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Archive for January, 2012

Anyone who knows my mother knows her to be a true-blue “Tam-Brahm” (a Brahmin from Tamil Nadu in South India, a Hindu community that has zealously guarded its bloodline down the centuries).  Hers was among the oldest and wealthiest landowning families of what was then known as the Madras Presidency of British India.  It was also one of the most extremely-conservative-in-matters-of-marriage families.  Given that my mother is now in her nineties, to speak of her as having had a “Muslim uncle”, must sound preposterous to most ears.  But she did have one.

Minnan Nooruddin Saheb.  Addressed by all as Minnan Saibu.  Known fondly to friends and his adopted familiy as Minnan.   My mother’s uncle.  Not through blood.  Not through marriage. But through a magical chemistry of shared intellectual interests, an expansive friendship, and a love that ran thicker than blood… Crossing all boundaries of religion and community… in the inclusive and cosmopolitan spirit that once characterized life among both high-brow and simple people inIndia. 

My mother cannot remember how and when Minnan Saibu came into her family to become one of its most loved members.  He was a part of her family from ever since she can remember.  And he gave fulsomely of his love to her as a child, and called her his favourite niece. So much so, that talking about him brings tears to her eyes even today. 

Minnan became a part of my mother’s family through his acquaintance with her much-adored and much-older brother Anna (the respectful Tamil title for elder brother).   He seemed to have worked as some kind of official at the Madras High Court, which  might be where he may have first made his acquaintance with Anna  who himself began his career as a criminal lawyer in Madras.   

When Anna was just 20 and fresh out of law school at the end of a brilliant and precocious academic career, he found his professional dreams shattered by his father’s almost-total financial ruin.  My maternal grandfather was an aristocratic,  high-flying, over-spending zamindar (big absentee landlord), who got crushed between his extravagant life-style – that he generously extended to anyone who managed to get close to him -, his near-excessive philanthropic disposition which favoured educational projects to which he made huge endowments,  and an unbelievably naïve trust in the sob stories peddled by unscrupulous persons who helped to defraud him of most of his wealth.  

Having to suddenly shoulder the full responsibility of his family – consisting of father, mother and five little sisters – at the time of his life when he ought to have been focusing on his own career ambitions, Anna took the major  decision to move out of Madras city to the princely state of Pudukkottah.  It was a bitter retreat from his  metropolitan moorings where, as a member of a charmed circle of economically secure and ambitious young men he had aspired to throw himself unilaterally into building his legal career under the wing of luminaries.  It was also a way to hedge his bets, since Pudukkottah besides offering a reasonable cost of living – as compared with Madras – also promised alternative fast-track opportunities for a proud young man in a hurry to establish himself in independent practice as a criminal lawyer. 

Pudukkottah,  south of Madras city and close to Trichnopoly – as Thiruchirapalli was then called – was one of the five princely states in the Tamil region of the then Madras Presidency, under the paramountcy of the British.  Like many of India’s princely states in the pre-independence period, it was ruled by an enlightened and socially progressive Maharajah who munificently supported education with special enabling provisions for girls.  He also saw to it that the state offered a congenial environment for the flowering of a wide diversity of talents from both within India and abroad; and many educated professionals were invited to accept land grants as an inducement to settle there.  Both foreigners and Indians came to Pudukkottah. Dutch and Danish priests, who set up  schools and mission centres.  Japanese dentists, who became so reputed that they had whole playgrounds in the city named after them.  Chinese shoemakers, who offered high quality customized footware.  Rajasthani  Ayurvedic practitioners, who not only manufactured and dispensed their own medicines  but also gave Hindi lessons in their spare time to the children of  progressive local families who saw Hindi as the future language of free India  (my mother thus learnt Hindi from an early age). Skilled practitioners of natural medicine (called naturopathy) and yoga who published health education material on diet, exercise and preventive health for the public, and who also organized community-based talks and programmes on wellness.  Movie stars who went on to dominate the Tamil silver screen for decades.  Classical musicians. And, of course,  lawyers who dignified the red brick buildings of the state’s courts.  A lot of people came to Pudukkottah in search of professional opportunities and a peaceful and good life, undisturbed by  the unrest generated by the independence struggle in British India. 

