Monday, December 12, 2005

Perfect caricature of the Indian liberal

On board a plane, I always remember God. Even otherwise, I have an almost Catholic sense of guilt and retribution. On more than one occasion, the all-embracing magnificence of a church has reduced me to quiet tears. And walking barefoot on the cool marble stone of a gurdwara still evokes the possibility of being a better person. But ask me what my religion is, and I will splutter dismissively. I will tell you I don’t believe in institutionalised faith.
Healing with faith Barkha Dutt HindustanTimes Monday, December 12, 2005
In my growing years, like many of my friends, I wore my scepticism like a badge of honour. On the sun-bathed lawns of St. Stephen’s College, we embraced rebellion, and as we got ready for our march to modernity, our freshly acquired liberalism had no space for petty denominations of identity — caste, region, religion. We belonged to a larger truth, a bigger India. The irony never struck us at the time — in a college Christian by birth, we believed that we needed to be pagan to be progressive.
It was only many years later, when journalism turned my simple ideas on their head, that I realised that agnostics like myself could only end up on the losing side of the battle for secularism. We had ended up misreading the signposts — in our firm walk away from religion, we had somehow lost our way, and ended up pretty far from culture as well, in a country where the two are inextricably woven together.
Fellow Stephanian Mani Shankar Aiyar’s book, Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist, opens with Nehru writing this to Gandhi, “It’s all very well for people like Sapru and me to talk pompously and in a superior way of tolerance in religious matters, but neither of us have any religion to speak of.” Three generations after Nehru, we would discover outside the liberal confines of college life that not just did we have no religion, we were culturally rootless and alienated, and would need to learn the grammar of a brand new language to be understood.
The turning point was Gujarat 2002. (It was one of Indian media’s finest hours, notwithstanding naysayers like Tarun Vijay who called us the Marxist-Mullah Mafia). I am still haunted by images of the carnage. Suddenly, festivals, rites and rituals that had never been part of my life became an essential weapon of communication. I needed them to underline the pathos, to reach out to people who seemed to have stopped listening.
A few months later, I met the Muslim flower-sellers outside the temples that had at one point become the battle zone for India’s heart. I haven’t been to a temple in more than 20 years, but I knew that their story might just help build a bridge over troubled waters; I was beginning to understand that the answer for the future might just lie within, not outside faith; that the best way to ensure that the lunatic fringe remained just that, was to appeal to the compassion and common sense of the believers, by speaking to them in their own language.
How utterly tragic, that we had surrendered our symbols to ideological terrorists. Perhaps it was time to reclaim them without being defensive. Farooq Sheikh silenced both sides by quietly declaring that yes, he was a namazi, he did pray five times a day, but his prayers were personal and his own, and the Imam was not needed as interpreter. Another time, journalist Prabash Joshi punctured a panelist who was getting hysterical about Hindutva, by challenging his understanding of Lord Ram. What could I, the agnostic, have said? That I didn’t even know if Ram was real? That for me, he was essentially a character of imagination; a mythological tale best read in Amar Chitra Katha. Sure, I’m entitled to my view, but I’m pretty sure my argument would have been impotent, and I would have been the perfect caricature of the Indian liberal.
Indians are essentially reasonable folk. We are also malleable and schizophrenic, and how we react depends on which buttons you push. It’s all about which side you decide to tap. It’s about recovering the middle ground before the secularism debate swerves too far right or left, and becomes a lost cause. For years, I was convinced that religion was the great divide; now I have come to understand that faith can be the healer. The writer is Managing Editor, NDTV 24X7

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