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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The year that was

Was also a year that is best forgotten…

This column will appear on the last Sunday of 2014. And as I sit down to write it, I can’t help but think back on the year gone by. But hard as I try to look for something positive, all the images that flash before my eyes are of violence and grief; sadness and despair.

I guess that is only to be expected. The aftershocks of the ghastly Taliban attack on a Peshawar school still have me shaking with sadness, anger, and the realization of our impotence in the face of crazed madmen who subscribe to a murderous ideology. Those gory pictures of bullet-ridden children and a blood-soaked school auditorium will live with me forever, no matter how much I try and erase them from my memory. And maybe that’s how it should be. None of us should ever forget the evil that monsters inflict upon us – and more tragically, on our children.

But even when I look beyond the horror of Peshawar, the theme of violence and grief refuses to recede. The riot victims of Muzaffarnagar continue to live in makeshift homes a year later, looking for justice that seems forever out of reach. Communal riots in the Trilokpuri area of Delhi have revived the traumatic memories of the 1984 pogrom against the Sikhs. And in Uttar Pradesh, communal clashes have become so common that they barely merit mention in the national papers. And yet, every such incident leaves indelible scars in its wake.

More significantly, what every such clash represents is an attack on the idea of India itself. That idea – of a secular, inclusive, tolerant India that treats every citizen equally, no matter what his or her religion – has increasingly come under attack as the lunatics scramble to take over the asylum. The first weapon deployed in that fight was the idea of ‘love jihad’: a ‘jihad’ in which Muslim men were apparently targeting Hindu girls and marrying them after converting them to Islam. Thankfully that campaign was junked after it didn’t get much traction in the UP polls.

Ever since then, though, we have had a long line of loonies jostling one another in the competition to be most outrageous. First off the mark was Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, a BJP minister, who announced that the people of Delhi needed to decide if they wanted to be ruled by ‘Ramzadas’ (children of Ram) or ‘H****zadas’ (bastards). Next up was BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj, who claimed that Nathuram Godse was as much a ‘deshbhakt’ (patriot) as Mahatma Gandhi. Both of them retracted these statements after a public outcry (and presumably, a private bollocking from saner elements in the government).

But despite their climbdown, Godse, the killer of Gandhiji, continues to be the flavor of the season with various offshoots of the Sangh Parivar. Some fringe outfits in Mumbai celebrated November 15, the day when Godse was hanged in 1949, as Shourya Divas. The Akhil Bhartiya Hindu Mahasabha asked the government to install busts of Godse in public places across the country. And the same outfit is now threatening to release a film, Desh Bhakht Nathuram Godse, on 30 January, the same day on which Godse gunned down the Mahatma in 1948.

Ironic, isn’t it, that an organization that styles itself as the ‘Hindu’ Mahasabha is attacking what is best about Hinduism – its values of tolerance, brotherhood, and universal peace – by glorifying an assassin who killed a man we venerate as a Mahatma? This really is violence of the worst kind; violence that tries to destroy the very values that make Hinduism the great religion that it is.

And that’s before we even start on the biggest controversy of our day: conversions. If there is any one thing that characterizes Hinduism it is its non-proselytising nature. You have to be born a Hindu; you cannot become one by conversion. That is one of the essential differences between Hinduism and both Islam and Christianity. Hindus don’t believe in converting others to their faith. And you can’t really be a Hindu if you do that.

Ah, but the right-wing crazies have a way out of that. They are not converting anyone, they say, they are just welcoming them back into the Hindu fold. It is not ‘conversion’ when Indian Muslims and Christians become Hindus, they explain, it is merely a ‘gharwapasi’ (homecoming). Never mind that the ‘home-comers’ are complaining on national television that they were misled/bribed/terrorized into giving up their faith.

