Saturday, November 27, 2004

From rediff...

27th November

My thougts exactly. Only better put.

From - November 22, 2004

On Diwali, the Kanchi Shankaracharya, Jayendra Saraswathi, was arrested oncharges of murder. On the next day, the title of an article in a national daily read 'Seer heads 5,000 crore empire. Another article in a leading national newspaper read, 'Of high priests and their lust for more power.' He has been variously described as high profile, influential and the seventhmost powerful man in India.

The Shankaracharya is in custody, the police are on a wild evidence hunt,and the media is marauding a large cut of the spoils. The seer's high profile status has somehow been conveniently used to imply that he is a goon-wielding, power kooky tycoon. The assets of the Kanchi Math are being referred to as if they were the acharya's personal possessions, and everyone of his past actions is being interpreted according to the revised image that the press has decided to give him.

While the mainstream media sensationalises the latest newsmaker, often indulging in misrepresentation, let us try to examine the Shankaracharya in the eyes of millions of his followers. The Shankaracharya is a sanyasi.Sanyas, as all history books will tell you, is the last stage prescribed by the Hindu way of life. The current Shankaracharya, however, like others in his monastic lineage, did not live the other stages before dedicating hislife to asceticism. He was divined by the previous Shankaracharya as the successor to the title, at whose behest he was given away to the Math by his father.

As a 19-year-old boy, he stood in hip-deep waters and embraced asceticism,pledging detachment from every material pursuit. Ever since, he has eaten minimally for subsistence, not slept on a comfortable bed and not indulgedin any sensual pleasure. He has no next of kin; he severed ties even with his parents. Austerity in the absolute sense. For more than 50 years, he haslived such a life in complete public view. He is a scholar of wide attainments and great versatility who has mastered the Rig Veda, the Dharmashastras, the Upanishads under all the Veda Shakas, Vyakarana, Vedanta,Nyaya and Tarka shastras through the course of his life.

All the articles that holler about the 'high profile' pontiff do not devoteany newsprint to how he has utilised his position of authority. Jayendra Saraswathi, after taking over as the Shankaracharya, is singularly responsible for opening 55 schools and a string of hospitals, professional colleges, child care centres and universities throughout the country. The services in these institutions are offered free of charge or at subsidisedrates, and benefit large sections of society. In addition, charitable trustsfor aiding poor families, old-age homes, rural development trusts, food donation projects, and research projects have also been flagged off by theacharya. Although the seer is perceived as a Hindu Brahmin icon, the condemnation of his arrest by the Muslim and Christian clergy is acomforting testimony to the tolerant, secular face of Hinduism that he has presented in crises.

The Shankaracharya wears saffron according to the canon prescribed for a sanyasi, thereby giving the media and the literati, an easy stereotype. So,the Shankaracharya gets pigeonholed with the paan-chewing, debauched politician who views the ochre as lucre. Hinduism's lack of rigidity doesnot prevent all and sundry from donning saffron. What is unfortunate is that we are not able to distinguish between a genuine ascetic and a masquerader.For the most poignant players in this drama, the followers of the acharya,these are nightmarish times. Within a matter of hours, a man, who for manyyears, had graced their puja with the Gods, had been disgraced. The episode itself, with the unceremonious arrest of the venerable religious leader on an auspicious day, after a yagna, by commandos, was a rude jolt. To exacerbate the wounds, the acharya, a 70-year-old diabetic, was held incustody for the outrageous reason that he would abscond to Nepal. He was not allowed to cook his own food, despite his religious caveats that prohibit food from outside, since it was alleged that he would attempt suicide. He was denied transfer to a hospital or house, unlike most high profile captives. His bail application was adjourned and he was remanded to judicial custody.

To the followers who have seen the Shankaracharya in all his glory, theimage of an old man with failing health, drinking ragi porridge given to prisoners, and performing pujas in a cell, is heart-rending. Yet, unlike anyother community in the world that can speak up when it is hurt, they find themselves mute. Before they could feel the impact of the shock, the VHP and the rest of the Hindutva brigade were already well on their way to politicising the issue and promoting party agendas. Worse yet, due to theirpublic perception as extremist troublemakers, the support of these parties in this issue is a liability for the followers of the acharya. For them, this intensely personal moment of distress does not have asounding board.

The denigration of one of the last bastions of their faith has left them disoriented, victimised and hurt. Their grievances will neverget print footage, as they will be viewed with saffron coloured glasses and quickly branded as 'right wing' or 'fundamentalist.' Since their cause is not as fashionable as those of large dam project victims, people ofalternate sexuality or people in another country's war, they are media-untouchables.The overriding concerns in this issue are its actual intent and impact. The arrest of a religious leader is unprecedented. If the seer is proven guilty,the law will take its course of action as it rightfully should, for everycitizen. However, speculation is rife on the political machinations and theframe-and-blame-game in the case. If the seer is proven not guilty, then where do we go from here? If this case is a political conspiracy, what is to become of the millions of devotees of the man? Do the politicians enmeshed in the throes of the immediate, understand the cultural and moral impact ofthis issue, and the possible damage that they have done?In the smutty power and revenge match between individuals, along with thearrested seer, a 2,500-year-old institution has also been sullied, an institution that has stood the test of time, of cultural invasions and of religious warfare.

