Guest post by HARTMAN DE SOUZA
The background and context to this not-so-enigmatic title is very simple. By today’s standards, I am old – I get a hefty discount travelling by train which I am still hooked on, and I am still counting the years and sniffing my coffee. The ‘RC’ is a lot simpler:
Travelling by train from Mumbai to Delhi many, many moons ago, a man in the compartment, in his thirties, got into conversation with me. After I had answered his opening bullet shot questions – You are from? You are doing what? Your father is doing what? – he told me I spoke English like a ‘foreigner’.
I was still fresh from Kenya those days, where I was born, so I got a lot of grief from having a different accent that no one could place.
This was of course much, much before you could study for an undergraduate degree in India (where you were born) and then, if you had the means and the SATs, go and study in the US for a few years. There, in the land of beef and honey, as we now note with pride, many Indians also discovered the ‘free market’ and their ‘authentic’ Hindu roots – then came back to spew communal venom with a makeshift American accent and the dollars to back it.
As if it was stamped on my bloody forehead, he then asked: “You are Christian?” He pronounced this as “Kir-tchin’.
I pretended I hadn’t heard. So he repeated the question. I nodded, hoping he would disappear and let me get on reading my book. He did not. Instead had a broad grin on his face, like he knew in which bag he could drop me in. “You are RC!” he said, almost triumphantly.
For a few seconds, he almost had me stumped. I raised my eyebrows.
“Ro-maan Catholic,” he offered.
I shook my head and smiled back. “No,” I replied “Retired Catholic…”
He didn’t get the joke. Guys like that still can’t.
As matters turned out though, I got my first taste of how a loyal RSS acolyte goes about doing his thing. I heard non-stop, as did my other non-Christian, non-Muslim and possibly even retired-from-religion companions in the compartment, about Hedgewar and Golwalkar and why the RSS was set up; the need for discipline; how Muslims had slaughtered thousands of Hindus during partition and were enemies of the state; the duty we all had to the Motherland; and the need for a caste system because it was divinely ordained.
In those days, the early 70s, as if my alienated black heart/brown skin soul cried for it, I was cutting my teeth on Camus’s Outsider which was on my lap even as he prattled. My companions and I were bombarded instead by the achievements of two men whom I was never to forget.
After that train ride, whenever I read the papers and commentaries, I kept my beady eye on those names that have, ironically, re-surfaced from the dead.
The first was Chandikadas Amritrao Deshmukh, more popularly known by the appellation ‘Nanaji’ that prefaced his surname. It was Nanaji Deshmukh, as a firebrand activist writer of the right wing Hindutva elements, who kept the flame of right-wing hatred alive after the RSS was banned for its role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
Years later, much venerated and feted, he would be one of the people to bring into being the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the narrow-minded, bigoted nucleus that would eventually morph into the hard-headedness of the current dispensation.
The other man my travelling companion of those days admired and respected, was Balraj Madhok, who, like Nanaji Deshmukh (whom he later fell out with), was to be a prime mover behind the Bharatiya Jan Sangh coming into being. I knew about him already, because coincidentally, the Hindi lecturer in my college, a native of Benares, had also given me several pamphlets written by him in English.
Madhok was born in Kashmir, which continues to be an irritating pimple on the RSS’s sanctified face. As a young man, Madhok flirted with several left-wing groups but found what his heart sought in the hallowed portals of the RSS. He did everything expected of him – he spearheaded the cow-protection movement, advocated the “Indianization” of Muslims and basically promoted right-wing Hindutva thought every opportunity he got. It was he after all, who assisted Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, another venerated Hindutva ideologue and one also obsessed with Kashmir, to write the manifesto of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh party. Madhok was later to become its first national secretary.
It helps to recall that Balraj Madhok, in the 60s, was the first charismatic Hindutva orator who may well have given the present prime minister who runs only on the strength of his rhetoric, a run for his money. It was under Madhok’s tutelage that the party got 33 seats in the Lok Sabha, and actually cemented its place as a closed unit within a genuinely open society.
In 1972, continuing to uphold the virtues of a militant religious conservatism, Madhok denounced the ‘secular’ shift of the Jan Sangh and was expelled from the party for indiscipline by none than other than L. K. Advani. When the BJP came into being it was none other than Balraj Madhok who flayed both A. B. Vajpayee and L. K. Advani for forgetting the authentic ideology of the Jan Sangh.
