Commentaries, Essays, Kindling, Opinion

Dear June: A Letter for Pride Month

Image source: http://www.blog.netapp.com

Dear June, 

When I was 22, I remember attending a lunch wearing a black hoodie that had a famous Oscar Wilde quote printed on it. At the restaurant, my uncle told me how he detested the quote and everything associated with Oscar Wilde, because ‘that blighted Wilde was a faggot’. I remember gasping in order to maintain the decorum of my favourite hill-station’s favourite restaurant. I sat quietly while picking at my garlic lemon butter trout with my fork, just the way I did with my pasta when my cousin asked one of our brothers to avoid wearing pink because ‘oh my god, he looks so gay in pink.’ Just the way I sat sipping my empty glass of lemonade when an unassuming elder repeated the f-word (used earlier by my uncle) to describe musical maestros like Freddie Mercury and Elton John.

It wasn’t just on these three incidents that I maintained decorum by focusing on doing something meaningless with my excessively fidgety hands. This habit goes back to my school days, when any two peers with a sense of intimacy were termed as gay as if gay were a cuss word. Atleast for us school kids, it was. And for those of us who refused to become more gender aware, gay and lesbian are still cuss words used as one of the most sure-sought ways of instilling shame in the targeted person. Interestingly, the validity of this claim had little to do with a person’s sexual and/or emotional orientation. It didn’t, actually. In fact, it turns out that being anything that failed to correspond with the present society’s definition of being ‘straight’ or heterosexual1 was something that one had to be deeply ashamed of, if not self- obliterating. Not just heterosexual, but heteronormative, if you will. Could I reason this to be a general reason for you being celebrated as Pride Month? To dispel (in instalments) the cumulative amount of shame that is brought upon the majority of the global populace for not fitting into neat labels, boxes and definitions as per heteronormativity’s assumed taste? 

Every year when I read June newspapers over breakfast as an undergraduate student in Delhi, I would spot pride parades. In other words, the robust and vibrant parades that the more privileged dissenters of heteronormativity2 participated in (mostly) worldwide. The faces, their smiles, the rainbow flags (and not to mention, the dazzling costumes that the bolder segment of the parade donned), all unanimously spelled out ‘freedom’. The rainbow specifically shouted out to its onlooking/ scowling or worse, denying populace that failed to conceive each colour in the spectrum of existence due to their oversaturated monochromes of patriarchal social conditioning. 

As you know June, ‘homophobes’ is the analytical term used to refer to the more radically conditioned populace that arrives at a visceral aversion vis-a-vis non-heteronormativity. Logically then, this term implies their sole characteristic as being ‘homophobic’, which can be defined as a phobia towards all things non-heteronormative. You know why this extended definition is important? Because while my anti-Oscar Wilde uncle was averse to a renowned artist solely on the basis of his homosexuality, my cousin was averse to our brother’s choice of dressing for being non-heteronormative (possibly because for prudes throughout the better part of history, pink is a girl’s colour. Never mind that pink was the preferred shade for boys and blue for girls3, because doesn’t that serve the same binary that you and I denounce? Perhaps I’ll leave this for another part of the letter.)

Now a person who is less fond of June might ask me why I am over-reacting to banal comments on Wilde and pink shirts. 

Because, those are the slightest discriminations against diverse identities that go pardoned,  unapologised for, or even unnoticed. 

Because, those are statements that well-educated and gentrified persons of modern day societies continue to make despite lending a hashtag to #LoveisLove.

Because, these were or are the parents who are sending their kids to homophobic (nevertheless homosocial4) schools to graduate into adulthood and repeat the behaviour of their parents, relatives and friends. 

Because I, and many like me, are tired of the usage of derogatory words to rattle the self worth of any identity that chooses, or even dares to be different. Because we are tired of the constant threatening and even terrorising treatment offered to any ambivalence around heteronormativity.

And most of all, because we are beyond tired of being subsumed for being fluid in our nature and choice of our existential expressions.

As a kid, I remember being labeled as a tomboy for preferring jeans over skirts, Lego over Barbie, sports over makeup and Eminem over Spice Girls. My teenage gait didn’t have the girly hip swing, and my pubescent self began to slouch due to being conscious of my recent developments. Apparently, they didn’t go too well with my ‘sporty jockishness’. And yet, I was fond of applying French manicures, straightening my hair, and got my young heart broken by doofus teenage boys.

Even now, I often perceive myself as tiptoeing deftly on the shores of androgyny. For example, I fasten the longer flicks of my cropped hair with a shimmering pin. On days that I don’t have corporate meetings to attend, I am found in oversized spectacles and plain t-shirts that are flanked by indie pants. My dressing ritual ends with a casual pinning of earrings and a smear of lip colour, in hues that range from subdued nudes to the boldest shades of scarlet. I enjoy musky colognes as I do fruity splashes, and focus on maintaining toned biceps despite failing miserably at performing basic pushups.

What does this hopscotch game amidst so-called binarisms make me? 

They make me who I am, and it is in this fluidity that my essence finds its home.

I was not exempted from the brigade of seemingly benign comments made by close as well as random people such as, ‘beta, it’s so nice to see you become all girly’ ; ‘you’ve cut your hair too short’ ; or ‘you would have been such an eligible boy, if only…’ The lack of validation accorded to my nuanced androgyny did leave me feeling confused about my identity, and at times, frustrated. Overcoming the need to conform to several binaries does originate from a certain amount of privilege, and that is an undeniable fact. But it also arises out of an ongoing internal battle wherein these binaries are vanquished, little by little every day.

My contention against these binaries gained additional zeal when I began to increasingly realise the futility of their artificial imposition.While at LSE, I heard Butler say that gender is nothing but an act of doing, or performativity that is assigned to us from the moment our birth is heralded with- ‘it’s a boy!’, or, ‘it’s a girl’. From that very moment, it is either this way or that. The pursuit of gender justice that unites Butler with humbler selves like me is our mutual wistfulness for a time when birth announcements sound more like, ‘it’s a boy/girl unless (s)he chooses otherwise!’ The finality of birth certificates becomes terrifying to those like us, who’d rather opt for a provisional one that can be revised later by a more evolved and informed version of our adult selves.

Oftentimes, my supposed idealism has been flouted as a bandwagon of western modernity. Those who are more well-versed with the diversity of Indian culture and heritage would agree with me when I say that heterogeneity is unapologetically Indian in its foundations, as is modernity. The temples of Khajuraho, Mahabharata’s Shikandi, the legends of Ayappan, Mohini and Brihanalla only form the tip of a colossal iceberg that swells me with pride for its ancient acceptance, but also pains me for its more recent shunning by the rudimental combinations of imperialism, capitalism as well as patriarchy.

Now keeping in mind your celebratory pretext of LGBTQA pride, I do not mean to undermine the urgency of diverse self-expression making itself more visible through each subsequent June. However, I also wish to bandage an over presumed affliction that rhetorically places a homophobic lot of the society as ‘villains’ against an alienated queer populace as ‘victims’. There are two flaws in this assumption. One, that it is impossible to put an end to binarisms with yet another binary. Two, and more importantly, because this is a redundant mechanism of division.  I’ll tell you why I say that. According to my naïve understanding, gender justice has little to do with vindicating queer identities and avenging homophobic myopias. Rather, the monster that deserves our unanimous fight is the homophobe as well as the queer victim that we carry within us due to the uninterrupted conditioning of heteronormativity wherein we eat, breathe, sleep, and essentially, live. 

Even though my privilege and lived experiences make me more gender-sensitive, I am not a morally upright exception to the conscious or unconscious denouncements that we as a pre-conditioned society make towards fluidity and deviant identities. There are times when the homophobic villain in us takes the subtlest precedences amidst the best of us. And it is this constant internal conflict that I find to be the cause of our alienation. This alienation resides in the very sophisticated boxing of our own fluid selves, as well as everything that we happen to interact with or know. For, how can water be boxed without ice trays?

So June, I end with a thank you for patiently enduring my musings that find more concrete expression with the unfurling of your rainbow flags. But before I sign off, June, I leave you with a crucial endnote that I hope for you and your successors to pioneer. This endnote revolves around an important observation that Amartya Sen shares when it comes to identities. He refutes one’s identity as being a source of accidental discoveries and instead, points at conscious choice as its fountainhead. In other words, we are not passive victims of  stagnant identities that we happen to discover. On the contrary, we are active agents of our constantly evolving identities that we harbinge through choice and mediation in multifarious situations of constraint. But then again, which choice is made in the absence of limitating circumstances?, asks Sen. 

In a nutshell, the presence of never-ending contingencies doesn’t take away the cardinal existence of choices that we are entirely responsible of and accountable towards.

Since you advocate the freedom of diversity more than any other month, I welcome you yet again with the earnest hope of leading each one of us to reclaim the choice of being who we are and how we conduct ourselves. I welcome you yet again with a pledge to continue the uncomfortable, yet undenyingly worthwhile quest of self discovery and self truth. As the world continues to be gripped in the fangs of a dreadful pandemic, I welcome you yet again as the month of freedom and diversity. I hope for you to usher it to a more sincere, accepting, and liberating means of existence. May you end after weakening the impostors within us, and undoubtedly, the biggest impediments to our own freedom.

Sincerely, 

Your fan. 

Footnotes : –

  1. A person sexually or intimately attracted to people of the opposite sex (only sex, not gender). Source : Google dictionary, italics mine.
  2. A term related to a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation (and conduct). Source : Google dictionary, italics mine.
  3. 1918: Smithsonian on magazine Earnshaw’s Infants Department (stated in Vintage News by Khadija Bilal)
  4. Relating to social interaction between members of the same sex. Source : Google dictionary.

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Commentaries

An excerpt on Hope from my Quarantined Musings

For what it’s worth, we can derive some validation from the fact that the haplessness caused by Corona is rapaciously gnawing at everyone, some more than others. For those of us who are privileged enough to have food and shelter, a perplexity over the vast, interminable disruptions caused by an infinitesimal virus is alienating to say the very least. Many might exit from this existential scrimmage feeling an existential convulsion. But given our unwilling habituation vis-a-vis the peculiarities of time, I suspect that you and I might end up being antipodes to some our or contemporaries, in gliding past this windswept phase feeling just a tad bit querulous but with more garrulity and an inexorable hopefulness that renders our physiological duress as superfluous.


I don’t mean to imply that hopefulness is a masked substitute for optimism. On the contrary, one can be hopeful even while being pessimistic. Pessimism is, for the most part, an alternative for optimism when the latter becomes too cumbersome to endure. You could, as a pessimist, mournfully cite the bleakness of the present situation that extends onto its future prospects while also continuing to push your rock as Sisyphus despite that bleakness. Hope is often known to flounder, not against the seeming impossibility of something, but despite that impossibility. This is one of the primary reasons why I am so fascinated by, and aspiring of hopefulness.
My admiration for hope also stems from the overarching grace that makes it hover above and beyond the present contingencies, in a might that almost strips the situation of its authority, and all this with the daring audacity of a single, mushy heart. That is all that hopefulness essentially needs to reside in, survive, or be nurtured by, given the paucity of courage, strength and willingness. Instead, hope is culpable of enlivening courage, willingness and strength, and can even fan their sparkling into a fire that the mighty big contingencies find difficult to douse.


I am not penning down this random musing out of an afternoon slumber that resulted in a utopian daydream, but after reflecting over some of the murkiest segments of my lived experiences.
Since one’s infatuation towards hope is thoroughly subjective, and yet, never stagnant, I find that the highest contribution that our humble selves are sometimes capable of offering is the very act of according their hope towards what they stubbornly yearn for. A wise person once said that the Universe loves a stubborn heart, to which I would like to add that the Universe, is in fact compelled into loving a stubborn heart (as Bauji is compelled into loving Raj in DDLJ), because it is exhausted of any valid reason to dislike it after all. Hope shares this attribute of stubbornness at its very core. Thus, if our imagination remains stubborn enough in its yearning, and is caused by that stubbornness to persist, the Universe is left with no alternative but to surrender to it.


Sincerely,

A Hopeful & Privileged Romanticist in the times of Quarantine

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Memoirs

So Long, 2019!

Here’s to the ones that we got 

Cheers to the wish you were here, but you’re not 

Toast to the ones here today

Toast to the ones that we lost on the way 

‘Cause the drinks bring back all the memories 

And the memories bring back, memories bring back you. 

(Memories by Maroon 5)

I remember bringing in 2019 sitting around the bonfire with my mother and two of my dear friends on the balcony of my family’s house in Jaipur. I can’t say that I have ever adhered to the social/anti-social dichotomy. Being one of those Cancerians who could just as well be the life of the party or a withdrawn marionette, I am highly selective about who I’d commit my time and presence to. I definitely prefer intimate gatherings over impersonal bashes, but don’t let this conviction of mine beguile you into dismissing the idea of me shaking a leg on the bar table of a town party if I am caught in my element. A friend of mine once teased me by calling me a grandmother stuck in a millennial’s body and I didn’t respond with a laugh because I was partially awe-struck by the accuracy of her assessment. I wouldn’t go as far as knitting a ball of yarn while situating myself atop a hot water bottle and alongside a scented candle. Well, you could replace the first with a whiskey-bonfire or a thoroughly browsed out Netflix list, and the sequence to my recipe for celebratory bliss stands unlocked. As I glide through the latter half of my twenties, I have grown more steadfast vis-a-vis this celebration mode that conserves body heat as well as energy while causing my inner enthusiasm to levitate higher than a kite. 

You get the point, don’t you? 

Okay, so this was the state of mind with which I welcomed 2019, urging it to be kinder and more leniently-paced than 2018, which had cost me a good chunk of my sanity owing to the various emotional and health-related hurdles that it intensely posed to me. Washing down a succulent junglee maas preparation with a glass of Scotch, I listened to one of my friends jamming at his guitar while my mother and other friend stared intently into the fire. You know, those gatherings that are unfettered by the formal compulsion to strike conversations and small talk? Those are my favourite kinds of gatherings. The clock struck twelve, we all wished one another, enjoyed a few more tipsy glasses before drifting off into deep sleep. And on that unhurried note, 2019 had begun. 

