Each year, as a nip in the air announces the arrival of the festive season, I am inadvertently transported to the past. I was a medical student and a visit to my friend’s house was on the cards. Her mother wrote, asking if there was anything specific I wanted to eat during my stay there and I requested egg curry, my favourite at that time.
At dinner time, as we sat around the dinner table, their house maid laid the table. She brought in all the dishes and then I caught her exchanging glances with my friend’s mother and vigorously shaking her head. At that point, the lady stepped out and brought in a dish of egg curry and placed it at my end of the table. As we began to eat, I noticed that everyone politely declined the egg curry. I could no longer restrain myself and asked my friend what the matter was.
After much cajoling, my friend told me that eggs were not cooked or consumed in their household during the auspicious Navratri period. The maid had refused to risk God’s wrath by touching eggs, so her mother had made the curry herself. I was embarrassed that I had unwittingly inconvenienced her with this moral dilemma, and I asked why she had risked rotting in hell and not simply refused to serve the dish. Her answer is vividly stuck in my memory. She said, “I figured that God would understand that there is no malicious intent in feeding a child something she has innocently asked for.”
Another incident goes further back and is from early childhood. We had just moved to Canada, where dad was pursuing his doctorate. Christmas was approaching and dad’s professor asked if we would be celebrating. Dad said that though we children had heard about it from friends and were very excited, he wasn’t so sure since he wasn’t familiar with the local customs and, moreover, with dad’s stipend our only source of income, we were on a shoestring budget.
Two days before Christmas, the bell rang and when mum opened the door there was no one around, just a beautiful conifer and a huge gift-wrapped box. The box contained Christmas tree ornaments and a note, ‘Apart from this, all you need is a little Christmas spirit’. We enthusiastically decorated the tree and celebrated the festival that year and every year that followed. Dad strongly suspected who had gifted the tree but his professor never owned up, claiming it was a Christmas miracle. In any case, the ‘spirit’ outlasted our five-year stay in an alien land and we continued to celebrate the day even after returning to India, albeit without the tree and the turkey.
Though these incidents appear unrelated, the underlying sentiment is the same. Both display the inherent character of mature individuals and the type of society they create; the ability to take people along not by influencing their thoughts but by accepting their beliefs. The incidents make a case for magnanimity of heart, something which seems to be in short supply in present times. These incidents become more significant now when laws that restrict personal freedom are being enforced. It is just as wrong for the state to appease minorities to gain votes as it is to impose ideals from a mythical past to favour majority sentiment and impinge on the rights of others.
Banning books, films, clothes or foods are attempts by political parties to promote separatism. It could be dismissed as a minor inconvenience, a wrinkle in the social fabric of a country as vast and diverse as India. It would not cause concern, had Adolf Hitler not uttered these infamous words, “The best way to take control of a people and to control them utterly is to take away a little of their freedom at a time, to erode rights by a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which these changes cannot be reversed.” Are we unwittingly traversing the same path?
In recent times, the ‘secular’ word has been much tossed around. It has been redefined and distorted, misused and misinterpreted. The fact is, secularism is a difficult goal but we don’t have to achieve it. We just need to be average, decent humans and respect each other. Long before the word was coined and given a political hue, Emperor Ashoka had preached it, “One must not exalt one’s creed discrediting and degrading others. One must, on the contrary, render to other creeds the honour befitting them.”
We need to be more accommodative and pragmatic about social customs and personal choices. It takes just a little understanding to accept someone and their religious beliefs or lack of them. It takes just a little warmth to welcome a complete outsider to our celebrations. All those years ago, with a single act of kindness, the professor introduced us to the Christmas spirit and in her own simple way, my friend’s mother made a stronger statement than Voltaire did when he said, “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to death your right to say it.”
( published in the Sunday Magazine of the Hindu On 3/1/2016)