By Charu Chhitwal
My childhood memories are full of innumerable trips with my god-fearing family. From Vaishno Devi in the north to Rameshwaram in the south, I have done some serious worshipping, passively. Yes, passively, because as a kid, these trips were more about cousins, fun and food than devotional fervour.
As I grew up and stepped out of my house for higher education, these trips became a yearly event, at best. But of course my mom would always remind me to pay a courtesy call at a friendly neighbourhood temple on those special occasions (one every 10 days if you consider the sheer population of my gods). Personally I find the Lord Ganesha closer to my heart, more like a friend who gives me strength. On many occasions my friend 'S' accompanied me. She always covered her head, folded her hands during prayers and relished the yummy Boondi Prasad at the temple. I never felt she was different or disrespectful towards my religion. Hell, I never even realised we practised different religions.
She is a Muslim.
I half-expected her mother to be wearing a Burqa, her father to be chewing Paan and her brother to be wearing Kajal in his eyes.
The only time her religion excited me was when her family was to pay us their first visit in the hostel. Bizarrely, I half-expected her mother to be wearing a Burqa, her father to be chewing Paan and her brother to be wearing Kajal in his eyes. Everything typical Indian movies had taught me about Muslim families. But they were too normal, almost bordering on boring when I saw them. They looked, you know, ordinary, like, say my family. Educated, happy and well, routine. Can you believe my disappointment when I realised she had only one mother (yes, I thought every Muslim had multiple wives, blame it on the movies again).
In the next 16 years of our friendship there wasn't a single moment when I felt we were off tune with each other just because we worshipped different gods. Why, her father even sat through all the rituals of my totally Hindu marriage ceremony.
Oh and when I decided to have kids after dedicating 10 years of my life to my career, I put in a special request to my friend Lord Ganesha in the famous Siddhivinayak Temple, Mumbai and 'S' asked her god at Ajmer Sharif to remove any hurdles on my way to motherhood. It's no coincidence that I am blessed with twins today!
I sometimes wish I could create a better world for 'S'. One where she is not expected to apologise for the terrorists claiming to practice the same religion as hers.
During these 16 years we have discussed tolerance, religion, our children's futures and more. Sometimes these discussions were triggered by unfortunate incidents like the Gujarat riots. And sometimes smaller but deeper questions like why schools and offices in India never hold any programmes to celebrate Eid, like they do for Diwali, Holi, Christmas and New Year's. Every single time we would conclude, "There are extremists in every religion and that's why we need to mould our kids into level headed, caring and kind human beings." What we never did was blame each other or each other's god.
Sadly in these 16 years I have had educated and "cultured" people judging our friendship. Some have even cautioned me about how shrewd and religion-focused Muslims are (I wonder what she has been warned against). Others presented the Partition of India as an example of the barbarism and fanaticism of Muslims. I mostly smiled through it all knowing how wrong they were, but my heart always felt heavy, feeling their hatred for 'S'. I sometimes wish I could create a better world for 'S'. One where she is not judged, held responsible or expected to apologise for the terrorists claiming to practice the same religion as hers. The same way as I do not expect to be held accountable for fanatics who slaughter human beings over allegations of eating beef.
In these troubled times, with the attacks in Paris, Lebanon, Pathankot and beyond creating a climate of fear, I feel the collective and justified hatred towards religious terrorism. But when this hatred spills over to every human being practising Islam, I fear for my friend. And that's when I think, "Shit, my best friend is a Muslim."