Long, long ago — a very clichéd way to start a narrative — but none the less, long ago, I remember there was a time when my grandfather would graft roses in his garden in Delhi. White and red were his favourite combination. Eventually, the roses would blend together to become a pink. Some would retain their shades distinctly, but some would change colours. Now, when I look back, I miss that garden — not just in a fit of nostalgia but also because of the bits of online news I gather sitting in a tiny, equatorial island, cut off from larger chunks of land by oceans and humanmade borders.
I remember visiting a fish market in South Delhi in INA (Indian National Airways market) with my grandmother — almost half a century ago. The fish monger would give free deals to my grandmother — roe and small fish for my aunt and me. Being from Bengal originally, fish was a part of our daily fare round the year. That was a time when people accepted diversities.
My friends at home were from what was then called Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and England. We all played together daily and none of us cared about differences in culture, race or religion. We blended together absorbing varied colours from each other and gathering bouquets of diverse customs.
We celebrated all festivals. I still recall the wonderful kebabs that came our way from my mother’s music teacher during Id— that was almost forty years ago. At Christmas, Santa mysteriously visited at midnight to distribute gifts to children – always giving without looking for a return. Then, there was Durga Puja which was food and fun with the family with values of cohesiveness and empowerment of women woven into the lore and subsequently into our blood and bones. In university, a friend would invite us to her house for fantastic fare during Id. Holi meant delicious gujias and pahadi sweets in my friends’ homes and more mingling of colours – red, blue, yellow and green. We would have parties on Christmas and New Year. Our friends and families found spouses who were from varied religions, cultures and races. Somewhere, in this mist of the past, were strains of syncretic lore of multiple cultures, races where the ideology of “unity in diversity”, became a truth. We each had different customs cultures but put our best foot forward to accept the differences like the colours of the rainbow.
Now sitting in this tropical island, I often see rainbows colour the horizon.
I do not know where rainbows start and end, but they sometimes make me think of leprechauns and pots of gold — is that a truth? Perhaps, the feeling of elation I experience looking at the seven colours that blend into each other and yet stand out as a unique phenomenon is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
This feeling of elation radiates energy to tackle more. But what of the real people who live where I grew up? Are they able to enjoy the same sense of elation if and when they see a rainbow in the sky? Do they see a rainbow amidst the pollution, smog and sadness which seems to spread with the sheet of fine dust that blows in from the deserts of Rajasthan? When I look at the recent media reports about meat and fish shops being forced to close for a week, read of squabbles over such religious closures, I end up wondering where has that culture disappeared? Or was that only there for a handful of the educated? Did the rest not care? The divides had existed even then, but were perhaps, more invisible to the educated because those who serviced the elites had not found their voices – that is one of the justifications I have heard. And now they have found their voices. But is this the voice of the downtrodden or the commoners? Or their response to what they are being told? Do common people really ever think on these issues or is survival with a full stomach, clean water, adequate housing, employment and schooling for their children more important? Who are fanning these humanmade borders and victimising the innocents with the lure of enabling them? Are they diverting the focus from major issues that face the populace in a post pandemic world?
Differences are often fanned with examples drawn from history. Should history and examples be used to perpetrate abuses and intolerances towards anything that does not belong? If we look back long enough, as some superpowers and politicians persist in doing, we will find that we were forced to tolerate deadly outbreaks of pandemics and lacked in health care facilities much more than we do today. Drawing from that, Edward Jenner, (1749–1823) founded vaccines for the deadly smallpox by scratching a person and smearing cowpox on the wound or making them inhale the materials from the pustules, should we then go back to vaccinating ourselves in the historic way?
History has changed the borders of countries or empires on the world map many times. There was a time when the sun never set on the British Empire. The borders of the Chola Dynasty encompassed Indonesia and there were none but Native Americans in the Americas. If we go back to the start of human history, we could all try to squeeze into the continent of Africa — the original home of mankind. Or we could move forward to adapt to the changes on the face of Earth and space and expand our species among the stars.
As we move forward in time, we could try to learn from our past mistakes or set out to avenge “wrongs” by going to wars, blowing up the Bamian Buddha, wrecking monuments from history to reinstate places of worship like mosques, churches, synagogues and temples. We could create more refugees by chasing people out of their homes or force closure of businesses while economies are tottering to a fresh start in a post-pandemic world, irrespective of the impact it will have on the pockets of the small businesses. Can ‘revenge’ for intolerance of others be had only by perpetrating more intolerance, violence, hatred and anger?
In middle school, I had learnt from Count of Monte Cristo (1844-46), that revenge is hollow. But that is possibly a classic that most of the world would not remember because Edmond Dante’s is an old story — the story of a man who was unjustly tricked into imprisonment and he faced losses of love and career which drove him to empower himself to take his “vengeance” against those who had used him to further their own ends, stolen his fiancée, in effect killed his father of poverty and starvation. The story was at an individual level, but it is about human nature, suffering and fanning of anger and hate by people who aspired to rule. As long as differences are fanned and we fall glibly for these rants perpetrating anger and nurse a sense of injury that calls out for vengeance, we put ourselves in boxes created by margins, borders and exclusivity leading to wars, atrocities and hate crimes.
As the world stretches itself to open after two years of pandemic closures, perhaps, it is time to rethink whether our need to be enabled is giving way to majoritarianism and exclusion that harms humans and the Earth, that kills in a war or generates hatred among human constructs like religions or nations? Or can we have a world in peace filled with love for humanity — where borders do not matter, where colours, races, cultures, religions, rituals are all binding factors in a diverse universe with a strong baseline of inclusivity and acceptance?
Moving forward, looking for ways to adapt to challenges like climate change, pollution, a better home for humanity, a more equitable distribution of resources and accepting changes might be a more pragmatic solution to the long-term survival of the human race.
Mitali Chakravarty is the founding editor of Borderless Journal and writes for peace, love and harmony.