I was born and raised a Hindu, embedded with a moral compass that drew largely from the Hindu religious tradition, given its pointers to the good and wholesome way to live my life, the virtues to imbibe and vices to eschew. I grew up among friends and neighbours, a mix of many religions among them: Christians, Parsis, Sikhs, Muslims and Jains, as also Hindus that came from different parts of the country and did many things differently from us. I was naturally inclined to accept and respect them all. Healthily curious, I explored their faiths and customs too, never feeling that they were alien to me or my humanity. And while I wasn’t keen on the rituals, ours or theirs, I appreciated the values that made sense to my evolving being and notched them on to my compass. The consequent melded morality sufficed for conscience while I trundled on through life.

My parents were staunch believers, as were both my sisters, both older than me. All would gather around the deities in our pooja corner, sing aartis and share the prasad on all the major festival days marked on the Hindu almanac. My mother would read the scriptures, light the diya, offer the flowers, tulsi, durva and haldi-kumkum in her daily pooja, recite the shlokas in prayer and teach them to us too, in devotion to the gods that presided over her and our existence. My father would join in with reverence, bringing the idol of Ganapati home on the Chaturthi, hoisting the beautifully decorated Gudhi on our new year, doing a Satyanarayan pooja to offer special thanks to the divine forces when they had been particularly propitious, hang up the akaash kandil or lantern on the first night of Diwali and so on. He was a ruthlessly logical scientist, demanding proof of every this, that and the other, but never disbelieving of Ganesh, Ram, Krishna, Mahadev, Lakshmi or Saraswati and their individual and combined powers over us and the universe at large. The entire pantheon of gods and goddesses sat very comfortably in his rational and inquisitively searching mind and life.

And yet they were all happily accepting of that diversity of religions that surrounded us, appreciative of the different cultural expressions they came with too. As also accepting of my choosing to remain a sceptic, often irreligiously so. I would, when I was inclined, chant the prayers with them (more often lured by their musical cadence) and listen in to the complex stories of mythology, but never with belief. I was never coerced to subscribe to their beliefs, nor disparaged as the proverbial black sheep because I didn’t. They knew that I was still searching, reluctant to conform without conviction. So, I knew which shloka to recite in the evening or which before sitting down to a meal, how to celebrate every festive day, and so on, and I did some of it as part of our shared culture. As something that grew from our roots through our line of ancestors, rather than as an attempt to connect with any form of divinity. I was loyal to my tribe, if nothing else. I was also always aware that I could just as well be lighting candles or decorating a crib for Christmas or covering my head and bowing to the west in namaz before partaking of iftar had I been born differently. That while it was all different it was all ultimately the same. And that we all knew that.

That we didn’t, became clear as I grew. The realization that everyone wasn’t as secular as my folk brought an unpleasant awakening, then disillusionment and finally a lasting frustration. That many brandished scars from hostile run-ins with others, and that many more stood up in shrill solidarity with them, didn’t gel with my innocently myopic worldview of peaceful co-existence. As I read through the newspapers that came home, I discovered that many lived but were adamantly determined to not let live. And that made me uncomfortable, shaking my faith in humanity. Then the questioning set in, searching through historical precedents, the stories of persecutions and annihilations, of terror and suffering, of wars and cruelties, holy crusades and unholy holocausts, and the genesis of it all: religion itself, in all its alternative avatars and distinctly different practices. While one’s faith may teach one of the unique universality of God, there is a wariness, if not aversion, amongst his followers if others choose to call him by another name or worship him differently.

The cynic in me suspected that if it hadn’t been religion, it would have been something else, anything else. All humans originating from the same pool of the species, migrating in waves through the millennia, appropriating different parcels of the globe, settling, evolving and brewing their own distinct ethnicities in relative isolation from others. Blinded into an arrogant belief that theirs was the only right way to live, and anyone else’s wrong as an indisputable corollary. Suspicious of others, fearful of them, rather than curious and receptive. Othering in practice, strongly and clearly, compulsively too, as if it were in our DNA. While we had exited our caves eons ago, our primal instinct to hunt and fear of being hunted remained alive and kicking, the othering then exacting its toll in human lives. As I was loyal to my tribe, others were to theirs.

