It must have been the late 1920s as I was a six or seven year old boy. I was on my way to the Urdu medium primary school where I studied in Lahore's Hindu dominated area of Shah Alami Gate. It was a wintry morning; I was well covered by woollens and had a fur cap on my head. Fur caps were usually worn by Muslims, and I must have looked like a child from a Muslim family.
Walking ahead of me was an old lady of more than sixty years. As I passed by her, my jacket may have touched her loose clothes. She became very angry and pushed me to the floor. The cause became clear as she cursed me for being a dirty polluted Muslim who, by touching her body, had polluted her. She continued fretting and fuming for quite some time.
I was too stunned to react initially as I was lying on the floor. I got up slowly and spoke to her meekly. I explained that I was not a Muslim, that I was a Hindu boy called Pran and part of a Seth family. The lady calmed down a bit but did not accept my Hindu identity. She continued to call me a liar and a Muslim as she finally walked away.
I cried a little and walked to the school. But the encounter generated considerable confusion in my innocent mind. Why are Muslims called dirty and polluted? Why did the old lady call me a Muslim when I was from a devoted Hindu family? Muslims do not look different from us, although a majority of them did not wear as clean clothes as we do.
I tried to answer these questions myself. Perhaps Muslims do more work with their own hands – cleaning the toilets, working as labourers, mechanics or loaders, butchers, etc. But I was contradicting myself – some Hindus too did similar work – but they are not called Muslims. Why? I asked myself. I recalled having seen some Hindu loaders from my father's shop invited to our house on auspicious occasions and fed by my mother as Brahmins – the pious caste – especially on the death anniversary of my forefathers. My mother washed their feet with her own hands, and served them a vast variety of food and sweets cooked by her own hands with utmost humility.
It baffled me. Looking back, I find it peculiar how a child's mind is affected by the poison of religious divisions and yet the child has no understanding of religion itself. For most of us, the family we were born in determined our religion and thus our values and thoughts.
I asked some fellow Hindu boys. “Why are Muslims polluted and unclean?”
One fellow said, “They eat beef.”
The other came up with this answer, “They do not bathe like us every day.”
Still another added, “They do not worship Hindu Gods. They do not worship in temples.”
Another boy interrupted, “They pollute our temples by throwing cow's flesh inside the temples.”
I was bewildered by such varied information. I knew nothing of my religion except what was told to me by my parents, and we invariably followed their lead. No questions asked. We were told to believe in Lord Rama – the hero of Ramayana and the values followed by him in his life. Stories from Mahabharat – the epic ….we enjoyed these stories at bedtime from our parents. That was the total depth of my religion Hinduism at that time.
My fragile neutrality towards Muslims was shattered when a Muslim boy in our school revealed to me that a few Turks from Turkey had come to India. They would not only destroy British rulers in India but would convert all Hindus to Islam, and those who did not agree to convert would be killed.
“Kill me too?” I asked.
He smiled benignly and said, “You should become a Muslim to save your life.” The idea did not appeal to me but I was genuinely afraid. The fertile mind of the child started working hard and tried to find out ways and means to defend Hindus. But how?
By that time, I had already known that China had a large population, and that they were Buddhists. I knew that in north-west of India, there were several Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Iran. But, in the East, there were more Buddhist countries. I tried to add the number of Buddhists in their countries and put them on the side of the Hindus. A battle plan was ready in my mind of Hindu and Buddhist nations allied against the Muslims led by the wily 'Turks'!
It was a confusing state of affairs then for adults, never mind a child. In a later chapter, I describe life in the narrow streets of Lahore where mutual distrust among the communities, Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other, manifested itself in every sphere of my early life. My hatred and fear of Muslims was reciprocated by them with equal intensity. Though claiming to preach love, religion was very much the base for hatred and prejudice in our daily life.
A couple of years later, there was a riot in Lahore. Muslims had stabbed some Sikhs on the question of ownership of a gurudwara called Shahidganj, and Sikhs had paid them in their own coin with even greater ferocity. During the same time, I recall a stampede in the streets of Lahore. Everybody in Hindu dominated streets running in the same direction and shouting Muslims have attacked. But there was no attack, only rumours. A curfew was enforced by the Deputy Commissioner of Lahore and people were directed to remain confined to their homes. A repeat of a similar attack started in Muslim areas and they ran helter-skelter apprehending a Hindu-Sikh raid.
We locked the doors of our streets (Mohalla), which was primarily Hindu. At night, we closed our steel- barricaded doors to protect our locality from Muslims. Young Hindu men volunteered to remain awake by turn so that old people, women and children could sleep. The elders sat down in a conference discussing secret ‘information’ on how Muslims were arming themselves and how they planned to raid Hindu localities to finish Hindus. Plans were made for barricading our streets more firmly, and a sub-committee was set up to collect from the residents contributions to purchase arms (small swords and daggers) for the protection of the Hindus.
Residents of Hindu dominated Shah Alami Gate area felt beleaguered surrounded by hostile Muslim areas. Today, I can imagine how the Muslims in the surrounding areas would feel. There was a fear psychosis. As children, we could not concentrate on studies. We were growing up in an environment of hatred and backstabbing, and we never felt relaxed or safe. The elders, however, often told us that the previous decades were more peaceful and Hindus and Muslims lived harmoniously. They blamed the British for creating the rift between the Hindus and Muslims. The British, our elders argued, wanted that the Hindus and the Muslims to fight with each other on minor problems of religion (like eating beef or pork) so that they would not unite to seek freedom from the British rule. Mahatma Gandhi, who had already returned from South Africa, was pleading for unity. But, it was easy to provoke the Muslims by leaving the butchered head of a pig near a mosque or the cow's meat near a temple was enough provocation for Hindus and Sikhs to attack the Muslims.
Living in Lahore a few years before partition, hatred and lack of trust was all-pervasive – at least in my part of the walled city.
© Pran Seth 2008
|< Prev||Next >|