“Splitting Differences” – A One-act Play

A Possible Expression of Hindu-Muslim Conflict

Characters: Arvind, Raffat, Tom, Bailey, Harris (pronounced Ha-rish), Shaku, Ellen

Setting: Arvind, Raffat, Tom, and Bailey have settled into their space in a university dormitory suite in the United States. Arvind, a Hindu from south India, and Raffat, a Muslim from New Delhi, each unpacked two suitcases, including some reminders of their homeland. They arrived in the States when the fall semester began, each transferring after two years’ attending Indian universities. Bailey and Tom, each with a car in the parking lot, found enough hookups in the suite for all of their equipment. They reflect Christianity’s hybrid quality. Exchange reflects how current issues emerge out of history and tradition.


[With Tom and Bailey off to the football game and Raffat gone to the library, Arvind takes up his Saturday ritual (a daily ritual if he were in India). Having showered and donned the dhoti, with his sacred thread draped over his bare, right shoulder, he picks up his polished, brass water pot, red strip of cloth, and an artificial garland of marigolds. He chants prayers while circling clockwise, three times, around a small flowerpot. (He’ borrowed’ this substitute for the tulasi [sacred basil] plant from the quad garden outside his window.) He sprinkles water onto the plant and verbalizes characteristics of the god Krishna before draping the garland on a framed print of another Hindu God form. He lights a cube of camphor in a small, flat tray and circles it in front of the image (three times: at head, center portion and feet) while ringing a small brass bell with his right hand. Setting the tray down before him, he moves his hands through the cool flame and then touches his eyelids. Expecting to meet God and to be seen by God, he eats a portion of puffed rice, sweetened with molasses and duly blessed. Seated erectly on the floor while drinking a cup of chai, he reflects on his religious heritage—the spirits of home and family. He appears centered and conveys a feeling of wellbeing. Then snuffing out the incense, he returns items to their stored places, finds a campus sweatshirt, and relaxes with the latest issue of the journal India Today.]

Raffat: [Enters] I’ve just had a couple good hours in the computer lab, searching the Net. Should we leave before long to buy groceries?
Arvind: Why not? Hope this jacket is enough for that strong wind. But I’ll warm up from walking and carrying our stuff. Could we take time to pick out an Indian video?
Raffat: Okay, as long as we’re back by 2:30; I’m expecting a call from my dad.
Arvind: I’ll need to study a few hours before we watch the video. [R & A leave. On returning, they put supplies in the kitchen and settle down to work, Arvind at Bailey’s computer. Indian classical music fills the room.]
Tom: [Entering] What a great game! Didn’t you guys go?
Raffat: I’m expecting a call from my dad. My whole family is together because dad’s father is quite ill.
Tom: Was he ill when you left home? Tell me what develops. I was with my grandma last summer when she died—a meaningful family time.
Bailey: [Bouncing in] How was that for a comeback! At halftime, I feared we couldn’t win. But then Dave found his passing targets. And, of course, that one call went in our favor. Maybe the rain worked for us too. Wow! Wasn’t it great to have so many scoring occasions to toss students into the air, Arvind?
Arvind: What do you mean, toss students? Will you want to use your computer now?
Bailey: On a Saturday afternoon? No way! Weren’t you there? Don’t tell me you were stuck in this stuffy room. Man, let’s open a window! Did you forget how they work? [Opening window] Oh, the rain’s from this direction. We may need to flick on the a.c.
Raffat: Then I’ll get my jacket. Looks like you’re soaked.
Bailey: Barb offered me a plastic trash bag, but that’s not for me—after what you said the other day about a “bag wallah.”
Tom: But you’re chilling. . . I see the goose bumps from here.
Arvind: Goose bumps? What goose do you see that I don’t?
Tom: It’s an expression; he’s shivering.
Bailey: Guess I’d better have a warm shower. I’m to meet Barb in twenty minutes. We’re going bowling with the youth from church. Hey, Raffat, get out of the books; have a life! [B exits into his room]
Arvind: [To Tom] Raffat and I went to the football game last week. But it’s so different from what we call football. We left part way through.