As a lawyer, Anna  had to make frequent professional trips to the Madras Presidency High Court. Family celebrations among the extended family – of which there was an unending calendar – also required frequent trips to the Presidency capital.  He and Minnan used these occasions to keep in touch.   Minnan’s equally strong personal networks among the sizeable Muslim population resident in the Pudukkottah state  – the region had come under Muslim rule  during the late medieval period – and his frequent professional visits to the active Pudukkottah courts, provided further occasions for strengthening the friendship.  

Although it was a shared passion for the Law that brought them together initially, their  interests went much beyond that, bridging the divides of age, religion, caste and class.  Minnan Saibu was much older than Anna.  He might have been an ordinary Court official and not an eminent legal eagle – perhaps by chance of circumstance, and certainly not because he lacked the intellectual wherewithall -,  but he was highly educated, and unusually self-taught in fields that went way beyond his professional calling or, what we would today stereotype in India as a ‘minority community’ worldview.  An engaging speaker and conversationalist in English and Tamil,  and a serious scholar of Arabic and Sanskrit, Minnan was as well versed in the Koran and classical Islamic texts as in Hindu, and Western Christian and secular philosophies.  In Anna  – himself a philosopher, Sanskritist and classical scholar –  he found a deep resonance for his own engagement with life’s larger questions. 

Together, they became a nucleus of a salon-like community of like-minded individuals in the liberal intellectual and relatively open social environment of Pudukkottah.  The group included Hindus, Muslims, Christians of many hues, and theosophists.  All that was required as a condition of association  was openness of thought, and an abiding respect for world views other than one’s own.  Anna was the youngest member of the group, and the most enthusiastic.  The cosmopolitan companionship and intellectual exchange of the salon became his major comfort for the loss of his  metropolitan moorings  and influential social networks.  His home became the permanent venue for the meetings and discussions.   And my mother – then a little schoolgoing girl, and his favourite baby sister – was allowed to stay in the room as an observer, and listen in on the discussions held by the group. 

Visiting each other’s homes and  celebrating each other’s religious festivals – done without any affectation – were only the most obvious expressions of the group’s pluralistic vision.  In this manner, their families were also able to socialize – at least minimally – with each other. On a more serious level, the members of the group studied and discussed  each others’ religions, ethics, philosophies, cultures and histories, and found enough  in common to celebrate their many differences. 

It was probably inevitable that the group consisted only of men. Those were times when women were still cloistered in the home;  my grandmother, for example, was educated at home by her parents, and barely stepped out of her home even as a married woman.  Few women went to school, and even fewer went beyond to get  university degrees.  Those who  trained to become professionals in mixed gender settings were miniscule in number; school teaching in girls-only schools was considered the only genteel occupation for university educated women.  It was probably a corollary of this that the ideas that flowed fast and furiously within the salon did touch the womenfolk in the families in some ways – mothers and wives very fleetingly, unmarried sisters and daughters a little more –, but did not significantly penetrate into the innermost recesses of their lives  (my mother was perhaps unique in that she was allowed to be present at the meetings, and the ideas were at least allowed to wash over her).  This must have had its own contradictions even for the men engaging in these intellectual exercises.

Houses themselves were recessed in those days, probably as an architectural tool to filter out  intrusive social – and ideological – influences from the outside world.   Houses among the upper castes in southern India were designed as a series of  rooms (called halls) that stretched from the front door to the back door giving out to the rear garden beyond.  Smaller rooms branched off on either side into more private spaces (e.g. bedrooms for adults, rooms for visiting relatives) or utility spaces like storage rooms.  Separating every few halls were open-to-the-sky courtyards that consolidated that section of the house.  Visitors, tradespeople and servants were defined by which of these halls and courtyards they were permitted entry into. 

