Saturday, January 16, 2010

The idea of India: An extract from Aatish Taseer's upcoming Temple Goers

The extract, a very entertaining one at that, is here (Aatish Taseer's website is here). The scene described features a writer, Vijailal, a fictionalized version of VS Naipaul, at a dinner with prominent guests in a Delhi home. What’s more, in the conversation, Vijailal takes the familiar Naipaulian -- and supposedly “Hindu-nationalist” – stance: he berates the loss of Hindu-Buddhist India to the ravages of Muslim conquerors.

The interpretation is a vicious flash point: India is yet to come to terms with this part of its history. In Latin America, the Spanish conquest of indigenous empires -- the Aztecs, the Incas and countless smaller groups -- was similarly brutal (the similarity may not be a coincidence: it is important to remember the Spanish fought the Arabs immediately before sailing to the Americas). Yet countries such as Mexico, Peru and Bolivia have reconciled with this painful history. Unlike India, indigenous cultures in these places were trampled and destroyed to such an extent that there is nothing to do but to acknowledge this nadir of history and move on. Strikingly, most Pre-Columbian religious sites of Latin America -- those that survive -- are now archaeological sites. They are secular spaces; they no longer hold the same cultural or religious meaning.

In India, however, the past, though not fully accessible to everyone, has survived despite the invasions of the last millennium; the traditions continue and have even been strengthened, albeit in an altered, modern form; the religious places still remain religious places, they are held in reverence, even if they are archaeological sites. While this continuity is astonishing, the wound inflicted by Islamic invasions still rankles.

Two excerpts from Taseer’s extract, I felt, were striking. In both, Vijailal – the character resembling Naipaul – argues that there did exist such a thing as India: not the modern nation-state of course, but a culture that understood itself through the prism of religion:
“You ask the average Indian, and he would not think of himself as an Indian. He would think of himself as a Gujarati, a Punjabi, a Tamilian, an Assamese. He wouldn’t have the faintest idea of India, ‘the land’.”

The writer [Vijailal] seemed caught between the interruption and Shabby’s raised voice, and what he was going to say next. He lowered his head and muttered, “Not the temple-going Indian, not the temple-going Indian.”

Then raising his head and voice at once, he silenced Shabby. “Not the temple-going Indian. People like you perhaps, but not him. He knows this country backwards. He forever carries an idea of it in his head. For him, it possesses a sacred topography. He knows it through its holy places. He knows it from the mountains in the north where the rivers begin, and from where the rudraksh he wears around his neck come, to the special place from where the right stones for the lingas come. He knows the rivers when they widen and the great temples and temple cities, with their stone steps, that have been set along their banks. He knows the points where those rivers meet other rivers, and their confluence becomes part of the long nationwide pilgrimages he will make several times in his lifetime. In fact, it could be said that there is almost no other country where the countrymen are as acquainted with the distant reaches of the land through their pilgrimages as in India; perhaps no country where poor people travel more. They think nothing of jumping on a bus or train, for two or three days, to journey to Tirupathi in the south or Jagannath in the east. And in this way, the religion itself is like a form of patriotism.”


“You know,” he began, looking deeply into the room, where illuminated foliage could be seen beyond darkened windows and the orange coils of an electric heater burned steadily, “they say that Benares is a microcosm of India. Today, most people take that to mean that it contains all the horror and filth of India, and also, loath as I am to use these words, the charm, the beauty, the magic. But Benares was once a very different kind of microcosm; it was a very self-conscious microcosm. The streams that watered the groves in its Forest of Bliss were named after all the rivers of India, not unlike the avenues in Washington, DC, being named after the American states. All the princes from around the country had their palaces along the river. And they would come and retire there after they had forsaken the cares of the world. The Indian holy points, the places of the larger pilgrimage, were all represented symbolically in Benares. It was said you could do the whole pilgrimage in miniature in Kashi. And Kashi too was recreated symbolically across the country. It wasn’t a microcosm; it was a kind of cosmic capital.

“And on certain days the moon would appear in the afternoon and the water from those symbolic Indian rivers would run through the groves and flood the Ganga, which at one particular point curls around the city. The ancient Hindus, with their special feeling for these cosmic changes, would gather at high points in the city to watch, like people seeing a fireworks display. That was how people, common people,” he added pointedly, “were brought in touch with the wholeness of the place, in just the same way as someone crossing a street in Manhattan might feel when, looking to one side and seeing the sweep of the avenue, he says, ‘I’m in New York!’ It’s my dream to see that wholeness restored in India.”

On a related note, let me quote Sandeep, a popular Bangalore based blogger and columnist – and a vociferous defender of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). Sandeep has an impassioned piece on how the subcontinent's oldest religion has been the victim of concerted attacks over the last two and a half millennia and has yet managed to adapt. He begins the piece, though, on a less confrontational note, using the example of the recently passed Makar Sankranthi, to show the cultural unity of India:
Today is Makara Sankranti, celebrated across India to both herald the beginning of longer days, and reap the harvest of months of backbreaking work in the fields. But the greater significance of Makara Sankranti like most Hindu festivals, is to highlight another living instance of the amazing cultural unity of India. People in Karnataka exchange a mixture comprising sugarcane blocks–artistically moulded into various forms and figures and shapes of Gods, Goddesses, flowers, fruits, animals–white sesame seeds, jaggery, and a piece of sugarcane. In Andhra Pradesh, sugarcane is replaced by the jujube fruit (Regi Pandulu) and sweets and delicacies are prepared and offered to God. Assamese are more creative: they have on offer at least 10 different varieties of Pitha, a kind of rice cake. Gujaratis wait for this to zestfully fly kites all over and make Undhiyu and Chikkis (sweetmeat made of sesame, jaggery and peanuts). Maharashtra feasts on tilgul (sweetmeat made from sesame) and Gulpolis, and wish each other peace and prosperity. Tamil Nadu gorges on varieties of pongal–thai pongal, mattu pongal and kannum pongal, each variety of pongal as a way of offering gratitude to the Sun, cattle, and friends and relatives. Every state and place–Bundelkhand, Rajasthan, Punjab, Bengal, Goa, Kerala, and Orissa–has its unique way of celebrating Makara Sankranti but contains a subterranean thread that ties all of them with India.
The full essay, with the more accusatory bits, is here. Feel free to discuss and debate the validity of these viewpoints.

1 comment:

Krishnan said...

Yes Hari, I read an extract in The Outlook. Sounded quite interesting.