The pursuit of ‘one’

A struggle for the people of any ‘nation’ is in imaging themselves as ‘one’, bringing together what is in actuality a collection of multiple complex identities into a single national narrative.

India is not just a geographically drawn land or a political construction; it is an idea within which we seek to define ourselves, feel secure, and acquire strength. This seeking is emotional; a deeply-felt extension of the self beyond oneself and of that ‘beyond’ within the self. The Indian Constitution attempts to assimilate our various threads but it is not quite ‘the document’ of this emotional singularity. This urge to live within a perceived similarity has existed from time immemorial, even before the nation-state was born.

Any emotional bond is a personal and social phenomenon. The home and the street are not separated by the front door; they are thoroughfares through which emotional experiences walk in and out leaving traces and shadows that we assimilate and translate into our lives. We cannot, therefore, see the internal and the external as two separate shells that connect only when we will them to do so.

This idea extends to collectivities and logically to nations as well. Beginning from the home to the country, we are groups and those in the group are regarded as insiders and those outside are guests, invited or uninvited. It is but natural that the larger or more influential the collectivity, the more its idea of ‘oneness’ permeates society.

I can hear the question in my mind: Is this not the way we remain together?

Followed by the counter-question: but have we been, and are we really ‘together’?

Within each of our groups, we are sub-groups and further little groups. We hop from the smaller to the larger depending on our threat perception from the ‘other’. In this game of hopscotch, we hope to live unscathed, but we are not. We oppress and differentiate by race, caste, religion and gender everyday yet delude ourselves into believing we possess a national identity. What keeps us ‘together’, unfortunately, is not a bond but the bounds of ‘insider-outsider rules’. Which is why we think ‘stronger the laws, the better for us as a society’.

Yet history constantly reminds us how wrong this is.

In my last column, I suggested that India has been governed by a Hindu narrative — ‘Hindu’ being that majoritarian socio-cultural-religious basket. This has been the insider’s identity, widening in concentric circles from the home to the borders of the country.

I want to face another — more vital — question: How do we become the important and elusive ‘one’ without emerging from our own window-less cloisters? Whether I like it or not, I am part of a group, but I do not want to see the ‘other’ as a competing group.

This is the question that both the ‘majority’ and the ‘minority’ need to address. Many would use the word ‘tolerance’ but I am uncomfortable with its unmistakably stuffy condescension, the sub-text of which is “I am superior but am decent enough to accept you”. We should not be looking at acceptance of another but at osmosis.

So, is a ‘we-are-one’ kind of nationalism the solution? From our own experience, we know that it has worked only at times of war, including the one for independence. Nationalism is only another, a much larger, closeted group with limited purpose.

We don’t need to search anywhere for answers; they lie in our past and present. The Bhakti and Sufi movements within the sub-continent were exquisite examples of bringing together perceived conflicting cultural identities. Free-flowing new dimensions were created that were alive, breathing, sharing and moving within the people’s minds, charging society within new, open-ended and unlimiting identities. We still witness such profound movements today in the narrow gullies of Delhi, the little towns in Kerala or fisherfolk hamlets in Tamil Nadu. Recently a friend from a fishing village said: “My mother, who is Hindu, finds peace only if she spends at least three hours in the Dargah and every Muslim fisherman prays to the goddess before venturing into the sea and the whole village worships Mary.” To him this was just how it has been and is. Wisdom is always simple. Every religious-cultural group has to live in the ‘simple’ present.

We cannot waste our time speaking of the exclusive practices of our culture. The truth is that every religious culture is flawed and is bound to be — after all we created them! This is not a call for dismantling cultures or an insidious argument for atheism. Both are counter-productive. We need a fresh philosophy beyond religious and cultural dogmas. This is a yearning for a beautiful new weave on our great looms, using the warp of respect and the weft of introspection.

Originally written for The Hindu

The twinned self

As a ‘travelling’ musician I connect with ‘Indians’ across the country and around the world. Invariably, at some point of time, our conversations keep coming back to what we perceive as ‘our culture’ and about resurrecting, protecting and nurturing this ‘culture’. My identity as a ‘Classical’ musician leads those I am speaking with to perceive ‘my kind’ as a people from the hoary past, those who have taken the precious path of an ancient Indian art form. Whether this perception is accurate or not is not relevant. What is important is the larger question underlying the discussion: What is this ‘Indian culture’?

I have observed that the idea of ‘Indian culture’ is almost always connected to religious identity. Religion is complex. And, as God is supposed to be, it is just about everywhere and — in control! It touches us at the most personal level of relationships and extends up to how we look, what we wear and of course, how we think. Therefore when one says ‘religion’, we have to view it as that control system, which is ingrained in our socio-personal consciousness. This being the case, ‘culture’ cannot be separated from ‘religion’. Music and dance are only extensions of that very same belief system. To the majority of Indians who are Hindus, Indian culture actually means Hindu culture — or as quoted by many ‘the Hindu way of life’. I am not here to battle religion but to question the notion.

If we were to look at India over the last century, we have had some very interesting swings. I will be making some generalisations, while acknowledging the presence of counter movements at all times. From around the mid 19 century until the time of independence we had a resurgence in nationalism. This was accompanied by a re-assertion of Hindu thought, practice, religion, philosophy and art, bringing together the ‘majority’ and instilling in it cultural pride. This was not just digging into the past; it was a modern movement, flawed in many ways yet an act of its own time by a certain class of people. The movement, though predominantly upper-class did re-create ‘Hindu culture’ as the Indian way that critiqued the ‘rest’ but embraced them in a common purpose — independence.

