|Such is the magic of India, more so its women, that I want my friends from Pakistan to experience. - AP|
WHEN unforgivable events happen in India such as the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 or the massacre of innocent Sikhs in 1984 and the Gujarat pogrom of Muslims in 2002, they fortify the ideological underpinnings behind religious separatism, which resulted, for example, in Pakistan. Of course Pakistan`s detractors in India, on the other hand, are only too happy to exude perverse glee at the catastrophic challenge it faces today from Muslim zealots. You wanted a country for Muslims, now take that, they say mockingly.
I want to put light on a clutch of events from last week, all involving women of amazing brilliance and grit which made me miss some of my Pakistani friends - in the sense that I wished they were here in Delhi to share and savour the pleasures, the insights and the hope that ever so often spring up from the deep recesses of India. Let me start with a lecture on history and heritage Prof Romila Thapar gave on Saturday. You don`t get to hear Prof Thapar often these days, so it was a rare treat. She began with what is almost an invocation with her Since the present is rooted in the past, the most reliable way to understand the present is by a better understanding of the past. She must have been very young when Gandhi and Jinnah and Nehru, all influenced by the rudimentary if erratic historiography available to them, had embarked on the interpretation of their past to decide the future of the subcontinent. Apart from the colonial nonsense about India`s past the leaders had inherited, Allama Iqbal too had promoted a static view of Indian civilisation, which Indian leaders have been parroting ever since. Greece, Egypt and Rome the great civilisations that they were had disappeared with the passage of time, the learned poet mused. But India was different. It had survived centuries of adversities.
In a second Prof Thapar put the questioner at ease. The Harrappan civilisation had disappeared completely and so had others that once straddled southern or northern India. So what are we talking about? Moreover, the concept of civilisations is a relatively new entrant. I checked that out separately. Oddly enough the word `civilisation` only came into existence in the 18th century.
Is there for example an Indian civilisation? There are at least two essential Indias. One is humid, with copious rainfall, lakes, marshes, forests and jungles, aquatic plants and flowers the land of people with dark skins. In sharp contrast, is the other India. The India of the Indo-Gangetic plain, plus the Deccan plateau the home of the lighter skinned, many of them warlike. Gandhi is once supposed to have been asked what he thought of Western Civilisation. `It`s a very good idea,` he retorted. Aside from the spurious or factual quotation, there is, in fact, no such thing as Western Civilisation. That notion or term is entirely a Cold War construct. Russia is as much a part of Western Civilisation as is Germany. East and West Germany were reunited, as it were, in the twinkling of an eye proving that East was also West.
So next time when some corny peace delegation comes calling to celebrate the civilisational unity of India and Pakistan, or boasting that India and Pakistan are two separate civilisations, you know how to change the subject. There is an abiding commonality in the Punjab and Bengal, but if you stretch it to Balochistan and Nagaland, you are wasting your time. I do not know if Prof Thapar would agree with my perorations. She made a few other important points of vital use to those grappling with the dominant mythology of a golden period from our past but I have to move on to other events involving Indian women last week.
A few years ago, anti-terrorist police killed two unarmed men in Delhi`s Ansal Plaza shopping complex. Last week I met Dr Hari Krishna, in his late 60s, who witnessed the encounter. He has slapped the police with a case of cold-blooded murder of unarmed, innocent men. Dr Krishna is a god-fearing Hindu and the men who were killed were Muslim. He is a homoeopath who treats cancer patients and claims good results. The police say he is a quack. But he was still a witness and that is what counts. The courts have accepted his plea to file the case. Dr Krishna is fighting the case alone. His wife is the only one standing by him. `They are like our children. They should have the protection of law,` she told him encouragingly.
I can tell you, India has no dearth of Dr Krishnas. You only have to seek them out. He was talking last week to a group of students at Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi in the company of writer Arundhati Roy and Manisha Sethi, a woman teacher at the university who has helped prepare an independent report on what is known as the Batla House encounter, which took place not far from the campus. `When people asked me in America where do you live, I said I live near Jamia. They said `oh! that great Jamia University`. And here these people are trying to paint this campus as a den of terrorists,` Dr Krishna said, wiping tears that just wouldn`t stop welling up.
The Batla House encounter followed a spate of bomb blasts in Delhi in September last year. The police officer that led the assault, in which two Muslim students were killed, was also shot and there are questions about how that happened. Any way the policeman was decorated with a gallantry award. Manisha and Arundhati have punched holes in the police theory, as have scores of lawyers, journalists and teachers among others. But the government has so far refused to order a judicial probe. It`s not clear whether the report is now available on the web.
It was the anniversary of the Gujarat violence on Saturday. Who all have been working hardest to expose the truth there and also to provide legal support to the victims? Dozens of women come to mind, not the least tenacious among them being Teesta Setalvad and Shabnam Hashmi. And now film actor Nandita Das tells me that her feature film `Firaaq` about the Gujarat tragedy is finally due to be released on March 20. The courageous film has won several awards, a prestigious one being at the Kara Film Festival. It`s a complex story of Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat trying to get on with life after the traumatic events. I saw it at a private screening in Delhi. Dipti Naval`s portrayal of a Gujarati Hindu housewife has a haunting quality about it. Naseeruddin Shah plays an ageing Muslim musician who is besotted with the 14th century poetry of Wali Gujrati (also known as Wali Dakhani). He is so absorbed in his syncretic world that he refuses to accept the news of the violence that his servant regularly follows on TV.
`Kucha-e-yaar ain Kaasi hai, Jogiy-e-dil wahin ka baasi hai`. (The sacred city of Kaashi is where my beloved lives. My grieving heart belongs there.) Wali`s lines recited by Naseeuruddin are pivotal in the movie.
Nandita Das is half Gujrati. Urdu is not her mother tongue but you can`t tell that from the script. She has amazing grit and intellectual integrity. There was another aspect of India that I saw last week, and no Indian or Pakistani is likely to experience it ever again. You missed seeing more than a dozen Buddhist nuns from Ladakh in Delhi last week. Their singing of ancient chants in unison was truly magical. But anybody can go to Ladakh and, with a little bit of luck, see them singing there too. What I saw was truly unique. The Buddhist nuns were swaying to the music of the legendary Sufi singers of Allepo, an ensemble of musicians rooted in Islamic mysticism from Syria. They made the swirling dervish amidst them look passé. Such is the magic of India, more so its women, that I want my friends from Pakistan to experience. I consider them more rewarding than the seminars and discussions about peace that we have been having since time immemorial.