All this banging on about religion; glorifying murderers and assassins: where have we seen all this before? Ah yes, in Pakistan, where that same sorry journey to religious extremism and militancy led to the massacre of 132 innocent children in Peshawar this month. There, but for the grace of Indian secularism, go we…

It is for all these reasons that I, for one, will not be at all sad to see 2014 go. Maybe we’ll have a better time of it in 2015. With that wish – and a prayer – I wish all of you a very Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A matter of faith

Let’s not allow Hindutva to destroy the essence of Hinduism: tolerance and open-mindedness

Over the last week, there was no escaping the controversy surrounding the Agra conversions. In case you have been hiding under your bed to avoid all the high-decibel, bad-tempered debates on prime time TV shows (and who can blame you!), an organization called the Dharma Jagran Samanvay Vibhag (an offshoot of the RSS and Bajrang Dal) recently converted a community of Muslim rag pickers to Hinduism in what is called a ‘shuddhikaran’ (purification) ceremony and what the Sangh Parivar has dubbed ‘ghar wapasi’ (returning home). But even as the two houses of Parliament went into meltdown, and the voices of the commentariat became shriller than ever, all I could think about was an incident that happened in my own childhood.

Like most kids of my background in those days, I studied in a school that was run by Christian missionaries. So, we would start the day with a Christian prayer in the morning assembly; we would say Grace before heading for our lunch break, and a small prayer would be said before we broke up for the day. There was a lovely chapel on the premises, and come exam time, we would all file in of our own volition, bend down on our knees and cross ourselves nervously as we prayed fervently for good marks.

No matter what our religion – and we had a smattering of Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists along with Hindus and Christians – we all went through this routine year in and year out. And yet, none of us felt that our own faiths – the religions we practiced at home – were compromised by a few ‘Hail Marys’ or ‘Our Father, who art in heaven…’

The only exception (that I knew of, anyway) was my second cousin, who lived in Agra. At age 12, she became fascinated by Christianity, read the Bible and other religious tracts, and decided that she wanted to become a Christian. So, she took her request to the great patriarch of our family, her grandfather, a Sanskrit scholar of some distinction himself. Instead of exploding angrily at her request, as a lesser man may have done, he listened to her patiently, and asked her why she wanted to convert. She told him what she admired and loved about the Christian faith. Yes, he said to her, all of that is true. But do you really understand what you would be losing by giving up on Hinduism? No, she did not, she conceded reluctantly.

No problem, said Bauji (as he was universally known). He would give her a few books on Hinduism that she could read over the month. They would meet and discuss what she had read every day. And if at the end of the month she still felt that Hinduism was not for her and she would rather be a Christian, then he would personally organize her baptism in the faith.

Well, to cut a long story short, in the end my cousin decided to stay in the faith she was born in. But to this day, I am struck by the strength and sagacity of Bauji. He didn’t yell at my cousin that she was being stupid to even think of such a thing. He didn’t patronize her by saying that she was too young to make such a decision. And nor did he lay down the law: you are born a Hindu; and a Hindu you shall remain till the day you die. Instead, he appreciated why the tenets of Christianity had appealed to her. But rather than say that one religion was inferior/superior to another, he encouraged her to study both, and then make up her own mind. And whatever decision she made, he promised to support her.

To me, Bauji epitomizes the essential tolerance and fair-mindedness that is the hallmark of Hinduism; the acceptance that there are many paths that lead to God, and no one path is better than the other. It is that tolerance and fair-mindedness that makes me proud to be a Hindu. And it is that essential truth of Hinduism that Hindutva seeks to destroy, with its insistence on conversions that are brought about with inducements and blandishments rather than a reliance on a genuine change of heart.

For me – as I suspect it is for most Indians – my faith is an intensely private matter. It is an integral part of my being, but it is not what defines me. I would still be the same person if I were a practicing Muslim or Christian instead of a practicing Hindu. At the end of the day, which God I worship comes entirely down to an accident of birth. Speaking for myself, I am happy that I was born in this faith. But an essential part of that faith is being tolerant of those who were born into others; and to respect the choice of those who wish to convert to another.

Hinduism was not weakened when Muslim invaders came and converted thousands of Hindus to Islam over the centuries or the missionaries came proselytising. And it will not be strengthened if various affiliates of the RSS go around ‘re-converting’ thousands of Muslims and Christians in the 21st century.