On its very last day, I look back in hindsight to assess the year that has been. Doing justice to its numerological order, 2019 served me as the most well behaved of all the teen years that have gone by, mature enough to take on its 20’s with a wisdom-tempered optimism. Slightly more sedate and yet not devoid of its conflicts, 2019 was definitely a year when things came around in a full circle. It wound up to assist numerous closures- internal as well as external. In enabling me to follow my dreams and passions, I also believe that 2019 helped me reverse age to a considerable extent. Personally, I know myself to thrive best in the gusty winds of freedom. Independence, agency and self determination use up more ink in our school text books for a reason- because in real life, they do not come for free. Well, nothing really does, but speaking of freedom and its components, they all cost us more dearly than our naïve assumptions are able to fathom. 2019 was the year when I mostly found that I had paid several instalments for my freedom that I would honourably cherish and duly savour. It taught me that work can seem purposeless if one does not know how to enjoy recess. That growth tends to be more nuanced when one commits to accepting their flaws and failures with a pinch of salt. That in the depths of despair lies a speck of humour that can be combusted into frivolity, and that oftentimes, this underplayed frivolity makes life more endurable. 

After executing a successful summer season with my team at our resort in Manali, I set off on a much-needed road trip to Spiti with my sister and two dear friends. I call this trip my pilgrimage for the solace and groundedness that it attributes to my soul. Immersing ourselves in the magical valley for an entire week left us contending with a withdrawal that lasted several weeks altogether. Returning back to normal life felt like a splash of dampened earth on freshly bathed (and talcum and moisturised) skin. Invigorated as I felt, I knew that the Spiti sheen requires an annual buff up and as long as I was fortunate enough to receive decent returns on the work front, I could relish the good fortune of Spiti year after year, for as long as it is destined to be. And with this optimism of the heart, I plunged into the monsoon season of trap shooting while also commencing my much awaited diploma course in photography. For the remaining part of the year, I knew that I would have to maintain the finest art of balance that I could muster. 

My favourite part of the Spiti trip- writing postcards from the world’s highest post office.

Just when I was gathering the energy and wherewithal to relentlessly chase my sporting and creative passions, I found that my autoimmunity was just as enthusiastic as I was and had caused a kidney involvement in the process. What this meant was that I would be spending the remaining half of 2019 undergoing in intensive corticosteroid and immunosuppressive therapy. 

Day one of my corticosteroid therapy.

Like Redbull, the corticosteroids definitely gave me wings. 

The unprecedented energy and zest to conduct my proactive schedule could only be maintained thanks to the much-needed push accorded by my medical protocol. Within the few months, I had successfully launched the sixth edition of my magazine publication- Rajputana Collective.

I had maintained an affirmative presence at photoschool, improved my shooting game, and had made trips to Pune, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Pushkar, Ranthambore, as well as one festive trip each to Manali (Dussehra) and Khimsar (Diwali) and several trips to visit my family in Jaipur. Whew! Yes, that was a lot of travelling but that which left my heart feeling full, because each one was centred around a cause (or causes) that I deeply believed in. Be it surprising a loved one to bring a smile on their face, or to present my entrepreneurship ventures to a larger audience, or to just scout the streets of a culturally-saturated town/city (or wilderness trails) with my DSLR. 

A still from my Kolkata trip.

While my road continued to gently rise, so did the side-effects of steroids. A gradually accumulated moon face revealed its proportions all too suddenly to me in the mirror and I became increasingly conscious of my facial appearance. So far, I hadn’t minded being the toilet seat sanitising, mask wearing autoimmune warrior, but the moon face warranted the purchase of oversized golden glasses that would help me contour my face to my benefit (a subtle trick that I learned from my bespeckled brother). And ta da! A giant pair of golden aviators from the wholesale market of Ballimaran, Delhi 6 came to my rescue and there was no looking back. 

Well, for a while atleast, until it was time for me to be weaned off the steroids. 

Having been on the highest dose of this medication for over ten weeks, it wasn’t easy for my system to cope with the gradual tapering off of the medication. Each time the taper-off takes place, the system is burdened to compensate for the erstwhile synthetic production of corticosteroids. Weakness, fatigue, body aches and brain fogs would ensue, until they settled down. But then, it was time to taper off the dose a little more. From 60 milligrams per day, I am down to 5 and will soon be down to 2.5 before being off the tablet entirely, for which I can barely wait. But while I do, I have contended the deepest abyss of existential dread that I have known, possibly owing to the re-wiring of physiological chemistry as it struggles to return to normalcy. 

Coming back to the purpose of this partially thrilling and partially harrowing steroid adventure, my reports returned to their optimal ranges and I can feel my kidneys smiling again! 

So thank you for being merciful as far as the health aspect is concerned, 2019! 

Contrary to my erstwhile do or die attitude, the medical circumstances (as well as several personal interactions) of 2019 inspired me to cultivate an appreciation for a slower pace of life when my body and mind demanded it. I learned (and am continuing to learn) the grace in unhurried and conscious movement. I am also gradually learning the distinction between pain and suffering- that while we might not be able to avoid the former, the latter was almost always a state of being that we could choose not to bring upon ourselves, all it took was to separate pain from a pitying thereof. The temporariness of a state, no matter how high or low, made me appreciate the endearing moment in its varying intensity with lesser attachments or entitlements. 

I have also begun to appreciate a life that is sanctified with the privacy that we owe it- to limit my interaction on social media within healthy limits. To conduct my personal life on a one on one basis sans any external validation from the world, because that story was mine alone to live as it unfurled. And sometimes, the most beautiful stories get to be ours alone to treasure. The understated charm of privacy has served to be a revelation in itself. 

In similar reference, I have derived a great deal of satisfaction from a simple exercises of downsizing. 2019 comprised of a lot of giving away, very little shopping, and extended periods of frugal eating to simply discipline my epicurean urges. Instead of impulsive binging, I chose to immerse myself in baking sessions to create healthier variants of what I craved while experiencing steroid-induced blood glucose dips. In the bargain, I discovered some decadent vegan desserts and low sugar alternatives to brownies and cookies. 

Pardon me for sounding preachy if you may, but wisdom (or pseudo wisdom) is a virtue that one inadvertently earns in the company of books. Speaking of which, 2019 was filled with several productive hours of reading. I have made peace with two facts- one, that Netflix (and Amazon Prime, Hotstar, et. al are overrated); and two, that my reading bucket list will always exceed what I can possibly read in a lifetime, but that doesn’t deter me from adding more authors, titles and series to my reading list. Amongst the several books that I read in 2019 (and which I carry on to 2020), here are some of my favourites : – 

  1. All The Lives We Never Lived (Anuradha Roy) 
  2. This House of Clay and Water (Faiqa Mansab) 
  3. Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami) 
  4. The Foutainhead (Ayn Rand) 
  5. Delhi Darshan (Giles Tillotson) 
  6. The Existentialist Cafe (Sarah Bakewell) 
  7. Infinite Variety (Madhavi Menon)
  8. Everything is F****d (Mark Manson) 
A morning read alongside oats pancakes and coffee.

The philosophical indents of these diverse reads intersected in the very manners that I happened to seek. Is that because as readers, we look for ourselves in the books that we read; and as humans, we look for ourselves in the people that we meet? The profound musings and open-ended questions that my intellectual pursuits caused me to make infused my creative confines with a liberating sense of imagination. The existentialist tugs by Bakewell and Manson could be granted with the due credit of inspiring me to conduct a self portraiture project as a part of one of my photography assignments. I was able to produce 10 black and white diptychs of myself from within the four walls of my bedroom sans any additional prop or light simulation. The Self is undoubtedly challenging to work with for the nature of its varying complexities, and also because a photographer doesn’t necessarily count as the ideal subject. 

A diptych from the self-portraiture series.

Intensive hours of reflection also entailed some semi-painful realisations vis-a-vis the lapses of the sensibility- be it in terms of loyalty, patience or discretion- that come what may, a lot of our people will disappoint us or let us down when we least expect them to. That no matter how indispensable they might have seemed, some will leave when we need them the most, but also that despite all that we lose in the fire, and the bridges that will burn, there’ll be those select few who will surprise us in their capacity, or rather resilient choice to stay. Over time, our self preserving instinct will learn to make them count while being wistfully attached to the ones that we were unable to convince or keep or both. And that in the end, we’re all just meandering on our respective cosmic paths that are ours alone to take. That in the larger schemes of meaninglessness, it is our personal quest to find meaning that makes this journey a little less random. 

My pre-2019 self could have unfolded a very different narrative to recall the past one year in its precise or concise glory, but my few strands of glistening grey wisdom compel me to claim an unwavering sincerity and responsibility in telling my story, or rather fragments of it, in a recollection that best resonates with the truest version of myself that I strive to achieve. According to Lorri Gotlieb, how we tell our stories narrows or widens or distorts our perspective. If I am to chart out a narrative which grants me growth and a closer proximity to the most authentic version of myself, I am also burdened with the prerogative of recollecting my past in a way that would lend to the future rather than thwart it. Instead of shaming or belittling pas versions of ourselves that we have outgrown or overcome, prudence lies in honouring it as a stepping stone in its limited glory even, in our personal metamorphosis. 

So despite its highs and lows, challenges and conflicts, would I prefer to have experienced 2019 any differently? 

I wouldn’t argue over altering the occurrences of 2019 to have panned out any differently, but yes, I definitely could have used some more patience and gratitude. It is this constant wish to strive to be a better version of ourselves that imparts more meaning to our growth. And what’s more, we get to turn over to a new year every 12 months, and despite the past chapters that might have been, we uncap our hearts to live and our pens yet again to write our story in a newer chapter or book or volume. We get to be the heroes, authors as well as the audience to our stories! 

Here’s to cruising into 2020 with an optimism of the will and purity of the heart! 

Happy New Year 🙂 

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Opinion

A Note of Historical Prudence for My Fellow-Audience of Bhansali’s Padmaavat

Drowned amidst the post-Padmaavat cacophony created by several Indian cinema-goers across social media, I’ve been collecting my thoughts over the past couple of days before writing this piece down. I sincerely attempt to express my views without giving away too many spoilers to my beloved friends who reside in states that joined the ban-wagon of Padmaavat. To my consolation though, the online ranters and bashers of both, the film as well as communal identities have already exposed the intricacies of the film without any disclaimers, for, despite belonging to the largest film-seeing audience of the world, they clearly seem to lack some basic discretionary ethics. For the lapse of their ‘usools’, I apologise to all those whose buildup has been wrecked by random flashes of cinematic details in a desperate attempt to prove some points that reside all too comfortably in certain bubbles of ignorance. For the sake of many of my friends who reached out to me discomforted by the ongoing social media outrage against their collective memory and identities, I write.

Nidhika Jija, Sarika Naheta and Abhishek Narendra Singh, this is specially for you.

Veer Bhogya Vasundhara.

Ho hum…. *a crack of knuckles* and *a quick rubbing of palms*

**********

My dear Fellow-Audience of Bhansali’s Padmaavat,

I wish the rubbing of my palms produced a djinn that would magically take you through a recap of yourself unveiling your cinematic experience of Padmaavat. Your reclined, seat-kicking, popcorn-spilling, air-conditioned guts booked movie tickets through an enhanced smartphone application at a meal-combo deal far too easily, to avail 2 hours and 44 minutes of Bhansali’s creative magic through a sensibility so distorted that it makes me cringe.

I’ll wait till you read that line a few more times to aptly grasp. If only Bhansali had run his already slowly-read disclaimer a few more times for the likes of you to muster.

Too bad.

Let me repeat it for you. I promise it’ll just be the basics, considering your limited attention span.

The film Padmaavat is introductorily and outrightly claimed by its filmmakers to be a creative work of fiction based on Padmaavat, the poetic works of a sixteenth-century Sufi poet, Malik Muhammed Jayasi.

When?

To your anti-climatic dismay, 224 years after the historical death of Alauddin Khilji. (Yes, the dude that Ranveer Singh portrays.) Thank you.

In other words, while Jayasi situates his poetic content within Khilji’s invasion of Chittor (circa 1303), in no way does his creative work claim to represent any factual intricacies of battle and conquest between the Delhi Sultanate the the Rajput battalion of fourteenth-century Mewar. It remains, at best, an imaginative story dominated by a specific historical context.

Oh, wait a second, did I just burst your bubble?

Yup, that’s right you tube light, although Rana Ratan Singh’s army was vanquished by Khilji, he didn’t factually die while urging Khilji to keep better ‘usools’ or principles with arrows stabbing his back. Worse still, there’s no way of historically verifying the slightest chance of this scenic precision because back in the day, em’ folks were thoroughly invested in their affairs unlike more contemporary ones such as yourself, who might witness accidents, thefts and even a zoo animal eating a man alive while recording, or worse still, taking a selfie of yourself within the frame of the respective spectacle.

Just spare a moment to self-analyse your over-entitled self as it enables you to make casual convictions of “fake Rajput valour” just moments after standing through the national anthem, an exercise that you had earlier complained to your friends as “fake patriotism”, but readily indulged in anyway, because of course, none of us want to get lynched. But hey, you sure make a handsome spokesperson to demarcate what is fake and what is authentic, in histories that your knowledge has barely strayed close to, let alone be a part of.

As I said earlier, I cringe at your unprecedented levels of hypocrisy and historical ignorance.

Scratching your scalp and straightening your smudged spectacles, you ask, “so did Padmavati actually exist or not?!”

