While the violent self-appointed agents of the big belief systems slug it out, we could take a restorative look at the godlings and spirits who never went away despite the big systems trying to either kill them or co-opt them. Apropos of which, I was startled by the utterances of an American lady last month at the India International Centre. She was at least 60 plus and had traveled a lot in Orissa, in fact she was on her way there again. “What do you do in Orissa?” I asked politely. “I study the tribal goddesses,” she said, “It’s the most backward place, so they still survive there.”
This was so 1970s, even making the hugest allowance for the fact that it was at the India International Centre, possibly the last bastion in India of the RFF (Rude Foreign Fogies) that I worried about her long afterwards.
The disrespect was total and so was the dishonesty. She couldn’t make a living in her own country (the US!) studying the belief systems of the Ozark hillbillies, the symbolism of country quilt patterns or the deeper Kabbalistic meaning of the ‘peace’ sign, so she earned her livelihood documenting the customs of Asian people. And she’d go back and write a book about these goddesses and become an instant ‘authority’ which lazy Indians would quote respectfully in secondhand theses.
Of course you can argue that many Indians don’t do their own research properly or don’t communicate well even if knowledgeable, so isn’t it wonderful that someone is doing it. What worried me was that she ran a real risk in today’s tinderbox India talking like that and I (foolishly?) called a common friend in Orissa to tactful ly tell her to tone down the Ugly American thing, before someone reacted badly and shamed us all.
Besides which, nobody can actually accept such bad manners any more, except dabboo Indians clerking for the World Bank or the UN or perhaps looking to teach abroad. Indians know the bad stuff about themselves backwards and if such impolite observations interest foreigners over a masala cheese toast in airconditioned environs, why, Indians would be delighted to reciprocate with their views on aspects of Europe or America.
Don’t you think though that what’s missing from the agenda of the ghastly people in our ghastly political parties is that no one says, “Garv se kaho tum Indian ho,” with proper totality? A correspondent of The Washington Post made an unforgettable point many years ago. He had just been posted to New Delhi from Beijing. “What’s the biggest difference you’ve found between them and us, besides our gabbiness?” I asked curiously. “That’s easy! The Chinese always talk about what they’ve done, their achievements. Indians always talk about what they’ve not done, their failures,” he said. It’s true, isn’t it? We can be so horribly negative as a nation. Who shall blame us, you say: look at everything that’s wrong. But why can’t we also look at what’s right, not in a delusional India Shining way but as the world’s most amazing mission, a land worth knowing, working for, safeguarding and celebrating…a Work in Progress?
A strong ‘We’ll make it!’ cue comes our way if we look, from the old godlings of our land, those sweet, sometimes scary but generally benign deities of the field, the drum, the broom, the work implements, the thatch, the river and hill. They have hung around like an army of guardian angels to keep up people’s courage and inspire their better selvesthrough everyday problems, these ‘gods of small things’. They may challenge our so-called rationalism, but this is something for all cardcarrying members of big belief systems, including ‘Hindus’, to realise and respect: these deities are around because people want them. Every Indian village has several, or at least a local saint whose grave is a refuge. And it’s is not just the unlettered poor who love them and ask for their help.
The point is, just as the Great Tradition of Vedic Hinduism is held to co-opt the ‘Little’ local traditions of each region in its bandwidth, so the great global religions now seem to seek new geographies to add to their map. Will these ‘big’ religions succeed in this millennium in driving local deities out of their own land? Or will Indians be able to retain these important building blocks of their identity with honour? To finish as an obscure American thesis on some by-the-way bookshelf... what a paltry end for Presences that have served our emotional needs staunchly for centuries.