Can We Live Together?
Yes, we can but it’s going to take work
- Jerry Pinto
This pamphlet began inside my head decades ago when
I tried to sleep on an ominously quiet night in riot-torn
Mahim in the winter of 1992. All my life the roar of
traffic has lulled me to sleep. Through the dark days
of December 1992, the economic engine of India’s
economic capital was no longer growling past my balcony.
I wondered then at the fragile construction that is
a city. City-dwellers live, popular anthropologist Desmond
Morris would say, in conditions that no enlightened
zookeeper would tolerate in his zoo. And he was talking
about western cities. What would he say about Mumbai
where millions are packed into a landmass meant for
one-third that number? Where the rules for the transport
of cattle make their journey more comfortable than the
daily commute of most workers in the city? Where the
air is filthy and the water supply is fitful and the
parks are brown and the beaches covered with plastic?
Where tempers skate over paper-thin veneers of tolerance
and compromise? Where each day temple bells ring out
and the azaan is called and the politicians watch for
the next opportunity to divide and rule?
And I wondered: Can we live together?
It is not a question to which I have found any answers
though I hope the answer is that we can. I often feel
that we don’t have a choice. We must find a way
to live together or we will find ourselves living through
a civil war that will knock us to our knees.
I believe that we can live together physically once
we begin to make space for each other in our minds.
If I can find a small place in your head, a space that
will accommodate not just my smile and the covered plate
of food that I brought on the day that you were ill,
not just a space for my old mother’s willingness
to baby sit your children, but a space that accommodates
my need to ring bells at odd times and eat strange food
and perform odd rituals, a space in which you can let
me be me. If I can find that space in your head, perhaps
I can find a space for you in my head. In that space,
I will accommodate the memory of your car and how you
brought it out in the middle of the night to take my
mother to hospital and I will accommodate your peculiar
habits and your difference from me.
I know it is not easy.
But as Gandhiji says, “Decency and toleration,
to be of any value, must be capable of standing the
severest strain.” He was right.
It’s easy to be tolerant when we’re all
wearing the same clothes and drinking the same milk
shakes and eating the same dosas. It’s difficult
to be tolerant when Ahmed wants to sacrifice a goat
or Naresh wants to set off firecrackers all night or
Santan wants to ring the bells of the church at midnight.
It’s difficult but it’s worth it.
Should you ever travel in India, you will see how spectacularly
it is worth it. Few other countries have such a richness
of architecture, such a diversity of cultures, such
a range of cuisines, such a tangle of faiths, such polyphony
of sounds. This is no accident. It is the result of
hundreds of years of acceptance. It is the result of
our civilisation’s unparalleled ability to assimilate
other cultures, other ways of living.
We like to believe that this happened effortlessly in
the past and now it’s different and we’re
making heavy weather of it. I don’t think it ever
happened effortlessly. I think it took time and pain
and compromise. No one could see when the Jesuits came
to Akbar’s court that they were going to revolutionise
Indian cooking by introducing potatoes and chillies
to us. No one who suffered the sword of the mighty Mughal
could see how it would change our landscape, leaving
behind the Taj Mahal and the sweetness of Urdu. No one
who heard the first violin being played could have imagined
that it would become an integral part of Carnatic music.
No one who sipped the first tea could imagine that chai
would become our national drink.
But eventually, these things did settle down and become
Indian. The chilli belongs to us as chai does as does
the violin as does disco dandiya. They are ours because
we made space in our minds and hearts for them.
Can we do that for the man next door?
I hope we can. He has much to offer, although he bundles
it up with some bits and pieces we wish we could do
away with. But that’s how he comes: a mixed blessing.
And think about it for a moment. Aren’t you a
mixed blessing yourself?