This is hardly the point to be debated here, because what really matters is that Padmavati/ Padmaavat/ Padmini has known to and continues to not just capture but also sweep collective imaginations such as ours through a spectrum of situational discourses. As illustrated in the works of those such as Ramya Sreenivasan’s The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen, mythic heroines such as herself have displayed the constantly-shifting narratives of culture across the eras, just as the notion of Sita has, through the three hundred Ramayans that have been told and retold as long as India can remember. From portraying poetic love to heroic valour and sacrifice, more anti-colonial undertones in the past construed the cultural imageries of those like Padmavati and Sita to act as symbols of a blatant resistance against colonial supersession.

I sense your cinema-struck eyelids drooping at this brief sociocultural lesson, so I’ll come to the more practical aspect of this point without further haste.

Just the way Rana Ratan Singh played the male-custodian of Chittor and his dynasty, so did Rani Padmavati, as his female counterpart. Where one defended his kingdom with a sword, the other did with a blatant and ferocious act of personal resistance. While this stands unacceptable and a crude denunciation of human rights in our times, may I remind you of its historical placement in a situational era wherein one stood outnumbered and overpowered at the mercy of their merciless enemy, with their fate lying in between the devil and the deep sea of burning embers. Surrendering to the enemy meant perpetual enslavement and endless exploitation. In this terrifying confrontation of one’s eventual peril, self-immolation sufficed as a less devastating alternative. To my liberal sensibility, the historic cases of sati and jauhar resonate with the dire need to protect oneself when all other means of defence have given way. And in that narrative moment, the agency that actively exercises self-immolation over surrender is as powerful as it is gets in the artistic vision of a filmmaker such as Bhansali, who is known to romanticise death through his various directional works such as Ram Leela, Bajirao Mastani, Guzaarish, Devdas, Black and Khamoshi. Indeed, it’s a pity that in the very moment that Bhansali dispensed his artistic creativity with a mandatory disclaimer, your responsibility elapsed you.

I must confess that contrary to my flamed curiosity vis-a-vis Bhansali’s Padmaavat, I was slightly disappointed after watching it. In my opinion, Padmaavat fails to find its place amongst Bhansali’s finest works, with his recent makes such as Bajirao Mastani and Ram Leela far outdoing it in terms of script, technique, music and direction. However, for the sake of Padmaavat alone, I must marvel the relative unease with which you conveniently and almost unflinchingly mock it as a historical gospel of sorts to validate Rajput honour, valour and pride. On the contrary, to me, Padmaavat depicted, in good intention, an epic clash of two contrastingly personified moralities, strung together in a thematic portrayal of love, seduction, deceit, courage and undying resistance.

Too bad that your myopic sphere of vision only delved as far as Ranveer Singh’s toxic masculinity (I give him full-points for his path-breaking performance).

Too bad that Shahid’s usools didn’t spring out of the screen and expose its midriff to you.

Too bad that Deepika’s agency was too medieval for your confused modernity.

Coming back to the Ramayan, go ahead and ponder over why Sita holds two blades of grass (as Ram and Lakshman) that are powerful enough to defend her from Ravan’s wrath. Those two blades of grass were metaphorical indicators of the boundless resilience that an unarmed Sita bore against Ravan’s seamlessly draconian powers, which were rendered hollow despite his numerous victories, similar to Khilji’s in this equation.

Without doubt, the personifier of evil in Bhansali’s narrative, namely, Khilji might have attained forceful victory over Chittor, but he could never muster enough power to conquer Chittor’s people, because such power in the face of their courage and morality did not exist.

Before I wrap this up, spare a moment for a small exercise. I promise it’ll barely last a minute and costs just one matchstick.

That’s right.

Ignite a match-stick, bring your pinky finger close to it. Close to it. Now hold it over the flame, let it touch you.

*sigh*

Your reflexes made that pinky retract faster than Ranveer’s lunge in Bajirao’s Malhaari. As a matter of historical privilege, your fortified, first-world-problem-ridden-self is only far too displaced to even remotely fathom an act of self-immolation. No, I am not quoting some fancy historian from Oxford. Take that from someone whose very own family bears historical records of sati.

In my ancestral home, there is a gate or prol (as it is called in our native language) that is dedicated to the numerous occurrences of Sati that took place through our ancestresses during war-stricken times. It is believed that women undertaking the act of self-immolation had to often be intoxicated with the help of opium and frenzied by beating drums and chants to create a compelling façade that aided the ghastly act of self-effacement in the name of pride, honour and strategically speaking, defence.

Let’s go down a few generations to India during partition.

My grandmother, who belonged to present-day Kashmir’s Poonch locality, tragically recounts having spent a part of her childhood with a cyanide pendant around her neck. During their summertime refuge in war-torn Lahore, she and her siblings were strictly instructed by their elders to hastily down the venomous contents of their pendants should their then-communal rival break into their domestic confines. “To choose a death more honourable than at the hands of your enemy was the utmost responsibility that we spent relying on, every breathing second”, she expanded. Why am I citing these examples to you?

Because, living in relatively peaceful times, it becomes increasingly convenient to forget where many of us came from. We came from wombs that bore the good fortune of being spared the enemy’s sword and flames of sacrifice. I am not trying to put a convenient conclusion by saying that I/ my family knows greater suffering than you/ yours. Suffering is suffering at the end of the day, and a superficial attempt to out-victim the other is a tool of the logically-weak. In my view, humanistic contingencies, especially those exuding suffering, foster our utmost historical prudence.

Even though your good judgement might have gone on a democratic joyride short cutting to free speech and expression (and for your sensationalist self, why not), my humble prudence urges me to delve deeper into a liberalism that is as appreciative of artistic freedom as it is skeptical of narrative kitsch. And yet, neither does that make me morally superior to you, nor intellectually. Neither does it make me a proponent of feudalism, nor an opponent of democratic dissent. It just makes me a little less entitled, is all.

So to your opinionated polarity and sad disappointment, I don’t justify the occurrence of present self-immolation by any means. But I do, nevertheless, pay a deep thought to the endless acts of suffering and sacrifice that historical contingencies might have countlessly created, and pay mindfulness in my gratitude for being spared that fate because truth be told, I, too would instantaneously withdraw from that glistening splinter, knowing just too well that my intolerance towards a mildly flickering flame isn’t a matter of preference, nor prudence even, but that of unprecedented privilege.

Good night.

Sincerely,

Urvashi Singh

**********

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Commentaries, Opinion

An Open Letter to Ms. Sara Hussain

On the 3rd of January, 2018, Ms. Sara Hussain, a senior writer of an online media forum known as Homegrown published an article titled, “Why Do Indians Insist on Keeping Royal Titles Alive?” I write this letter to her in genuine response, humble esteem and noble (oops, that might sound as if I am making a royal association), *scratch*, good intention.

Dear Ms. Hussain,

I am slightly unclear on whether you’re annoyed about a news-surplus of frivolous titles; or over the excessive fascination that Indian citizens continue to associate to modern-day royalty; or that Martand owes you some missing fountain pen; or all of the above.
Anyhow, let me treat these reasons in unification and begin.

Before I do, I would like to thank you for providing me the opportunity to wake up and shake up my grey cells on a dull January morning in the smog-smothered capital of India. I will also clarify that due to the inherent ambiguity of written tones, it is easy to misread one-another as cynical and reactionary at so many levels nowadays. However, like most believers of reasonable dialogue, I believe in constructive critiques and not criticisms, so please bear this in mind should you wish to spend your worthy time reading the rest of my piece through.

READER DISCRETION: for the sake of narrative and analytical convenience, I have divided my letter to Ms. Hussain into four sections. I apologise for the length of this piece in advance, which, despite my best efforts to remain concise, has spilt over in a worthwhile compensation to Ms. Hussain’s extensive and slightly perplexing set of convictions.

PART I. Historical Obfuscations

In case you’re not as fond of reading the Indian Express as I am, I’d recommend you to dig through its online archives to find the opinion column of the 24th of October, 2017 by Audrey Truschke. In her piece titled Taj and bigotry, she writes, “the Indian subcontinent has a long, rich history, but the Indian nation state has had a quite brief existence to date. When people conflate the two, they lose the bulk of Indian history and end up making nonsensical statements.”
Pardon me for seemingly implying that your statements are nonsensical, but my humble discretion perceives your article to be compressing a history as extensive as India’s into the stifling confines of 70-odd years of just the Indian nation state, as if it were so easy to absolve it of its thoroughly nuanced, almost shadow-like past. And worse still, your meticulously jotted-down chronological acts and Prime Ministerial legacies form a rather careless conflation of history to validate a media-related annoyance.

Coming to think of it, it’ almost uncanny as to how things come full circle.
Just last year, I had responded to a historically inaccurate and mildly inciting piece written by Mr. Kuldeep Samra on WordPress, titled The Royals of Cuckooland (unfortunately, Mr. Samra’s original piece cannot be accessed anymore since he independently conceded to my rebuttal by taking down his post. However, you can read my response through the link that I have provided at the end of this article). Coming back to the point, while Mr. Samra’s piece was far more naïve and careless than yours if I am to make an analytical comparison, I would like to re-iterate an African proverb from there which says, “until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter”.

The history of the Rajputs, if I may bring to your kind notice, far predates the Nehruvian and Gandhian eras. Belonging to the Kshatriya varna of India’s caste system, it comes as no surprise that Rajputs bore a negligible volume of self-accounted histories. In fact, the most (and probably only) concise account that we possess on ourselves was written by an East India Company officer, Lieutenant-Colonel James Tod. It is 2018 and yet, we continue to rely on the extraordinary contributions made by a well-meaning Scotsman that were published as long ago as 1873 by Higginbotham & Co. in Madras. Our collective reliance on a singular, antiquated piece of historical non-fiction can be attributed to the simple fact that unlike the Bombay, Madras and Bengal presidencies, the erstwhile princely conglomerate of Rajputana lacked their equivalent of an integrated Bhadralok, or anything that even came close to a similar literary stature.

That said, there are a few notable personal memoirs no-doubt, but by no means would these qualify as concise histories to provide an internal account of what went on when the glorious acts banning royal titles and privy purses were passed in pre and post-independent India (you could even span back to the Policy of Annexation, Doctrine of Lapse and their various predecessing acts that our school books enlist in abundance). If you looked past your media-saturated news inlets, in an old dusty archive shelf somewhere close to the Presidential estate, you may come across some personal testimonies of our ancestors and ancestresses being locked up without warrants while their privy purses and familial treasures were being translated into multiple decimals in a statesmens’ Swiss bank account (again, no points for guessing).

Wait, but why am I telling you all this?

Because, my Dear Ms. Hussain, belonging to the same millennial generation as me, I would trust your post-structuralist faculties to be comprehensive of the fact that you and I are destined to read fractured accounts of history that are, partial at best. So by all means, you must have done your history teacher proud, but the very subject is in itself limited by what stands documented, by whom and for whom.

I will not make the slightest hesitation in offering you due credit for at least addressing the systemic debunking of India’s princely paraphernalia as breaches of contract and broken promises that remain uncompensated to this day, because they were precisely that. However, I won’t waste time indulging myself in wishful thinking for history to have played out differently in ways that would earn my community your validation. I have made peace with a useful insight offered by Shashi Tharoor wherein he states, “one cannot take revenge upon history; history is its own revenge”.

Why?

Maybe because bearing resilience without seeking pointless revenge is a virtue that has been historically habituated into us Rajputs, and as a matter of fact, into us Indians in general, whose country has been witness to the subsequent rise and falls of so many dynasties (I hope for this shared acknowledgement of resilience to portray me as more democratic for your liking.)

PART II. The Political Economy of Royalty

It would help your annoyance to a great extent if you applied this very logic to the way that we consume news and media today, the very content of which seems to have motivated your article. In a capitalist world, we live in the most consumerist of times where, as you rightly said, there exists an unprofessed media ‘hype’ over the most unwarranted of topics. Indeed, there is far too much content- produced, re-produced, overproduced to the point of insipidity, at the cost of over-used and exhausted data , accompanying false notions and stereotypes. Since you assumably pass off as an active consumer of tabloid news and media, I urge you to consider a direct and very simple insight from someone who belongs to both, the media industry as well as India’s Rajput community (my apologies for not acquainting myself to you beforehand).

Simply speaking, as a result of commercialisation, consumerism, capitalism (and an entire shebang of terms that I could hurl at you as a social scientist but would choose to save for another time), several identities, histories and hell, even familial customs as sacrosanct as marriages suffer from an external commodification of sorts.

Difficult to grasp?

Let me put it in another way.

A cardinal rule of economics states that in order to be successful, companies make commodities out of and trade what ‘sells’. In similar logic, branding their products as per popularised and fantasised notions of existence fortifies the ability of companies to ‘sell’ their product(s) far more effectively, in the same way that capitalism sold itself to the world when it did. In urban societies such as ours, and it could be said for most postmodern urban societies of the world, the glamorised notion of royalty ‘sells’, just as say, Ayurveda does. This continues to be the case for most industries, with the media and film industries being the most convenient points of reference. Much to your disappointment, I won’t moralise this issue at all, as I am well-aware that we all have bills to pay. So if a harmless, fantasised notion helped someone, who cares? No problem, I would think.

Let’s take this a notch higher.

Who cares even if these fantasised notions make charades out of a diverse and historical community, at the cost of their inherent stereotyping? Who cares that, ironically enough, those playing these charades (your ‘nawabs of nothing’) are entirely different from those selling them (the media)? Who cares about the class-based reverse-discrimination and pre-conceived notions/ stereotypes that the ‘nawabs of nothing’ battle in their day-to-day lives for no fault of their own?
You see, this is precisely where the problem(s) begin(s), Ms. Hussain.

One of my favourite gender scholars, Judith Butler calls this ‘the citation of a norm’, wherein the facades of one’s identity are promulgated by those around them, in their repeated hailing as a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, as manly or feminine. In similar regard, the entire edifice of titles that your sensibility seems plagued by could be credited to a bustling political economy of film, media, as well as societal imaginations and fantasies where royalty ‘sells’.

