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VOTING TO REJECT?

Rahul Gandhi’s latest theatre act might be a ploy by the Congress Party to do a one-upmanship on the BJP, which had woken up only a little earlier than him to the grossly undemocratic nature of the Ordinance.  Or, it might be a last minute course correction urged on him by some younger members of his party who are believed to have been silent objectors to the Ordinance (with the exception of  Milind Deora’s public posturing), while at the same time projecting him as the youthful, fearless and iconoclastic future face of the Congress party.  Sycophants are already likening Rahul to Mrs. Gandhi’s mid-1970s rebellion as leader of the “young Turks” of the Congress and her break with the old guard, using the slogan of Garibi Hatao.  They are hailing him as having gone from next-P.M.-in-training to next-P.M.-in-readiness.

Even if the theatre results in aborting the the Ordinance pushed through by the dirty tricks department of the Congress and its allies, nothing can gloss over the fact of the Bill itself.  For, the Bill was the result of most of India’s Parliamentarians belonging to most  of the political parties implicitly closing ranks to protect themselves. If the BJP developed doubts and then adopted the stance of conscientious objector,  the objection was only towards the Ordinance that came at the end of a drama that had unfolded over weeks and months, in which the BJP,  too, had been complicit.

The Parliamentarians, in proposing the Bill meant to protect the large numbers of their kind facing criminal conviction, put forward many arguments.  That India is a litigious country and that politicians stand the constant risk of having fictitious charges framed against them due to vendetta among political rivals.  That, since judgements by lower courts can be appealed against in higher courts, convicted politicians stand the chance to clear their names in due course.  That, if politicians were to step down following a conviction, pending their journey through the legal system,  they stand to lose in the political race. And, finally, that  since the judicial process in India is highly protracted and inefficient, cases might go on forever, which would unfairly impact on the career of the politician concerned.

In other words, the law that applies to  the ordinary citizens of India cannot be applied to the politicians because the political class are a special breed who require a different set of laws for themselves.  While citizens charged with criminal offences may languish in jails interminably, often as mere undertrials, and in the process lose their jobs and livelihoods, the same cannot be allowed to happen to politicians.   Which raises the question: what is the nature of the investment that politicians make in their careers that sets them apart?

Whatever the eventual fate of the Ordinance,  we as citizens need to be cautious about embracing Rahul Gandhi’s “…all nonsense…deserves to be torn and thrown…” speech of September 27th., and believing that our politicians have suddenly undergone a complete change of heart, and that the profession of electoral politics will be beautiful and clean in the future.  The very fact that the political class was capable of dreaming up such a Bill in the first place could mean that our politicians actually believe that in the course of their “democratic” roles,  they  (and their kin) deserve to have the licence to bribe, accept bribes, forge, pilfer, embezzle, riot, impersonate, rape, murder, vandalise public and private property, beat up citizens who are lawfully doing their jobs (in order to avoid something as paltry as paying highway toll taxes, e.g.,),  threaten to strip and violate women for merely doing their jobs, abduct and/or gangrape women working for social change, etc.

And, that while engaging in all these exciting activities in the pursuit of expanding their own personal fortunes and raw power,  politicians should remain unaccountable:  whether or not they attend Parliament or  Assembly, whether they stay awake or sleep or watch porn films while attending Parliament/Legislative Assembly sessions, whether they go through years of  tenure as elected representatives without ever raising a question for debate or speaking on a matter of national or state importance, whether they shout abuses / scuffle with / hurl missiles at political rivals, snatch away and tear up vital documents from the hands of Speaker of the House, use intemperate language, lower the dignity of the House, etc., etc.

For, our politicians also seem to believe that the crowning success of becoming “elected representatives” is that they may do all of the above without regard for the fact that their salaries and perks come from the taxpayers’ money:  fat monthly emoluments;  daily allowances for attending Parliament sessions;  free houses;  free phones, free electricity, free water,  free cars with drivers and lal battis and unlimited petrol/diesel for themselves and their kin;  free airline and railway miles and privileges for themselves and their kin, etc..  And, that in the course of their political careers, they may give themselves periodic additional privileges:  hefty raises in pay packets and perks, special security and police protection for themselves and their kin from unspecified threats, etc. And get V.I.P. or V.V.I.P. status, surely a uniquely Indian invention to further skew an already highly hierarchical society.

The politicians’ story does not end with becoming V.I.P.s or V.V.I.P.s.  At the end of five years of having the time of their lives – during which they and their kin are known to make unimagined fortunes through bribes, real estate deals, ownership of gold, and other forms of property and power, such as charitable religious, educational, health,  “cooperative” trusts, politically appointed offices such as heads of government corporations, etc., – they have the means to re-enter the political system once again, this time  with even greater muscle and money power.

Are these then the kind of “people’s representatives” that we will be voting for all over again at the coming elections?

When the Anna Hazare movement  raised the above anti-corruption issues, members of the UPA, even while stooping to every means to discredit the movement and besmirch the personal reputations of those at the forefront,  derisively declared that only those entering electoral politics had the right to speak of changing the way the political system works.

The Aam Aadmi Party came into existence in response to this challenge, and their experience of negotiating the unreformed political system remains to be seen.  During the last general elections a few idealistic young people – taking Plato’s adage to heart that those who are too smart to engage in politics end up being governed by those who are dumber – had already bravely sought to enter politics as independents.  But all of them lost, and went back to their professions.  Because they did not have what is required for entering politics.

So what does it take to enter politics?

From where I live presently – in the heart of an agrarian community in the heart of northern India – I have had the opportunity to watch politics play out at the grassroots.  You can’t get more aam aadmi-like than where I am.  And what I see going on around me challenges all the holy cows of electoral politics in this country, whether it is  gender (pro-women), or poverty (pro-poor), or caste (pro-backward and scheduled castes),  or the primacy of Indian heartland (pro-rural, pro-agriculture), or ideology (pro-secular), or panchayati raj institutions (pro-grassroots democracy).  It demonstrates that for all that our politicians in and out of government may pontificate in front of T.V. cameras, it is their consistent venality that has trickled down right to the grassroots with the message that politics is not public service, but the surest route to making huge money and acquiring massive power.

The story I tell below spells out the DNA of those in politics, old or new.  If this  story of a novice in politics who started from a position of relative social vulnerability sounds depressing, I leave you to imagine how much worse the stories of  powerful political families and political mafia must sound.

_______________

 

The story of Sita: Background

It is a little over two years since I first wrote about how I witnessed  Sita’s impressive rise from farm labourer to successfully elected grassroots politician. (https://rr2606.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/the-changing-rural-scene-in-eastern-rajasthan-%E2%80%93-4-dalit-women%E2%80%99s-lives-some-cameos-4-4-sita/).  In the last two years I have continued to watch Sita’s further integration into the political ethos of this country, and the aspirations and style that she has begun to develop for her political future.

My observations show that politics at the grassroots takes its cues from the way national and state level politics works, so powerful is the demonstration effect of the macro dynamics. Fundamental change for the better, therefore – the assertion of the value of public service, and unequivocal demonstration that probity in public life is non-negotiable in a polity that professes to be democratic – must necessarily come from the top.

My observations further show how, behind the façade of declared universalistic norms of development, democracy and  inclusion,  affirmative actions based on gender or religion or caste are deliberately subverted by the way our system of electoral politics works, until both the social identities of gender/religion/caste, and the universalistic norms themselves, stand totally debased.

Sita: The Story Rolls On

Sita won the election for Sarpanch (Head of the Elected Village Council) while contesting on a “reserved” seat, i.e., one that sought to empower a woman who is also a dalit, by creating an entry point for her into electoral politics.

I live in a dalit majority region, and both the Congress and BJP have been fostering dalit candidates here for the state legislatures.  Usually these politicians have been males.  But whenever the seat is recast into one reserved for a woman,  it is inevitably the widow, wife or daughter-in-law of the male candidate who gets the seat.  Dynastic imperatives that govern thinking in political parties – based on familiarity of a candidate in the eyes of the voting public, and his/her winnability – do not work at the political top-end alone.  Parties foster them at the grassroots as well.

