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Of iffy gurus and mystic sufis

India also produced intellects like Rammohun Roy, Sri Aurobindo and M.N. Roy. It has also some highly educated and perceptive thinkers today. But their impact on Indian society has been, and is, marginal. Why? Khushwant Singh gives us his answers.

india Updated: Dec 06, 2008 01:10 IST

I was reading Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals for the second time. It’s a highly readable series of essays on the role of intellectuals in Europe and the United States. The writings of some of them like Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzche, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Leo Tolstoy, Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell had a profound and lasting effect on generations of Europeans and Americans. India also produced intellects like Rammohun Roy, Sri Aurobindo and M.N. Roy. It has also some highly educated and perceptive thinkers today. But their impact on Indian society has been, and is, marginal. Why ?

I can assign two reasons for the failure of our intellectuals to change society. One is that all of them wrote in English that barely 10 per cent of educated Indians can read and comprehend. The masses never get to know about them. The second, and the more important factor in isolating intellectuals was, and is, the fact that the vast majority of our countrymen look up to their gurus or godmen for guidance because they speak their language.

It is oral and not written communication. Gurus have massive following but their learning is limited to churning out accepted religious concepts unaffected by occidental learning. Most of their pravachans (lectures) are accompanied by hymn singing and at times dancing in ecstasy. Their congregations return to their homes contented and at peace with themselves because they do not have to wrestle with new ideas. That is why caste distinctions persist, foeticide is widely practised and we continue to breed at a suicidal rate. Our gurus never deal with such social problems.

I am not sure if my reading of the ineffectiveness of Indian intellectuals in changing social attitudes is correct. I hope to have readers’ reactions.

Rumi, with a view

Ten years ago a lady moved into a flat in the block next to mine. The entire complex of apartments was lit up by her presence. We had not seen a woman as beautiful as her. I spread the word around to my friends. Soon everyone was saying “that cranky old Sardar has gone bonkers. He refuses to meet people but if you want to get anything out of him, all you have to do is to ask the lady to speak to him. To him she is like heroine of Rider Haggard’s novel She, who must be obeyed.” Unfortunately the lady in question visits Delhi only for a few weeks in winter. I won’t mention her name. I call her ‘Heart’s Joy’.

She has hardly ever asked me to do anyone a favour. However, very recently she gave me a copy of a periodical published by the Rumi Foundation of India, called HU which is Arabic for God, or the One God. This third issue of the journal is on sufis and rishis of Kashmir. (She is Kashmiri by marriage). I promised to mention it in my column as I am intrigued by the recent outburst of interest in Rumi as well as the special brand of Islam prevalent in Kashmir.

Then I noticed that the man behind the project was Muzaffar Ali. We are allergic towards each other. So I suspect he entrusted the job to my neighbour. I know Muzaffar to be a handsome go-getter with pretensions of zamindari aristocracy and interest in vintage cars. He made one good film, Umrao Jaan, starring Rekha with songs that will live for ever. For the last many years he’s keenly telling everyone he is filming Zooni. He hasn’t even started on it and is now telling people he is going to make one on Rumi. He is also into dress designing.

Meanwhile, he has acquired an other worldly, soulful Sufi look with graying curly locks and a beard. He along with his third Hindu wife are regular Page 3 characters. He has no problem with money. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has been generous in her endowment to his ventures. He does a commendable job organising functions. I envy him, but have little time for him.

Rumi is all the rage in ‘pseud’ circles the world over. Jalaluddin (1207-73) born in Balkh, Afghanistan, settled down in Konya, Turkey, then called Rum (pronounced Room). He became a teacher and came to be known as Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, Sheikh-al Akbar (the Great Master). His six-volume Masnavi in Persian is a masterpiece. He was a founder of the Mevlevi order of whirling dervishes based in Konya where he is buried.

Rumi wrote on a wide range of subjects extending from the sublime to the very earthy. He had no single-religion obsession. For him all of them were the same. He could be ecstatic as well as bawdy. He wrote about union with the Creator as well as farting donkeys and over-sexed women who tried copulating with them. His worshippers don’t talk about his earthiness.

It is the same with HU. Karan Singh writes of the unique blend of Islam and Hinduism in Kashmir. Actually, it is true of the majority of Indian Muslims. They go to mosque to pray and to dargahs where pirs are buried, to beg for favours. He believes in miracles and how much his erstwhile Muslim subjects revere him. When the Valley was in turmoil over the disappearance of the hair of the Prophet, he and his Maharani went to pray at the Hazrat Bal shrine. And lo and behold, the next day the holy relic was back at its place.

The magazine has articles on Kashmiri poets and holy men. It is hard to read them, as all pages are in shades of sepia or dark brown. It is in fact a collectors’ item to be admired rather than read. It is not priced presumably because it is meant to be priceless. For me it is so as it has a lovely picture. Of Heart’s Joy.

No teething troubles

Banta: Santa, I am thinking of making my son an eye-specialist. I am told eye specialists earn a lot of money doing eye-surgery and making spectacles. What do you think?

Santa: I think you should make him a dentist. After all people have only two eyes while they have 32 teeth. So naturally a dentist gets more work.

(Contributed by JP Singh Kaka, Bhopal)