Monday, March 27, 2017

Women and Splendid Suns

Mariam, the protagonist of Khaled Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, is advised by her mother that there is no point in putting her trust in man, even if the man is her own father.  “[L]ike a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman.  Always.”  But Mariam is a little girl and she loves her father until that love leads to the suicide of her mother and Mariam’s subsequent realisation that her father’s love for her has severe limits. 

Mariam is an illegitimate child born of a servant.  Her father has three legitimate wives who hail from rich families.  The legitimate wives make sure that the illegitimate one is thrown out of the family.  They accuse Mariam’s mother of having seduced their husband.  Mariam’s father is quite helpless in the manoeuvres carried out by his wives.  Even a man in the Islamic tradition which gives no more importance to a woman than a piece of furniture can be rendered helpless when surrounded by three women in the enclosed little space of the family.

At the age of 15, Mariam is married to Rasheed, a man who is old enough to be her father.  That’s yet another manipulation performed by the cunning women.  Religious restrictions can limit one’s freedom but not vices.  The contriving women know that Rasheed will take Mariam far away to Kabul, his place, from Herat, their place. 

Mariam’s inability to produce offspring, though she conceives as many as seven times, makes her worthless to Rasheed.  In his old age, Rasheed marries Laila who is young enough to be his granddaughter.  Laila has a reason to accept him as husband, however.  She had a romantic affair with Tariq who had to leave Kabul along with his family when the war raged between Afghanistan and USSR.  The emotional farewell ended in their making love and Laila became pregnant.  Soon the war kills Laila’s parents.  Rasheed leaps at the opportunity to make the young and pretty Laila his wife in the hope of begetting a son.  Laila sees her own opportunity in the marriage; she will cut her finger that night to produce the required blood drops for the nuptial bed sheet.

Laila gives birth to a daughter whose physical features make Rasheed suspicious about her paternity.  However, Laila gives him a son soon and he is happy. 

A few years later, Tariq returns.  Laila realises that the story about his death as had been told to her by one of Rasheed’s friends was a trick to make her accept Rasheed’s marriage proposal.  Tariq’s return takes the plot to a gruesome climax which gives a tragic legitimacy to Mariam who lived all her life as a ‘harami.’

Hosseini once said that while his first novel, Kite Runner, was about a father-son relationship, this second one was about mother-daughter relationships.  Splendid Suns remains much inferior to Kite Runner and reads more like a Hollywood thriller.  But we get a lot of insights into how women are treated in Islamic Afghanistan.  The communist Afghanistan turns out to be much better than the Taliban one. 

The title of the novel is taken from a poem, ‘Kabul’, by the 17th-century Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi.  The “thousand splendid suns that hide behind her wall” refer to the women of Afghanistan hiding behind their bizarre attire.  The novel is about some of those women, how their religion and its men have enslaved them totally. 

Even a name-game in that country involves only male names.  Laila, however, knows that she will name her daughter after Mariam.  Mariam is one of those thousand splendid suns hidden behind walls.  So is Laila. 

The novel sold millions of copies.  It is an excellent thriller.  It is a heartbreaking critique of the way Islam treats women in that country (and implicitly elsewhere).  It leaves the reader with a painful longing: for a less religious and more humane world.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Ayodhya Politics – 2

Rajiv Gandhi tried to run with the hare and hunt with the hound, as one of the observers wrote after the Shah Bano and Ayodhya episodes. He had to please both the sections of the population, Hindus and Muslims, in order to tide his party over the revolt from eminent leaders such as V P Singh and Arun Nehru as well as the Bofors scandal.  He addressed a huge gathering in Faizabad (near Ayodhya) and promised Ram Rajya to the people.  Just a few weeks before the general elections in 1989, Rajiv Gandhi sent home minister Buta Singh to participate in the shilanyas ceremony organised by VHP in Ayodhya.

The tactics didn’t yield dividends, however. Congress did not win the majority in the elections and a coalition government led by V P Singh came to power. BJP also became a force to reckon with winning 85 seats in the place of the former 2.  BJP leader L K Advani hit upon an idea to further strengthen the party; he organised a rath yatra from Somnath in Gujarat (a place where the Shiva temple had been repeated razed by Muslim invaders) to Ayodhya.  Many of the Hindus were inflamed by V P Singh’s decision to implement the Mandal recommendations on job reservations.  The mood was just right for an emotive rath yatra.  

