Chak de…India!!

Today, I watched a movie. Nothing special about that. But, the movie in itself was rather special. Those in India must have heard of Chak de…India, a movie with Shahrukh Khan in the lead. To cut a long story short, the movie was worth watching. More on that a little later. Before that, I would like to reply to a comment on my previous post on Biharis and politics. My esteemed reader tells me I should refrain from commenting on things I do not fully understand, with reference to my comment that Tamil and Hindi are as different from one another as English and Russian. I also said that the differences between Maithili and Hindi cannot be compared to those that exist between Tamil and Hindi. I said this, not with the intention of downplaying the importance of the regional languages, Maithili and Bhojpuri, but with the intention of highlighting the fact the Tamil has an origin and development entirely different from that of Hindi. Secondly, when the reader says I must refrain from talking about what I do not understand, I am amused rather than insulted. The reader does not know me. Nor does he/she make an effort to ask. I will only say I understand linguistics and language development better than most average people. The reasons behind that are many. I have neither the time, nor the inclination to explain each of them here. Those who know me will know why.

Ok. On to Chak de. The movie was, for want of a better word, refreshing. Amid the hype and drama of the ICL-BCCI tussle, it highlights an oft-neglected issue. That of the quagmire in which women’s hockey finds itself. It tackles such issues as the neglect of women’s sport in general, the national preference for cricket over hockey, the determination of the men (and sometimes women) in charge to make life as difficult for sportswomen as possible and the feeling of belonging to a state team rather the Indian national team. And it tackles these issues realistically. It shows the human side of both the coach and the players. It tells the tale of women who show the world that they can do more than just cook. It is not a feminist story. It is a very motivating one. I don’t remember the last time I came out a movie theatre so satisfied with a film. This one filled me with a sense of relief that Hindi Cinema is finally trying to break out of the song-and-dance routine. May the attempt be successful.

Bihari is not a bad word…but Madrasi?

Yesterday, The Hindu published an article on its Open Page titled, “Musings of a Bihari“, in which the author, Mayank Rasu laments the bad name politicians like Laloo have earned for Bihar. So far, so good. What got my attention, and subsequently, made me angry, was the veiled reference to the apparent disloyalty of Tamil Nadu vis-à-vis the supremely loyal state of Bihar. In a section titled Loyalty not taken note of, he states that he has migrated in search of greener pastures from his home of 18 years, the great state of Bihar. He then goes on to say that the “loyalty” of the Biharis cannot be questioned because nobody says “Jai Bihar” instead of “Jai Hind”. He does not stop there. He goes on to add, “Never did I come across an agitation where activists boycotted Hindi over regional languages like Bhojpuri and Maithali (mind you, Maithali has its own script).” This is undoubtedly a veiled reference to the infamous anti-Hindi agitations of the 1960s led by the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu. My first reaction to those words were, “What the @$!@???” Before making such references, it is important to understand the nature and scope of the anti-Hindi agitations and try to explain the reasons logically. There is no reason why the people of Bihar would rebel against Hindi. The simple reason is that Bihar is part of what is called the Hindi Belt. The differences between Bhojpuri, Maithili and Hindi cannot be compared with the differences that exist between Tamil and Hindi. One must understand that Tamil is a language in its own right, on par with French and Finnish. It is as different from Hindi as English is from Russian. Any attempt by the Centre to impose Hindi as a national language would have met with opposition in the pre-globalisation era of the 1960s. It probably still will. However, that does not mean Tamilians are any less loyal that Biharis.

The second point raised by Mr. Rasu is objectionable too. That too, is a veiled reference to Tamil Nadu. He states, “Even after experiencing abject poverty and perpetual slight, no politician has ever dared to head start a separatist movement as that is never going to work owing to the people’s strong sense of oneness with India.” Now, I honestly do not think that is true. Sociologically speaking, a separatist movement only comes into existence when the people of the region have a certain autonomy. Tamil separatism was possible in the 1980s because Tamil Nadu is a highly industrialised state, which is quite capable of surviving in the event of separation. The demand for an independent Khalistan would not have arisen if Punjab had not been a prosperous agricultural state. Abject poverty, a low Human Development record and extremely high population density is not a recipe for separatism. The absence of any separatist movement in Bihar is not a measure of the loyalty of the Bihari people, but a sociological reality that prevents any such demand from succeeding.

