Thursday, February 21, 2013 5 comments

The “Religious” Indian

I remember my first visit to the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in 1993. It was early morning . I was filled with peace as I made my way to the Mother’s Samadhi.  The silence around the Samadhi ,I realized soon enough  was very deceptive- there were atleast a the  dozen  or so people, sitting around with their eyes closed and praying. The flower decorations were some of the most beautiful arrangements I have ever seen!  No body spoke and  the tranquility seeped quietly into our senses awakening inner consciousness.

I went there again after a few years with my parents.  I wanted to share with them the beauty of the place.  But their reaction to this ambience was very different from mine. While my father was more interested in the attached bookstore selling the Ashram publications, my mother seemed almost uncomfortable with the silence and the complete lack of “having anything to do” around the Samadhi. She was relieved only when we left the place. Her complaint about the lack of a feeling of “holiness” made me take them to a Ganesha temple nearby. A  medium sized South Indian temple, it was rather crowded with people jostling around to get a proper look at the idol,  Amma , I knew felt  good as she rang the bell , did her pradakshina, her namaskarams all the while chanting sholkas under  her breath. She was beaming as the priest gave her a piece of  the garland from around the idol’s neck which she dutifully cut into two passing me one while she tucked the other bit into her hair.  I was happy that she was happy .

I remember a third visit to the Mother’s Samadhi a few months ago. A busload of people alighted outside the gates of the Samadhi. Out of the bus emerged women in brightly colored saris with flowers in their hair , men in veshtis and children in pavadais. Obviously, from a rural area, these people seemed baffled as they entered the area around the Samadhi. There was an elderly gentleman from the Ashram who was behaving like a school headmaster asking them to be silent and not touch the flower arrangement on the Samadhi. Someone’s mobile in the group rang loudly playing a popular Tamil film tune as people sitting quietly around the Samadhi opened their eyes  looking for the source of the sound. A lady from the Ashram glared at the offender and pointed to a sign board that said “please switch off or put your mobile phones on silent mode” .

Whenever I think of these incidents I am left very confused. I do not mean to disrespect the Aurobindo Ashram or its philosophy .  But I can also empathize with people who do not relate to this form of religion.  What then, constitutes religion for the average Indian?  Or let me put it differently- what are people looking for when  they want to experience religion?  What do they mean by prayer?

Let us look at a typical temple. There are certain set rules about what you do when you enter it ( with minor regional variations ). You leave your slippers outside, you buy your Archana ticket ( or you get yourself a panda/pandit if you are in northern India), you sometimes join a queue if the temple is very crowded. You hand over your puja plate to the priest, state your credentials ( name, star, gotra etc) , push others to get a better view of the god, move your hand over the karpoora arati and touch it over your eyes, extend your hand out for tirtham and bow down to get the “jatari”. You receive your puja plate and/ or vibhuti/ kumkum and then stroll around doing your pradakshina ,work out which way  is east after which you bow down and do your namaskaram. All the while, you keep up your chitchat about mundane things with your companions and if you run into your friends or relatives  you exclaim loudly with pleasure- your voice unnoticeable in the general din that prevails.  

Is this peculiar to temples?  Take for example the shrine “Velankanni” in Nagapattinam.  While Christianity has a very prescribed form of worship ( with variations depending on the  sect) the Velankkanni shrine is very different. The ambience is almost similar to the temple scenario mentioned earlier.  People buy candles and garlands and offer them.  If it is the Velankanni shrine in Chennai there are opportunities for people to touch a glass covered statue of the Virgin Mary, rest their heads against it and pray. Of course, one would have to stand in a queue for that but people obviously have a lot of patience when it comes to religion.

Some staunch Christians say that such behavior is outside the prescribed tenets of their religion. Agreed!  In a country where noise gives  people comfort, a silent cathedral would probably scare them! It is not just religion but also culture that people practice in places of worship. In a polytheistic culture, the Virgin is probably seen as yet another goddess. The Catholic faith, I must say has been most inclusive in this regard allowing people to express their culture through rituals that they are comfortable with.

But are rituals  in themselves religion? No! . However, it is these rituals that make something as abstract as religion come alive for the average person in our country – a person who is not very educated and for whom that occasional family outing consists of going to a place of worship, dressed in their best , asking god to bestow on them some blessings and then coming out to do a bit of shopping in the shops around the temple/church, have a meal  before getting back home. 

While the mindless adherence to rituals may be annoying the faith behind their adherence is what drives the power that is called “religion”! It is what gives  people their  identity- tells them who they are which in turn gives them a feeling of confidence. No wonder, the average person  gets bored sitting around Samadhis trying to chant “Aum”. We may  not understand a word of those “sahasranams” that we chant but we feel good when we have finished chanting them.  Task completion is an essential part of connecting  with a power that we mortals do not or may not understand  easily.

The Bhakti movement in the medieval period sought to bring “God” closer to the common man . Bhakti saints used the medium of music to connect with God and almost succeeded in doing away with caste based religious intermediation. We may be a secular county but religion is very closely interwoven into our cultural fabric. It is very much in the public arena and not a private matter of the citizens.   But unfortunately, we have not been able to positively leverage this force of mainstream religious culture for public good  . All that we seem to have succeeded in is using the concept of religious identity to define “the other” – an excuse for spreading hatred ! And hatred as we all know,  is not part of anyone’s culture!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 13 comments


Remember the  lines – “ Yaar mera khusboo ki tarah, jiski zuban Urdu ki tarah” from the song “Chhaiya Chhaiya”  in the Mani Ratnam film Dil Se? (Yes, it is the same song where you see SRK and Malaika dancing atop a train .) Roughly translated, the words mean – “ My beloved is like a fragrance, a person whose language is like Urdu” . While, not discounting the sweetness of every language when spoken or written to convey love, Urdu has its own special flavor.
Though I can speak five Indian languages and can read and write three of them, Urdu is a language that I have always yearned to learn. My introduction to this beautiful language was through the medium of music – Hindi film songs and later ghazals!  Probably the reason why I associate it with love and romance….

