Gopal Chandra Ganguly didn't touch Muslims. When they came to his house, they were served with separate plates and glasses, to avoid having his Hindu Brahmin family contaminated by their ritual impurity. My grandmother's grandfather didn't hate Muslims; he worked and interacted with them, as long as they knew to keep their infernal Islamic cooties out of his upper-caste Hindu home in Calcutta, India.
The British would finally quit India the following year after a century of anti-colonial struggle, but in 1946, the future of the nation was still being hotly debated in conferences and dining rooms across the subcontinent -- and no issue loomed larger than the Hindu-Muslim question. In formerly peaceful Calcutta, in both majority Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods, racist mobs led attacks on members of the religious minority--the Great Calcutta Riot.
Anti-Muslim riots were spreading closer to his neighborhood when my great-great-grandfather approached two neighborhood Muslim merchants, asking them if they needed help. Could he give them shelter? My grandmother doesn't know what her grandfather was thinking, the mental calculus crunching away in his head, but he said yes. Yes, knowing the disastrous consequences for the two men if they were caught. Yes, knowing the possible violence his family would potentially face from their co-religionists if word got out.
Sheltering hunted minorities in the face of religious violence was no easy task. Gopal Chandra was the head of a large household, comprising about two dozen family members and a number of servants. He had to think fast. If word got out that their household was sheltering Muslims, the house might be attacked by angry Hindu mobs. And he couldn't trust the servants to keep mum. He needed a plan.
Gopal Chandra led the two men into an unused room upstairs, usually left locked. They were cautioned to remain absolutely silent. Late every night, after the servants had gone to bed downstairs, the door was quietly opened so the men could be let out and fed. Most families in the area were living on very limited rations, but the Gangulys was better off than their neighbors. A friendly local merchant, fleeing to a safe area, had given them some extra food before he left, his last gift to a family that had treated him well.
The two men remained hidden away in the unused room as anti-Muslim riots raged. Ten days later, the violence died down and Gopal Chandra Ganguly bid the men goodbye as they fled to safety. My great-great-grandfather's story wasn't exceptional. A people's history of South Asia is filled with these tiny acts of solidarity across communities, at times of peace and crisis.
If I'm ever so tested, I hope to be able to show the same kind of courage under fire, standing up to personal and community prejudices.
Sadly, I am tested every single day, with critical issues of life and death, injustice and war, where I can safely respond without needing to make these difficult decisions, just by exercising my basic democratic rights and wielding my checkbook in the richest country on the planet. I sometimes do a little, but my great-great-grandfather's story challenges me to do more, to take greater risks, in the battle to be human.