The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- Who presumes to tell us, now of all times, to feel good about India'

Let me confess: I too have been held in thrall by the sight of our flag being hoisted high into a sunlit sky, accompanied by the sound of children’s voices raised in unison. As a school-going child, this sudden and embarrassing choking in the throat took place at that most prosaic of settings, the morning school-assembly. Minutes later, the poetic moment would fall to the school grounds with a thud. A terrible speechifying adult had begun to tell us all about it. Even a child recognizes the inanity of a formula-based call to love after you have experienced a moment of love.

And she shakes it off instantly, just as she has sensibly rejected the civics textbook that makes dull fantasy out of exciting reality. When I recently heard the new patriotic slogans cooked up in some professionally-lying advertising agency, I felt a twinge of nostalgia for those school assemblies. India shining! The feel-good factor! Who presumes to tell us, real people living in an only too real country, that India is shining or that we “feel good” — now of all times' Advertisements, slogans heralding elections, slick packaging and syrupy sweet-nothings: no one takes these seriously. Or so we hope, because if a lie is told often enough...

But suppose we pretend that the big issues, the weighty arguments, can be pushed into the background for a minute. Suppose we pretend that Ayodhya and the Gujarat genocide and minority-bashing and atrocities against Dalits and Enron economics can all be briefly forgotten. And in this reprieve from the present, we travel to a more amorphous country — the times and places where some image of India, shining or not so shining, etched itself on to our memories forever.

In one such glimmer of a memory, I am ten years old. I was ten years old, and my dearest friend in the world — the world being a small strip by the sea in Bombay — was Fatima. Fatima lived in the building across the narrow road, and every evening life began with one of us calling out to the other from the balcony, “Coming to play'” All through the years of growing up, a couple of pillar-like certainties propped up our safe little world. Two of them come back to me sharper than any well-made ad. One was that, twice a week, both Fatima and I had to go home well before it got dark. (This was before tuitions and tennis lessons became the stuff of middle-class life.) Fatima had her Quran-reading lesson; I had my Carnatic music lesson. We never talked about our lessons to each other because we did not need to: so well did we know that they were pretty much the same.

All we needed to do was grimace at each other in understanding, and move resigned feet up our respective staircases. The second pillar was an annual event. Fatima had lunch with us on Diwali day; I went to her home for tea on Id. These occasions that we enjoyed so much were not formal, or ostentatiously festive. But although murukku and samosas taste different, there was, it now seems to me, an astonishing similarity in the way the two festivals were celebrated. There must have been some adult management of food — both lunch and tea were vegetarian — but we children knew nothing of it. The adults stayed in their place, the background.

Did we wear our gods more easily' Or was it simply because we were children' I turned some of these memories over, searching for clues in a more recent India, in February 1993 to be exact. I had joined some friends who were making door-to-door visits in a South Delhi residential colony to talk about what had happened in Ayodhya, and about the rally the BJP planned to hold in Delhi. We met many people; the faces now blur one into the other. But there is one face I have not forgotten, a twisted face incapable of softening. There were two of us, but nothing we said would halt his flow of lurid fantasies about Muslims. (The lustful male predictably made up the favourite theme.) Finally, my friend suggested that we were all minorities in some sense or the other. She mentioned that she is Bengali and he launched into a tirade against them — all of them are lazy and most of them talk too much. She quickly added that she is married to a Tamilian. This made him even shrill- er: all Madrasis are cunning, Tamilians being the worst of them. What does that make my child, she asked indignantly, and we thought he would say lazy and cunning; but instead he set his large Alsatian (which had been waiting impatiently) on us. We held hands and scuttled down the stairs. Having failed to prove we were acceptable Indians, why should he talk to us about Hindus and Muslims'

I don’t know if Fatima still prays, not having seen her for thirty years; but I don’t. The real point is that we were taught to pray by people, not buildings, or even gods. Fatima had her Quran teacher, a soft-voiced wizened old woman. I had my bhagavatar, who would turn the music book to face him while he read The Times of India on his lap and I sang praises to Devi and Rama, and learnt to read Tamil upside-down.

Another scene from childhood, a tailpiece with a sad little moral. Like most from Hindu households, I grew up with some gods and goddesses hovering in the background. My undoubted favourite was Saraswati. We heard very few stories about her; I do not recall ever going to a “Saraswati temple.” But every year, each member of the family piled several books before a Ravi Verma sort of framed picture of Saraswati. I added my compass-box to my books in the vain hope that I would change from a word-type to an equation-type. On Saraswati puja morning, the whole family sat together, each of us quietly reading one of the books the goddess of learning had blessed overnight. The music teacher would then arrive, instruments would be tuned afresh, and each of us would learn a new song, usually in praise of Saraswati. I specifically remember a year when my mother explained the meaning of one of the phrases I had trouble singing with the right emotion.

The phrase praised, she said, the goddess’s beautiful breasts. The song remains one of those I still remember word for word. The Sambhaji Brigade “spokesman” recently said to the media that those who vandalized the Bhandarkar Research Institute in Pune are really “cultured, educated youth”. I presume they see themselves as Hindus who worship the Hindu pantheon, Saraswati included. My poor Saraswati! She now has vandanas sung to her by people who burn books, not read them, who claim to be her bodyguards, but who can see her only in clay and brick, who have never visited her country of knowledge — a country that does not always shine or make us feel good, but that belongs to every one of us.

Email This Page