This was the first time that the Sarpanch seat in particular had come under the reserved category, i.e., specifically for a woman and a dalit.  Partly because she was an unknown quantity and perceived as being docile and pliable, and more so because both her political rivals (dalit women who had earlier held office as Panchayat members and were now aspirants for the higher post) had built up unfavourable reputations for highhandedness, Sita won the election by a close margin.  The fact that her husband had been able to sell some inherited land and there was ready cash available – running into a few lakhs of rupees – to influence/buy votes, helped.  Also, her husband – a man with a few years of schooling, and familiarity with urban ways, having worked as a driver to a  merchant in the city –  worked solidly for her success.

Sita has been in office for a little over three years now.  As early as a few months into office, Sita had started making serious money from the then newly-sanctioned government road construction project, for the  improvement of the approach road to the village.  That was the beginning.  Since then, it has been open knowledge that she has also been making money through other ways.  She has been urging every one who owns homestead land to get their ownership deed registered with the Panchayat within the next two years (i.e., the duration of her tenure).  And for each of these registrations she has been charging a cool commission, often  running into several lakhs.  She has not been sharing this money with the other elected members of the Panchayat, which is how this fact has become public knowledge.  She has also become a major land broker in the area, since she now expects every land sale or purchase to go through her.  This is a region where land prices have been rising due to proximity to the capital city, and real estate developers have been busy offering to fill coffers of political parties in return for government facilitating their access to land to build “townships” along the state highways leading out of the capital.    Those locals who have not already sold their farm lands to real estate developers are eager to keep their land records in good shape as they wait for future windfalls.  So there has been a rush in response to Sita’s urging.

Within less than a year into office as Sarpanch, Sita began preparations for her next political step:  candidature for elections to the next higher level of local self governing bodies.  In this case, the Zilla Parishad (district-level elected body) and the Mandi Samiti (the wholesale vegetable and grain market prices committee, which has power over a huge constituency of farmers in the area).   Doing the rounds of biggies in the area, making herself appear a winnable candidate on grounds of caste and gender, and spending the monies required to facilitate all these efforts, all came from the use of her office of Sarpanch.

Sita sadly lost those elections.  It was a huge blow for her, but it did not deter her in her even bigger ambitions and her bigger greed to make money.  The elections had at least ensured that she got noticed – as also her ambition  – by local power brokers.   Along the way, she has acquired friends with questionable connections who hold out hopes that they might be able to guide her in her onward political career. These political fixers, who are from outside her jurisdiction as Sarpanch, take her around to introduce her to other power brokers and land mafias  connected to both the Congress and BJP at the district and state levels.  For, Sita  has set her next sights on standing for the coming elections to the state Legislative Assembly,  and is now exploring where she might successfully put forward her candidature.

In her entire tenure as Sarpanch, all that Sita has done to merit her monthly government salary and elected office is to install one hand pump for the village hunter.  But her efforts to become a powerful controller of land in the area have been bearing rich fruit.  She has already taken steps to reward her new political friends by allocating Panchayat-owned land (public commons) in the village in their private names.  Hundreds of acres in this land-rich panchayat were set aside by the former jagirdar of the area for school playgrounds, pastures, woodlands, river banks, etc., in the wake of  the jagirdari abolition act and the setting up of village panchayats by the government in the early to mid 1950s.  In the decades that followed, these commons began to be privatized by unscrupulous state and central level government bureaucrats and politicians engaging in benami transactions to benefit kin and hangers-on, leaving villagers to look on helplessly.  Until Sita’s time, local villagers themselves had not brazenly resorted to land grab.  Sita’s recent initiatives have set off a competition among the more unscrupulous elements in the village to further privatise what common lands still remain,  under the guise of goshalas (cow orphanages), temples, shops, and colonisations that mimic urban slums.   As Sarpanch, Sita is the appropriate person to check this form of grassroots level corruption.  But as the initiator of such corruption herself, she has neither the interest nor the moral authority to stop its trickle down.

Sita’s hunger for money is not only a function of her newly-aroused ambition.  It is also dictated by the structure of electoral politics as it operates today in the country.  In order for her candidature to be accepted, Sita has not only to be perceived by political parties as “winnable” (currently all she has to commend her are her gender, caste identity, and recent exposure through the district level elections).  She has also to be able to pay a sum of at least Rs. 4 crores to whichever Party is willing to accept her candidature.  In addition to this purchase money for being selected as a candidate, Sita must be able to demonstrate that she has the money for her election campaign and actual vote winning, yet another ball game altogether.

Sita’s current challenge, thus, is how to put together that initial Rs. 4 crores.  To this end, she is constantly on the road, led by her new political fixer friends, looking for rich sponsors.  No doubt, she will be making promises to her sponsors of rewards that she will deliver if elected.  If she is able to swing it this time, Sita will become unstoppable.

It is interesting how economic power and political ambition are releasing women like Sita from the bondages of social constraints like purdah and limited physical mobility that rural women like her in this region still have to endure.  But the flip side of this is that the rest of her family have become dependent on her staying in politics as the family’s golden goose, for their own sense of personal wellbeing.  Without her husband’s support, of course, Sita would never have been able to launch on this political journey.  The day she decided to stand for Sarpanch, he resigned his job and began escorting her around and campaigned on her behalf.  Since she is illiterate, it is he with a few years of schooling who attends all her meetings with her, speaks on her behalf, and acts as her scribe doing all the writing that her work as Sarpanch involves, to which she merely affixes her signature (a recently acquired skill).

Naturally, Sita’s husband partakes of her financial success.  Within six months of becoming Sarpanch, Sita and her husband bought a new car that he drives her around in. They did a several week long vacation through the length and breadth of India, that included both pleasure and pilgrimage. Two years down the line, they have bought yet another new car. Sita’s eldest son whom she is trying to educate in the city (which includes putting him into a hostel)  has already run away from school twice in order to be home to enjoy the perks of his mother’s office.  He has taken to drinking and driving rashly and has already become a  menace as a sexual predator to the young women in his own home and around, activities that he undertakes under the assumed immunity that he believes his mother’s office gives him.

Also interesting is that Sita’s baptism into politics started with the flouting of a law, and a lie.  Sita has three grown children. Under a rule that debars anyone – man or woman – who has more than two living children from standing for public office, a rule that harks back to Indian democracy’s stated political commitment to upholding the two child  norm,  Sita was not eligible to become Sarpanch in the first place.   When Sita won, one of her failed rivals challenged her election on these grounds.  So what did Sita do?  She simply got a false certificate made stating that the second birth had resulted in twins (even though the so-called “twins” are several years apart; she also got their ages on their respective school certificates modified accordingly).  While I do not necessarily subscribe to the two child norm nor the penalties accompanying it in the political sphere, it could be a delicious pastime to imagine what strategems  our national level politicians like the famous Yadavs – and, no doubt several others like them – must have employed to make themselves eligible to enter and stay in politics.

As I said at the start,  Sita is a woman, a dalit, and a former agricultural labourer.  She started political life at the absolute grassroots in a Panchayati Raj institution, and has since gone on to dream big.  This in itself should earn her public commendation and support. However, she is now coming to the end of her five year term without  having done anything at all for her constituency by way of constructive work.  Rather, she has used the access afforded by her elected office to boost her family’s finances and to build her own political future.  She  has no ideological leaning to speak of,  and is eager to be affiliated with any party that will accept her.  The parties that she is considering, in turn, look for no ideology or vision on the part of their candidates, other than that they be  “winnable”,  pay up the entry fee of Rs. 4 crores, and demonstrate their capability to finance their election campaign.  In all of the above, Sita’s case has been true to the institutional processes of which she is becoming an increasingly compliant cog.

As Sita roams the hinterland looking for financial backers and an ‘easy’ constituency from where she can stand for elections to the state legislative assembly, and dreams with her family of the lal batti on her car besides untold financial windfalls that her success will bring her  – inspired  no doubt by her political role models in Delhi and the state capital who  think in terms of nothing less than 1000s of crores of rupees  as the gains of political office – voters like me will have to ask the question:

What kind of political future would we be voting for in the coming elections that would  be different from what Sita at the grass roots, or her more suave and educated counterparts in Delhi and the state capitals represent?

Is the ongoing theatre around the infamous Ordinance enough to assure us that the good boys (and girls) are back in the driver’s seat after a short period of excusable delinquency?