Advani’s air-conditioned Toyota van moved from city to city, escorted by VHP militants. “The march’s imagery was,” writes Ramachandra Guha in India after Gandhi, “religious, allusive, militant, masculine and anti-Muslim.”  Advani accused the government of appeasing the Muslims and practising “pseudo-secularism.”  A Ram temple in Ayodhya was projected as the symbolic fulfilment of Hindu pride and aspirations.

Advani’s rath yatra ended up as a rakt yatra.  His volunteers clashed with the security personnel leading to at least twenty deaths.  Many religious riots broke out in UP.  In Guha’s words, “Hindu mobs attacked Muslim localities, and – in a manner reminiscent of the grisly Partition massacres – stopped trains to pull out and kill those who were recognizably Muslim.”

V P Singh lost the Prime Minister’s chair to Congress’s Narasimha Rao and BJP’s position in the Lok Sabha improved with 120 seats.  VHP and RSS acquired land around the Babri Masjid and started preparations for constructing the Ram Mandir.  Court orders were blatantly flouted.  The chief minister of UP, Kalyan Singh, turned a blind eye. 

20,000 troops of paramilitary forces were stationed off Ayodhya as more than 100,000 volunteers moved in carrying trishuls, bows and arrows.  Even before the troops were ordered to move in, the volunteers did their job which was apparently well planned much ahead.  “Ek dhakka aur do, Babri Masjid tor do,” Sadhvi Ritambara’s scream became the mob slogan. Soon the mosque was a heap of rubble.

Advani later claimed that the demolition moved him to tears.  The Sarayu wept tears of blood.

The Sarayu continued to weep as riots broke out in city after city killing at least 2000 people in the two months that followed the demolition.

“No revolution is possible by shedding tears,” roared the Tiger of Mumbai, Bal Thackeray.  He encouraged bloodshed as a sacrifice for the sake of the Akhand Hindu Rashtra.  Hindus and Muslims killed one another in Mumbai and the Tiger fed on the blood.

Hatred is a very potent force.  It has caused a lot of problems in the world, as Maya Angelou said, but has not solved one yet. Hindu-Muslim hatred grew like cancer in the country.  The altercation between Muslim vendors and Hindu volunteers in Godhra in 2002 was just one of the many avatars of the quintessential hatred that came to mark Hindu-Muslim equation in the country.  A whole compartment of a train was engulfed by the fire of hatred.  58 Hindu kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya perished in that fire.

Within hours riots broke out all over Gujarat.  Thousands of Muslims bore the brunt of arson, looting, vandalism and rapes. Chief Minister Narendra Modi justified the violence calling it a “chain of action and reaction.”

The chain of action and reaction binds the Indian mindset to one of the two poles that mark the country’s politics today: Hindu-Muslim, or, in a recent avatar, Hindu-Traitor.  Ayodhya is a symbol of that polarisation.  The place certainly belonged to Hindus once upon a time.  No one can deny the sanctity of the place in the Hindu beliefs and traditions.  But history plays its own inevitable games and like many other temples the Ayodhya temple too was probably replaced by a mosque.  Is it possible to rectify an error by replicating the same error?

A staunch BJP loyalist told me the other day that the Ayodhya temple is “a matter of self-respect” for Hindus.  Not all Hindus may agree with him but a considerable section will, I think.  My question why self-respect has to be rooted in medieval darkness elicited no response from him though he is a learned person.  Eventually I became his ‘enemy’ merely because I questioned some of his views.  He is a symbol of a lot of people I meet these days.  Everyone has a religion.  And everyone is very edgy about that religion.  It is as if religion is a very brittle, gossamer thing just waiting to shatter into smithereens the moment somebody pokes a finger at it.  This atmosphere in the country makes me feel smothered.  I write in order to redeem myself from that feeling.  Ayodhya is just one of the many issues that create such a vitiated atmosphere.  That’s why I pursued the topic.  I would like to take a look at the court verdicts related to the issue as well as the ‘discoveries’ of the Archaeological Survey of India.  Maybe, in the next post. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Ayodhya Politics - 1

The Sarayu must have wept quite a lot.  The river which bathed Rama’s childhood and watched the conflicts that the Maryada Purushottam suffered during his adult life went on to witness much more nasty conflicts a whole yug later.

