Friday, October 31, 2014

The Moral Politics of Diwali

ek baras meiN ek baar hee jagti holi kee jwaala
  ek baar hee lagti baaji jalti deepoN kee maala
  duniya waaloN kintu kisi din aa madiraalay meiN dekho
  din meiN holi raat diwaali roz manaati madhushaala

 But once a year do the flames of Holi rise.
 But once is the dice rolled and the garlands of lamps lit.
 Yet, come to the tavern people of the world and behold,
 Where every day is Holi, a every night Diwali.

The verse above is extracted from the poem Madhushala penned by the celebrated Hindustani poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan. Drawing from the tropes of Islamic mysticism, while using the trope of alcohol, the tavern and worldly excess, the poem was in fact intended to be a mystical allusion to the exercise of finding truth in the world. 

Poor Bachchan, up in heaven, must probably be thanking his stars that he wrote the poem when he did, because he would have probably been at a loss to find the appropriate metaphors in a day and age when every day is treated as Holi and every night Diwali.

In an age of consumerist excess, especially in the urban world, we seem to have forgotten the meaning and the existence of the darkness of the night. The beauty of Diwali of yore was that the lamps that were lit could be read as an invitation to philosophical contemplation; a testament to the power of nature, the determination of the human being to overcome the challenges of nature, and an invitation to recognize that overwhelming nature made human existence itself bare.

Unfortunately, however, like so much of Hinduism, Diwali too is being held hostage by the forces of the Hindu right. I am referring in particular to a post from Dr.Subramanian Swamy that suggested that the pleas that Diwali be marked by a restrained use of fireworks was one more conspiracy against Hindus. His argument was that given that the larger amount of noxious gases are released by industries and automobiles, one should really not create a problem about the pollution caused by fireworks on a single day’s celebration.

As usual Swamy misses the point, that the point is not about the amount of pollution, but about the concentration of it in a single evening. If only the noise and smoke were restricted to a single evening though! Further, Swamy seems to not see that given the Diwali occurs just once a year, the fact of abjuring noise and smoke pollution would make a powerful symbol that would aid our tackling with other pollutions through the rest of the year.
Suggesting to some neighbours that we hold a Diwali celebration without fireworks, a neighbor responded “Diwali without fireworks is like Holi without colour or Christmas without Santa!” I was struck by the comment since, as Bachchan observed in his poem, Diwali was originally about the strings of lights, not of noise. What made her response odd was that Santa Claus can hardly be seen as integral to Christmas. Indeed, some Christians would argue that the problem is that the emphasis in our consumerist times has shifted from the infant Jesus to Santa Claus.

Given that this Christmas-is-about-Christ-not-Santa argument is often articulated by right-wing Christians, I am hesitant to endorse it totally. I endorse it only to the extent that despite the fact that Santa Claus is the tool through which Christmas has become more than just a Christian festival, it has also become the symbol of the consumerist excess that has demolished the potency of Christmas as a festival of hope and sharing.

A better example that one could give when arguing for a softer Diwali is that eschewing crackers would perhaps make it a more moral festival. It would assert celebrations that are based not on selfish pleasure and the assertion of privilege, but the assertion of a politics of justice. After all this is what the politics of Diwali is made out to be isn’t it? The politics of a just Diwali would be a politics that asserts that noisy crackers are a violence on those who are not bursting the crackers, those who are old and infirm. The abjuring of crackers would make a statement in favour of labour and against the perilous conditions, often endured by children, in which most crackers in India are produced.

The search for the morality in our celebrations of Diwali would perhaps also awaken us to the moral economy of the festival. This moral economy suggests that excess is best appreciated when it occurs as an aberration. A festival of lights loses relevance when our every night obliterates all form of natural darkness. A reference to nature would also suggest that it is against the background of nature that excess can be ideally judged. The moonless night (Amavasya) of the month of Kartik is held to be the darkest night of the year, and it against this darkness that the brave lights of Diwali shine forth. This could be argued to be the context of Diwali. Lose this context of darkness and one loses the meaning of the festival itself.

I have often thought that the lamps of Diwali offer a remarkable statement of bravery in the face of vulnerability, possibly from a recognition of the fact that those brave lights last only so long as their oil, and only as long the wind does not snuff them out. A shift of emphasis away from these oil (or wax) lamps, to electricity and noise shifts the emphasis away from resolute vulnerability to rude assertion. It is perhaps for this reason that members of the Hindu right would prefer that Diwali be celebrated with the violent assertions of noise and absolute assertion of masculine power over the softness of the autumn night.