That said, I quite sympathise with Mr. Rasu when he asks if this perpetual slight on the name of the Bihari is right. But, it also makes me wonder why everyone who comes from the South of the Vindhyas is considered a “Madrasi”. Is that not a bad word too? Are the poor South Indians not made fun of because they can’t speak proper Hindi? Is their accent not exaggerated in every Hindi movie and television show? We have learnt, not only to live with it, but to laugh at it. Why should a Bihari not adapt and adjust? After all, it is these differences that make us pat ourselves on the back for our “Unity in Diversity.”

Temple of gold?

This morning, NDTV, or was it CNN-IBN, ran a news story about the consecration of a new temple in Sripuram near Vellore in Tamil Nadu. So, what’s the fuss, you may ask. The fuss is that the said temple is built using 1.5 tonnes of gold. Yes, you read that right. 1.5 tonnes of gold. According to Chennai Online, the temple is built mainly from gold and copper. Except the walking path, the entire structure has been made of gold and copper. It has been built at a total cost of Rupees Six Billion ($15 million). My first reaction to this piece of news was that all the money spent was a royal waste. Just imagine! The money spent on the temple could have been used to build at least 10 hospitals with state-of-the-art equipment or schools with excellent facilities. Instead, it has been lavished in a building that is of no use to anybody, least of all those who really need help.

I am a Hindu too. I believe in God too. But, I do not believe that 15 million dollars must be spent to keep Him happy. I firmly believe that any money spent for the welfare of those who really need it will make God happy. They say God is omnipresent and omniscient. Then, why build a temple of gold to house him? Are we not trying to confine him to a gilded cage? Is there any point in spending so much money to build something that will serve no larger purpose to society? I may sound like an atheist when I say this, but the fact remains that India’s temples are the richest institutions of the country today. The daily income of the Tirumala-Tirupathi Devasthanam is higher than the turnover of most companies. Granted that the TTD runs charities and uses the money earned for the greater good of humanity. But this temple at Vellore? How is it going to help those who survive with less than a dollar a day? How is it going to help those who walk tens of kilometres everyday to get a pail of drinking water?

My heart bleeds when I think of the colossal waste of money that this temple is. It bleeds when I realise that the temple is a symbol of everything that is wrong with India today. It symbolises the growing divide between the rich and the poor. It symbolises the harsh reality that the Indian diaspora all over the world is more willing to contribute to the construction of this pointless and extravagant temple in the hope that they will be relieved of their sins, than to contribute to the establishment of a school in a remote village in India. India ranks 126th among 177 countries in the UN Human Development Report. How is India to attain the status of a developed country by 2020 as our esteemed former President Dr. Kalam hopes, if this waste is to continue? It is time we wake up and realise that building temples and other places of worship at massive costs is going to get us nowhere. It is time to sit up and take note of the fact that the money thus spent is needed elsewhere. Think about it. 15 million dollars could have contributes to schools for the entire district. It could have meant better irrigation for the arid lands of the country. Or, it could have meant better health care for the millions who cannot afford private health care. We need to sit up and protest. Otherwise things will never change.

Music?? Really?

One day, a few weeks ago, my zealous neighbours decided that their children must learn Carnatic music. A commendable desire I must say. So, they set out to find someone who would teach the kids Carnatic music. True to form, they found someone to teach the said kids, how to sing. Or, so they said. When I first heard Mrs. Paattu Teacher, I assumed she was just having a bad day that stopped her from singing well. I decided I should give her the benefit of doubt.

It has been 3 weeks since that fateful day. She somehow always turned up for classes when I was out doing something else. Call it her luck or mine, the fact remained that I never got to hear her sing since Day 1. Then suddenly, all that changed drastically last evening. I was at home, trying to watch TV, but without much success. I kept getting distracted by mum’s talking. Suddenly, I heard someone shout. Startled out of my wits, I decided to investigate. I stepped out of my cosy flat no. 24, only to realise that the noise was coming from No. 27. I stepped closer cautiously, not wanting to interrupt some kind of fight. I had a rather nasty surprise when I realised that the shouts I had heard were actually Mrs. Paattu Teacher’s feeble attempts at teaching the poor kids music.

Imagine my consternation when I figured out that the said Pattu Teacher could not hold a tune for the life of her. My neighbours, in their enthusiasm to teach their kids music, forgot to verify if the Paattu Teacher actually knew any paattu at all. My attempts at convincing them of the futility of teaching the kids music by appointing someone who barely knows the difference between noise and music have, by far been entirely in vain. I am hoping that they see sense and get the woman to actually teach music and not some vague song she likes to label as keerthanai. Heaven help anyone who actually tries learning anything from her!

