At a lecture in the American Islamic College of Chicago last winter, I met a young Pakistani American. When I told him that I am an Indian and a Hindu, he asked me what I felt about Hindus killing Muslims over the consumption of beef.
I didn't know what to say.
Maybe I felt exactly what Muslims feel every time people ask them questions about ISIS and Al Qaeda, about 9/11 or the recent Orlando shootings. Just like them, I felt the need to shield my country and my belief system because a few people in India's population of more than one billion decided to do something that most of us can't relate to. I told him that I was shocked by what had happened, and that I in no way support any of these fundamentalism-driven attacks. He didn't judge me, nor did he ask me more questions.
As an Indian living in the US, I have constantly been bothered by people's perceptions of my country based on the actions of extremists. It's necessary to criticize violence in whatever form it exists, but at the same time, it's important to not stigmatize an entire country because of a few extremist incidents and the news coverage of them.
As an Indian living in the US, I have constantly been bothered by people's perceptions of my country based on the actions of extremists.
I am a Hindu. My relationship with my religion is relatively superficial. I don't go to a temple every day, not even every month. I have never read the Bhagavad Gita. The windowsill in my room has a small Ganesha statue that I bought at Dagdu Sheth, a beautiful temple in Pune, India. Alongside it is a miniature version of a book, the Jaap Sahib, that Sikhs consider holy.
I don't eat meat on Tuesdays. But that is not for religious reasons. I do it only to keep aside one day every week when I can force myself to control my desire to eat meat. I don't eat beef at all. That decision is based on religion -- not my own but my mother's.
Growing up, I used to watch my mother as she worshipped cows during the festival of Gopashtmi, when cows are honoured in keeping with Hindu traditions and mythology. Some neighbourhood aunties and my mother would decorate steel plates with bright flowers, kumkum, rice, incense sticks and a diya. We would all go to a small field near our house where we could always find cows. The elder women would adorn the cows with the flowers and kumkum; then they would rotate the plates clockwise to pray. Even today, every time I go home, I see my mother looking for cows in the neighbourhood, and she will often feed them some leftovers.
I don't worship cows. But, I don't want to eat one, just because it might tarnish some of my childhood memories and might upset my mother.
The essence of my country cannot change because some people don't eat beef and some do.
I have friends and cousins who devour beef and that never disturbs me. I do want to try the pho, the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup that contains beef broth, and the nihari, a stew consisting of slow-cooked beef, popular in Pakistan and India. But I instead order the chicken versions. And that satiates my desire for the moment.
One of my professors, a White American lady, asked me if India is as bigoted as the international media coverage indicates. She also wanted to know whether the election of Narendra Modi as the Indian Prime Minister had led to the escalation of sectarian violence.
Once again, I was expected to defend my country. I didn't say that the stories were false, but I also wanted her to understand that they covered the truth only partially. Yes, some Hindu extremists killed some Muslims. But, sadly, this wasn't the first time that Hindu-Muslim violence swept certain regions of the country. Yes, Narendra Modi is tight-lipped about significant issues. But, how can one man suddenly revolutionize a country's people?
In the past few weeks, there was much attention given to the story of a dozen members of a right-wing Hindu nationalist group who gathered to celebrate Donald Trump's birthday and pray for his victory in the upcoming US elections. But who will talk about the hundreds of millions of Indians who do not agree with Trump's ideologies? Who will emphasize the harmony that binds together people from different castes, creeds, religions and backgrounds in India? Who will highlight India's colours, its culture and food, the spirituality and learning, the brilliant history and traditions?
The essence of my country cannot change because some people don't eat beef and some do. As a young Indian, I don't give these extremist groups the right to taint the values that my country stands for. I hope that you don't, either.