird tone implying that glass has become untouchable of sorts, asked me to keep that glass outside in the balcony I did what I was told. But that memory is imprinted in my mind vividly even till date.
It was a seed of sorts.
What kind of seed was it? I didn’t know then but, since it got stuck, I unpacked it over the period of my life until today. This series of personal posts, are a way to openly share my process of learning and evolving.
This was probably the preschool time of my childhood. I grew up in a society where there was presence of Jain, Muslim, Bengali, Marwari & Punjabi people. Punjabis had to let go of much of their religious identity (Sikhism) because of the 1984 massacre. This was still a fresh memory during that time, so we kept over hearing stories and recollections as we grew up. There were no Muslim families or kids in our area, so the childhood friends I had consisted of all of the above kinds, but not Muslim kids. I met later in life in regular high-school time of my life. My foundational years of childhood friendship and playgroups were all these kids, except Muslims. Then I went on to lead a life of not deviating from the paths and environments that were arranged and organised by the larger scheme of things in our city which I had no control over. Muslims were always the other, the invisible and mysterious group of people who nobody knew where or how the lived. And the experiences of the Punjabi people became the story of a trauma that made me sensitive to the topic. I had a better understanding of their experiences than that of Muslims, by share virtue of childhood friend access.
Both Sikhs and Muslims are part of the known minority groups of India. The child’s world was confined to the playgroup, sure there were adults who were around in the larger scheme of things who were Muslim. But I didn’t grow up playing with them. I grew up with the sense of tension about three topics: the India-Pakistan partition, the 1984 massacre of Sikhs and the consequences of decades of ruling by force, murder, rape and exploitation done by the British rule on India. Funnily, when I looked up that Wikipedia link, the summary said “Colonial India was the part of the Indian subcontinent that was under the jurisdiction of European colonial powers during the Age of Discovery. European power was exerted both by conquest and trade, especially in spices.” [Source: Wikipedia accessed on 26.07.2020]. Only later in life after moving to Europe I became invested in the words European exertion, Age of Discovery (as if, we were waiting to be discovered, civilised and taught things) and the exploitative mechanisms set for global trade making life in Europe easier. The idea that a group of people can feel entitled to conquer, rule and believe in the idea of supremacy. And if it was all about spices, why does their food suck? PS: There is nothing civilised or charming about ruling by force, murder and rape by the way. They just had better guns and bombs.
So communal violence and colonisation were the two tricky and bad topics of the childhood that went on to shape my life later. Mostly because I could see and sense the impact of these events through people who still had seen and heard things when it all happened to them. They were my family, my friends and people around. This is probably what some people end up calling inter-generational-trauma. And for most of us, the trauma defines your life as well, among other things. It’s a very human thing.
The closest of my childhood playgroup friends were Marwari & Punjabi. Probably that’s why when I later worked with Rajasthani women I felt like home and when in Europe I meet Punjabi speaking Pakistanis or Indians, I feel like home. Same goes for my love of their food, people and culture. Daal Baati Churma and Bhangra, iykwim 😉
For this period of my formation years, Muslims were two kind of people for me. One the nice group of employees next door who would treat a child as any other adult would, with love, tenderness and care. The other was a mysterious sage in our city’s central park who our parents would take us to, when a child was supposed to be sick or incurable by any other means to get the blessings of God. The good thing about my parents in this situation was, they were devout followers of their faith but understood the concept of faith and god in a universal sense as well. In hindsight, I believe it might have been the Muslim neighbours who might have told my dad or uncle about this sage in the park. In Bollywood movies, this scene is common where a sick child in the arms of their parents is taken to a Dargah or Mazaar where the Muslim priest blesses the kid and by the grace of God the child heals. I don’t know the right word for this place, but it was under a big tree with some form of temporary living arrangement for the priest. He lived in the park I am guessing. This place does not exist anymore.
I grew up with blessings and special healing powers from people and faiths around me and the parents did their best to provide me care, given our economic status and whatever we had in the name of modern medicine and healthcare. Come to think of it, what other option should people have if they do not have access or the ability to provide for health care to their kids? Pray and Hope.
I am a child of faith, prayers and hope.
I used to jump around and cause havoc in the house and in my neighbourhood like any other regular kid. What I like to focus on is the values of love, tenderness, care and that of hope and faith that became the guiding force in my life.
Thanks to the people who took care of me.
I am a child of love, care and sacrifice in tough times.
And there are many like me.
In memory of my eldest uncle who died yesterday and will be cremated today. Thank you Bade Papa for loving me dearly. RIP 25.07.2020