Monday, March 9, 2015

The humble bougainvillaea

I grew up surrounded by bougainvillaea bushes that covered every adjacent wall with their magenta blooms in abundance. The bushes flowered so generously that one ceased to notice them at all. They were as nondescript in my view as the grass or the weeds growing in the cracks of those walls.

And one could neither wear the flower nor use it in decorations.

The orange and off-white or white flower had some value in my eyes but not the unapologetically abundant magenta.

And then sitting here in Asia Plateau, I realise that the humble, shamelessly prolific magenta bougainvillaea is the perfect accessory for the rough-hewn, messy-looking, volcanic remains that make up the terrain of the Deccan Plateau. This is a plain, no-frills, even drab landscape if you are accustomed to your nature coming to you in conventionally pretty looks. The vivid sprays of bougainvillaea are like a beautiful bright shawl thrown carelessly over ratty jeans and an old T-shirt. You look at them and think, "Why, it's the very thing!"


Of course, just as every human is beautiful in their own way, the Deccan Plateau is also quite spectacular to the discerning eye. I still don't have words for it, but if you look closely, you can imagine the rock-faces of the hill-sides are sheets of lava frozen in time. Look on the ground--no one cleared after the last eruption--or the last horse-ride. Grass grows on some surfaces, not others. There is little tree cover, except where the Tourism Department has landscaped the terrain, planting mainly... bougainvillaea.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Because compassion is all that counts

I will tell you the truth. I did not really think about the word 'compassion' for the first two decades of my life. I knew it, and had some sense of its meaning, but it did not figure in my universe as often as words like 'kindness,' 'consideration' and even 'gentleness' did. And then, someone described me as compassionate--something that surprised me (still does) and that also made me wonder what the word really meant.

Today, I cannot stop thinking about compassion. It seems to me to be the only thing that really matters. I've never valorised human physical appearance, nor even appearances in general. I thought being intelligent was important to me, and I valued it in others, until my years as a graduate student introduced me to an unbearable amount of intelligence. Intelligence came in a package with arrogance, rigidity and self-importance and I came to think it was overrated. After all, life is not a seminar. Compassion, however, undoes me. Kindness, consideration, the ability to notice another person's situation, to notice and give before being asked, generosity and empathy--now I think this is all that counts. And I know this is what every teacher or prophet has preached.

For me the word 'compassion' evokes two images from Buddhist art most of all.



I had seen photos of Ajanta's beautiful Padmapani Bodhisattva all my life, having grown up in Maharashtra. It was only when I saw the actual mural did I understand the power of his compassionate gaze. It sees and it understands and it looks for ways to help. The bronze Avalokiteswara from the Colombo Museum I first met and fell in love with at the Smithsonian. I could gaze at him forever, for his stillness and beauty. But the more I thought about that Avalokiteswara, the less the icon mattered and the more, the compassionate promise he represents. "I will be there for you," a promise friends make to each other. When I was in Class 1, I sat next to Ranee, who is still my friend. Ranee and I had this thing--because we were friends, we would write the same word at the same time and if one of us got ahead, we would stop and wait for the other to catch up. Avalokiteswara is everybody's friend, deferring nirvana until all of us catch up. 

But this is about compassion, of which Alice Walker writes, "if compassion be freely/ Given out/ Take only enough." Give compassion freely, without measure, without thought, without expecting a return, but take only enough. "Stop short of urge to plead. Then purge away the need."

As I have come to treasure compassion as an individual trait, I also wonder what compassion means in the public sphere. How does it come into play in the state and its institutions--or does it not? What does it mean for society? How do we create a compassionate society? Does compassionate mean charitable or equitable or inclusive or something else? What are the attitudes and behaviour we would identify with a compassionate community? I am looking for the questions that will give me the right answers.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Daughter of Shivaji

This is a good post to write the week before I travel to Maharashtra, not just Maharashtra but to Shivajirao Bhosale country--Pune, the Western Ghats and Panchgani.

I was born in that great state and raised within its educational system. And the Maharashtra State Board followed the educational principle that a child's universe should be expanded in concentric circles so that in Standard II when we first encountered the world beyond 'Wash your hands' and 'Be nice to your parents' we studied about our city--Bombay. Bombay was made up of seven islands, people of different faiths and we all had to live together and so it was important not to litter, to cross roads carefully and to remember and use the five golden words: please, thank you, sorry, excuse me and welcome. Armed with civic sense, we stepped out in Std. III to study about great Indians. A stern Dadabhai Naoroji and BR Ambedkar featured in the same book as a weeping Shah Jehan (who went on to build the Taj Mahal) as far as I can recall, with portraits of them that used picture effects and colour washes that presaged Photoshop.

