India's Hindu-Muslim Divide
When it came to Muslims, my tolerant parents were fairly typical of the Hindu majority. Yet certain things were simply not done.
When I heard that India had pulled its diplomatic envoy from Pakistan, and that the two countries were openly warring, the first person I called in India was my childhood friend, Ayesha Khan. She is a Muslim and has always been my barometer of the Hindu-Muslim crisis in India. In the present conflict, with India accusing Pakistan of harboring Muslim terrorists, was Ayesha all right? Was her brother--who had joined India's border patrol--also safe? And I thought back to the time we spent growing up together in India.
As a teenager, I had an unwavering weekend routine. Every Saturday, I would ride my bike to Ayesha's home. We would spend the morning playing chess after which her Mom would serve us a delicious lunch. Being vegetarian, I stayed away from the succulent-looking meat kebabs. But I wolfed down the tasty biriyani, rich and aromatic with spices like cumin, fennel seeds, bay leaves, and cinnamon.
If all this sounds very normal and tame, it wasn't. You see, even though Ayesha and I came from educated, middle-class families, even though India in the `70s was a secular democracy, there was still a divide between Muslims and Hindus.
Hindus are the majority in India, but India has the third-largest Muslim population in the world. There are nearly as many Muslims in India as there are in neighboring Pakistan. India has had two Muslim presidents, Fakrudin Ali Ahmed and Zakir Hussain. Its first woman chief justice, Fatima Biwi, was a Muslim. Most of the top movie stars in India's Bollywood are Muslim men with a common last name, Khan, even though they are not related (Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, and Aamir Khan are three of the top stars). India's most famous artist, M.F. Hussein, is Muslim, and its top singers, Mohammed Rafi and Talat Mehmood, made their name (paradoxically) singing Hindu bhajans. Muslims hold a prominent and cherished role in India's public life. In private life, however, Muslims and Hindus have an uneasy alliance, sometimes friends, sometimes enemies.
My parents are fairly typical of the Hindu majority. They never discouraged us from having Muslim friends; they bought groceries only from Muslim merchants, whom they considered more honest than Hindu ones. Our family physician was a Muslim lady, as was my father's closest colleague.