Her disappointment about Nishta not coming was still too raw to discuss with Diane. “No,” she said shortly.
“Why not? What’s the problem?”
Armaiti couldn’t keep the frustration out of her voice. “The problem is her husband. He won’t let her come, it seems.”
Her words came out in a rush. “Because he’s turned into a religious fanatic. He’s become this pious, fundamentalist Muslim who apparently prays five times a day and—” She stopped, noticing the look on Diane’s face. “What?”
“I can’t believe you said that.”
“That you called him a fundamentalist, just because he’s religious.”
She loved Diane deeper than life, but right now Armaiti’s fingers itched to slap the smug off that young face. “He used to be a socialist,” she said. “He used to laugh at the person he’s become. He’s become a caricature of the person he used to scorn.”
“So? He’s not allowed to change?” Diane had that righteous look made Armaiti fume. “How come you’re so contemptuous of people of faith, Mom? You’re so dogmatic. Don’t people have the right to believe whatever they wish to?”
Her daughter had never seemed as much of a stranger to her as she did right now. Diane had gone to a prestigious private school where political correctness was extolled, where tolerance and multiculturalism were buzzwords. She had grown up in a town that proudly—if inanely—labeled itself a nuclear-free zone, had gone to the nondenominational Unitarian church the few times her parents had bothered taking her to church, and now attended a university that was famously liberal. Diane hadbecome exactly the person she and Richard had wanted her to be—progressive, broadminded, tolerant.
So why did she feel like she and her daughter were not speaking the same language? That there was something simplistic, even childlike, about her daughter’s understanding of the world? That right now Diane seemed more like Richard’s daughter— good-hearted, well-meaning Richard, whose American innocence had always felt endearing and dangerous to her—than her own? That the Diane who was looking at her with a slight frown on her face was truly the child of the American Midwest— sweet but bland—with not a trace of her mother’s heritage of spice and vinegar?
And you, Armaiti asked herself, what language do you speak? A dead language. The language of a faraway time, of a world that no longer exists. Of a time when they had believed the prophet who claimed that religion was the opiate of the masses. They had not seen religion as a polite, innocuous, private issue, as Diane did, or a topic for cocktail-party conversation. Not for them the benign, New Age, crystals-and-angels view of religion shared by so many of her American friends. She and the others had seen religion as a ferocious beast to be tamed, as a weapon that the ruling class used to keep the masses in servitude. Or a demon-genie that the politicians let out of the bottle every time there was an election to be won. And then mobs of Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs bludgeoned each other to death, set houses and people and children—children—on fire. Or threw acid on the faces of young girls walking to college. Or rioted to ban books or movies or paintings that offended their religious sensibilities. Several times Armaiti and the others had gone on fact-finding missions after a riot or a massacre, traveled into the hinterlands of Bihar or Orrissa, witnessed the aftermath of religious fervor. It had turned her off religion, forever. Or, rather, it had given her a new faith. She and the others had proudly called themselves secular humanists, the words honey in their mouth. The only gospel they could believe in was one that preached food for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and justice for the oppressed.
She looked now at her daughter, lovely and guileless, and was torn with conflicting desires—the protective, motherly desire to have Diane always remain this innocent, secure in her small outrages over small grievances. But there was another part of her that wanted her daughter to know—not just the world she had grown up in but to know her, the wars she’d fought and lost, the idealism that she wore like a tarnished shield. It felt like a dereliction of duty somehow to die before passing on some of this knowledge to her only child. Because she feared that the world had changed too much, that this new, jittery world of global capital and virtual friendships would never again nurture the kind of community and optimism that she had known. Diane would be a good person—she would put milk out for stray kittens and remember to refill the bird-feeder, she would send money to sponsor a child in Africa and she would give up her Fridays to read to old people in a nursing home—but she wouldn’t know the meaning of a collective struggle, wouldn’t know the heart-pounding thrill of marching along with tens of thousands of others, or the cold fear of facing down a police barricade.
In short, Diane would lead the same happy but dull middle-class life that she had for the last three decades. Armaiti sat up in her chair at the realization.