PART III. OMG! Are You A Princess?: A Metamorphosis of Identities & Stereotypes

As I had written to Mr. Samra last year, “my community is as royal as you make (or unmake) it.”
If I could get a dollar for every time I’ve been asked “omg! you’re a princess??” just because I disclosed where I came from, I’ll leave you to do the math.

Growing up, shy that I was anyways, I learned to be so conscious of my regal roots that I metaphorically became that school kid who hadn’t polished her shoes. Standing in line to be checked, I would brush aside my familial background at the back of my socks in order to blend in with the other kids until recently, when I realised that being privileged and acting entitled could be two entirely different things- it was simply a matter of choice. And that I had the right to be proud of my familial history, just as you are of yours. That I had the right to be unapologetic about living my life, while choosing to live as a responsible, law-abiding and tax-paying citizen of the country, just as you might be.

I can assuredly say that I’ve never felt the entitled need to correct someone calling me  “Urvashi” to call me out as “Princess Urvashi Singh of Khimsar”. Since Mriganka and Martand happen to be your schoolmates, I trust you to check with them on the same and can almost instantaneously predict that theirs would be the same answer. You see, Miss. Hussain, in full agreement with your observation of them in school, we all had a perfectly normal childhood, with a small (and yet, determining) difference.

And the difference was, that we lived a life of dual existences- one in the city, and one in our place of ancestral origin. These were two different worlds- one where the modern Indian nation state resided, and the other, where bards of battle, songs of blood and sword are nostalgically taught upto this living day. The city- where we polished our shoes and blended with a sea of children; and our ancestral thikanas- where it had been blasphemous for our grandparents to even bend to tie a shoe lace during their childhood.

Every year, when Delhi is rife with its Diwali taash parties, my family and I return to our ancestral village to reunite with our fellow residents in what we call ‘Rama Shama’, a bi-annual meet and greet ceremony that comes around Holi and Diwali, where we exchange sweets, saffron water while asking and being asked about one another’s well-being. Relational bygones (if any) are dissolved in good faith to pave the way for fresh beginnings. Year after year, we go back to customs such as these, and then return back to the city, embracing the best of both worlds.

Well-aware of the rapidly changing times that we live in, we were taught by our parents from a nascent age, the importance of gaining a footage in the modern world while balancing our familial heritage with utmost responsibility and humility (read humility and not entitlement). I am not trying to brag, but my community possesses innumerable examples of financially-privileged families who do not require any modes of formal employment to ensure a stable source of income for their entire lifetimes (despite seized privy purses and scattered farmlands due to the various land-ceiling acts). They’d be perfectly comfortable reclining with a silver spoon in their mouths, nestled in their family’s bygone glories of pre-independent, pre-integrated India.

But guess what?

The face of Dia Color that you see is a tiny spec of Mriganka’s larger existence, which would also include an active role within the Delhi Society for the Welfare of Special Children. As for Martand, he bears a professional background in PR and has also immerses himself in the Dogra youth politics of Jammu and Kashmir. They are both passionate travellers, Mriganka is particularly fond of equestrian sports and motorbiking.

If you’d allow me to delve a little bit deeper, Mriganka and Martand’s grand fathers- Dr. Karan Singhji and late Madavraoji Scindia, who need no prior introduction, have carried institutions in themselves, as have their grandmothers, i.e., late Vijayaji Rajye Scindia- a prominent political personality; and late Yasho Rajya Lakshmiji, who was a pioneering philanthropist of her time. Their continuing generations, which include the present-day Kashmirs and Scindias are too immersed in balancing their careers, personal lives and acts of goodwill to derive a leisure-time of asserting titles. The list of the people you mentioned goes on, but I choose to particularly account for these two people as I’ve grown up alongside them and in front of their family, and it pains me to think of the stereotypes that have been accredited to them, again, for no apparent fault of their own.

PART IV. The Perils of Armchair Idleism

You drew a fine line between the good-for-nothing, over-entitled royals on the one hand and the good, philanthropist and dissolving royals on the other, all so easily. If only it were so simple, Miss. Hussain. Just a note of discretion: we do not live our day-to-day lives as they come to be portrayed through Hello! and GQ. With all due respect to such credible and highly-reputed publications, these are deliberately-planned and executed branding strategies that cater to specific media algorithms. A temporary intermission from your armchair idleism to span through the lengths and breadths of our glorious nation would help you grasp certain familial, political and sociological legacies that have far-outlived the trials and tribulations of the Indian nation state, its constitution and the various acts that have come to presently be known. If and when you end up there, please consider telling the present-day rural voter to cast his vote without voting his cast, to which I console your disappointment beforehand.

Welcome to the India that popular media is yet to duly authenticate and glamorise.

Also, isn’t it ironical as to how, no-one seems to have a problem if a Jain’s marriage is arranged with another Jain, an Aggarwal’s to an Aggarwal, a Parsi’s to a Parsi, but that a consensual, intra-community Rajput marriage is blatantly stereotyped as a deliberate echo of exclusionist elitism? So yes, you’re right, feudal titles have been legally-dissolved, and privy-purses seized, but the associated (and equally-feudal and entitled) stereotyping and bigotry seem to have only just begun.

However, we still won’t lament, whether it is about being on the unfortunate side of history or being the rightful recipients of an immense moral debt that the Indian nation state owes to our families. Because we have let bygones be bygones. It is the 21st century and as proud citizens of post-independent India, we’re all contributing towards our nation’s GDP and thriving in our professional sectors, because we recognise something known as self-respect.

Another side note, should you wish to open your esteemed readership of commendable Rajput youths of today, your biased view points might be pleasantly surprised by the content that I bi-annually publish through a magazine known as Rajputana Collective. The lions are learning to write (and be written about) after all 

Lastly, no offence but your statement: “levels of celebrity that we so easily prescribe” made me laugh a little. Are you trying to say that Dhinchak Pooja is deserving of stardom? Trust me, we have more pressing matters at hand that are genuinely detrimental to our democracy, Miss. Hussain.
As I said earlier, it is what ‘sells’. And what ‘sells’ might convey more about the buyer than who is, and what is, selling.

Sincerely,

Who cares?
Just another ‘Princess of Nothingshire’

PS: Only because you mentioned the Padmavati/ Padmavat issue (for what reason, again I am not sure), I offer you a small nuance with my sincere compliments: a reactionary right-wing Rajput group known as Karni Sena has taken up this opportunity to gain political footage on a national platform through the deliberate ignition of communal sentiments. Most of us don’t even know them or associate with them. In fact, we’re rather keen on seeing the film in the true, unbiased spirit of Indian filmography. Should you wish to read my opinion on the issue, its link, too is pasted below.

USEFUL LINKS : –

1) MS. HUSSAIN’S ARTIClE

https://homegrown.co.in/…/why-do-indians-insist-on-keeping-…

2) MY RESPONSE TO KULDEEP SAMRA

https://www.missmalini.com/…/girl-best-response-publicatio…/

3) PADMAVATI ARTICLE

https://urvashisingh.wordpress.com/category/commentaries/

4) RAJPUTANA COLLECTIVE FACEBOOK LINK

https://www.facebook.com/rajputanacollective/

Homegrown #homegrown

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Commentaries, Opinion

Lions & an Insecure Herd of Sheep: My Views on the Padmavati Film Controversy

Earlier last year, when I launched my public response to a generalising and historically uninformed post over the contemporary Rajput community (which also served as the trigger post to have started Rajputana Collective), I was reminded by several commentators that “lions didn’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep.” I hereby make a gentle re-iteration of the same in times when we need to urgently preserve the wise difference between self-assured lions and an insecure herd of sheep.
To begin with , I have shared the link of a well-documented and historically- sound argument made in #Firstpost about the consequential results of Rajputs being on the unfortunate side of history across the various eras of time. Playing on similar nuances as my Masters’ thesis that was based on mythified anxieties triggered by fundamentalist politics (link pasted at the end of the article), Ashraf pays due acknowledgement to externally-triggered complexes and anxieties that are levied onto present-day communities in order to advance political motives that have little to do with them.
Being what I determine as a reasonably informed and educated person of the Rajput community, it has taken me much time and deliberation to voice my opinion on the Padmavati issue. Not because it wasn’t my responsibility or that I belonged to a distanced lot of spectators, but because it is too much of my responsibility to guard my people against rapid anxieties and sensationalism, neither of which belong to us.
The manner in which the Padmavati film controversy has played out over the past few weeks raises two very simple questions : –
a) Since when did we, as an ethnic community require external warranting for our valiant histories?
and
b) Are our perceptions of Self so fragile that they could be dislodged by the creative imagination and commercial exaggeration of a Bollywood film crew?
As a film-loving 90’s kid in India, I have grown up obsessing over the classic list of Bollywood’s over-the-top dramatisations (historical and otherwise)- be it Bharjatiya’s stifling family dramas that my naive pre-adolescent self once swooned over; or Johar & Chopra’s commercial rom-coms that are responsible for most of my romantic misconceptions; or the man in question- Bhansali’s overtly artful narratives of history and/or drama. What I can commonly say about Bollywood’s versatile genres is that I enjoyed their characters, filmy songs, dance numbers and dramatic quirks (and may I add, kitsches) that fortunately & unfortunately belong to Bollywood as some of its key characteristics.
To put it in simpler words, my blatant appreciation/ acknowledgement of Bollywood’s limitations & excesses are attributed to one overarching paradox- the political economy of commercial film-making, a.k.a. ‘the box-office success’. Which simply means that commercial film-making is focally dependent on the numbers and eventually, what sells at a larger level is all that really matters (aren’t all commercial enterprises about what sells at a larger level?). This fact is neither new nor surprising to a populace that has bred the largest film-making industry of the world.
Recent cinematic trends display the irrespective and often even thematically irrelevant addition of a Badshah or Honey Singh-led number as a deliberate strategy to gain greater ratings from their tremendously populated and monied fan belts. The same principle applies to voyeuristic fantasies of Sheila, Munni, Jalebi Bai & Baby Doll (I’ll let a new age item song in a horror movie do all the talking for you). Several endorsements and counter-litigations, such as Fevicol, Jhandu Balm (and the list goes on), again point to the unparalleled importance dominated by the commercial success of a film. Speaking of Bhansali’s films, the creative maestro has skills that bear far too much sophistication to bank on cruder instruments such as these. That said, even with a director of Bhansali’s stature, his films’ central dependence on commercial success could be moralised at several levels no doubt, as is the case with Padmavati.
Sure, even I pointed out the aesthetic inaccuracy of the film’s Ghoomar song video, which fundamentally contradicts the customary restraint that Rajput queens exercised in their discretion against joining dance ceremonies, especially in the presence of menfolk. Further, several ghoomar experts would argue against the choreographic inferiority that Bhansali and his crew have accredited to the dance act. Even in general, Padmavati’s official movie trailer aroused my curiosity towards the manner in which Bhansali would depict Khilji’s obsession towards Rani Padmavati. In opposition to Khilji’s ruthless deceit and plunder of her kingdom, Rani Padmavati’s legendary act of inspiring and conducting a mass self-immolation/ Jauhaar ceremony made her go down in Rajput history as the epitome of honour, courage and dignity, and rightfully so. Rani Padmavati is, has been and shall remain an immortal legend for all of us. Which, once again reinforces my questions: “since when did we, as an ethnic community require external warranting for our valiant histories?”; and “are our perceptions of Self so fragile that they could be dislodged by the creative imagination and commercial exaggeration of a Bollywood film crew?”
Bhansali’s depiction of the historical drama that is inspired by the legend of Padmavati is most likely to default vis-a-vis the accuracies that we demand. In what measures, remains the question. In owing my cinematic sensibilities some reason and patience, I sincerely believe in the common-sensical practicality of forming a more concrete opinion of the film once I have watched it. After all, how long can we go on arguing over visual and theatrical content that we are yet to fully access? With the legal (and sometimes dubious) existence of a supposedly-accountable apparatus for film censorship (the CBFC), my optimism lends their faculties the due wisdom of balancing freedom of expression & creativity with the protection of heritage & culture.
Moralising creative imaginations and commercial exaggerations of Bollywood, however, isn’t even the issue here. Open but uncompromisingly peaceful dissents (hear hear, our dearest Karni Sena brethren) are paramount features of a democratic society just as much as freedom of expression & creativity are. The issue that disconcerts me is that my community is falling prey to overarching political agendas, whose hegemonies fundamentally depend on reactionist sensationalism and collective anxieties. Over the past few days, as the admin of Rajputana Collective’s Facebook page, I have received several videos made by fundamentalists vowing to hack off Deepika Padukone’s nose, break down halls screening Padmavati and what not, in bids to join their angry voices. The defenders of these violent protestors would justify their actions based on comparisons by fringe elements of fellow religions, hence validating their anxieties by similarly-triggered anxieties. But here’s the myopic catch- in playing out simultaneously, violence does not become right. Rather, it serves as a multitudinous reminder of the same political manipulation being carried out through different religions, sects, factions and communities.
Through what was an erstwhile issue of censorship over creative accountability at best, we as the Rajput community are presently contending with a direct verification of perceptive communal identities. Sure, protestors bear every right to express their disapproval vis-a-vis the graphic representation of their histories. Online and offline media reflects some very interesting and constructive debates over the matter. However, the indirect sanctioning that this issue is providing fringe elements with to outrightly vandalise their surroundings and threaten their fellow-citizens; and the silent leniency of the higher order makes me shudder a little bit. As much as I hope against it, I see my community getting enveloped into the advancing Saffronisation of democratic India. In situating a virtuous Hindu kshatriya kingdom against an ultra-virile and licentious Muslim aggressor, Bhansali’s film has already done the homework for the vulturine instigators to trigger the anxieties of mensfolk who possess little historical or academic familiarity to begin with.
By the virtue of bearing greater educational and informative privilege, we as a readership are levied with a burdensome, yet vital imperative of sanctioning our voices with utmost responsibility and awareness. Whether or not Bhansali’s film diverges from our historical legends is by no means a yardstick of communal virtue. It is, at best, a dramatic re-telling from which we can enjoy taking as much, or as little as we wish. That, in my humble opinion, is the power and beauty of being a cinematic audience. And for the time-being, keeping in mind the highly limited cinematic content of Padmavati that I have had the opportunity of accessing, I take away what Deepika Padukone as Rani Padmavati re-iterates at the end, “Rajpooti kangan mei utni hi taakat hai jitni Rajputi talwar mein.” Bearing strength and resilience in every grain of our existence is a claim that is believed to have been promised by the shero herself. Her posthumous valour deserves more dignity and discretion than we are presently accrediting it with.
(courtesy: Aanchal Singh)
To read my bridged Masters’ thesis https://wordpress.com/post/urvashisingh.wordpress.com
To view the official trailer of Padmavati, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_5_BLt76c0
To view the song video of Ghoomar, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cKErCWrb44
To contribute your opinion on the Padmavati issue for the Opinion section of our upcoming edition, kindly write to mail@rajputanacollective.com, we’d love to hear from you!!
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Commentaries, Essays

The Ramayanification of India: Gender Mythification & the Saffron Agenda

ABSTRACT

While Indian academia is abundant in nuanced analyses of Hindu fundamentalism spanning across various decades and issues, my analysis is a modest effort to formulate Hindutva’s quest for ideological hegemony during the 1980’s. Belonging to a Hindu household myself, I pride the philosophical richness of Hinduism and its ability to withhold several strands of dissent. As a feminist scholar, it is the fundamentalist and distortional use of my religion for sectarian and political gains that I academically prosecute.

