Thursday, December 31, 2009

My New Year's Eve Meditation

Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? saith the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?
(Amos 9:7, KJV)

In the context of the Old Testament, this verse is quite stunning. The Old Testament is an exclusive record of God's special favour on the chosen people, the Hebrews. The way their history unfolded was the result of how they responded to the loving-kindness and guidance of Jehovah. In time, they began to believe that their being chosen by God meant that all the others were rejected by Him. But this verse shows that the historical experiences of other peoples too were guided by God's favour and mercy. God did choose to reveal Himself more fully to the Israelites but He did not disappear from the scene as far as the other nations were concerned.

Is there a message in this for the Church today, or am I on the way to a heresy?

Not a bad scripture to reflect upon as one year, no, a decade, comes to close and the other one begins

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas emotions!

Christmas this year was a solemn affair. Grandmother went to be with her beloved Father on 22 December 2009. She was very old and died at the ripe age of, going by my father's estimate, 104 years (my own guess is 97). She passed away peacefully in her sleep. All this meant that life would go on as usual. I thought I would be able to celebrate Christmas like I generally do, catching up with friends and extended family from next day onwards. But on 23 morning I knew it wouldn't be the case. I woke up not wanting to socialize. Didn't even go to the church for Christmas worship service, simply because I couldn't visualize myself mingling well with people. On Christmas eve, my celebrations were limited to listening to some Christmas carols (many versions of "Silent Night" and Boney M's "Mary's Boy Child") on Youtube and singing "Make me a channel of your peace" with wife. Later in the night, I spoke to my sister on phone and told her that I didn't feel like going to church and she agreed with me that the old women did deserve a period of mourning.

This Christmas I also miss my older nephew a lot. Since last few Christmases, I had gotten used to listening to him singing at full throttle "Mary's boy Child". He being the first child in our family has always been a bit special, especially because, I think, he replaced me as the youngest child of the family. He was also a trend setter for the kids who followed. During last two years he must have become a better caroller; he is part of his school choir In England, I heard. But he should know that his best audience is back here in India.

Melancholy and nostalgia were dominant emotions for me for this Christmas.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Indian Christianity on a furlough

(The article was originally written for The Herald of India and was published under the title 25, yet no Christian)

THE WEEK, one of India's leading current-affairs magazines, has a cover story on 25 most valuable Indians. This Independence Day Special issue aims at celebrating, in the words of Shobhaa De, who wrote the opening note on values, "people who have impacted one billion lives directly or indirectly during the past one year". Whether they did have an impact on the entire one billion and also if these are truly the most eligible 25 valuables are questions that I wish to put on hold for a while.

Though the publication of this list wasn't supposed to be an Independence-Day event we have in schools, where all major religions are needed to be adequately represented in a show of 'unity in diversity', the ideal behind our national ethos, what I found intriguing is the absence of a Christian from the list. And one shouldn't be too hasty in pointing out the inclusion of Ashis Nandy. To be fair to the publishers, they seem to have conjured a 'facts-based' list, where the religious backgrounds hardly mattered. But on the eve of the sixty-second anniversary of Independence, this might give something to Christian communities of India to think about.

Christianity claims to have been around in India for over two millennia, but it seems it took a break for entire last year; perhaps it was too nervous about Madam Sonia Gandhi's Catholic connection resurfacing in the election year, or perhaps too shocked since killings in Kandhamal last August.

Had Mother Teresa been alive, she probably would have made it to the list, if nothing else then perhaps just for the sense of balance, religious as well as that of gender. There are three women as compared to 22 men in that list. And though T.N. Seshan believes Mata Amritanandmayi is a great soul too, he chose to pen the paean for Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whose educational work in rural areas he highly appreciates and whose Sudarshan Kriya keeps the 76-year-old former Chief Election Commissioner 'energetic'.