Madhok is the oldest living proponent of the official Hindutva line, and he was to get his revenge in style in 2013, ignoring Vajpayee and hurling his earlier barbs back at Advani with even more vehemence. Simultaneously he bestowed his blessings on Narendra Modi the day after he took over the chairmanship of the BJP’s campaign committee.
The mantle had been well and truly passed; Nathuram Godse himself was resurrected from the dead by the Hindu Mahasabha and made to ascend into Hindutva heaven. While they bellowed that Mahatma Gandhi’s face should be removed from our currency, their more public-friendly face, the RSS, promptly co-opted him as a ‘great social reformer’ in their Hindutva pantheon. Do not be surprised that Balraj Madhok too, will be rewarded with a Bharat Ratna when the astrological time has been deemed right by the current dispensation.
So better to say it now rather than later, that I am infuriated by the Hindutva fanatics now creeping out of the woodwork in Modified India, and couching the severity of what they intend, by trying hard to be both facile and vacuous.
They appear to be well-tutored by image consultants, who can successfully sell and ‘brand’ everything from coffee to condoms. When they come on TV they remind me of a mid-segment car with good torque, smoothly shifting gears and keeping the revs high, and just talking through and above whoever else happens to be speaking. That, unfortunately, everyone does on TV, even some of the anchors, it’s a national disease – unless you can be tough, like Nidhi Razdan, and tell them in varying levels of politeness that this was not the floor of the house and would they just please shut up and give the other guy a chance to speak.
Or you could get your laughs for the day, by shifting to the news channel that runs the daily clown show…
The real point I want to make is that I did not reach the status of a ‘senior citizen’ eligible for my railway discounts to hear these bigots, right across the Hindutva spectrum, spanning continents and accents and hefty bank accounts, coming on TV and dismissing Indians like my wife and I, and indeed our immediate families as being ‘PSEUDO-SECULARIST’!
We are a family that values laughter. We choose to laugh at the Hindutva right. We choose neither to retire ourselves to bitterness, nor embrace the ridiculously false hope that we can make a better India with more money for all of us by wearing saffron clothes.
On Christmas morning, my ‘Pseudo-Secularist’, Retired Hindu father-in-law called me up.
“Merry Christmas,” he said, then asked what he was getting for lunch when they visited later in the day. I told him his daughter was doing the Christmas lunch to prove that she was the better cook in the family. He was going to get a ‘fusion lunch’ (inspired no doubt by the good-looking guys who do the cook-shows that my wife watches) – pork sorpotel (which, for the record, is actually my recipe) and pao; then herbed rice smothered with a really tasty, tangy, lightly spiced sauce with crunchy vegetables and prawns left succulent and juicy, also taken from the bloody TV; and not one, but two really nice salads, again courtesy the guys she watches; and let it be also said a rich dessert that was actually a nice cake of hers that bombed, but which she magnificently recreated into a kind of trifle.
Satisfied with the menu, he said, “Oh, by the way, I am writing to all these Hindutva fellows to tell them not to admit you back.”
I was ready for him: “You can’t do that to me,” I replied, “I had made up my mind about my ‘homecoming’, I was going to change my name to Atmaram…”
When they came home, we shook hands, hugged, exchanged kisses, and wished each other ‘Good Governance Day’, even as we opened the various bottles of hooch, laughing uproariously and reclaiming our right to have our Christmas lunch as a measure of our love and loyalty to each other and country.
In our two families, we all know who the secular are, and who aren’t. It would be nice to say that the right wing Hindutva battalion are the REAL ‘Pseudo-Secularists’ for the spin they put on closing this country’s horizon, but the real truth is far uglier. They are just Fake Hindus…
I don’t know what happened to that guy on the train – even though I remembered his name for quite a few years and could put a fair-skinned face to it, with thin lips, a neatly trimmed military moustache, and gray, ash-coloured eyes that burnt. I could even picture him in RSS uniform holding a bamboo stick. For all you know he’s probably sitting in a big chair in the corporate headquarters in Nagpur…
Retired though I may have been from my religion, I am happy to say my own life progressively got better:
I fell in love with and married a woman who, as luck would have it, was a Retired Hindu.
The real truth of the matter I must admit shamelessly was that we only got married in an office after twelve years and when she was a few months pregnant. Living as I did in Goa then, matters were a little tough for me. My mother was worried what people would say about me ‘living in sin’ with a woman. In Goa, you must know, everyone worries about “what people will say” regardless of the topic being discussed. You always acquiesce to what people will say…
My late mother was a devout PC (Practicing Catholic) and a wily old fox to boot. She paid a retainer to her lawyer to take me out to lunch.
