I’m home again all right in confused little India. For my first trip into town, my brother wanted to take me to lunch at the club for old times’ sake. Before that, I wanted my first halt in Delhi to be at the ancient Yogmaya temple at Mehrauli, the oldest settlement in all seven Delhis and scene of the annual Sair-e-Gul Faroshan, the pretty Hindu-Muslim festival begun from Zafar’s day, halted in 1857 and revived in 1962.
Not only had I taken leave of Yogmaya before going to Thailand but also my parting blessing in Bangkok from a Thai professor of Sanskrit had invoked Devi (“Sarva mangala maangalye”).
Back home now, I wanted to pay my respects, it was a personal thing since thinking of Her had given me courage through many difficulties over many years. My brother is not into religion but is into history. He is also nice to his sister, so he told the driver to swing by.
It was my brother’s first-ever visit to Yogmaya’s temple in all these years and he politely followed me around while I kowtowed, received prasad and did pradakshina. It was as pleasant an instance as you could wish, of peaceful co-existence between a naastik and a bhakt who happened to be siblings.
After we were out of sight, my brother quietly rubbed away the tilak daubed on him. I kept mine on, and the little dab of chandan paste. Before sitting down to lunch, I wandered around the club to catch up with its corners and ran into an old guard couple long-entrenched in privilege. The wife looked at my forehead and called me a “saadhvi”. It wasn’t said nicely, so I went away in seconds.
She’d called me a Rithambara kind of person because Yogmaya’s tilak and chandan were still on my forehead? Couldn’t I bear Devi’s mark without political gibes?
After years of trying to articulate ‘middle ground’ in the public domain and nearly four years away in SE Asia extolling Indian culture, it’s astonishing to me that these cultural hypocrisies still operate at home.
Our collective sorrow as a nation has gone way beyond all that, the institutions our parents served so sincerely are crumbling and though we carry on, we are a thoroughly battered people trying to deal with state and system failures. I thought by now we’d seen through everybody and everything including the commie-canters. But if this odd little encounter was at all indicative, the old guard of pinko-priviligentsia remains in surreal denial of the dysfunctional mess it’s made of India.
— Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture.