Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Modernity with Ancient - Marrying a Tree

It was widely reported in media recently that Aishwarya Rai was married to a tree to ward off evil effect she would have had on her husband due to the reason that she has a "Manglik Dosha" in her horoscope which is caused by certain planetary arrangements when a person is born. A Manglik person when married to a non-manglik person can lead to unnatural death of the spouse, separation or marital strife. In Hindu tradition, to ward off evil influence of Manglik dosha, a person can marry a tree like Peepul or Banana or a clay urn before marrying the person. This way evil influence is diverted to the tree or urn rather than on the person. In case of marrying the clay urn, it can be broken leading to believe it or not, making the girl widow (and a man widower , if man performed the ritual). Aishwarya, who reportedly married a Peepul tree in holy city of Varanasi, can actually annul her marriage to the tree by “divorcing it". Though I dont know if these reports are true, it is undeniable that Bachchans were on a spree of temple visits before Ash and Abhishek marriage was announced. Their almost weekly visits to temples and some arcane poojas and rituals they performed became regular breaking news on "hyper" Indian TV channels. Aishwarya Rai called most beautiful women by many, a former Miss World and one of top Bollywood actors, marrying a tree might sound a rather fantastically absurd spectacle to many who would have believed that Bachchans are too foward looking, glamorous and modern to follow such archaic practices, but it is hardly a surprise since India as I keep saying is land of amazing paradoxes. It is perhaps only in India that a family who uses and promotes some of most modern consumerist products, drives some of most expensive cars and can afford most glamorous lifestyle can also get their would be daughter- in-law married to a tree to ward of an evil which many would reject as a superstition and downright medieval practice.

Some of feminists and forward looking groups have criticized Bachchan family in promoting such superstitions. Considering the clout Bachchans have over ordinary Bollywood loving Indian masses, it is no doubt that their act would give a legitimacy in minds of many impressionable masses of such practices and beliefs. Many modernists have openly termed such beliefs (Manglik) as offensive to women in India. In our country, it is mostly women who go through extreme pressure to get married by a certain age and if they are Manglik, it becomes very difficult for them to find a match. Even a lawsuit has been registered against Aiswaraya Rai for promoting a kind of discrimination based on some arcane planetary positions and their influence. Though Astrology is not an exact science and some also term it as a mere superstition, nobody can deny that it is very popular and wide spread. I don’t want to comment on Astrology and whether notion that a person’s life and events can indeed be influenced by mere planetary constellations. One can perhaps reject Astrology as an ancient practice or superstition which has no place in modern 21st century world one can argue that there might still be some truth in it. After all This would ultimately boil down to the primal discussion of whether we have free choice in life or are things predetermined for us. The answer to this solely depends upon the point of view one takes.

Nevertheless, I find Aishwarya marrying a tree interesting from a different perspective since such incidents speaks about a state of our society. What this incident proves is that in India Modernity does not necessarily mean rejection of old. Here modernity is just another layer over other many layers of existence. In India, new can co-exist with old without much of a conflict. Here old customs can be reinvented to suit modern sensibilities and habits, like horoscopes can be matched by computers. Sanskrit speaking, gurus and swamis can get replaced by jet settings, English speaking, globe trotting swamis. Old Spartan and austere ashrams get displaced by air-conditioned; all amenities new age spiritual retreats. Here modernity can sleep with ancient without any guilt. And that perhaps also explains seemingly paradox of one of most beautiful and glamorous women of India marrying a tree to safeguard her marriage. Some people have also expressed shock that a girl like Aishwarya who is educated, internationally known and one of highest paid actress could not stand against absurd beliefs and practices and meekly toed the Bachchans. The fact is that Aishwarya apart form being a glamorous actress, who was recently charged with promoting obscenity through on-screen kiss in one of her movies, is also daughter of a rather conservative, parents with middle class values, who wants to see her settled with a nice boy from a cultured family and like all middle class indians she has been taught to always respect parents and thier beliefs. As for as some of feminists allegation against Bachchans that they are in a way promoting discrimination against women based on a horoscope, it is worth mentioning that marriage in India is anyway extremely discriminating affair for majority. We still marry only within a selected group which we chose (or discriminate) based on region, religion, caste, sub caste, gotras, colour (fair brides) and obviously horoscope. As I said before, In India, modernity is just a veneer we put over century old customs, beliefs and traditions.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Sixer