Tom: I didn’t know that. We could watch part of a game on TV. I’ll explain details and you can ask questions. Then two weeks from now, Jim and I can sit with each of you for play-by-play comments.
Raffat: Sounds good. But students don’t even sit!
Tom: Right. Those benches are for standing. Do you sit for cricket matches? [Phone rings]
Raffat; Oh, that might be dad. “Hello. It’s good to hear your voice! How’s Dada?” [Walks to kitchen with cell phone, talking]
Arvind: I was reading from The Hindu on the Internet about India’s match with Pakistan.
Tom: The Hindu? Something to do with religion?
Arvind: That’s the name of a major, secular, Indian newspaper. We’re having elections soon, so I want to know the latest about the opposition candidates too. [Knock on door]
Tom: [Calling] Yes. Oh, it’s you, Gene. Excuse me, [to Arvind] we’re meeting friends at a Pizza hangout. . . Or, d’you want to come along?
Arvind: Thanks. We walked to the store and bought stuff for making curries. The dhindi, or ladyfingers, looked fresh this time, and I’d like to try a new recipe that Mom sent. See you later. [T & G exit; R returns] So, what’s the news?
Raffat: My cousin called to say that they’ve taken Dada to the hospital. They’ll call again when they know more from the doctor.
Arvind: Guess we’re bound to miss some important family times while over here. Tell me when you hear more. . . I’m getting hungry. Guess I’ll start on the veg curry.
Bailey: [Out from bedroom] “See you later. [Exits main door]
Raffat: Good. I’ll join you in a little, Arvind. Then, while we eat, we can plan for political science class.
[A exits to kitchen. R unrolls his prayer rug. Bowing toward Mecca, he prays for a few minutes. A returns to the doorway. About to ask a question, he notices R’s posture, and retreats. Finished with prayers, R replaces his rug under the bunk bed. R and A cook as time lapses. Finished cooking, A and R hear a knock as they enter the main room, their plates full. A finds space for the pot of veg curry.]
Arvind: Come in.
Raffat: Oh, Harris. We’re just ready to eat. Have you had khana?
Harris: I just made a great shrimp curry and thought there’s no point eating alone if you two are here. I’ll be right back with my tali. [H Exits]
Raffat: We can still plan, even with Harris here.
Arvind: That means that I’d be a minority Hindu. Perhaps Shaku is in; I’ll check with her. [Dials phone] Shaku, want a break from your studies? Raffat and I are about to eat and Harris is bringing his tali…Sure. Bring your dal bhat, and I’ll share something hot, like decent food is meant to be.
Raffat: Guess we’d better clear off a couple chairs. If Bailey didn’t have so much stuff, this place could be neater.
Arvind: He’s always so busy, especially with church events.
Raffat: Are we to be impressed or feel guilty? Living with Christians is quite an experience.
Arvind: No kidding. They likely say the same about living with us. I wonder what Bailey wrote in his recent essay about it.
Raffat: That reminds me; I’ve got an English lit assignment to finish. [Knock] Aiya! [S & H enter]
Shaku: Thanks for calling; I needed a break from statistics. This place can get dreadfully dead after a game. Hey, what’s that spice I smell in your curry? Hope you like dill in your dal.
Arvind: Anything beats the bland cafeteria mess.
Raffat: I’ll avoid that subject to explain that Arvind and I are to speak about the on-going Muslim-Hindu conflict in India, in political science class this week.
Shaku: So, that’s why you called me?
Arvind: When I knew that Harris was coming, I knew I’d be a minority Hindu.
Harris: Hey, it’s great to have an equal number! Muslims are only about eleven percent of India’s billion.
Shaku: Say more about your assignment. This dhindi is excellent, by the way.
Arvind: When Raffat and I first knew that we’d share a suite, . . .
Raffat: That’s better than calling us “suite-mates.”
Shaku: Reminders of sticky goor?
Arvind: Anyway, as soon as we met, we knew from our last names which religion each honored.
Raffat: Then, when the prof named religious conflict as a key factor within politics, we decided that we might as well be the ones to talk about it, from experience in India.
Harris: You can’t avoid political-religious overlap. [Eating with his right hand, he gently slurps the sauce and grabs another crunchy papad.]
