I did not binge watch ‘A Suitable Boy’.
One simply does not savour at speed.
One feasts gradually, first admiring, then tasting, then relishing and then sinking into a stupor from which you cannot emerge, long after the feast has disappeared as delicious dreams do.
When Lata had found her suitable boy, she boarded that train with an idea of India that has never since been seen, heard or experienced. My India was syncretic. My India is not syncretic. That final credit roll, as the train pulled out of Brahmpur station, is where the end of India, that nation of colours, plenty and plurality, tragically began.
I am a 21st Century millennial, dressed in a hoodie and slippers, listening to Anoushka Shankar’s rendition titled, “There is No Harm in Dawn” (from the very same television series’ soundtrack), with a pair of boxy headphones thrown onto otherwise distracted ears, in an urban café masquerading as my workplace. I am not India. But I want to be!
As much as I wish to be transported into the 50s, I would have to start where I am, with what I already have. What I have is the feeling that this music from an ancient, incomparable instrument evokes – pride in who we once were as a people.
If I rose at dawn to listen to the same Sitar playing Raag Bhairavi, I’d know that our syncretic identities come alive through music. As the melody took flight, I’d hear the Arabic Maqam, the Turkish Aria, and a bit of Farsi soz returning seamlessly to an Indic framework. Everything reconciled.
Through the course of the day, I’d hear a kaleidoscope of Indian sound – boatman’s songs of the river, swinging dance bands, exquisite ghazals and Bhakti – Devotional music genres (qawwali, bhajan, kafi and ghazal) which all contain hybrid lyrical tropes. Often the text of a single qawwali uses Hindi, Brij Bhasha, Persian, Arabic and Turkish, which are woven together with melodic refrains and percussive patterns.
I would learn that for a thousand years, musicians from all over the civilized world came to Delhi for patronage. And we, Indians, had merged those multitudes within us.
If I wanted classicism, I’d look to Lutyens’ Delhi. If I wanted aristocracy, I’d look to Nawabi Lucknow. If I wanted divinity, I’d look to temples floating in the wide expanse of the Ganges. If I wanted mischief and sensuality, I’d look to the courtesan culture. If I wanted the polished remnants of an anglicized world, I’d look to the culturally explosive Calcutta. If I wanted to know Indian Art, I’d look to a mehfil where connoisseurs stopped and stared in true appreciation.
If I wanted to find my authenticity, I’d understand, once and for all, that it lay in a mayhem of multiculturalism.
The vast, green, open breadth of villages like Rudia would tell my Muslim and Hindu brethren that we are not divided; simply bewildered by the necessity to decide who we truly are: terribly human, ancient and strong.
In friendships and liaisons that were forbidden, I would see, sooner rather than later, that the visual palette of my country is the juxtaposition of a largesse of spirit, camaraderie, humanity and romance that each of us embody but don’t often exhibit.
Sleeping under a starlit sky in that very same village, I’d despairingly think to myself: Our entire history is soiled by a people divided by race and religion, with each section trying to dominate the other by violence and vandalism.
But I would also know that our history is not the simple annals of Hindu-Muslim confrontation. In most, if not all cases of conflict, there were Hindus on the side of Muslims and Muslims on the side of Hindus. There is a strand – a very thick one at that – that runs and binds which made it possible for us to create a common culture. Our Arts, our architecture are a mélange that we must rightfully describe as ‘Indian’!
I would know that it is both historically wrong and morally unfair to cater to chauvinism. And so I would not subscribe to communal discord. I would not be the author of a nation that fails to hold itself as one, made, most crucially, from many.
“It’s not the Gods,
But our own hearts
We need to fear.
The evil starts
Against all odds
Not there but here.”
– Vikram Seth, author of ‘A Suitable Boy’.
We thought, when Lata boarded that train, we will be navigating a hybrid nation that is built on bringing old and new traditions together in a newly formed, consolidated country. We just had to remember never to forget that syncretism is our strength; that plurality defines us. But we did. We did forget.
And so I’m going back to the book. This train can’t leave without me. I want that India. That India wants me.
There is No Harm in Dawn.
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