Coming full circle–The turbulent teens III

Continuing the series on my journey of faith….

Tiruvanaikkaval Jambukeswarar Temple, Tiruchirapall

Being used to mix three and sometimes four languages in my conversations, it was very difficult for me to stick to just Tamil. The diction and accent of the students in my class were so different, that I couldn’t understand half of what they spoke. When the teacher asked me to read a passage from Tamil literature, there were titters galore at my Tambrahm accent. I loved Tamil literature but the tension of reading correctly robbed me of all the joy of it. I tried to laugh it off, but it hurt.

Read the earlier parts of the series here, here and here.

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 soon saw the dichotomy. There were some students from Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka, whose accents were not only thick, but the very Tamil they spoke was different. But when they read a passage, no one laughed at them. Was being from another country better than being from another state in your own?

This should be a revelation to all those Tamilians who complain of language chauvinism when they live in the north. Something similar exists in their own state, which they either silently endorse as being tit-for-tat, or choose to ignore. Come to think of it, how many Tamilians bunch everyone north of the Vindhyas as ‘Hindikaranga’ (Hindi people), regardless of which state they belong to?

After some time, I had begun ignoring the snickers and read in my own style. I reckoned that if I couldn’t pick up their diction, I’d have to brazen it out. I also got used to being addressed as ‘Hindikara pappathi!’ (Loosely translated as Hindi-Brahmin) by one particularly aggressive girl, who was also a new admission like me. I sometimes wondered if her father was a DK member!

The anti-Hindu and anti-Hindi processions also continued. Sometimes they turned rowdy and the next day’s papers carried the news with the pictures of the defilement of Sri Rama. I knew I would never get used to them—it was almost a physical affront. But it also had a good fallout.

I began paying attention to Father’s Ramayana parayanam. I didn’t know Sanskrit, but it was not too hard to understand the verses broadly, especially as the story of Rama was imprinted in my brain, having heard it from childhood and from the pravachans and books. I re-read Rajaji’s Ramayana in Tamil–Chakravarti Thirumagan (The blessed son of an emperor). This is perhaps the most beautiful version of Ramayana I have ever read. I gazed at Rama’s picture in the puja adoringly and felt a pang, remembering the garland of chappals.

During lunch at school I was quizzed about a variety of things–Brahmin customs and sometimes even Hindu traditions, as if I were some kind of an authority! The curd rice we ate at every meal, the kudumi (tuft sported by Brahmin men. Incidentlly, Father had started sporting one recently too); the way the women draped nine-yards sari, temple priests and how they wouldn’t touch anyone. (I told them about Mother’s madi). I explained as best as I could what I knew about these and many other things, making it all sound very good, and then went home and argued with my parents about the very same things I had justified a few hours ago! You can imagine how screwed up my brain must have felt!

Why should a Central Govt officer have a kudumi, even if he wore a grand turban over it like Dr.Radhakrishnan? I asked Father. ‘Because I am going to learn vedic chanting and start Shiva Puja,’ he told me. ‘Can’t you do them without a kudumi?’ I shot back.

I could discern an almost imperceptible change in the attitude of my classmates. There was that much less teasing and tormenting, especially since I was a good student too and was not stuck-up as they had assumed I was. (One of the girls later told me!)

Should I fight them or join them?

Perhaps this is what Vamsee Juluri meant when he talked about the ‘Middle Hindus’, who had not yet been brainwashed fully and so could be shown our side of the picture and made to change their minds about Hindu dharma, in his book ‘Writing Across a Cracked World’.

Thankfully the aggressive girl was not there during lunch time as she went back to the hostel for lunch. But she picked up a new topic to fling at our/my face almost every day. A sample:

  • ‘Is this ash from the smasaanam (cremation ground)? Your god smears ash on his body from the burnt corpses, doesn’t he?’
  • ‘You pappathis drink cow urine to purify yourselves, don’t you?’

Furious, I had begun explaining about vibhuti and what it stood for or gomutra and its qualities. No one came to my aid and let me fend for myself (and them!).

Why had I been I angry, when I myself found so many things wrong in Hinduism? I don’t know, except that I must have instinctively felt that Hindu dharma was just and needed to be defended, and also that no one who knew nothing about it had any right to criticize it.

