Shape your world

Bizarre as it may seem to others, these are some of the modules I took at university: environment and development in dryland Africa; environment and development in South Asia; border disputes in the Middle East; refugees, returnees and development aid; the politics of development. Lots of references to development.

When I set out on that degree, I had visions that I would end up working overseas for an international aid agency. However, by my final year I had digested so many discourses on the post-colonial milieu that I had concluded that the field had more than enough white, middle-class males presenting as experts already. Thus did I change course entirely. As may be known by now, I ended up a decade later working in development — only, an entirely different sort of development.

It turns out I probably didn’t need two degrees for that, as my own manager at the time had left school at sixteen and simply worked her way up to that position. Indeed, on paper, I have always been more qualified than all of my managers and superiors. But there we are: certificates embossed with nice crests are of little worth if you don’t have self-confidence. I dreamed of doing one thing, but my rizq was somewhere else entirely.

Regardless, I don’t regret studying that first degree. It has bestowed me with a lifetime supply of impeccably niche trivia, which now and then I feel compelled to bring up in the company of the learned and the wise. I keenly studied the Green Revolution and agrarian reform: passions which enlivened my heart — and very topical today!

Unbeknownst to my companions, I was once an expert on industrial pollution in the River Ganges. Indeed, for a time I was a perennial bore on the river systems of the Indus plain. Hence my fascination with that land of five rivers, panj aab. Beneficial knowledge, I suppose, given that through the years ever since my path has crossed so often with the children of that land.

I think people should take the time to study that part of the world, particularly as it existed prior to the calamity of partition. To my knowledge, Punjab often presented a model of interfaith relations that should inspire us today. It was common in those days to find the places of worship of different faiths built close together, and for their adherents to mark each other’s festivals. Often members of the same family followed different faiths without incident or conflict.

Indeed, if we care to set aside contemporary animosities, we may discover rich accounts of interfaith cooperation in former times. Many from that region consider partition a great tragedy in rending in two a region once united by a common language and culture. Naturally Britain has a lot to answer for, leaving behind division and a trail of destruction in its retreat from Empire.

But perhaps in Britain we may restore some of that lost heritage. Certainly, in many a London street we discover houses of worship of different traditions built side by side. Though every community suffers from its extremists intent on stoking division, we will find many still cooperating across faith boundaries. Long may that continue.

We should all take the time to learn about the heritage of those who walk amongst us. These histories have the potential to enrich us and teach us of better ways to live. For my part, I’m so grateful that I ended up studying those subjects there all those years ago. True, they have been of absolutely no benefit to my career whatsoever. But they nevertheless helped shape my world.

Our histories and destinies are intertwined.

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