For far too long, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, had been a sole representative of the Christians, for the Roman Catholics as well as non-Catholics, and definitely within the media. I remember, once a friend wanted to work on a documentary about the nurses in India, and he asked a reputed Indian journalist, a liberal Muslim, for some clips he had, which my friend thought he could use. Apparently the journalist replied that if it were something involving Mother Teresa, he would have given it but not now!

One of our most celebrated artists, M.F. Husain, paid glittering tributes to the diminutive frail nun from Albania by painting her as Mother Mary nursing the bruised body of the crucified Christ, a symbol of the sick and the poor dying uncared for on the streets of India. On the flip side that also means legitimising only one aspect of Christian faith.

Christianity in India cannot merely remain a religion of uncommitted piety, uncommitted to social, political and economic changes, that is. The poor and the suffering of the country need impartially dispensed compassion, but they also need ethically inspired intellect dedicated to press for structural changes at all levels of our shared life. The hand of compassion must be joined with the hand of critical engagement in a gesture of service to the nation. The task of moral and spiritual regeneration of the country that was visualised by every concerned Indian in that watershed year of 1947 could not be wished away by Indian Christians.

And today when we celebrate the anniversary of our Independence, the burden of the promise of new India must weigh heavy on the Christian chest.

In the year 1971, when the nation was still in its 20s, Nayantara Sahgal published her, if I remember correct, sixth novel, The Day in Shadow. The novel was inspired by real events in the author's life and like her other novels, this one too is imbued with her concern for emergence of a more humane India, which is fast sinking into a stupor generated by corruption in high places, petty politics and cruelty in human relationships. The reason I am reminded of this novel is because it is one of those rare ones where you find a 'Christian' character unbound by stereotypes. Raj Edwin Garg, who though doesn't share his father's religious convictions, brings Christian values, and occasionally Christian 'language', into public discourse. He is a 'brilliant, rising Member of Parliament', an independent, who seeks to find ways to propel the country out of the impasse between the 'Reds' and the 'reactionaries.'

He often enters into a good-humoured banter with his mentor, and father's friend, Rama Krishna, who in the last pages of this open-ended novel seems to have come terribly close to resolving the conflict between Hinduism and Christianity and finding a way to harness the energies of these two mighty streams of spiritual energy for the regeneration of the nation. Even though a work of fiction, this novel testifies to a time and occasion, or at least a possibility, when Christian thought was neither considered alien, nor marginalised, nor a minority view in relation to the so-called mainstream. Most importantly, it wasn't a dialogue between a Western Christian and an Indian Hindu. Here you have Indians on both sides examining the problems from two different angles and towards the end more sympathetic to the other view.

After all, the object of their concern was the same. Just as a note for those who think that the depiction of Christians in novels is not really a matter of particular concern and this novel by Sahgal is not a special achievement, one only needs to look at some of the recent novels, for instance, Tarun Tejpal's The Alchemy of Desire, where the only achievement of one Christian character is the number of bottles of whisky he has piled up in his backyard, or one can look at M.G. Vassanji's The Assassin's Song, in which the blind drunk presbyter of the Shimla church, tumbles into the protagonist's room, and has to be escorted home by his son. That is indeed the image of a Christian in many a mind, a jolly good fellow fully committed to having a good time till the Second Coming, untroubled and unmindful of any such list.

As for Ashis Nandy, the only hardcore academician in that list, he will agree that my observation, which set me off, is not that flimsy. Ashis Nandy comes from an elite Bengali Christian family; he really makes it look that he has come out of it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nothing sentimental about college education