The impulses to corruption and criminality would seem to be too deeply embedded in what the present electoral process demands of a political aspirant.  And no one who aligns themselves with any of the existing established political parties can get away from the imperatives of these impulses.   Nor, indeed, can any one hold one’s own any longer as an Independent candidate within the electoral system.  It would be interesting to see the fortunes of the Aam Aadmi Party in the coming elections, and what chances they have for clean and principled participation in the electoral process as it presently obtains in India.

In the meanwhile, with elections just around the corner, ordinary citizens like me must continue to engage with the dilemma before us.  Is “voting to reject” – the right recently granted us by the Supreme Court – then the only option left open to us?

Non-cooperation,  Gandhiji’s style?

____________________

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During the week that the country was outraged  by the gang rape case in metropolitan Mumbai,  the national newspapers were perhaps barely reporting that the rule of law  was  being systematically  undermined in yet another fashion in  a tier two state capital, this  time in the guise of the benign cause of student empowerment.

Rajasthan University recently concluded its student union elections.  For weeks preceding the date,  electioneering  panned out far and wide, way beyond the city of Jaipur the apparent home of  the voting constituency.   Giant colour posters of the candidates prominently displaying their caste surnames were visible everywhere in the city and rural hinterland, both as static hoardings and on moving local and inter-city buses, jeeps and autos, blatantly  demonstrating  big buck support for those  in the fray.

Then came the elections.  Voting, counting, and post-election declaration of results all took place amidst violent political and caste battles between supporters of the rival candidates in and around Jaipur city.  Public buses  and trains were burnt, cars stoned, inter-state highways occupied, and persons attacked.  In the midst of daily local newspaper coverage of the raging  lawlessness, the “winners” of the election were declared by the university’s  vice chancellor.  The bizarre  picture  of the group  flashing wide smiles and victory signs adorned the day’s front page, in complete disregard for the ethics of the circumstances under which the university has acted as a nursery for these budding politicians.

For whom was this a victory?    For the cause of higher education, that is the raison d’etre of any university including the Rajasthan University?   For student governance – or misgovernance in this case – that these expensively and violently elected representatives will engage in for the rest of their student tenure?  For the big political parties which, financially and institutionally and through cadre support, backed these candidates in the expectation that they will before long  arrive on the national stage as seasoned politicians?   For the  rival  caste groups that are looking to these  politicians-in-the-making to carry their particular causes into future electoral processes, both state and national?

Is it surprising then that this is the kind of political leadership we have, and are likely to get in the future?  Is it surprising that all our political parties have closed ranks in the face of  the Supreme Court directive that all elected politicians  who are charge-sheeted for criminal activity should immediately resign from their posts as representatives?  Should not political and electoral reform if they are to succeed  begin in these nurseries, rather than wait for youth politicians to mature into violence and lawlessness co-terminously with their maturation as national level “representatives”?

Just Gratitude

No trip to California can be complete without a visit to Yosemite National Park.  My last trip had fallen short in this regard, and I was determined that this time I was going to round off the circle.  So, topping  the list of  ‘family time together things-to-do’, was a few days in Yosemite.

Yosemite is not only fabled for its beauty and accessibility, it also has the distinction of being the oldest national park in the U.S., the first to be recognized as a protected natural environment through a declaration passed by the then President of the United States Abraham Lincoln.  First discovered by the naturalist John Muir, who worked tirelessly throughout his life for its recognition and protection, Yosemite has had the support of generations of dedicated nature lovers who have followed his trail to bring the park to its present stature.

Masses of information about Yosemite already exist; and  if one is planning a visit, the Park’s official website and the dozens of blogs by enthusiastic “Friends of Yosemite” and random visitors to the Park, offer enough about what to expect and what to see and do.  But it is only natural that the real import of Yosemite begins to come alive only when one actually gets there.

Every effort has been made to educate the visitor: through exhibits in the Park’s Museum,  films about Yosemite ‘s history,  detailed legends everywhere particularly in the Sequioa forests (among the largest and oldest trees in the world) and, indeed, excellently produced and illustrated informational leaflets and maps at hand, at every turn.   Not to speak of the knowledgeable Park guides.  All of this make even a brief trip to the Park very instructive and rewarding.   We learnt a great deal about the Park’s diverse natural landscapes, its ancient geological history, the story of the Indian tribes whose home it originally was and who learnt the deep secrets of living in harmony with the unique natural events that periodically unfolded in these forests, and the re-learning of Indian lore combined with the application of modern conservation techniques, that is at the heart of the current management of the Park.

We realised with regret that a first-time trip of just a few days did not give us the luxury of being able to explore the deep wilderness, for which we needed to have planned a longer and more strenuous hiking and camping trip.  Indeed, wherever we went on the beaten track ,we were surrounded by so many people that we couldn’t get away from the feeling of being mere tourists.  We despaired that we would perhaps leave Yosemite carrying the weight of an unfinished agenda.

But, just as we were leaving, something happened that touched our hearts and fired our minds with a sense of the eternal mystery of the earth’s making.  An experience that will forever symbolize for us the ‘spirit of Yosemite’.

We had gone to Glacier Point to witness the sunset, one of those “must-do” things at Yosemite.  We had lived for decades by the seashore along Mumbai’s western seaboard where, from the balcony of our flat overlooking the sea, we would enjoy spectacular sunsets every day, feeling a little like Antoine de Saint Exupery’s Little Prince, who sat in his chair on his tiny planet and continuously witnessed sunset after beautiful sunset.  We were also  veterans of quite a few locational sightings – sunrise over Kanchenjunga, sunset over the ‘golden fort’ of Jaisalmer, etc. –  and as we rushed to Glacier Point with our eyes on the time, we wondered if we were being a tad too touristy ourselves.

It was with a sense of déjà vu that we found most of the vantage points overlooking the mountains ranged in front and the Valley deep below already taken, and a steady stream of people continuing  to arrive.  By the time the appointed hour approached, there wasn’t a free spot on busy Glacier Point.  A group that was apparently camping closeby had even arrived with all their cooking stuff, and soon spaghetti and an accompanying  sauce were simmering on a flat rock close to where we stood, amidst convivial banter.

As the sky turned pink and shadows began to move across the hills, the valley far below was the first to be swallowed up by the growing darkness that soon rose like a mist to where we stood high above.  Just the hill tops were still softly lit up by the setting sun.  Thinking that this was it, we slowly began to walk away, believing  that it might be wise to get away from what might become a virtual crush of people making for the car park, if we lingered for too long.

We were making our way towards the parking lot when we heard the gentle snapping of twigs underfoot among the fir trees around us.   We didn’t have to peer into the undergrowth.  Almost like gifting us with a darshan (vision),  a herd of small deer emerged to innocently give us the lookover.  They continued standing there, faces turned towards us enquiringly,  and we tried to be very still and take photographs.  We were totally unaware that everything around us was becoming  pitch dark, and it  was only when we were back home that we realized that our final photo had only registered the shining eyes of the lone deer that still lingered after the rest of the herd had melted away.  It seemed a fulfilling enough end to the day.  Just the deer, the silence and us.

As we neared the car park, a bus drew up and disgorged a full load of tourists, all rushing  to reach Glacier Point.  Our exit seemed not a minute too early.  It was very dark but we managed to find the road that would take us back to the Park gates, and as we cautiously negotiated the initial hairpin bends we encountered a few more cars speeding past us for Glacier Point.

Ours was the lone car as we steadily drove downhill.  The silence and darkness of the forests all around us dipping  down to the valley somewhere far below crept into the car, and enveloped us comfortingly in that special way that mountains have.     It was going to be a long drive back  to our hotel near the Park gates several miles below, but we were in no hurry to turn on the music; each of us was  lost in our own thoughts.

Suddenly we became aware of something surreal going on outside.  Time, and the world itself, seemed to have come to a stop.  From end to end on our right, the sky was ablaze  –  rich blue above, flaming yellow-red-orange along the middle, and pitch black at the bottom – in a drama that was larger than anything else at that moment.  We felt compelled, like all the other life forms around us – the silent fir trees, the still wind – to stop and simply witness.  Pulling up at the nearest kerb, we stepped out and stood for what seemed like an eternity.  It was like witnessing  the beginning of life on the planet, when the fires had stopped raging and the waters had stopped cooling, and all was silence and peace and beauty.

