Something that has bothered many of us for long is the tragic fact that we as a country did not invest in primary education. Instead, we hijacked the agenda to higher education, which some of us benefited gloriously from. But it left millions out in the cold and we’re paying the price now as a society, aren’t we?
What bothers many people along with this, is that cultural literacy did not have a proper place in the scheme of things. This seems to have had to do with ‘religion’, particularly Hinduism, being a disgraced subject in the last century, because, face it, in an old country like ours, ‘religion’ and ‘culture’, go together like ham-and-eggs or dal-roti. But instead, we had generations of closet Hindus, we ghettoised religion and we stopped speaking to each other. And we all know what happened: the politicians moved in and brought out our darkest sides.
But I do remember, as many do, the India we grew up in the first few decades after Independence, in what I’m wont to call the Nehruvian afterglow (he got this right though he got plenty wrong).
It was a fabulous eclecticism, an open, inclusive India that mixed and matched with perfect, unselfconscious freedom. This very openness allowed us to absorb everything the world had to offer while remaining rooted in a core identity. Over the years, as I know plenty of modern, urban Indians have, I’ve been repeatedly asked, “So where did you study abroad?” And we’ve always answered proudly, “Oh, I’m a hundred percent ‘Made in India’!”
If the same country that gave some of us this fabulous education right at home can’t spread cheer across the board, it’s a betrayal of the marg darshan upheld in our Constitution. Again, the politicians’ fell hand is visible, banning English, aggressively pracharaking (or banning) Hindi, fasting to death for Telugu, whatever. It helps nobody and only narrows our cultural identities to suffocating little spaces.
So how may we slowly reconnect and re-ignite social engineering across communities? The answer is surely not to go forth and multiply, as some churchmen advocated this week in Kerala! Anybody who says that, in any religion, or disallows contraception, is being most irresponsible, surely, in a country fighting to overcome over-population? How about small, steady steps in social in teraction, first?
Hindus, as our largest community, could take a lead in this, by inviting Muslim neighbours and friends to put up stalls in events like Diwali Melas. And no, it doesn’t need to be restricted to kababbiryani. How about calling the calligraphers to write names and messages, the lacemakers and embroiderers, the flower-sellers, garlandmakers, the singers, dancers and puppeteers? There are Muslim ladies who fashion the loveliest confections from satin ribbons, zardozi thread and velvet roses (all framed prettily in ‘compositions’) who might like to take orders for trousseau boxes, jewelry boxes, oh, a hundred things that always suit our hundred festivals.
There are so many pleasant things to share that it seems a shame that we’ve retreated so inaccesibly from each other. One of my friends, a young Maulana in the Walled City of Delhi, says he wants to see the day when Hindus and Muslims walk so freely into each others’ homes that a Muslim knows where the tulsi is kept (and why) in a Hindu home and where the puja corner is. And a Hindu knows what’s hanging over a Muslim’s door on the inside: the Ayat ul-Kursi or powerful Throne Verse from the Quran Sharief that is to the Muslim home what Ganesha is to a Hindu dwelling: protection and Presence.
We know there are some pockets of India where this kind of aana-jaana-apnaana is into its third or fourth generation of bonding. But don’t we need to consciously work on this some more? My colony gurdwara is a great example of how affinities quietly happen in India. It’s next to a temple and lots of residents just go to both. The gurdwara operates some charitable clinics on its premises and its physiotherapist is a Dr Salim Usmani. It’s cultural literacy that makes these good things happen. When the human mind is used as a tool and not as a spittoon, it realises that while each community has its own special ways of praying and living, it’s much nicer to get out there and know people, without squishing God into a box of dates or a box of laddoos. And with a properly educated country, which greasy pol or preacher can make fools of us?