I just came across an interview Tarun Tejpal gave to a career magazine. The interview had a rather catchy title "India's rich fund temples, not educational institutions", but what was of interest to me was his recounting of his college days. I felt a bit lofty that he did his BA from my city, though not from my college. DAV College in Sector 10 would too be proud of its alumnus. There is only one problem—Tejpal admits that he did not attend a single class in those entire three years! That obviously means that his "education" happened outside the institute and his college was merely a document-provider, giving him an official-looking piece of paper, a testimonial that he is a graduate. And barring some elite institutions, which mostly teach sciences, colleges in India are perfect breeding grounds for autodidacts. Two of my classmates immediately come to my mind, one has ended up being a bureaucrat while I saw the other selling vegetables in a mandi, sitting alongside men, most of whom, I am pretty sure, never had the chance to see how a degree college looks like from inside. College education was incidental to life pursuits of these two classmates of mine. I am increasingly of the opinion that for most of us Indians, it is not the education system that decides what we will end up doing in life but other things such as our family background and the web of social relationships we are part of. In this sense, perhaps, Indian education system is still a bit medieval if not ancient, where things like caste and class limit one's vocation in life. This, of course, is not to generalize, individual freedom does exist and perhaps in many other cases children find it easy to slip into the role their parents once performed (talking about roles, Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan are examples of individual freedom and family legacy respectively), but there have been umpteen number of cases where undeserving candidates get selected at the cost of people really cut out for a particular position. We do meet such professionals who are there because of a plug and not because of merit alone.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sunday that Splintered Humanity

(The article originally written for The Herald of India, published as Black Sunday)

In 1992, just like this year, 6 December was a Sunday. We got up early morning to claim a cricket pitch before some rival teams came and denied us the chance to have a game on a much-awaited weekly holiday. We won the spot but I think we lost the match; and, when we got back home in the evening we heard the news that Babri Mosque has been pulled down. The news did not have much meaning for me. I was neither a Hindu nor a Muslim and lived in a largely non-politicized city. There weren’t any Muslims among our playmates and, as hindsight, we were saved the exchange of uncomfortable glances. Most guys I played with were Hindus and Sikhs but they seemed not too interested in this news item either. Those were the days when Sikh terrorism was still palpable in our parts; Hindu–Muslim conflict belonged to the Partition era. In any case, all of us teenagers loved our cricket more than anything else and were more interested in India playing first one-day international cricket match against South Africa the next day. I was fascinated by the Proteas; by the fact that they were no minnows though they had just started playing international cricket. I had fallen in love with that electrifying fielder at backward point, Jonty Rhodes and worshipped White Lightning Allan Donald. The historic match was played on 7 December 1992 at New Lands, the first ODI to be played in South Africa. India lost that match, much like our team the previous day. India’s best fielder and captain, Mohammad Azharuddin, another of my idols, dropped not one but two catches. Catastrophic as it was, it was a sort of thing that happened on a cricket field and an Indian fan had learnt to make peace with such debacles.

Meanwhile, the reports of Babri demolition and subsequent analyses were multiplying every single day. For a brief moment, next day, I listened to a panel discussion on the same. What caught my attention was what one panelist said. If my memory serves me correct, he very categorically declaimed that that event had disconcerted each and every Muslim in this country; how else could one explain Azhar grassing those straightforward chances. Is this true? Or is it just a fantastic conjecturing—I asked myself but could not decide. This was something far more disturbing than India’s capitulation in Cape Town could ever have been. In fact, it was at that moment the name Mohammad Azharuddin began signifying the notion of Muslim to me. Before that it only meant a dashing middle- order batsman and a supremely agile fielder to me, whose feats I secretly wished to emulate.

As a child, after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, I had learnt to neatly divide humanity in three—Christians, Sikhs and Hindus. After Post-Mandal agitation, as a pre-teen, I became aware of another set of categories to divide my friends and acquaintances—General, SC and OBC. While I was knocking at the gates of adulthood, in December 1992, humanity further splintered.

These divisions were real as I once found a younger man explaining to me the difference between Hindus and Muslims. We are so different—he said to me—We worship full moon and they worship new moon; we pray with our palms joined together but they keep them apart; we pay obeisance to the rising sun looking east, they turn towards west to pray.

Surface differences like these became creeds of separate nationalities.

Those who wanted to begin a movement of one people only gave birth to unbridgeable differences between one individual and the other. Those who thought they had won that spot in Ayodhya on Sunday, 6 December 1992, lost their souls bit by bit, category by category.