Monthly Archives: September 2006

Long live the goddess..woman…girl

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In a country where women are often considered second-class citizens, it is indeed a wonder that so many goddesses are worshipped.

From today’s HT-
CREED & DEED – Supershakti on toast Why does Ma Durga rock despite the shame of female foeticide?

Devi IS the ultimate Indian paradox and many consider her the deepest reason why so many Indians exult in their religion and cling to it despite every persuasion over the centuries and even today, to switch allegiance to newer, richer and more politically powerful belief systems.

She is tenderness and ferocity, softness and strength, beautiful and frightening. Millions of miles of Sanskrit shlokas exist extolling her.

They range from the verses of the Devi Mahatmyam in the ancient Markandeya Purana that are still recited every year during Puja three millennia later to Adi Shankara’s lyrical Saundarya Lahiri and rousing Mahishasuramardini Stotram to the beautiful Chandi Charitar in the Dasam Granth.

When Indian freedom fighters were hanged by the British, many were reported to have put the noose around their own necks, defiantly shouted ‘Jai Bhavani!’ as the ultimate homage to and belief in physical and mental courage and leapt in the air, snapping life.

However, the concept of Devi is not easily understood by the modern, deracinated urban Indian, Hindu or otherwise. If she is the celebration of the sacred feminine, why, then, does so much horrendous gender inequity still prevail in Hindu society? Why does female foeticide rank highest in states like Punjab and Tamil Nadu, both with feisty Devi traditions? Isn’t it time people began respecting the right of women to live and breathe easy without constant censure and assault from the male gaze?

The answer to that is depressingly apparent: there is a huge chasm between theory and practice in traditional societies. Yet, just having the concept of the powerful sacred feminine embedded in religion and culture has helped social reformers, right from the time of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, to push for enlightened change.

The positive take on this, like on much else in India, is that it is a work in progress. Everyone can see that since the late 19th century, many Indian families have educated their daughters, who now go everywhere and do everything. The task ahead, obviously, is to colour the whole map.

That said, the unabated love and enthusiasm for Navaratri and for Devi worship, begs the question: why has she remained so dear to the people? The answer seems to go beyond the usual clinical explanations that she is part of the Hindu theogony, that her cult is historic and has always had its adherents and so everlastingly on. Yes, but why does Devi rock?

Perhaps it is because we are deeply attuned to the emotional logic of the concept of Jagadamba, the Universal Mother, the Jagatjanani who contains all life. And who needs the need for a mother explained? Those with earthly mothers may in fact find them terrible nags and control freaks, while those without, pine all their lives for one. Either way, the idealised concept of an unconditionally loving Mother, who nurtures, soothes, heals and ultimately, saves, is patently central to the human psyche.

Who can be surprised, then, that this entire civilisational weight of love and longing is emotionally transferred to the idealised personality of the Mother Goddess?

Moreover, Indian mythology firmly states that Devi is the concentrated energy of all deities, that she is in fact ‘Adi Parashakti’, the First and Supreme Power, who makes herself manifest as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as well as their consorts. So in worshipping Devi, every deity is neatly addressed.

Some refine matters further with the idea that the three Mothers, Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati, embodying valour, fortune and knowledge respectively, represent a spiritual progression from tamasik (fierce) to rajasik (worldly) to sattvik (purified) states of being. But all three are considered necessary for making life happen. That is why the traditional morning prayer before getting out of bed involves holding one’s palms up together and reciting this small but significant verse:

Karagre vasate Lakshmi, kara madhye Saraswati Kara moole sthithaye Gauri: prab haate kara darshanam ‘With luck in my fingertips, learning in the middle and valour in my palms, I look at my hands in the morning.’ (The order is mixed, but that’s poetic licence!). The purpose of the prayer is to charge oneself up mentally every day to go out and face the world and whatever challenges it has waiting to club us on the head with.

But the hard message given by looking at one’s own hands, is: “So deal with it.” Now this is bedrock Hinduism at its scariest, that one must take responsibility for one’s deeds, that our actions bind us and carry inevitable consequences. Nobody is expected to come and save a Hindu from bad karma, it is a terrifying personal responsibility, meat for strong stomachs.

Given this frightening soul scenario impassively laid out by the belief system known as Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Way, can we wonder at the deep emotional need for the Mother of the Universe?

She is a Hindu’s Jesus, going deeper it seems, than even Krishna, everybody’s darling, who dulcetly invites surrender and promises salvation in the Bhagvad Gita. But Devi has no need to say anything, or if she does, to intellectualise the argument or get into long explanations about right and wrong. She simply is.

Is that why the cry has resounded for millennia: Ya Devi sarvabhootheshu Shakti roopena samastitaha/ Namastasyai namastayai na mastasyai namonamaha?

Food writing and reading

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I remember when a batchmate and I wandered into a book exhibition where everything was remarkably in the range of Rs 99 to Rs 999. We almost went mad (when you are a student, price is your only known variable) running helter-skelter.

It was this place that I encountered ‘food writing’- reading about food for reading and the words and setting and construction and so on and no so much a recipe book, really. And today I came across this piece which says exactly the same. But is it really a new trend? Anthony Bourdain is known for his books and as far as I know not too many of them are recipes.

And on books about writings on food here are two books I am waiting for, hoping they come to India!

Albert Camus – The Outsider

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Most monumental books (for me) have been incidental. I usually have picked them on a lark or borrowed them because I liked some thing in them. And as I read the book it opened up a whole new world for me and made me greedy for more. 