If we look at the meaning of the word “Urdu” it is of Turkish origin meaning  ‘camp’ or ‘army’. It is often referred to as “Lashkari Zuban” or the language of the army. A language that was born in  our subcontinent ,it is a mixture of Persian, Turkish, Arabic and the local Hindi dialects.  However,  the British used it as an effective tool to spread the communal divide resulting in the language being associated with Muslims.
The court usage of the language continues to dominate its form making it one of the most formal languages that I have ever heard! I firmly believe that it would be difficult to abuse a person in Urdu! Ofcourse, Hyderabadis in Deccan claim that it has a number of crude words. But if you look closely, what passes for “Urdu” in the Deccan is nothing but a F2 hybrid – of Urdu and South Indian languages  which is popularly known as Deccani! An exact opposite of its illustrious ancestor, Deccani is very informal, loaded with slangs and spoken in a sing song fashion in the style of south Indian languages.

But coming back to Urdu, I find that it is a language that is fast disappearing from the public space. There used to be a time when some of the best songs in the Indian film industry were loaded with Urdu words.  Words like “Amanat” , “ Qayamat”, “Mohobbat” , “Ishq”,”Majboor”  rolled over our tongues effortlessly as we sang all these songs in our “Antashari” ( a game that we used to play where we had to sing songs beginning with the last letter of the words of the previous song) times.  Lyricists like  Sahir Ludhianvi, and Gulzar kept our vocabulary alive with new words. We used to try them out in our Hindi compositions  and exasperate our Hindi teacher who probably felt that they were too flowery for school level compositions. Besides, being a Sanskrit scholar she definitely felt more partial to the Government of India style Hindi, making us making us replace “Majboor” with “Vivash” or “Lachaar”  in all our formal letters. But despite all that we loved the allegories to “Shama –parwana”  ( shama stands for flame while parwana is moth. Just as a moth is attracted to the flame resulting in its destruction so is a lover often destroyed in love) , “Ishq aur Husn” ( love and beauty)
I experienced the complete fragrance of this language as I spent one month doing an internship in Lucknow during my college days. While I knew that everyone was always addressed as “Aap” in Urdu ( including kids), what was surprising was that the third person was never used while referring to a someone in their presence. For e.g one would never say “ Inko wahan le jaiye”. They would say “Aapko wahan le jaiye”.  When I got back to my college in Bombay, I felt that I was among barbarians. Bombay Hindi in the best of times sounds harsh-after Lucknow it was unbearable!

Today I find a void in the language arena of the Bollywood industry as lyrics are increasing using Bombay slangs and Punjabi words. No, I have nothing against Punjabi  words but these words that populate the lyrics do not convey the depth of the meaning that the old Urdu words used to. They sound harsh and very primeval.
I am told that there is a general deterioration of the lyrics of film songs these days. While they seem to be including words that are considered more “rustic” and “folksy” they are not able to retain the beauty of folk tradition in them. When they migrate into the land of the big screen they seem to be losing the flavor that they held.

I also think there is a general deterioration of the way love is expressed these days through lyrics. It is no  longer  poetic , appealing to one’s emotions but more physical appealing to the baser instincts. And probably one no longer celebrates the pain of love these days as lovers are more aggressive getting what they want. The moth no longer flies in the path of self destruction towards the flame. One can see the quest for survival in these new times even among the established lyricists like Gulzar who have started  penning songs like  Bidi Jalaile and “Kajrare” ..!

Before you feel that I am indulging in a lot of stereotyping Urdu as the language of romance, let me also tell you that this is also the language in which some of the very revolutionary literary works have been penned.  Ismat Chughtai and Sadat Hasan Manto are some of the Urdu writers whose works have been far ahead of their times. Ismat Chugtai described for the first time , female homosexuality in her short story “Lihaf” ( quilt) during the pre independence days. She was also prosecuted for pornography. People were shocked that “a woman” could write like that! There you see.. goes the image of a hijab clad female speaking this tongue through a veil!

Like any rich language it is also a very strong and effective language for political conscientization. Those of you who have heard the songs of Safdar Hashmi of the Jan Natya Manch will agree with me.  
I am disgusted with the increasing communal association of Urdu. We do not seem to have moved ahead from those pre independence days. There are some people who actually think the Koran is written in Urdu!!! I also find that these days the Hindi film titles aren’t shown in Urdu like they used to during my childhood! Why this victimization I wonder..? Bus boards in my home town Hyderabad no longer have them in Urdu though Andhra Pradesh does indicate Urdu as one of its official languages. I hope we will not have a situation where the language will start being referred to as language of “minorities” because folks – that it is definitely not! It might be the national language of Pakistan but it is also one our languages!

  I remember meeting a lady from Pakistan when I was doing a course in Canada. Being from the same region we started conversing in what I considered was Hindi and what she thought was Urdu and became the best of pals during our one month stay there. We even sang the same song during the valedictory function –“Chalte Chalte”. She had the lyrics written in the Persian / Arabic script and me in Devnagri. I can only conclude by saying that Urdu unlike Sanskrit or Tamil may not be a root language or a classical one,  but it is like sugar that has seeped into many of our north Indian languages making  them sweeter and stronger in their expression.
( Sorry folks for this long silence! And I  must say I am touched by the mails I have received from some of you asking about this) No particular reason - Just writer's block )