It is darker. I find her waiting for me. She opens the door. I look into her eyes and she looks at me and let me in. She doesn't say anything. I don’t say anything. But we have spoken. I know that she is angry that I am late. I know that her anger is mixed with happiness and anticipation. I notice that she is wearing the Sari I like the most. I notice the eyeliner, the mascara, and lipstick which are accentuating her quivering lips. I know there are little droplets of sweat on her forehead threatening to run down her face spoiling her makeup. I notice fresh polish on her nails which she is growing long because I like long nails. I know she is raising her arms deliberately to make that tinkling sounds I like from her bangles. I see her feet, freshly pedicured , cozily ensconced in long heels I once picked for her. I notice her fiddling with ring on her finger I gifted her. I notice her thick mane spread over her back. I know she has let her hair open just the way I like it. I see those long, bell shaped long ear rings dangling in her ear lobes. I can hear her heart beating faster. I can sense her bosom rising and falling beyond her control. I smell the warm fragrance she is wearing which she knows makes me intoxicated. I know there is a lump in her throat ready to melt when I speak. We sit there. I don’t speak anything. She doesn’t say anything. I know that she has spent hours getting ready for me. She wants me to notice all of her. She wants me to notice that tonight she is all what I want her to be. I pretend I haven't. I know that she wants me to hold her hands. I know she wants me to look into her eyes and tell her how beautiful she is looking. I know she wants me to bury my face in her nape, close my eyes and tell her how nice she smells. I know she wants me to run my hands over her arms and tell her how silken they feel. I know she wants me me to bite her ear and whisper how much I love her. I see the candles she has lit up on candle stand on the table. I see the red roses I had given her in the vase which she has still kept wet with water. I know she will keep them that way until they can not be anymore. I see the candle flame devouring the wax with incorrigible hunger and in ferocious silence. The wax melts, the flame sustains.

I get up and walk towards table. I Pick up the remote and switch on TV. Match is on. I press on the remote, TV responds, volume is upped. I slump into the couch. Batsman comes on front foot and hit the ball hard, his bat and his arms in unison, lunging with brute force towards sky. The ball soars over the sky, going upwards and upwards until it loses its battle with gravity and starts its descent flying way outside the stadium and into the trees.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

We need Toilets not Temples - Why are we dirty people?

Mark Twain once said about India that anything that can be done by man or God, has been done in this land . In one of discussions on India Poised, Jaggi Vasudev said an interesting thing that "in all the talk (in India) about divinity and gretness of country we have forgotten about humanity. At every street corner we have built temples not toilets. A pee is more important than a prayer. It is certainly more compelling than a prayer".

We Indians are perhaps dirtiest people in world. Our cities look like extended slums, towns are filthy dumps and villages often reek of excreta. It is said that poverty breeds filth and it could be true. But in our country there is another problem. The problem in head. The problem of mindset and problem of habit and perhaps culture. We just dont want to live in clean places. I have seen many and I really mean many well educated, well read and well traveled people who just don’t think for a moment before littering in public places. Right outside my office, employees of at least 3 IT companies in vicinity can be seen smoking and having tea in plastic cups which they throw right there on road after they are finished. There is no dustbin there but it doesn't occur to any of them to take the empty cup back to office and throw in bin.

In "Area of Darkness" V.S. Naipaul gives an extremely dark account of India and details how dirty the country was. As a foreigner of Indian roots (his father migrated to Africa and Naipaul studied in London) Naipaul was shocked to see how dirty people in his "homeland” were. His account of India (in decades of 60 and 70s) was deeply pessimistic and I would say he was right on many fronts. Naipaul in his books writes that elsewhere in world approach to villages through countryside is a pleasant experience but not in India where visitor to villages is welcomed by smell of human excreta. He observed it in decades of 70s but it could be still true in most of villages in India. In my own village, an empty ground just outside the village was used as an open, defecation area till around few years back. It is only in recent years that villagers started building toilets in their houses (but then Himachal is comparatively far more progressive state than most of other states). Around 80% of diseases in our country are caused by drinking water contaminated by human waste. Less than 30% of India's population have toilets in their homes. Many projects undertaken to provide clean toilets in villages have failed because villagers could not take to new habit of using toilets within their homes and they promptly converted their toilets into storage rooms. Considering population growth, it is estimated that it would take 200 years for every Indian to have access to a toilet. India is also perhaps only country in world where defecating is also a social activity. One just needs to sit beside the window during early morning train journey to see hordes of men and women defecating in groups along the rail road. Even in large cities, one can see people defecating and chatting at the same time right beside a busy road (I see that every day while traveling to office). I sometime wonder what those guys talk while indulging in an activity which I thought need some silence and privacy. Even dog after defecating buries its waste under sand but not these people. They never clean their own waste. We never clean our own waste.