Using a postcolonial lens and borrowing from Foucauldian, Gramscian, Nietzchean, Althusserian concepts, I compile an understanding of how religious fundamentalism targets the psyches of those that it seeks to govern. My approach adopts the televised broadcasting of Sagar’s Ramayan as a classic example of Hindutva’s hegemonic agenda through popular media in the 1980’s, and I utilise several thematic examples from the TV series to progress my account. My analysis highlights the centrality of gender in Hindutva’s ideological imperative, and the subsequent implications that its it bears on our conceptions of gender relations, the Self and the Other. Addressing the primal role played by gender in communal contestations leads me to eventually forge a discursive link between gender and the nation.

PART I : Hindutva & Sagar’s Ramayan

Background: The 1980’s

Arguably one of the most politically volatile decades in the history of independent India, the 1980’s were characterised by a culmination of a lot of political ferment from the previous decades, namely, the end of the Nehruvian consensus and a decline of the Congress as the national spokesperson. The State’s centralising tendencies, along with the developmental plans that it undertook resulted in enormous wealth inequalities, income disparities, regional imbalances and secessionist movements, all of which resulted from and added to the State’s crippling legitimacy, and jointly qualified as a crisis of the Indian State.

The political climate was brewing further with the three M’s of the 1980’s, namely, Mandal, Mandir and Market. Firstly, the Mandal Commission that would soon recommend caste-based affirmative action, contributing a new dimension to the centuries-long casteism, particularly among the middle classes in northern India. Simultaneously, the Babri Masjid- Ramjanmabhoomi issue in Ayodhya added to the already-abundant communal tensions in the country. Lastly, a failure in Nehru’s socialist models had put the Indian market in a financial deficit, which would result in a serious economic crisis by the end of the decade. An increasingly crippling State’s incompetency to deal with these problems led to its delegitimisation even further. These factors profoundly impacted those who had maximum stakes in the present contingencies- India’s enormous and yet-emerging middle class, and gave rise to a greater consciousness of what divided India- caste, class, religion, ethnicity, linguistic and regional differences, rather than what united it.

A general crisis in terms of the Indian identity was beginning to rise along with the question- who was the real Indian? Was it the Brahmin or the Dalit? The Hindu or the Muslim? The wealthy elite, or the aam admi? The Hindi-speaking UP-ite or the Tamil who didn’t converse in Hindi? Or was it everyone in between?

During the same decade, the increasing incidents of violence against women, including dowry deaths and bride burning led to a sharp upsurge in feminist movements. Moreover, the growth of consumerism and the rising costs of living amounted to a larger percentage of women entering workspaces in the country. The active presence of women in political activism and employment spheres, along with a general modernisation of the Indian society posed an enormous threat to patriarchal and fundamentalist strands of Hinduism, collectively referred to as Hindutva*.

At this precise juncture, Chhachhi (1989) convincingly identifies a wedlock between right-wing Hindu fundamentalism-Hindutva, and the crisis-ridden Indian state. Hindutva was sanctioned by the State to “create ideological unity through the sponsoring of religious fundamentalism”1, thereby transforming it into the national identity and redefining Indianness on communal terms. Despite the stakes, an increasingly weakening State was handing over the responsibility of national integration to whom it considered to be a promising player. As for Hindutva, it was amplified onto the national platform like never before, and this was a chance for the Sangh to re-instate patriarchal order as well as seize political victory. A win-win situation for both, the onset of this ideological-political agenda would change the face of Indian politics forever.

Hindutva as the National Ideology

Hindutva, like most religious fundamentalisms, is typically “the political spokesperson of some group claiming to represent a religious community2”, but in its purely distorted and instrumental use of religion and false conceptions of community, not only does it fail to represent its professed community but also “mock[s] the idea of religion3”. Stipulating exclusivist criterions of being a Hindu, which include a specific fatherland, race, culture and holyland that are all Hindu, it aims to create a Hindu nation state and claims that only Hindus can be true patriots of India4. Its cardinal organisation, the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh identified itself, not as a Hindu organisation but a national one, which identifies “Hindu cultural regeneration”5 as its primary task. However, it can be argued that this claim of “cultural regeneration” provides a benevolent disguise to a peculiarly invasive and effective form of social control”6 for the purpose of Hindutva’s darker side of ideological hegemony and as a result, religious fascism.  For this purpose, culture is harnessed by Hindutva “as an apparently innocent middle term invested with Hindu religious meanings and associations”7.

Speaking of hegemony, the Gramscian framework states that hegemony can only be established with “cultural consent, discursive centrality, institutionalism and marginalization/ delegitimisation of alternatives”8. After going through numerous Hindutva manifestos, political rally videos, documented speeches and various scholars critiques of Hindutva-led fascism, I have theorised Hindutva’s establishment of hegemony in a very systematic way. As a part of its hegemonic agenda, Hindutva ideology consciously generates two mutually-reliant cultural conceptions in specified temporalities- of the past and the present.

On the one hand, it conceives a utopia, a mythicised and misrepresented** picture of India’s past, a “Hindu golden age”9, from which India has fallen and a nostalgia thereof. On the other hand, it induces anxieties regarding kaliyuga– the dark times that have presently befallen India, whipping up a “fear psychosis and a sense of injustice among the majority community”10, that are direct and exclusive results of the collective defilement of the Indian society and culture by the Other. Seen in contrast then, this professed mythicised past is characterised by the fact that unlike the present, it was “uncorrupted by Other cultures”11. Hindutva’s uncorrupted past and the defiled present are consequently brought together through the concept of “monumental history”12. A brainchild of Nietzsche, this concept is used in the construction of the past whereby “the writer drives home the point that greatness which was once possible and existent can be therefore, really be possible again”13. In other words, Hindutva invokes nostalgia for a utopian past and stresses upon anxieties vis-à-vis the present to jointly imply that: “the mythicised lost golden age could seem recoverable within a new political community of the Hindus”14.

In proclaiming itself to be the bulwark of this new political community (where the utopian past can be restored), Hindutva is able to contribute to, as well as derive legitimacy out of its status as the nation’s ideological hegemon. Hence, Hindutva gains much of its meaning and authenticity by virtue of its professed nostalgia, anxieties and a bid to redeem what has been lost. As a result of invoking a constant state of threat and anxiety among the middle class about its demographics, Hindutva “evokes complicity in morally offensive and violent policies and practices among people who would otherwise be repelled by them”15. And yet, these cultural conceptions of nostalgia and anxieties are not forcibly imposed, but carefully generated. This could be explained by the Gramscian concept of “civil society” which rules, not by force but by the means of hegemony that manufactures consent16. Hindutva’s manufacture of consent can be viably approached by adopting a Foucauldian analysis.

By the virtue of its normative and discursive powers as the nation’s cultural denominator, Hindutva constructs and disciplines subjectivities to produce “docile bodies”17 that are instrumental to the maximisation of its political interests. For example, by stipulating specific notions of what it means to be a Hindu, it thereafter directs these ideals as constituting the past and being compromised in present times. In similar logic, Hindutva promises a better future through their actualisation. As a result, subjects begin to embody and contest its notions of being Hindu, in the conception that the constant state of anxiety, inadequacy and loss can apparently be overcome by endorsing Hindutva as a way of life. It is in this endless conformity towards Hindutva and contestations with alternate notions of the Self that consent for Hindutva is manufactured. In short, Hindutva devices its hegemony by creeping into people’s vulnerabilities- first by conceiving and selling a false sense of inadequacy and threat to the collective psyches of subjects, followed by bidding their redemption.

Thus, by disciplining and regulating the desires of its subjects in accordance with its professed nostalgia (of a utopian past) and anxieties (vis-à-vis the present), Hindutva succeeds in manufacturing consent and ensuring its ideological legitimisation as the architect of the nation’s future. However, this agenda is carried out rather inconspicuously, behind the veil of a benign self- portrayal of itself in aiding the process of identity- creation.

However, the subjectivities that Hindutva disciplines and regulates in strict accordance are, “not universal, but sexed and gender specific”18; and as Chhachhi (1989) notes, pertain to gender relations as well as to individual and collective conceptions of gender. That is, the notions of being Hindu as per Hindutva’s ideologies cannot be described without referring to gendered notions of maryaada purshottam, mardaanagi, adarsh Bharatiya naari, pativrata dharma, or in other words, gender idealisations, norms and gendered notions of conduct.  A contending claim has been made by Das, who notes that “the drive to ‘fix’ the Indian state’s identity…had enabled the state (or its leaders) to incorporate gender to articulate divergent national identities…”19. Thereafter, by attaching particular notions of masculinity and femininity to the symbolism of the entire community20, gender identities get attached to communal identities21 and Hindutva’s strategy is “skilfully constructed to strike at the heart of identity- the intersection of community and gender”22. Thus, gendered subjectivities are discursively conceived through Hindutva’s cultural conceptions (nostalgia and anxieties) to constitute a culturally homogenised community and gradually, to determine the national destiny of a Hindu nation-state.

Chakravarti argues that “this is being done today not through powerful writing but through the power of the visual medium, the cinema and the television. It was a fairly conscious move by the state to telecast religious mega serials, ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’…took off on the on the theme of a fragmented nation, carrying mythological tradition forward in a more coherent way emphasising a joint xenophobia against the enemy within”23.

Ramayan as Hindutva’s Ideological Apparatus

On Sunday, the 25th of January, 1987, the state-owned national broadcaster Doordarshan aired the pilot episode of Sagar’s Ramayan.  The quarter- hour serial was broadcasted nationwide on every Sunday that followed it until August the next year, and the national phenomena that this TV series created needs no prior introduction. Choosing to air Ramayan every Sunday morning ensures it was transmitted to the audience at a time when the typical Hindu middle-class family enjoyed a leisurely morning, off from work, with the family and closer to the time of their routine prayers. With lesser television sets back in that time and cable TV as its only source had very different bearings on the audience and viewership than it would have now, and I leave the reader to discern the politics of cable broadcasting/ collective viewership for herself/himself. What is certain is that Ramayan’s ubiquitous appeal formed an inescapable bait for anyone who lived in the immediate vicinity of a television set.

Broadcasting the mega serial through state-sponsored media finds resonance in Althusser’s conception of the Ideological State Apparatus, more specifically, “the communications apparatus by cramming every ‘citizen’ with daily doses of nationalism, chauvinism, liberalism, moralism, etc, by means of the press, the radio and television”24. Treating the televised Hindu epic as a hegemonic state apparatus to prevail Hindutva’s agenda, a lot is derived out of its formalisation of a national community primarily through interpellation, or “hailing”25, which is discussed in part II of this article.

In its televised form, Ramayan represented a microcosm of the vast spectrum of Ramayans that have travelled across time and space, in the form of traditional folklore, popular literature, storytelling, visual arts, scriptural articulation, the Bhakti movement and dramatic folk enactments (Ram Lila). At a basic level, Ramayan is the story of a Ram, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu in his supreme quest to recover his abducted wife Sita from Ravan, the demonic king of Lanka. Argued to be one of the “oldest surviving text of a story that has been continued to be retold for over two thousand years”26, the narrative tradition of the Ramayan displays “the ability to support both authoritative and oppositional tellings.”27 Moreover, the epic’s narrative discourse bears sufficient evidence of not only encouraging contradictory strands, but also providing the impetus for negotiations28. Ramanand Sagar’s televised telling of the Ramayan, for its selective and manipulative scripting of the epic forms one of the most serious contraventions to this tradition. His imposition of “one master narrative of a unified Hindu community”29 that chose to emphasise on the “unity of all these versions [of the epic] rather than their differences”30 helps one draw close correlations between Sagar’s treatment of contradictory strands of the epic and Hindutva’s treatment of difference “as a need for homogenisation rather than the signs of emerging plurality of voices.31” Sagar’s homogenisation (and if I may add, gross distortion) of an extensive narrative tradition, apart from leading to “cultural loss”32, was granted by authoritative sanction by being broadcasted on Doordarshan whereby the State was not just complicit but actively endorsed in the propagation of the hegemonic narrative of the “national past”33.

