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Missing humour in religion

September 09, 2010


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Sartaj, the impish waif, would double as house help and resident clown when one day my mother assigned him the onerous task of accompanying Zaheerun Bua to her first and only movie.

Zaheerun in her late 50s was her begum sahab's treasured cook and proved to be as pious a Muslim as she was illiterate. In fact, her cinema outing had a religious purpose.

The 90-minute film called Khaana-i-Khuda, or house of God, was a pioneering attempt in the 1970s to turn the joys of Haj into an audio-video spectacle for many lacking the wherewithal to make the prescribed journey. To Zaheerun, the film offered a chance to experience the mandated pilgrimage without having the basic ability to read the Quran.

In his late teens, Sartaj had worked as an errand boy for Mrs Puri in the Lucknow neighbourhood where he had masqueraded as a Hindu boy with the universally respected name of Gopal. It remains a mystery whether Mrs Puri gave him that name to pre-empt embarrassment with orthodox guests, or had Sartaj adopted a nom de guerre to ward off imminent unemployment.

When her husband was transferred to Delhi, Mrs Puri handed over Gopal to my mother's care. The fact that he was a Muslim boy was revealed years later when a marriage proposal arrived for Sartaj.

So off Zaheerun Bua went to watch Khana-i-Khuda at Ashok Talkies, a stuffy hall with poor ventilation located in the decaying former Shia bastion of old Lucknow. Sartaj loved the songs of leading ladies from the old Indian cinema and was least interested in a movie without music. As the lights were dimmed, Zaheerun covered her head in devout obeisance.

The first visual was a promotion for a popular frothy detergent. As soon the bubbles mushroomed on the screen, Sartaj poked Zaheerun in the ribs and whispered in mock Avadhi “Arrey dekh le aab-i-jamjam.” His reference to the holy water of Zam Zam was enough to send the cook into paroxysms of devout exultation.

Zaheerun has since passed away and Sartaj is nursing his bad knees. Their story continues to regale the family and the neighbourhood.

Religion without humour is a poisoned chalice. It has led to still smouldering ethnic wars and spawned entrenched prejudices with tragic consequences. Not without ironical help from secular technology, it has evolved into the cult of the suicide bomber. And it is a mistake to believe that the world has not had a duplicitous view of this.

When it liked them as suicidal missionaries it celebrated them as mujahideen. When they fell foul of the dominant global worldview they were condemned as jihadis. In an essential way mujahideen and jihadis not only share a common etymology but also the fickle attention span of their changing patrons.

It was not too long ago that Muslim poets and men of letters were open and casually normal about religion. Ghalib defined his creed as half Muslim — he drank wine but didn't eat pork. Would he have survived in today's Iran or Saudi Arabia, or even India and Pakistan much less Afghanistan?

Allama Iqbal is celebrated as a great Muslim thinker. Sample his views on the Muslim clerics he loathed in the widely quoted verse “Main bhi haazir tha wahaan zabt-i-sukhan kar na saka, haq se jab Hazrat-i-mulla ko mila izn-i-behisht....” When God awarded the cleric his promised place in paradise, Iqbal mocked the decision and wondered if the religious bigot would be able to savour the Bacchus-like feast arranged for the humourless mullah.

“Di muezzin ne shab-i-wasl azaan pichchli raat, Hai kambakht ko kis waqt khuda yaad aaya.” It was Muslim rule in Delhi when Daagh Dehalvi wrote the verse without any fear of reprisal. I have grown up with Hindu boys for whom Ram Lila — a folk theatre form, which celebrates the exiled god's journey home — was all about ribald dialogues. Writer Khushwant Singh must have earned millions publishing collections of Sikh jokes. After 1984 something has changed. That was when thousands of Sikhs were slaughtered on the streets of Delhi.

There is no dearth of Jewish jokes on Jewish websites. Some Christian scholars are seriously pursuing the nagging doubt whether Jesus was in fact a woman. They are chided by the church but hardly ever threatened. Therefore, there is hardly anything seriously worrying about an insane hate-monger in Florida who might want to burn the holy book of a rival religion. Such people need psychiatric help not televised political denunciations.

“I am heartened by the clear, unequivocal condemnation of this disrespectful, disgraceful act that has come from American religious leaders of all faiths, from evangelical Christians to Jewish rabbis, as well as secular US leaders and opinion-makers,” declaimed Hillary Clinton after an obviously hallucinating Florida pastor was condemned by everybody for his threat to burn the Quran.

“Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. Many of you know that in 1790, George Washington wrote to a synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, that this country will give 'to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance',” the US secretary of state asserted. Gen David Petraeus, the US commander in Afghanistan was more practical. He expressed the fear that the sacrilege could ignite violence against American troops in Kabul.

Clinton and Petraeus might wish to focus with greater sincerity on a policy for a quick exit from Afghanistan and Iraq, as opposed to pitching themselves as saviours of beleaguered Muslims. At present, given the brouhaha over a proposed Islamic centre near ground zero in New York, there is room for a nagging suspicion that both the Florida event and the proposed monument to American secularism are handy tools for the Obama administration to appear more agreeable at home than it ever could be abroad ahead of US Senate polls.

Sartaj and Zaheerun Bua were both Muslims. They could sort out their own differences, or not sort them out ever. It's their business. If the world wants to do Muslims or any other group a favour it should think of a strategy to make ordinary people in places like Afghanistan laugh and smile, not invade their countries in a deviously insatiable quest to usher their controversial version of democracy or development.

What would help the world become less condescending towards those it claims to comfort is the knowledge that before foreign troops pillaged Afghanistan Pathans could tell a good Pathan joke. How many of those jokes does President Obama know? A good one from him can make all the difference this Eid.

The writer is Dawn's correspondent in Delhi.