Perhaps it would have been just as beautiful a scene had we stayed on at Glacier Point.  But what we saw before us was far more than what our eyes – or camera – could take in.  As we filled our hearts with that unforgettable moment, we were grateful for the solitude. The ‘spirit of Yosemite’ had indeed given us a precious gift.  There was no unfinished agenda anymore.  Just gratitude.

Sunset at Yosemite

Sunset at Yosemite

Stanford University Commencement, June 2012

Condoleezza Rice in her book (Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of a
Family) quotes a line from the Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford movie
The Way We Were, where Barbara Streisand says, “Commencement. What a funny thing to call the end”. 

The quote is in the context of Rice’s experience of her own college
graduation.  Rice recalls that while she enjoyed the graduation ceremony,
what was uppermost in her mind all through it was the thought of all that now lay ahead of her.

“Commencement” – the name in the U.S. for the college/university graduation
ceremony  – is truly a well-chosen description for what is, in essence, the
beginning of life as an adult.   And what the spirit of Commencement
stresses, even while it celebrates the achievements of the present, is a
vision of  life as an endeavour  of  constant learning and passionate
engagement.  It is significant that the distinguished speaker invited to
grace a Commencement ceremony almost always dwells, not on the education he or she received, but the lessons for life that he/she learnt while putting that education into practice.

Witnessing Stanford University’s  Commencement exercises this June was a
heartwarming experience for us as parents.  As much for the fact that it
marked our son’s – and his fellow graduates’-  transition into  life as fully
grown and responsible adults, as for the stirring  address given by the
speaker of the day Cory Booker.   One of the key themes of Booker’s address was the importance of embracing discomfort, if one intended to live a meaningful  life.  And he recounted many stories from his own life to illustrate what he meant  (he also said a lot more that was interesting and thought provoking but I won’t repeat it all here).

We never expected that the echoes of boundrylessness, transition and change that we came away with at the end of that morning, would be enhanced by an apparently commonplace sight in the skies that afternoon.  Lying on the grass in our son’s garden and lazily staring  up at the clear blue California sky over the Los Altos Hills, we had  the privilege to witness what seemed like  another “commencement”.  High above the hills,  a fellow creature of the planet was conducting her own  “commencement” exercises for her child – a golden eagle teaching her chick to fly, in an exercise that went on through the afternoon.  Even as we watched, and  gasped every time the sun lit up her broad golden wings making her look even more magnificent, she rose, dropped and swooped, relentlessly putting her chick through its paces, and never letting it rest even when it seemed eager to return to nestle under her wings.  Each time, she would wait for it to catch up and then gently and lovingly demonstrate  yet another turn or manoevre.  She, too, was teaching it to embrace discomfort if it wanted to roam the high skies.  What a  wonderful opportunity for us to tune in to the rest of the universe, and to be reminded that young fellow beings everywhere were engaged in the same passionate quest for meaning to their lives, supported by those who cared for them.

The sky over Los Altos Hills

Childhood

Just beyond the wrought iron gates along a section of the curving driveway stretches a row of dull brown rattan, gleaming brass, and brilliant colours.    Giant circular brass plates stand mounted on waist-high hourglass-shaped wicker bases.  Each plate is spilling over with  a different, brightly coloured powder  – yellow, red, orange, purple, green, magenta… Standing just opposite is another identical curving row of brass plates on wicker bases.  Only, here each plate is piled high with a different Indian sweet. Orange jalebis, pale yellow barfis,  white pedas, golden yellow laddoos, brown athirasams,  cream coloured badushahs.  Further along the driveway is a row of large galvanized-iron troughs filled with coloured water – green, pink, yellow, orange, magenta, red,  matching the colours of the powders.  At the end of this row is a metal tub stacked with foot-long metal pichkaris  (squirts). Attendants in white uniform – baggy trousers and baggier shirts – stand behind the plates, ready to assist those wishing to sample any of the offerings.

To the left of  the curving driveway stretches a garden, and today it is full of multi-coloured people at play, the colours on their faces and clothes reflecting the powders  on the plates and the waters in the troughs on the driveway -yellow, red, purple, green, magenta….  Every now and again, one of the coloured people dashes to a plate or trough, scoops up a handful of powder or refills a  pichkari before running back to throw the powder or squirt the water on someone of their choice; creeping up from behind them or screaming wildly while charging at their prey. 

In the centre of the garden is a large fountain sitting in its own basin.  Today, this basin, too, is filled with coloured water.  The people on the far side of the lawns are filling their pichkaris from here.  But this basin is also the scene of rougher horseplay and, here, men are the players.  They suddenly swoop down on a victim, and to the accompaniment of screams from the victim and yowls from those standing witness, they dunk the unfortunate in the water with a loud chorus of “One, two, three…go”.  The victim lands in the water with a splash, while everybody around claps and laughs and jeers in friendly fashion.  By then,  someone in the gathering has identified the next victim who senses it quickly, and with screams of  “Noooooooo” runs for dear life, with the tormentor(s)  in hot pursuit. 

My mother, looking all messy in colours that are all over her clothes, face and hair is smilingly walking among her guests, greeting new arrivals or people whose presence she had missed noticing earlier. She is making sure that everybody is playing with colours, and that they are keeping their energy levels high on sweets and their bodies warm on hot chai.  Servants, in white but with some splotches of colour,  are scurrying around, making sure that the plates and troughs on the driveway are regularly replenished,  plying the revelers with steaming cups of fragrant chai from laden trays, and running back for refills. My father is welcoming every person entering the gates with a smiling namaste and an embrace.  He  graciously accepts the gesture of having his cheeks smeared with red colour (the most auspicious colour of all) and reciprocates in kind.  He waves them on into the garden,  urging them to enjoy themselves.  

To my baby eyes, the garden seems impossibly crowded that day.   I learn years later that there must have been at least several hundred people at any point of that morning in that front garden.    

It is the first Holi (festival of colours) since father’s transfer to this city – the headquarters – to take over as the chief of the railways in that zone of India.  And he is demonstrating his desire to cross all boundaries of status and rank, and extend the hand of brotherhood to railway employees at all levels, by keeping the party an open one.  Father, with his ever over-the-top extravagant hospitality.  Fond of throwing lavish parties. For colleagues, friends, acquaintances,  relatives, visitors.  Parties that always happened at home and not at the club (there were no fancy hotels in those days).  And all in the full knowledge that mother stood solidly behind him to execute his every wish.

I also learn – when I am older – that my mother had made all the colours at home that Holi, with the help of the servants. That was how it was in those days.  Most things were natural products, made at home by the women of the house.  So also with Holi colours.  Yellow from the turmeric root.  Red from the pomegranate flower.  Green from assorted leaves.  Orange from the marigold flower.  And so on…For days before the Holi party, mother had been busy organizing the colours. Getting the  sweets made.  Planning their presentation.  Sending out the invitations. All I was vaguely aware of was that I hardly ever saw her.  Something seemed to be going on all around me, but I had no understanding of it.  She hardly paused in her incessant work except to give me a vague hug or pat my head.  My father of course was probably in the office most of the time, returning home late.  I saw very little of him anyway.

I must have been a little over three years old and it was my first Holi.   It is also the very first major memory I have from my early childhood.  What defined that memory was not the trays and colours and sweets or the busyness of the house, but the way in which all of these came together in a moment of terror for me. 

I remember standing in the garden, concentrating on staying close to my mother as she circulated among her guests.  Suddenly I became aware that the whole crowd had fallen silent.  They were watching a group of men from among the guests walk swiftly across to where my father stood smiling and greeting some newly arrived visitors.  They picked him up from behind, without any warning, and carried him to the fountain.  There, yelling triumphantly in unison they threw him – the super boss – into the coloured water with a “One…two…and three…”. 

There was a stunned silence.  I remember clutching at my mother’s sari in terror.  I remember thinking in that minute that I would never see my father again.  I remember my mother standing stock still, silent. And probably tense;  I know now that she must have trusted him with all her heart to do the right thing.  Pulling himself out of the water and displaying no shock or surprise – or annoyance – , father smilingly climbed out assisted by multiple hands and cheering voices.  He waved and called out to his guests to continue playing.  I learnt later that his nonchalance made a huge impression on his new colleagues who spontaneously raised a chorus of “He’s a jolly good fellow…”. 