The aggressive othering suits some, I am aware. Earlier it gave the imperialists and colonialists the buttressing rationale to camouflage their greed with, their condemnation of others as heathen or infidels or savage, legitimising the destruction of their settlements and heritages, and at times seeking to expunge them from the face of the earth, an earth they believed was theirs for the taking. The othering continued through the churning centuries, enabling political climbers to manipulate communities and mobs and nations, tilt them this way or that, expanding and consolidating their majoritarian power base, progressively marginalizing all others. Or conversely, stoking the minorities’ fears of persecution and wedging them further away from the mainstreams. Now, I fear it’s all brazenly out, the hatred and the fear of all others, as also the drive to redress all wrongs, past and present, real and imagined. Everyone from all edges of the unholy spectrum is fighting, hollering about the exclusive sanctity of their own particulars, their god, modus of worship, custom, language, diet and on, retrieving powers and privileges they believe were rightfully theirs, screaming to restore their original occupation rights to land and all that stands on it, including places of worship. And bidding peace and coexistence a speedy road to hell.

Redressal is the buzzword today. We are in the grip of a fervour to rewrite history, literally, resurrecting some of the forgotten, unmasking some of the hitherto admired as villainous, demolishing what was built by others as they had demolished what had been built earlier. Ripping off the band-aid of collective amnesia that covered old wounds and making us wince and writhe again, fanning our lust for the reciprocal pound of flesh. But history, as we read it, has always been pliable, written with one slant yesterday, written with another today, and waiting quietly for time and tide to turn to be written all over again.

But we were not a Hindu nation, not when we became free. Despite the blood spilled in gory Partition, we were encouraged to remain secular. To be respectful of all others, including those whose ancestors had once marched upon us, or who had converted, either influenced by their proselytizing zeal or as an expedient to secure survival. If not peaceably tolerant, then at least grudgingly so, letting me grow up in that convivial mix. That was the intent in the constitution that we chose to be governed by, that defined us to be a secular state. The secularity that was the inborn hallmark of my family and many more like ours.

I remember my Hindu family and neighbours sipping eggnogs and relishing a slice of cake, wishing everyone else, Christian or not, a happy Christmas. Or trotting over to a Muslim friend’s place and joining in their festivities on Ramzan Eid, exulting at the sliver of their moon. Waiting for our Parsee neighbour to share her aromatic dhansak with us, inviting her to partake of our feast on Diwali. Baisakhi, Papeti, Easter, Eid, were as integral to our social existence as Diwali and Dussehra. The faiths they spring from too. They still are, I would like to believe, as are their practitioners. I may not be religious, but I am respectful of everyone else’s right to believe and practice as they wish. And remain where they wish. I would rather religions be practiced only in the privacy of homes rather than in the public domain, altogether avoiding their inimical jostling. But that’s my unsolicited opinion.

Where will this end? When will all wrongs be righted and all grievances assuaged? And what then? Will we rest in quiet peace, fulfilled at last? I doubt that. I fear that we have fallen in love with hating, that we will find and legitimise avenues and targets to spew the bile that continues to bubble within us. Religion has been a major segregator, but it is not the only one. The othering is multi-pronged. And hypothetically though completely logically, after we have eliminated our present others, we could draw finer lines and other some amongst us, and then some more, until each of us is distanced from all in solitary confinement. Humanity lost.

Bah! That’s just ridiculously far-fetched, dystopian gloom and doom. The world won’t come to that because it can’t afford to. Everyone needs everyone else, especially in this globally spun web of commerce that we seek to survive in, prosper through. And won’t the good, just, truthful and merciful that all the saints, mullahs and sadhus praise to their respective heavens, and that firmly point north on my moral compass, prevail? As they do in all the mythologies scripted everywhere? Or is that merely unquestioning faith? Anyway, I hope they do.

Amen. Alhamdulillah. Tathastu.

