The book is definitely written in good faith but the blurb “A journey in search of an unknown India” is rather misleading. The many chapters tell us stories of Hindus and Muslims coexisting peacefully and absorbing each other’s culture and religion. I am not sure these stories are as unknown as the author says and especially since these are mostly places which are often of religious interest and attract thousands of people. In her preface, the author says the work examines the several syncretic traditions that survive in India, largely among the Muslim community but also with the participation of non-Muslims, within the cultural tradition of what may be defined as Hindu civilisation. “This book is also about a personal journey, a search for an India that is tolerant and safe for all communities, an India that synthesises identities instead of atomising us all …”
Her mixed background is explained and how she was boxed into being a Muslim and later, and her deepening interest in issues of religion, cultural forms and evolutions of identity. She has also been at the receiving end of being a Muslim with property brokers stating quite openly it was better to use a non-Muslim name while renting a house. By putting together a host of stories on her visits to various parts of the country, the author counters the myth that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together or that they are two communities that must be hostile to each other. “This is my offering in an age when Hindu majoritarianism is always raising its ugly head, when Islamic Puritanism is on the rise across the globe and when issues of identity still determine our politics,” she says. This does seem a rather naive proposition and it might be important to examine if these offerings are enough to counter divisiveness and and an anti-secular politics which is gaining strength.
Nevertheless, at this critical juncture it is important to bring into focus respect and tolerance for each other’s religion and the stories serve that purpose.
Her journey spread over several years, takes her to Midnapore where the Patachitra painters are both Hindu and Muslim in a sense. Marriages are performed according to Hindu rites and also solemnised by a Qazi whereas funerals are conducted as per Islamic dictates. Married women wear the sindoor and all festivals are celebrated and they have two names, one from each community. Her account of the Muslim Goddess Bonobibi highlights the fact that while idol worship is banned among Muslims the people of Sunderbans worship the tiger goddess, a Durga like figure, apart from the tiger god Dakshin Ray and Ghazi Mian.
The stories go on about the Bauls in Kenduli, the worshippers in Kolkata of Kali and Manickpir, a Muslim saint, the Shiv Sena claiming Haji Malang near Mumbai is not a mausoleum of a Sufi saint but a tomb of a Hindu godman and so on. The Sena’s move was countered by the priests at Haji Malang, the Ketkars the Brahmins who are the traditional caretakers of the shrine.
The other famous place in Maharashtra she holds up as an example of strife is at Madhi, in Ahmednagar where a Sufi shrine and dargah of Shah Ramzan is located. The shrine was a place of pilgrimage but now it has become Kanifnath and the bulk of the visitors at the annual rural fairs that takes place are from the Hindu community.
Most of the symbols there are now overtly Hindu, the author writes, poking a hole into the myth that this is a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity. The worst example of the increasing denial of a syncretic culture is the demolition of the poet Vali Gujarati’s tomb during the post-Godhra carnage in 2002, in Gujarat.
His grave was dug up 300 years after his death and it was paved over with an idol of Hanuman placed there. But the book also notes that in Gujarat there are communities in Kutch for instance which have blended their Islamic faith with their original Hindu customs.
Glimmer of hope
The author says that after her travels, she has come to believe that in the midst of the greatest sorrow there is always a little glimmer of hope. The stories are short and to the point and offer some good examples specially the one titled ‘Lord Vishnu’s Lady in Tiruchirappalli’. One of Vishnu’s main consorts in the Ranganathaswamy temple is Thulukka Nachiyar, “a respected Muslim lady”. Legend says she is the daughter of a Muslim sultan who fell in love with Lord Vishnu and died weeping at the gates of the temple as she was not allowed inside. There is no idol depicting her but a 400-year old Tanjore painting represents her. Even today while Muslims are not allowed entry into the sanctum sanctorum, the author says, this Muslim lady is “served” for ten days by Lord Vishnu whose idol is taken in a procession during the Tamil month of Marghazi.
The Platform Pirs is a story that tells us how popular religion creates its cults and how peddling religion maybe a tad more profitable than hawking vegetables, much like certain political parties which are riding on the promise of a Ram temple. While all these stories are illustrative of the country’s traditions of tolerance and intermingling, there is the larger political question that is looming above this which is addressed in passing — that of a shrinking secular space and divisive politics.
These stories should not be showcased as the last examples of the country’s happier past in a sense. They have to be understood and located in a wider context where communal polarisation is becoming a reality and majoritarian views and theories are acquiring bedrock-like status.
( Meena Menon is Chief of Bureau of The Hindu in Mumbai )