A Postcard For Peace And Love
February of 2006 was the time when I had first open argument with my father when I was denied to apply for admission to medical/engineering school in Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia, because of obvious reasons. Since then, I never stopped questioning. I’m not religious, but I’m curious. I understand Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language, that helped me while reading texts like Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana and Srimad Bhagavatam. In the process, I read a condensed-translated version of Qu’ran as well. Almost all text of these books being poetic, translations often lose the true meaning and context. I do not know Arabic, and I had no way to verify if the text was correct. So, I admit I didn’t understand Islam, and so didn’t the remaining others.
“I don’t know anything.” These are powerful words and it takes wisdom to admit in a society where we are being judged even on the way we breathe. One easy way out of this lack of information for me was to accept the common belief. Since that’s common knowledge, it must be true. However, when someone steps up and speaks anything vastly different from our beliefs, we often react. That’s our natural defence mechanism. And in that reaction mode, we stop thinking rationally. Few are the people who see with their eyes and think with their minds. The number gets even fewer when their thoughts are hijacked by religion. Vast majorities of anti-Islam entities have never tried once to truly understand Islam. Neither has a large number of Muslims themselves. It takes courage for someone to surrender, unlearn and then accept statements as just another opinion, which has every right to exist. However, if someone is scared of losing power as these statements will change one’s ground of existence, which in this case is hatred, these opinions are ridiculed and silenced. I was not fighting for power, but for acceptance of the people, I live with.
India has had difficult relations with her neighbours. Especially, Pakistan. Both nations have pretty funny internal dynamics, that everyone is aware of. But, here I’ll discuss my understanding and opinion which may or may not align with your understanding. If you agree, smile. If you don’t, do not argue, just accept it as another opinion and smile again. The states are defined by their populations, and governments are elected by the population for the organized functioning of that state. Hence, governments are nothing but servants for well being of that population. They may or may not represent the sentiments, needs and wishes of that population, hence, can’t be deemed as the voice of the state. However, governments, being the keepers of power for efficient governance, self-proclaim as “the voice” of that nation, and govern their armies as per their needs. Needs of power. Needs of staying in power. Need of establishing dominance over neighbours they particularly stand against for political reasons. Pakistan, for example, has been a dominant unfortunate breeding ground for terrorists and became the poster-child in India for terrorism. Cornering Islam is easy because of the loud noise, these terrorist groups (that declare themselves as representatives of Islam) already have made. Hence, Islam was presented as a religion of terror to us lesser knowns.
“Pakistan did not kill my father. War did” The statement was ridiculed unanimously by most across the nation when a twenty-years-old Delhi University undergraduate student was taken aback by mainstream media last year. Many families of martyrs, celebrities and philosophers stood strongly against the statement, demanded an immediate apology and India’s political leaders didn’t miss a chance to make it a national issue. Yes, “what one undergraduate student thinks” became a national issue for a country with 1.3 billion population where 390 million of them don’t know how to read. To put the numbers in perspective, this is the population of Russia, Canada, United Kingdom, France and Germany combined. Albeit, I believe what she stated is not completely wrong. Wars between kingdoms have always existed. They are never the war based on religion, however, they are based on power. For power. With power. Armies of Pakistan are not the voice of that state, but their government that fights for power. In my understanding, where I define a state by their population and not ruling government who are self-proclaimed “the voice”, stating my friend Hammad, who in Canada represents Pakistan, is responsible for the death of my soldier would not be a euphemism. “Is Pakistan responsible for my soldier being killed on the border (just because that nation exists) or is it the war between the two nations to establish their power?” I’m not seeking for an answer from you. Nor, I want to begin an altercation. However, what I want to establish here is – let us think together with a clear head, what the terms like “nation”, “war”, “army”, “government”, “power”, “patriotism” mean to us.
A human is defined Muslim by attributes like her name, the way she grooms, the dress she wears, the books she reads, the food she eats, the gods she worships (if any), probably language and general behaviour. To many, including my family, a Muslim is equivalent to someone who is from Pakistan (Pakistani), which equals to enemy or well-wisher of the enemy. With such conditioning, it won’t take a lot of work to trigger a rough emotion. My cousin would often be called Pakistani or terrorist by his friends and people in the family, purely based on the clothes he’d wear and style of facial hair he’d groom. He’d often be ridiculed, bullied and he slowly learned to be okay with it. He’d respond to his new name “Aatankwadi“, which means terrorist. After return from Mumbai, where I nearly went through a crash course in Islam after the marathon, I succeeded in dissolving the animosity my father had (not that he started visiting Usman, but he’d be open for much friendlier interactions and sharing short meals). Next major barrier was broken when I moved to Pune – the first city that I could call home after Delhi.
It was a long journey by train to Pune and I was sharing my seating compartment with two young boys from Kashmir (Hindu and Muslim, childhood friends and now colleagues), few soldiers from Indian Army (who were visiting National Defence Academy or NDA for training) and a group of thirty young students of Islam who were heading back to their Madrasa in Ahmednagar after a religious meeting, somewhere in Uttar Pradesh. These students would spend rest of their time in Madrasa and go on to become Mullah, the knowledge keepers of Islam. I was interested in speaking with all three of them. I was still curious about Islam, wanted to be in Army as a kid, and had never been to Kashmir. Out of nowhere, a common political conversation began and Kashmiri boys revealed some of the lesser talked atrocities of Indian Army through some of the horrifying tales of assault, molestation and much more. To this, our co-passenger NDA trainees expressed their disgust and most of them accepted their lack of information. Some of them were fumed but didn’t fuel the argument. In that 27-hour-long journey I collected a lot of information about what it feels like living in Kashmir (world’s highest and toughest battleground), how rigorous is the training of Indian Army, and what are the teachings those kids receive in their Madrasa.
In Pune and Mumbai, I went on to share thousands of miles of running with people of nearly every religion during ultramarathons. I was hosted with all love and warmth, by countless Muslim families in Maharashtra during my solo multi-day runs, and I did end up spending two nights in different Madrasas who opened their doors for me to feed and stay when the weather got rough in towns of Murud and Honnavar. I remember one such night in Murud. It was raining heavily, roads were flooded, the Arabian Sea had almost washed off the villages. My plan was to continue running throughout the night, but I couldn’t do it anymore, thus I was looking for a place to stay. While having dinner at a motel, this middle-aged man overheard my conversation with motel-owner and offered to stay in his home. A single room, roof made of tin sheets and coconuts leaves, kitchen on a corner in right and I couldn’t see the washroom. He lived there with his wife and teenage daughter. Trusting an adult stranger, who could have been threatening by so many means during his overnight stay, was a stretch I could never imagine if I was Mansoor, my host. Five years ago, I would have hated him without even knowing his name.
From all my travels, talks, sharing hostels, meals, books and adventures with an open mind, I learned every human – irrespective of caste, gender, colour, culture, nationality, religion – has common needs. Need of being loved, nourished, included, respected, celebrated. Need of just being, without judgements, prejudice, hatred, tagging and ridiculed.
Until early 2015, I didn’t realize what was happening? What emotions I was holding inside of me? How I truly felt? What I could empathize? Or, if I was changed at all? All my awareness directed me towards my lack of awareness. Awareness of self. Awareness of emotions. Awareness of my relations. Awareness of my connections. And then I landed in Udaipur to undergo next level of transformation. Being in Tapovan Ashram for a period of 8-days through rigorous sessions of self-exploration was a life-changing experience. I’m not sure if that changed my life in literal terms at all, however, it revolutionized my perspective. I learned to empathize, understand emotions, express emotions, understand my needs, others’ needs, identify connections, and meet Gaurav who was lost thirteen years ago. I did possess all the knowledge, but there I got the tools to process it and make meaningful figures out of it.
For the first time in my life, albeit very late, I set myself on a difficult spiritual journey of inner exploration through practice and experimentation. This quest was exciting and there is more to it. Turn to the third and final episode of this journey later this week. You are free to drop your thoughts, experiences, comments down below. I’d love to share the words of compassion.