It’s a summer evening, my parents are out in the garden. She in her cotton saree, juhi buds wreathed into a gajra in her hair. He in his kurta pyjama, his thick black spectacles wedged firmly on his nose, his gin and lime idling in his hand. Music playing, always heavenly heady music. Maybe, a Vilayat Khan’s Khamaj, or a Bade Ghulam Ali’s Sainya Bolo, or a Bhimsen Joshi’s Chhaya Malhar. And she tells him about the song she had heard on the radio in the afternoon, how the dulcet call of O Sajna had spoken to her, how it had reached deep into her heart and made her tantalisingly aware of the love and longing that harboured within. And he smiles and nods, reaches for her hand and asks tenderly, “Lata, my dear, shall we buy the record?”

My father would often joke about how all we heard at home was Lata ki awaaz (Lata’s voice): his wife’s, whose word was incontrovertible law, and the singing diva’s, whose sway over listeners, us included, was unassailable. As I watched my parents’ love story grow, I revelled in the songs that nourished it, many of them in Lata Mangeshkar’s surreal voice. Yes, there were others as well, Saigal Sahab’s Main Kya Janu, Gham Diye Mustaqil, Rafi Sahab’s Tere Mere Sapne, Baharon Phool Barsao, many more, Talat Mehmood’s Jalte Hain Jiske Liye, many more of his too, but their numbers were dwarfed by the omnipresence and omnipotence of that matchless, flawless sur, the one that everyone said epitomized Saraswati herself. My Aai’s list of favourites was long, the stellar among them, Khemchand Prakash’s Ayega Aanewala, the most sublime of all Hindi film music; Jane Kaise Sapnon Mein and Kaise Din Beete, capturing the polar extremes of love’s vast domain and set in mesmeric melody by the maestro, Pt Ravi Shankar; Naushad Sahab’s Do Hanson Ka Joda, C Ramchandra’s Mohabbat Aisi Dhadkan Hai, and, of course, Salil Chowdhury’s O Sajna, Barkha Bahar Aai. 

As I grew older, I added the Madan Mohans and Jaidevs and Roshans and Burmans, father and son, to our list. As also the Marathi abhangs and bhavgeets from Shrinivas Khale and Hridaynath Mangeshkar. We would buy their records and play them one after the other. My Aai, who had lost her Aai when she was barely sixteen, would tell us how Lata Mangeshkar had guided her through life’s successive stages and experiences, given her the songs to celebrate the flush of romance, understand and respect the honour of commitment, throb with fulfilling love, be uplifted by humbling devotion, cherish the newborn in her lap, weep and be consoled upon loss and bereavement, and find peace for her thirsting soul. 

My music lessons had started chiselling my nazar, my critical appreciation of all sounds melodic, leading me to imbibe this from here and steer clear of that from there. And while Hindustani classical remained my steadfast preference, I also enjoyed Hindi film music, a different song for every different occasion, every mood, day and age. Their notes spoke to me like the words in a story, more than the lyrics themselves. And there were two schools to learn from, I discovered, one of Mohammed Rafi and the other of Lata Mangeshkar. I would listen to them both carefully, how they would enunciate every note and word and emotion in its perfectly exact measure, revealing love or pathos or reverence or merriment, but always just enough, neither underdone nor exaggerated. How their voices would glide effortlessly, taking a meendh here or a murki there, all kinds of taans too. And especially how Lata Mangeshkar’s voice never lost that tinkling delicacy, nor that crystal clarity even in the swiftest of taans. I still get goosebumps when I listen to those that her Mana Mohana in Jaijaiwanti culminate in. Pure gold. 

There were stories about how she squared her twelve-year old shoulders and courageously carried her family and its needs on them after her father’s early passing. About how she engaged a tutor to refine her diction in Hindi, so that she would never have to face rejection from composers on that score. About pretending to eat from an empty lunchbox, braving penury, confident that better days would come if one worked hard enough. About the long hours she worked, learning, singing and recording tirelessly through days and nights, and yet every note and word sounding as fresh and pristine as the morning’s virgin dew. They were all so inspiring, so humbling too, her journey so arduously complex, they taught me to face whatever measly challenges that came my way and power on. There were unpleasant stories too, about how she had monopolised the music scene and denied other singers their rightful space. I would shrug them off. So, she has a natural monopoly, doesn’t she, I asked? For there were none like her, I knew. 

