THE FOUR-HOUR bus journey from New York to Baltimore was disappointing. Maybe it was the Chinatown bus and its reputation of bursting into flames, while in transit, that put me off. Or maybe it was the blandness of the route. Being used to Indian highways, I found the Interstate-95 a dull ride.
At night, on the same bus with expectations hit rock bottom, I found myself with a middle-aged, South-Asian gentleman on my left. Almost 50, neatly trimmed beard, metal rimmed glasses and grey hair. When he answered a phone call, I was almost certain he was from Pakistan. We got talking, as desi travel-culture warrants. My co-passenger, let me call him Bashir, had stayed in America for more than two decades and owned a convenience store in New York. My recent purchase, Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones was our icebreaker. Bashir had a scholarly look and so it was no surprise when he started talking, almost authoritatively, about Mao’s policies and Xiaoping’s vision of China.
Having researched on the subject lately, I asked Bashir what his honest opinion of Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation of Pakistan was? The extent of its effect is better understood keeping in view the religious radicalism brewing in Pakistan today. Among other things, Zia had formulated an education policy around Islam, nurturing hatred for India and glorification of war. Bashir was dismissive about it. Instead, he attacked Bhutto, who in 1972, had started a drive to nationalise the major industries in Pakistan, resulting in a massive reduction of employment opportunities. This was almost the same time Bashir had left for America.
We later spoke of our nations, the trouble brewing in our own backyards. We spoke of earthquakes and tsunamis, examples of mishandlings by our governments. For someone visiting his country once in two years, Bashir was well aware of things happening in the subcontinent. We had moments of silence but words now were flowing fluently. This time, Bashir asked me my religion. I told him I was a Hindu. We both knew we were treading a thin line — words had to be carefully chosen. After a mini lecture that endorsed Islam, Bashir, in his heavily Punjabi accented Urdu, asked me to consider embracing his religion. This was not a first. Though the conversation had been insightful, I have long learnt to politely nod my head on talks that revolve around religion.
Moments of silence went by, this time a longer gap than usual, until Bashir spoke again. He was of the opinion that people of different religions can’t stay together. And that secularism was a failed concept — a pretension of the larger world we live in. I was disappointed. Bashir was not a 20-something, fresh out of the radical and fearful times that his country is living in; Bashir had to be 50, was born a Pakistani citizen and had come to America a young man, sometime in the late ’70s. His aspirations to be successful in the West had been met. He was a Muslim who had been granted citizenship by America. He was a direct beneficiary of the secular values that America believed in.
I paused. And then I said, attempting my best in concise English: “Bashir saheb, on the way to office every day, I come across a street in my colony. There is a Hindu temple, with a big statue of our god Hanuman. On the same street, there is a masjid. There is nothing strange about this arrangement but you may be shocked to know that the masjid and the mandir share the same wall. This is how secularism works in India. This is how secularism works in America. And this is how it should work anywhere else.”
It was dark outside, but I could see in the faint light, for a second, his mouth open. Bashir stared at me, stunned. I, for once in my bus journey, looked out of the window, on to the otherwise boring I-95.
Aditya Kumar is 30. He is a computer Programmer and a blogger based in Bengaluru .