Deep Inside India, Secularism is a Way of Life
By M J Akbar
On October 2, Gandhi’s birthday and Eid launched the annual Bengali festive season that will last into the third week of the month. Eid in India is determined by the visibility of the moon; the Saudis, who check the sky with technology, celebrated the end of Ramadan a day earlier. Since one of the many definitions of Indian secularism is proprietary rights over holidays, some Calcutta companies shut down on October 1. The origin of holiday is ‘holy day’. Bengal has always been holier than thou.
Sour-brains who rearrange life by the calculus of productivity miss the point. Bengal understands GDP (Gross Domestic Product) but values GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness). Economists will never understand the power of the embrace, common to both Durga Puja and Eid. Every human being is an equal in an embrace.
That is the first gesture after the Eid prayer. I spend Eid at Telinipara, some 30 miles north of Calcutta along the jute-mill dotted banks of the Hooghly, where I was born.
The men of our family walk together to the Chhoti Masjid (Small Mosque) with heads bowed. This is not due to any excessive humility. We have to avoid stepping on pats of still-wet cow dung. Early risers have first use of public facilities. The municipality has sprinkled white disinfectant powder along the drains on either side, a practice started during the British Raj and followed twice a year, during Eid and Bakr-Eid. The cows were oblivious of municipal concerns even during British rule.
The official name of the mosque is the rather grandiloquent Masjid-e-Ibrahim (Mosque of Abraham); its popular name is more appropriate, although it has become a bit larger since last Eid. This need has been felt for more than a decade, with the increasing population of Telinipara, but it became possible only when the owner of the huts adjoining the mosque sold his property to the mosque.
Like any public institution, the mosque was strapped for cash. The owner gave it for less than the market value, despite higher offers. He was a Hindu. He was happy to take less because, in his words, the mosque too was “ Bhagwan ka ghar (God’s house)”. Five hundred bags of cement came as a gift from a renowned Calcutta Marwari business family. Neither made the contribution because they expected their names to appear in India’s largest English newspaper.
The maulvi leading the prayer was an angry young man. He offered an answer to a major dilemma of dialectical spiritualism. If Islam was the chosen faith, and Muslims Allah’s select people, why were they mired in poverty when non-believers in the West were flooded with riches and comfort? True wealth is not what you see in this life, but what you will be rewarded with in heaven. He went on a bit about the pleasures of heaven, not forgetting the heavenly wine that will not leave you with a headache. And his route to heaven was a trifle severe, demanding abstinence even from music. But his argument was a placebo, a calmative for a community bewildered by questions.
Later, around ten, enthusiastic young men of my mohalla took me to their single-room club, fed me sandesh bought from Bijoy Modak’s excellent shop, and asked me for “nasihat”. I had no advice to offer, just the essence of some experience along the road from Telinipara to Delhi. The peddlers of violence have nothing to offer but self-destruction, I said, and there were nods of agreement. The rungs of an upward ladder are a modern education; and education is the equal right of both boys and girls. The horizon will be outside reach, and the community remain fractured as long as there is gender bias. The young must leave the mistakes of their parents behind. We Indians laugh and cry in Urdu and Hindi and Bengali, but we rule in English. The language of economic and administrative power is English, so learn English.
The young men were ahead of such advice. They were determined to add a room to the club, which will serve as a library and a tuition centre for those who show promise but do not have the means to fulfil their promise.
Later, a father brought two teenage daughters and reminded them that they wanted to tell me something. Their eyes just a trifle hesitant, but growing with confidence, they said they would be giving their Madhyamik examinations next year, and were determined to go to college. The father beamed with pride. Elsewhere a mother was spending what for her was serious money to get her child into kindergarten in St Joseph’s Convent in Chandannagar, which was my first school. I chatted with a student of Aligarh University; she is in her second year, studying statistics. Her English diction was perfect. In another conversation men marvelled at the fact there was now a fortnightly market in our mohalla where goods worth lakhs were bought. Women were the big spenders. Only 10% of the milling shoppers were men, and they had come as bodyguards, someone said with a very hearty laugh.
This is not yet a gender revolution, far from it. But this is the first hint of a gender insurrection.
When I was in my second year, a student of Presidency College, this small street of Telinipara had descended into desolation through communal violence. On one black night, nearly every mud hut was set ablaze as Hindus and Muslims chased each other with spears, swords, country revolvers, kerosene and matchsticks. They are back together now, the past lost in conscious amnesia.
More than three decades ago, the Chhoti Masjid had become a refuge for Muslims seeking shelter from Hindus. It has become a Bari Masjid today, with help from Hindus who believe that this too is a house of God.
India may lose itself in Delhi and Mumbai and Bangalore and Ahmedabad, but finds itself again and again in millions of Teliniparas.
Appeared in Times of India - October 05, 2008