Not too many moments during the horrifying violence in Gujarat last year left me with any hope. Where can you find hope in a landscape scarred with hatred, killing, looting, divides? When I spent a few days wandering through this scene while the violence was still going on, I felt fear, revulsion, anger and a profound dismay. But hope? Only once, and flickering at that. Strangely, it came at the end of an hour during which I had felt great anger directed at me, and grown increasingly angry myself in return.
And then there was this flash of hope, and I clutched it as if my life depended on it. Much later, it struck me that there are ways in which my life might actually depend on it.
What happened was this. I was at Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, that shrine to a man whose legacy lay in shreds all around us. A few college students had come there for a function of some kind. It hadn't started yet, so they were sitting around, waiting. I strolled over, sat down and began chatting idly with three of them. Our conversation quickly veered -- in that time, how could it not? -- to the continuing bloodshed.
Needless to say, I found most of what he was saying repellent; even more needless to say, he felt the same revulsion for what I said about how there is no justification for the retaliation he was talking about. Minute by minute, he got angrier. So did I, though I was trying consciously to remain calm. Anand, though, was flailing his arms about, turning red in the face, so much so that I actually thought he would hit me.
A journalist who was hovering nearby, listening to us, suddenly piped up. "And what about the 200 women at the Juhapura camp who were raped?" she asked him. "What do you have to say about that?"
Anand nearly exploded. "That's a lie!" he shouted, flailing his arms some more. "You media people", and here he waved inclusively at me, "spread these lies about us Hindus! I live near Juhapura and I would have known if this had happened! It's a lie! And anyway, they attacked us from Juhapura first!"
Snorting in scorn and disbelief, the journalist stalked off. Anand was red in the face, his eyes bulging in outrage. "Look," I said on a whim, "I don't know about 200 rapes. I'm not spreading any such story, because I have not heard it and I don't know. But I do know about one woman" -- yes, one young woman with an emptiness in her eyes that froze my soul -- "whom I met at a camp. She was raped by a dozen men. She is now pregnant. Forget about numbers like 200. Let's talk instead about this one woman. Why was she raped?"
Anand visibly cooled, actually spent some moments in thought. Suddenly, an impersonal number, 200, had changed to one fellow human. Right there, and even if for just those few moments, I got the strangest feeling: that I had got through to him, put a troubling question in his mind. We talked some more after that, both of us calmer and more willing to listen than we had been. He seemed to genuinely appreciate that I listened to him instead of scorning him as he expected me to, as my journalist colleague had. In turn, he got through to me, got me thinking about some of the things he had said.
When we parted, he apologized for getting so angry. Over a promise to stay in touch, we shook hands.
For many weeks after that, I chewed over those few minutes in my mind; when we had ventured beyond shouting and self-righteous anger, managed to talk and listen and consider each others' views. In all the years that I've agonized over the growing chasm between religions in India, that I've been writing about it and attending meetings about it, I cannot recall one episode like this. For one thing, people with opposing views rarely come to such meetings. For another, when they do, our exchanges are no more than a series of angry accusations flung back and forth. But this meeting with Anand took a different turn. That is the small hope that I brought back with me from Gujarat: That even in these dismayingly polarised times, there are moments when we listen across the divide. There are moments when we discuss rather than condemn or hate. I feel like I have to find and hold on to the hope in such incidents, or the hatred will drown us all.
Yet why have I described this incident at what must seem like far too great a length? Partly because of what it meant to me and still does. But mostly because the spirit of that day runs through the efforts of a tiny group of profoundly concerned citizens, here in Bombay. And even if they make this late appearance in this article, the article is really about them.
Shailesh Gandhi was also at Sabarmati Ashram that day, though not with me and the students. Shailesh, a businessman based in Bombay, and I were in Gujarat as part of a "Pilgrimage of Compassion" through the blood-swept state. It was led by Swami Agnivesh, the theologian and activist, and Nirmala Deshpande, the well-known Gandhian. It had several Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu leaders; one retired Chief of the Navy; a few journalists and activists; and dozens of ordinary Indians, making the trip out of a feeling of horror, guilt and impotent outrage at all that had happened in Gujarat. Shailesh himself captured the prevalent feeling in the group: "For me," he said, "this is a sort of penance."
