Feb 122014

My column in @DNA last week

My earliest memories are of growing up in Delhi, and going to school there. Amongst those memories was a line that a six-year-old had seared into her subconscious — tu kaali hai (you are dark). It wasn’t a line thrown at her by classmates on a playground, but by the teacher in the classroom. A first standard student does not really have the wherewithal to cope with race, and I guess I was no different. I cried to my parents, and they assured me that my colour was the best, and the teacher was possibly jealous and brave girls don’t run away from school or teachers but face them with confidence. My father was transferred to Mumbai the following year, and in a multicultural school with classmates from different parts of India, I never felt different.

Much later, I came to know that Mumbai was the setting for anti-South agitation before I was born, and my parents lived in fear of the violence encroaching into their lives. Then, the 1990s saw the Bombay riots targeting Muslims, and more recently the anti-North Indian agitation — the anger against the perceived ‘outsider’ played out to its logical conclusion by those who benefit by these divisions. Studying in England, I was very conscious of ethnicity and nationality. The occasional taunts of “Yo Paki, go home” were met by “I am an Indian student, and will go back when I finish my studies.”

India has always lived with flashpoints based on differences. There have been a multitude of Hindu-Muslim riots since (and even before) Independence. Through the early 1980s, there was the targeted killing of Hindus in Punjab by Khalistanis. There was the targeted killing of Sikhs in the 1984 riots. In 2002, there was the targeted killing of Hindu pilgrims in Godhra, and then there was the targeted killing of  Muslims. More recently,  in 2012, there were riots in Assam between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims that combined aspects of religion, ethnicity, race and linguistic divisions to a bloody end. And towards the end of last year, we saw the Muzaffarnagar riots that were neither ethnic, nor linguistic but based on religious ‘otherness’. We have seen violence against South Indians (Madrasis) in Bombay, against Tamil speakers in Bangalore, against North Indians (bhaiyyas and Biharis) in Mumbai and more. And, I am not even counting the violence in the name of caste in this list.

Every time there is a riot or violence, we blame the political class and reassure ourselves, “We have lived in peace for generations, they fanned the flames.” This is an argument that has been bandied about and accepted. As a result, we have never really examined our own individual biases towards the other — religion, race, ethnicity, linguistic. We live with the myth that we are tolerant towards others, liberal about different ways of life, respectful of diversity. The fact remains that we are not. We may pay lip service towards values of tolerance, wring our hands when there is a breach of peace, shed tears at violence — but the reality is that, as individuals, we are not very tolerant of those not like us. The most recent manifestation of this has been the violence towards Ugandan women and the killing of Arunachal Pradesh student Nido Taniam. These, as much the riots, highlight the deep intolerance and fear of the other.

There can be many steps taken to address this. The first is at home. Our values are formed by what we learn at home. What is it that we teach our children? Our concepts of sharing, mingling, forming bonds with others are shaped here. So when we tell children not to ‘play with others not like us’ what is it that we are teaching? The second is at school. Unity in diversity is not just a phrase; it is real. Do we teach children about heroes from other states, do we let them understand the beauty and vastness of India beyond data points? Maybe at the 9th and 10th standard level, we relook at civics to examine diversity and differences and how those who are not like us are also like us.

The third is the media. How much of diversity is reflected in the images that we see and consume? How many of us even know about the lives and lifestyles of people not like us beyond the stereotypes? Hollywood adopted positive role models of African-Americans long before Barack Obama became the President, way back in the 1960s. Where is the diversity on our screens? The fourth is society. How welcoming are we of people not like us? Do we rent accommodation to them? Do we hire them? Do we make friends with them? And lastly, it is the state. What is the kind of mechanism put in place to make people who are immigrants feel at home? Much as we complain about the racism in the west, go to any government office there and there are multilingual forms available as are translators. If you, a Hindi speaker, went to a Chennai police station (or vice versa) to fill a report, would you even understand what was being said? How do you assimilate if you are not made to feel part of the system?

Race, religion, ethnicity and language — factors that unite us but also mark us as being separate from others. This sense of ‘otherness’, unless dealt with, can and has become a flashpoint for violence and hatred. The solution is not being separate and guarding what is perceived by some as uniqueness; rather, it is accepting and living with diversity. There are many ideas of India, possibly 1.2 billion of them  — and each of these is just as beautiful and as wondrous and as Indian and as real  as your or my idea of India is. Maybe it is time that we recognised and accepted that.

May 122010

Two very different instances of religious/caste patriarchs intervening in civil society have come to the fore in the last couple of days. Both are Anti Constitutional. And, its about time the Government and the System said religious oppression in the name of Religious freedom be damned – the Constitution comes first.

The first instance was the Khap Panchayats that has been flexing its muscles for quite some time – excommunicating and killing without consequences. They have got Navin Jindal to tow the line now.

Mr. Jindal has said

“I and my whole family respect the years old traditions and rituals of khap panchayats. My house is their own home and they can come there any time. I am just like their own child and I can never go against them; rather I always need their blessings.”

Navin Jindal, if you remember, is the man who went all the way to the Supreme Court for the right of Indian Citizens to fly the Indian Flag, and won .

Mr.Jindal has forgotten that the Indian flag represents the Indian Republic. And, the Indian Republic is enshrined by the Indian Constitution . The Indian Constitution states:

14. The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.
15. (1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.

If the Khap Panchayat had its way – it is not just same gotra marriages that will be nullified, but there will be penalties to anyone who breaks caste rules . And, as all of us know, these rules – if applied to their logical conclusion – will lead to the Hindus getting their equivalent of the Taliban.

I wonder if a Member of Parliament who is so ready to violate the Constitution has the right to be in Parliament !