‘Common Law’ marriages had not yet been recognized, so over a couple of very cold beers which we used to wash down some succulent, lightly spiced prawns speared with small sticks, then fish curry and rice, followed by caramel custard at the Mandovi Hotel – very good in those days and way cheaper – he took great pains to tell me what misery could be heaped on my unmarried female partner in the event that I would, for instance, drop dead – and what, my mother – if she turned out to be a nasty old bitch, that is, which she didn’t – could do, with the sanction of the law, to take custody of the child we had.
We got married.
My wife’s side of the family is from another planet. They live and practice openness; their windows are never closed. And their ancestry is impeccable when it comes to decrying the strictures to democracy that the Hindutva junkies, by their very nature, bring into play. Among my wife’s uncles and aunts are BT Ranadive and Ahilya Rangnekar; and MB Samarth, who left a successful practice as a barrister in Mumbai to join hands with Dr. BR Ambedkar – all persons one could say who were prominent and well known Retired Hindus.
My own family alas, is more or less formed along straight but not narrow lines; but starting with my father, my mother and both sets of my grandparents, home to some notable black sheep spread across the world.
So I am pretty sure that if you had a giant group portrait of the two families, mixed up like they do with photographs of football teams before the match, you’d end up with something like a street in Cuba: On the right side of the road, a black man and a white woman, walking with their six children; and on the left side of the road, a white man and a black woman, with six of their children.
While my late mother – may blessings be on her soul – may have been consigned to the fact that her only son would not marry in the faith he was baptised into, nor, for that matter, even be able to convert his Retired Hindu wife to a different religion that he had, technically speaking, retired from, she was to have her conscience tweaked yet again when our daughter was born.
“We have to think about her baptism,” she said, as primly as she could.
“I am not baptising her”.
“Because when she turns eighteen, she may decide she wants to be a Muslim…or Buddhist…or whatever…maybe she won’t want a religion…she can decide when she’s eighteen…”
This the two of us had already agreed upon, that we would bring up the kids to let them go at eighteen, the age they needed to decide things for themselves. We kept one guiding principle beginning parenthood – namely, that we would not tell our kids that they can’t do something, and when asked why, reply with “because I said so”.
My mother may have snorted fire on my thick hide but didn’t get her lawyer into the act this time, she got her parish priest. He wants to meet you, she said to me. So I went.
Meeting her parish priest in his church was like a sign from God because he turned out to be someone I knew when I was in my late twenties and when he himself, had just come back to Goa after serving the missions in Guinea Bissau.
Just for the record, in Guinea Bissau, Goan priests like him were on the side of the freedom fighters waging war against an impoverished Portuguese army bankrolled by the US and Apartheid South Africa, and often even staffed with their mercenaries. They did this in both Angola and Mozambique too, and as we shall see with the US and the corporations it supported, in Latin America too.
My mother’s parish priest laughed when he saw me. “Your mother has given me some money to take you out for lunch,” he said.
“Wonderful,” I replied, “I know just the place”. In fact it was just opposite his church, a small bar and restaurant, quintessentially Goan, where the husband served you the drinks and his wife did the cooking. Both of them knew us separately, so that made the drinking and eating even more memorable.
We sipped lots of cold beer, washing down pieces of pork sautéed in onions and sliced green chilly then flavoured with salt and pepper and about 10 or more pieces of dried, deep, dark maroon kokum to give it a bite. Then the real meal; fish curry and rice, and fried prawns for the priest; beef xacuti with pao and a tangy salad for me.
In effect, my mother paid for an excellent meal where her parish priest and I fruitfully revisited various aspects of ‘Liberation Theology’, that understanding of his religion that saw Christ primarily as a “God of the Oppressed”.
When we first met in the mid 70s, we had both already read and admired Dom Helder Camara, the archbishop of Recife, in Brazil, champion of the city’s poor and the unions, who drove himself around in a black VW ‘beetle, whom the right-wing military junta tried to assassinate at least twice. We had both read the address of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, first president of Tanzania, to the Mary Knoll nuns in New York. A devout Catholic, and a committed Socialist, Nyerere was to tell the nuns that he refused to believe in a God who was poor and undernourished which was the state of three quarters of the world’s people who lived in the ‘Third World’ as it was better known in those days . We had both read the work of Paulo Friere who later worked with the then left wing World Council of Churches, and even used it in our respective jobs. The parish priest and I would both have known why they assassinated Cardinal Romero at the altar in his cathedral in El Salvador.