The Shankaracharya is not a person, but a sacrosanct position of eminence in people's minds. After this episode, irrespective of its outcome, will the devotee still feel the sanctity of this position andthis institution? Will he not feel demoralised and despondent about hisfaith, against the overwhelming backdrop of scepticism? Will millions of our citizens, with a beaten spirit, be able to place credence and hope in a leader again?

Shobha Vasudevan is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin

The day I fell out of love with Madras*

25th November

I used to be a hardcore Chennaiite. How else could I be? After all, I’d spent the first quarter century of my life in the city. When the winds of fate intervened, I was swept away to a different part of the country. But that’s another story altogether. Anyway, wherever I went I would defend Chennai against slander and ridicule and would fight to save her name from being muddied by vicious rumours (really, I was once asked if we had cable TV in Madras! Duh!!).
Once when someone commented how dull Chennai was, I was livid with rage. I told them that for someone who spent half his life being chutney-fied in the sardine cans of local trains, Chennai’s relative calm would seem dull. I would act like I was the ambassador for Madras! That’s how passionate I was until things went belly up.

* Madras and Chennai have been used interchangeably

(To be continued)


November 20, 2004

Never know where you'll find one, do you? Heard this little gem on the radio this afternoon.
'Youth is wasted on the young,
Before you know it's come and gone...too soon'
- Robbie Williams

My Deepavali wishlist

November 10, 2004

There was a time when I would pray for good weather on Deepavali day so that we may burst all the crackers and if my wish was granted, I would be the happiest little girl in town. But then, those were simpler times. Today I'm 31 and sitting in front of a laptop in a strange land on a quiet evening before Deepavali, this is what I hope for -
More peace, less talk
More tolerance
More happy families for little children
Less burden for children to carry
Less fear, more trust
More love, more love, more love.
Happy Deepavali, you all!

Welcome home to India

October 12, 2004

Coming home to India is never an easy experience. It is fraught with conflicting emotions that are often exhausting. I never realised how living outside India can sanitise one's life. And coming back home, where life screams full-throat from roof tops, can shake oneself out of a stupor. I'm absorbing every minute of my holiday so that I can play it back in slow motion once it is over. More later.

In defence of housewives

Sunday, September 26, 2004

There was a time when I would look down on anyone who called themselves a ‘housewife’. The term immediately conjured up images of someone who simply wasn’t interested in life anymore - a lazy bum who spent their waking hours cooking and watching daytime telly. Someone who had no ambition, no drive, desire or self-esteem. In those days I was a hotshot career woman working in a fancy television channel and I could afford to have this stereotypical, holier-than-thou attitude.But years went by and my family grew. Now, I have consciously chosen to put my career on hold to raise my family. To spend time with children. To not juggle career and home life. To not make a martyr of myself by trying to do it all. Sure, there are women out there who manage to run a career and be a mother. I’m just not one of them. So now, I am something I never thought I would be - a housewife. And guess what? It’s my choice.

People think I no longer have an ambition or drive or desire to do something. Of course not. There are so many things I do in my day and so much more I plan for. I ran a marathon last year and plan to do a triathlon next. Isn’t that ambition? I take care of my son in way that no nursery or crèche can do. Doesn’t that count for much?When I examined my motive for working (in an office), two things came up – working because we need the money and working because it gave me a lot of satisfaction. About money, my husband and I decided to live cheaply by cutting down on unnecessary expenses. In any case, what I’d earn and what I’d pay in childcare, I’d be left with little at the end of the day. As far as satisfaction goes, I’m clear in that nothing can ever equal the satisfaction of being there for one’s child.Sometimes I think that being a mother is not valued enough in this world. There is no salary, no promotion, no holidays, no weekends, no retirement, no pension, no job-title and sometimes, no recognition. How I would love introduce myself as a ‘stay-at-home mother’ and not feel sorry about it. Writing this piece is my own form of catharsis. Yes, I feel good now. I’m a housewife and proud of it.

A weekend of myself

August 25, 2004

I'm taking off this weekend. Just to be by myself. I did not realise how much I've been missing my company. When I mentioned this to a friend, she exclaimed, 'What?? Just you? Then who'll take care of your husband? Your son? Have you thought about his future? What will happen to him in your absence? How could you be so selfish? How could you?'Listening to her, you'd have thought I was abandoning my family for good. I had to (politely) remind her that I was going to be away for just 48 hours. And that my husband is 34 years old and more than capable of taking care of himself and our son. And that I wanted to spend some time without worrying about the brain-sapping mundane chores of domestic life. And quite simply, I needed a break.To this, my friend tried to guilt-trip me and I had to spend a further ten minutes justifying my decision. In the end, she wasn't very convinced and I just felt wretched. Anyway, I'll be in Edinburgh this weekend. I hope to catch some of the shows on offer at the this year's comedy festival.

When will India win an Olympic gold?

24th August '04

The Chinese have 14, Americans a dozen, the Germans a handful, the British a prized few...even tiny Mozambique and impoverished Ethiopia have a couple. But India? When will you fulfil your Olympic golden destiny?