Just the other day I had had a fight with mother about mopping the floor with cow dung after every meal. I knew it was a disinfectant, but the quantity used was too small to be of any use. Doing it as a custom didn’t make any sense to me and we had cement floors, so what was the point? Can’t cleaning and mopping it be enough? Mother refused to reply.

It was excruciating to anticipate questions from the Girl and come up with suitable, impromptu retorts. All this in addition to the stress of completing the homework or preparing for a test. None of my Hindu/Brahmin classmates talked about these things. Were they afraid to speak? Didn’t they have any doubts about our dharma and other religions? Didn’t they ever think? Or was it I who was overreacting?

It is easy to think from the distance of time that I should have ignored the provocations as they did,  not when I was actually facing the situation and certainly not when I was confused about whether I should join the Hindu-bashers or fight them.

Cultural appropriation
Our Lady of Good Health, Velankanni

I loved sitting on the polished benches in the church at school. It was imposing, with its tall stained-glass windows and its silence. I prayed to Saraswati and then my beloved Rama sitting there. However, the joy of going to it vanished the moment the girls began asking me every day if I had visited the koil (temple) as if it was mandatory. (In TN, they refer to the church as temple). Most Hindu girls went to the school church in the morning. They asked, ‘Don’t you go to Hindu koil every day?’ ‘No, I don’t go every day,’ I told them truthfully. How could I tell them that I had to be dragged by my parents even when they went once in a way?

A month before our Board exams, we were all taken to Velankanni, to pray at the Church of Our Lady of Good Health for good results. It was a compulsory, overnight trip. Of course, I resisted and for once, Mother agreed with me! But we had no choice and I went. There were busloads of students from convent schools across the state, probably for the same reason that we were there.   I was shocked to see the golden idol Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus decorated just like a Hindu Deity in a temple, with flowers, incense and candles completing the picture of a south Indian Hindu temple.

For all my reluctance to accompany my parents, I liked the big, ancient temples we went to. It was a such a wholesome experience–the sthala vriksham, the puranic story behind the temple, the benign temple elephant, the grandeur of the structure, the exquisite sculptures, the mantras, flowers, the flickering lamp inside the garbhagriha, the bells, the deepa aarti, the pinches of kumkum and vibhuti the priest gave us….it was a smorgasbord of the senses and manna for the soul. I couldn’t find the same all-encompassing spiritual experience in a church, however much I liked the quiet ambience. I couldn’t spend more than 10 mins there without my mind beginning to wander. Even in Velankanni, with all its Hindu paraphernalia, I couldn’t get the same vibes.

The sthala vriksham at Uthirakosamangai Shiva temple is believed to be

Today I know that the difference between a church and temple is one between a place of worship and a social, artistic, cultural and divine experience rolled into one. I could spend a whole day in an ancient temple, and definitely more than 10 minutes even in the one around the corner.

Back home though, I was all praise for the school church, saying that going to a temple and church were the same thing, since we prayed to God at both places. Besides, the church was so silent. I loved being contrary in a perverse sort of way. You get the drift, don’t you?

And oh, from the day after the taunt about vibhuti, I had begun applying it while going to school, causing my mother to look at me with shocked surprise. I felt like a fraud doing it, just so that I could make a point.

Then there was this quiet girl in my class, who was preparing to enter the convent as a nun after completing school. I thought I would get some doubts about Christianity clarified from her. After all someone who was so deeply into her religion would have the answers, especially since an ordinary girl like me clarified their doubts about Hinduism?

‘Why does every man, woman and child have to suffer because Adam and Eve disobeyed God? And even if they had to suffer, why is the suffering so vastly different for each human?’ I asked her.

She was shocked that someone—a Hindu and a Brahmin at that—could question her God. ‘It is the will of God,’ she replied shortly in a tone that brooked no further questions or arguments.

I was not satisfied. ‘Hinduism, allows freedom to an individual to act justly and be responsible for his life. There are no rules to follow. We suffer or are happy in our lives based on our present and past karma’, I told her.

‘There is no birth after this life. You either go to heaven or hell depending on your actions,’ she said coldly and added, ‘Our God is all merciful and powerful.’ I felt defeated.

