By Betwa Sharma
How does a "pure" vegetarian woman from the Jain community end up cooking in the kitchen belonging to a Muslim family where meat is prepared frequently?
In a religiously polarized city like Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, one doesn't get to hear stories such as these often. This one, dates back to 1987, when Meerut was reeling under communal riots, one year after Rajiv Gandhi had ordered the unlocking of the Babri Masjid premises to provide access to Hindu pilgrims who believed it was the birthplace of Lord Ram.
Prior to that, the premises remained locked and once a year, a priest was allowed to perform rituals addressing a deity of Ram that had been installed in 1949. Ripples of unrest coursed through India after Gandhi ordered the unlocking of the premises in 1986.
Meerut, the hometown of Hari Jain* and his wife Lata*, was one of the several cities that found itself caught in a storm of hate and anger in the days that followed.
Over several cups of tea, Jain recollected how at a time when Hindus and Muslims in Meerut engaged in rioting, he found the most precious friendship of his life -- in a Muslim man.
Jain had always fancied himself as a 'tough' guy, a man of action. But in the summer of 1987, 31-year-old Jain, found himself helpless when he came face-to-face with a rioting mob. In the incident, which remains seared in his memory, Jain's life was saved by his Muslim colleague.
It was an encounter that would leave him deeply introspective, questioning why so many in his community were hell-bent on typecasting Muslims as the "other," perpetually maligning them for eating meat and sacrificing animals on Baqrid, demonizing them as a threat to their way of life. A "pure" vegetarian like most members of his community, Jain would end up questioning his own biases against "Muslim food".
Jain said, "I don't know who is right or wrong but the fighting is pointless. Being friends is natural. It is making enemies that is unnatural."
'He saved my life'
On that fateful evening in 1987, all Jain wanted was to get home to his wife.
Jain recalled that he could hear his heart pounding the whole time he was perched on the back of a motorcycle, clinging to his friend and colleague, Mohammad Khan who steered them through the Muslim neighbourhoods of the old city.
Forsaking the customary hustle and bustle, the familiar markets and streets had for weeks been sporting a menacing silence. It was near the Karam Ali Chowk that Jain heard someone cry out, "Jain Saab!" In the split second that Jain craned his neck in the direction of the voice, they were surrounded by a Muslim mob that quite literally moved in for the kill.
Jain said, "Khan pushed them back and begged them to come to their senses. Thankfully, a few men who knew Khan also rushed to the spot to save him. They held off the crowd to let us escape."
The 61-year-old continued, "He risked his own life to save mine that day. I will never forget it."
As Jain's voice trailed off, his wife, Lata, a woman with a formidable presence, chimed in, "My husband is alive today because of Khan and I'm grateful."
The near-death experience which he shared with Khan had a profound impact on Jain and his family. It catapulted his relationship with Khan from the realm of friendship to that of family, with the women and children on both sides forging a special bond as well.
When Khan died of cancer a few years later, Jain took his son under his wing and later made him a partner in the business that he had founded with his father.
I met the younger Khan when he stopped by Jain's house after attending the evening prayer at a local mosque. The dapper-looking man in his fifties told me, "More than a partner, Jain saab has always been like an elder brother to me. In times of joy and sorrow, they are always the first at our gate and we are always the first at their gate."
When Jain's son got married, the invitation cards included the name of the younger Khan and his wife as the hosts. It was a gesture which had greatly moved the Khan family. "I will do the same when my children get married," he said. "Our business may change in the years to come, but our relations won't."
Even as both Jain and the younger Khan explained how naturally their two families had bonded over the decades, they were painfully aware of being an anomaly in society.
Jain told me that he knew of no other Jain-Muslim friendships. But it was when both of them asked me not to use their real names that I realized they feared a backlash.
Lata also turned down my request to take a photo of the two men from a distance, without capturing their faces. "Leave the photo. The world has become a dangerous place. You will leave but we will deal with the consequences," she said.
Eventually, she allowed me to take a photo of her husband shaking hands with the younger Khan.
