Is our paradise lost?  

Is our paradise lost?  

Harmony was our glory

India

This is not about politicians or their parties. Politicians come and go. You only have to look back at recent events in Maharashtra. The fanatic rushed and tied the knot with the secular. They abandon their gods and change their ideologies as easily as they change their saffron robes and white caps, and hop into each other's bed. This is about nostalgia, our hearts and their longing for the joy and bonhomie and togetherness that seem elusive today. There was a time, till not long ago, despite all our travails and tribulations and sorrows and strife, our land yet seemed “apparelled in celestial light”. Can we regain that paradise?

Let me recount a short story. My village, picturesque Gorur, lies on the bank of the river Hemavathy, a tributary to the Cauvery. Like many villages of rural old Mysore State, it is a composite village comprising of many castes -- carpenters, blacksmiths, fishermen, barbers, potters, weavers and others, but the Harijan, as always, lived in a satellite colony outside the village -- a blemish from our ancient past, a stain no amount of chanting of mantras and bathing in the holy river can wash clean.  

The Harijan ate beef, like the Muslims. They carried the dead cows from the village, skinned it and stripped it of all flesh and took them to the local Muslim who cured the leather and sent it to the tannery and crushed the bones and sent that to the factory. The village and its people lived in perfect symbiosis and happy harmony. But it was easy to see that the Harijan had a special kinship with the Muslims -- their life was more entwined with the latter, unlike the uneasy, unequal relationship with the rest of the Hindu community. 

Aji Saheb, the Muslim who purchased the cattle skin and bones from the Dalits in our village, was also a rice merchant. I remember vividly, he often came home to buy harvested paddy. A big man who sported a huge white kurta and baggy pyjamas, he was highly regarded for his ethical business dealings, was amiable, and had a good sense of humour and poked fun at Brahmins and their orthodox and austere lifestyle. And my father and uncles would chaff and laugh.

His father was nicknamed 'Shawl Saheb’. In a famous eponymous story by Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar, he narrates an incident. Once, Iyengar’s father, a priest, was in deep meditation and chanting mantras in the back garden of his house. Aji Saheb's father, not very well to do, came home to meet him just then and sat down on a stone bench opposite the priest. As the chanting went on interminably, Saheb Senior spied a lovely embroidered shawl on the 'tulasi katte'. It was monsoon, raining heavily and there was a chill in the air. Saheb Senior, emboldened by the knowledge that the priest wouldn’t open his eyes while in deep meditation, picked up the shawl, wrapped himself up cozily and walked out confidently even as the priest’s wife watched dumbfounded. Next day, when Saheb Senior came, brazenly wearing the same shawl, the priest -- my great grandfather -- asked him why he hadn’t at least asked him before taking it. Saheb Senior replied nonchalantly that it was cold and he needed the shawl, but he was too scared to disturb a Brahmin in prayer and incur his wrath!

My father would often remind Aji Saheb of this story and demand that the shawl be returned, and both of them would break into hearty laughter.  

Ah, how far we have come from that idyll, from that simplicity of rural identities, and the lost world I'm homesick about. We all have such stories and reminiscences. The villages still preserve much of the past, but the urban centres are becoming cesspools of hatred, overcome by senseless violence and festering wounds, with an uneasy calm between communities. We are unthinkingly lapping up false narratives and distorted histories that are woven and fed to us about Muslim kings and Hindu kings. Many Hindu kings had Muslim commanders, and vice versa. Hindu kings allied with Muslim kings to defeat other Hindu chieftains or Muslim rulers. Shivaji's father Shahaji captured Bengaluru from Kempegowda II by allying himself with the Bijapur ruler Ranadulla Khan. It was common. Girish Karnad's historical plays explored existential issues of intrigue, power play, and despair of those times, and blended the past with the present to make it relevant to our times. As Karnad said with reference to his last play, Rakshasa Tangadi, which captured the details of a battle and its machinations during the rule of Aliya Rama Raya of Vijayanagar Empire, it was to dispel the “mainstream narrative that whitewashed it as Hindu-Muslim conflict.” 

Why has our urban, smug, consuming middle class become so gross? Why does he feed himself on hatred? He does not love, does not read, listen to good music or lose himself in nature, which ennobles and uplifts. He gorges on television news and social media in all his waking hours. Can our civilisation flower when “fire-breathing” mullahs sympathise with jihadis who murder and the “Trishul-wielding Hindu” justifies killing through lynching. If you scorn all faiths but appease one faith at the expense of another or embrace a moribund ideology and justify violence or abandon all the cherished ideals of your scriptures and teachings of Meera and Kabir, and Ghalib and Gandhi, can your children blossom in such a feuding land? Can we be true Christians or Muslims or 'true Vaishnavs' if we hate and hurt another soul, as the 15th century Gujarati Saint Narsi Mehta sang, in ‘Vaishnava Janato’, Gandhi’s favourite hymn. 

Can we reclaim that lost paradise where we heard the soul-stirring Shehnai of Ustad Bismillah Khan in Kashi Viswanath Temple; Pundit Jasraj singing ‘Allah ho meherban’ after singing ‘Bhagavate Hey Vasudeva’ at the Ram Navami festival in “full throated ease”; Bade Ghulam Ali Khan rendering a glorious ‘Hari Om Tatsat’ Bhajan; or MS Subbulakshmi singing a Kabir song followed by a Meera Bhajan, with equal aplomb and devotion? 

Can we prosper by "returning to our ghosts and demons which reason had exorcised?" Our faiths, whatever they be, must be to an overarching fealty to love, to fraternity and solidarity and to all creation under an abode of comingling faiths so that we rejoice together, as in our former days. 

As Tagore said, "While God waits for his temple to be built of love, men bring stones." And we are busy building barriers. 

(The writer pioneered low-cost airlines in India and is a serial entrepreneur)