That was a beautiful Manchester evening (really, believe me!) and I was on my way back to United States after giving job interviews in England. I must say my trip was successful for I have got the job and joyful as I have met my best friend whom I had not seen in a month of sundays. I was supposed to catch a flight from London Heathrow to JFK New York the following day. As there were no flights that reach London very early in the morning from Manchester, I had to take a bus from Manchester to London. The bus was to leave Manchester by mid night, so I had a nice and relaxing dinner, chicken ticka masala (apparently national food of Britain) for which I paid only 5 pounds. I was happy to know that Indian food is popularly priced in UK in comparison to USA. I reached the bus station sooner than expected. Having heard from people that Manchester is not very well guarded I did not dare to adventure in the city all by myself that late in the night. So there I was, waiting in the bus station, perusing “Is it just me or its nuts out there” by Whoopi Goldberg on my kindle (thanks to my wife for that!). Seated in front of me was a middle aged Indian looking man dressed to nines. After a while he looked at me and smiled, and I smiled back. He said in Hindi “aao idhar bhaito!”, I thought no harm in chatting up with a fellow citizen , so I accosted him and started making a conversation.
He introduced himself as an assistant professor working at Lahore University, Pakistan. I was delighted to know that for I had never met anyone from Pakistan till then in my life and I held no animosity against citizens of my neighboring country. We started talking about general things; much to my surprise began with weather (getting English habits even before I moved to UK). And the topic in cards came up in our repartee, i.e. RELIGION. I said I accede peoples’ faith in God and I have no qualms about it. I also told him about my atheistic views. He tried to argue with me, not about Allah but in general about God, how the presence of almighty God would make everything peaceful and calm, how solacing it is to believe in man upstairs and things alike. But when I took my weapons out he was not successful in putting up counter arguments. We were at logger heads about the subject matter and decided to give the slip. We then moved on to different aspects of our cultural history and politics. How bad politicians in both our countries are and how corruption is the root cause of our miseries.
Our focus suddenly shifted to getting bureaucratic work done in fair and simple way, with special reference to obtaining VISAs and also the way we are treated at airports. He started talking about how challenging it is for him and his fellow mates who truly believe in Islam. He said just because few people do something awful in the name of religion, everyone else has to suffer. I said I knew people who have gone through the ordeal. I agreed Muslims have tough time especially when in abroad. He proceeded to say he was doing some studies in France and he had hard time getting VISA initially. And when he finally got it French consulate refused to give VISA to his wife who was obviously wishing to join him. He was telling all agonies about not having his better half with him and how important it is for him to do the research in Europe. I said I know how he feels and I told him I am in the same boat. He continued to say it’s not fair to generalize things to which I agreed with him completely. I told him how awful it is to know just one thing about one community and treat everyone else in that community based on that one single idea. In fact I suggested him to listen to author Chimamanda Adichie’s talk on Dangers of single story.
After a while couple of Romanian girls were passing by. He immediately pointed them out to me and said be very careful when you are around them. I was puzzled having not known beans about them. I asked him “why must I be cautious?” He said Romanian girls are thieves and they have no moral values. I was slightly taken back and said surely not all Romanian girls are like that. And I told him we were just talking about stereotyping and he is doing the same. I also said he is doing the same thing that he was accusing others doing to him. I did not feel right in embarrassing respectful old man any further and tried to talk something else.
In reality I do not blame him completely for his remarks. It is instinctive to stereotype things. I am not saying it is right thing to do. All and sundry have prejudices against a particular race, religion, cast or nationality. Very few good people on earth probably do not generalize things. Majority of us consciously or unconsciously have presumption and prejudices but refrain from acting in any way that negatively affect others. Very few bad people do things that harm others, not because they are preyed upon, but pure rancor propels them to do awful things. Researchers have found that racist behavior is primary cause for many hate crimes. On the other hand racial prejudices, which many of us have, are mostly because of ignorance. It is not exactly racist to have racial prejudices. Racism and racial prejudices are different. Little learning about anything is dangerous, so it is very important to bring awareness about any prejudices, so that we do not become racists. As Chimamanda mentions it is important, very very important indeed, to learn about all aspects of a community, so that we do not judge people when we meet them.