Food – A Great Divider
Ironically, food, which often brings people together, is at the heart of the Jain prejudice against Muslims.
The Jain community, India's smallest and most literate religious minority, cites non-vegetarianism as the reason for routinely denying housing to Muslims. They believe Islam to be antithetical to the central tenet of Jainism, which teaches that no living being should injure or kill any creature or living being.
But what one often hears sounds less like concerns for God's creatures and more like thinly veiled xenophobia. In Meerut, which has a powerful and affluent Jain community, I was told that "most" Muslims "smell," "live in dirty conditions" and "they just want to take over good Hindu neighbourhoods so their good-for-nothing young men can chase after Hindu girls".
The Jains are not alone in espousing such views, as many upper-caste Hindus also couch their prejudices in the language of vegetarianism versus non-vegetarianism.
When I pointed out that plenty of Hindus eat meat, one middle-aged Jain man countered, "But Hindus don't eat meat every day. It isn't in their blood." Another Jain man replied, "Hindus don't actually kill the animals. If you can actually slaughter animals, it shows you have no feelings."
And then there is always this argument, "Have you ever heard of a Hindu wanting to go live in a Muslim neighbourhood? No, never. Can we even live in peace in their neighbourhood? No, never. Go see the way they live. Why are journalists like you always writing one-sided reports?"
There was a time when such prejudiced remarks were made in the confines of a close family circle. But in the three years since the Bharatiya Janata Party has come to power, emboldening the radical right, it has been observed by many that people feel comfortable expressing such xenophobic sentiments in public spaces, even to strangers.
Whilst earlier Muslims were often not leased or sold property in Hindu-dominated neighbourhoods in Meerut, they are now prevented from moving in even after a legitimate sale has taken place. In one shocking incident in late December, residents of a Hindu neighbourhood staged protests and stopped a Muslim family from taking possession of their house.
After successfully managing to turn their theory of "Love Jihad" into a nationwide preoccupation, Hindu nationalists in Meerut have started accusing Muslims of "Land Jihad," a conspiracy of systematically taking over Hindu neighbourhoods by offering to pay more than the sale price of the property.
When I asked Jain what he made of all this hate, he said, "Politics is behind all of it. The powerful benefit while ordinary people are made fools of. The British left us a legacy of divide and rule. They will be happy that we are making good use of it."
'Will God punish me for it? I don't think so'
Even though the Jain family steers clear of onions and garlic and the Khan family is fond of home-cooked meat, they have managed to get their food dynamics down to pat.
Clearly amused at my line of questioning, they say that eating together does not require planning, just some sensitivity.
This is how it works: the Khans never cook non-vegetarian food when the Jains come over for a meal, and they eat only vegetarian food when they pay a visit. When hosting a party, the Khans prepare a few dishes without onion and garlic. And when they all go out to a restaurant, the Khans just don't order any meat.
And really, if it's that simple, it makes one wonder why has "Muslim food" become a bone of contention? Jain replied, "I don't know. I think people who want to hate will hate. I have never felt that I have done something wrong by eating with people I regard as family."
As I listened to their story, it occurred to me that the Khans had met the Jains more than half-way when it came to accommodating the latter's religious beliefs. When it comes to building relationships, however, it can be difficult to measure the character of compromise.
It was at this point in the conversation that Jain's wife spoke up. Addressing the room, Lata said that she had never been around onion and garlic in her life, but she had also cooked in Khan's family kitchen. "It was shortly before his mother died," she said, looking at the younger Khan. "I was doing the cooking in their house when she was sick. He was not married at the time."
Looking at Lata, the younger Khan said," Yes, I remember aunty cooking in our kitchen in those difficult times." Turning to me, he said, "What more do we have to say?"
When I pointedly asked if cooking in a kitchen where meat was prepared had bothered her, Lata said, "It may have. Will God punish me for it? I don't think so."
Huffingtron Post Editor's note: Names have been changed to protect the two families in this story from any backlash.