r e f l e c t i o n a n a n t k u m a r
These days, like most Europeans, I too think very often about the Muslims. This, despite the fact that, in contrast to the adherents of Mohammed, neither my ancestors nor the numerous gods of my country ever had anything to do with the Occident. On the other hand, however, thousands of mosques are situated on the banks of the Ganges together with millions of Hindu temples. From Benares to Calcutta. And it is not uncommon on that thickly populated Indo-Gangetic Plain that one brother starts to hate the other only because he wears different clothes. Or one worships another God, or eats a different kind of meat. It often happens that siblings fight one another. Even unto death.
After the deaths on September 11 I thought less – if at all, then only marginally – about Muslims, but a great deal more about the unscrupulous terrorists who could recruit at will from various groups of people, minorities, nations… And as a human being I felt blind hatred against the organizations, groups of people, countries … whose pictures were repeatedly flashed in the aftermath. And gradually the common denominator became more and more evident to me, i.e., that all of them were Muslims.
I became more confused and uncertain and tried to find solace in the writings of my western ideals, who are poets and thinkers. With great care I read an interview with the philosopher Gadamer, who himself had had to live through the most devastating wars of mankind, entitled "I am very frightened." His answer to the question of the ‘Acceptable Future of all Religions’ was a help to me, viz., that it is possible to come to terms with everything, except for the religion of the Arabs2. I read the paragraph again.
As far as I can remember I had had a similar discussion with my elder brother in Delhi (during my studies in New Delhi). At that time we had reacted to a report in India Today, India’s Der Spiegel, which read: “Throughout the world the nations and cultures have had conflicts with the Muslims, irrespective of whether they were in a minority, as in India, or a majority, as in Indonesia.” Then, the report appeared to us, two students of the Indian middle class, like a scientific observation and simultaneously as a logical explanation of certain evil situations. And we believed it.
In my small hometown, Motihari, in Eastern India, where George Orwell saw the light of day, and where, in 1917, Gandhi started his Satyagraha movement3, the Muslims are in a minority. And in my childhood and youth I, a Hindu, had an interesting relationship with them. We went to school together and they were my playmates.
Every now and then, however, conflicts did take place between adherents of the two major religions of India, between Muslims and Hindus. Special security measures were adopted during those tense days and weeks. Parents forbade their children to go into areas where mosques were situated.
There was a small Muslim ghetto, about as large as the northern part of Kassel, called the agarwa 4. In this area lived a large Muslim joint family. My father, a Hindu, was related to this family. Yes, ‘related’ is the correct expression, as my father, a strict disciplinarian in his own family, was looked upon in that Muslim family as the most beloved and generous of uncles. The children of that family told me that only as young men did they get to know that my father was neither a Muslim nor a blood relative. He spoke excellent Urdu5 and in his wardrobe one could find several well-cut sherwanis 6.
But we children belonged, on the one hand, to a Western-oriented era, and simultaneously to modern, progressive India, in which Pakistan and its Muslims were considered arch-enemies.
My brother and I were particularly fond of Muslim festivals, especially on account of the delicious sweets prepared on these occasions. My mother comes from a strictly vegetarian Hindu family, and at home even today no meat is cooked. But we brothers had early on discovered the joys of eating meat. At such functions the Muslims prepared for their Hindu guests and neighbours dishes made from goat’s meat. Just thinking about them even now my mouth starts watering. I can well remember the day when we visited the family late in the evening on Eid-ul-Azha 7 and the meat had all been consumed. I was upset and both my brother and I wore downcast expressions. My aunt realised why and immediately asked her daughters, or her daughter-in-law, to prepare a fresh meat dish just for us. I was overjoyed!
Even as a child I was a revolutionary and, as a result, quite early on I moved away from my family. I spent the last years of school in cities thousands of miles away. The visits to my family were few and far between in those days, partly due to strained relations within the family, and partly due to the extreme competition at school, which entailed much work. It was the same with my elder brother. We did our best to get the best grades and results in order to be able to rise in the hierarchy of the Indian bourgeoisie.