Arvind: It’s also too complex to present in twenty minutes.
Shaku: Students can’t help but learn from you though.
Arvind: Mostly North Americans, they’ve lived mainly in a single religious environment—Christian.
Harris: And how that can limit outlook!
Arvind: Where do you suggest we begin?
Raffat: Perhaps we could name major features of Muslim-Hindu conflict now, and then refine the organization later.
Arvind: Sounds good. Did you see the five-hour serial Tamas?
Harris: Filmed about ten years ago, and based on the dark weeks before Partition?
Shaku: My parents weren’t sure if we kids should see it. I’m glad I did, though it wasn’t pleasant. [Gets more curry from the pot and a papad]
Arvind: Do we need to explain Partition, from the Indian context? [Writes notes]
Harris: You probably should. Some students have lived so insulated from global incidents.
Raffat: Remember the portrayal of Nathu?
Harris: An innocent Muslim chamar, he followed orders to kill a pig. Then it was taken to a mosque, to defile our sacred space. [Pauses, looking cautiously at A & S]
Shaku: Then, Muslims took revenge by setting the market on fire.
Raffat: That communal carnage and flames led to Partition, and the separate forming of a Muslim Pakistan.
Shaku: Because our religions couldn’t tolerate each other.
Arvind: Yet, here we are. We’d better explain the word ‘communal.’ [More note-taking]
Raffat: Communal riots, fueled by on-going tension, need only one rash incident. They result when we project negative feelings onto an enemy.
Arvind: Sudir Kakar, an Indian psychoanalyst, describes a communal person as “one whose exclusive attachment to his or her community is combined with an active hostility against other communities which share its geographical and political space.”
Harris: So many died that communal death. And the trauma left hundreds who had lived in villages for decades with no option but to run. [Shifts from sitting next to Arvind, to being across from him]
Raffat: But praying.
Arvind: We still pray. . . for light, to see through sectarian strife.
Shaku: Yet, Tamas means darkness.
Arvind: An appropriate term for scenes from “the winter of communal discontent,” as a writer in India Today called it.
Harris: By the way, have you seen the latest issue of IT? Coverage of the cricket match with Pakistan really compliments India. [Heads toward the kitchenette] Got a clean glass here?
Arvind: Stick to the subject, Harris. Back to Tamas. I’d compliment Govind Nihalani for a terrific, neutral job as producer, with such volatile content.
Raffat: I liked the fact that the gentle, elderly Sikh was played by Bhisham Sahni, the author of the book on which the movie is based.
Shaku: What a way to see India’s history unfold, especially for people who were children in ‘47.
Raffat: They must have grown numb to the awful suffering—among Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus.
Arvind: With religion so central to it all, so pervasive, where was Ultimate Reality? . . . I guess that’s a major point of conflict.
Harris: [Returning with water for himself] Well, my people cried out “Allah-o-Akbar,” God is Great, so often—with each dead body.
Raffat: A quarter of a million people died. How prayers and hate must have crossed in the same breath.
Shaku: Such intense emotions.
Raffat: How incongruent, to think “Allah will provide.”. . . [Reflective] Yet, I still pray it.
Arvind: I know; I saw you this afternoon, on your prayer mat. But, remember, we Hindus also pray.
Raffat: I know; I smelled your incense when I came back from the lab.
Arvind: At least you and I can honor each other’s differences. But, Islam’s exclusive claim to truth can’t credit our Hindu beliefs.
Raffat: At times, I also struggle with the harsh judgment that people are either “believers or infidels.”
Arvind: Oh, yeah? For us to talk so casually about Partition seems blasphemous too. [Tom opens the door, with Ellen not far behind.]
Tom: Hey, looks like a heavy discussion.
Raffat: You’re right. Arvind and I are to speak in political science class about Muslim-Hindu conflict in India. So, we’re tossing around some ideas.
Tom: Mind if we listen in? This is Ellen.
Ellen: Hi. I wish I remembered your names.
Shaku: I’m Shaku. Raffat and Arvind live here, and Harris lives upstairs.