But very soon in the ‘Nehruvian era’, politics moved this new social identity into the realms of secularism, plurality and equality. Now ‘the Indian’ became an embodiment of tolerance and ‘brotherhood’ — gender equality changing figures of speech was to come a little later! Re-working that very same Hindu religion to fit this narrative further emphasised these ideas. In most fascinating ways the specifics within the Hindu fabric metamorphosed into generalities of everyone irrespective of their own belief systems. While secularism and plurality are in general seen as counter movements to Hindu nationalism, were they really?

Was this a way of creating context-free interpretations of the Hindu? But one did not see this since it was subsumed in socialism compelling one to believe that polity and society moved away from religion. We need to ponder over whether the anglicised-modernist-Marxist positioning of secularism created an illusion of being a-religious while all the while at its core retaining a Hindu cultural equation. This of course paid its political dividends to the party then in power — the Congress.

Today we live in another phase, a reactionary one and another bout of Hindu nationalism. But the nature of this one seems different from its previous ‘avatar’. The previous manifestation engaged with the ‘rest’ in the common interest of independence, but today there seems no such imperative and hence no need to embrace. And, this is working to the advantage of the party now in power — the BJP.

This Hindu culture — 2.0 — is born from the ‘atheistic appearance’ of our immediate socio-political past but may also be a result of the over generalisation of the ‘Hindu’ leading to a loss of propriety for the Hindus over the Hindu-Indian identity. This loss of propriety is sub-conscious, creating an urgent need to say that the Hindu way of life is superior to everything else, an umbrella under which everything else exists. The discourse of the day is about attacking those who do not succumb.

In our essence we have always been a Hindu society. The movements have only been between Hindu specifics and its ‘universalism’.

When the Nehruvian Hindu ‘universalist’ appeared in a socialist garb, the traditional Hindu felt immediately insecure. And today that Hindu is re-surfacing — angry and even virulent — asserting his Hinduism as a new kind of ‘universalism’ in the sense of being an exemplar for the universe to adopt.

Where do we go from here? We could, perhaps, look at this in a couple of weeks.

Originally written for The Hindu

Waves of change

The word ‘surfing’ brings to mind images of exotic locations like Bali, the Gold Coast (Australia), J’ bay (South Africa) and Hawaii. I imagine men and women, mostly white, on their boards paddling into the waters only to leap onto the feet, tunnelling their way through the wave, allowing it to embrace and engulf them. I see surfing as a sport, a leisure activity of the westerner. If any Indians are involved in surfing, they are those who live life in cocooned luxury.

Meet Murthy and his beach boys and all these images will be reset. Murthy belongs to Kovalam, the little fishing village 35 km from Chennai. As to any person of the seas, ‘land’ to Murthy only meant the beach and ‘life’ was the ocean. He grew up, ducking school ever so often, only to play with his friends — ‘the waves’. Soon, like his father and his father’s father, he went fishing looking for the jewels of the ocean. But that was not the real reason he was at sea; the sea was more than an occupation, she was his companion.

In 2001, Murthy spotted a man, a swami, surfing on the Kovalam beach. He picked up his courage to ask for the board for a few minutes. He says, “Those 20 minutes on the board changed my life.” He had touched the dream of his life, the reason for his existence, and he was not one to let that feeling evaporate. By 2003, Murthy had got himself a small surfing board from a friend in the village, who did not realise its value, and was riding the waves. The only ones who knew about the beauty of the Kovalam surf were a few foreigners like Tobais, a German. Soon they were friends and Murthy was their outpost contact, messaging them updates such as “today’s waves… two ft…off shore wind.”

But things transformed dramatically when he met Yotam in 2008. He remembers that morning vividly. He had spent the whole night in the sea hoping for tuna, only to return early morning with nothing. He ran home, ate some pazhayadhu (soup made of leftover boiled rice) and was back at the beach where he met Yotam. They became friends and soon he was gifted a seven-ft board. Other young men in the village — Venkatesh, Rahul, Sekhar and Abbas — also wanted to ride the waves, with Murthy showing the way.

In 2012, he got support from Arun Vasu, who has been involved in water sports for 25 years. That year they founded the ‘Covelong Point Surf School’. The school has taught over 1,000 people from all over the country to surf. Today, from Kovalam village itself, over 50 people, aged 10-35 years, surf.

Surfing for Murthy is a way of transforming lives. The surfing team has helped reduce alcoholism, drug abuse, clean the beach and helped mentally ill people on the streets. They have donated over Rs.1.5 lakhs from the schools’ earnings towards educating children from agricultural families, besides conducting eye and health camps.

I ask Murthy whether the growth of surfing will destroy fishing on that stretch. He says quite candidly: “Yes, it may, but that needs to happen. Fishing is not sustainable; we are small fishermen who cannot go into the high sea, and our boats and catamarans give us a reach of only about 20 km into the sea. With huge trawlers using advanced technology, we hardly get any fish.”

I tell him I want to write about him and his surf-mates. I ask, “Today your school and the surf festival have become very popular. People from all over the country and the world come here to surf…” and he interjects, “which is why you are writing about me!” We laugh and I continue: “Don’t you think the corporatisation of your work will in some way destroy the spirit of your effort?”

Venky responds, “Yes, there may be problems. Our growth may lead to pressures but we do think that the way forward is for businesses — cafes, home stays, food stall, fishing rides — to evolve around the beach. This is the future.”

Murthy says, “We are a village of Hindus, Muslims and Christians who share our faith.” Did the gods bring Yotam and Arun to Murthy? We will never know. But the challenge is: can they preserve the Murthy in Kovalam, Kovalam in Murthy, the Murthy in each of the other boys? Something tells me they will. The sea, after all, has been their companion.

Originally written for The Hindu