I believe that truly Christian behavior exists in the most unexpected places.
It’s strange to look back and remember the moment that my world view changed forever. I remember wanting to be old enough to go stand in the ration line for food in Bombay, India in the early sixties. I’m sure my eldest brothers would have gladly given up that responsibility but I, as the youngest, saw it as something that only the elder, and therefore more responsible, people in my family could do. I was six years old when my mother finally allowed me to do this. I was too young to understand the strange world we lived in that allowed my father to earn a good living as the president of a bank and bring home the occasional Cadbury bar that the eight of us could share but not allow him to buy enough food for all of us to eat. How do you question what you have always known?
I don’t know why that day was the day my mother decided I was ready to take on this privilege but I went to ration line holding my eldest brother’s hand. Proudly I carried home our rations of rice and dal and, as was our custom, Mummy cooked. We ate, as we did each day, with our stainless steel plates, our “thalis” placed on the living room floor in front of us. Mummy always made sure I had my favorite cup from which to drink my ration of milk each evening. She hoarded that ration for me each day as a way of showing her deep love for me. Indian families of my generation did not use words of love easily. It was always actions that mattered and conveyed the deepest of our beliefs and emotions.
That night, as we finished our plates, I said to my mother “I want more, Mummy”. My mother asked in her gentlest voice “are you still hungry?” I said I wasn’t but I wanted more. She then put all the leftover food in a pot and told my sister and me that we were now old enough to do what my elder brothers had done for years. My sister, youngest brother and I were then given the cook-pot and told to go out in the street and divide the food as equally as we could among the lepers that squatted in front of out building each night. I was bitter, wanting more of that pungent mixture of rice and dal and feeling less than satisfied but, as a child of my culture and generation, I did what I was told.
That night, when Mummy checked on us at bedtime, she asked me about how it felt to be grown up enough to stand in ration line and share our bounty with the lepers who were less fortunate than we were. In the selfish way for which only a child should be forgiven, I said “but Mummy, I wanted more food”. My mother patted my hair and said “noorse nazaar (her pet name for me that meant “the light in my eyes”), are you still hungry?”. I responded, in my childish narcissism, “no, mummy, but I’m not full”. My mother put her palms on either side of my face in her way that I will never forget and said to me “the light of my eyes, my noorse nazaar, you have a right to not be hungry but we don’t have the right to be full when someone else is still hungry. Someday you will understand this”. My mother, the Muslim, learned this at the knees of her Muslim father. It guided her life and it has guided mine. To this day I still cannot eat until I am full but stop when I am no longer hungry. It is not my right to do that as long as someone else is hungry. In this way, I also cannot own more than I need to survive when someone else is still in need. My liberal heart learned this at the hands of my Muslim mother. I can’t believe that either of us is less than “Christian” for our choices. This I believe.