PS: For my non Tamil-speaking readers: Paattu means song and keerthanai is a musical composition. Please leave a comment for any further clarifications, or contact your nearest Carnatic music teacher, who will probably explain better than me. 🙂

Freedom of expression and religious sentiment

This is a continuation of my previous post on the attack on Taslima Nasreen. As I said before, the attack is simply outrageous. So, you can imagine my outrage and disgust when I read that the Hyderabad has slapped a case against Ms. Nasreen for hurting Muslims’ religious sentiments. The way the Hyderabad police is handling the case is worth protesting against.Why should Ms. Nasreen not speak out against the perceived ills of Muslim society? I can understand it if the person who speaks out is an outsider. As a Muslim herself, does she not have the right to question what is wrong with the religion in which she was raised? Does freedom of expression mean nothing today? Where is the famous tolerant spirit we Indians are so fond of telling the world about?

Right to free speech?

Yesterday’s attack on controversial Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen speaks volumes about the increasing intolerance in Indian society. We, as Indians, pat ourselves on the back about democratic tradition in our beloved homeland and pride ourselves on the inherent tolerance of the Indian people. But, where has that tolerance gone now? Ms. Nasreen was in Hyderabad to release the Telugu version of her new book Shodh, when activists of the All-India Majilis-E-Itihadul Muslimeen attacked the gathering. Not only is the attack worth condemning but the words of a local AIMIM MLA on CNN-IBN are simply outrageous. He claimed, in full view of television cameras, that the “punishment” meted out to Ms. Nasreen was insufficient and she should have been killed to teach a lesson to all other presumptuous Muslim women who dare to speak out against oppression. The new book Shodh explores the life of a woman wanting to break free and live life on her own terms.

The AIMIM claims that the book is anti-Islamic and that Taslima Nasreen is a kafir for daring to express herself. The attack against Ms. Nasreen is just one example of the growing intolerance in Indian society. In fact, the incident reminded me of the annual anti-Valentine’s Day vandalism carried out by the Shiv Sena. It is not just religious fundamentalist groups who indulge in such acts. A few years ago, about 20 young couples were arrested by the Chennai City Police at a park in Anna Nagar, one of the posher areas of the city. When the parents of the arrested arrived, the police claimed to have arrested them for indecent exposure in public. Apparently, holding your boyfriend’s hand in broad daylight is considered indecent exposure. As usual, the local Hindu Munnani activists and other fundamentalist outfits, both Hindu and Muslim, condemned the behaviour of the poor couples and blamed the decadence on the West.

All this brings us to one fundamental question. Since when is speaking your mind taboo in this country? Why should Ms. Nasreen be attacked simply because she chose to say out aloud what many of us think privately anyway? A more pertinent question would be why nobody does anything when such incidents occur? Everyone from the AP Chief Minister to the Prime Minister to the press condemns the attack on Ms. Nasreen, but the attackers were let off on bail almost as soon as they were arrested. Chances are the case will be forgotten over the next week. Why does nobody think it fit to arrest the man who practically called for Ms. Nasreen’s assassination and slap a charge of inflammatory speech on him? All this makes me wonder whether the right to free speech is not merely a politically correct thing to accord in this country. Do we really have the right to free speech without fearing reprisal? I don’t know.

Sex-selective abortion and demographics

I came across an article in NDTV (link expired, I can’t find the article) a short while ago detailing the horrors of sex-selective abortion and its impact on demographics in India. This, coupled with a conversation with my neighbour’s mother a few days ago, set me thinking about why exactly a girl child is such a burden. Forget the traditional religious belief that people without a boy child will go to hell. The modern parents’ reason for killing off a girl child are more practical. As the article mentions, a boy is considered an investment. But, not for the reasons Ms. Sharma details. Judging from my conversation with Mrs. Next-door-neighbour, it seems as though all the money spent on the upbringing and education of a boy will come back with interest when he gets married. How else am I supposed to interpret her statement that the going rate for a well-educated and employed bridegroom is about Rs. 1, 000, 000 in cash along with 500 sovereigns of gold (4 kilogrammes) and 20 kilogrammes of silver? All this is the dowry. Apart from this, the girl’s parents bear the entire cost of the 5-day wedding that may add up to another million. To put it bluntly, the parents of the groom sell their son off to the highest bidder. If I had to pay so much to get my daughter married off, I would probably end up encouraging to her to elope! Or, educate her enough to help her live life in her own terms. But, doing this requires more courage than one can possibly imagine. It is not easy for the parents to go against convention and society to refuse dowry.

