The Day Mumbai Unraveled

We’re pleased to share in celebrating the success of NonProphet Status’ Share Your Secular Story essay contest. This is the second of two winning essays that we’ll feature here on the KtBlog.

by Vandana Goel LaClair
Tied Winner, Interfaith category

This is a story that begins in Mumbai, India. You see, Mumbai, my birth city, is a place where cultures, religions, languages, and opinions collide as unapologetically as the wild, untamed streaks in a Jackson Pollock painting. Within this mosaic of a city, I was raised in a household where the devotional prayers we sang to Lord Krishna on his birthday were so convincing that before I knew it, I was stealing out of my covers in the middle of the night and using a stepping stool to retrieve and dive into slabs of butter with nothing more than my fingers and a strong sense of camaraderie for a god known for mischief and love of butter/buttermilk. Somewhere between being egged on to bathe the statues of gods in our mini-temple at home and living eight years away in several different places with spiritual axioms I’ve picked up along the way, I’ve found that my wide array of experiences has replaced a sense of religious affiliation with that of an equally powerful one: a love for humanity and belief in the human spirit.

My most impacting experience dates back to several years ago. Soon after I turned 8, religious fundamentalists destroyed the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. This set off the Mumbai riots of 1992 in which approximately one thousand Muslims and Hindus were killed. One afternoon as we were being rushed home from school, I heard a comment amidst the chatter that my neighborhood had been bombed. That afternoon we drove home in an indescribably fearful and disbelieving state of mind. There are no words to describe driving towards your home not knowing if it exists anymore.

Fortunately our building and the others surrounding it were standing unsullied as we pulled into our neighborhood. I will never forget the feeling of standing on top of the concrete rooftop of our 14-storey building, on that sunny and mild-weathered day, in my school uniform, looking out onto the different streets and alleyways stretched out into the horizon and seeing rows of burning taxis, fear-stricken crowds and immense smoke and fire erupting all across the charcoaled cityscape. To my 8-year-old heart and mind, it seemed like the world was ending, and I distinctly remember wondering what on earth the Hindus and Muslims were so riled up about that they had to set our city ablaze?

A few days after that incident, I stepped out into the deceptive peace of our neighborhood towards the corner store nearby when some people went rushing by. A girl grabbed hold of my arm and urged me run. Shortly after we had escaped the area, a band of fanatics had attacked and stoned the store because it was Muslim-owned. As it turns out, the girl who had essentially saved me was Muslim, and we both giggled nervously when we discovered our salient difference. I discovered that she was deeply afraid for her family since people in the neighborhood had become increasingly hostile and mistrusting of Muslims. I learned that for the first time in her life her mother had urged her to take off her headscarf so that she wouldn’t be recognized as Muslim. Even at that young age, the weight of that statement was no stranger to my understanding of religious sensibilities. When you live in a country like India, the importance of religious adherence makes itself apparent in everyday life. When finally she told me that she was secretly glad that she had saved a Hindu, she cracked a smile. “I cannot believe how much we have in common,” she had said. It was a lifelong lesson for us. And then all of a sudden it had hit me. This feeling, this simple yet real act of bonding with another’s spirit was so much more powerful than the prayer booklets my grandmother kept, the beads she would have me turn over in my fingers, the black and white words inside the graying pages that she would read to us while we dreamt of playing cricket outside.

The incident shaped my psyche so strongly that I began to grow less interested in the controversies surrounding religious differences, as well as in the desire to abide to one side. My desire to connect with humans as humans grew stronger, and it has been immensely freeing to effortlessly recognize the humanity that resides in people outside of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. Sometimes you can see a fire begin to flicker and burn in their souls lit up in their pupils, derived from the inevitable kindness inside them, and it dances like a twig in a bonfire—carefree. At times like that I marvel at the possibility of unfettered empathy that makes our human race capable of so much progress and profound realization.

Vandana Goel LaClair was born and brought up in Mumbai, India in an apartment on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Moving to the United States when she was 17 to pursue her undergraduate and graduate degrees, she spent her free time dabbling in creative projects, developing a strong passion for travel, and networking with people from different cultures and countries. Today she lives in Chicago, Illinois, and aside from the regular 9 to 5, also freelances in writing poetry & prose, film making, and photography.