Whichever way you choose to celebrate Diwali, however, Diwali Mubarak.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 31 October 2014)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Islamicate wonderlands: Amir Hamza and the destruction of the Tilism e Hindutva

Like thousands of middle class and urban persons of my generation who loved to read, my childhood was marked by a devouring of literature in the English language.  Especially through the works of Enid Blyto, I became familiar with the cultural worlds of the English. However, I also had access to the illustrated stories of Amar Chitra Katha. Through the tales of this publishing house I grew up to know the many narratives that populate the Puranas, the Hindu epics, and various episodes from subcontinental history. This reading grew in importance as I began to pick up on the subtle nationalist messages that form part of growing up in India. The message was that it was important to know our fables, stories and histories, not merely those from across the waters.

As I grew older, however, I realised that my knowledge of our narratives was rather curiously limited. While I could easily rattle off the genealogies of the Raghu Vamsha I did not have as deep a knowledge of similar religious traditions within the subcontinent. In time I realised that this was not a coincidence but a part of the way in which Indian nationalism is configured. Religious traditions of brahmanical Hinduism are constructed as national mythology, while other narratives and mythologies are cast as foreign. This is the basis of what one could call banal Hindutva.

For those who fear it, Hindutva is largely associated with the violence, whether it is overt violence, or violent posturing or assertion. This is just one part of Hindutva, however. Violent Hindutva is able to succeed and be condoned largely because it rests on the daily operation of banal Hindutva. This Hindutva ensures that by and large our references are from within the oeuvre of brahmanical tradition, or Indian nationalist interpretations of cultural traditions within the subcontinent. By depriving us of other referents, it is as if this Hindutva casts a spell where we are unable to imagine ways to challenge its operation.

On realising this I figured that one route to challenging the operation of banal Hindutva would rest on uncovering and popularising subcontinental narratives from outside the brahmanical tradition. One obvious place to go searching for these narratives was the subcontinent’s Islamicate tradition. From within this tradition, I ran into the Dastan e Amir Hamza a number of times, the first of which was a short version of the tale published by the Khudha Baksh Oriental Library. More recently, I had the opportunity to go through a more substantial translation of the text by Musharraf Ali Farooqi.

The dastan, or tale, is woven around the fantastic adventures of Hamza, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. In the course of his travels across a broad swathe of the globe, as well as other dimensions, Hamza battles kings in their kingdoms, sorcerers and their spells (tilism) and other supernatural creatures. While Hamza often converts noble adversaries to Islam after defeating them, the narrative itself is not a theological or religious discourse. Indeed, decorated with tales of magic, romance and cunning, I am given to believe that more pedantic Muslims would shirk away from the narrative as un-Islamic.

If the intention of exploring Islamicate wonderlands is to expose the Indian reader to a wider cultural landscape, then the dastan is a wonderful choice. I was delighted by the sheer geographic scale of the narrative, that casually incorporates Hind (the subcontinent of south Asia), Ceylon, Persia, Greece, China into the narrative. In many ways the dastan is true to Indian tradition in that it makes unselfconscious references to Alexander exploits.
While Alexander may have reached the limits of his adventures in the Punjab, his exploits fundamentally reordered the cultural universe of the world from that time. While the Persian empire was already a standard that even subcontinental monarchs looked up to, Alexander’s incursions made the cultural references of the subcontinent even more complex. That contemporary Indians are ignorant of these complex cultures is testament to the manner in which banal Hindutva has stripped our world of cultural diversity. A further testament to the Dastan’s richness is the manner in which narratives that one finds in the Ramayana, such as Rama’s breaking of Parashurama’s bow, also seem to emerge, albeit under modified circumstances, in the same text.

As interesting as the Dastan may be, however, and even though in recent times there has been a rediscovery of the subcontinent’s dastan tradition, it is not ready for uncritical embrace. Merely because it is Islamicate is not going to allow the dastan to challenge Hindutva or be an acceptable alternative. The dastan as it now stands is filled with a variety of racist, patriarchal and casteist formulations. Take, for example, the manner in which Hamza’s companion and friend from birth, Amar, is constantly humiliated because of the latter’s low birth. Further, it appears that it is only figures of “low birth” who engage in morally dubious activities, even if it is to further Hamza’s noble pursuits. Or the instances where Hamza is persuaded to enjoy the charms of other women, while his first love, Mehr Nigar, pines chastely for him for decades.

But perhaps it is because there is much that needs to be weeded out of the Dastan that it may present itself as an interesting and exciting task in the battle against banal Hindutva. Hindutva is not the only ideology in the country that rests of a thick melange of racism, patriarchy, casteism and other dehumanising systems. As local readers would know these systems are as present within the institutional Church in Goa, as they are in other religious and secular institutions. All of these institutions work with banal Hindutva on a daily basis, by and large protesting only when violent Hindutva pinches their immediate interests. Reformulating the Dastan, and other narratives, both from within the subcontinent as well as outside, would perhaps present a more dynamic challenge in reinventing the country to make it more inclusive. And who knows, in challenging the sorcerers that would modify the secular democratic republic into the tilism of Hindutva, we may well stand to become the Hamza of our age.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 3 Oct 2014)