On our return, Shailesh, like the rest of us, began searching for something to "do" to address the tragedy we had witnessed in Gujarat. What was our role, our responsibility, as Indians and humans? People came up with different answers to that question. Shailesh's wasn't particularly unusual or noteworthy. Yet he has persevered with an obvious sincerity, and those two features -- perseverance and sincerity -- fuel the hope I have been talking about.
Shailesh resumed an effort he had begun a decade earlier, after the riots in Bombay. He gathers friends and anyone else interested at his home once a month. Some invited speaker talks for 30 or 45 minutes, there are questions and an open discussion, and then Shailesh's family feeds everyone a sumptuous vegetarian meal.
The broad theme of these discussions is "communal peace"; in particular, searching for a way towards it. Recognizing that a basis for such peace has to be an understanding of differing points of view, Shailesh has invited a variety of people to speak at his meetings, each offering a particular perspective on the religious divides in our country and how to bridge them. He began with Atmaram Kulkarni, a long-time RSS member. In the months since, he has hosted Nadira Babbar, the Kashmiri Pandit activist Ashok Pandit, the philosopher Dr Prabodh Parikh, the journalist Muzaffar Hussain, the descendant of the Mahatma and politician Tushar Gandhi, and more. The audience, usually about 30 strong, has also included people of every political persuasion.
Given that, given the subjects, given the deep emotions on every side, it should be no surprise that some of these gatherings have been loud, heated affairs.
When Atmaram Kulkarni, for example, made the claim that Muslims have chosen to remain outside "the mainstream", some in the audience challenged this, asking Kulkarni what this mainstream was and how he defined it. People who join social associations and political parties, he replied, are in the mainstream. The only person in the room that day who met this criterion -- in that he actually belonged to a political party -- was Tushar Gandhi. Were the rest of us therefore outside the mainstream? Another time, after a moving examination of the plight of Kashmir's Pandits, Ashok Pandit strongly defended the killing of two supposed "terrorists" in Delhi's Ansal Plaza last November. "I've seen these people," he said, "and they look like terrorists." This led to an intense, angry exchange. It climaxed in a quiet but heartfelt reaction from the TV personality Gurpal Singh ("Chhupa Rustam"), who spent months working in Ahmedabad's relief camps and whose eloquent email reports from there have been widely circulated. "There was a time in this country," he said, "when people would have said I looked like a terrorist."
He made his point.
So yes, there is acrimony. Yet there is something about the friendly and intimate setting -- Shailesh's living room is a small space in which most of his guests have to sit on the floor -- that is nearly symbolic. It sends out the subliminal message -- at least, I think I get the message -- that we have to find ways to get past the acrimony, because we have the small task at hand of living together. In that spirit, we leave behind the heat of the discussions when we move to the table to help ourselves to the food. Not that the discussions don't continue. They do, but in a sort of give-and-take way. The lesson of the evening, and of all these sessions, has made some headway into our thoughts. And that's almost more important than the actual topic for the evening.
It's easy to rubbish efforts like Shailesh's, to dismiss them as the sort of touchy-feely goody-goody exchanges that bear no connection to the reality of our Indian condition. The cynicism so many of us feel for our country will do that.
Actually, they are anything but touchy-feely. But more important, every time I go I remember an afternoon on the banks of the Sabarmati, a moment in the midst of shouting and rancour when I felt an almost tangible connection to a young Ahmedabad student. I remember that in these times, there are too few of these moments given to us.
These are times in which I sometimes spend days sunk in depression about the future of my country. I struggle to fight off what seems a very real worry to me: that inevitably, inexorably, a day will come when I will be attacked -- for my writing, my beliefs, just my name.
Then there's the understanding of that afternoon in Ahmedabad. The same understanding sometimes floats in the air over dinner at Shailesh's. And I think: I can hope. Again.