In Anna’s house,  in keeping with convention as framed by caste, class and gender,  the outermost spaces were the public areas.  These were the first set of covered verandahs overlooking the front garden, and the large reception hall that served as Anna’s home office where he also entertained visitors and friends.  The most private and caste-exclusive spaces were at the far end of this series of enclosures, grouped around the last courtyard.  This courtyard was surrounded by verandahs, from which doors opened into a few bedrooms,  the family’s dining hall, the puja (worship) room,  the bathing rooms that also had niches for stocking firewood for heating the bathwater and, above all, the kitchen.  Generally the preserve of the women of the house, here it was caste alone that defined entry.   

Of all of Anna’s friends and non-family associates, Minnan was the one that came closest to the rest of the family; he alone enjoyed entry into the family’s most  private space.  But even he respectfully stopped short of the  kitchen and the puja room.  Sitting at the doorway to the puja room, he would pay his respects to Anna’s mother and  chat with her, and give her the Tamil and Sanskrit books on philosophy and religion that he took to bringing for her.  With him she discussed the happenings in the world and the day’s news carried by the newspapers for he, above all others, symbolized for her the outside world. 

In the courtyard adjoining this complex,  he would play with my mother, demand that she show him her school work, introduce her to new books and guide her in her general reading, and generally show a keen interest in her intellectual development.   These moments were what forged the closest bond between them.  My mother was fierce about going ahead with her studies,  and not be married off early like her older sisters.  He, in turn, loved her passion for learning and became her self-adopted guardian angel to see to it that her dreams were not thwarted by orthodox social convention.  It was also he who made it possible for her to enjoy the childhood pleasures that no one else in her family was willing to put themselves out for.  He alone among non-family members was allowed to take her out to the market, where  he treated her to bought foods like cakes and ice cream,  foods forbidden from being brought into the house by her mother because they were made by strangers who could be using materials of uncertain origin and hygiene.  He also took her to visiting circuses and fairs – to which he also brought his two young daughters when possible –  where, often perched on his shoulders, she got to eat candy floss and suck on toffees,  and take rides on the feris wheel and merry-go-round.   The magic of those rare occasions are, to this day, the source of her happiest childhood memories.

Special as those outings were for her, my mother remembers that for her brother his special moments with Minnan were when the two friends sat down – long after the other visitors had left – to share the evening meal  served by my grandmother, with my mother in tow.  The conversation would then turn to people and matters  more personal.  My mother  remembers her brother joking – half-seriously – to grandmother, early in this friendship, that surely caste pollution rules could not be allowed to apply to Minnan! 

In the tradition of mothers of those days, my grandmother would eat only after all her children had eaten and guests had been served.  Equally, in the old tradition, a Brahmin adult man or woman would not eat food that had already been shared by a person of lower caste (persons professing other faiths automatically lost caste, or were deemed to be of low caste).   And indeed, my grandmother soon stopped observing these  rules in relation to Minnan.  

But in turn she would joke – again half-seriously, and never within Anna’s earshot – that she feared that all of this social mixing might result in her young and only son converting to Islam or Christianity!  And there were certainly some reasons for this fear on the part of an educated but orthodox woman of my grandmother’s times!  Anna occasionally attended Sunday mass in the local church with his Christian friends, or offered namaz at the city’s mosque along with Minnan when he was visiting…And all of this without giving up his own daily dedicated time – after his ritual purifying bath – for his own prayers and pujas.  Minnan, too, in the same spirit attended church and visited temples.  At the latter, he  respectfully – and unselfconsciously – held himself back at the level of the outer prakara (courtyard) as behoved a non-Hindu.  He did not regard it as an inequity that convention forbade him from going into the Hindu temple’s ‘sanctum sanctorum’,  and nor did he rant against it.  He simply accepted it as part of the difference.  He never saw it necessary, either, to give up or be apologetic about his traditional ‘Muslim’ looks – the coloured lungi (sarong), white tunic, skull cap and long beard – wearing them without affectation whether in the courts, on the street, in a mosque or in a temple or church.  As a devout Muslim he offered namaz a few times a day.  What is interesting is that he also recited the Gayatri mantra 108 times everyday. 

