ARE YOU A MUSLIM?” asked the girl in a pink Barbie frock, not very much older than my daughter. The girls had met in the passageway of an AC train compartment. The awkward pause in the conversation told me my daughter was fumbling for words, and for getting a hold over the ‘meaning ’ of what she had been asked.
“I do not know, I’m not sure…” Something in the way she replied — the tentativeness, the volume, the diffidence — told me instantly that my otherwise super-confident girl was not comfortable fielding this query.
“How dumb of you not to know even this!” said Barbie-girl. “How old are you?”
“Six,” mumbled my daughter.
“God! So old and still don’t know whether you are a Hindu or a Muslim! But anyway, I hope you are not one M. They are all bad people. Paapi (sinners), as my maasi (aunt) calls them…” she said, grimacing as if a terrible stink had suddenly floated through the corridor.
I wanted to get up and intervene, to stop my daughter’s mind being fed with unqualified bullshit. But I needed to first gauge the extent of this malaise in the other one’s impressionable mind.
There was an abrupt break in this exchange when breakfast arrived. My daughter whispered, “Mom, am I a Muslim? I don’t want to be one.”
“Because Sejal says Muslims are bad people as they kill and eat cows. Tell me, no, please. Am I?”
Sejal was the quintessential urban educated child with parents with plum corporate jobs who spend close to a lakh a year on their daughter’s ‘good’ schooling needs. That an eight-year-old may have already formed such a staunch anti-Muslim opinion in her mind is a telling sign of the all-pervasive subliminal reach of this conditioning. The seemingly innocuous tidbits that work at slowly poisoning the mind are all around us, waiting to be picked up and assimilated. It’s simply in the way you and I believe and talk and discuss and listen. The specific targets might change — Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Bihari, Madrasi, Dalit, Chinki, Pakistani, black, white, whatever — but the insidious nature and sting of the venom remains the same.
Children absorb information at the speed of light, but they also are willing to squeeze out the unwanted and reabsorb the desirable that much faster.
“What’s wrong with eating beef,” I asked Sejal.
“My dadi says: Who will give milk to the calf then?”
“Do you eat chicken and mutton at home?” I asked. She nodded. I pointed out that she was guilty of the same crime that she was accusing the Muslims of. Wouldn’t the goat’s little one not be denied his mama’s milk as well?
The intense yet faraway look in Sejal’s eyes told me her young mind was trying hard to distill this new way of looking at the situation. She saw sense in what was being said, just as she’d seen reason in what she’d heard earlier. But something about the sincerity in our conversation assured her that there was, perhaps, more sense in what she heard now than in what she’d grown up hearing.
My task became easier. The girls sat there listening to me with rapt attention.
I asked them: “Would you still rather your new friend were not a Muslim? And would you still rather you were not a Muslim?”
The reply, not surprisingly, was a spontaneous “No.”
I told my daughter she was not a Muslim.
‘‘Would I still have you and daddy if we were Muslims?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then it doesn’t matter, mom!”
Richa Jha is 37. She is a writer and an editor based in New Delhi.