Harris: You’ll discover who is Hindu and who Muslim. [Moves to another chair]
Ellen: Fair enough. [E & T find cushions and join the circle] Just carry on.
Harris: I read an article about the Hindu pattern of teaching children, especially sons, to “wield the lathi.”
Raffat: Recall the question in Tamas: How can a youth who can’t kill a hen deal with an enemy?
Arvind: [Reflective] Enemy. . . Kill a hen. . . Face an enemy.
Harris: A fair number of youths dealt with one in the Ayodhya debacle.
Arvind: We’d better explain that event. [A writes notes; Tom brings a pan of brownies from kitchenette and offers it around]
Raffat: Go ahead. . . I’d be interested in your account.
Shaku: That sounds like a religious challenge, with near-political threat! By the way, Harris, thanks for bringing water for yourself. [Tom distributes glasses and water to others]
Arvind: I’ll start. On December 6, 1992, in five hours, a mob of three hundred thousand kar sevaks demolished the famous Babri Mosque, built in 1528.
Harris: Explain kar sevaks; they’re volunteers for a movement. At Ayodhya they were “foot soldiers of militant Hinduism.”
Shaku: The kar sevaks also built a makeshift temple on the same grounds, ground that Hindus believe was the birthplace of Ram(a), an important God.
Harris: Communal riots mushroomed. If figures are correct, seventeen hundred to two thousand people died, and fifty-five hundred others were injured.
Shaku: Savagery in Bombay boiled over a month later.
Arvind: Prof Ramesh Thakur wrote that, “Muslims were the main victims of violence.”
Raffat: We the minority posed a threat to your Hindu mainstream.
Harris: But the conflict didn’t just happen overnight. [Shows signs of anxiety: rubbing hands, looking often at his watch]
Raffat: Communal tensions had grown during the eighties. “More than 7,000 people were killed in some 4,500 communal incidents,” historian Thakur reports.
Harris: Recall the brutality in Bhagalpur in 1989? Ninety percent of the deaths were Muslims.
Arvind: I regret the Hindu VHP group’s violent slogans.
Shaku: Didn’t a smaller number of volunteers, perhaps a third as many, threaten to destroy the Ayodhya mosque already in 1990?
Arvind: Despite that forewarning, our government didn’t “have the courage to enforce the law of the land.” That’s what the editor of India Today said.
Raffat: Let’s mention the rumor mill, how seemingly innocent yet lethal it is.
Harris: Often baseless, rumors reflect deep distrust. After the Ayodhya debacle, I heard about a girl who ran through a Muslim ghetto carrying a can. Neighbors ran indoors shouting, fearful that they’d be attacked. No one stopped to think that perhaps she needed to get some cooking oil when curfew was ‘off.’
Shaku: Why weren’t TV shows interrupted to plead with people not to panic?
Arvind: Or politicians could have given police megaphones—to hit the streets, to counter rumors, to calm scared people huddled or hiding.
Harris: [Shifts to another position: on the floor, leaning against a chair] It seems like leaders wanted divisions to ever-simmer.
Shaku: Large-scale outbreaks always prolong divisions.
Raffat: Is that just human instinct, to let religious scorn whet enmity between groups?
Harris: Religious or political fervor quickly incites trouble. [Looks fearfully toward A & S]
Arvind: Rationally, I know that a secular democracy is the only way to survive, what with a minority as large as yours—a-hundred-and-ten-million and growing—but . . .
Raffat: And we know the fallout when Rajiv took political action to gain votes, as in the Shah Bano case.
Arvind: If a question surfaces, we’ll explain the Shah Bano case. [Writes notes] But I wonder whether Muslims and Christians comprehend how much your invasions and domination caused us Hindus to feel insecure.
Shaku: Muslims controlled from 1200-1750 and the arrogant British for two more centuries.
Arvind: Most ancient and original to “Mother India,” we the majority faith suffer from fear of your power.
Raffat: Therefore?
Arvind: We feel inferior, even though we’re the majority.
Harris: [In disbelief] How could you? [While standing up behind the couch, he clips his fingernails]
Raffat: So, when a dominant group feels threatened, it attacks the other group’s self-worth?