I remember Gopal, father’s general factotum for years and now the family cook, running across with a towel which he wrapped around father’s shoulders before  leading him into the house, mother following after a dignified interval.  I remember bursting into loud wails at that moment and running into the house after them crying, but being ignored.  Until Gopal was able to pick me up and comfort me.  Nobody else took notice of me.  I continued crying uncontrollably through that day, screaming with fear at the sight of everyone who had colour on their face.  The mixture of bright colours on people’s faces that made them look frightening and unrecognisable, and  seemed to give them licence to scream and chase each other with more colours.  What had happened to my father who became the scary-coloured-no-longer-familiar-figure who walked out of the fountain basin that morning. It was as if  it was a matter of time before something terrible would happen to me, too.    

Who were all these people?  And what was this gory play with colours all about?  Nobody in the house had said anything to me to prepare me for this.  So different from my style of parenting, where I would talk to my child constantly, and tell him what I was doing for him and what was going on around him, even when he was just a few days old.   

Gopal had been the only person who had spotted my terror.  Who took an interest in me.  Dear loving Gopal Singh Garhwal, the rough Pahadi domestic help turned gentleman’s gentleman, who had been with my father for several years and was now the most unmatched cook by general consensus.  Above all, someone loved and trust by all of us in the family.  That day, it was only Gopal whom I knew I could stay with and be comforted by, who would do what I wanted him to do for me, which was to hide me from what was going on all around.  Clinging to his neck, I remember insisting through the day that he stay with me and with me alone, and that both of us stay out of sight of the guests.    It must have been so difficult for Gopal to do this for me.  As the cook of mother’s ever-busy kitchen and, on that day, having to supervise several temporary cooks who had been hired to prepare the lunch for the invitees to the Holi celebrations, he did have to leave me from time to time.  His kindly eyes crinkling in sympathy and understanding, he would assure me that he was going to lock me in from the outside, and that nobody, just nobody, would dare to enter.   He kept his word and came back after each disappearance,  something I will never forget as a signal of trust.

That moment of lonely terror linked with Holi revellery was responsible for Holi being forever imprinted on my mind with a certain measure of ambivalence.  From a state of total fear, I tried slowly to find out more about why the people around me seemed to enjoy it so much.  For, if one has spent any length of time in northern India, one can never get away from the experience of, or at least feelings around, Holi.   

It is a festival where the “play”  goes by broad rules of consensus.  But the boundary between consenting play and coercion can easily get blurred.  Even on that Holi day I remember a truckload of Class Four (manual labourer category) railway employees arriving at our gates, and the men in the truck squirting indelible purple ink on the guests in the garden.  People were horrified and some women screamed while trying to avoid getting the ink in their eyes.  Suddenly the purple on people’s clothes and skin seemed to outdo all the other Holi colours.  I remember my father requesting his guests to step back, and engaging with the men – it turned out that they were drunk – in the truck.  I learnt later that he told them that while all railway brothers were welcome at his Holi party, this did not apply to drunk and rowdy elements who broke the rules of consensus.

The opportunity to truly enjoy the innocent fun of playing with colours came soon enough.  I was five going on six.  Due to my father’s recent transfer, we were in a new city in a different region,  the western part of the country.  Since we had moved in the middle of the school year and they were unable to decide on a suitable school for me in the new city, my parents decided that I should stay at home and resume my formal schooling only in the new academic year.  It was a wonderful six months, when I did a hundred different things – freelance teaching of my reluctant neighbour to prepare her for her first school admission which included slapping her regularly when she refused to sit down to her studies, writing and putting up plays with my new friends in the neighbourhood, reading, reading and reading, learning to play badminton and table tennis and taking swimming lessons, starting on classical music and dance classes three days a week.

When Holi came round, I was ready to play.  I already had friends, and a friendly “uncle” in the railway fraternity had decided to organize a Pied Piper-like procession of us through the officers’ homes in the sprawling railway colony that extended along the seafront.  With him at the head, we sang and skipped and shouted our way from one house to another, starting off with our own colours and pichkaris and replenishing our stocks of powder and coloured water from each house that we visited.  At most of the houses we were welcomed with smiles and sweets and hot drinks.  Colours were exchanged, the children of the house came out to play with us and several of them joined our traveling circus. But at some of our stops the hosts were reluctant to open their homes and have their clothes spoilt.  Here we sang and serenaded, pleaded and threatened, all in good jest, until the doors opened for us.  By the end of the day,  there were very few persons who determinedly kept us out.  It was fun and exhausting, and I was soaked to the skin and deeply coloured – it took days for the colour to wear off and I wore my blotchy skin proudly as a badge of honour – by the time I got home, happy and hoarse.

Adolescence

The next Holi that I played was when I was in my late adolescence.  In the India of my generation, those who were socially privileged – and particularly girls among them – had an extended adolescence due  their sheltered upbringing.    I was already in my early-20s – a young adult out of university – and doing a teaching job at a postgraduate professional college.  For the first time I was living on my own, in a city in yet another region of western India that was also a new cultural experience for me.  Yet, I was still an adolescent at heart, a time of life when  the atmosphere of romance so integral to Holi assumes paramount meaning.  Stoking this atmosphere was the event of the day.  A classical music concert of spring ragas on the Sarangi – a deceptively simple-looking folk stringed instrument that has been superbly adapted to north Indian classical performance – played by the one and only  Pandit Ram Narain.  The college where I was teaching had organized the concert in the open, on the lawns under the trees, in keeping with the spirit of spring and Holi.  

The programme began at around 10 in the morning.  The cool breeze wafted the poignant notes of the Sarangi past the blooming flowers all around us and wove them through the heavy-leaved trees that formed a canopy above. As the performer slid his bow over the strings to coax out note after note of the deliciously tender and sensuous ragas that he had chosen for the occasion, the  atmosphere in the gathering became charged with the sense of romance and abandon. We were a group of predominantly young people – students and young faculty – come out to celebrate Holi in large numbers. The convivial playing with colours began even during the intermission, interspersed with hot chai served in earthen cups.  By the time the concert resumed, everyone returning to their seats was in a state of collective intoxication with the simple fun of this beautiful festival of bonding and togetherness.  That day Pandit Ram Narain, an inspired performer at the best of times,  played like one possessed.  In a way that I have never before nor since heard him perform.  The concert went on for hours well beyond its original programme,  and like the musician the audience, too, lost track of time.  That Holi was one of the more memorable markers of my life as a young person.  

The present

All these years later, this spring, I began to feel a restless desire to play Holi again.  A lot of it had to do with being resident in northern India again –  the cultural homeland of Holi – after a gap of several decades.  In my growing-up years we had lived for much of the time in northern India, and it was easy to imperceptibly imbibe an understanding of Holi as a festival rich in overtones. 

At the most basic and popular level, it is a festival of playing with  colours, with  children everywhere enjoying it most for just this aspect.  Metaphorically, it is a replay of Krishna’s love-play with the hundreds of girls of Vrindavan who were in love with him.  Celebrated by the most sensuous poetry composed in the dialect of the region of Vrindavan – Braj – and set to classical spring-time ragas,  Holi comes alive to the young at heart through this medium.   Philosophically and spiritually, the key concepts here are “love” and “play”.  The Vaishanava belief is that the path to reaching god (personified as Krishna) and experiencing divine bliss,  is one of loving devotion (bhakti) to Krishna.   The manner of expressing this love is through chanting Krishna’s name – through music and dance – with a sense of joyous and total abandon.  In other words, a direct and unconditional communication and identification with the object of love, unconstrained  by ritual and dogma.

The social interpretation – practice – of the above concepts takes many forms.  It becomes an expression of erotic love between romantic partners, a desi Valentine’s Day.  Outside of romantic relationships, exchanging colours becomes symbolic of friendship, the renewing of relationships, the reaffirming of bonds.   Holi  also provides a space in the year where people can set aside their egos and enmities. To exchange colours with one’s enemies or with persons with whom one has stressful relationships, becomes symbolic of burying differences and grudges and starting afresh. A healing balm. A cohesive exchange.

