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Why I'm bullish about India
August 23, 2006
I was born to Tamil speaking parents, my father had a dark skin and my mother a light one. My ayah was a light-skinned woman from UP who spoke Hindi. We lived in a thickly forested area in Jharkhand, where the majority of the population was dark-skinned tribal people who spoke a language called Ho. On my trips out of home I saw people wearing all kinds of attire -- from sadhus wearing nothing at all, to the locals who went topless, to women in burqas.
Most of the guests in our home spoke English. We were Hindu, my ayah was Muslim, and the tribals were either Christian or Animists who worshipped trees, animals or the spirits of their forefathers. People around me had all kinds of food habits. Some ate only vegetables, some did not eat cattle, some did not eat pigs, some ate anything including rats and monitor lizards.
Our small mining community celebrated festivals of all religions with equal gusto. We lived in the middle of an almost virgin forest that was home to a huge variety of wild animals that included elephants, bears and deer. The animals added to the fun and the unpredictability of life by occasionally walking into our tiny community of 10 houses (sometimes into them).
This was my small introduction to the enormous diversity of this wonderful land. Even as an infant I was listening to people of different colours and facial features speaking four languages, of four religions, dressing in different ways, and eating a variety of food.
These must have been the lessons that I learnt: anyone looking like a human was a human, irrespective of skin colour or features; humans worshipped all sorts of gods, wore all sorts of clothing, ate all kinds of food, and spoke all kinds of languages.
As I grew up, my father's company transferred him every two or three years through about half the states in India. I saw the rest of India. I learnt that Indians believe in far more gods than the four that I was introduced to as an infant. I learnt that each state has three or four different regions. People in each of these regions speak different languages or dialects and may not even understand the other dialects in their own state. Each region eats a different kind of food, wears different clothing, is culturally very different, and looks very different geographically.
Today, nobody can convince me that I am superior to someone else because of my religion, skin colour or language. The diversity that I experienced, accepted and enjoyed as an infant is not unique to me. Every Indian experiences this -- only the details differ. I believe that this is what makes us the most tolerant country in the world. I enjoy our diversity so much that I cannot even think of living in one of those countries where everything is homogeneous -- everybody looks the same, eats the same food, believes in the same religion. Think of countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Sweden... hundreds of them.
Yes, the diversity occasionally makes us kill each other, usually over different religions or sub-religions. This is tragic and should never happen, but look at this way: Sunnis, Buddhists, Roman Catholics, Sikhs, Bohras, Digambar Jains, Parsis, Khurmis, Iyers, Agarwals, Nairs, Syrian Christians, Shias, Shwetambar Jains, Jews, Ismailis, Seventh Day Adventists, Bishnois and a whole lot of other groups live together in India.
In Britain and Yemen two sects of the same religion were killing each other for decades. In Lebanon, people from two religions have been killing each other. The US and South Africa have seen huge problems over two skin colours. In Canada it's over two languages.
As an Indian, I laugh at these silly reasons for their conflicts -- two religions, two colours, two languages. I feel like saying "Hey guys, try Digamber Jain, Gujarati-speaking, pyjama-kurta-wearing herbivore coexisting with Syrian Christian, Malayalam-speaking, mundu-wearing carnivore". Where would we be if we had been as intolerant as them?
I believe that the religious intolerance that we are seeing now is confined to a small percentage of us, and that in the long run we have the sense to not take our differences too seriously, to acknowledge that the whole lot of us are a wonderful amalgam of different races, religions and cultures.
I can never be a global citizen. Contrary to the advice that any stockbroker would give, I've invested all my emotional stocks in this company called India, because I'm sure that the value of these stocks can only go up. Not because of the amount of steel, armaments and textiles we can make, but because we know how to live together.
G V Dasarathi is director of a software products development company