COREA, Maine --With several notable exceptions -- such as the time of partition in 1947 after India achieved its independence -- Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians in India have lived together in relative harmony.
It has not, of course, been a perfectly harmonious relationship throughout the country all the time, but as a general rule adherents of the major religions represented in the Indian population have not been at constant war with one another.
I experienced that when I lived for two years in India when I was a boy. One of my classmates at boarding school there, Betsy Woodman, now has recreated that sense of relative religious harmony in a new novel, Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes.
The story is set in 1960 a fictional hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, quite similar to Landour-Mussoorie, where Betsy and I attended Woodstock School.
In fact, my wife and I are here in Maine this weekend with Betsy to attend a reunion of some of our Woodstock classmates, so I saved my blog comments about Betsy's lovely novel for this weekend.
The story of a British-born Indian citizen, formally Mrs. William Laird but now called Jana Bibi, involves Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and even the occasional Buddhist.
And although sometimes as the story progresses an adherent of one of those religious traditions will express some exasperation or frustration about another tradition, the people of various faiths find ways to respect one another and even depend on one another to help their town survive.
At one point in the story a primary Muslim character, named Feroze, tries to help a young American boarding school student up from a steep hillside at dusk but the two of them become trapped together for the night. The difficult situation gives readers a chance to see into the mind of a Muslim as he ponders the fragility and purpose of life in response to the girl's question of whether he is afraid on this mountain cliff in the dark:
"No, he was not. Tonight he was on a small ledge, talking to another human being. That's what human life was: a brief stay on a narrow ledge before a plunge down the precipice into the unknown. All you could do was share your thoughts with the person sitting next to you, whoever that might be. What good was fear, thought Feroze. Fear. . .was a result of inadequate faith -- and did it ever change anything?"
Feroze is right about fear. But ignorance, which can grow out of isolation, often produces fear and fear produces prejudice and hate. And then all bets are off. As the people of India have taught us -- imperfectly, to be sure -- when people of different faiths live together as neighbors, that whole ignorance-to-hatred path can be short-circuited.
And when it is we have a chance to live in peace. (And have a chance to read delicious fiction.)
(By the way, the current religious make-up of the population of India is approximately this: 80.5 percent Hindu, 13.4 percent Muslim, 2.3 percent Christian, 1.9 percent Sikh, 0.8 percent Buddhist and0.4 percent Jain.)
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