Love and kindness, compassion and generosity, empathy and welfare for others are the hallmarks of every human relations, and freedom , liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the dreams and aspirations of every human being. We the human race yearn for peace, prosperity and happiness. No matter how divided we are, none can extinguish the spark of divinity within us; no matter how bleak the circumstance is, no one can stop us from dreaming for a better world , no matter how loud the voice of intolerance is, none can confiscate our heart of love within. it matters not how precarious the road, we human beings are the masters of our fate and we are the captains of our soul - Dear friends, I grew up on it, I lived it, and I have never stopped believing it.
Childhood can be a period of adventure, amazement and awe but for me it was also a period of discord , strife and upheaval. My hometown in India was a great place to grow up. My elementary school was small and teachers were affable, attentive and accessible. There weren’t a lot of pupils in the class ; we could easily connect and have a close bond with each other. My best friend was from a separate neighborhood, a few blocks away from ours. Although we followed different religions, our families were close and used to visit each other. We were always invited to a festival called Eid al-Fitr celebrated by the Muslims to mark the end of the month-long fasting. There was a lot of food, and I relished the mouthwatering dishes prepared by his mother.
There was no school bus and almost everyone walked to school. Walking to and from the school was exciting. Each day, I would stand outside patiently waiting for my friend to join me, and then we walked together meeting others along the way. Listening to the sounds of the neighborhood, seeing friends and feeling connected with the community was a blessing.
During the early eighties when I entered high school, my home-state was engulfed by a uprising against the influx of immigrants entering illegally from the a bordering country. It began as a just and peaceful movement by the indigenous people fearful of being swamped by alien cultures and becoming a minority in their own land. However, the agitation soon deepened the chasm among communities. Every day, we listened to the radio for news – villages after villages were being burned by violent mobs. The turmoil began to reverberate through our neighborhood. One day , some activists carried out a torch lit procession, and I joined impulsively. “Illegal immigrants go back, go back”, everyone shouted. As the marchers entered the next neighborhood the shouting intensified; from a distance I saw the family of my friend barricading inside. My friend was at the corner clutching his little sister’s hand ready to protect her from being hurt by anyone. Then , someone from the crowd , to my horror, threw a burning torch at their house. As the fire burned, I saw the frightened family; I was scared for them, they were scared of me. The incident left me shaken. We spoke the same language, we went into the same school, we were bound together by many ties of affinity and relationship – how did it happen? But it was occurring everywhere as if everyone was possessed by a demon. I was perturbed by the silence of the majority. The situation called our values into question – humanity, brotherhood and camaraderie. But no one, including my loving parents and my revered school teacher, raised their voice. “Is there anyone out there who will rise to the occasion?” I wondered.
One day, I was walking to school, alone. When I reached the town sport stadium, I heard a voice followed by music. As I neared, the song became clear, “we are in the same boat brother”. I instantly recognized the voice; it was the master Bhupen Hazarika , the iconic cultural figure and social activist of our era. When Hazarika was studying at the Columbia University in New York, he came into contact with the legendary folk singer Paul Robeson and learned the song from him. As the song was being played everyone present at the stadium was transfixed ; I witnessed something that I had never seen before – a singer armed only with a microphone who alleviated the atmosphere of fear and gloom. Soon everyone lined up for an impromptu procession led by the troupe of artists. People started singing alone while others started playing drums, flutes and guitars. As the open truck, led by the singer, entered the main street , motorists stopped and began honking, commuters leaned out of buses and school girls danced to say “We are in the same boat brother.” Then the procession entered the neighborhood of my friend. I saw his parents greeting the crowd. My heart stopped at that moment ; I realized that I was forgiven, His little sister was waving at me. I knelt down so that I was at her level. I looked at her in the eye and then held out my hand – “Can I be your brother.” Then someone handed her a small bell and she began ringing it loudly; soon all three of us joined the procession walking hand in hand as the lovely sound of the bell filled the air. “We are in the same boat brother.” – the voice of Bhupen Hazarika rose washing away the walls of divide and discord; it soared higher, louder and further, and at that moment every man in my neighborhood felt liberated.
Two hundred , two scores and three years ago, in the city of Philadelphia , a group of noble and brave souls declared – “all men are created equal,” and the bell of liberty rang out , “they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” . Friends , We all may look completely different on the outside - you are Catholic , you are Protestant , you are Muslim, you are Jewish , I am Hindu but [pointing to my heart ] our hearts beat exactly the same on the inside. Your skin color is black, you are white, I am brown but underneath we are all the same, we are all created equal. Let’s ring [ ringing a small bell] the liberty bell once again –
We’re in the same boat, brother
We’re in the same boat, brother
And if you shake one end
You’re gonna rock the other
It’s the same boat, brother