All things bright and beautiful

Updated on Sep 12, 2008 11:33 PM IST

That was twenty years ago. This week, I found to my amusement that I was saying some of those things again to the lovely Israeli people at the colloquium.

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Hindustan Times | By

An Indo-Israeli colloquium on culture this week, organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, brought back memories of Jewish friends across the years, particularly of sweet T who helped pass the time pleasantly in Zurich and Roy, a doctor in London who gave me, besides a couple of splendid lunches, a haunting Holocaust book by Jewish Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. T was ‘Sabra’ (born-in-Israel) and was gobsmacked by the ‘exotic’ trivia he knew about Hinduism: “Polytheism! You really believe in so many gods?” he said, as we messily ate fondue, frequently dabbing with our napkins at our chins. “They’re aspects of the One Force. We’re allowed to approach God through personal deities,” I said distractedly, trying to guess just how much nutmeg had gone into the fondue and planning to ask the chef.

“But how can you?” persisted T. “Umm, just like you can believe that God is a bearded, bad-tempered old man in a nightgown who throws bolts of lightning down at people and says, “Vengeance is mine!’” I said, wondering if the fondue would ever come off my backteeth, delicious though it was.

“But that’s God! My ancestors experienced Him directly. I happen to come from a long line of priests,” said T proudly. “So do I,” said the Daughter of the East, chewing calmly on a breadstick. “So what? What makes you think that only some people have a special relationship with God and know it all? Everyone’s got their own way of understanding something so mysterious. You gotta respect that.” T. shook his head, trying to make me understand. “Look, we were persecuted for our beliefs for centuries. You bet we have a special relationship with God.”

“But T, do you even know what happened to other people on earth? And to their relationships with God? All the knowing is on my side. The history of the world is not just ‘Jews and Gentiles’ or ‘Jews, Arabs and Americans’,” I said gently because really, T. was very sweet and extremely easy on the eye besides. I shied away instinctively from using the term ‘Third World’, preferring to say ‘other people on earth’ because how could you use a term that was so not you? If anyone was First World, it was an Indian and poverty had nothing to do with it.

“Well, how do you deal with your history, then?” asked T. “Huh?” I said, genuinely puzzled, taking a quick sip of red wine, the better to think with.

“India has a history of invasion and conquest. How do you deal with that?” said T., just as gently (Jewish people are smart, one of the safest generalisations ever made!). Now that was a no-brainer for a liberal Indian raised by Nehruvian parents, a believing Hindu yet who had grown up with the school pledge: “India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters. I love my country and I am proud of its rich and varied heritage.”

“See, India is different…” I began and poor T. had to listen, having asked for it. “And yet,” I concluded triumphantly, “we believe in our country because it’s a work in progress with so much good stuff yet to be done. The real work is at home.”

T. sprang questions on Hinduism that I tried to answer as best as I could. Finally, he said vexedly, “Too many graven images!” Well, I said with sudden conviction, like kundalini force was coursing up my spine or perhaps it was the wine: Jews had flourished amongst our graven images that said the same thing that anchored T. to his faith: “Shma Yisroel! Adonai Eloihanu, Adonai Echad.” ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is One.’

That was twenty years ago. This week, I found to my amusement that I was saying some of those things again to the lovely Israeli people at the colloquium. It refreshed something for me about India and the relationship that so many of us have with our crazy country. The real work is here. And despite the mistakes and the heartbreaks, we Indians are enabled by our sheer diversity to know, unlike many, the Creator as a person of complex tastes. For out here, from the hills of the Northeast to the Arabian Sea, the Creator shows us many forms while teaching similar values. Are they not all from the One? So we are a people with a purpose: we have a very high self-image of inclusive, respectful mutuality to live up to.

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