Fish out of another water

A Rabindrapremi in Bundelkhand

Saugor, Madhya Pradesh, 18 February 2001

I am uneasy at heart when I have to leave my accustomed shelter, I forget that there abides the old in the new, and that there also thou abidest.

Rabindranath Tagore

How do I describe myself? I was born a Pakistani, in the plateaus of the North West Frontier Province, to parents who had bid, during the Partition, a heart-rending adieu to their childhood playgrounds in the cosmopolitan city of Calcutta to build life anew in the deltaic plains of East Bengal. My childhood I spent in the young city of Dhaka, imbibing from my parents their immense passion for Truth and Beauty. Music and Rabindranath were a part of our lives. Adolescence is stark memories ablaze with our fiery uprising to build a dream that was called Sonar Bangla. Then came our encounters with harsh reality, and the arduous task of building our lives and our nation.

Today, I sit in this faraway land set in the hills of Bundelkhand, among people who speak in a slightly unfamiliar but lilting, musical tongue who look askance at my preference for chawal, day in and day out, to their staple of roti. To their slightly bewildered questions, I answer, "I'm here on a quest, looking for answers." They look on fondly whenever I sing out aloud to myself, and say, "Madamko Rabindrasangeet bawhot hi sohani lagat hai, Rabindrapremi hai." They listen to my Rabindrasangeet and I am thrilled with the deliciously rhythmic Bundeli geets that they themselves so love. That then is what I am to them, and they to me. A Rabindrapremi among the music-loving Bundelis.

In this picturesque campus of Harisinghgour Visvavidyalaya set on a hill-top that overlooks a lake, I arouse a lot of curiosity. Almost the first question I am asked is, "Why Saugor?" I wanted to study the Natyasastra, but away from the fumes of a polluted city, someplace near books, not too large, not too small. Saugor fitted all my requirements; I fell in love with the peace and quiet of the HSGVV campus, and its well-stocked and well-maintained library. All along, inevitably, it is assumed by one and all that my mother tongue is Urdu. "Bangla? Are you a Hindu?" "No, but all Bangladeshis speak Bangla. No one even knows Urdu." I inform them that Urdu, in fact, is one of the state languages of India. That also evokes a lot of surprise among the students.

Of course they have all heard of Bangladesh—Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Taslima Nasreen—but the rest of the picture is hazy. I show them pictures of my daughter's wedding. They see the lal bindi, the chandan decorations on her forehead, her mehendi-dyed hands and the lal ghooghat, and say, "Arre, sajavat to ikdam hamare jaisehi hai!"

I enjoy telling my new friends all about our land of rivers. In this gravelly drought-stricken land, they smile in sympathy whenever my eyes turn wistful while I try to describe the wide, wide rivers that you encounter every few miles in Bangladesh. "Yes, it's the truth, we have great big ferry-boats which carry a dozen trucks at a time, to and fro, across the rivers." Here they know all about the Bengali's penchant for machli. However, Munna Bhaiya refuses to entertain such profane thoughts in his strictly vegetarian kitchen.

I have a lot to write home about. My letters were brightened by descriptions of the enchanting Ramlilas which provide colourful entertainment on the streets of Saugor during Deepavali. Dhakaites love to eat panipuri, which we call phuchka, but the chat mixture that's the favourite fast-food in the streets of Saugor, they are not familiar with.

So what else do I want to tell you about Bangladesh?

These last few decades my heart would shrink every time the papers reported on the growing aggression of Islamic jehadis. I could never correlate this brand of Islam with what I see being practised in all our private and public spheres of life. The family says its namaz, attends the Friday jamaat or congregation at the Masjid, and organises milad-mahfils for religious occasions. I myself have always enjoyed keeping the one-month roza or fast—this bit of austerity cannot but serve a worthy purpose. Yet, this is so far removed from pictures of  gun-wielding jehadis that the word itself seems alien. Then, a friend lent me Richard Eaton's Rise of Islam in the Frontiers of Bengal.  It seems, Islam in the Deltaic regions of  Bengal was spread not through the conquering armies but by the mystic Sufi saints who had dared to make homes for themselves in the jungles of the Sunderban. A gentler Islam… Now I understood myself a bit better. Ours is a land which gave birth to Lalon who sang:

"Shawb loke kawye Lalon ki jat shawngshare…"

(Everyone asks what birth-group (jat) has Lalan in this worldly life.

Fakir Lalon says, what form has jat? I have never seen it with my eyes…)

These mystic minstrels of Bengal will still begin their songs with a vandana to Allah, Rasul and Saraswati, all in one breath.

In spite of recent concerns of extraneous threats of religious activism and militancy, I believe that Bangladesh's most remarkable achievement has been our successful non-political popular movement against religion in politics. This has been the most effective in marginalising religious fundamentalists in electoral politics. Of course, we have our share of fatwabaazes but they are emphatically a minority. Taslima Nasreen is a much-admired writer in Bangladesh, and has evoked a great deal of spontaneous support for herself, against the insignificant group which announced a fatwa against her. However, Taslima's has been an individual's fight for feminist rights and she has never been a part of the grassroots women's movement which has played a significant role in Bangladesh. It is this movement that has given our women an electoral voice.

Then there have been programmes like micro-credit, immunisation and contraception, that have gained popularity through the combined efforts of ngo's, the public and private sector. This same cooperation helped us to competently handle the floods of 1998. Of course, we've had enough experience with calamities.

Yet, let me not flinch from admitting that we have a long, long way to go. Illegal migrations, cross-border smuggling, the porous border with our neighbours, especially India—which, by the way, works both ways— are a reality. But we'll talk about regional cooperation another day. Time we have plenty—to get to know each other, to learn from each other, to build bridges.

Aham Mussalman asmi

Saugor, Madhya Pradesh  27 February 2001

Having erected walls around my playground, I remained immersed in my solitary thoughts.It was only when you broke those boundaries and came in that my inhibitions dispersed.

Rabindranath Tagore

A group of us, in Dhaka, intermittently, run an organisation called Shadhona which we describe as a Centre for Advancement of Subcontinental Music, and my friend in Kathmandu runs Himal which is a South-Asian magazine. These are the little games we play with nomenclature. Well, the first thing I do when I start one of my lecture-demonstrations on classical music, for our young Bangladeshi participants, is to get them to identiify themselves as South Asian. I tell them that 'India' is not just a specific country, but a shared heritage that belongs to everyone living all the way from Pakistan to Bangladesh and from the Himalaya to Sri Lanka. Then we talk about Indian music, the Indian audience, the Indian aesthetic experience, etc.

Now to the Questions. Was the Buddha born in Nepal or India? Are the archaeological remains of Mohenjodaro in Pakistan, Dholavira in India and Shortugai in Afghanistan, part of the Indus Valley or the Saraswati Civilisation? Is the bandish, "Jago Mohana pyare" in Raga Bhairo, sung by almost all young shastriya sangeet students across the Subcontinent, part of the Bangladeshi or Indian classical music? Did the great rebel Bengali poet Nazrul Islam belong to Bangladesh? Is Urdu a Pakistani language?

These questions are in themselves delimiting, and make losers of all of us, South Asians, just by the asking.

Last May, by a quirk of fate, I spent 21 days with the RSS, participating in an Akhil Bharatiya Sanskrit Sambhashan-Shibir. Suffice it to say that it was an extremely interesting experience which I would certainly repeat given a chance, for various reasons not pertinent here. I must admit, though, that the overweening reaction on my part was one of deepest respect for the organisational capacity of the Sangh. The only time I felt compelled to put in a word, was when a senior RSS member from Delhi addressed the gathering at the penultimate session, and went on and on about Sanskrit being the heritage of the Hindus, and how it was the means for the renaissance of the Bharatiya Rashtra. After his address, quite admirably, I was granted permission to voice my opinion.