At the end of the day, Hinduism derives its strength from the philosophy of life it espouses. It is a great religion because it teaches us that the entire world is one family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam). And it will stay strong because of people like my Bauji, who teach their children and grandchildren that it doesn’t matter what the road is called, just so long as it reaches God.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Style files

Tracing your life story through fashion can be both fun and traumatic…

You know you are getting on when a ‘period film’ is set in a period you remember all too clearly. Well, at least that’s how I felt when I watched The Wolf of Wall Street, set in the late 80s to mid 90s. Yes, I know. I am a bit late to this, but all those reviews about the debauchery and drug taking kind of put me off the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio notwithstanding. But when I finally got to it last week, it wasn’t the drugs and sex – not to mention the midget throwing (don’t ask!) that got me. It was the clothes.

There they were, the fashions of the late 80s and early 90s on display in all their power-shouldered wonder. Double-breasted suits worn with loud, wildly-patterned ties. Polo shirts paired with high-waisted linen trousers. Ruffles and padded shoulders for the women. This was Giorgio Armani and Chanel, all right. But not as we know it.

Except, of course, that I knew it all too well. This was the period when I came of age. The decade when I left college, began my first job, and began earning my own money, which I could spend on the fashions of the day. But now that it was being paraded before me, two decades later, all the outfits looked clunky and clumsy, over the top, and sometimes downright vulgar. Had we really dressed like that in the 80s and early 90s? What on earth were we thinking?

Well, now that you ask, we thought we looked pretty darn good. We loved the exaggerated silhouettes, the loud colours. The brash exuberance of that decade was perfectly articulated in the clothes. And we embraced those fashions with all the wit and style at our command. Those padded shoulders were our armour of choice as we set out to conquer the world – until Armani gave unto us the deconstructed jacket.

It is only in hindsight that the fashions of the period appear a tad absurd. When I pull out my photographs of that period, I can’t help but giggle at some of the images. But at the time, they looked perfectly stylish. And who knows, they may well be back in vogue in another 20 years, just like the 60s fashions that saw a revival in the early 21st century.

It is all too easy to trace our lives in fashion by picking out just one outfit from every decade we have lived through. And my suspicion is that if we store these in the back of our closets for long enough, it won’t be long before each outfit comes back into fashion.

In my case, this has already happened. The leggings and T-shirt/ sweater combination that I lived in during my college days and my first few years as a working journalist have now become trendy once again. Patiala salwars have seen a revival as have dhoti pants. Flared jeans had a brief time in the sun before giving way to jeggings. The platform heel and the wedge have stomped back into fashion. Even the humble handloom sari – which had been cast into oblivion because of our obsession with Western styles – is experiencing a new wave of popularity.

And that is good news for a world-class hoarder like me. I can pull out clothes that haven’t had an airing in years and look completely on-trend in them (if you ignore the suspicious whiff of mothballs). And what is even more fun is that I can see my life flash before me in all the fashions of that particular decade.

The 70s come to life in the flared trousers I wore to a school picnic, inspired by Zeenat Aman in Hare Rama Hare Krishna; the shiny garara-set I donned for a family wedding based on all those ‘Muslim socials’ that were a staple of Hindi cinema in those days; and the floppy hats and oversized sunglasses that were all the rage in those days, and turn up in almost every photograph of that time.

The 80s are universally known as the decade style forgot. And my picture albums certainly seem to bear that out: flounced skirts, pedal pushers, flowery trousers, padded shoulders, all of it accessorized with big-hair (think Joan Collins in Dynasty) and much too much eye make-up. I can hardly bear to look at the photos without cringing and wondering how I dared to go out in public dressed like that.

The 90s were rescued for me by Donna Karan and her easy-to-wear aesthetic and I still have her ‘body suits’ (T-shirts and shirts that were designed like swimwear so that you had no ‘bunching’ when you wore them with trousers) nestling safely in my wardrobe. That was also the decade when I discovered Anokhi and the pleasures of vegetable-dye, indigo and block printing.

The start of the 21st century in fashion terms, for me at least, was all about two names: Abraham and Thakore. And even ten or more years later I still swear by their understated, pared-down and sophisticated aesthetic sense. Those elegant linen trouser suits, the silk tunics and skirts, the long kurtas with delicate embellishment, and the beautifully-designed saris: these are the looks that will last the ages.