I was to learn much later from my mother that his belief in the Gayatri mantra was unshakeable; for him it was symbolic of the essential unity of all religions.  As a child, all I knew was that it was he who taught the mantra to me.  It is, in fact, the only real memory I have of him. This was also the last time I ever saw him.  I was 10 years old at the time. He was already a very old man, bent of back and with a wheeze in his chest. But because I was conscious even then of how intensely my mother felt about him, I remember that last meeting with Minnan Saibu very well.   

It was school holidays, and we were visiting Madras as part of our annual family trip to Pudukkotah.  My mother had heard that a close relative in the city was very sick and in hospital, so we were visiting him.  As a family friend, Minnan too had come to the hospital.  He had probably also heard that my mother was in town that day and that there might be an opportunity to meet her at the hospital.  He had been waiting for us, and was the first to greet us as we walked down the long corridor towards the private ward, his dim eyes beaming fondness for my mother, and positively lighting up when he saw me. 

Anticipating my discomfiture at being in the midst of the mournful-looking crowd around the patient’s bed he asked my mother to go on, and took me aside into a waiting room.  He was eager to renew his  acquaintance with his favourite niece’s daughter.  He told me that he had heard that I was a good scholar – as my mother had been – and that he was proud that I was living up to my mother’s reputation.  In his strange-to-my-ears “Muslim- accented” Tamil, he chatted with me about school, my hobbies, and the books that I was reading currently… 

Then suddenly, from out of the blue, he asked me if I knew how to recite the Gayatri mantra!   Already feeling weighed down by all this attention, I was only too glad to say “no” in the hope of closing the conversation, and making a getaway from this old man whose head swayed from side to side, and who peered at me with intense eyes as he spoke…“It is a prayer for enlightenment and freedom from ignorance…. We all need to be free in our minds,  irrespective of who we are…”   And then, equally suddenly, “Would you like to learn it?”    

Without waiting for my answer, he began explaining the mantra to me, speaking with great earnestness as if to restrain me from fleeing.    “It is so simple a prayer,” he stressed, “you can recite it anywhere, at any time…  Recite it with understanding, , my child.  It will take you far on the road of life. It is a great part of your heritage as a Hindu.”  And there, in that hospital waiting room, he proceeded to teach me how to intone the Gayatri, and went on to explain each syllable of the mantra to me.  It was a strange experience.

When someone came in with a message from my mother that I should go join her at the sick relative’s bedside,  he patted me to go off.  I left him sitting there looking thoughtful; he seemed to be searching in his tunic pockets for something.  I can’t remember if I was relieved to break away from this intense old man from my mother’s past, who was talking to me about unlikely things in this very unlikely place.  It certainly was a strange place for an instruction that, I was to learn later, was taught only to boys on the occasion of the sacred thread ceremony.  By the time my mother was ready to leave the hospital, Minnan had prepared what turned out to be his last gift to me.  On a sheet of fullscape paper he had written out the Gayatri mantra in bold black Sanskrit script, followed by the meanings  in English.  Although it was not something that I  realized at the time, it was a significant gift.  A gift of  wisdom and love. From a Muslim uncle.  To his favourite Hindu niece’s child.   

Minnan died sometime soon after.  He was very old.  It was an uneventful death and did not make it to the newspapers.  But for my mother, something of her childhood died in her that day.  She tells me – these days she often reminisces about the people whom she loved, who have since passed on – that she had a ritual bath when she heard the news (this is the traditional gesture of mourning soon upon hearing that a close relative has died),  wept in private, and quietly hugged her memories close.  

As for me, all these decades later, I still have that sheet of paper – long since coming apart along the folds and repaired with cellotape – among my childhood memorabilia.

In the last several weeks – with the Indian media gushing out the sordid details of yet another round of cynical manipulation of the Indian Muslim community by political parties for petty electoral gains, using the bogey of religious insult  around Salman Rushdie’s participation in the 2012 Jaipur Literature Festival – I have thought of Minnan Saibu a lot…The kind of person he was…  The kind of world which he and Anna and others of their ilk tried to create…A world in which my mother grew up, and which I had the privilege to glimpse…And I find myself hard put to find even a shade of that world in today’s strident India.

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