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?

© Copyright 2008 Jerry Pinto