Monthly Archives: February 2013

The agony of having a mind of your own

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It’s not just today, or one incident, or one person or situation. It’s been phenomenon for a while now – long enough to characterize your short experience with life. It is the phenomenon of having a mind that wills its own way.

It starts in middle school, when you’re feet are shaky with the surge of hormones. The mind doesn’t know right from wrong then. All it knows is acceptance and the lack of it.

So you begin to try and adopt things, like things that are not you – from homely music played by your dad on a Sunday morning, you shift to metal. You don’t really like it, in fact you don’t understand it. But, when you lend your iPod to someone, at least you don’t need to feel ashamed.

Then come the boys… the toys, the talk, the walk, the gossip and chatter, the curlers and straighteners, the heels and flaps… you’d much rather wear your comfortable floaters, but how could you? They are oh-so-ugly!

So from tshirts, you move to tops, tops with sleeves, without them, low necklines and back lines and all the other accessories with names that need a dictionary to understand.

But, somehow, you steer clear of them all, because that little mind in that little hormone-d head has a voice stronger than your own. You listen to it. And in retrospect, you’re glad you did. But right there, in that present, that little mind just lost you your friends.

So carry on, you reach college. By this time your mind is quite dominant. It is that secret life you wish you always had. It’s different from the crowd. It doesn’t recognize shades of grey, it knows only black and white.

You rebel against your mind, you blame your parents for giving you a sound upbringing – the ability to think on your own, for yourself… they tell you to pause before you act, think before you talk, look before you leap… and suddenly all these precautions seem such a pain. You think that your friends think that you are a bore. You want to break-free and be like the rest.

And then, you are exposed – exposed to great ideas and thinkers, books and writers, you see that true liberty comes when you listen to the mind’s voice and act accordingly. You read, to read and perchance to dream, like Andre Brink would say. You escape into a world where what you think about your actions is all that matters. What matters is whether your mind voice allows you to sleep at night. You think. Your mind and you start becoming one.

So you thank the books for making you see why you should thank your parents for that sound upbringing. And once again, you steer clear of the mass, you decide to not care what people think. And at this age, at 17, 18 or 19… when your hormones are finally settling, you find it so liberating.

And then you turn 20 and then 21. Legally an adult. A job in matter of time. No more college, no more care… it’s you against the world. You prepare. And you let your mind voice be the better of you.

But, you were born in a generation where people leap and then look, talk and then don’t think, act and don’t care. And you wonder why you’re such a misfit. You wish you could fit in, be ‘normal’ according to others. Oh no! it’s middle school all over again. Damn you mind!

So until this point, this mind voice that made you one person within and an entirely different one outside asserts itself. It tells you it’s time you reveal your secret life. It asks to take a chance, to not a give a damn. It wants to know how that might feel.

So you do it. You stop living in the grey areas. You walk towards what you think is white and right. And you no more do this subtly. You do this openly, with your head held high. You’re glad to be walking away from hypocrisy and lies and actions meant to merely please.

And you pay for it. It hurts. It bruises deeply and you bleed. But wounds remind you of how good it felt to not give a damn.

It gives you wings and makes you fly – a flight so beautiful, you’d never want to stop.

 

A history in ruins

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Indian history is a museum of stories, of the rise and fall of kingdoms, of bravery, revolution and defiance. It is a ‘cultural experience’, like author and historian John Keay writes. In our country, it is also an incomplete memory that may soon fade into obscurity.

The history of nations relies heavily on the memory and chronicles of contemporaries at every stage. Our history is dotted with great scholars and writers. We have the best treatises on statecraft and society.

However, when the British looked to justify their ruling over us three centuries ago, they said we were a people with no sense of our past, no political ambitions and savages who needed civilising.

In fact, the first chapter of our history was written by an English judge called William Jones.

Jones arrived in Calcutta in 1783. Two years hence, Jones began to learn Sanskrit. Already a scholar of Greek and Latin, learning Sanskrit showed Jones the similarity between the three languages. He presented his theory at a meeting of the Asiatic Society, which he formed.

He said, “The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them, a stronger affinity… than can possibly have been produced by accident.”

This discovery of Jones established that the finesse of Sanskrit meant that the Indian civilization was older than any in Europe. William Jones probed our history through Sanskrit literature from our classical age, and got mired in a web of dates.

The only certain date of ancient Indian history was 326 BC, the year Alexander the Great invaded the Punjab. Sanskrit literature however had no chronicling of this event.

In his book India Discovered, John Keay describes how Jones discovered the starting point of a 2000-year old history.

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Alexander’s successor, Selecus Nicator sent an ambassador Megasthenes to India. Megasthenes’ record of the age named an Indian court at a place called Palibothra, situated at the confluence of the Ganges and the Erranaboas. The record also describes in detail about the court and its ruler ‘Sandracottus’.

“But where Palibothra was, which river the Erranaboas was supposed to be, and who Sandracottus was, all remained a mystery,” writes Keay.

Jones settled on Patna, the ancient name for which was Pataliputra, closest to the Greek Palibothra. But, the Ganges does not merge with any river at this city. Keay says Jones thought the river must be Son, which once joined the Ganga near Patna before changing course. Son was also called the Hiranyabahu or golden-armed.

