'Although I feel more comfortable living with my own people, I often remember those cricket matches by the river bank...'
Geetanjali Krishna on the decline of easy camaraderie in India's villages.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Like many others, I too stood in solidarity with the five activists arrested on the suspicion that they were aiding and abetting Maoists.
Immediately, my social media feeds erupted with opinions, many against -- but some in favour of the arrests.
I followed the events as they unfolded, wondering about their potential impact on our social fabric.
The growing belief among minorities that the mainstream narrative is simply not inclusive enough is bound to have consequences.
The fact that the State seems to be actively encouraging this polarisation isn't helping much.
A chance conversation with Murtaza, an Uber driver, made me realise that for many, this has fostered a sense of alienation which might be hard to get over.
Till 15 years ago, Murtaza had hardly ever stepped out of his village in in Kotdwar district of Uttarakhand.
"Until I reached secondary school which was 10 kms away, I don't think it even registered that I lived in a Mohammedan village," said he.
"We never made distinctions between Hindus and Muslims, and in fact played cricket every day with the boys from the Hindu village nearby."
Friendships between boys from the two villages deepened when they had to go to the same secondary school.
"We'd cycle to school together," he reminisced.
"From what I can remember, we shared everything, including Diwali crackers and kebabs, which of course my friends never got to eat in their vegetarian homes!"
After school, like many of his friends, Murtaza also migrated to Delhi.
Over the years, however, when he went back to his village, he began noticing subtle changes.
"Many in our village had sold their land to property developers," he said.
"And we all know money has no religion..."
As Hindus came to live in his village, they began objecting to the local butcher shop openly displaying his wares.
A small shrine mysteriously morphed into a big temple that blared bhajans morning, noon and night.
But most of all, Murtaza began noticing that his friends had changed.
"The easy camaraderie was gone," he said.
This time, when Murtaza went home on Eid, the celebrations were muted.
Apparently, whatsapp was full of bloody images of sacrificed animals on Bakrid, and none of his Hindu friends came over to wish him, as they'd always done.
"The local butcher shop had stopped stocking a lot of meat because of reduced sales, and before Eid, we had to take a bus to Kotdwar (about 20 kms away) to buy meat," he said.
The next day, Murtaza organised a cricket match on the riverbank for old times's sake.
"While earlier, dozens of players and spectators would show up, this time the response was less than enthusiastic," said he moodily.
What did he think had caused the change, I asked?
Murtaza thought long and hard:
"I think we were all more comfortable when the Hindus lived in their village and we lived in ours," he said.
"Diversity isn't always a good thing, it has made us lonelier than ever before!"
I'd reached my destination, but lingered, feeling that our conversation wasn't over.
Did he regret the change, I asked?
"Although I feel more comfortable now living with my own people," he replied, "I often remember those cricket matches by the river bank..."