With everyone in the community playing Holi and camouflaged in bright colours and, thereby, losing their individual identity so to say, Holi also plays the symbolic role of an equaliser. The lowering of social barriers in an otherwise acutely hierarchical and caste/class-divided society.  At least for this one day it opens up the possibility of  “absence of difference”.  On this day, neither caste nor class is supposed to count, and one is expected to greet all persons as friends and well wishers. 

The colours are not only drawn from natural sources, they also reflect the multiple colours of nature at their exhuberant spring-best – full-bodied trees, blooming flowers, the plumage of the birds readying themselves for their mating season… The poetry, called Hori and Chaiti and set to classical music, is replete with nature imagery. The festival also marks the end of the winter cold, the shedding of woollies and getting back into cool cottons. Feeling the delicious chill of coloured water on the body while being caressed by the spring sunshine. 

I now live in the countryside in an agrarian setting where nature is at its best in the spring. Trees bursting into new leaf, flowers in bloom everywhere, the grass green and soft underfoot, the mating season for birds bringing birdsong into the air, and butterflies everywhere.  It is impossible to get away from the sense of romance created by all this beautiful convergence of life forms.  

But I was unsure about giving wing to my restlessness.  What would be the ingredients of the atmosphere that I wished to recapture? I am not of an age when romantic love is at its bitter-sweet best.  Nor – unlike my mother –  am I of the generation (or mindset) prepared to labour over the making of natural colours from flowers and leaves.  The colours being sold in the market are abhorrent enough to put paid to any desire to “play” with them.  Positively dangerous,  synthetic and full of toxic chemicals, they are cause for the next day’s newspapers routinely reporting cases of blindness and allergic skin rashes following the play with Holi colours. Nor, indeed, could I think of any group of persons around me whom I would wish  to play Holi with.  Certainly, none of the ingredients of the earlier wonderful memories that I carried within me existed anymore. 

As my restlessness grew, I couldn’t help thinking of why is it that it is always hard to make a decision about whether or not to revisit pleasurable and happy memories from one’s past?  Memories of  books, films, people, places, occasions…In this case, festivals?  Pleasant memories whose fragrance brings with them bottled happiness(es)… As long as one only uncorks these bottles from time to time to lightly inhale their bouquet before re-corking them, adding little fictionalisations along the way to make them look just that little bit nicer, smell just that little bit better, one is fine.  It is when one actually tries to re-visit these mental bottles that things could become problematic.   There is the question of whether it is really possible to recreate the complexity of old memories in a new time, place and social context? What if  the whole exercise proves to be so disappointing that there is then the question of which memory to now instal as the prime one?  The original?  The revisited?  Is it even realistic to choose?  Or does the most recent concrete experience inexorably assert its prominence?

It was with such feelings of expectancy and vague disquiet that I persuaded my husband to travel with me to Vrindavan to witness the Holi celebration there.  Why Vrindavan?   For one,  Vrindavan was neutral ground.  I knew no one there.  And that is infinitely preferable, to being in a place and knowing people whom one may not want to “play”  with. For the same reason of anonymity, we  could simply decide to leave Vrindavan whenever we wanted to if it proved too disappointing.  What commended Vrindavan for a spontaneous trip was also that it is a bare four-hour drive from where I currently live,  with the attractive possibility of halting on our way back at the erstwhile royal principality of Deeg to see its ‘water palaces’, and at Bharatpur, one of India’s prominent bird sanctuaries, to glimpse migratory birds.    We had also received a letter from a young friend, south Indian by origin but born and brought up in the U.S. and now visiting grandparents in India, saying that she had never played  Holi and would dearly love to travel north to do so, so could she come visit us?  The quest for the Holi “experience” was becoming a shared one,  and the fact that a young person – the most appropriate participant in such a festival – might be part of the trip, lent it further legitimacy.  Above all, the most compelling reason for visiting Vrindavan was to be an observer.  I was curious to see what meanings Holi had for the place.  For, Vrindavan’s association with the festival of Holi is unique.  It is where Holi has its origins, so to say.   

Vrindavan

The present-day town of Vrindavan was once an extensive stretch of forest dominated by basil trees (vrinda=basil, van=forest, in Sanskrit), where Krishna is believed to have spent his childhood and youth, and where Krishna and Radha found their love for each other.   Interestingly, I found that in Vrindavan it is not Krishna who is privileged, but Radha.  The  power and intensity of Radha’s  love for Krishna typifies the path of divine ecstasy (bhakti).   Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the poet saint of Bengal who lived in the late 15th./early 16th. century and who was one of the poets who gave formal expression to the bhakti movement (reaching god through loving devotion)  in this region,  spoke of human beings as individuals (jivas) who are separated parts of the supreme godhead.  While they can never be equal to god, they can aspire to an inseparable union with god, driven by love.  Vaishnavism’s celebration of Krishna’s inseparable union with Radha is expressive of this philosophy.  As I was to discover,  Vrindavan  is a feminine city, where everyone – man or woman – sees himself/herself as Radha, loving Krishna and looking for ways to demonstrate that love.  It is a place where, for men, it is legitimate to be a “woman” in a man’s body.  Of all the places in India, it is probably Vrindavan alone whose sole raison d’etre for existence is love.

I went to Vrindavan to witness what I naively thought might be the “original’ spirit of Holi.  But I had not contended with the millions of people who, too, converged on that little town for the festival.  By the evening of the day we arrived,  the traffic had become impossible, roads were being barricaded, and  police were everywhere trying to control the surging crowds. Parking our car securely at our hotel – actually the Ashram of the Krishna Consciousness Society that also takes in guests – we decided to walk or use autorickshaws to get around. 

We were told that in Vrindavan, all the Holi action takes place in its hundreds of temples that dot the town.  Since everyone is  Radha come to play Holi with the divine Krishna, no one needs to worry about having to play with other people.  We were also warned to keep our room door securely closed at all times, and to sally forth without wearing prescription glasses or dark shades.  Apparently the thousands of monkeys in sight everywhere in the town do not think twice about entering human habitations with a view to explore them.  They also have an obsession with spectacles and collect them by the hundreds. The guest in the room next to us, on a ten day visit to Vrindavan from the Czech Republic, told us that he had already lost three pairs of glasses to the monkeys of Vrindavan which had simply sat on his shoulder and plucked them off his nose each time.  We sighted him a couple of times, blind as a bat, but enthusiastically leaving for yet another excursion into the town.  On both occasions he returned covered in colours and looking cheerful and satisfied. Carefully taking out his spectacles from the plastic bag he carried in one of his pockets, he clicked a picture of himself in Holi regalia before going in to shower off.      

Armed with a list of what we were told at the Ashram were the most important and interesting temples, we began our roller-coaster ride along the bumpy narrow winding inner lanes of the town in our rickety autorickshaw.  The idea was to time our visit to each temple to coincide with one of their Aartis (lamp offerings) during which, our driver told us,  Holi would be played with Krishna and we could join in. 

As we chose to linger on at each halt to savour the architecture of the temples and explore their surroundings, we found ourselves not bothering too much about keeping to our time-table.  It was like being in a cultural time machine that took us back several centuries.  Almost all these temples were built in the 16th. century, following the revival of Vrindavan as a centre for Krishna worship inspired by the teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.  Nothing, just nothing seemed to have changed in these five hundred years.  Most of the temples and their neighbourhoods were far away from the surging crowds that had come to Vrindavan.  Neighbourhoods of ancient crumbling stone and brick houses, inhabited by people whose dress and deportment looked almost medieval.   Missing the Aartis was probably a good thing, because at many of the temples we found ourselves to be the only visitors. In quiet courtyards with paving stones missing and whole trees growing out of walls, and silent high-domed shrines.  The exteriors and interiors were frozen in time, medieval and archaic, and no attempt had been made to dress them up.  Only the gods – Krishna and Radha – were brilliantly arrayed in their shringar (adornment).  In every one of the temples we saw faded sign boards requesting donations for restoration; but, clearly, nothing had come in as yet.