The second instance of the Constitution being violated, is the Deobandi’s – who have declared that it is haram for women to work

“It is unlawful (under the Sharia law) for Muslim women to work in the government or private sector where men and women work together and women have to talk with men frankly and without a veil,”

If the fatwa is followed through to its logical conclusion, it would mean that Indian citizens who are Muslim women cannot be the President, Prime Minister, Member of Parliament. They can’t work in a Hospital, a Call Centre, a Hotel. They can’t teach in a co-educational school, they cannot work for a NGO, they can’t work as engineers…. This essentially means that women are barred from most professions except sweat shops where they can sit with other women and sew stuff at cut price rate.

In both cases a bunch of patriarchs want the world to bend to their interpretation of religion, and honour …. I hope that in both cases this is the straw that breaks the back of an communities that have kept quiet — and rise up to delegitimise both the Khap Panchayats and the Deobandi’s. The best way to destroy them is to stop listening to them !!

And finally – i hope everyone remembers that the reason Krishna wasn’t invited to Rukmini’s swayamwar was because he was a Yadav and she was a Kshyatriya princess.

Let us also remember that the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife was Khadijah bint Khuwaylid – a merchant who employed him.

Those who have proclaimed themselves as guardians of religion and tradition seem to have forgotten their own religion and tradition :(

Sep 282009

Being in love with God. Filled with passion for God. Having a mystical connect with God. Having communication with God that bypasses organsied relgioun. Where you stop referring to God in the terrifying patriarchal formality – and refer to him in the second person. where you fight with God, personify him – dance for him, sing for him, want to marry him … these are just some of the aspects of the bhakti movement. Bhakti goes beyond mere devotion.

Some of the best poerty – be it bhakti or sufi – is a living testament to this obsession. If you listen to saqia aur pila, for example, you will realise that the poet is not talking about alcohol, but the high from loving god.

For, Meera – Krishna was her true husband – the man she married as a young child. Chaitanya saw himself as Radha and the gopis who performed the Raas Leela with Krishna; Aandal was so in love with Ranganatha that, it is said, that the Lord absorbs her as his bride; Jayadeva, it is said, has Krishna come by to finish his poetry.

In a way, Jayadeva began the bhaktification – if one can call it that – of Hinduis, a good two centuries before the rest of them, north of the Vindhyas. His work took away faith from the hands of the priests and put the individual at the centre of the relation with God.

I grew up listening to Jayadeva’s works in bits and pieces – primarily as Carnatic Music . The ashtapadis – or 8 line verses – are fairly popular in Carnatic music ; but i have never heard the Geeta Govinda in the Hindustani Classical style.

Here is M.S.Subhalakshmi in ragamalika singing the dashavatara that forms the prelude the Geetagovinda

And, here is a different take. the music is better than teh video. Geeta Dutt and Hemant Kumar in Ananda Math – a fabulous rendition of the Dashavatar .

if you know of others drop me a line.

Apr 252009

…. i realised when i was looking through my Flickr Stream, that i have more than a fair share of photographs of places of worship, of emblems of faith. Here are some of my favorites :


The Brahma temple at Pushkar is a rarity – legend claims that it is the only Brahma temple in Hindudom – though i have been to one in the South as well. It is said that Brahma – the creator of the universe, committed a great sin. And, he prayed to the greatest of all Gods – the God that Gods worship – Mahadeva to expunge his sins. And there by the lord’s grace sprung a lake – that washes off all sins. People come here from everywhere to pray for the soul of loved ones, who are no more.

The Worshipper
Mendicant outside the Kizhaperumpallam temple

Orange, the colour of sacrifice. For many of us, a person wearing orange is a charlatan who uses religious symbols to get us to part with our money. but, in many temple towns – the sanyasis and sanyasins – those who have renounced the world – are just that. You wish to give, you do. You don’t – you don’t. they just sit there and see the world go by.

the smiling sadhvi

Lighting the Lamp

What i find fascinating about relgiion is not the great edifices or the theology or the arguments for and against, but faith. Pure and simple faith. The fact that people believe that there exists a set of supreme beings who watch out for them. And, in many of my travels what refreshes me is not the fact that devotees reach out with fear to their God, but love and adoration. And, it is this faith that sustains ….

Feb 112008

Today is [tag]Basant Panchami[/tag] – the day traditionally marked as the first day of spring. It is that period of time when the world is so very beautiful, that love blooms…..

Good Morning, Sunshine....

The [tag]Siva Mahapuran[/tag] describes the first day of spring as the time when the God of Love [tag]Kamdev[/tag] shoots his passion filled darts at Shankara – the Great God of the Universe – to get him to break his meditation and notice Parvati, for legend had it – even the Gods had legends – that if the Lord of the Universe does not meet Devi – the mother of the Universe … there can be no life at all……Never mind that the God of the Universe opened his third eye and burnt Kamdev to embers….the process began. Shiva and Parvati are soon united, and Kamdev himself is revived, so that the universe can thrive..

In the North of India this is also the time when Saraswati is venerated and children are taught to read and write for the first time. NS tells me that in Assam – everyone is clad in yellow – including little girls wearing the yellow mekla…. celebrating the spring festival. In Mumbai too, the local temple was adorned with yellow and orange flowers … making one’s heart bloom
Spring is Here.....
This morning I have been listening to Raga Basant… sung by [tag]Veena Sahasrabudhe[/tag] and it is a trip… I hope that spring means that the cold wave that we have been facing goes away… soon.

Update : Check out [tag]Pandit Jasraj[/tag] singing raga Basant … Aur Raag Bane Baarati… Dulha Raag Basant…

For all the readers of this blog, a happy spring festival… and may there be peace and love in your lives….