It is worth noting that we were not always like this. It is ironical that in around 3000 BC (or was it 1500 BC!!) in Harappa and Mohanjodaro there were towns many hundred miles away from each other but built in similar grid fashion with immaculate streets and sophisticated drainage system for those times. Those people were perhaps one of first town planners and theylived right here on our own land. How did we forget that art? We are in year 2007 AD and have a look at our towns now and look at the wasted state our waste management systems are. Al-Jahiz 9th century Muslim historian writes: "The Hindus excel in astrology, mathematics, medicine and in various other sciences. They have developed to perfection arts like sculpture, painting, and architecture. They have collections of poetry, philosophy, literature and science of morals. From India we received the book called Kalilah wa Dimnah. These people have judgment and are brave. They posses the virtues of cleanliness and purity. Contemplation has originated with them." Abdullah Wassaf, writing in the 14th century A.D. says of India in his history book, Tazjiyatul Amsar: " India, according to the concurrent opinion of all writers, is the most agreeable abode on earth and the most pleasant quarter of the world. Its dust is purer than air and its air is purer than purity itself: Its delightful plains resemble the garden of paradise.

So what went wrong? Why are we so dirty now? One is tempted to say that it is because of our bloated population and unending poverty or some might say it is becuase we were enslaved (ha ha)!!. Yes they are some of reasons but I think we have a bigger cultural problem as the cause. In a self induced illusion of greatness of Indian civilization, we never see apparent things. We are so taken in by our self belief in our own greatness that we don’t introspect and don’t think that there could be anything wrong with us. It is utterly shocking that in a country where Gods rules every minute of existence for most of people, our religious places are often dirty. Our religion had always emphasized importance of spirit over matter. Inner beauty over outer physical appearance. It proclaimed that world we see is a "maya" or illusion and aim of human life is to rise above it and attain salvation. The world we see is temporary and we should not be attached to it. I think somewhere deeper in an Indian’s consciousness, it is this metaphysical idea of life that rules and which makes him to neglect his outer world. As such there is nothing wrong with this notion of spirit over matter but not many people care, understand or are equipped to understand its deeper meaning. And then the atrocious Caste system which is like a blot on our culture, was so corrupted over centuries that cleaning as a task became function of a lesser caste. Brahmins and upper caste considered it impure to clean. Tasks in society were structured in hierarchy with menial tasks, considered low, assigned to lower classes. This mentality of considering menial tasks as lower than other tasks is still wide spread in our country). Anybody who is student of Indian culture soon discovers that this is a land of some of most contrasting and amazing paradoxes. Even in context of cleanliness, it is surprising to know that in Hindu tradition cleanliness is considered extremely important but tasks of cleaning is not and is considered impure. How strange is that!! How can we be clean if act of cleaning is considered lower and impure task? And some of our ideas about impurity are equally ludicrous. For example, in many temples in our country, women while menstruating are not allowed inside since they are considered unclean and impure. Obviously it was an idea propagated by male dominated, Brahmins ruled society. Gandhi during freedom movement had understood this and he made attempts to make people realize importance of cleanliness. He cleaned his own toilet and encouraged upper caste people in his ashram to clean toilets. “It filled me with agony to see people performing natural functions on the thoroughfares and river banks, when they could easily have gone a little farther away from public haunts," Gandhi wrote in his autobiography of a 1915 visit to the Ganges River. It was corruption of Brahmincal Hinduism and rigidity of caste system during later years of our civilization that changed attitudes and practices around disposal of human waste in specific and cleanliness in general. It is this cultural mindset which is at bottom of causes of our unclean, dirty habits.

It takes many many years to change habits when they originate from deeper cultural causes. A person who is highly educated might not defecate in open but he would not find it wrong to litter at public places since after all cleaning is not his function but somebody else’s. Coupled with poorest civic sense that we Indians have, one can see why our cities, towns and villages are so dirty. Makes me wonder why we have such poor civic sense?