By Joseph Mayton
It is the day after Holi, the Hindu festival of colours celebrating the Spring season and a good harvest. Coloured powder from the previous day’s events still adorns downtown Nasik, a city of 1.5 million about three and a half hours east of Mumbai.
A group of youngsters, all dressed in traditional Indian long shirts and trousers, are working hard to collect the rubbish left over from the celebration, placing it in black plastic bags which they haul to a nearby truck.
The women are wearing a more traditional outfit – pants and a long shirt, or shalwar kameez, which reaches down to their knees. Across the street, a young boy yells out for Aisha and a young girl turns and waves back. From my years in the Middle East, I know that Aisha is predominantly a Muslim name.
As I investigate further through conversations, I learn that this group of young people is a mix of Muslims and Hindus. They all celebrated the festival together, dousing each other with multi-coloured pigments.
“Here in Nasik, we like to think we are all Indian first and then [a member of] our faith [group]”, said university student Shankar, 22, after noticing my gaze – and camera – a few meters away. “You will find that in this city, we all wear the same clothes, from trousers to shirts, and this helps make the city a better place.”
What makes Nasik unique is that, as one traverses this city of Hindu pilgrimage, the call to prayer emanates from a nearby mosque, while on the next corner a Hindu shrine plays chants over a loudspeaker.
Sunitra is a 21-year-old engineering student at the nearby university. She and her group of friends are typical university students. But, they say, unlike students at other universities in large cities, “we all hang out together and have become quite close.”
Sunitra is referring to the mix of Muslim and Hindu friends in their close-knit group of friends. At first glance, it’s impossible to tell them apart – and the same holds true for a group of Muslim and Hindu men.
“We are not afraid of our faith and we don’t have to hide behind what people [expect] us [wear],” Sunitra continues, herself a Hindu. “For many decades here in Nasik, it just became a way of living. We are a middle-class society and there is no need to differentiate between who is a Hindu and who is a Muslim.”
A former Professor of Anthropology at Nasik University and current resident of the city, Rajeev Kadesh, told me that in the 1960s the youth in Nasik began to change how they dressed.
“India was not as city-focused in the past, so you have to understand that people from rural areas, where they had predominantly mixed with their [co-]religionists, had a certain way of dressing. That all changed, at least here,” he said.
According to Kadesh, the youth in the city let go of their parents’ traditional attire and donned a hybrid Western-Indian style, which he says was an attempt to separate from their parents older, more caste-laden society, which the next generation of Indians hoped to change. Out went the long robes of the Muslim community and in came trousers and shirts. For women, the traditional sari gave way to the more modest trousers and long shirt. Muslim women dropped the head coverings.
Today, that movement continues and has breathed new life into a country where ethnic and religious strife in other communities have driven wedges between communities and friends. The youth who carry on the tradition of tolerance say that it informs how they dress.
“If we do not look different, then people will not treat someone differently and this helps us to just be friends and be Indian,” said Shankar.
It may be a naïve prospect to think that what one wears determines how one is dealt with and treated by others. From my own experience, living most of my adult life in the Middle East, dress does impact how we see others – something that also holds true in the West. Maybe it is time to look at what truly diverse communities are doing to ease the tensions that clothing can symbolise in today’s world – while maintaining their cultural and religious integrity. Nasik’s residents are a heartening example of transcending difference – one that other communities can learn from.
Joseph Mayton is Editor-in-chief of the Egypt-based news website Bikyamasr.com.