We never witnessed communal clashes or disputes. We lived in total harmony. Everyone treated the other with dignity.
The memories of my childhood days spent at Natchiar Koil village in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu are still fresh in my mind. Such memories led me to compare the existing situation in India, in general, and in villages, in particular, with the past. An analysis left me sad for the undesirable transformation which India has undergone over the last few decades. Those were really golden days.
As children, we didn’t know that our village was famous for the Mariamman temple, the Perumal (Vishnu) and Natchiar temple, for the world famous brass lamp factories, for Nagaswaram vidwans like Raghavan Pillai and for betal leaves. Our village, like any other village of yesteryear in Tamil Nadu, had an Agraharam, where Brahmins lived, the Muslim streets surrounding the mosque and the colony where the Scheduled Castes lived. The Brahmin youth were working in offices, the Muslims were landlords and traders and the Scheduled Castes mostly served the other communities in various capacities. But we never witnessed communal clashes or disputes. We lived in total harmony. Everyone treated the other with dignity. All community leaders participated in the meetings held to discuss village matters.
The Mariamman temple festival was celebrated for 10 days at a stretch. It attracted crowds from all surrounding villages and towns. Small traders from all over Thanjavur district participated in the shanty, spreading their wares in the lanes around the temple. Children, and even adults, used to crowd the shops for the whole day. Things which attracted the women were vessels of all types, readymade clothes and kitchenware. The children liked seeni mittai, a sweetmeat in different shapes and colours. Jav mittai was an attraction as well. The vendor would sing songs to attract children and pull out the colourful, sweet semi-liquid material which was elastic enough to be moulded from the bamboo which was holding it and out of which he would make birds, animals, watches, insects, etc., as per our demand and stick the design on our hands. Girls used to crowd ribbon, bangle and wooden and papier-mâché doll shops and boys thronged shops selling kites and tops. There were bioscopes through which we can see “cinema bits” and the merry-go-rounds, and folk arts performances provided us enough entertainment.
The best part of the festival was the display of religious tolerance. All Muslim families wrote letters to their relatives living afar, inviting them for the Mariamman festival. Every Muslim home used to have so many guests during those days. The same way, people of different faiths arrived for the three-day float festival of the Natchiar temple, making it grand by their presence, participating in the festival activities organised outside the temple. I still remember the regular badminton practice given by my father to Brahmin boys on the mosque ground in the evenings.
Hindu women used to bring their babies suffering from fever to the mosques in the evening and would wait for the Mullahs to come out after prayer and get them cured of illnesses. The Mullahs would recite Arabic prayers, and bless the babies.
Muslim families always threw a separate vegetarian feast the day after their family weddings for Hindu friends. On Pongal days, all agricultural labourers used to bring fruits, flowers and hens for the Muslim landlords and they, in turn, were given dresses, money and food. They were allowed to decorate the cattle as they liked.
In short, everyone faithfully followed his/her religion and was tolerant of other religions. They never talked of conversions. As children, we never bothered to know about the classmates’ religion. We never heard of untouchability during our school days. In the big bazaar of our village, Hindu and Muslim traders conducted business without any clash of interests or rivalry.
Our village had panchayat-run Tamil medium primary and secondary schools. Private schools were unheard of. Students belonging to the rich, middle and poor classes studied in the same school. Our teachers never demanded but always commanded the respect of not only students but also the village elders. The headmaster was always consulted by the panchayat leaders in village matters. Out teachers inculcated in us the values of religious tolerance, patriotism, secularism, respect for elders and honesty. Independence and Republic days were celebrated with patriotism. I still remember some Hindu teachers giving free tuition to poor Muslim students and some Muslim landlords helping poor Brahmin boys in their higher education.
Life was simple and stress-free. We spent our childhood playing out on the dry riverbed, the open ground for the entire evenings. We played in rainy and summer seasons. We played in mud and clay, but were never discouraged from playing for a long time and we never felt sick because of dust or pollution. We never had heavy homework. Going to school was fun since we could meet all our friends and exchange our eatables. We studied only for the examinations. English was introduced only from Standard VI. Yet many of us could get higher educational qualifications and a decent status in our life.
I can go on and on, with the memories of my village life. My heart bleeds when I now hear news of loss of human lives, destruction of business and property taking place, in the name of religion. It is painful to see responsible political leaders making hate speeches about different communities, owners refusing to rent out their homes to particular communities, children in village schools suffering the indignity of untouchability and neighbours in apartments in the cities boycotting one another on the basis of religion. How backward have we become in social harmony and religious tolerance? Our mindset has become so rigid against peaceful co-existence. Such an ugly transformation is not only confined to the cities but has spread to villages, which had all along protected the rich Indian culture. Will India revert to the golden days?
Keywords: human interest