This article focuses on the paradox of our lives. What really does dominate our lives in the subcontinent – Religion, beliefs, ideologies or the culture that binds us together in communities?
Tagore had once said, “While God waits for his temple to be built of love, men bring stones.”
By Nazarul Islam
My friends in Uttar Pradesh have lamented that India’s rising fanatics have rushed to tie their knots with the rest of secular nation. And, in the process, abandoned their gods, changed their beliefs, compromised on their ideologies or convictions as easily as they would have had liked to change their saffron robes, and white caps. Then—they had hopped on to each other’s beds. Isn’t this about our nostalgia, with our hearts and longings for sheer joy, bonhomie and togetherness that seem so elusive today?
Not long ago, we had witnessed a difficult time in our lives, when all our travails and tribulations and sorrows and strife, in which our subcontinent seemed beautifully “appareled in celestial light”. Can we imagine the era of ‘paradise’? Or, hope to imitate this in future?
Let me recount a short story from a rural Bihar village—a picturesque Jamali Chak, which lies on the bank of the river and also forms a tributary to the same river. Like so many villages of the old, rural and historic State, it is a composite setting, comprising of many castes —carpenters, blacksmiths, fishermen, barbers, potters, weavers and others, but the Harijan, as always, have lived in a satellite colony outside the village —a blemish from our ancient past, a stain that no amount of chanting of mantras and bathing in the holy river, can wash clean.
The downtrodden Harijans used to eat beef, in the likes if the Muslims. They would carry the corpse of the dead cows from the village, skin it and strip it of all flesh and take this to the local Muslim, who cured the leather and sent it to the tannery and crushed the bones and sent that to the factory. The village and its people lived in perfect symbiosis and absolute harmony. However, it was easy to see that the Harijan had a special kinship with the Muslims—their life was more entwined with the latter, unlike the uneasy, unequal relationship with the rest of the Hindu community.
Haji Saheb, the Muslim who purchased the cattle skin and bones from the Dalits in the village, was also a rice merchant. And, the elders recalled, he often came home to buy harvested paddy. He was a big man, who sported a huge white kurta and baggy pajamas; was highly regarded for his ethical business dealings, was amiable, and had a good sense of humor and poked fun at Brahmins and their orthodox and austere lifestyle.
And the village elders including father and uncles of my friends, would often chaff and laugh about this.
His father was nicknamed ‘Shawl Saheb’. In a famous titular story of the Jamali Chak’s Ramaswamy Iyengar, has narrated an incident. Once, Iyengar’s father, a priest, was in deep meditation and chanting mantras in the back garden of his house. Haji Saheb’s father, not very well to do, came home to meet him, and then sat down on a stone bench opposite the priest. As the chanting went on interminably, Saheb Senior spied a lovely embroidered shawl on the ‘offerings platform’. It was monsoon, raining heavily and there was a chill in the air. Saheb Senior, emboldened by the knowledge that the priest wouldn’t open his eyes while in deep meditation, picked up the shawl, wrapped himself up cozily and walked out confidently even as the priest’s wife watched dumbfounded.
Next day, when Saheb Senior came, brazenly wearing the same shawl, the priest —my friend’s great grandfather —asked him why he hadn’t at least asked him before taking it. Saheb Senior replied nonchalantly that it was cold and he needed the shawl, but he was too scared to disturb a Brahmin in prayer and incur his wrath!
People who lived together in the village would often remind Haji Saheb of this story and demand that the shawl be returned, and both of them would break into hearty laughter.
Ah, how far we have come from that idyll, from that simplicity of rural identities, and the lost world I only had heard about from my grandfather. We all have such stories and reminiscences. Our villages in the subcontinent have preserved much of the past, but the urban centers are becoming cesspools of hatred, overcome by senseless violence and festering wounds, with an uneasy calm between communities.
We are unconsciously lapping up false narratives and distorted histories that are woven and fed to us about Muslim kings and Hindu kings. Many Hindu kings had Muslim commanders, and vice versa. Hindu kings allied with Muslim kings to defeat other Hindu chieftains or Muslim rulers.
Why has our urban, smug, consuming middle class become so gross? Why does it feed himself on hatred? Why do people don’t love, don’t read, listen to good music or lose themselves in nature, which ennobles and uplifts. People simply like to gorge on television news and social media in all waking hours of the day.
Can our civilization flower when “fire-breathing” mullahs sympathize with jihadis who murder—and the “Trishul-wielding Hindu” justifies killing through lynching. If you scorn all faiths but appease one faith at the expense of another or embrace a moribund ideology and justify violence or abandon all the cherished ideals of your scriptures and teachings of Meera and Kabir, and Ghalib and Gandhi, can your children blossom in such a feuding land?
Can we be true Christians or Muslims or ‘true Vaishnavs’ if we hate and hurt another soul, as the 15th century Gujarati Saint Narsi Mehta sang, in ‘Vaishnava Janato’, Gandhi’s favourite hymn.
Can we reclaim that lost paradise where we heard the soul-stirring Shehnai of Ustad Bismillah Khan in Kashi Viswanath Temple; Pundit Jasraj singing ‘Allah ho meherban’ after singing ‘Bhagavate Hey Vasudeva’ at the Ram Navami festival in “full throated ease”; Bade Ghulam Ali Khan rendering a glorious ‘Hari Om Tatsat’ Bhajan; or MS Subbulakshmi singing a Kabir song followed by a Meera Bhajan, with equal aplomb and devotion?
Can we prosper by “returning to our ghosts and demons which reason had exorcised?” Our faiths, whatever they are, must be to an overarching fealty to love, to fraternity and solidarity and to all creation under an abode of comingling faiths so that we rejoice together, as in our former days.
As Tagore said, “While God waits for his temple to be built of love, men bring stones.” And we are busy building those barriers.
(The Bengal-born writer is a senior educationist and lives in USA. He writes regularly for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America)