Albert Camus’ The Outsider made me feel that way. A conversation, after a couple of beers, had someone telling me how this was once his anthem. That fellow is interesting and I had to explore what his anthem must have been.

Its book (though cloaked with existentialism) is true even today. I come across numerous instances in my life here where things are said and done because they should be and going against the grain will only draw criticism. I have felt it more in Delhi than in Mumbai but that could also be because here I am, perhaps, more clued in to my surroundings. 

The story is simple and was summed by the author himself. “In our society any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death.” Read it because the book brings back things to that can be your personal memories. 

And reading about the author I realised why he can be a hero for many – he had radical beliefs, he fought every step of the way and died relatively early – a fitting end one might say.

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I used to have a blog before.. which went on for a while.. and today someone told me he found that and went through its archives. So I, too, decided to revisit the blog. While reading through it, I realised that I had so much to say. Every small even affected me and I could distinguish a lot more. Now I just seem to want to fence sit. Need to stir my emotions again! Any suggestions?

Today’s TOI Edit page- Mumbai Edition

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It neatly sums up… what the movie does for us. While RDB had the ‘light a candle at India Gate’ syndrome, this movie makes you want to make changes in every day life – dont bribe, dont spit, dont disrespect, be polite, be humble.

Rise Of Gandhigiri
Lage Raho Munnabhai reinvents Gandhi
Sharmistha Gooptu

Bande Mein Tha Dam (The guy had guts), Bandemataram! goes the opening line of a song saluting Mahatma Gandhi in Lage Raho Munnabhai, the immensely enjoyable second part of Munnabhai MBBS, which made the inimitable crooks Munna and Circuit a rage. For the uninitiated, Munna is a small-time ‘dada’ in Mumbai, ably assisted by his devoted crony Circuit. Though kidnappings, extortions and bash-ups are very much their cup of tea, these two have hearts of gold which make them modern-day Robin Hoods, who have their own unique techniques for bringing smiles to people’s faces. Cheeky to the core, they’re nonetheless sensitive where it really matters — they’re the humane face of street-smart India who debunk history and its legacy but cannot discard it.
In their latest adventures, Munna and Circuit take to ‘Gandhigiri’ or living life by the principles of Bapu, as opposed to their habitual dadagiri, after the ghost of Gandhi appears to a hallucinating Munna. It holds a mirror to the gun-toting Munna and tells him to win his battles with a smile. Inspired by the Gandhi way of telling the truth and taking your opponent with a smile, Munna becomes the rage of town, with a following of young people, who find these simple principles the key to their complex lives.
So, was this a goody-goody modern-day take on Gandhi, non-violence, no alcohol and the rest? Not on your life — not when Gandhivadi becomes the Gandhigiri of Munna and Circuit. The Gandhi of Lage Raho Munnabhai is not the historical figure we have been taught to revere for his unflinching moral strength. This Gandhi is like a grandfatherly genie, who appears any time Munna thinks of him ‘from the heart’, and makes for a sympathetic confidant who makes tough decisions appear simple.
It is interesting that in this film Gandhi’s identification is with the 20-plus generation who are most likely to scoff at the Gandhi of their textbooks — that great but boring old man who said uh-oh to sex, no to drinking and seemed uncomfortable with any fun in life. The principles that Gandhians have sworn by become, in this film, hip concepts for getting the best of life. So, a young girl who calls Munna to seek advice on how she should judge a prospective husband selected by her father, is advised, with Gandhi in the background, to check out how the young man treats people who are
socially inferior. And of course, the boy’s condescending treatment of a waiter in a restaurant seals his fate.
Now that was quick and easy, and was it very far from Gandhi’s philosophy of the social uplift of the underprivileged (which is, of course, a much debated issue)? The film works because it strips away the stiff layers of principle from Gandhi and makes available the very basic of his world view. It acknowledges that Gandhi was a great man, who lived by his principles, but that we can’t all be great men like him and neither do we want to. But what we do want is not to forget him and some basic truths that were as relevant in his time as they are today.
So sitting in the police lock-up for staging a satyagraha in front of the wily promoter Lucky Singh’s house (when the easier option of just bashing him up was available) Munna and Circuit bask in their goodness and fantasise of the day when there will be statues of them in parks, their pictures on 500-rupee notes, roads named after them, but not a dry day on their birthdays like on Gandhi’s! For those one can already hear screaming at the film because of its cheekiness, its commodification of the great man and what not, let’s just say this — maybe the Gandhi of Lage Raho has more resonance to us today than the Gandhi in books, whose only relevance seems to be that extra holiday he gets us.
If this film makes Gandhi the flavour of the month, if people below 40 have identified with even the very basics of Gandhi courtesy Munna’s Gandhigiri, it can’t be such a bad thing after all. Even during the nationalist movement, Gandhi was appropriated by people at all levels and in ways that he himself had not bargained for — to the hordes of peasants who flocked to see him, he was Gandhi Baba, a sadhu with miracle powers who had set out to drive away the British.
Had Gandhi lived today, he might have frowned on Lage Raho, or maybe he would have quietly smiled. Who knows? This film comes after a whole bunch of ‘patriotic’ films of recent years where Gandhi figures as some kind of dithering weakling, who could have saved Bhagat Singh and his friends from the gallows, but couldn’t. In fact, Gandhi has been out of favour with under-40 Indians because the Gandhi they know seems too good to be true. Statist discourse has mummified Gandhi making him inaccessible in a fast changing society. Lage Raho reinvents Gandhi for us.
The writer is a PhD student at the University of Chicago.