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We don’t need no education?

The quality of religious and cultural learning defines lifestyle, its manners, methods and goals, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Feb 01, 2008 23:59 IST

Next door in Afghanistan, Syed Pervez Kambhaksh, a 23-year-old journalist, sits in jail with a death sentence on his head. His alleged crime? Downloading an internet article that questioned current Islamic views on women. It is as unbelievable as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. We’re back to the basic issue of respect. What constitutes respect? As an Indian, I’d say, mental freedom. Without it, there is no meaning to existence. Yet NCERT findings say that a sizeable proportion of children in government-run schools in our country cannot do basic arithmetic. Does that not constitute a denial of mental freedom?

Just so, the quality of religious and cultural learning defines lifestyle, its manners, methods and goals. What have we got? A fine old muddle, mostly. Yesterday in the car I heard an RJ telling us that Bengali conch bangles are a symbol of suhaag and it’s extra-sacred to offer them first to be blessed at the Kalibari in Kolkata. That’s it? Doesn’t anyone want to say, “Well, that’s the cultural practice based on belief, and while those bangles are certainly very pretty, do remember you can wear bangles anyway.” If it sounds tedious to have to qualify everything, what’s the alternative in our uneducated society? Shouldn’t we understand that shringar is one thing but marriage-as-a-social-security-institution is quite another and ‘wedding bangles’ are an official badge of that? Do women really need to set themselves up to suffer emotionally and socially because of those damn bangles if they’re suddenly widowed?

My point is, that one frightening consequence of unquestioningly doing things that spring from religious belief, is lack of respect for others. Education can help us mediate belief and practice in a fair and sensible way, but not if it’s the wrong sort. So what IS the wrong sort? The sort that tells us plenty about how the Arabs invaded India but not enough about how they first came to trade in peace on the coast. The sort that teaches us, if we’re Afghan, to disrespect the death-defying cliff-hanging of our own ancestors who chipped and chipped patiently at a whole rockface to make the world’s largest Buddhas. The sort that doesn’t tell the children of multi-faith India that the term ‘but-parasti’ meant ‘Buddh-parasti’ (‘Buddha-worship’ which became the euphemism for ‘idol-worship’), for it was the mix of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism that Islam encountered in Afghanistan that spawned this term. The sort that doesn’t expose us to the deepest feelings of other cultures, particularly that of our neighbours, so that we may know them and not hate them out of ignorance. Where are their deepest feelings to be found? Why, in their music, poetry and language that carry their thoughts and worldview. We don’t even need to understand their words if they are chanted or sung with beauty.

I felt that when I first heard Umm Kulthum’s voice years ago on a cassette. It was her famous song, Enta Omri, and I loved it without knowing why, just like people two generations ago in South India responded to the dard in KL Saigal’s voice without knowing Hindustani. Two Decembers ago when I went to Jordan for the second World Cultural Forum, I found a CD of hers, Lesa Faker (‘If you remember’). The gist of the song is: ‘Things are not the same/My heart no longer trusts you/No words can make me feel the same again/You never cared about my pain/And if you ask me about our love now/I would tell you it is all in the past.’ Par for the course? But oh, the QUALITY of the singing, so full of rasa. It’s about two hours long and absolutely heartbreaking.

It cuts both ways. Of all things, it was Rig Vedic chants being danced to with flaming mashaals by Priti Patel’s troupe from Assam, on the banks of the Dead Sea in Jordan. As the grand old words rose up into an intensely black night sky full of stars and the delicate North-Eastern faces of our dancers glowed in the flames, I looked around at the watching Arabs. ‘Entranced’ doesn’t begin to describe it. Some women hugged me afterwards and one said this ‘blasphemous’ thing: “Pray for us in Hindu, it was so beautiful.” I don’t think those Arabs will ever think of Hindus as ‘unbelievers’ and cultural enemies. How about cultural literacy between ourselves though, right here at home?