Ramayan’s “ready availability”34 for Hindutva’s ideological agenda stems from its placement in a past that used to be glorious, but which has undergone significant deterioration and attributed to the “tragedy of the nation”35. The “theme of loss… that underlay the entire serial”36 corresponds to Hindutva’s cultural conceptions of nostalgia for its bygone glories, present day anxieties, as well as a strong resolution to reclaim what has been lost in time. Hence, Ramayan marked one of the first instances of a highly self-conscious”37 televised Hindu epic being “harnessed to the Hindu nationalist political cause”38.

PART II : Mythification & Othering in Ramayan

Both, the Hindutva discourse and Ramayan base their authenticity and cultural superiority on a history constitutive of a distinctive culture, a construct that is “overwhelmingly created on gendered lines”39. This distinctive culture is highlighted in Ramayan through the mythification of gender idealisations exhibited by its protagonists, thereby collectively constituting an “imagined urban past”40. This past is put into jeopardy by the series’ antagonists that it systematically Others, which is then redeemed by its protagonists, adding to their glorification at the cost of demonising the Other. I proceed to argue that Ramayan as Hindutva’s Ideological State Apparatus interpellates gendered subjectivities vis-à-vis Hindutva’s cultural conceptions of nostalgia and anxieties through the twin-processes of mythification and Othering.

Mythification

Not only does “the power of the visual image”41 in Sagar’s Ramayan impart “the mythical, nonspecific material quality of the epics”42 a “given materiality, a reality”43, it imparts this materiality and reality onto very carefully constituted myths, in strict accordance with objectives of the Hindutva agenda. “Gain[ing] its authority by representing the world of the divine”44, Ramayan imparts divine sanctity to its content, primarily through the process of mythification. By “deploy(ing) the tool of mythification in order to construct a dramatic narrative- as a morality play of fall, rise and redemption”45, Ramayan de-contextualises and de-politicises history and oversimplifies complex factors by projecting them as free of any contradictory strands altogether. Mythification does not deny the presence of these contradictory strands but “it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact”46. Furthermore, “by eliminating all nuances that can permit a non-patriarchal code to operate and which are very much an integral part of the epic’s natives”47, Ramayan confirms its nature as a manipulative discourse in close conjunction  with Hindutva’s patriarchal gender norms. This can be further elaborated while considering the series’ gender idealisations.

Ramayan’s male protagonist- Ram is portrayed as the living embodiment of maryaada purshottam– the “epitome of male perfection”48– an obedient son, a loving brother, a virtuous leader, and supreme upholder of moral obligations whose primary virtue is constituted by truthfulness and dharma. Moreover, Ram personifies “ideal behaviour not only for a ruler and citizen, but in relation to family, caste and gender hierarchy as well”49. The series’ female protagonist Sita, who is Ram’s wife is systematically denied of any meanings that she had previously been associated with in her own right and is cast primarily in relation to Ram. She is selectively constituted in the televised epic in her least assertive form, as the “epitome of ideal womanhood”50 for her chaste, passive, self- sacrificing and unconditionally enduring nature. Sagar’s Sita relentlessly prides herself herself as a devoted wife (pativarta nari), solely constituted by her wifely duties (naari dharma) towards Ram. Hence, Ram’s masculine bravado, heroic valour and honour aren’t placed in a gender binary opposite to Sita’s feminine meekness, chastity and fidelity, but are done so relationally, on two unequal planes. That is, while Ram’s being is partially conditioned by Sita, Sita’s existence is entirely structured around, and conditioned in accordance with Ram. As the signifier of ideal womanhood, Sita equates feminine virtues with wifely devotion and sanctifies a woman’s being as being wholly and solely focused around her husband. What’s more- Sita is granted supernatural powers for her supreme devotion to Ram, just as a patriarchal society awards brownie points to conforming women.

She can be identified as what de Beauvoir (1989) calls “the absolute Other”51, the empty signifier, through whom the man, the signified, attains meaning. However, unlike de Beauvoir’s absolute Other who suffers a lack of agency, Sita is shown exercising her active discretion against the exhibition of these powers due to a lack of her husband’s lack of permission thereof. Further, not only is Sita shown confining herself within what she deems permissible by Ram, but settling her own confines in ways that would further glorify her husband. For example, during the time she spends being captured in Ravan’s Lanka, Sita makes an active decision neither to make use of her powers, nor seek any opportunity to free herself, “because that would mean that Ram would not obtain the glory invoked in rescuing her”52. Here, Sita is shown as exercising her active agency as a devoted wife to deny herself any self discrimination as a self-sufficient woman if it compromises the exalted image of her husband. This can be seen as a powerful denominator of Hindutva’s expectations of its women at the time of modernisation and neoliberalism, where choice and agency emerge as the new mantras. In this way, Hindutva logic skilfully encourages the power to exercise choice and agency, but tempers a woman’s discretion to dispense these powers in ways that would further the cause of Hindutva and patriarchal motives.

Thus, as an ideal woman, Sita’s gamut of choices and her purpose of living are inextricably tied to her husband’s glorification as the signifier, whereas the sole purpose of Ram’s being as the signified is to uphold his own glorification as the icon of masculine valour. In exhibiting their gender virtues in these specific ways, both Ram and Sita are mythified and glorified as “Hindu ideals”52 and “moral exemplars of the Indian society”53

Apart from being the “ideal monogamous model for the Hindu marriage”54, the marital union of Ram and Sita ultimately results in the inauguration of Ram Rajya, or the rule of Rama, the “urban archetype… situated in an imagined past”55 towards which Hindutva imparts much nostalgia. In serving as preconditions of the establishment of the ideal state, gender subjectivities embodied by Ram and Sita authenticate Hindutva’s discursive creation of gendered subjectivities without which, the ideal nation-state stands inconceivable. Ramayan’s purposeful formulation of the contradiction-free utopian state based on gender idealisations can be seen as aiding the Hindutva agenda in further silencing dissent against Hindutva’s imperatives and producing docile bodies in a strictly patriarchal code.

Cusack makes a noteworthy observation that in its abundant iconography, Hinduism “lacks explicit distinctions between this world and the otherworld, and between the gods and human beings”56. Thus, not only do the iconographies of Ramayan’s various characters capture popular imagination and identification, but also serve to justify their gender idealisations as enactable and the resulting utopian state as attainable.

As discussed in this section, gender idealisations are powerfully mythified in Ramayan while being embodied and conducted by the series’ protagonists, thereby imparting them with a distinct physicality. The divine images of Ram played by Arun Govil and Sita by Deepika Chikhalia instilled much devotion and love among the viewership community. However, mythification as an interpellative tool is limited in that it only goes thus far to instil nostalgia towards idealised gender norms and a utopian community. In order to have a viable effect on the viewer’s psyche, the entire edifice of mythification revolves on a crucial lynchpin- the Other.

Othering

In her renowned work, postcolonial scholar Chandra Mohanty (1991) described the process of Othering as the creation of a “cultural and composite Other constructed through diverse representational discourses”57. In similar consistency, Wu (2008) points out that the creation of Ramayan coincided with the upsurge of Hindutva, “which was partially fuelled by the series’ presentation of a Hindu world menaced by demons (the Other)”58.

In Ramayan’s representational discourse, most of the female protagonists like Sita play as the normative referent, the signifier to the male signified in a binary analytic. However, their binarism is primarily gendered. These gender idealisations and the consequent nostalgia that they invoke have to be met with their antitheses in the form of the Other and their inhabitation of an anxiety-ridden present. It is only with the bid to redeem this present that the Self can be glorified in both- the Ramayan as well as the Hindutva discourse. As Mishra (2002) indicates, “the ‘rakshasization of the Muslim Other was crucial to the recovery of this myth”59. In order for this demonisation to materialise, Ramayan conceives what I have identified as a process of Othering, a racial, cultural, sexual discrimination between the protagonists and antagonists, which is collectively transposed onto the moral realm.

In its representational discourse, Ramayan provides crudely different iconographies to the protagonists in comparison to the “racial and cultural Others”60, as reported by Sagar’s son Subhash, to invoke divine images in the minds of the viewers61. The “overdone divinity”62 imparted to all the leading and supporting protagonists ensured they had fair skin, attractive features, firm physiques and ornamental dresses, qualifying them as what Madhu Jain calls “moving calendar art pictures”63. In comparison, the series antagonists such as Ravan, Khara, Dushan and Shurpanakha amongst others, were deliberately featured as dark-complexioned, with often-deformed features, unshapely bodies, coarse voices, draped in tribal-styled attire, and are often shown uttering animal-like laughs. Their evil powers are further dramatised by exaggerated abjection and crude production techniques such as artificial graphics. Moreover, while the protagonists are strictly bound by “normative roles ad prescriptive behaviour”64, the antagonists are shown as sexually unrestrained and “morally ambiguous”65. However, two characters on the side of the antagonists such as Ravan’s wife Mandodari and his brother Vibhishan, who are mythologically perceived as innately humane and ‘caught on the wrong side’, were deliberately depicted in the same iconographic fashion as the protagonists. Concurrently, the series’ monkey characters such as Hanuman, Sugriva and Angad were portrayed more humanely than the Others, despite being of animalistic descent, because of their superior morality. This serves as a classic example of Sagar’s iconographic demarcation of protagonists and antagonists by casting their conflicting moralities onto exaggerated corporealities. In addition, the distinct regional affiliations of the protagonists (towards the northern part of India) versus the antagonists (to an exotic land called Lanka) renders demarcations more tangible and consequently “proffers an invigorated sense of identity”66, a rudimentary step towards Hindutva’s directed xenophobia.

In being “profoundly a text of ‘Othering’”67, Ramayan makes no delay in its constitution of the Other. Right from its pilot episode, one sees several gods, sages and celestial beings approach a sedate and reclined Lord Vishnu in the heavenly abodes of Vaikuntha, expressing their anguish about the state of affairs on Earth. They lament the slow demise of truth and righteousness due to the growing powers of the demon king- Ravan. Prithvi, the Earth goddess equates his rule with that of unrighteousness and immorality after which, a brief iconography of Ravan and his demons is shown, appearing to cause havoc. After being jointly invoked by this divine cohort to cast his earthy intervention and restore order, Vishnu decides to descent on earth as Ram, making the beginning of Ramayan. Thus, the formulation of an anxiety-provoking present is a deliberate cue to justify the worldly intervention of a divine force, an act that preconditions the glorification of the protagonists who embody morality in their crusade against immoral demons.

One can easily draw parallels between this celestial lamentation and Hindutva’s repeated anxiety-inducing discourses such as Saffron Demographics and Ghar Vapsi; and between Vishnu’s bid to restore order and Hindutva’s necessitation of ethnic cleansing to create the Hindu nation-state. Moreover, it is interesting to note that not only do Ramayan and the Hindutva discourse jointly treat difference between the Self and the Other in racial, cultural, sexual and iconographic terms, but their anxiety vis-a-vis the Other “is cast in a moral discourse of Good versus Evil, such that the other is implicitly evil”68. Hence, overcoming the Other in this bid to restore moral order is cast as an epic tale of moral redemption.

However, the fight between the Good Self and the Evil Other is not always contested over neat demarcations69. How then, is the Other differentiated?

PART III: Gender & Sexuality in Ramayan

Several scholars ranging across discourses on Hindutva converge upon the line of argument that gender and sexuality are crucial implications in Hindutva’s drive for ideological hegemony. It is of no co-incidence then, that Ramayan as its ideological apparatus heavily invests in tactics of mythification and Othering to interpellate subjectivities in gendered and sexual terms, progressing as “primarily a story of sexual intrigue”70.

Hindutva’s Ideal of Masculinity

In her article regarding the semiotics of communal violence and rape in the 2002 Gujarat Riots, Sarkar argues that “there is a dark sexual obsession about allegedly ultra-virile Muslim male bodies and over fertile female ones, that sustain figures of paranoia and revenge”71. While this sexual insecurity vis-à-vis the Muslim Other has been accounted for in several documentations of communal violence, it has also been reported to being closely linked to colonial conditioning of the Hindu self image as emasculated, “impotent, meek” and incapable of defending the Hindu nation”72. As a result, a bid to revitalise Hindu masculinity combined not just an attempt to counter these claims of emasculation, but to do so while maintaining a distinct upper hand in the spiritual realm73, and hence, morally superior.

Most divine masculinities in Ramayan are embodied by Kshatriya protagonists, who are actively endorsed in the life of a householder74. However, they are mythified and glorified as being “pure and free from lust”75 to the extent of being desexualised in comparison to the sexually predatory Other. For example, several tellings of the epic account for Kaikeyi’s sexual blackmail to force Dashratha to put her son Bharat on the throne instead of Ram. In carrying the risk of portraying Dashratha as sexually blackmailed, and hence, lustful, is completely censored in Sagar’s Ramayan. Sen Gupta perceives this as “a complete brushing away of female or male sexuality wherever it proves to be uncomfortable with a masculinist, heterosexual and puritanical worldview”76. On the other hand, the series provides no respite in Kaikeyi’s sexual portrayal, because this depiction of hers serves a functional role in that it augments her image as morally culpable and hence, inferior to the rest of the protagonists.

In similar context, Mankekar draws close parallels between Ram “with a bow and arrows slung on his shoulder… frequently shown meditating, praying, and leading the ascetic life of a renunciate”77; and Bankim Chandra’s construction of “ideal masculinity [that] combined militancy of the kshatriya [warrior] and the spirituality of the renouncer (sanyasi)78”. I take this argument further by suggesting that Ram’s manifestation of these two elements is contingent upon the Other. Meaning, that an otherwise sedate and meditational Ram’s militant aggression only manifests in defence against threat and aggression directed by the Other. Moreover, while Ram and other Kshatriya protagonists exemplify Hindutva’s ideal masculinity through their depiction of moral ascendency, self-adequacy and competency to triumph the Other against all odds, their apparent stability rests on thin ice. In other words, the inherent vulnerabilities and anxieties of Hindutva masculinity vis-à-vis the Other are displaced onto, and seek re-assurance through female sexualities.