Arvind: I’d say that having felt bullied, we decide to be timid no longer.
Shaku: Rage simmers and piles up and then spills from both groups, I guess.
Arvind: Then, we resent when the government grants any further privilege to minorities.
Shaku: Our government claims to be secular or impartial, but…
Arvind: We insist that, within the emerging India, Hinduism be prominent. [H shakes head, No]
Shaku: With our new pride in being Hindu and Indian, we experience you as imports.
Arvind: You Muslims seem to be more loyal to Middle Eastern Islam, at the expense of strong national loyalty.
Raffat: You Hindus often make that charge. Your rhetoric of nationalism gets pretty demanding.
Harris: [Moving to a more central position, remains standing] And the dissension that follows causes mutual distrust.
Raffat: From ‘my side,’ think of the pain you cause, [pointing to A & S] when you perceive us as not really Indian.
Harris: Muslims have lived in India for generations. To deprive us of an important part of who we are makes us angry.
Raffat: And the more you Hindus doubt our patriotism, the more we in fact turn to our religion for refuge.
Shaku: So, politics becomes the criminal of sectarian pain.
Arvind: Perhaps if we express emotional ideas like this in class, students will see the interplay of political and religious realities.
Ellen: Please do! It’s coming through.
Tom: Definitely. I’m impressed by your honesty, yet controlled anger.
Raffat: We’re raising so many issues and mixing different time periods.
Shaku: Will North American students know about Ayodhya? Or Partition?
Ellen: More will know about Partition.
Shaku: In a distant way—like the English sipping gin, I suppose.
Harris: To repeat what communal means won’t hurt. Even lathi. Will they know that it’s a strong stick, a couple feet long, used by police instead of guns?
Arvind: We can’t explain every detail.
Tom: Could I ask a question? How have you worked at hatred—as a religious group or as individuals?
Harris: [Finding a place to sit] Yes, explain. Don’t give Americans excuse to see us Indians with more contempt than they already do.
Raffat: Christians frequently denigrate our faiths.
Shaku: We’re told to expect Christians to have peaceful solutions. But we know better.
Ellen: I see the mirror that you’re pointing my way.
Arvind: I’d add a comment from the Tamas serial, even though it too has nationalistic strains. The very awful violence that I saw acted out turned me against being violent. It convinced me of how inhumane religious groups can be.
Tom: So, seeing the outcome tempers your instinctive urge? [He sets up the ironing board to iron clothes]
Shaku: The aftermath of deep compassion and profound risks that some people of faith took struck me.
Raffat: I recall an incident after Ayodhya, early ’93. In Calcutta, a Muslim rushed into a temple when bombs were tossed into it. He rescued a Hindu priest and his family of eight, then protected them in his own home. He even rescued the Hanuman deity form.
Arvind: And the majority Hindus of Bhopal went door-to-door to gather food for five hundred families—Hindu and Muslim—who fled their homes during that city’s riot.
Tom: You’re proud of such actions, by people of your faith.
Harris: Two weeks after mobs destroyed temples in Calcutta, a Muslim raised rupees among his community to rebuild the structures, so that Hindus could again offer prayers.
Shaku: The profound image that sticks with me is of a human chain in Bombay. Not long after the place burst into flames, people of diverse faiths joined hands to call for peace, to fight for mutual, secular beliefs. One chain of people grew to fifty-five kilometers.
Harris: You could report lots of such incidents, in Kanpur and Ahmedabad, Patna and Delhi.
Ellen: How do you explain that? Christians serve because of Christ, we think.
Raffat: Such actions reflect universal, human good will. It’s not confined to one faith. It may even express political action.
Arvind: People took risks to condemn wrong. Rage against political leaders, who instilled hatred based on religious ties, entered those human chains.
Shaku: Poisoned minds found relief.
Raffat: And secularists came to the fore—those who expect the government to maintain composure with each living faith.
Harris: If Christians could outgrow narrow views, you’d more likely face your own internal injustices.
Arvind: Did you hear about Bhiwandi? A city of twelve lakh people two-thirds of whom are Muslim, not far from Mumbai.
Shaku: I hear that a documentary will be produced about it.