Both in theory and practice, Liberation Theology had its roots in Latin America, and its proponents would have little difference with aligning themselves with, shall we say, Che, but more than wary of the machinations of the CIA, American multinationals and their many allies who just happened to be dictators and despots. It is interesting that while Liberation Theology consumed both Catholic and Protestant priest and theologian alike in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia with significant Christian communities, it also crossed hemisphere to influence theology in the US and its significance to the Black civil rights movement.
Liberation Theology was by no means absent in India, and had its strongest period in the early 70s, with the impetus given by some brilliant but left of centre theologians at the De Nobili College, Pune, the seminary of the Jesuit priests, with one of its foremost proponents, Father Sebastian Kappen whose classes mixing Christ and Marx ran to packed houses. It was not just the Catholic Church that felt the storm of mixing Christ’s and Marx’s teachings, and the Syrian Christian church here, thanks to Bishop Paulose Mar Paulose was to have its own take on faith in the living world.
In India, this is an ongoing thread the Practising Christians in this country may want to take up again with renewed fervour – if only to save large Adivasi populations in Central India from losing their lands to greedy industrialists while the present dispensation, ironically, sees about their farcical ‘homecoming’…
There are small pockets within the fold in India – especially those younger Adivasi and Dalit priests and nuns themselves working with Adivasi and Dalit communities – who know that the teaching and practice of Christ the way they understand it, is indelibly linked to the imperatives of human rights and social justice.
The Catholic Church in India alas – is, ironically, not that dissimilar from the Hindutva junkies. In fact they sit on the same table with the Hindutva right and the Islamic equivalents to decry the fundamental rights of gay, lesbian and transgender Indians – and chooses, just like them, to send in as their spokespersons on TV those men of the cloth more familiar with text and better able to resort to casuistry. The Catholic Church in India, one sometimes thinks, seems more than willing to relegate the pressing issues of those Catholic populations oppressed to the backburner while they trumpet, at the behest of those richest in their flock, the virtues of a consumer driven economy.
My mother’s parish priest and I discussed everything under the sun during lunch expect whether our daughter had to be baptised or not.
In retrospect though, the Catholic Church needs more people like my mother’s parish priest. He may well have predated Pope Francis I when he told my mother: “It doesn’t matter whether we take this little girl into our fold or not, so long as she lives a good life”…
My mother’s parish priest passed on before my mother and I drove her to his funeral, and later remembered him when sat down to a drink. He entered illness and dotage at the same time that the power and greed of Goa’s mining mafia was at its height, beginning its loot in 2006 and taking as much as they could with impunity and official sanction from the very top, till 2012.
In The Philippines, in many parts of Latin America, the bishops and priests stood by the side of their flock to oppose mining and the exploitation of the environment at the cost of those who willingly made their lives there.
In Goa, the Catholic Church just looked the other way, sullying or calming the waters by advocating ‘responsible or legal mining’ through the Council for Social justice and Peace, its Corporate Social Responsibility avatar. It limited its own feeble protest to the archbishop throwing his annual Christmas party and telling the mining mafia within the ruling government that they must strive to be good human beings in this season of peace and goodwill.
The Catholic Church in Goa surfaced when the Supreme Court, at the behest of the Shah Commission, banned mining in Goa and it was then safe for them to surface with the appropriate press statement.
When Pope Francis, this very Christmas, promises to pen his first encyclical on the vexed issue of climate change and all this implies, one sincerely hopes that the Church in Goa, will strike its breast with the requisite amount of ‘mea culpas’…
My mother, blessings be rained on her wise head, sulked because her grand-daughter was not being baptised. Someone close in the family actually asked me whether I knew that I was raising my new born daughter to be a ‘heathen’. Apart from coming across this word in various historical and literary texts, no one had actually used this term to someone I held precious. I was so shocked, I was speechless…
It was my Retired Hindu wife who provided a solution to the philosophical and other problems that crept in.
“Your mother needs a ritual,” she said, “We all need a meaningful ritual to make life more meaningful”.
So we had a Naming Ceremony for our new-born daughter, inviting a few friends, and meeting on the steep cliff overlooking the sea outside the grounds of the Governor’s Palace in Panjim. We read out a small joint statement, giving her a Kiswahili name that means ‘Goodness’, and declaring for one and all that we had brought her into the world to let her go, that we were dedicating her to life. Friends read out various messages of goodwill, cutting across all the religions of friends gathered there, while we passed around a large chunk of coarse unleavened bread smeared with sea salt, breaking it and eating in veneration. When the remains of the bread reached my mother, she was to throw it as high as she could from the ramparts where we stood.