Female Sexuality

Sattar points out that although male protagonists and antagonists can be morally demarcated as good and bad, “the split between women characters is far more pronounced and is always expressed in terms of sexuality”79. Similarly in Ramayan , while Sita, Kaushalya, Arundhati among other female protagonists are shown as domesticated, submissive, chaste, conforming and sexually restrained, antagonists, primarily Shurpanakha and Tadka are cast as demonic, deviant, untamed, sexually untamed and hence, threatening. Most, if not all their traits are defined in sexual terms and their moralities stem directly from their honour, which is wholly located in their sexual chastity.

Furthermore, masculine protection of women’s sexual chastity and honour is justified by rendering female sexuality as “fragile and easily fractured80” and under a constant threat of the carnal Other. The apparent threat posed by the Other serves a functional cause to the extent that in its sheer absence, gender contestations cease to be viable. Hence, for gender subjectivities to be implicated as per Hindutva’s conceptions, this immanent threat needs to be fabricated (and thereby redeemed) even when all empirical evidence and logic fails, as is the case with Saffron Demographics. In identical logic, the mutilation of Shurpanakha and the consequent abduction of Sita in Sagar’s Ramayan serve the same functional cause. It is interesting to note that without these two significant events, it is almost impossible for the series’ narrative to progress forward.

Shurpanakha’s mutilation results from a sexually deviant demoness and sister of Ravan, who takes the form of a bejewelled damsel after being enamoured by Ram and proposes to marry him while he is on his exile. A highly bemused Ram expresses his vow of monogamy towards Sita and provokes the demoness to take her proposal to his brother Lakshman instead, deliberately signalling his availability as against his actual marital status. After being amply mocked by Lakshman too, an infuriated Shurpanakha returns to her demonic form and threatens to eat Sita up, seeing her as the cause of her rejection. At this point, Lakshman is asked to intervene, whereby he mutilates Shurpanakha by cutting off her nose. Vowing to destroy the two brothers, Shurpanakha departs for Lanka, where she pleads her brothers to avenge her humiliation. Ram then remarks to Sita that it is a shameless woman (lajjaheen aurat) who causes of the downfall of her entire community. This act of Shurpanakha’s mutilation can be symbolically interpreted as a gendered punishment for non-conformist behaviour. Shurpanakha’s transgression stems not just from her overly sexual appearance and vanity thereof, but as Das suggests, from her direct disavowal of patriarchal norms of male protection, through her agency that enables her to give out her own proposal without a mediating kinsman. At the same time, the reason for her mutilation is attributed to her attempt to attack a defenceless and innocently meek Sita. However, when seen in the light of the ongoing argument, Sita is instrumentally implicated here to mask the real threat that Shurpanakha’s unrestrained sexuality posed to Ram and his brother, or rather, their masculinities.

Apart from functionally serving as an opportunity for the valorisation of divine masculinities by ‘protecting’ their woman, this scene serves as the core catalyst to the subsequent narrative by “move[ing] the story to top gear”81 and hence inciting the demons led by Ravan to avenge their sister’s mutilation by abducting Sita. Moreover, it is of no co-incidence that Ramayan’s narrative progression relies on the rational digression of its female characters- Manthara, Kaikeyi and Sita, thereby creating situations to justify masculine intervention at the behest of of feminine lack of judgement. Evidently, The entire plot of Ramayan is based on the mutilation, abduction and retrieval of women by men.

What operates implicitly here is the displacement of Hindu masculine insecurities and anxieties vis-à-vis the ultra virile Other onto female sexualities, which, by being cast as threatened, serve as a battlefield for masculine contestations. The constant defence, protection and retribution of female sexualities allows for Hindutva masculinities to seek re-assurance under an equally masculine veil of male protection.

When these gender contestations enter mythological content and iconography, not only are they decontextualised, but are placed in a larger moral imperative, thereby gaining the status of an epic tale of “fall and rise, continue with a re-signification of woman… and triumph in a coda of redemption”82. Equivalently, Ramayan constitutes a moral battle between the Self and the Other, where the lines demarcating the two are constantly re-inscribed by contesting through female sexualities, their mutilation, abduction and retrieval, where gender and sexuality serve as the most salient markers of Otherness.

PART IV: Gender & the Nation

In communal and nationalist discourses, female sexualities are commonly relegated to the symbolic realm and come to determine communal honour83. This is purposefully done to profess communal, and consequently national honour as vulnerable and threatened by the licentious Other, and thus, in need of male protection. In similar logic, masculine ascendency is sought over the Other community through the sexual defilement of their women, equated with the defilement of their honour. Counter-claims to this ascendency then follow in the form of retributions in similarly sexual ways, as is evident in most cases of communal and sectarian violence. Thus, as Nussbaum argues, by being relegated as symbols of communal honour, women are limitlessly reduced from being persons, ends in themselves, to mere instruments, means of expressing “male power, honour and security”84. One can find endless examples of the instrumental use of women subjectivities throughout Ramayan and the Hindutva discourse, for the contestation of masculine insecurities, anxieties in search of re-assurance and stability, that jointly result in the “gendered nature of nations and nationalisms”. Thus, masculine contestations across mythological, communal as well as national discourses come to be centred upon, conditioned by and reassured through the differential sexual chastity and honour conferred upon, and persevered by the women of the epic, the communities and the nation.

*

Notes

* Officially coined by V.D. Savarkar in 1923, Hindutva is used as a term to refer to Hindu nationalism and present-day Hindu fundamentalism in India. This ideology was soon adopted by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on its formation in 1925, thereby marking the inception of the Sangh Parivar or conglomerate of organisations representing Hindutva, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Durga Vahini and several others.
**
Several scholars such as Chakravarti (1990) and Roy (1995) have highlighted the fraudulence of these claims by highlighting selectively constituted national historiographies that entail a very distorted conception of the past, which have in turn been utilised by Hindutva to gain genealogical and cultural authenticity. 

References

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  2. Chhachhi, A. (1989). The State, Religious Fundamentalism and Women: Trends in South Asia. Economic & Political Weekly, XXIV(11), pp. 219
  3. ibid: 115
  4. Savarkar, V. (1989). Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?. 6th ed. Bharati Sahitya Sadan., pp. 113
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  10. Shah, G. (2002). Caste, Hindutva and Hideousness. Economic & Political Weekly, XXXVII(15), pp.1391
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  12. Kumar, M. (2006). History and Gender in Savarkar’s Nationalist Writings. Economic & Political Weekly, [online] XXXIV(11/12), pp.35-50. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27644182 [Accessed 27 Aug. 2014], pp. 33
  13. ibid
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  22. ibid
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  25. ibid
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  27. Richman, P. (2000). Questioning and Multiplicity Within the Ramayana Tradition. In: P. Richman, ed., Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition, 1st ed. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 12
  28. ibid
  29. Mankekar, P. (1999). Screening culture, viewing politics. 1st ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, pp. 174
  30. ibid
  31. Vijayan, P. (2002). Outline For an Exploration of Hindutva Masculinities. In: B. Bose, ed., Translating Desire: The Politics of Gender and Culture in India, 1st ed. New Delhi: Katha, pp.99
  32. Richman, P. (1992). Introduction: The Diversity of the Rāmāyana Tradition. In: P. Richman, ed., Many Rāmāyanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, 1st ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 4
  33. Mankekar, P. (1999). Screening culture, viewing politics. 1st ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, pp.184-185
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  35. Rajagopal, A. (2001). Prime Time Religion. In: A. Rajagopal, ed., Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India, 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.1662
  36. ibid
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  38. ibid
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  42. ibid
  43. ibid
  44. Cusack, C. (2012). The Gods on Television: Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, Politics, and Popular Piety in Late Twentieth Century India. In: A. Possamai, ed., The Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, 1st ed. Leiden: Brill, pp. 288
  45. Prügl, E. (2012). “If Lehman Brothers Had Been Lehman Sisters…”: Gender and Myth in the Aftermath of the Financial Crisis. International Political Sociology, [online] 6(1), pp.21-35. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-5687.2011.00149.x [Accessed 7 Aug. 2014], pp. 21
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  49. Richman, 2000: 6
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  56. Cusack, C. (2012). The Gods on Television: Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, Politics, and Popular Piety in Late Twentieth Century India. In: A. Possamai, ed., The Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, 1st ed. Leiden: Brill, pp. 282
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  62. ibid: 141
  63. ibid: 136
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  65. ibid
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  67. Pollock, S. (1993). Ramayana and the Political Imagination in India. The Journal of Asian Studies, 52(2), pp.282-283
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  73. Chatterjee, P. (1994). The Nation and Its Fragments. 1st ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 117
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  75. Mangharam, M. (2009). Rama, Must I Remind You of Your Divinity? Locating a Sexualized, Feminist, and Queer Dharma in the Ramayana. Diacritics, [online] 39(1), pp.75-105. Available at: http://muse.jhu.edu.gate2.library.lse.ac.uk/journals/diacritics/v039/39.1.mangharam.pdf [Accessed 25 Aug. 2014].pp. 75
  76. Sen Gupta, S. (1991). Sexual Politics of Television Mythology. Economic & Political Weekly, 26(45), pp. 2258
  77. Mankekar, P. (1999). Screening culture, viewing politics. 1st ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, pp. 207
  78. ibid
  79. Sattar, A. (2009). Valmiki’s Ramayana. In: M. Lal and N. Gokhale, ed., In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology, 1st ed. New Delhi: Penguin Books India & Yatra Books, pp.13
  80. Krishnan, P. (1990). In the Idiom of Loss: Ideology of Motherhood in Television Serials. Economic & Political Weekly, XXV(42-43), pp. 107
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  82. Prügl, E. (2012). “If Lehman Brothers Had Been Lehman Sisters…”: Gender and Myth in the Aftermath of the Financial Crisis. International Political Sociology, [online] 6(1), pp.21-35. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-5687.2011.00149.x [Accessed 7 Aug. 2014], pp. 24
  83. McLain, K. (2001). Sita and Shrupanakha: Symbols of the Nation in the Amar Chitra Katha. Manushi, (122), pp. 35
  84. Nussbaum, M. (2004). Body of the Nation: Why women were mutilated in Gujarat. Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum, 29(3) pp. 5
Standard
Poems

Bewajah

Zindagi ki kashmakash mein 

Paraai khwaishon ki saazish mein 

Ae dil, bhool gaya tu jeena

*

Ranjishon ki parchaai mein

Wajah ke dastooron mein 

Ae dil bhool gaya main jeena 

*

Waqt ke ubharte paimaane mein 

Us saaki ke maikhaane mein 

Raftaar-bhari duniya se lad-jhagad kar 

Baadastur jaam peena tu tashreef toh la deta hai

*

Par teri pyaas se kai zyaada betaab toh yeh zamaana hai 

Jo tere peeche-peeche wajah ki hathkadiyon ko lekar

Tujhe pehnaane pohoch aata hai 

*

Ae dil, is kotwaal ka kya kiya jaaye?

Jiska naa toh koi chehra hai, naa hi koi awaaz

Jiska naa toh koi paighaam hai, naa hi koi alfaaz

*

Jab saaki ne teri bekhauf nazron ko gaur se dekha 

Toh unke kinaaron mein ek naadaniyat si jhalki 

Mat ro tu ae dil

Apne bisre hue meet se tu mil ae dil

*

Wajaah-naame-pinjre ka kaidi ek dafaa main bhi raha tha 

Par us mukaam se main tab guzra 

Jab hazaaron lamhe wajahi mein bitaa kar 

Mujhme se aakhir bewajaahi ki chaabi ubhar nilki

*

Is azaadi ki panah iklauti meri hi nahi 

Yeh woh kausar dariya hai

Jiski anjuman mein sirf hum jaise deewane milte hain 

Is sar-i-aam mefil mein 

Barson ki wajaahon ko chhor ae dil 

Is sar-i-aam mefil mein 

Purkon ke dasturon ko tod ae dil 

Agar in lehron mein tairna ho tujhe manzoor

Toh bewajah jeene se dil jor ae dil 

*

Agar wajah mein khuda milta 

Toh kya Sikandar is kadar safeene par safar karta? 

Agar wajah mein ishq milta

Toh kya Ranjhaa is kadar Heer ki khaatir marta?

*

Woh usi mitti ke aashiq hai jaise main aur tu

Tu apne karwaan par ek musaafir

Aur main tera rasta

Teri pehredaari se jo mujhe fursat mile 

Toh us kotwaal ko bewajaahi ka jaam pilaau 

Tujhse kai zyaada betaab toh yeh zamaana hai

Jo tujhe bewajaahi ki raah par chalte dekh kar

Tere peeche peeche

Khud bewajaah ban jaaye

*

Aakhir is wajah mein rakha kya hai? 

Rakha hota, toh kya tu hota? 

Rakha hota, toh kya hota yeh maikhaana,

kya main hota?

***

 

Translation 

In the dilemmas of life

In the conspiracies of alien desires 

Oh heart, you forgot how to live

*

In the shadows of anguish

In the customs of condition

Oh heart, I forgot how to live

*

In the overflowing cup of time

In the wine provider’s (lover’s) tavern

Having fought with this fast-paced world

You make an untimely arrival to get intoxicated

*

But far more impatient than your thirst are these times

That follow you with the handcuffs of condition 

And arrive to put them on you

*

What should be done of this guard

Who is bereft of a tangible face or voice

Who neither carries any message nor bears any words

*

When the wine-provider (lover) carefully saw your fearless eyes 

S/he saw an innocence spill out of their shores 

Don’t cry, oh heart

Meet your long-forgotten friend, oh heart

*

In the prison of condition, I too was once a prisoner

But I had passed that place/phase

After spending  thousands of moments bound in condition

When I finally found the key of unconditionality having surfaced from within me

*

This solace of freedom is not mine alone

It is an ocean of abundance 

The society of which comprises of crazy people like you and me 

In this open gathering 

Leave the reasons that you have held for so long, oh heart

In this open gathering 

Break away from all those ancestral customs, oh heart

If you’ve come to terms with having to swim in these waves

Then join your heart with living unconditionally, oh heart

*

If there was God in condition

Then would Sikandar voyage the way he did on his ship?