The officiating priests in the temples, too, could have belonged to medieval picture books.  I couldn’t help reminiscing about old style Bollywood films of the 1950s and 1960s,  where the rich hero from “the city” arrives at the quaint little town and is totally charmed by the simple and child-like people he meets there – the humble temple priest stringing flower garlands for the deity, the ayurvedic doctor pounding away at his herbal medicines.  Invariably, one of these worthy gentlemen has a pretty and shy daughter with whom our hero promptly falls in love.  After the song and dance routine of boy and girl, he returns to his life in the city, promising to be back to marry his girl.  Invariably, the shy daughter gets left behind, pregnant and forgotten, shamed forever in the eyes of her community.    A lot of city folk of my generation no doubt got some of their stereotypes about Indian temple towns and northern India’s small towns in general from these movies.  Well, in some of the off-the-beaten-track temples that we visited, we actually did encounter the proverbial pretty and shy daughter  of the priest sweeping out the temple precincts of flowers and colours after each Aarti, and helping her father prepare for the next Aarti!   Completing the atmosphere in some of the more active temples, we found religious discourses or  bhajan sessions (devotional songs sung to the accompaniment of simple stringed and percussion instruments) in progress,  in the presence of the resplendent deities.  Attentive audiences filled these halls, looking like they had collectively walked out of a map of India. 

When we stopped for a cup of sweet milky chai outside the gates of the Rang Ji temple before getting back on to our autorickshaw, we heard so many languages being spoken around us it felt like being in a non-sectarian India.   Everywhere we saw extremely spartanly dressed ordinary people who looked happy to be there, and certainly in no hurry to get to the next place wherever that might be.  It made us want to slow down, too, in our progress through the day.  It was indeed amazing that we hardly encountered any “big city” folk during our time there, except in and around the marketplace, the more recently built temples in that location and, of course, our Ashram.  In the “modern” areas of Vrindavan   there were all the  accoutrements  of a touristy pilgrim town – with a couple of massive engineering and management colleges thrown in – none of it too pretty.   Massive crowds of people in all manner of vehicles – the crowds that we had encountered on our first day around the traffic jams – were apparently surging towards another “religious tourist” site called Goverdhan, a few kilometres away. This pilgrim spot, we were told, was for those looking to fulfil prescriptions of religious ritual.  

In Vrindavan, each of the ancient temples reflects the architectural design of the region of its patron/ religious sponsors.  Chaitanya’s followers even in his own lifetime were active in many regions of the country such as Bengal, Bihar, Assam, and Orissa, and were also propagating the Vaishnava philosophy across what are today Jharkhand, Manipur, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and all these regions looked to represent themselves in Vrindavan through their temples.  The Govind Dev Ji Temple (also 16th. century) , for example, is different from any typical temple in India in both its exterior and interior design.  Built in deep red sandstone by the Rajput princes of Amber (later Jaipur), in a combination of Rajput and Mughal architectural styles, its gigantic hall with its shrine of  Krishna and Radha at the far end  felt more like the prayer hall of a mosque than a typical Hindu shrine.  Similarly, standing in the courtyard of the Rang Ji Temple and facing the large square temple tank filled with sparkling clean water, the whole complex surrounded by stone walls painted in the red and white stripes so typical of temples in  Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, evoked a different atmosphere altogether.  Clearly some temples  – such as these two – seemed better-endowed and better-maintained.  We also encountered many more visitors there.  

On every wall in the town of Vrindavan you will see the logo “Shree” (one of the names of Krishna) followed by “Radhey”.  The latter word is invariably in letters double in size of those in the word “Shree”.   And in the temples,  the chant of “Radhey Radhey” rents the air as the Aarti (offering of lit lamps) is offered to the gods, with music playing and temple bells ringing in the background.  In the narrow winding streets of Vrindavan, too, the greeting exchanged between friends and strangers is “Radhey Radhey”.  From finding it strange to hear this everywhere, and awkward to respond in kind, I found myself intoning it as greeting and farewell by the time I left, so infectious was the spirit. 

When we came out of the Govind Dev Ji Temple , we took a few moments to sit on the stone steps to slip on our footwear and take in the scene around us.  Searching in our pockets for small change to pay the young boy who had sat guarding our shoes,  we jokingly asked him what if we were unable to find the required change?  Would he let us leave without payment?  Smiling sweetly he said,  “It doesn’t matter if you don’t pay me money.  If you say to me ‘Radhey Radhey’ it will fill my heart, and that will be sufficient payment”.  I thought it was a  deeply touching  response from one so young. 

Walking around the streets and in the temples, I did not see any rowdyism anywhere, although we had been warned at the Ashram by a friendly gentleman from Bombay who is now a resident at the Ashram,  to stay indoors over Holi or leave the town, as things got very drunken and rowdy.  We chose to stay on for the planned two days, and left unscathed.   But he may well have been telling the truth, for much has changed, and I am willing to believe that this includes even Vrindavan. 

As of now, at least, toxic colours are not permitted to be sold in the town.  The colours sold on the streets and in the shops are in just a few shades and are all natural in origin.  Since they are in demand in such huge quantities, they are not made from flowers but consist of naturally coloured stone that is finely powdered and sold in bags.  In the temples, multiple colours are available, and the coloured water is warm and fragrant, for here, the colours are made from flowers offered the day before to Krishna and Radha.  

Our last temple halt while at Vrindavan was for the evening Aarti as the sun was going down behind the nearly five hundred year old Banke Behari Temple.  Unlike most of the other temples that we visited that were tucked away in unobtrusive little corners of the town, or the busy but still serene Govind Dev Ji and Rang Ji temples, the Banke Behari Temple rises out of the centre of an ancient busy market.  The whole atmosphere – the huge temple itself visible from a distance, the crowds milling around the entrance, the dense labyrinthian market lanes criss-crossing all around it –  conveys the impression of a surging, heaving humanity.  It looked daunting enough from a distance.  Our autorickshaw driver urged us to walk faster lest we miss the last Aarti for the day; he was already very annoyed with us for dawdling through the afternoon and casually missing the Aarti at every other temple.  “You said you wanted to play Holi,”  he barked, “don’t blame me if you miss it here also”.  Panting our way up the steep lane, we promised him we’d  pay him more than the agreed amount to make up for our truancy.  But at that moment  it was impossible to walk faster, as there was just too much going on in the narrow-as-a-string lane we were on.     

The entry into the temple itself was a preview of the mayhem that awaited us inside. It was here that we encountered the “big city” folk who had eluded us earlier. In fact, the place was quite full of them.  We were clearly in a tourist destination. The temple seemed to be performing the function of  providing  a snapshot experience of Holi for the visiting tourist.  If someone is not looking to explore Vrindavan for its quaint ancient character, the logical stop would be here.   

In the main hall that was packed to capacity with batches of people leaving and new batches entering, people were self-consciously chanting “Radhey Radhey”, arms up in the air while moving their bodies awkwardly…To imagined Bollywood numbers?   On the podium, flanking  the gods’ images, stood three young male assistants clad in yellow robes and wielding the largest brass pichkaris – nearly three feet long – that I have ever seen.  Two of them were spraying warm coloured water onto the crowd,  while the third was sending out dry red coloured powder into the air. 

It was slippery underfoot, the air was a red haze, the temple bells were clanging frenziedly, and everything seemed to be spinning out of control.  I tried to peer through the haze but could not see much ahead of me.  Only moving bodies.  But my gaze was arrested by the sight of a fourth person also dressed in flowing robes – much older and probably a priest – standing on the podium.  He seemed to be in a frenzy as he rapidly and repeatedly hurled open a heavy silk curtain to reveal the gods – Radha and Krishna – and then pulled it shut equally forcefully to block off their view.   By now we had given up trying to figure out what was happening and were more than happy to gingerly make our way to the exit. 

Once out of the temple, we took refuge at the cart of a buttermilk seller outside the temple gates who had been kind enough to let us hurriedly leave our footwear below his  cart before rushing into the temple.  He now refused – in his gracious Braj dialect – to accept money for that service.  So we spent what turned out to be an entertaining half hour in his charming company, chatting with him about his business and what he thought about life in Vrindavan, and answering his questions about us.  By the end of two glasses of buttermilk each we had almost become buddies, and he was inviting us to his home for a meal!  We declined the invitation but happily consented to have our third glass of delicious creamy buttermilk laced with home-ground bhang (a locally grown plant-based narcotic that is customarily consumed while playing Holi)! 

