In the post on my spiritual journey, Coming full Circle, I had mentioned my teenage years in passing as being turbulent, with doubts, scepticism and unanswered questions. However, I had not elaborated on those years, except to touch upon my confrontations with my father, whom I perceived as being too ritualistic and old-fashioned.
I now want to write about the most crucial years of my teens, which had sent me on a tailspin over matters of my faith, dharma, way of life–call it what you will. It won’t be pleasant and might even shock some, but I felt it would be dishonest on my part to gloss over that period, or even pretend it hadn’t impacted my life in ways I didn’t even dream of.
The Anti-Hindi agitation by the Dravidian parties and their support groups, is active once again, more vituperative than ever. It has been going off and on since 1937 till date, depending upon the need to flog it when political compulsions and vote banks demand it. The other agitation–the Rationalist movement spearheaded by the Dravida Kazhagam and its founder E.V.Ramaswamy Naicker aka Thanthai Periyar (Thanthai=Father, Periyar=Elder), is also in news, with pictures of him and the former TN Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai splashed all over social media as the messiahs of a self-ghettoised Tamil Nadu, camouflaged as ‘Tamil Pride’–effectively ‘othering’ the rest of the country.
As luck would have it, we had landed smack in the middle of both the agitations, which were raging yet again in the late ’60s, when my father was transferred to Tamil Nadu. They both had a role to play in my life during those traumatic years. Since the Anti-Hindi agitation is in the news once again, I felt it was the right time to write about that period of my journey.
The first agitation had impacted my studies–the DMK government had abolished Hindi as the optional second language in schools the previous year–leaving me with no option but to study Tamil of a very high standard.I had coped well.However, it was that second agitation by EVR, that had a direct and devastating effect on my journey of faith. Suffice to say that his pictures in social media still have the power to make me remember….and shudder, over half-a-century later.
We couldn’t have moved to Tamil Nadu at a worse time.
Of course, I was not the only one to be affected by those events, which is why I want to give voice to those who must have suffered/suffering equally or even more. At the time when the events were unfolding, my life was a mess of emotions and thoughts jostling for space in my confused mind. The perspectives I will be sharing have been arrived at only after I began introspecting not too long ago.
Disclaimer: This a chronicle of some very personal experiences of over a half century ago, and I request the readers to remember this while reading. It is not meant to denigrate any caste or community or hurt anyone’s sentiments.
I had just relocated from Mumbai to this city in Tamil Nadu, after my 9th standard, and got admission in a convent school near our house. Did I say, ‘relocated’? Well it was more a forced transplantation, as I had left behind a great school with wonderful teachers and my best friend, among other things. Besides, I was 14, and in the most rebellious phase of my life, questioning everything around me.
It was going to be the first time I would be studying in a convent, though it didn’t look anything like the convents I had seen and imagined. It was like any other school, with the children going about in their everyday clothes. There was no smart uniform I had seen girls in convents wear! There were other firsts too. It was the first all-girls’ school I would be attending and an all-Tamil school at that! (There was just one English medium section to the 10 or 11 Tamil medium ones in each class). I was used to a mixed crowd of students of both sexes from different parts of the country, speaking several languages and belonging to different faiths. Given all the above, I was overwhelmed and was more than a little apprehensive.
Coming to the language conundrum, though I had been living in a Tamil dominated community in Nagpur, studied in Tamil schools both in Nagpur and Mumbai and had Tamil as the third or fourth language, it was mindboggling to study the intricate Tamil grammar and literature and that too directly in the 10th standard! Of course, I could have studied in one of the elite convents which offered Hindi, but father couldn’t afford the fees. So that was that.
But I am running away with my story. Let me start at the beginning.
On my first day, I stood looking at the buildings of my new school. I was overawed by its size–the building housing the high school was close to the entrance gate, the primary and middle school was inside, beyond the imposing facade of a church with its high steeple and bell. I saw many nuns in their white habits and girls of all sizes in the most colourful clothes. Didn’t they have a uniform, I wondered? There was a large statue of Virgin Mary at the head of the imposing staircase leading to the first floor classrooms. It was beautiful. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad after all, I thought!
I didn’t remember having any Christian classmates in my Nagpur school. But there were several in my high school in Mumbai. They belonged to different sects and came from different states. There was no talk of religion or even caste, or related customs and practices, except maybe we noticed them when these friends shared cakes at Christmas and we shared laddoos and modaks on our festivals. To me, Christians were those who went to church and worshipped another god, much like we went to temples and worshipped our Deities.
Even when I had read The Big Fisherman and The Pilgrim’s Progress, I had been struck only by the spiritual content of the books, never once going beyond that aspect, to explore the religion or its merits vis-à-vis Hinduism. In short, I was deeply content with my dharma.
At home, we had not been taught to look down on other religions. It was a policy of live and let live. There were Muslims in the locality we lived in, and every Muharram, there were mourning processions, when some men indulged in self-flagellation, while others carried a decorated green cloth canopy into which people threw coins. Mother always gave me some to throw into it, too. For my most orthodox Mother, it was like putting coins in a hundi in the temple. She respected the pir babas as much as she would respect a priest in our temples and she had firm belief in the curative and palliative properties of the taveez or talisman that they gave after writing some verses in Arabic on them.
In hindsight, I think that the feeling of universal Divinity was inherent to our Dharma, perhaps to stress the fact that we belong to the community that is secure in its heritage and civilizational roots, and nothing could weaken it. Going to a church or a dargah or peer babas coming home didn’t amount to us abandoning our dharma for their faith. It was just our way of including theirs in ours. And today when I hear Hinduphobes accuse us of not being inclusive, I can only laugh at their ignorance and frown at their agendas.
For even at that time when I was growing up, there were those who followed traditions and observed rituals, and those who didn’t. We had them in our families and among neighbours. There was no question of them not remaining Hindus despite not observing the rituals of worship, or even for questioning the very existence of Ishwara. There were no penances to do, no confessions to make for not observing the traditions or breaking some divine law, as Christians had to. There is place for every school of thought in Hinduism. That is how democratic I know my dharma to be.
‘Conversion’ was not a word we heard often in those days, unless it was about forced conversions into Islam. Christian conversions had not yet begun so aggressively—in trains and buses and even going from door-to-door—as happens now. Conversions did happen, but it wasn’t the flourishing business it is today. Convent schools were just good educational institutions that imparted excellent education. People were not afraid that the nuns would convert their children, else devout Hindus and orthodox brahmins wouldn’t have sent their children to study in them. My sisters had studied in convent schools and had learnt to take just their education without their religion, as did most Hindu school children of those times.
Clearly things had begun changing by the time I had joined one, especially in Tamil Nadu. I have no doubt that the two agitations raging outside the school gates had a great part to play in that inexorable change inside the classrooms, translating into microaggression. This term is perfect to describe our plight as victims. (The dictionary meaning is: a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority). Are you wondering how we became a marginalized group? I will elaborate in my next post about it.
I had come there as a normal teenager, grappling with normal growing up pangs and concerns. Religion, caste and ‘otherness’ were on the farthest horizons of my mind. Little did I know that they were closer than I could ever have dreamt and were about to turn my world upside down. One can learn to tackle hate, but how does one cope with humiliation and the very negation of one’s identity?