One of those serendipitous miracles that life and fate sometimes bestow upon us, took me to her some years ago. Invited with my husband, her cardiologist, to celebrate a milestone birthday, I stood among the outer periphery of her guests, surreally breathing the same air she did, hearing the same sounds as her, and watching and absorbing for my eternity every nuance of every expression that drifted across her face. The joy of meeting friends, the patience in greeting them all, the gratitude towards those that had helped her overcome hurdles, the bewilderment at the ceaseless press of well-wishers, the beginnings of fatigue, the need to be alone again probably, to have her home for herself again. All to be gathered and narrated in minute detail to my waiting mother, who then saw it through my eyes, but was as thrilled as if she were there herself. Vicariously living her fan moment.

One day soon after that first meeting with her, I heard her Ni sultana re on the radio as I drove home from an errand, and I inexplicably started crying. Overwhelmed with wonderment, maybe. The lady I had seen, serene and dignified, the pallu of her white saree draped decorously over both shoulders, her hair neatly braided in two long plaits, wearing her majestic aura simply but surely, the diamonds on her person winking and glittering, but paling against the wealth that shone in her eyes, that rich, long life replete with lessons and challenges and tragedies and achievements and connects and wisdom. How do I reconcile all of that with the frolicking, simple and innocent village belle in the song? How had she sung that teasing balam babuwa with such youthful abandon? Thank goodness, she had! Time and again she proved that she could throw herself into whatever the context given, be whatever age expected of her, feel whatever emotion handed to her, and all at the snap of the composer’s fingers. 

She remained unmatched. So many wannabe Latas came and tried their luck. Many strongly sweet, some cloying, some straining, some piercing. Some succeeded somewhat. Some came up with cover versions and remixes of what had been sung before, but they all looked and sounded hapless, all sorry imitations. For, none had what she did. That natural monopoly, that gift from God, as she herself always acknowledged. That magnificently and divinely pure, surel voice, that could with a single note switch on all the lights in the universe, illuminating all in blazing bright transparency; whose unique sweetness was especially magical as it came honed with assiduous training and riyaz, combined with enormous power and presence and yet an unbelievable floating lightness; that was sustained with a huge reservoir of lasting breath; blessed with a phenomenal range; and whose dhaar or incisiveness was that of a shining scimitar that sliced through all firmaments at once, as also our mortal hearts. And who had that uncanny ability to slip inside the skin of the song so completely that it rendered the annotation in celluloid images superfluous. She matched her voice to the lyrics, immersed herself in the mood of the music, and portrayed it all with an earnestness and honesty so rare that it made the listening universe smile or weep or sigh or laugh or pray or celebrate or just be rejoicingly grateful to be alive in her time and reign. 

Well, time never stands still and as the musical landscape changed with sound and rhythm and tempo trumping melody, other voices emerged and shone and notched up their coteries of fans. Lata Mangeshkar withdrew gradually but gracefully, occasionally returning to sing something composed by Rehman, the songs themselves choosing her, as she said. The changed popular music lost its appeal, for both my Aai and me, the newer songs ruling music charts for a brief while and then quickly sinking into oblivion. The burnished gold in the old still gleamed powerfully, and we stayed tuned in to its timeless allure, Aai listening faithfully to her Bhoole Bisre Geet on Vividh Bharati before falling asleep. Where her Lata still sang to her, resurrecting that train of rich memories, the mementos of a life well lived. 

My mother left eight years ago and ever since Lata Mangeshkar has helped keep alive that circle of love. Every time I hear Ayega Aanewala or O Sajna, my heart breaks in acute unabated grief, and then heals itself again in the infinite beauty and grace of the music. And then this year, she left too. I mourned and wept all over again, not only for the passing of the earthly Saraswati but also for the one that had worshipped her from afar. I foolishly hope that they’ve met. I sometimes fondly imagine her singing in the heavens, maybe with her trail-blazing father, or perhaps with that other Bharat Ratna, Bhimsen Joshi, whom I idolised since my earliest memory, maybe all the other musical greats are there as well. Maybe it’s an eternal mehfil for them, each regaling the other, each applauding the other. And since I’m imagining it all, maybe it’s summer there again, and my parents are listening in again, he in his kurta pyjama, she in her cotton saree with her juhi gajra. And he looks at her and smiles. Lata, my dear. She smiles too, fulfilled.

