There's a cafeteria at the bottom of the NDTV building in New Delhi where I'd often run into fellow interns. We'd group up around one of the small round tables there and catch up on gossip, and, more often than not, vent about any unpleasant experiences we'd had at work, particularly with the employees. You know, sort of like huddling back with your herd to swap stories about the wolves out there. Don't go near that guy, he's a pervert; don't be her friend, she'll rip you to pieces the minute your back is turned; etcetera, sort of a thing. On one such 'huddle', one of the interns began to say something but then hesitated as her voice dropped. She looked at me and then away with an apologetic look on her face. Something had happened, and she wasn't telling, but we nudged her on.
She told us about how she was in the edit bay with another intern from our batch, a guy we all knew. That day some visuals had leaked from Pakistan of some government security officers roughing up one of their citizens and then shooting him pointblank in the scuffle. The visuals had been running all day, and at that point, both this female intern and the other young male were watching it on one of the small TVs in the edit bay. The male intern had got agitated and turned to the girl and said, "Don't you get it, all these Muslims are crazy, they are the same, look at how savage they are!" He'd gone on further to warn her, apparently not for the first time, against befriending Muslims and hanging out with her Muslim friends. This had happended in the middle of the edit bay, a medium sized room usually crammed with people. Both these interns, like over 80% of India, were Hindus.
This is not the first time that we'd heard this particular intern going off about Muslims. We'd all been together at NDTV for over 6 months by then, and most of that time had been spent in a classroom setting where we'd had very close interactions with each other. He wasn't very old. He was straight out of college and in his early 20s like most of the batch. He seemed to be from a well-off family from just outside Delhi, but over time we'd discovered that he and his family leaned toward the extreme right in their politicial affiliations. In India that mostly meant two things - the RSS and the BJP. He had once publically bragged in class about how his father had been a member of the RSS in his youth and how, one time, he had been sent out with his friends to deface posters that some visiting Christian missionaries had put up about Jesus Christ. This story about vandalism was narrated to our class with great pride. Membership with the RSS was important to this young man's family, and his father expected his sons to keep that tradition going. And boy, did they ever.
In the early days of the internship when we were still in class, I used to keep to myself because my new Indian environment was quite overwhelming for me. I'd never really lived in India (except for childhood summer vacations in Lucknow), and particularly never by myself in a city like Delhi. I'd found most of the other young people in my batch quite friendly and sweet, even this young man who seemed easy-going and funny, that is until one day he got very agitated about the upcoming decision of the Allahabad High Court on the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. For someone who had only been a few years old - definitely under 5 - when the event had taken place in 1992, he could sure get belligerent while defending the rights of the Hindus in the whole thing. I'll never forget the first time I saw this seemingly pleasant young fellow raise his suddenly-hardened voice while indulging in a shouting match with some of the others in the class regarding Ayodhya. His face and his body had become so hard and violent-looking, his eyes were wide-open and about to pop out of his head. It made me feel very uncomfortable. He almost looked like he was about to hurt someone. I wondered how he felt about me. I was the only Muslim in the class, and he'd been quite normal with me in the limited interaction I'd had with him by then. I'd recently left the US (a few days after Obama was sworn into office, in fact) after living through the viscious Islamophobia that had taken over the Western World. Watching an educated young person in a diverse city like Delhi, that too with a major Muslim heritage, behaving like this was quite disturbing. I'd tweeted about it in passing that day, and this young man had approached me in class the next day to apologise. He looked quite sincere in his apology. "I'm not anti-Muslim, I'm just so damn pro-Hindu," he had said. I had accepted his apology and had told him to forget about the whole thing, it was no big deal. He had looked so relieved. We became good friends over the next few months. He'd very respectfully ask me a lot of questions about Islam. He even invited me to his parents' house once where he stayed with his younger brother. The whole batch had been invited, and those of us who had made it had enjoyed ourselves. Our batch was very diverse; we were made up of boys and girls from across the country. It was fun picking up bits and pieces of various Indian languages in class. Most major religious groups were represented also. It was interesting to watch this young man encountering such diversity at such close range, probably for the first time in his life. A lot of the preconceived notions that he'd been raised with about his ethnic background and those from other ethnic groups were constantly being challenged here, and it was nice to watch him progressively indulging more in dialogue than in debate. He'd even once remarked about how he felt like his whole life, everything he believed in, was being turned upside down, and how it kept him up at night.
I don't know what happened, but a few months later, he started becoming defensive again. When asked his opinion in class after being made to watch a documentary about the Ayodhya riots, he'd announced that the film had probably been sponsored by the centrist Congress party to malign the right. He'd had his arms tightly folded across his chest when he'd said that. His brow had been knotted, his mouth had been tightly pursed. And his eyes filled up with hatred and became hard. And frightening. He became belligerent and disruptive again. About everything. Even once the internship started at the NDTV newsroom. He would deliberately slack off or sabotage the work he'd been asked to do, sometimes getting others into trouble because of it. He had an uncle at NDTV, he said, he didn't have to work hard like everybody else because he'd get fixed up with a job anyway. He often made fun of the other interns who'd put in their time and do their job. I began to talk to him less and less because I found his attitude and lack of work ethic highly offensive.
So it was upsetting - no, highly disappointing - to hear about his outburst against the Muslims in the edit bay. Especially after spending so much time with me, after telling me so many times that he respects the Muslims and 'Muhammad Sahab' now. In those days it seemed like he was particularly respectful - proud, even - of our friendship and was becoming more open and accepting as a person because of it. What had that been, insincerity? So, yes, it was monumentally disappointing to witness his relapse, in bits and pieces, into the rigid thought system he had been blossoming away from. I'd even complained about his outburst to a superior at work once, about how offensive it had been and how it made the workplace unpleasant, but it hadn't upset that person at all. In fact, that person had seemed amused and completely unaffected by it. That person had dismissively smiled even. "Yes, yes, he's very much into the RSS," I'd been told, "but he's part of a very small population." That hadn't been my point. My point had been completely missed.
And you know what, I do agree. People like this are a minority. I don't even feel angry about any of it. If he was a Hindu, then most of the Hindus that I've met were not like that. If an American has ever been ignorant with me, and there have been quite a few, then more Americans have been very nice to me. I've met twisted Muslims, God knows I have, but most Muslims are not like that either. In fact, by now I have realised that ethnicity has nothing to do with it. You either are accepting as a person or you're not, and that's pretty much it. The things bigots say only shows how they are, it does not cast any sort of light on anyone else, not even on the bigot's own community. By now, after having lived in so many countries and having seen prejudiced people of all shapes and colours and combinations, I just feel really sorry for such people because they miss out on so much in this beautifully messy thing called life. They miss out on real loves, real friendships, and real honest-to-God human bonds.
And then when this young man eventually got hired at NDTV, it blew my mind. It really did. It made me wonder about a lot of things, it made me re-evaluate my own priorities about where I wanted to be and how I saw myself. And turns out, I like myself and the friends, family, and loves I have had in my life a lot. They are from all over the planet, and I choose them because they chose me. I sure must be someone wonderful because these wonderful people chose me.
Aaj mere paas buildingein hain, property hai, bank balance hai, bungla hai, gaari hai, kya hai tumhaare paas!
Mere paas maa hai.