Corona has taken a toll of my discourses on elementary Hindu rituals, like Navratra, because my yoga guru from the Monghyr Ashram has placed himself under severe restrictions. Last year, between asanas, he was able to slip in the odd recipe centered around tapioca, water chestnut, without grain, meat and the amber stuff.
My man Friday, a Hindu of insufficient Hindutva, a gourmet cook of non-vegetarian delectations, is almost thrilled to forego his dietary excesses during Navaratri. What comes into play is his innate ‘aastha’ or faith: scratch any skin, and it is there.
Two categories of Indians, of any faith, tend to have a link with religion which over the years has become tenuous: those exposed to western education continuously for two generations or those who grew up in a ‘progressive’ household. The ‘progressives’ in my environment represented a confluence of two streams. Their anti-feudal, anti-imperial stance had certain Marxist antecedents. Otherwise, they derived from the Urdu poets of the 18th and 19th centuries with their innate abhorrence of religious orthodoxy, a caricature of the Mullah, an elegant irreverence towards traditionalism, committed to social justice — a modern outlook, way ahead of self-proclaimed liberals reared on John Stuart Mill.
In modern times, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Krishen Chander, Rajender Singh Bedi, Ali Sardar Jafri, Ismet Chugtai, Kaifi Azmi, Munish Narain Saxena, and Niaz Haidar have followed the tradition.
Multiple social malaise continued to haunt Muslims in the grip of the clergy to whom they had been subcontracted by the politician. Those being targeted as ‘urban naxals’ are precisely the sources of enlightenment for a community which would otherwise have sunk further into social backwardness.
By way of diversion, social backwardness has triggered an unrelated episode from my travels to the Connemara coast of Ireland where the great cricketer, Ranjit Singhji (Ranji) had bought Ballynahinch castle on a river known for the finest river salmon, a paradise for anglers. W.G. Grace and C.B. Fry stayed with him, but for his sister, he had made expensive arrangements in the nearby convent with some very strict conditions: she would not be converted to Christianity and she would only wear saris.
From childhood, participation in Diwali, Holi and Dussehra for Muslims and Eid, Bakr Eid and Moharram for Hindus was more or less compulsory among families and their circle of friends. Raksha Bandhan too was a beautiful occasion for cross religious participation. What has surprised me is my lack of acquaintance with, say, Navaratri, on which my yoga guru, absent because of Corona, has been my informal instructor. What I suspect has happened is that during my formative years’ observances like Navaratri, Ekadashi, pujas for change of seasons, elements, waxing and waning of the moon were either in a low key or confined to the mofussil who were marginal to Lucknow’s mainstream.
Ramzan, the month of fasting, was noticed by non-Muslims in a sensitive way: invitations for lunches or dinners were suspended. Only the closest of the errant friends made clandestine arrangements to imbibe prohibited beverages. There were eccentrics among the aristocracy in the vicinity of Lucknow who broke their fast with a shot of Scotch. One instance I am aware of where a family protested at the eccentricity of their elder relative. They were roundly rebuffed for standing between the old gentleman and his God.
Ghalib was the biggest advertiser of his mischievous indiscretions during Ramzan. He mentions in his letters how he snatched a bite of ‘roti’ (bread) here and gulped water there. Excuses he makes for not fasting were almost childish:
“Jis pas roza khol ke khane ko kuchh na ho
Roza agar na khaaye to lachaar kya karey?”
(If someone doesn’t have the means for an elaborate ‘Iftar’, or breaking of the fast:
He has only one choice: “swallow” the roza). Swallow here means “end the fast”.
His poor finances and rising costs after 1857 were forbidding. They caused him to write bitterly. “Life in Delhi is becoming impossible; Scotch is selling at Rs 16 per dozen bottles.”
There is a subsidiary group of Hazrat Ali’s admirers, among whom Ghalib counted himself, who fast only for three days of Ramzan, beginning 19th when Ali was struck by a poisoned sword in the mosque at Kufa and Ramzan the 21st when he died.
My grandfather’s fasting companion during these three days was Pundit Brij Mohan Nath Kachar, a regular at our village during Moharram. His sermons attracted full houses.
The speed with which Hindutva has in recent years transformed faith and practice of religion into religious assertion has left me a trifle shaken. Should my 50 years of commitment — films, books, columns on cultural commerce — be put away as a chronicle of wasted time? Or should I dismiss these as cow belt excesses exactly as the authors of the Constitution did.
After 1947, the UP Assembly grappled with a list of 20 alternative names for United Provinces. The matter could not be postponed indefinitely because the drafting of the new Constitution was nearing completion and the state’s new name had to be inserted. The Provincial Congress Committee met in Varanasi in November 1947. A majority of 106 members voted for ‘Aryavarta’ as the state’s new name, 22 members voted for ‘Hind’. Both names were shot down by Nehru.
I had started this column on Navaratri, as nine days of austere dieting. Faith was not an issue at all. Under the guru’s advice, I had been persuaded that it was a healthier way of giving the body a rest than total starvation for 10 to 14 hours which Ghalib found difficult to cope with.
In fact, the best I heard on this theme was from my uncle Syed Mohammad Mehdi. He used to recite a Persian maxim:
“Ba har hafta faaqa
Ba har maah qae
Ba har saal mushil
Ba har roz mai”
(Fast every week;
Drink litres of saline water and
Vomit it out every month;
Purgative every year;
Wine every evening)
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic issues. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on [email protected])