There are Hindus and Hindus

04 Aug 2020


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

STREAMS of cultural and religious mingling in the family found me looking after a kindly Saraswat Brahmin in his last days. I had brought the friend from his Mumbai home to Delhi after he was diagnosed with a galloping brain tumour. It gave him just four or five months.

In his mid-70s, Bhau was a much-loved people’s doctor who taught pharmacology and practised alternate medicine at a leading medical college in Mumbai. Now, meaning some five years ago, he himself needed hands on care and I offered to organise it at home. When he passed away after four months that were filled with absorbing memories and natya sangeet — a dazzling range of raga-based theatre music that Ustad Karim Khan and Ustad Alladiya Khan embraced and taught their Maharashtrian disciples — I realised I had to perform Bhau’s last rites.

There are secular and religious routes to cremation in predominantly Hindu India but only a religious one curiously for burial. Foremost rationalist that he was, Vladimir Lenin would have to choose between a Christian or Muslim or Jewish service, were he to cop it in India. On the other hand, he could be cremated with a rousing clenched-fisted red salute, a bonus being no mediation by pesky priests.

Bhau’s sister joined the cremation, and asked me to perform the Hindu rites. One was used to friends of every ideological stripe being seen off without a priest’s involvement. The sister’s insistence on a religious farewell made it somewhat complicated for me. I told her to no avail about the legendary theatre diva Zohra Sehgal who was given a heart-tugging farewell at the same place through a scrupulously non-religious route. She was so certain of the dead end here and now that she instructed her family to collect her ashes, only if they were determined to, but then they should flush it down the tube.

Mixing religion with politics in India has led to communal violence, banning of books, subversion of secular laws, and hollowing out of justice.

Bhau was a Sanatani Hindu, as Gandhi and also his Hindutva killers were, but the priests offered an easier passage. If we chose the Arya Samaji way it would be quicker with little ritual. Arya Samajis, like the erstwhile Brahmo Samajis of Bengal oppose idol worship while still having serious ideological differences. The priest and the sister insisted, and I poured water around the body, smashed the earthen pitcher and bowed in reverence to the departed soul.

One thought of journalist Praful Bidwai who was cremated here to the music of Mallikarjun Mansur’s Raag Yamani Bilawal, Kith ve gae logowa; where have the beautiful souls gone, so goes the khayal. Safdar Hashmi and both his parents were given a clenched-fisted send-off at the Delhi crematorium.

Religion and traditions are meant to see us through the mortal life, not to obstruct its passage. Hindutva has hijacked both with a cynical purpose. There’s a scene in Akhtar Mirza’s Naya Daur, a movie from the 1950s, in which the villain surreptitiously plants the idol of a Hindu deity on the path of a proposed road the villagers were building pro bono, and which he opposed. During the digging the villagers found the idol, and Dilip Kumar the hero saw it as a ploy to retard their good work. Gullible villagers however decided to take a more tortuous route, an example of how politics thrives on blind faith. After destroying secular Palestinians, Iraqis and Syrians, they create religious extremists, and declare this was the nature of Islam.

Mixing religion with politics in India has led to communal violence, banning of books, subversion of secular laws, and hollowing out of justice.

I had stopped going to the movies when standing up for the national anthem became mandatory under Hindutva’s watch. My decision was a way of respecting Rabindranath Tagore, author of the Indian anthem, not unlike legendary sarod maestro Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan refusing any recording of his music. “They will play it at paan shops,” he would protest. One has removed the treasure trove of expletives that accompanied the refusal. The great vocalist Bhimsen Joshi counted Khan Saahab, father of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, among his revered gurus.

On one occasion in the cinema hall, self-righteous goons beat up a physically challenged person who wasn’t able to get up from his wheelchair for the national anthem. What is less known is that people who made the standing mandatory before the screening of movies harbour nothing but contempt for Tagore and his progressive work against blind faith. The Nobel laureate is revered in Bangladesh, where one of his immortal songs is the national anthem, and he is loved in Sri Lanka for inspiring their Sinhalese anthem, Namo Namo Mata, easily the most lilting composition among the world’s national songs. For all this and more, right-wing Hindus want to remove Tagore’s works from school and university syllabuses.

How does the state-induced ascent of ignorance or the suspension of human fellowship, say in Kashmir since a year to the day, play out in Tagore’s vision for India he spelled out in the poems of Gitanjali? “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free. Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls … Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit … Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.”

Talking of a clear stream of reason, Hindutva enthusiasts would have dispatched Tagore to the fate meted out to Gauri Lankesh and her comrades for rejecting ignorance, which Indians have been doing since ancient times. This was the land of the Charavakas after all, who challenged Brahminical ritualism with the power of reason and logic. They too were Hindus, though the word was coined much later, Hindus who would find the current order primed to crumble under the weight of its own cultivated ignorance.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2020