This Indian life by Shoba Narayan: 

Differences vanish when you embrace a person’s humanity


My mother wants to buy besan laddus at Tewari Brothers. She tells me this when I visit her one morning. “Yasmin is going to have another baby,” she says in explanation.

Yasmin is her relationship manager at the bank. I have known Yasmin longer than my mom because I have banked at this branch longer. But I know next to nothing about Yasmin except that she often asks if I need a loan or want to invest with them. 

Do you deal with people based on the person or the situation? I have discovered that there are two types of people in the world. Some folks view the world through the prism of relationships and others allow the situation and its context to dictate their actions. This is a generalisation but I find that the urban educated professionals (and I belong to this category) tend to deal with people based on the place (situation). We keep our distance from people we meet in the bank or the board room. We don’t talk to the shopkeeper or the raddi-wala. We are transactional in our interactions, always in a hurry to get our work done and move on.

There is another way though, and I see it among the older generation, amongst the unstudied Indians who help us at our homes and work. These people (and my mother belongs to this category) deal with each other in a much more relationship-oriented way.  

So we go, my mother and I, to the bank. My mother walks straight into Yasmin’s cubicle and hands her the sweets with a beaming smile. “I am praying to my Mookambika (a Hindu goddess) every day so that you will be blessed with a healthy child,” she says.

I squirm. Yasmin is a Muslim, Ma, I hiss. But Yasmin doesn’t seem to be fazed.

“Thank you, ma’am,” she says with a smile. We sit down.  

“Lakshmi, bring ma’am some coffee,” Yasmin calls. “Want to withdraw money, ma’am?” she asks.

They clearly have a routine. My mother hands over a cheque and Yasmin does everything else.

“Yasmin always gives me coffee or tea when I come here.She takes care of me like a daughter,” says my mom, still beaming. In fact, I haven’t seen her smile so much since she fell on her bed after suffering head-spinning vertigo last week.

“How is Alia?” asks my mom. I learn that Yasmin’s first daughter goes to LKG and that my mom ran into them at the local A2B restaurant, and that Alia is very cute, and that she gets picked up from school by Yasmin’s mother-in-law who lives with them. I have learned more about Yasmin in the last five minutes than in the last seven years.

Indians (and I would argue, most old cultures) are adept at relationships. Till we became deracinated professionals, this is how we dealt with the world. You still see this today in homes that are culturally rooted in India. I see this in my mother’s house.  

My parents and I live in the same housing complex. And yet the way I interact with my neighbours is very different from the way my mother interacts with the same people. On any given day, when I go to visit my parents, I could see Antony Paul who ducks in between his morning walk around the building to pray to Jesus for my Dad’s health. There is the Chhabria couple who comes in with sweaters that they picked up for my parents. There is Yasmin from the bank, and her predecessor, a single girl from Bihar named Meghna, who my mother invites home for lunch. There are all the fruit vendors, security guards and housekeepers who she knows by name and not just that, she knows their life story too.

Some of it is time. Generally, our elders have time to engage in chit chat. Some of it is curiosity; this ability to ask personal questions (and not be offended when others ask them) that is the hallmark of Indians.

A large part of it is comfort with differences and the ability to form connections over the differences. 

My mother epitomises this type of Indian. She is devoutly Hindu. She lives by certain rules. When Yasmin comes home, for instance, my mother will not take her into the puja room (which she will do with any Hindu). Is this hypocritical? People are people after all. But here is the weird thing. My mother’s friends get her rules. The kinds of Muslims and Christians that she is friends with are equally devout. They are strong in their faith. And yet they reach beyond it to embrace the other person’s essential humanity. 

This is what I learned from my mother. It is okay to be religious. You don’t have to be liberal and secular in order to be tolerant. You only need to see people as what they are: people.

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight

BRUNCH Updated: Feb 29, 2020 21:51 IST

Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

From HT Brunch, March 1, 2020

Subscribe to my newsletter