But in Std. IV, it was all about Maharashtra. Geography classes introduced us to Maharashtra's hills and rivers, its districts and divisions, its crops and its droughts. The Deccan was dry and its terrain rough. Life was difficult in the Deccan and easier in Konkan, with its lush coastal plains where we learnt our beloved Alphonsos were grown. "How could life be difficult where Alphonso mangoes were grown?," our 8 year old brains reasoned.

Std. IV was also the year we were introduced to the man who would define my view of many things political as much as any political thinker or political scientist I read in the next thirty years: Shiva Chhatrapati.

Eight year olds spent the year reading chapters from his heroic life, in narratives that I realised later drew greatly from the work of historians like Jadunath Sarkar. My imagination was completely captured by the story of the young boy who smarted at the thought that his father was an underling when he could be independent. My mother's family in particular had been part of the freedom movement, and the words "my country" and "freedom" had a special resonance for me. I had heard freedom movement stories from the time I was born, and the words evoked something special in my heart. How could I not sympathise with this brave young boy? When he wore 'waghnak' to tear into Afzal Khan, we cheered at his cleverness. When he attacked Shaista Khan, we marveled at his strategic planning (although we did not know those words). When Shivaji conquered Raigad, we won. When Tanaji scaled Kondana, we would have pumped our fists in the air had we known the gesture. When Shivaji was slighted at the court of Aurangzeb, we smarted. When he was smuggled out of Agra in a basket of sweetmeats, we chuckled. Smart, brave and independent, that was our own Shivaji. When Shivaji was crowned, it meant little to us, although later reading extracts from Jadunath Sarkar, I would be struck at how familiar that scene felt to me. The climax of this amazing life, according to our textbook and my eight year old's understanding of it, was Shivaji's just rule. Shivaji was fair and even-handed in his dealings with people across communities.

These are things I remember from that one year. Shivaji's life taught me lessons I have never forgotten.

That independence and autonomy are desirable; as another Maharashtrian put it, they are our birthright. That you can achieve anything by thinking it through and acting as if you cannot fail. That help (in scaling the Kondana forts of one's life) can come from all quarters (although I am not a fan of lizards) and everyone plays an important role. That the centre will always be arrogant but the smart can slip back out to their peripheral safe havens and do exactly what they wish; there will always be a basket of sweetmeats available! Shivaji's life has filled me with a lifelong distrust of the Delhi durbar, no matter what the dispensation. It has made deference generally impossible; my inner "mountain rat" (the term used by his enemies in comics to revile him) will not allow it. And it has valorised justice and even-handedness as a feature of good governance--an idea reinforced by every history textbook description of a good ruler, from Harishchandra to Razia to Sher Shah to Akbar to Krishnadeva Raya.

Imagine my horror when as an adult, I encountered in Delhi Board books the question, "Was Shivaji a nationalist?" What sacrilege, I thought! After everything that Shivaji did for freedom, how could they ask? And then of course, the books are written from the point of an Indian state that frowns on "fissiparous tendencies." Shivaji's politics were quite fissiparous, seeking first to separate from the Deccan Sultanates and then to assert Maratha independence from the Mughal Empire. Then, the Delhi books told me Shivaji's struggles had been to establish Hind Swaraj--that is, a form of Hindu Rashtra. This did not make sense given how much time had been spent learning about Shivaji's just rule and his respect for all religions and their followers. But it did not help that those in Maharashtra who took their inspiration from Shivaji kept drawing smaller and smaller circles around themselves--Bombay and Maharashtra for Maharashtrians, India for Hindus--no room for the rest of us. A caricature of the Shivaji we had grown up idolizing appeared in Indian politics, and correspondingly, it was hard to explain why Shivaji was still such an icon to anyone who had not grown up in Maharashtra, reading State Board books.

For us, it was not just Shivaji's life but it was the post-Shivaji centuries too that underscored a certain idea of what Shivaji's rule had been. The decline in the generations following him, the break-up of the Maratha Empire and the Peshwa period--seemed to underscore the importance of thinking big from a small base. You do not have to lobby power to be effective. Your efficacy can be a source of power. And having power does not make you great; having vision does.