In New Delhi my brother met his school friend, a Muslim by the name of Aquil Ahmad, once again. Both became bosom pals after this meeting. One of the important reasons for this was that Aquil was a student of Urdu literature, and Urdu poetry was my brother’s favourite reading in his leisure hours, although he was a student of Mathematics. He now lives and works successfully in the United States. I experienced the intensity of this relationship only incidentally, as I was a diligent student in the Foreign Languages Department at a different university. In due course I learnt that Aquil had lost his father as a child. He thus referred to my father as Uncle or sometimes even Baba 8, as we children did. Especially during the last few years, after we had emigrated to two different countries for higher studies, he took to calling my father Baba.
In 1993 I was working as a trainee in the Volkswagen factory in Kassel when I unexpectedly received news that my father was on his deathbed. I took the next plane out and when I landed in Delhi, in a state of shock, Aquil, the Muslim friend, arranged for my speedy travel to Patna in Eastern India. I did not arrive in time to see my father alive, but as a Hindu son I carried out his last rites according to Hindu tradition on the banks of the Ganges. At all the long complicated funeral ceremonies Aquil was the one who coordinated everything, working tirelessly, like a well-oiled machine.
My colleague Dirk Schümer wrote the following in the FAZ: ‘What is Islam actually? I must admit that till now this question has only marginally interested me and I cannot for the life of me remember when the Mohammedan era began. 620? 628?9 At first I thought his lines partly ironical, partly complaining. Then I imagined how it would look if in a public discussion, say on a television talk show, I suggested my understanding of his lines. I saw my colleague become irritated. He started refuting my interpretation: No! No! ... You have completely misunderstood me. I want neither to complain, nor to ignore Islam… But it is my right (and also possible) not to understand everything in this world.
Those same questions go through my head. But my case is more justified, surely, as I come from a country in which religion is seldom taught in schools. Furthermore, although a deeply religious and educated man, I have read only a fraction of the numerous Hindu sacred texts – the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Epics.
I saw on CNN a Muslim woman academic bemoaning the fact that Muslims, a third of the world’s population, remain misunderstood; that the rest of the world had to understand the Muslims, or else peaceful coexistence between nations would remain a utopian idea.
Hindus do not constitute even a third of the world’s population, and Buddhists are even fewer in number. I try in vain to imagine an international constellation in which temple bells would peal in Europe for millions of cow-worshippers and their billions of gods.
For me, as a writer educated in Europe, it is even more difficult to end this article with the opinion of the European philosopher Gadamer: ‘I don’t know, but I believe in our world as we know it, and I do not need any written explanation for that. It is really very difficult for a European to understand that it is not always so for others. 10 Yes, very difficult, even if my colleagues like Mr. Schümer were to find Buddha, Krishna, Rama … and the cows very interesting and fascinating.
To comfort myself I let my thoughts drift to the mosques on the banks of the Ganges, especially since I – living in the country of my choice, like some of my western colleagues – am not concerned either with mosques or with Islam.
© Anant Kumar. Translation © Rajendra Prasad Jain
1 Almost 140 million Muslims live in India (as many as in Pakistan).
2 Die Welt, 25/09/2001
3 Satyagraha: civil disobedience for the sake of truth.
4 Agarwa: a foreign, Urdu-Persian term for the Hindus who account for 81% of the population.
5 Urdu: official language of Pakistan, also spoken in large parts of India. It is related to the Indian national language, Hindi, but contains more.
6 Sherwani: a long coat for men with the collar buttoned at the neck in Mughal fashion.
7 Eid-ul-Azha: The second most important festival of the Muslims.
8 Baba: Persian for father; an affectionate term for father in India.
9 FAZ, 30/09/2001
10 Die Welt, 25/09/200