Well, at least, I think so. But should you really trust a woman who dressed in pedal pushers back in the day? Probably not!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Death Comes To Us All

But a good measure of a person’s life is how they are remembered after they are gone

When I wrote about P.D. James a fortnight ago in my column, the last thing I expected was that she would be dead in a matter of weeks. There was something about her that seemed immortal and immutable, as she produced murder mystery after murder mystery in a writing career spanning over half a century. But, in the end, death comes to us all, and it came to Phyllis Dorothy James as she reached the venerable age of 94.

The moment I heard about her passing, I pulled out the first book she had ever written (and the first P.D. James I had ever read), Cover Her Face. And there on page two was the prescient phrase: “…there was wisdom in knowing when to die with the least inconvenience to others and distress to oneself…”

I can only hope that that was the kind of death she had. But what I am quite sure of is that she will never really be dead to those of us who loved her books. And even a hundred years down the line, when someone picks up one of her titles –  Shroud for a Nightingale, Murder Room, Devices and Desires are just some of my favourites – the justly-chosen words, the sharp observations, the tautly-worked plot, the nail-biting suspense, will bring her back to life in yet another reader’s imagination.

What better legacy could an author ask for than to live on in her books? I am quite certain that James would ask for no more (or less) than to be remembered for her literary oeuvre. After all, this was a woman who was such a fan of Jane Austen that she took off from where Pride and Prejudice left off to write a murder mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley, set a few years after Darcy and Elizabeth have settled down to domestic bliss in their sprawling estate. Maybe two centuries down the line, another author can pen a similar homage, in which Adam Dalgliesh finally finds marital happiness and settles down to cosy domesticity with Cordelia Gray. (Though why wait so long; maybe Elizabeth George can get cracking on this right now!)

But as I read the many obituaries of James, and began re-reading Cover Her Face (the perfect start to reading all her books yet again, in chronological order), I began to think about the nature of death itself. In James’ books it is inevitably violent, sometimes brutal, and always shocking. There is no sugar-coating, no polite side-stepping, no euphemisms, and certainly no discreet aversion of the authorial gaze. James wants us to confront the horror of murder upfront and realize the violence – both physical and emotional – it brings in its wake. In her books, death strips away all dignity and privacy from those it visits, leaving their lives open to the vulgar, even voyeuristic, curiosity of others. In a sense, her murder victims lose more than their lives; they lose all control over how they are viewed in death and after.

And in some ways, that is a more terrible loss. All of us, at some level, want to remembered in the best possible way when we finally pass over. We want our loved ones to cherish our memory, we want our grandkids to remember us as more than a yellowing picture in a silver picture-frame. We want our lives to have had some meaning. We want our legacy to live on after us.

But the funny thing about legacy is that it can mean so many different things to different people. Some want to be remembered for the businesses they built; others for the kids they raised. Some want to live on by establishing charitable trusts in their own name; others seek absolution in leaving all their worldly belongings to the children they neglected while alive. Some want to be remembered for their kindness, others for their talent, and yet others for their power and prestige.

But, at the end of the day, none of us has control over how it ends. So, while some like P.D. James are celebrated for having led a long and fulfilling life others like Phil Hughes are mourned for having had their life cut short by cruel fate. Even as obituaries for James flooded the papers, Hughes, the Australian cricketer who died days after being hit on the head by a bouncer, was commemorated the world over with the hashtag #putoutyourbats . Everyone from cricket legends like Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne to ordinary folk who loved the game, posted a picture of their bats with a cap on top to pay tribute to the batsman who would forever remain 63 not out.

As I scrolled through all the tributes, my thoughts went back to a funeral I had attended only a few days before when my dear friend, Murli Deora, passed away suddenly after a brief illness. There was sadness in the air; how could it be otherwise? And yet everyone only had happy memories of Murli to share. There was the tearful old man who remembered the time the young Mayor of Bombay had helped get his son a school admission. There was a young woman, escorting her grandmother, who had had her cataract removed at one of the eye camps he organized.

Everyone I spoke to had wonderful stories about how he had touched their lives.  Maybe, when all is said and done, that is the best legacy any of us can ask for. To have touched even a single life – and left it better for your presence. And yes, to live on in the hearts that you have touched.