So, there was I among a 1000-strong crowd of RSS supporters, and going up to the mike to declare firmly: "Aham Bangladeshtaha agatavati. Aham mussalman asmi tathaiva. Sanskrit-bhasha mama eva paramparaya angsha asti." Then I proceeded to ask if the gentleman didn't think Muslims were part of this new swadeshi Indian state that they planned to build? I wracked my brain to ensure that I spoke each word in my newly acquired spoken Sanskrit. There was pin-drop silence, even while my heart was pounding loudly enough for everyone to hear, I thought. To his credit, however, the honourable gentlemen merely hesitated a second to clear his throat, before replying, "Behenji, mai jab Hindu samaj keh raha tha… (when I was saying Hindu samaj, I didn't just mean people of Hindu religion but everyone belonging to the Hindu parampara). What remains etched in my memory is the congratulatory smiles of my young fellow participants who had come from varied destinations like Pondicherry, Shimla, Ahmedabad, Ujjain and so on. After all, we had dismantled walls and became friends, hadn't we? If humans share an incredible 99.99 percent of genetic material, then these differences, potent as they are, are all in the mind, aren't they? But then how does one remove these barriers?

My father, whom I've always admired for his capacity for objectivity, writes and asks, "Has your search within the Hindu shastras shown you tolerance in their thoughts?" As I sit pensively, watching the sun setting over these gentle Bundelkhand hills, I am reminded of the Bauls of Bengal singing:

"Je thake shawmaj bondhone chalte hawy taake pawrer jnane…"

"Whoever remains within the confines of society has to proceed according to the judgement of others… You will not be liberated by others' knowledge; rather your own knowledge will be eroded…Raaj says, cast off the bonds of society, (and) the bonds of the world will (also) be severed."

But this is not only about tolerance. It is also about being able to exclude the subjective ethos in each other's beliefs to try and reach the wisdom within the conceptual structure of thoughts. It is about identifying the Truth inherent in all. Most of all, it is about making a sincere effort to break the barriers and build bridges. In a fine sentence, Tagore says, "Man is defeated when the authority inside him is curbed;" curbed by the externals of religion, by tradition and custom, by scripture and ritual. The onus today is on each one of us to take this one crucial step across an imagined lakshmanrekha, and participate in the exciting macrocosmic advance of human civilisation.

Isavasyam idam sarvam yat kim ca jagatyam jagat
Tena tyaktena bhunjitha, ma grdhah kasyasvid dhanam

Isa Upanisad 1.1

(Know that) all this, sentient and insentient, whatever moves in this moving world is enveloped by God.
Therefore find your enjoyment in renunciation; do not covet what belongs to others.

If what is in you is also in me, in the countless little street-children shivering in the cold, and in the sky and the ocean, and yet again in a wisp of grass or in the bird flying into the sunset, aren't we all then an equal part of the whole? Equals enjoined. Can we consciously ignore the shivering poverty of the child in the street? When we deface the Narmada or the Bamiyan Buddhas, do we not then deface a part of ourselves too? The next line of the sloka, however, has one of the most pragmatic pieces of advise. A beautiful commentary by Tagore reads as follows:

When our egos concentrate on the insignificant, it serves only to destroy unity. The part revolts thence against the whole. Thus has renunciation been advocated. However, this renunciation far from taking us towards an emptiness, is assuredly for the purpose of fulfillment. Renounce then the part to gain the whole, renounce the ephemeral for the eternal, ego for love, renounce worldly happiness for eternal bliss.

Tawpobon; Santiniketan Essays

A vibrant political culture needs public fora for cross-cultural dialogues, and a meaningful citizenry requires that people feel a connection to their fellow citizens. Today, forces inimical to such a people's participation in policy-making are constantly endeavouring to create conscious and sub-conscious barriers between the various strata of society.

Has South Asia not bled enough from this aapon-pawr, we-they, dichotomy? Have we not yet paid the price for this, several times over, with the blood of our loved ones? Will we let these deaths—each death—go in vain? Can we not join hands to renounce the part to gain the whole?

Vasanta Utsav

Saugor, Madhya Pradesh 7 March 2001

Did you think Vasanta was merely a festival of blooming flowers? Haven't you seen the drama of dry leaves and fallen blossoms?