Raffat: Known for major, communal riots in 1970 and ‘84, the city now offers a counter model.
Tom: What caused the 1970 riots?
Harris: Some say it was economics mixed with religion. Asghar Ali Engineer notes Bhiwandi’s power-loom industry. It was owned by and supported many Muslim workers. Because of heavy traffic through Bhiwandi, and the revenue gained through road tolls, Muslims began to challenge fixed Hindu leaders.
Ellen: [Bringing more water, checks for needed refills] Shifts in power can affect justice—whether related to sexual preference, faith, or class.
Arvind: But communal tension doesn’t stem from economics alone. Our secular system remains flawed. And our hope for nationalism plus our heritage of nonviolence fail at strategic times.
Raffat: True. But recall the police officer who founded a political scheme of seventy committees in Bhiwandi in the late eighties.
Harris: Or, consider the current police chief who chairs a major Peace Committee. Having worked to solve problems, by the time of Ayodhya’s aftermath, some people chose peaceful efforts, not riots.
Ellen: They had done their homework, rather than just react at the time of an incident?
Arvind: That’s what justice making is. With vision and cooperation, Indians can live with our religious pluralism, a pluralism that offers profound benefits.
Shaku: Yet, we know that tolerance fails when intolerant acts show their dreadful head.
Raffat: Ellen or Tom, do you know of the Henry Martyn Institute of Islamic Studies, in Hyderabad?
Tom: Never heard of it.
Raffat: There, Christians, Muslims and Hindus try to prevent clashes.
Harris: In Hyderabad, where seventy percent of the population is Muslim, less rioting followed Ayodhya than might have been expected. But deep feelings flared up more recently, I heard.
Shaku: In India, we know that Mother Teresa doesn’t have a corner on “loving the neighbor.” [Sets dirty dishes from all four on table]
Arvind: Strife in India plunges millions into working toward harmony.
Raffat: Nor need Christians point-the-finger at Muslim-Hindu conflict.
Ellen: We know. Although Irish differences might heal, we recall the Crusades, the massacre of Jews, and more recent atrocities.
Tom: And we continue to destroy others, with prejudice of class, race, and sexual orientation.
Arvind: Most of our class members are active or nominal Christian; we’ll recall such admissions.
Tom: How have Christians in India responded to interreligious conflict?
Shaku: They’re a small minority—less than three percent—compared to Muslims.
Arvind: With eleven percent, Muslims have always threatened us more.
Raffat: No doubt Indian Christians ‘feel closer’ to us Muslims, since our history is partially shared.
Harris: [Standing, looking at his watch] For example, my uncle has Christian neighbors in Calcutta. During the riots after Ayodhya, those friends stored my relatives’ valuables. They could have hid with them too.
Arvind: In Tamas, Sahni says, “Neighbors quarrel, but…a neighbor is like one’s right hand.”
Raffat: Well . . . history leads me to qualify that ideal. Some Christians regret their smugness toward strife between India’s faiths.
Shaku: They often avoid strong support of either Hindus or Muslims in the thick of conflict.
Arvind: Yet, I heard of a Catholic Father Bhatt who defied curfew in Allahabad during the Ayodhya aftermath. He gathered supplies for riot victims and brought together leaders of seven faiths to pray.
Raffat: But Christians can’t risk disapproval from the Hindu majority. They fear being your next target.
Harris: In fact, acts of violence over the last five years justify that fear. [H stands up to stretch]
Shaku: Hey, Harris, are you standing because we have a planning meeting for international students?
Harris: Oh, right. I’ll take my tali to my room and meet you at the front door.
Shaku: Thanks for the curry, Arvind. [They exit. Tom puts the ironing board away and waves.]
Arvind: I guess we have plenty to discuss in class.
Raffat: Perhaps we might start with issues of fear.
Arvind: Both religious and political fears . . . But let’s watch the video now.
Ellen: Thanks for letting us listen. I’ll see you later. [E exits]
Tom: [Picking up the glasses] Hope your class presentation goes well, guys. I have a media conference this coming week, so won’t be around much. [T exits to the kitchenette and into his bedroom as A flicks on the VCR ] [Lights/End]

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