Discourse is becoming increasingly fractious, I find. Frivolously fractious too. So much so that labelling it as discourse is an insult to the word. There are more verbal brawls today than there are respectful discussions.  

Am I growing out of date, I ask myself, when I fear I cannot keep pace with the histrionics that pepper otherwise routine conversations, sometimes spiralling them into slanging matches. Eyebrows drawn together, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed, breathing rapid, fingers wagging, fists thumping, that is how normal genteel people I’ve known all my life have begun speaking. Everything is exaggeratedly terrible or praiseworthy, everyone is fit either for worship or for the gallows. Hyperbolics are exhausting, when they aren’t disgusting. 

Societies are becoming more and more polarised they say. Ironic, isn’t it, in this era of globalisation. This and the other. Us and them. Ours and theirs. It is as if demarcating lines are drawn clearer for combat and it is our duty to recognise and defend the territory we occupy, political, ideological, social, economic, religious, regional, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, artistic, sartorial and on. Ambivalence about whether and how we pray, unsureness about whether or not we support a paradigm, reservation about whether or not a government deserves our support, that could be construed as the vacillation of the typically weak. We must belong. This side or that. Not that everyone on the side we’ve picked necessarily knows all about the side they are defending. One may know nothing, but one still needs to voice opinion in support, all in the spirit of proud partisanship. The speaking voice must be loud and clear even though the substance of speech is shaky and hazy at best.

I’ve stopped watching the news on our TV. I find the tenor there an insufferable effrontery. The decibels are deafening. Even when I mute the newscast to salvage my ears, the myriad contortions of newscasters’ faces are voluble enough. And the debates are a farce. Harangues, rather. When a motley group of guests is invited solely for the host’s pleasure of pulping them in public view. Why they continue to accept invitations is a mystery to me. Masochism? Maybe. Or then, losing face is just a staged sham and there is something bigger to be won off stage. 

Yet these debates are consumed avidly by our citizenry. It is prime time entertainment. When allegiances are put to the test every night, when questions are thrown in the face of the other while denying any reasonable room to answer, when their hapless discomfiture and their ineffective dancing around to edge a word in are pounced upon gleefully as vindications of their contemptibility. When tables overturned bring forth wrath, the more intense when the embarrassment is larger. I find this appetite for aggression, the addictive excitement of anger rather disturbing. When viewers vicariously quarrel with all their ‘others’, badgering and berating their opponents paraded every successive night on that idiot box. And it is this style of address and debate that has seeped into our living rooms. Where we see ourselves as legitimised in breaking into quarrels, shouting above each other, slanging one another viciously, sometimes even without provocation. It is as if there is a contagious itch to fight. An itch we don’t wish to cure. One that we are growing fond of. 

The itch gets exacerbated during the seasonal tamasha of elections. Head honchos of political outfits bellow through megaphones at their captive audiences shepherded forcibly to the rally grounds hours and hours ahead on the promise of darshan of their lords and masters and, of course, some pitiful lucre. But the address is to the entire constituency, not merely those hapless heads arrayed ahead. The target audience is the mohalla, the state, the nation, whatever the pie up for contest. And the spicy snippets of their speeches become the screaming headlines in the press, print and electronic, and thence the theme of the subsequent debates. Our excitable citizenry is agog, alert on their chosen warpaths, ganging up with their ilk against their adversaries. Often, there isn’t much that differentiates the two really. 

