Saturday, August 4, 2007

This Above all
Past perfect, present tense

Khushwant SinghI have learnt more about Islam and problems facing Muslims in the last 20 years since they have been in confrontation with western powers than ever before. We need to know more about their religious beliefs and divisions among them before we can unravel why they react in different ways when issues concerning them crop up in different parts of the world.

I keep a handy dictionary by my side to help me out — The A to Z of Islam by Professor Ludwig W. Adamec (Vision Books). Besides giving a summary of the history of the rise and spread of Islam, it tells you of the Sunni-Shia divide, and later developments; Pan-Islamic movements, Wahabis, Deobandis, Barelvis, Hizbullah, Al Fateh, Al Hamas, Al Qaida, Taliban, Chechens, Kurds, Druzes, drinking, hijab (burqa), polygamy etc.

You get a glimpse into minds of Muslims and why they nurture feeling of being wronged and prefer martyrdom in Jehad — holy war to life in a world which discriminates against them.

The rise of Islam as a world religion was as spectacular as its decline. Within a few years of the Prophet’s death, Muslim armies ran over the whole of the Middle East, swept over northern Africa, conquered Spain and went into the heart of France before they could be halted. They entered Europe from the other end as well and knocked at the gates of Vienna.

They captured large territories in Eastern Europe and Russia. They also conquered Persia, Afghanistan and northern India.

Without having to fire a musket they converted Malaysia and Indonesia to their faith which promised brotherly treatment. Western historians have attributed all of this to the sword of Islam.

It is only a small part of the story. The truth is that Islamic civilisation was superior to the western. Muslims were way ahead of others in arts, literature, sciences, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, architecture and the fine arts than any other people. They also offered a sense of equality which no other religion did at the time. They shook Europe out of its stupor.

While Muslims rested on their laurels, Europeans went ahead to become pioneers in many fields of learning, notably techniques of warfare and soon reduced Muslim nations to subservience. That’s where they are today and attempts to get out of the morass appear pathetic.

They had a great leader in Kemal Ataturk. With one stroke of his pen, he abolished the caliphate, forbade wearing of burqas and polygamy.

Because of him Turkey is today as advanced as any European country. The Shah of Iran also banned burqa; he also rightly regarded it as an emblem of jihalat (backwardness); Ayatullah Khomeini brought it back and made it compulsory for women. Religious bigots like the Wahabis, Al Qaida, Talibans, Deobandis, Barelvis do their best to keep their community backward — and get response. Fatwas and calls for Jehad and terrorism give Islam a bad name.

It is not Israeli or American propaganda; it is a tragic reality that Muslims wallow in their past glory, nurture grievances against the western world, but do little constructive to put them back to being world leaders in everything that matters in life. I am reminded of lines by Syed Zameer Jafri:

Mussalmano kay sar par khwah topee ho na ho, laykin Mussalmano kay sar say boo-e-Sultaneee nahin jaatee

(A Muslim may or may not have a cap to cover his head,

But a Muslim never forgets his royal past, it can be said.)

Sridala Swami

Poetry is unquestionably the highest form of literary expression. You don’t have to be very erudite to compose verse because it is based on emotions, not learning. That is why many people try their hands at it while at school or college.

Unfortunately, it has few takers and publishers rarely risk their money bringing out works of poetry. Sunday editions of some newspapers use poetry as space fillers; there are also a few magazines devoted to poetry but with small circulations.

A break was made by the late Ravi Dayal when he, as the first General Manager of the Oxford University Press, published works of Indian poets. The experiment was successful.

Now the Sahitya Akademy’s Navodaya Series have taken up the baton. I have in hand the first collection of poems, A Reluctant Survivor by Sridala Swami with an introduction of Keki Daruwalla, guru-critic-promotor of English poetry written by Indians. Sridala is a film magazine editor based in Hyderabad. She also has works of fiction to her credit.

Sridala Swami writes blank verse but her poems have resonance, rhythm and profound thought content. Daruwalla has quoted some lines to prove it; I quote a short poem which is closer to my ageing bones:

Age comes, vision goes.

Hearing, smell, taste all grow dim;

I have grown accustomed now

to making up the whole as I go along,

To guessing what should be there because I once knew how it was.

Certainties exist only with the small, the near

the immediate.

With these I try,

sometimes in vain,

to piece together the world.

Ha ha

I landed at Los Angeles Airport on June 7, 2005, by Air India. I was 82 and though in good shape, I thought my request for a wheelchair would save me carrying my hand-baggage to the immigration desk. My name is Jai Dev Bajaj.

I discovered that Mexicans pronounce ‘J’ as ‘H’ like San Jose is pronounced San Hose. A dark and buxom Mexican lady pushed my wheelchair and shouted at the gate: "This, Sir, is wheelchair for Haidev Bahaha!

To my good luck a friend of mine from Lahore Government College days, Jeevan Lal Ahuja, had also come to meet me at the airport.

He advised me: "Don’t take their Mexican twisted tongue pronunciation seriously. They call me Heaven Lal Ahuha."

(Courtesy: Jai Dev Bajaj, Pathankot)