Keay writes, “Erranaboas could be Greek for Hiranyabahu; in which case Erranaboas was the Son after all. Palibothra must indeed mean Pataliputra. That left Sandracottus, the Indian ruler whom Megasthenes had so much admired.”

Jones found an alternate spelling for Sandracottus was Sandraguptos. This proved that Jones had indeed unearthed the story of the founder of the Mauryan Empire, Chandragupta Maurya.

This discovery was immensely important in the writing of our entire history – backward from this point to the birth of the Buddha and forward, using lists of kings in Sanskrit literature.

Jones not only gave us a sense of our past, but also an identity, an evidence of our civilisation. It went on to show the British that their subjects did have political ambitions far greater the Alexander’s, a culture far richer than Europe’s and a language far more refined than classical Greek.

But, while we love talking about our rich past, we fail to take constructive steps to discover more or perhaps just preserve it.

History is unpopular in Indian society. There are very few investments in historical research and experts on the subject could be termed an endangered species.

Anirudh Deshpande writes in the Economic and Political Weekly, “The past is important to Indians, but history is not… A large part of the problem lies in the fact that the market and the sciences in general have marginalised the humanities in Indian society.”

This spells a dangerous trend, as history is also political. Our fading memory of the past is often our greatest weakness in the face of political manipulations of India’s story – history becomes a partial comment, constructed to suit a political agenda, uplift a favoured segment of people, a point of conflict and an excuse for censure.

An amnesia of our past was solved to a certain extent by the writings of some British officers and later, many Indian historians. But our neglect of the subject is leaving it in ruins, and may just push us into amnesia, once again.

Chitto Jetha Bhayshunyo (Where the mind is without fear)

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It must be a rather strange, but fortunate coincidence that in the past week, I have been simultaneously exposed to a growing climate of intolerance in my country and to the ideas and thoughts that went into the creation of a sound public sphere during our national movement.

The two concepts – the overwhelming… naïve intolerance of this 21st century and the great ideas of expression in the mid-19th century – are independent of each other.

The top stories of the past week – be it Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam or Ashis Nandy’s caste-corruption comment, scream a face of India that is invisible but buried so deeply in our conscience. It screams of a society that has nurtured intolerance in soul and mind.

What are we so angry about?

The last time our nation was angered, to perhaps a greater extent than this, and definitely for greater cause, our solutions were more channelised. This asks us a very poignant question – Are we defying the laws of evolution by becoming less rational in thought and action, to an extent that can be termed moronic?

So, let’s go back to the roots.

Bengal in the mid-to-late 19th century has been a subject of great study – to the practical historian, the romantic novelist as well as liberal, neorealist film-makers.

This was a time in history, where the movements in Bengal for social, political and economic reform resonated throughout the country.

It was a time when our ‘minds were without fear’, as Tagore would go on to write.

Under the Brahmo Samaj, powerful leaders like Rajaram Mohan Roy championed rights for women and girls, influenced by British modernity.

The role of the Brahmo in reforming our society has been contested by many scholars, when they point out that the reforming and liberalizing, particularly of women, was all under the vast expanse of an undying patriarchy.

Nevertheless, here was a group of intellectuals trying to place their nation on a rational line, devoid of the influences of caste, class and religion and guided purely by reason. This was one of the many faces of modernity at the time.

But, modernity in Bengal, as in the rest of the country, was always viewed with a tinge of black as it was related to colonial rule, to rule that invaded into the private realm of our beliefs and traditions.

The railways are the best example of why a deeply traditional society resisted modernism. The introduction of the railways forced Hindus and Muslims, Brahmin and Shudra, Zamindar and peasant to sit together while traveling.

There couldn’t be greater blasphemy.

The traditionalists held on to their beliefs and customs and resisted any interference as they considered these to be a last bastion of freedom.

This was the first line through our nation. But this line manifested itself positively in the face of a common enemy. Personal agendas were put aside by members of different communities to come out as one strong opposition to British rule.

Mass movements gained immediacy through the press, specifically regional language journals that penetrated society. This gave room to an increasing public sphere.

The press also inspired more sources through which the public could express themselves – theatre being a popular medium. This catered to the illiterate too, generating bazaar discussions – quite literally, topics were being discussed in a commonplace such as the market.

This bazaar culture concept I was exposed to in a class. It was explained as completely contrasting to Habermas’ concept of the public sphere which was mainly concentrated in the coffee houses and concerned just the elite intellectuals.

Here was a stimulating, rational public sphere that was of, by and for the masses, the aam aadmi who went on to become central to our independence struggle.

The same aam aadmi who seems so angered today, without cause – angered by a statement out of context or the supposed tainting of a community – the aam aadmi who uses that precious public sphere to breed more intolerance.

This is the second line through our nation, one that will not just divide but break our country into a million pieces.

What Ashis Nandy said and didn’t mean has been written about. What Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam actually implies but is not evident has also been written about. That Salman Rushdie has always been misunderstood is very well-known.

What is unknown, and not in our public sphere today for debate is why we allow lines of religion and caste to come in the way of expression, art and literature.

It is ironical that a nation which won its freedom by putting aside differences of religion and caste, has adopted it so vigorously today, that we have become our own colonizers.

If only our actions were guided by Tagore’s ideals…

 Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action —

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake