Knitting old bonds

Knitting old bonds

Ira Pande

Like so many others, my WhatsApp account has been flooded with footage of Delhi’s riot-torn areas. Along with them are personal opinions, ranging from morally outraged liberal friends to serve-them-right bigots. It is interesting to see how so many I have grown up with — cousins, relatives and friends from schools and university — have grown in different directions. Almost all of them have been a part of my life from the 1950s onwards and we share a half century of experiences.

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There are many things on which we agree — the intrusive role of social media, the new generation’s parenting skills and handling of their lives, wastefulness, disgust for junk food and the overriding dependence on English in our daily lives. We swap old film songs and photographs and laugh over our oiled plaits and lumpy forms. We share our grief over lost parents, partners and children, afflictions like inflamed joints, failing ears and eyes and the loneliness of those whose children live abroad. In all this and more, we have near-complete consonance. Heartening as it is to see how close we still are, it is equally distressing to see how far we have drifted in our attitudes to social issues and how fragile is our tolerance for people who are not like us.

Mofussil UP towns where I grew up always maintained a slight distance between Hindus and Muslims; even though we lived harmoniously as neighbours, yet roti-beti (food and marriage alliances) were a strict no-no. This lakshman rekha was respected on both sides of the divide. I remember my grandmother telling us of their stay in Rampur, where my grandfather was the first Hindu Home Minister, and how she and her daughters were loved by the begums in the purdah-nashin zenana. However, care was taken that the girls from both sides were never allowed to see or speak to the boys from the other side. Similarly, while my grandfather tasted each meal before it was served to the nawab and placed his seal on the thaal to declare it fit for him, food from there was never really accepted. Mind you, this was a very progressive family for those times and my grandfather and uncles relished every kind of meat but the kitchen for cooking all the shikar, was kept at a safe distance from my grandmother’s Brahmin chulha. This state of affairs was to be found in virtually every Hindu household in UP up to the 1960s.

I think our construct of the old Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb is tinged with the memory of many Muslim socials (as films about Muslim characters were called then), with names like Mere Mehboob, Mere Huzoor, Taj Mahal, Mughal-e-Azam, Pakeezah. Through them, and even through the dizzy romances of the 1960s, Indian films steered clear of showing any discord. It is largely due to the wisdom of this attitude and the exquisite lyrics of our progressive poets — Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Shakeel Badayuni, Shailendra, et al — that we grew up in a culture of refinement and a mutual acceptance of differences. This, in effect, was the tehzeeb — the normative social behaviour — of those times.

Fast forward now to the present, teeming with loud religious messages on TV screens, violent digital films and serials, slyly wicked Tik-Tok and YouTube uploads, podcasts, et al. Entertainment has acquired a whole new dimension with the lines between reality, fiction, propaganda and communal hatred slowly vanishing. Very often, even before one can determine whether a post is fake or true, it has gone viral and done its job. This is to plant confusion and despair, or lies and insecurity. The subtle boundaries of social exchange that were largely respected have been erased under the onslaught of ‘goli maro’ slogans. Under the old protocol of reporting, communities or places of worship were never named; all that has been forgotten, ushering in a crass attitude that comes when language itself becomes a tool of spreading hatred.

It is not a surprise then that the most important part of a political party is its IT cell and that the old secular parties were the last to accept this as the new normal. Many of us naively thought that by repeating the old clichés of ‘Unity in diversity’, or by parroting Tagore’s ‘Where the mind is without fear…’, we had laid the basis of a strong, multi-faith republic. The truth is that every era needs a refresher course.

If all that our Opposition parties can do is promote a Hindutva-lite line to counter aggressive Hindu majoritarianism, then we are in deep trouble. Frustrated by the lack of jobs and employment, the millennials desperately seek a peg on which to hang their identity and machismo. Seeking the comfort of a like-minded mob, they assert that this country belongs to the sons of its soil, not to the outsiders, forgetting that this soil belongs to all who live here.

How can we knit together the old bonds? Perhaps we ought to remember Rahim’s wise lines: ‘Rahiman dhaga prem ka, matt todo chhitkay/ Toote se phir na jure, jure gaanth padh jaaye’.

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