Given this situation, how can one raise a girl child and get her married off in a way the rest of the world wants the parents to? Little wonder then, that parents prefer to kill off the girl before she is even born. I am not trying to justify their behaviour, or even explain it rationally. I am simply pointing at a more fundamental problem that lies at the root of this kind of behaviour. Just why should I pay someone to marry me when I am going to be cooking and cleaning for him all my life? All this even when I am as qualified as him and earning as much. In short, such men get an unpaid maid who will take care of them for the rest of their lives, bring loads of money for them to burn, and be available for sex on demand. My case is not against marriage or men. It is against this insane system of dowry-giving that results in millions of baby girls being denied the basic human right to be born.

And, what does all this do to demographics? A lot of harm, to cut a long story short. In many parts of Haryana and Punjab, men are unable to find girls to get married to. There is a real shortage of women in these states. I would like to see men survive without women around. It is the basic law of nature. Men and women need each other. They are two parts of a whole. The basic biological fact is that without women, the human race will eventually become extinct. I only hope we, as human beings, understand this basic truth and stop looking at women as a burden. After all, we form one half of humanity.

Revisiting Hinduism

I realised a few months ago that most Hindu temples do not allow non-Hindus to enter the temple premises. A few years ago, I would not have stopped to think about this issue. Today, it takes on an entirely different dimension. Maybe because it appeals to my sense of justice, or maybe because I have scores of non-Hindu friends who would like to learn about Hinduism. During my conversations with Ana on Hindu mythology and culture sometime in mid-May, I emphasised over and over again, the absence of an organised church in Hinduism. I told her that Hinduism was an all-accepting, all-inclusive religion. I told her that there was no conversion ceremony, no proof required that you were, indeed, a Hindu. But today, I find myself unable to defend that thesis any longer. Thanks to the behaviour of temple authorities in India. Why is a white American denied entry into the temple even if she is the wife of a Hindu? How does one prove that one believes in all that Hinduism has to offer? A more pertinent question would be this. Why does anyone not ask me whether I am a devout Hindu? Does my having brown skin guarantee my belief in the religion? For the first time in 24 years, I find myself wondering if Hinduism is indeed as inclusive as it claims to be.

I may be ranting, but let me give you an example to make my point clearer. I believe in God, but not in the insane and illogical separation of the castes that some of my co-religionists like to label as shaastra (religious edict). I believe in the power of the almighty to give me the strength to overcome problems but not in going to a temple on a specified day of the week to prove my faith in Him. I frankly think that rituals and rites make religion more difficult to practise for the common man and that we would all be better off without them. Does that make me a heretic? If it does, then why am I never asked to prove my faith in the religion before I enter the temple premises? Does my brown skin and typical “Brahmin looks” (Don’t ask me what that is; I have no idea) guarantee my religion? Why do temple authorities insist on getting a certificate from random official if I want to take a white foreigner into the temple? What if the said foreigner is not related to me but still is a Hindu? How exactly does one prove one is a Hindu? Are we going to hold a exam to determine his/her religion? If so, I can guarantee most brown-skinned “Hindus” would fail the test. I find this attitude appalling. Just who is a temple official, appointed to ensure maintenance of the temple premises, to determine my religion? What gives him/her the authority to pronounce a judgement on my religious beliefs? To be brutally honest, it is none of his business. He doesn’t have the right to say whether person X or Y is a Hindu or not.

To go back to the basics, no Hindu religious text worth its salt prescribes the rituals that must be carried out to become a “good Hindu”. In other words, there is no such thing as a good Hindu. I spent 14 years of my life in a Hindu religious school and I retained only this. In verse 66 of the 18th Chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, the Lord says,

“Sarva Dharmaan Parityajya maamekam sharanam vraja,
aham tvaa sarvaa paapebhyaha mokshayishyaami maa shuchaha.”

Translated, this means,

“Relinquishing all ideas of righteousness, surrender unto Me,
I will deliver you from all sinful reactions, do not despair.”
(Taken from http://www.bhagavad-gita.org/Gita/verse-18-62.html)

If a person decides to surrender unto that God almighty and decides to visit a temple for whatever reason, who is a random officer to deny him/her that right? Why do we assume we know what God wants and needs? If he is really omnipotent and omniscient, is he not capable of deciding who is a true believer and who is a mere tourist? We are not the custodians of Hinduism. Nor are the temple authorities. It is time they stopped throwing their weight around and harassing people who really want to learn something from visiting a temple. It is true that I find myself unable to defend my thesis that Hinduism is all-embracing when faced with such behaviour. But, I stand by my thesis. After all, we only believe what we choose to believe.