When India became independent more than half of the Muslims made arduous journeys across the new national border reducing their population in India to a meagre 10%.  The first Prime Minister of secular India, a visionary who considered dams more sacred than gods, announced that “All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations.”

Ayodhya was not much affected by the Partition.  The Muslims there chose to stay back placing their trust in Nehru’s secularism.  The Muslims had working relationships with the Hindus in Ayodhya.  Muslim artisans made many of the idols that adorned Hindu temples.  One temple there even had a Muslim manager.

Then someone had a dream.  The dream shattered the peace that had hitherto marked the “quiet town of temples, narrow byways, wandering cows and the ancient, mossy walls of ashrams and shrines.”* Abhiram Das, a sadhu, told his disciples that Lord Ram appeared to him in many dreams standing under the central dome of the mosque/temple.  The dream was shared with the Faizabad city magistrate, Guru Dutt Singh, who claimed to have had the same dream many times.  The duo decided to put a Ram idol in the mosque surreptitiously.

The “miraculous” apparition of “Ram Lalla” in the mosque sent tremors through the heart of the Sarayu in Nov 1949.  The sadhus and some Ram devotees lit sacred fires outside the mosque and recited verses from the Ramayana.  Since India is liberated, the birthplace of Lord Ram must also be liberated, Abhiram Das declared.

The government officials in Ayodhya and Faizabad cooperated wholeheartedly with the sadhus in spite of Nehru’s orders to remove the idol from the mosque.  The Muslims who tried to enter the mosque were stopped by the police.  Moreover, the Hindu leaders got some Muslims to sign an affidavit stating that they did not wish to pray in a place which was originally a temple.  [The authenticity of this affidavit has been in question for quite some time now.] A legal battle started soon led by a lawyer named Gopal Singh Visharad to take complete possession of the mosque/temple. Akshaya Brahmachari, a young sadhu who argued that the whole of Ayodhya was Rama’s own place and that the attempt to seize the mosque was a slur on the god was beaten up by the other sadhus and banished from Ayodhya.
Ayodhya on Sarayu

Three decades later, in the 1980s, the sorrow of the Sarayu stretched far and wide and became a national sorrow. In 1984, about 500 sadhus from across India gathered in Delhi in order to formulate strategies for defending Hinduism from onslaught by other religions.  “We cannot even light a holy lamp” at Lord Ram’s birthplace, Karan Singh cried unto the sadhus.  Karan Singh, son of the last king of Kashmir, was terribly upset with the conversion of 400 Dalit families in Meenakshipuram, Tamil Nadu, into Islam in 1981.  The meeting decided that the Hindu “culture was under siege” [Ashok Singhal’s words – he had convened the meeting as VHP’s joint general secretary].  The meeting decided to retrieve three holy sites, Ayodhya being the most important.

A rath yatra was organised immediately starting from Sitamarhi in Bihar.  It reached Ayodhya 12 days later.  The devotees went to the banks of the Sarayu and took an oath holding the river’s water in their cupped hands that they would give up anything in order to construct the Ram mandir.

Two years later, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi succumbed to Muslim pressure and his party annulled a Supreme Court order in the infamous Shah Bano case which sought some sort of gender equality in Indian Islam.  This appeasement of Muslims enraged the Hindus.  Rajiv Gandhi appeased the Hindus in return by allowing them to open the Ayodhya mosque/temple which had been under lock and key for quite some time.  The politics of religious appeasement got stuck like a cancerous vermin.

The Sarayu wept again. 

* Ayodhya: The Battle for India’s Soul by Krishna Pokharel and Paul Beckett, serialised by The Wall Street Journal from Dec 3 to Dec 8, 2012.

PS. This is going to be much longer than what I expected.  I wish I could make it shorter.  But history is a harsh taskmaster.  It insists on teaching us too many lessons than we can handle.  So let me carry on after a break.  You too, my dear reader, take a break.  Let the Sarayu too have a break.