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Celebrating diversity

It was a dainty, delicate thing, the rakhi, with trimmings of golden thread around a satiny, red centre. She slipped it on to my wrist, and turned my hand this way and that to see how the rakhi looked on it.

india Updated: Aug 29, 2010 00:17 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

It was a dainty, delicate thing, the rakhi, with trimmings of golden thread around a satiny, red centre. She slipped it on to my wrist, and turned my hand this way and that to see how the rakhi looked on it.

Having just turned nine, our girl, it appears, is still childish enough to want to tie a rakhi on her father’s hand. She has no siblings, and is yet to discover the machinations by which you can keep at bay pestering boys by turning them into rakhi brothers.

I asked her if she knew how the rakhi — and, indeed, Raksha Bandhan — had become popular in modern India. She had written a school assignment on the celebration just that morning. But, no, she didn’t know, not really.

So I told her about Rabindranath Tagore and the partition of Bengal in 1905; about how the poet had made popular the gesture of tying a rakhi, freighting it with the symbolism of fraternal bonhomie, especially among Hindus and Muslims; about the song he wrote to commemorate the occasion; and about how, when I was a boy, we had to learn the song by heart at school.

If you were a small boy in Kolkata in the 1970s, your notion of Indians was governed by a binary: there were Bengalis; and there were non-Bengalis. (I suspect that if you are a small boy in Kolkata even now, your notion would be pretty much the same.)

Oishi, on the other hand, is rather more aware of our country’s cultural and ethnical diversity. She speaks fluent Hindi, and a smattering of Marathi. Her friends are drawn from various parts of India, and its various communities. She is as alert to — and as open to embracing — Navroz as Ganesh Chaturthi.

It’s fun for us to see how much she takes all this for granted, how the notion of things being as bipolar as they were for us never really occurs to her.

But then, that also means that she can’t — as my wife or I could — read Bengali literature. She is now reading Tagore’s Tasher Desh as The Land of Cards — in translation. She has had read out to her, but hasn’t been able to read herself Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol — nonsense verse more sensible, more profound and more filled with delightful humour and biting satire on life and living than many volumes of poetry put together.

Unless she decides to do something about it as an adult, she will be denied the giddying pleasure of immersing herself in a world that is delineated in the language we speak at home. That whole universe is closed to her. And it’s a pity.

It’s a pity, too, that she celebrates Raksha Bandhan (and writes about it) without know that it’s part of her cultural DNA. Deracination does this to us. There is always a trade-off. And, as with all trade-offs, it is hard to tell whether what one gains is greater or lesser than what one forgoes.