The family had gathered in my aunt’s living room in Mumbai after her daughter’s wedding. Eventually, the topic of discussion turned to Hindu-Muslim relations, as it often does in India.
Why can’t we have the same personal laws for all? Political parties pander to Muslims because they vote in a block. Ninety percent of Muslims are not patriotic. In cricket test matches they cheer the Pakistani team. I had heard the same arguments in other Hindu living rooms before.
A Hindu woman is not safe in a Muslim neighborhood while Muslim women can wander freely in Hindu areas. As the lone dissenter, I countered that if I were a Muslim in India I would not feel safe. After the mayhem in Gujarat I could not trust that the police, state machinery, and elected officials would act to ensure my safety.
I don’t understand how Hindus, being part of an 80-percent majority, can feel insecure in their own land. This insecurity is engineered by politicians who manipulate people’s fears for the sake of votes, I argued.
The debate became heated, with both inflexible sides disagreeing louder but not listening.
Their religion teaches violence against kafirs, non-Muslims. You never know when even a Muslim friend might turn against you. Is that your personal experience, I asked? I thought about the few Muslims in my life—my high school history teacher, classmates in school and college, friends in the Bay Area—people I trust implicitly.
You have never lived in a Muslim-majority area; I have. There was an edge in my uncle’s voice. In our small town in Sindh we were the last Hindu family in the neighborhood after Partition; the rest had already fled across the new border to India. There were daily attacks on Hindus. That was unfortunate, but at that time, there were similar attacks on Muslims in the Hindu-dominated areas of India, I pointed out.
One day, from our terrace, we saw a Hindu man hacked to death in the street below. We children and the women of the house rushed indoors—the men were out at work—and bolted the doors. We armed ourselves, even my two little sisters, with kitchen knives, ready to defend ourselves against the mob.
Then I saw the anger in my uncle’s red eyes and knew I had crossed a line. I listened. The rage in his voice ran through me and for a moment the trauma of his childhood became mine. In the hushed silence that followed I understood how old wounds sometimes don’t heal, and how the trauma gets passed on to the next generation.
Chachaji, I wanted to say, I empathize with your pain, but don’t want to be a prisoner of the past. I am ready to close that chapter and move ahead.