A housewife from a small town in north India, who had shifted home to Noida, was agitated. The question bothering her: How to keep an age-old festive tradition going. In her hometown, she had been steadfastly observing a custom since her childhood: On every Ram Navami, a group of kanyas and langurs were invited home. They were fed to their heart’s content, were given a token sum of money, and when it was time to leave, if any of the kanyas or langurs made a demand, her parents gladly fulfilled it.
Kanyas and langurs? You might be astonished. Which is this custom that brings together young girls and langurs? Let us clear the suspense. In certain parts of the Hindi heartland, a kanya is a symbol of shakti and langurs, in this case, in the form of boys, represent Lord Hanuman. Feeding them symobolises feeding the Devi and disciples of Ram.
Photos: Ram Navami
The housewife from Noida was nervous because in smaller towns, children gladly volunteered to become kanyas and langurs for the sake of festive traditions. But in this concrete jungle, where neighbours didn’t even talk to each other unless necessary, how would she manage to continue with the tradition? The security in-charge of her housing apartment solved her problem. He said that on the morning of Ram Navami, children from the neighbourhood would assemble outside the apartments on their own. She could invite them for the meal whenever she was ready. So the homemaker was glad to see nine kanyas and an equal number of langurs at the designated time. She had lit incense and laid out a mat on the marble floor, apart from lighting diyas in her prayer room, which had been built in a corner of her home, according to Vaastu principles. She was wearing a traditional red sari and had prepared halwa, channa and pooris for the festival.
Unlike her hometown, she could not have applied cow-dung to the floor of an apartment block in urban Noida. The housing society management had also prohibited lighting havan kund fires indoors. But she wasn’t deterred. “Aapatkale maryada naasty (In times of emergency, you cannot always strictly follow family traditions)” her father used to tell her. But what was she seeing here?
One of the langurs admonished his four-year-old sister: “Rashida, sit properly!” Then he quickly corrected himself and said. “Yashoda, sit properly.” The housewife was in shock. In her hometown, it was unimaginable to invite non-Brahmin boys and girls to Ram Navami celebrations. She decided to probe this. She asked the boy: “What’s your name?” “Ashok,” he replied. “Do you call your father papa or abbu?” “Papa,” he replied.
Now she turned to the sister. She is young and innocent, she couldn’t tell a lie for sure. “Who do you worship, bhagwan or allah?” “Both,” was the answer. “What do you call your mother?” “Ammi,” she replied. “When you were coming to have food here, did your parents stop you?” “No,” was the answer. Next question: “This holy thread that I’ve put on your wrist, will you keep wearing it once you return home or remove it?” “We’ll remove it once we go home,” answered the girl. Her suspicions were confirmed. But she kept probing. “Do you celebrate Diwali?” “Yes.” And, Eid? “Yes.”
The housewife was in a dilemma. She called her husband about it. The hapless corporate slave answered even as he kept his eyes on his computer screen: “How does it matter? Children are god’s incarnations. Feed them well and give them a festive allowance.” The housewife again remembered her father’s lines: “Aapatkale maryada naasty” She shed her reservations and fed the kanyas and langurs. She put some money in their little fists and touched their feet when they were leaving and whispered: “Come again, next year for sure.”
Here, I am not talking about the collapsing walls of communalism but economic disparity. Where were the housewife’s children when this happened? They were in school and the children who visited her had never been to one. They were not likely to get this privilege anytime soon. When their parents headed out to make a living as labourers, the kids keep loitering through the day. They were born in slum clusters, which have cropped up like blisters on the face of concrete jungles. Will these children of the 21st century spend their entire life in slums?
It is pertinent to mention here that the group of children included both Hindus and Muslims. Slums don’t discriminate between people on the basis of religion.
I wouldn’t have written on this subject had I not read about India’s dismal record in the fight against hunger in our sister publication, Mint. According to statistics from the International Food Policy Research Institute’s global hunger index, our country is worse off than Nepal, Bangladesh, Senegal and Rwanda. We lag behind nations whose names most people haven’t heard of.
Those debating about national security, the martyrdom of our soldiers, GDP, repo rate and urbanisation often forget that in order to secure our borders forever, it is essential to bridge the gulf of economic inequality.
Why are subjects such as these missing from intellectual and political debates?
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan