The last few months have not been easy. No. Not at all.
For a middle class girl to a woman, I have grown in an extremely diverse, pluralistic, sometimes traditional but largely liberal society, especially at home.
When it was time to join in evening prayers or bhajans, I used to be thrilled to take the mickey out of the bhajan mandali participants of my granny’s group. It was quite the ‘in’ thing, at least for me, not to visit temples, completely deny all the little bits of religion fed us by our elders and relatives. Not because it was being forced upon us; no, not at all. After all, the prayer before leaving the class for lunch break was mandatory; Christmas celebrations were marked by a unique fervour, unmatched by that which marked Diwali in our largely ‘baniya’-led school in Ahmedabad – not one classmate of mine was Christian, I remember (we did have one Christian teacher though).
It was incredulous to find, one fine day, our elders using separate cups for the drivers and cleaners to serve tea. Once more the student in me, instructed by the ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ in our textbooks found an opportunity to exercise my learning, the question being, ‘if not now, when?’; ‘if not me, who?’
And it went well. The banishment of separate crockery. Then came puberty with its own problems – emotional, physical, but also social. ‘Don’t sit here; don’t go there; don’t do that; and absolutely don’t question’. That last one rankled. So I questioned. And then the rest of them unravelled.
Same with boyfriends. Then with not making the expected grades. Then with not studying science and instead taking up a ‘useless’ profession – writing. All the while not going to temples; not even saying ‘Jay Sri Krishna’ as we are wont to do at the beginning and at the end of our conversations (nowadays in the time of SMS, a JSK suffices); not reciting the mantras and the shlokas and the prayers; not doing havans; not reading the scriptures; opposing wholeheartedly as I do even now, the religiously guided (Hindu) invocation at the beginning of every formal function at any institution – the ‘ridiculous’ lamp lighting ceremony; not doing anything even remotely religious. And all the while, the former being called as having been caused by the latter.
All this because belonging to a Hindu majority was a pain. Caste discrimination, gender discrimination, vegetarianism (which has never wavered in my life). The sati system, the female foeticide and infanticide, the dowry system, untouchability – baggage of a murky past. So strong was the urge to move oneself away from the bad associations that it could only come at the cost of identifying with this culture.
However, I attended a midnight mass, celebrated Christmas with my friends, learnt to write my name in Urdu thanks to a Muslim driver in our family, made friends with other kids with all kinds of surnames, especially those that went against any hope of approval on any level. Deliberately, openly, and finally, lovingly. At that time, being a modern Hindu was to be openly and actively embracing all other religions and culture and their practices. At the cost of having a Hindu identity. And it was easy because among the intellectuals, a Hindu identity was a cheap thing to have. As truly modern Hindus, we HAD TO BE progressive – join the Christians in their ‘creation’ of a classless, casteless society; we know now how that goes in the world of pointed capitalism that might just be led by Donald Trump. Had to be, and so we were. Progressive.
Being progressive is something that we have always had to keep attempting at. Missionaries can continue making more and more missions; and Muslims can continue to send their kids to madrassas; and everyone can keep their personal laws. Hindus are happy to let everyone take a dig at themselves, take the jobs through reservations based on exactly what they hate – caste; there’s talk even of religion being included here, but so far it hasn’t happened; and make Hindus look like the most intolerant of the lot.
And if you went looking, you wouldn’t find a case of a Hindu Raja looting, invading, and plundering other faraway lands; you wouldn’t find Hindu proselytisers and mass conversions; you wouldn’t find even Hindu religious schools. You won’t find Hindus saying we are for our Hindu brothers, building fences, making wars. I know, what an intolerant lot! Even now, as I look around, the most militant intelligentsia calling their own brethren intolerant is largely Hindu. Because as Hindus, we rarely were brought up to think of Hindu brethren as the only relevant brethren. For us, Vaisudhaiva kutumbakam is a reality. I won’t translate this term because in the current atmosphere, it has become irrelevant.
We, who never went in search of our own identity – a religious identity, but were content with our cultural identity, find ourselves at a strange juncture. I am already probing my Hindu roots, looking for what makes me so tolerant to others’ insinuations and cheap jibes at my being intolerant. I know what it is. It’s my tolerance. We’re okay with cheap risque jokes about our Gods, we might not like it but we’re okay with letting people use the imagery of Hindu Gods and Goddesses to design their bikinis and flip-flops – we’d rather ignore it, we’re okay sharing our spaces and our history, of course our resources, and our society and the safety it ensures, with others as we have always done.
And what’s the hardest part here? To have to utter the word ‘we’. It means a boundary has already been formed. I was not like this before. But the disgusting circus around Rohith Vemula’s death, the utterly irresponsible way the political class as well as the media has acted around the JNU issue, and the absolutely shameful way people have banded together to develop this story of the intolerant India i.e. intolerant upper caste Hindu India, I can’t think of an alternative.
And I’m sure I am not alone.