Rabindranath Tagore

Yes, it is official. With the hills ablaze with pawlash and shimul blooms, it is officially Spring now.  So, today at dawn I took the morning off and walked around the hills. This, take my word for it, is absolutely astounding countryside. Of course, not the lush greenery of our Bengal, yet strikingly stunning. I love watching the horizon stretch all the way across these gentle hills surrounding the serene Saugor Lake. My heart brimmeth, as I revel in the soft dakshini vayu, the new leaves peeping out of bare branches, the pawlash trees, and the chirping of the birds. Let me share it with you. Just close your eyes and try and think of a vast canvas of sloping browns and bronzes interspersed with the ochre and crimsons of the blooms and then add the hesitant, youthful green of spring just arrived. Now I'll whiff a little bit of this fresh invigorating breeze towards you.

Drinking deeply off this fresh air, I think of myself sitting in my cramped room, among my dusty tomes trying to reach the Truth, while my garden lies unattended. Even amongst all this neglect, amused as if by such childish scorn, Vasanta brazenly beckons yet again, with the melody of its magic. For aeons together, every Phalgun at exactly this time, at exactly this hour, Vasanta brings its renewed offering of love. But do I hear? I am so full of myself that it behooves me not to submit. The pity is that I delude myself by presuming to think that I have not even the time to glance at it all.

At night as the bustle of the day subsides, I can hear the distant sounds of the dholak accompanying some crooner in the nearby village singing, "Sir bane mukut khele hori Radha-Krshna ki pyari jordi…" (Having dressed in their mukuts the loving pair of Radha and Krshna play Holi…)

My heart too wants to join in this revelry. But the sorrow is that my nagarik soul has long abandoned its primal instincts, and has forgotten how to celebrate. Entertainment has long sidelined my celebrations. Today, instead of joining hands in festivity with my brethren, I am part of an atomised society of disengaged individuals who get their joys from honing their competitive skills in the dreams of becoming a Krorepati.

And so just a hundred years ago, the visionary that he was, Rabindranath literally taught the young girls and boys in his newly formed academy to shed inhibitions, to dress in all their Vasanta finery and dance to the melodies of spring. Thus, till date, on the day of Holi, the young students in Santiniketan, normally stultified by their unnatural urban restraints, dance to the rhythm of nature, as man was in all intents and purposes made to—as does the peacock dance in the joy of a rainy day, and cuckoos coo on spring morns. On such a festival of colours, even St. Valentine would scorn at a six-by-four-inch piece of cardboard to declare one's love. Love itself is the presiding deity of Utsavs.

What after all is a 'Utsav?'

Rabindranath writes:
Truth that is daily fragmented into bits by the barrage of egotistical desires is resurrected in its entirety on these specials days of celebrations, or Utsavs—and so we need union on such days. Utsavs have no meaning in isolation. As long as we view this world as unrelated pieces, we fail to see the entire picture—then does each event, each part separately pound at our consciousness. We struggle within our limited perspectives, futilely intensifying our efforts and thus too our pains, devoid of joy. Thus we lack a sense of fulfillment in our daily endeavours, find no lasting satisfaction in them, cannot discern their ultimate worth, and lose track of the ragini or melody—Truth remains hidden. It is only in that auspicious moment, when we see the parts united into their whole, in that union only do we then realise Truth. And so, I say, Utsavs have no meaning in isolation. It is only in union that Truth is revealed—and realising Truth in the midst of this union is the true worth of an Utsav. The Truth that I try to understand rationally in my solitary meditations, is fully realised by me only when I stand in the midst, a part in the whole, of this wide world.

Can we unlearn age-old habits? Can Eid-ul-Azha again become a declaration of our willingness to sacrifice, and not a contest of who has led the largest offering to the slaughter? Can Dashhera be once again a celebration of Good against Evil and not about which neighbourhood has the biggest and finest Durga pratima? Can Christmas be about the observance of the wisdom which dawned that day on Earth in a shepherd's hut, and not about impoverishing oneself to buy gifts?

To Love and to celebrate this Love is what is the essence of Man; and Spring, they say, is the time to shed the dead and the dried. So, on one such spring morning, that ardent bard from Bengal beseeched Nataraja:

As rhythm arises from the heart of the Cosmic Dance,
Just so, before Thee leavest, bestir me and fare me well on my journey onwards,
Destroying the chains of my inhibitions.

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