As I now think about those stories we learnt at the age of eight, I recognize the racial profiling in the illustrations I can still recall so vividly. I recognize now that to attack Shaista Khan's mahal at night is not done according to tenets I now advocate and that our own tradition endorses. I wonder at stories and histories that equate heroism with violence and they fill me with shame and anxiety.

But I completely embrace discomfort with the overriding, overreaching power of the imperial centre. As Shivaji's daughter, I am instinctively sympathetic with those who want to pull away, to speak for themselves and who ask for different kinds of autonomy. As Shivaji's daughter, I take umbrage when I travel to Delhi and people do not keep appointments--as if their time is important and mine is not. As Shivaji's daughter, I will not defer to those who see themselves as important, or even those who are seen as important. As Shivaji's daughter, I will always have my version of that basket of sweetmeats or a waghnak tucked away--the appurtenances of power do not deceive me and should not trap me.

I have not lived in Maharashtra since 1992 but the state lives within me and I still belong to it in all the ways that matter. I work elsewhere but I bring its tough spirit to bear on the things I do. And I will do those things autonomously, without deference and in my way. Like Shivaji.

PS: It turns out I wrote this post on the eve of Shiv Jayanti. I just learned that his offical date of birth is February 19th, 1630.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The theft of Shakti

Yesterday, my friend took me to the "Jogini Peeth" outside Bhubaneswar. This is the archaeological site labeled "64 Yogini" in Hirapur. I had seen photographs of the site online, and as someone whose ishta-devata is Devi, it had drawn my attention and interest. But I did not want to go there alone. 

The idea of the shakti of 64 Yoginis focused on a small circular, semi-interior space was overpowering. I did not know how I would feel in such a space--either utterly empowered or totally intimidated. The thought of it thrilled me and frightened me at the same time. I wanted Asha to come along with me.
 
As you enter the ASI site grounds, you first encounter a modern, functional temple on the left with a small Shivalingam. It's very much a street-corner temple, the kind that nestles at the foot of a tree--nothing grander and certainly not fancier. It appears as if anyone can officiate; a village woman was performing the aarti as we entered.

We walked on to the 64 Yogini temple site, which is smaller than it looks in photographs. Something about the space reminds me of the Kailashanatha temple in Kanchipuram--an enclosed courtyard open to the sky. There are no meditation niches in the inner walls here, but 64 Yoginis occupy the inner wall of the structure. Outside, carved into niches on the exterior wall, nine Katyayinis (nava Durga?) stand guard. At the centre is a raised platform that looks like it may have been used for sacrifices or initiations. With that kind of energy, what a great place for deeksha! You circumambulate the structure and at the back there is the main icon--Mahamaya. Or rather, you are told it is Mahamaya.

My friend told me that on a visit right after the site was excavated a few decades ago, the temple was charged with energy--and in disuse.

Yesterday, the conversion of the temple to a village shrine was complete. There were coconuts and flowers placed befor each Yogini icon. And Mahamaya was shrouded in cloth screens. Two officious men were officiating. Water, probably coconut water, made the ground slick. A worshipper sat waiting for the ritual to end. When I walked in for a second look, one of the "priests" offered me kumkum and a flower and asked for baksheesh. The desecration of the Yoginis was complete in my view. I walked out and kept walking, irritated by being accosted, being asked for money and being chased to the entrance by one of them.

But that is normal for most temples in India, unfortunately.

What broke my heart yesterday was how pedestrian the experience felt. To my mind, a place that represented the channeling of the spiritual energy of 64 Yoginis should have been completely charged. Positive energy should have been bouncing off the walls. There should have been an electric wildness in that space, barely contained, channeled by great discipline. That's what the idea and images of the structure had evoked in me.

I found that spirit had been broken. It was domesticated by coconuts and everyday petitions. It was desecrated by the interference of priest-like individuals. It was defused by the normalising rituals of patriarchy. Free spirits had turned into deities and men were now mediating between feminine energy and the women who are its embodiment in the world.

Rather like the story of every bright, talented and energetic girl who is taught to conform and adjust.

What had we done to these independent, spirited and powerful creatures, the Yoginis? I grieved.


I left with one small hope. That the 64 Yoginis have escaped and found a safe space to hide from the machinations of patriarchal Hinduism in the tangles of this tree outside the complex. Or that they are submerged in the waters of this pond, biding their time, waiting to emerge and wash away all the things that limit our thought and agency.

I need to believe that so much shakti, such a concentration of feminine energy, this feminine/ feminist spirit cannot be so easily dissipated and destroyed.

My own spirit depends on it.