When she did, out of nowhere swooped a large gull, taking it and flying out to sea to run away from the other gulls that circled around us. Wife, mother, friends, parish priest, all had tears of joy in their eyes – it was that kind of a ritual. Then we all went and had a party, with much food and drink at a quintessential Goan bar and restaurant where the husband plied us with good spirit, his wife cooked the food, the parish priest raised the first toast, and my mother, God bless her soul, footed the bill.
I was well and truly sold on ritual.
When our son was born, we delayed his Naming Ceremony until we reached the day when the Hindutva SS Troopers pulled down the Babri Masjid, then held his ceremony on a misty, drizzly evening under a large tree close to the Vice-Chancellor’s Office at the University of Poona that my wife remembered with fondness. We gave him another Kiswahili name meaning ‘Light’, and dedicated him to fighting communalism of all kinds. His Retired Hindu grandparents, and an uncle and aunt, sang a song in Marathi and recited a few prayers; and my cousin, a Practicing Catholic nun, read some Haiku written by a Jesuit priest.
Now on the day the right wing celebrates the shameless pulling down of the mosque, we celebrate by cooking mutton biryani and remembering we brought up a child to detest communalism…
Food is a very big thing in our Retired Catholic and Retired Hindu family. It is an integral part of our Secular traditions, grandparents on both sides fuelled by the adventurism of the 50s that spanned two continents, and the exhortation that if something was in the air and not a plane; in the sea and not a boat or submarine; and on land and not a human being; and if five other people are sitting at a table and eating it; then open your bloody mouth and eat it.
It is as a result of this attitude that we celebrate all religious days with the appropriate food, and enjoy it to the hilt. Let the Hindutva guys take the colours out of the spectrum, we will know these in the way we celebrate with food on our table that all our house guests can partake of…
Far though we may be from religion, God has been kind to us. We don’t have a BMW, we don’t live in a penthouse; we still struggle to make ends meet. More than ever before, our families, jointly, still detest the Hindutva brigade, because now they have added the mantra of ‘economic growth’ in their saffron folds in order to tantalize a young population into narrowing their world.
When the kids turned eighteen, I played proper father. “You don’t have a religion”, I told them, “so now if you want, you can choose what religion you want to be.”
One replied with “Are you okay?” The other, with “Have you gone crazy?”
Things get better for my ‘Pseudo-Secularist’ family. The daughter we brought into this world to fly away has returned in a new form. She is to be married this month to a young Swiss artist whom she lived and worked with in the US, Europe, Israel and Occupied Palestine. His parents, both artists, were Practising Atheists, so he’s an oddball to begin with even though as an artist, he is fascinated with the techniques of Buddhist meditation.
They will go to a court then come back for a meal with us. We’re still undivided about the meal, because my daughter’s husband to be is a pure vegetarian, and she only eats fish. But we’ll manage, and we’ll change, because that’s what we do in our family. We have the courage to change and be more. Next Christmas, the two will join the family lunch, and I’ll be inventive with my culinary skills and cook Roast Tofu-rkey…to add to whatever meat is on the table.
Diversity, multiculturalism, hybridity – call it what you will – is far more complex than just words bandied about. In our family we figured out that to truly understand the meaning of being secular– the prerequisite to understanding the importance of a larger horizon for this country – we would transform our selves such that we embraced many identities.
Younger readers my daughter’s age would do well to flip their karts and find a slim but brilliantly argued book by Amartya Sen titled very simply, Identity and Violence – The Illusion of Destiny.
He says it much more eloquently than I could:
…History and background are not the only way of seeing ourselves and the groups to which we belong. There are a great variety of categories to which we simultaneously belong. I can be, at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, an economist, a dabbler in philosophy; an author; a Sankritist; a strong believer in secularism and democracy; a man; a feminist; a heterosexual; a defender fo gay and lesbian rights, with a non-religious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a nonbeliever in an afterlife (and also, in case the question is asked, a nonbeliever in ‘before life’ as well). This is just a small sample of diverse categories to each of which I may simultaneously belong – there are of course a great many other membership categories too, which, depending on circumstances, can move and engage me…
Can those Fake Hindus even begin to understand this?
Hartman de Souza’s book Eat Dust – Mining and Greed in Goa, is scheduled for release by Harper Collins India later this year.