Group chats on digital platforms are also at times irritatingly LOUD. Yeah, the capitals go with the volume of the impact our netizens want to make when typing words to match. Many have an ongoing angst to share. Really? Where is the energy for this coming from? Oftentimes the angst has been formatted for them, I suspect, with an insidious reaching in for whatever discontent that might have been simmering in them already and purposefully deflecting it and exploiting it for other agendas. So then we have positions and counter-positions, posts and counter-posts, forwards and counter-forwards, people gathering on their respective sides, defending their threatened echo chambers, picking up virtual cudgels to battle it out on their phones and tabs and other what-have-you-s. Emojis get deployed as missiles. Exclamation marks abound. And then the labels fly thick and fast, that these so-and-sos are this-and-that-and-the-dreaded-other and that they must be challenged, made to rescind their traitorous opinions and beliefs, silenced and perhaps hounded out of chat groups. Wordy warriors wearing their judging hats oh-so-seriously. Oftentimes the labels regress to uncivil name-calling, but hey, civility is an old-world virtue, passé for this volubly brash world of today. 

Hmm. I am out of date. For I miss the even tenor that marked debates earlier. That of gentle persuasions, resigned acceptances, the agreeing to disagree and still being respectful of the other. When questions poked but did not bludgeon, when answers were substantive and not mere rhetorical theatrics, when the speaking voice was polite though clear and firm, when the listening ears paid attention not merely to rebut but to first absorb and reflect and then accept, qualify or refute as the case may be. 

Yeah, I’m probably a misfit, I guess. And you may agree with that and may have already condemned me with pursed lips and frowning foreheads. No matter. I assure you that when you want to be heard, I will lend an ear. And I will try to reply without the theatrics. 

Anyway, shush for now. From me too. 

Rohini Paranjpe Sathe

Sometimes the words dry up. Sometimes, ideas do, which is a darker prospect.

It isn’t as if the creative part of my brain has shrivelled away. No, I believe that it’s just taking some time off. Or, giving me a break, allowing me to focus elsewhere. Or, it’s allowing me to channel my creativity differently.

In due course, which is a comfortably vague length of time, the thoughts, words and the urge to record them start to itch again, and I reclaim my space as a writer. So, is the intervening unproductive period a manifestation of the infamous Writer’s Block? Not sure that it always is. Living life, the busy-ness of doing, the devouring of food for thought and the clamour of introspection, any or all of these might put words on hold for a while only to release them in a richer torrent at a more propitious time. Or I flatter myself.

But the Block does notoriously exist. In one such barren phase some years ago I had penned a few words about it, which I share with you again in this blog. The dry spells recur, but fortunately the wordless tilling and toiling yield rewarding harvests later. And it all happens in repeated cycles. Again and again. And again….

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AGAIN

I wish I could resume writing. Just pick up my pen and pour the entire melange of thoughts, sensations, memories and reflections onto waiting reams of paper. And that the streams that issue forth from my mind form beautiful shapes of their own, sorting themselves out obligingly, creating art in black and white, reason and arrangement in apparent confusion, a tidy ease in a busy melee. I wish I could portion out the bundles of joy, sorrow, anger, despair, contentment, hope, grief, all the emotions in their myriads of hues, interwoven, intertwined, flowing from and merging back into each other, seemingly seamless, yet distinct.

But before that, I wish I could know what I know. Be able to know each thought, hold it in my palms, feel it, look at it, hear what it wants to say, understand its intent. I wish I could separate all the strands that are swirling around, pick one before the others. Which one? They are all mine, my progeny. Born of me, yet each day, each moment moulding a new me. A new perspective. A different idea. A fresh twist to an earlier epiphany. Fresh colours to an old memory. And I hear myself, “Aah! That’s what it is about!” The excitement of small things.

But so much is lost in translation, in communication. Putting into definite words what are at best nebulous ideas. And my mind mocks: “Was that really it? How it really was?” And then a little more is lost on its way to its recipient, the reader. “Has she really understood what it was all about? Have I been able to tell her as it is?”

Yet people write, effortlessly at times. And I am envious. I search for my muse but she eludes me. She is elsewhere. She has forsaken me. I beseech her to return. I promise obeisance. All in vain. I fret. I despair. My old foe, self-doubt, returns. Maybe, I am not good enough. Maybe, I never was. Maybe, I never will be.

But then I find I’ve picked up my pen again. My heart beats. The rhythm divine. Life as I know it has begun again.