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17 December 2007

Truth from all sources

In the first of our series of blogs from women involved in interfaith work Deepti Patel from the Hin

By Deepti Patel

From an early age, I can distinctly remember being fascinated by different cultures and faiths, and the many similarities and connections between each. I would spend hours tucked away on a bay window in my school library, on my ‘amazing quest to discover the truth’.

Looking back, it is clear the appeal of inter-faith and youth community work for me stemmed from my desire to fit into a world that didn’t understand my own cultural and faith background. When I changed schools, I remember signing a statement agreeing to participate in the school’s Church of England services, school assemblies and so forth. I remember my mother that day, giving me a classic piece of Hindu philosophy based upon a simple analogy: if God resides at the summit of a mountain, all paths to the top are equal as they reach the same destination.

My inter-faith work has, and I hope will, keep enlightening me. Recently we at the Hindu Council have been supporting the Burmese Buddhist monks by keeping vigil, protesting and campaigning. In conversation one night with a Burmese student, as we sat in our tent across from Parliament, I was truly humbled and inspired, in a way that only someone who has experienced atrocities and forgiven them can instil such an array of emotions and hope.

A fortnight ago the Children’s Commissioner organised the ‘11 million Takeover Day’. I spent the day at the Ministry of Justice mentoring inner city London children from all backgrounds, the purpose of which was to encourage engagement and understanding of the democratic process. Future projects I aim to help organise are orientated around using the arts to elevate inter-faith and cross-cultural dialogue and understanding.

With the festive season upon us, I find it disheartening when I hear of Scrooge-like behaviour. Christmas is one of my favourite times of the year. Bizarrely, this sometimes surprises people. It seems quite simple to me, there are some things about this time of year that transcend the religious construct: family gatherings, the feeling of community and, at the risk of sounding much like a Miss World contestant, a time of the year when we contemplate and appreciate all that we have.

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Being brought up in England, that time for introspection has naturally been Christmas. If I had been born elsewhere it would inevitably be another festival involving similar principles.

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I think it is fear of losing some misplaced notion of preserving one’s identity that stops some people from learning about other faiths and cultures. For me extracting parallels creates an invisible way within me to feel closer to humanity, in a world where alas people are increasingly becoming more isolationist. We are all connected more than we think, if one simply took the time to look to the substance rather than solely the form.

Recently a good friend recounted a conversation that she had had with her parents about me. The discussion had led to a point where she claimed she didn’t have any Indian friends, to which her mother replied ‘Well, what about Deepti?’

My friend went on to explain, in a way that to me is reminiscent of a rare childlike obliviousness towards race and creed, that she just had not really seen me as specifically Indian, although obviously she knows that I am and what that means to me.

This is the very same woman, who claims she isn’t that culturally aware. I beg to differ. I only wish more people looked at each other the way she sees me, with no labels or preconceptions, just the individual as they are. That to me is the whole point of inter-faith and inter-community work, indeed of being human.