If there was love in condition 

Then would Ranjhaa die for Heer’s sake?

*

They (Sikandar and Ranjhaa) are lovers of the same soil such as you and me 

You are a traveller in your journey

And I, your path

If I get time to spare from being your protector

I’d make that guard drink the exhilir of unconditionality

But far more impatient than you are these times

Who, in watching you walk on the path of unconditionality

Follow you

To become unconditional themselves

*

For, what lies in condition?

If it did, would you exist?

If it did, what would be of this tavern, 

would I exist? 

***

 

Standard
Poems

Daastaan e Shiddat

Sunday, the 11th of December, 2016 | Kalari Rasayana, Kollam (Kerala)

Original verses

Jab ruh mein pichli guzaarishein naa rahi

Tab tum mile 

Jab usmein aisi khwaishein naa thi 

Tab tum mile 

Is kohre kaagaz par jab syaahi naa thi

Tabh tum mile 

Jin aankhon ko kabhi tabaahi naa dikhi 

Unhi ki nazron mein tum mile 

 
Mere dil ko is raftar dhadakna ab tak naseeb naa hua tha

Tabhi uski chaukhat pe tum aa pahuche 

Meri ruhaaniyat ke kotwal ne tumhara naam tak naa poocha 

Tumhari shaksiyat dekhte hi dargah ki raah par woh chal diya

Usko shaayar anjaan mein bana kar 

Bin dastak diye andar kadam tum rakh chuke

 

 
Mere jahaan ki saari muntazir roshniyaan e aftaab

Tumhaare aane par sajda kar gayi

Unhone tumhara noor ab tak dekha kahaan tha?

Aur mere daave par yakeen karna unki aadat nahi

Teri justajoo unke liye ab tak ek kaamil afsaana tha

Mera musalsal fanaah hona behintihaan tha 

Koi parwaanon ki ibaadat nahi 
Mere jasbaaton ke kaarwaa par

Tum samajhte ho khud ko ek aazad parinda 

Kaise tumhe main yakeen dilau, o Raahi e Jigar!

Ki jis mukaam par main itni shiddat se kayam hu

Usko aaj tak taqdeer mein aazmaaya hai 

Sirf kaaynaat ke chand diwano ne hai sahi

 

******

 

Translation 

It was when the soul was devoid of any prior requests

That it met you

It was when it had no such wishes

That it met you

It was when this blank piece of paper had no ink smeared on it

That it met you

These eyes that had never seen destruction

These very eyes saw you
Until now, this heart did not have the fortune of beating at this speed

Just then, you landed at its doorstep

The inn- keeper of my soul didn’t even bother to enquire your name

Seeing your persona he set himself on the road leading to the Dargah

Unknowingly you turned him into a poet

And you laid your steps in without knocking

 

All the awaiting energies of my world

Bowed at your arrival

Where had they seen your pristine beauty until now?

Besides, they are not used to believing in my claims

For them, my longing for you was a legend that had attained its completion
My constant destruction in your love was endless

Not merely the prayer sung by butterflies

 

In my emotional journey

You think of yourself an uncaged bird

How shall I make you believe, O the Traveler of My Heart!

That the point at which I stand holding my field with such intensity

That point has been tested correctly in the varied destinies

Destinies that belong only to a few of this world’s mad men frenzied by love.

 

Urvashi

2016





Standard
Memoirs

Tiger’s Nest

“It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken away from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.” 
– Buddha

26.04.2016, Paro

While studying at Mayo College Girls’ School, I remember our sports coach Sir Sajjan and his team arranging Sunday morning hikes for us within the vicinity of Pushkar. Sogani buses would line up at a gathering point (usually the Meera house junction) while a hundred sleepy girls would gather in their games kits and keds, carrying water bottles and a couple of caps.

While the less enthusiastic lot lamented the loss of their precious Sunday morning sleeping hours, the sportier kids would hurriedly take their seats, being careful so as not to crush their glucose biscuits that they had pocketed before setting out. This energy reserve was essential in helping them lead the hiking pack, or so they would have liked to believe. At daybreak, the bus engines would rev up and as they passed the Aravali countryside, the sleepy lot would gradually let go of their cynicism, taking the sporty morning with a pinch of salt.

Fortunately for me, I belonged to the glucose biscuit eaters’ club or BisCo. as we liked to call it. The BisCo. club was eager to climb any mountain that the PT coach unleashed them towards. The sheer anticipation before the climb, the persistence through my racing pulse as I ascended the mountain and the sheer exhilaration that my euphoric heart felt upon having climbed the peak was an experience that my heart wouldn’t trade for the most precious heirlooms. The leisurely breakfast that followed these hikes felt like a victory treat that each hiker was entitled to that day, something that they had rightfully earned through their trivial sweat droplets and pounding hearts. The victory cheers atop the summits contain so many nostalgic memories.

Looking back at these smaller victories makes me realise their importance in the cultivation of self esteem, motivation and what it means to make life less mundane and more worthwhile. Isn’t this what the spirit of adventure is all about? No matter how microcosmically, isn’t this the kind of kick that develops into the mature hearts of Norgay and his comrades? Methinks too.

Around ten years hence, the idea of climbing mountain peaks still makes my heart race with excitement. It is for the same reason that when my Bhutanese guide suggested a hike upto Paro Takhtsang, I had a rare glint in my eyes. Paro Takhtsang (Tiger’s Lair in Bhutanese) or Tiger’s Nest (in the language of us laymen), is a seventeenth century Buddhist monastery dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava, known more popularly amongst the Bhutanese as Guru Rinpoche. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche arrived at this spot from the Bhumtang region on the back of a tigress and thereafter meditated in one of the caves. Thereafter, he emerged in his eight manifestations, each of which is displayed in the temple chambers. In present times, the Paro Takhtsang is frequented by several devotees, tourists, monks and meditators alike. Apart from being one of the most famed monasteries for its unique placement and legend, it is also one of the most iconic sites of Bhutan.

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Nestled atop a cliff, the Tiger’s Nest beckoned me from a distance in all its mysteriousness and wonder. I had promised myself to visit it while my body was still agile and lungs, reasonably strong. The night before the climb, I set about five alarms and lay my hiking gear out. Usually an avid listener of music while jogging, driving, bathing (and practically everything else apart from sleeping), I ditch my earphones during hikes like these. Reason? The inability to hear your racing pulse, the rustling of the blue pines and the whistling thrush in the midst of the Himalayas is one of the most pitiful states of existence that I know of. I am sure your wise discretion makes you nod to that one.

The morning of the trek had me blinking my eyes way before the alarm went off. That panic of having missed alarms in our sleep never gets old, does it? After getting dressed and putting on a reasonable amount of sunscreen, I rushed to the hotel porch. A strange nervousness in my stomach made me skip most of my breakfast- a carelessly nibbled toast and a few almonds in my pocket is all that I had carried, apart from a water bottle as a dumbbell and a down jacket that weighed roughly half of myself.

Upon reaching the base camp, I hurriedly walked past the trail of mules, trying to avoid the dust and predictable sprays of mule stuff. A retired trekker, my husband decided to join the mule party and meet me halfway to the Tiger’s Nest at the café, where he would patiently wait for me while I followed my trekking pursuit. Mr. Sonam- our guide as well as my fellow-hiker for the day led me to an alternate path that was less crowded. He explained to me that the trek was to be completed in three stages per way. First, was the stretch from the base camp (where we commenced our trek) until the café. The next stage comprised of the trekking path that threaded the café to the view point. Beyond the viewpoint there lay around six hundred steps to the Tiger’s Nest, which counted as the third and final stretch of the hike.

Upon beginning our ascend, I found the first stretch to be steep in a prolonged sort of way. Unlike many amateur trekking paths in Himachal Pradesh that agree to meander flatly for a while, their Bhutanese counterpart was unrelenting in its inclination, providing the amateur hiker little breathing time. The sun gradually gained dominance in the skies as the air thinned. I found it harder to keep up with Mr. Sonam, who strolled up the path while casually texting on his phone. He generously accompanied me everytime I stopped for a breather and advised me to rest as and when required.
My dizziness could be blamed on relatively poor meals preceding this trek. Mr. Sonam promised me that the café wasn’t far and that a sweet cup of black tea would help me recover. The very idea of sipping black tea in an authentic Bhutanese swag made me forget all about my fatigue. As I doubled up my pace, I walked past exhausted trekkers along the way, who were possibly in need of similar motivation. I shared an old Himachali tip of trekking using smaller steps, with the spine slightly bend forward to align with the ground at a certain degree while breathing rhythmically. With parched throats and stiffening lefs, we all seemed more eager to reach the café than the Tiger’s Nest at that point!

My husband had already reached and was clicking photographs of the surrounding landscape. I headed into the café and poured myself a cup of black tea with two big sugar cubes. And boy! That sweet tea accompanied by dipped crackers (best eaten soggy) was, by far the most satisfying meal that I’ve eaten during a trek. Restraining myself from overeating and developing stomach stitches, I got up to perform a couple of stretches before bidding by husband farewell and continuing towards the much-anticipated second stretch.

From the café, the Tiger’s Nest appeared to be placed at such a short distance (as a crow flies) but one that required a lot of labour and mental resoluteness to aptly pursue. Taking a deep breath, I told Mr. Sonam that I was all set to meet Guru Rinpoche and his tigress. We walked on.

The second stretch seemed to be more familiar in its intensity and I thanked my stars of that. It was more compassionate to the thigh muscles and unlike its relentless predecessor, this stretch occasionally lent us gradual inclines. The hike began to feel rather pleasant by now, with the mountainous breeze blowing through my hair and cooling my tee. In no time, we were at the viewpoint, which buzzed with several photo-enthusiasts taking the icons shot of the monastery along with selfies. The sun’s inclination at that time had caused the rocks’ shadows to overcast the Takshtsang, making is less favourable for photography. Anticipating it to glide further westwards by the time we were heading back, I decided to take my photo shots on my way back. But the inner YOLO spirit in me made me take a quick round of snaps nevertheless.
I couldn’t believe how close I was to the Tiger’s Nest and firmly decided that there was no turning back now. I could barely wait to reach the magnificent wonder and discover what lay within. There was no time to waste.

We jauntily began stepping on the last stretch upwards, with six hundred steps that cascaded between a waterfall, prayer flags, watermills and spinning prayer wheels as the Takhtsang dominated our approach from above. The six hundred steps seemed less challenging simply because I could see my destination impatiently waiting on the cliff above. As I took my last step and entered the monastic premises, I was surprised not to find myself at my usual enthusiastic state. I was awestruck for sure, but in a surprisingly peaceful and sedate state. As Mr. Sonam guided me through the four difference sections, I was mindblown by magnanimity of the Takhtsang.
Guru Rinpoche in his many forms lay venerated by visitors from all across the subcontinent and several distant lands. Each visitor had come down the same ascending path, a climb that recognised no special passes, VIP tickets, fast track slips short cuts or diplomatic concessions. Each one had succeeded in conquering the upward climb through their stamina, agility strength, and above all, their mental resoluteness to go on. It was the realisation of a kind of individual as well as collective penance that made this climb so special for me.

Upon my various darshans of Guru Rinpoche, I made small prayers and offerings- initially in cash and later in the form of the almonds that I had brought in my pockets. Upon reaching the room filled with butter lamps, I remembered what my spiritual twin had told me earlier that morning.
It happened to be her birthday on the same date and I called her to wish her in advance, as I would be hiking while it the Canadian clock reached midnight. She was excited to hear of my hiking plans and told me the meaningfulness in wishing upon a successful mountain climb- that we had triumphed upon our will and deserved to make a wish. Following that, she told me to make a wish for us. That might be because, in making a wish for Rumi, you make one for Shams. And in making one for Shams, you make one for Rumi.  Hence, among the several lamps that I lit- for my parents, my husband, my friends and my family, I lit one for the birthday girl. I told Rinpoche to accompany Allah in listening to her from now on and never stopping.

The peaceful aura at Paro Takhtsang made is hard for me to depart but thinking of my husband waiting for me at the café made me head back, filled with wonder, stories and a couple of photographs that would help me share this magical experience with him. That said, I feel like the larger part of my experience belongs to a realm where words don’t suffice. A realm of inner peace, contentment, understanding and nirvana.

A seemingly distant monastery, nestled on a rocky cliff had the power to attract the penance of thousands. It was in this mountainous haven that a famed Buddhist Guru and his tiger arrived against all odds and geographical logistics. Hundreds of years ago, at a height of 3000 metres above sea level, on a cliff in the Paro valley, an entourage of the Guru’s devotees built an entire monastic institution around his landing spot.
In a world like ours where miracles are a depleting resource, the Tiger’s Nest served as my personal reminder of the supernatural possibilities that lie in faith driven human minds. The fact that hundreds of devotees and curious hikers ascend thousands of feet to frequent a celebratory monument of peace, compassion and faith is something that contributes in reassuring my faith in humanity.

I am certain that each visitor took back their stories from this rare wonder. Similarly, I departed feeling more peaceful than I had ever been, having found a piece of myself among the flowing prayers, while at the same time having left a tiny piece of my heart to be nourished in the cave below Guru Rinpoche.

I then descended the 600 steps with a euphoric spirit, a new zest and one of my favourite trekking stories and mythological legends that I will live to tell.

Guru Rinpoche- you’re nodding, right? I feel like your tigress definitely is.

 

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