Karma and rebirth have been the all-powerful concepts that have kept me grounded all my life. We have legends in the puranas that tell us of Shiva, Rama and Krishna, and other gods coming down to earth to work off their paapa karmas living a human life or through severe tapasya. Karma doesn’t spare anyone. I had told her this, but knew it didn’t make any impression on her.

One day she asked me, ‘Do you read any book?’ I told her that I did indeed read a lot of them in several languages. ‘No, I mean a Book like our Bible, where God has given us his Commandments. I get solutions to my problems in the Bible.’

I brightened. ‘Oh yes! We have the Bhagavad Gita, where Lord Krishna has spoken about dharma, karma and a whole lot of things we should do!’

All day, I was wondering why we didn’t have a Book like the Bible and Quran and even if we had the Gita, why we didn’t read it like them every day. I came home and picked up the copy of Bhagavad Gita that had English translations and a small commentary after each verse, determined to read it every day. I couldn’t decipher the meaning of the higher philosophy it espoused or could find anything that told me how to deal with my problems at school. It never occurred to me to go to Father. Besides I didn’t want him thinking I was interested in Hindu philosophy!

But I started an argument with him that day about the lack of a Book in Hinduism. ‘We might not have one book, but there are so many strands of philosophy in Hinduism that we can pick and choose what resonates with us. For example, Saivites have their own scriptures and philosophy and there are Shakti worshippers who follow another set of traditions. Hindu dharma is several oceans put together and it would be impossible to put all of it in one book,’ he told me. That was perhaps one of the longest conversations I had had with him about our dharma and sort of prepared me if another assault had come!

I stood a little straighter, a little taller when I entered the class the next day.

I was torn between defending my dharma at school and fighting with my parents about the same thing at home, thinking that the sum-all of Hinduism was its traditions and customs.

It was many years later that I finally understood that Hindu dharma is not just a set of doctrines, rules and commandments, but one that encompasses every aspect of life—art, music, devotion, food, love, money, culture, science—and everything else besides. One can’t separate it from any of these and say, ‘This is what Hinduism is,’  because it is not a religion like others with a Book and rules, but a dharma, that permeates our very lives and brings us closer to divinity when we live a dharmic life—like the experience of visiting an ancient temple.

After school I spent a year in a regular college, which felt like an extension of a school, such were the restrictions, rules and regulations! I so missed Maharashtra, and was ever so happy that Father got transferred back to Nagpur in the early 70s.

There started another phase when I joined the secular bandwagon, believing it to be the right path–being apologetic about our seemingly regressive practices, rigid rituals and, oh yes, casteism! I was a ‘secular rebel’ for decades before I did a ghar-wapasi of sorts, coming full circle.

But that phase is another story!

Homepage image courtesy: https://pixabay.com/

5 comments

  1. more, i prithee, more

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    1. In good time, my friend!

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  2. This entire series was an eye-opener for me. I had known–in an academic sort of way–that Tamil society had designated Brahmins to be evil worthy only of shunning. The way you have recited your story, however, you made it up close and personal. I felt the jobes on my own skin. It was most unpleasant.

    In my part of the country–up north–Brahmins were never demonized. Our Gods were never denigrated. Our way of life was never ridiculed… nor were we required to defend it.

    Of course, there were certain restrictions imposed on us in school–being a convent school. We couldn’t wear bindis or chooris. But bindi and choori are generally not worn by unmarried girls here–except on special occasions. So that was no hardship.

    It did annoy me though, that the school did not celebrate any of our festivals.

    Thank you for this series. I know a LOT of people have connected with it. And it needed to be said.

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    1. I was in TN only for a few years and I found it intolerable. Of course, it has got worse now, with goons cutting off the tufts and sacred threads worn by Brahmins. I am thankful that it had not reached this stage back then, or Father would have had to endure it. The whole time I studied in the state, I was in a defensive mode, and never failed to wonder at how or why the rest of the girls never reacted. I am told that by ignoring the protests, they had died down back in the 50s, but those tactics won’t work now in times of WA and Twitter and fake news. The ghettoising and claiming that Tamilians are not Hindus is gaining momentum now. Whether Hindu or not, whether a practising one or not, all Indians should wake up to the threat of cultural appropriation by western forces, else our heritage will be killed slowly, one state at a time, with no one to stop it. And the world will be a poorer place if that were to happen.

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