Friendship of convenience

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During those first few immigrant steps I took in the small town I found myself in, the people I befriended were almost all American, and all because of the fringe antiwar activism on campus. With my housemates Slovenly Misogynist and Fiefdom King being my primary source of Indian social interaction, and American imperialism getting a steroid boost in 2003, it was easier for me to find a sense of succor with outcast peaceniks.

But I did find one Indian friend to hang out with.

He seemed sane enough and, unlike my housemates, wasn’t revolting. Murali and I were in the same environmental science class that Professor Richards taught. We hit it off immediately following a handshake and coffee after class. He was very affable, offering to help me navigate the city to find the cheapest places to eat at and what seemed to be the one “ethnic” grocery store in town when I needed a spicy fix. Upon his suggestion we formed a study group for the classes we attended, and soon started spending a lot of time together. Apart from my white hippie buddies in Peace Now, Murali was the only other friend I found in Erie. Unlike my white hippie buddies though, he was someone I could talk to about home; an actual personified connection to India who didn’t drive me insane.

It was nice to be around him. He was quiet and generally reserved but had a latent sense of humor, the vernacular kind that worked only with folks from one’s own neck of the woods. After our study sessions, we would often head to his house or mine to have dinner, where we could continue the conversation. He too was extremely irritated with his housemates, so we bonded over that little bit of shared misery. We also found a common love for old Hindi movies that had more substance and content than the latest gaudy, commercial trash that came out of Bollywood. He marveled at my book collection, which he would dig into on occasion to read in his spare time. Overall, he was a good friend from the motherland to have.

There was only one problem though.

He was a fascist.

And I don’t mean this in a loose, polemical way.

You know how we progressives sometimes call every conservative person a fascist in moments of angry angst? One can argue the merits of that kind of hyperbole, but there’s no doubt that the word fascist is often used in a rhetorical way, and not necessarily to indicate a specific, far-right political persuasion.

I’m not deploying the term as mere invective to describe Murali. He was an actual fascist. He was a member of a right-wing Hindu nationalist group in India that wanted India to become, for the most part, a Hindu supremacist society and religious state rather than the secular republic it was. They had failed miserably so far, primarily because India was far too insanely chaotic and diverse to fit into one homogenous ideology. But they did exist, and in large numbers at that.

(Indeed, who would have thought that the same folks who chanted “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama” in benign orange robes and took dips in muddy Indian rivers as a form of, admittedly counterintuitive, holy cleansing could have their spiritual philosophy worked into a fascist program? Then again, fascist movements had emerged from corruptions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. A fascist Hindu movement was actually quite consistent with the ever-present potential for organized religion to pander to humanity’s basest instincts.

But I digress, do pardon my rant…)

I was already well into my friendship with Murali when I found out about his ideological leanings.

“So, Murali, where did you go to school?” I asked one day, as we were sitting in the library study room.

“I went to a Hindu RSS school.” he replied, adjusting his geeky glasses.

RSS stood for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It was the largest Hindu nationalist group in India, running thousands of groups that served up a daily dose of Fascism For Dummies with martial chants, military-style cadre, and uniforms that were a major fashion faux pas. (Frilly khaki shorts and white shirts, I kid you not.)

“Wait.” I said, getting worried. “Are you a member of the RSS then?”

I had known a few others in India who had gone to RSS schools, but never really bought into the philosophy. Kind of like someone going to a hardcore, Bible-thumping school, where students take a vow of chastity but don’t really get with the program. I was hoping he was one of those kids.

“Yes man! The RSS gave me everything I know…schooling, education, the values on how to live my life.” he said.

“So, um, you’re an actual member of the RSS…even after you left school?” I asked, hoping against hope now.

“Yes, yes…I attended the weekly exercises, prayers, meetings, and everything very regularly until I came here for my higher studies.” he said, now wondering why it was such a big deal.

I was crestfallen. Was there nothing beautiful in my life anymore?

It probably need not have been that big a deal. It was a temporary friendship after all, and I was going to leave town shortly. It could have been like the friendships we sometimes strike up with fellow nationals during a holiday. One doesn’t get as bothered by their potential craziness simply because there’s a common cultural tongue to work with and – more importantly – the time spent together is limited.

I could have treated it like that, but for one small thing. My last experience in India before coming to the States was as an aid worker in a human rights movement at a place that was fighting fascist violence led by the RSS and their cohorts against minority communities. It was quite possibly the most politically gut wrenching and vicariously traumatic event in my life; resulting in a monumentally life-altering experience for me, forcing me to come to terms with my own privilege. It was an experience that pretty much laid the foundation for my developing a philosophical framework that was anti-oppressive and anti-authoritarian.

I asked him, now a little more angry, “So, you think that India should be a Hindu state?”

We stopped focusing on our textbooks now.

“Well, it is a Hindu state…the majority of the people there are Hindus.” he replied, a little taken aback that I would challenge him.

“What I mean is – do you think India should not have a secular government and state, as it has now?” I reiterated.

“I think that the government should be based on Hindu principles.” he replied.

“Oh really?” I said sarcastically. “And what about all the Muslims and Christians and Sikhs and Buddhists and other non-Hindu folk? What happens to them?”

“They are still there, and can live there happily…they should just follow Hindu principles, that’s all.” he said nonchalantly, as if he was asking people to change their brand of milk.

“Anyway,” he continued, now a little more agitated, “it’s really the Muslims that are the biggest problem. They have to behave like true Indians, otherwise they should go to Pakistan.”

“What crap are you talking about Murali? Muslims are just as much a part of India as anyone else, and Islam is just as much a part of India as any other religion!”

“No it is not…Hinduism is the only true religion of India.” he replied assuredly.

Oh dear god, I thought to myself. I’ve befriended a dyed-in-the-wool fascist.

“And these Muslims,” he continued, venomously, “wherever they go they cause problems. Just look at what they’ve done to America. Our fight against Muslims in India is the same as what the Americans are doing.”

And there it was. The bastion of people like him the world over. Whenever challenged, all they had to do was side with the cultural paradigm of bigotry and imperialist othering that existed in the centers of power at that time in history. Game, set, match: fascist.

We argued for some more time to no avail. Both of us were firmly embedded in our respective political positions. It didn’t seem to affect his friendship for me though. It didn’t have to. As far as he was concerned, I was a Hindu, albeit a rather misinformed one. So he still continued being very friendly with me. But it certainly affected my camaraderie with him.

I still hung out with him when I had to, but didn’t seek out his friendship any more. Normally I would have cut ties right then and there, since being around him was a constant reminder of the type of ignorance in the world that led to the things I saw and experienced as a human rights worker. He now repulsed me. And saddened me.

But I was also lonely, and rationalized to myself that continuing to be around him occasionally was ok because I wasn’t spending a whole lot more time in Erie. I was already preparing to move to a university in Baltimore. No sense in rocking the boat and making my last few weeks of the semester in this small town university particularly painful. I think I still wanted his friendship because it was the one connection I had to India at that time. So I decided to live with the contradiction for a few more weeks.

I wish I hadn’t though.

I wish I had told him off at that moment and asked him to never call me again, instead of ignoring his emails and phone calls after I left until they stopped. I think it would have made the message sink in better. He didn’t really buy into what I was saying, but he might have thought about it a little more had I been less amenable to compromise.

Misery sometimes makes it difficult to let go of convenience.

[Next up: The Purge of Prudishness]

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