The market looked too alluring – and by far more interesting than the temple – to miss out on, so we wandered for a bit down lanes that were tightly packed with shops on either side selling all manner of simple things – snacks and sweets, curd and buttermilk, flowers and joss sticks, watches and trinkets, wooden toys, and what have you.  Here, as everywhere in Vrindavan, ordinary residents, saffron-clad monks and mendicants, and obvious visitors like us rubbed shoulders. I was hoping I’d feel nice and stoned, but nothing happened!  And then for the first time, I saw the yellow-robed “beggars”.  They were not asking for anything, nor did they try to win sympathy.  Sitting on the road cross-legged with backs upright and eyes closed or looking straight ahead, neat little squares of cloth spread out before them, they were impressive in their dignity and silence.  They were lining both sides of the already narrow streets, and with  the odd bicycle and  motorbike also trying their luck at navigating their way through, we made slow progress.   

Seeing a lot of activity outside one establishment – in fact a lot of going in and coming out, including the sound of  fast-paced singing and drums – I stopped to see what was going on. It was some kind of religious establishment –a tiny temple – and some intense looking men in wild hair and beards, orange robes, and sonorous voices were lost in their singing, while some of their equally intense-looking companions were beating out mesmerising rhythms on drums.  What was totally incongruous was the sight of some “big city” males in the watching crowd, trying to drive themselves into a trance while maniacally dancing Bollywood-style to the music.    

I realised that it was time to leave, in more ways than one. Time to let my childhood and youthful memories of Holi rest in their original happy space.  Time to move out of  Vrindavan, carrying with me only the memories of those of its still-beautiful original – albeit crumbling – spaces that seem to have been mercifully ignored by modernising  India.

T

The previous blogpost (“Of questionable dreams and violent youth”) about “educated” male youth turning violent when denied government jobs raised some questions about what education might mean for young males in rural and small town India.  

 This story explores yet another facet of the social dynamics of male education in this same locational context.   

 C.M. Jatawa is “educated”.  Which means that he has done 10 years of school.  He  works as a village level organizer for one of the major national political parties.  Basically, this gives him the licence to look important and spend his time visiting important local people like the Sarpanch (elected chief of the Village Council),  the Patwari (government revenue official at the village level), and possibly various  government functionaries and political workers of his party at the district level.  He uses the visits to generally sit  around in their offices and become privy to the matters they attend to, to be welcomed into their homes including  for special family celebrations like marriages, etc., and generally become a familiar presence in the area as a fixer and conduit. 

 Jatawa likes to be addressed as “C.M.”.  C.M. is the accepted acronym in the corridors of political power in India for the Chief Minister of a state, and the title gives Jatawa a great kick, causing him to strut around like a political leader in the waiting.   Part of the accessories of such a self-important self image is that  C.M.  likes to sound vague about “small” things.  In other words,  he conveys that he is a man who is on to big things and has no time or inclination for inconsequentials.  This came home to me when we ran into him recently in the village.   

 C.M. is one of six brothers.  They are jats, an intermediate caste in the Hindu caste hierarchy, whose traditional vocation has always been agriculture; they are known for their skill and industry as tillers. C.M.’s family used to be  tenants of our family in the feudal era of big landlordism; they have since Independence and land reforms  become land owners and now till their own land.  The six brothers own and till their land in common – a well tended green expanse – and also jointly own assets like tractors, tube wells, mechanized threshers,  a common granary, a workshop etc.  The homestead is a huge compound consisting of six large independent houses in a row that are  not individually walled in.  But each house has its own kitchen, so the daughters-in-law are the mistresses of their own homes.  Among jats, both men and women of the family work together on the land.  The women of the Jatawa extended family are no exception to this.  They also socialize together, the children play together, and the family’s patriarch and matriarch sit on plastic chairs under the trees along the front of the houses, looking  inquisitive, important and relevant.

I happened to visit the Jatawa homestead one day, in the course of a camel cart ride through the farms in the area along with a visiting friend.  We were invited into the compound, entertained with chai, and introduced to all those who happened to be present, with their relationship status clearly spelt out.  We admired the babies, asked after the schooling of the children, oohed and aahed over the gleaming kitchens that the women proudly led us to, watched the thresher reduce residue stalks into finely chopped cattle feed, and generally showed our appreciation for the neatness and prosperity of the place.  My friend also took lots of photos of the family on her digital camera, much to the enjoyment of all.

Just before we left, one of the women – the wife of the eldest brother – showed us a small skinny boy who looked five but who she said was actually ten years old.  She showed us his spindly legs and asked us what could be done about the fact that he could hardly walk and  almost not run, because his legs were too weak.  Due to  these reasons, the boy was irregular in school attendance and also did not play with other children.

It seemed to me an obvious case of severe Vit. D deficiency.  “Would you help?”, she asked, “it is after all the question of a boy’s future.”  I had half a mind to ask her what she thought of girls’ futures, but held my tongue.  I was a guest and had to know my limits.  I assured her that the child was treatable and promised to give them a letter of introduction to a good pediatrician in the city whom I knew, in addition to advising them, if they wished, on diet and exercise and general care of the child.

Within a few days, the parents came to visit with the child and left with the promised letter  to the doctor.  I also asked them to phone me from the doctor’s clinic so I could speak with the doctor to learn more about the case and help with follow up.  I felt that being illiterate and quite clearly also totally lacking in health literacy, the parents might not be able to report back to me cogently.  A couple of days later, the doctor called me; he confirmed that it was indeed rather severe Vit. D deficiency and told me what line of treatment he had put the child on.  It was a happy end to the first part of the story. 

I had been meaning to visit the child to find out how he was progressing with the new treatment.  In the interim we ran into C.M.  On hearing that he was one of the six brothers and that he lived right next door to the child, I asked him how the child was doing.  His face and voice changed immediately.  From looking respectful and animated about making his acquaintance with us, he allowed a veil of indifference to descend over his face.  His voice became vague and began trailing off… “Child?  What child?  Whose? Was there a health problem that you found in my family?” Then with a self deprecating laugh,  “Where do I have the time to take notice of such things.  I am so busy…” 

Realising by then that we were quite familiar with his family background, his voice suddenly changed to a brisk, “Actually I have something important to attend to.  Could I take your leave please?  I will come back to see you in a few minutes.”  So saying, he  made his getaway and of course,  never returned.    

 My husband and I looked after him stunned.  Here was a very close relative of the child in question, a member of the same family, who lived right there.   Here  was the youngest of six brothers and the only “educated” one among them. Clearly, the otherwise illiterate family had invested in his education because he was a male, and because by virtue of his birth order he was simply the luckiest of all his siblings to be able to reap the advantage of the new social wisdom that children ought to be sent to school.  And the extended family was still investing in him.  They had not only supported his entry into politics (probably with the hope of harvesting some long-term benefits for the family),  but were continuing to  support him by taking care of his wife and children, since he was making no contribution to the general kitty through cash or labour.  

But what was the response of this  “educated” male, who the family must  have hoped would lead them to a better future?   C.M. was too busy turning his so-called educational advantage  towards his own self aggrandizement and political future.   While riding on the shoulders of his extended family for all his needs, he had atomized himself totally when it came to the benefits,  ignoring his obligations towards the larger collectivity that was supporting him. 

In this specific instance, he had not bothered to allow his education to be an asset to his extended family, by giving a thought to how he could help his  brother and sister-in law in the matter of their health-disadvantaged child.  Over and above that, he could not even bring himself to, at the very least, respond to the show of interest and active support in the matter from us, total outsiders to the family.     

Even granted, that he saw himself as a politician in the making, isn’t this concrete evidence of political indifference at the ground level to matters relating to local health isues and preventable disability among small children?   What good for the community can be expected to come out of C.M.’s entry into politics?

 What does all this say about “male” education?   

 If one were to extend this argument further, policy interventions such as the NAREGA (the government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) are predicated on leveraging one member of every family to the hypothetical benefit of the whole family (under NAREGA one member of every family is entitled to 100 days’ wage employment in a year) .  But the institution of the family even in rural India– and in rural Rajasthan, which might well be one of the last bastions of tradition – is changing rapidly.  It is now each man for himself. Advantages accruing to one male member no longer trickle down to the rest of the family.