Flashback: Junior year, en route to a state journalism conference. There’s not much to see outside — the Texan countryside, while pretty, loses its novelty for us city folk rather quickly. The conversation inside the car is vibrant and interesting, though — a good thing, because I tend to fall asleep after the 25th cow.
I’m riding shotgun as my journalism adviser, the immensely wise Mr. Edward Larsen, drives the SUV and the conversation. Somehow, the discussion turns to the diversity of our newspaper staff. We start tallying the number of countries, cultures, religions and languages represented; the numbers are impressive for a 80-percent-white school — over half the staff is of minority descent.
The tally, of course, included the other passengers in the car — of the three editors in the backseat, one was born in Bangladesh, and another was a first-generation Pakistani-American. With a chuckle, we noted that I rounded out the Brown Trifecta — I’m an Indian citizen, born and (partly) brought up.
I’m Hindu. The other two are Muslim.
For the uninitiated, a quick history note: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have fought four wars with each other since 1947. India and Pakistan are the classic nemeses, and the 1971 war was fought over Bangladesh’s Indian-backed struggle for independence from Pakistan.
When the British left, a UN-mandated partition divided the subcontinent in three, with East (later Bangladesh) and West Pakistan on either side of India intended to be Muslim-majority countries. The ensuing mass migration resulted in ethno-religious violence that left millions dead and injured. Besides the wars, bloody communal Hindu-Muslim violence has occasionally disturbed an otherwise admirably peaceful coexistence between India’s over 800 million Hindus and 160-million-plus Muslims.
As I pointed out to Mr. Larsen, though, the tension between our homelands and the seemingly inherent friction between our religions often don’t survive the trip to the U.S. — especially not for our generation.
When I reached out to my friends in the brown community here at NU and elsewhere, they had similar conclusions: There’s very little religious or political tension when we meet here. Instead, we follow the lead of the vast majority of Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent, and peacefully coexist and co-celebrate. We’re just happy to see other brown people, especially when there are very few of us around — as there were in my high school and on the newspaper staff.
That’s another thing: “brown people.” It’s a designation we use broadly to refer to Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi folks — and it’s often used with no follow-up to clarify which country they hail from. For most brown folk, it’s simply enough that they love Bollywood movies and songs, cricket and tasty, spicy food.
Most of us have no stake in the cultural battles and decades-long feuds in the subcontinent; instead, we’re all trying to explain homecoming, Sadie and prom to our parents.
And our dates to these dances are very frequently of the other religion, and from ‘across the border.’ This also takes some convincing with the parents, especially if there’s an India-Pakistan cricket series going on.
With cricket, we allow some tension to creep in between Indians and Pakistanis (and Bangladeshis, when they play well). Better to tense up over bats being used to score runs rather than to hit heads.
And it’s not all kumbaya when it comes to religion, either. Hindu-Muslim relationships often eventually founder because of familial and cultural resistance to inter-religious marriage. In high school and college, Hindus and Muslims party together, and party hard (seriously) — but they do also have distinct social groups.
The divisions and resistance don’t stem from religious disagreement or hatred — at least, not for most in our generation. Instead, cultural differences between the religions play a bigger role, as do bonds strengthened at places of worship and ties from common hometowns back in the Subcontinent.
While it’s very common for Hindus and Muslims to share deep, meaningful, and close friendships both here and in the subcontinent, it’s only natural that members of each religious culture form separate social groups around religion-specific celebrations, food, language and ethnicity.
Similarly, parental resistance to inter-religious relationships (which, as I mentioned, are quite common) sometimes stems from purely religious prejudice, but usually stems from the major differences in everyday Hindu and Muslim cultural life (although that doesn’t justify the resistance).
Hindus and Muslims party together. But they also party separately, and hang out separately. This makes sense. We have different religious-cultural celebrations, food, language (sometimes) and our heritage is traced back to different places on the subcontinent. Many Hindus at NU trace their heritage to similar areas in India, to similar ethnicities and sub-cultures, and sometimes speak the same Indian languages at home; the same is true of Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslims.
Simply put, many Hindus have more in common with each other than with their Muslim friends, and vice versa.
When there are bigger brown populations, social divisions around religion and culture are more marked; divisions even form within religious-cultural groups — there are different types of Hindus and Muslims.
As I explained to Mr. Larsen that fine Texan day, the disagreements and prejudices and deep-rooted divisions between Hindus and Muslims in our homelands don’t always accompany us to America. What’s even more remarkable, though, is that even in a country where we could all steer clear of each other, Hindus and Muslims party together.
Read more student perspectives on spirituality.