Saturday, January 29, 2011

A King called Ram and a Messiah called Jesus – Part 2

Note: This is the concluding part of a two part series on the lives of Ram and Jesus
 Jesus Christ is undoubtedly the most well-known figure in history who left an indelible impact on the world at large in several respects ranging from spiritual to political to sociological. The faith initiated in his name has touched millions of people and governs the lives of several generations across the world. I discovered Jesus in school through the annual Christmas crib competitions and plays we used to put up. But it is now that I realize how little I knew of the real Jesus and his life. In fact large parts of Jesus’s life are shrouded in mystery. After his birth in the manger which is the most highlighted episode in his life other than his death and resurrection, Jesus seems to have disappeared, until his famous journey into Jerusalem on the donkey where he was anointed as the messiah and started preaching his beliefs and principles. Very little is known about where he grew up and what were the key influences he had in his life and I believe that this hampers our true understanding of the man and the faith he wanted to espouse. Several books ranging from ‘Holy Blood and Holy Grail’ to Da Vinci code have tried to delve into Jesus’s true story and his relationship with Mary Magdalene. These controversial books say that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and spouted a royal blood line that may still exist in this world, hidden and well preserved. A lot of research has gone into understanding the life of Jesus and just like with Ram, I don’t think he can be fully understood without delving into the life and politics of the era he existed in.
Jesus according to several texts may have been born in the 4th century BC in a time and civilization that was dominated by the powerful Romans. Several Roman emperors had strived to capture Jerusalem and the Jewish temple and make it a part of the Roman Empire and finally succeeded around the time of Jesus’s birth. A number of bloody wars resulted due to this and sprouted several resistance groups amongst the Jews who tried to get their independence and the temple back. It was against the backdrop of these bloody times that the baby Jesus was born. He was considered special even before his birth because he united two very powerful bloodlines of those times. His father belonged to the line of David or the Kings of the Jewish people and his mother to the line of Aaron priests who were second only to the Kings. It is because of this interesting mixture of bloodlines that Jesus was considered to be a messiah who had come to save the Jews and lead them into the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.  If one reads the Old Testament carefully, one will realize that Jesus was not the first messiah whose coming was predicted by the ancient ancestors of the Jews. A few messiahs appeared even before Jesus as early as 2nd century BC but unfortunately, the rebellions that they started were mercilessly crushed and the messiahs executed before they could complete their mission in much the same way that Jesus was executed. But Jesus was special because he was the mixture of two precious bloodlines of the time and lot of hopes had been resurrected with his birth. He was also very powerful because the impact he had was so far reaching that Christianity as a religion took root almost 400 years after his death and apparent resurrection. Why is it that Jesus had such  a large impact even on posterity and continues to be such an influential figure even centuries after he ceased to exist on the face of this earth? What set him and his teachings apart from the earlier self-proclaimed ‘messiahs’? I have always felt that it was the freshness of thought and a deep rooted mystical spirituality that Jesus brought to a war ravaged time that set him apart and earned him so many followers. But these beliefs were so unique and so different from the thinking of those times, that it was not possible for Jesus to be growing up in or around Jerusalem and stay so untouched by the political turmoil which was evident from his teachings
If a particular section of historical records are to be believed, fearing the huge burden of expectation that may fall on their only son and as a means to forge a more peaceful life, Jesus’s parents fled to Egypt when he was still a baby. Egypt may seem like a strange choice to us today but in the 4th century BC, the Jews in Egypt were supposed to have constructed an exact replica of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem which offered a safe haven to all the Jews in Egypt. It was in to this relatively peaceful haven that Joseph and Mary brought Jesus. He seemed to have grown up amongst the temple priests of Egypt who were also torch bearers for several mystical spiritual practices of those times. While many reports show Jesus’s profession to be that of a carpenter, a more believable story is that Jesus was pushed into the study of spirituality and trained by the priests in several healing practices that aided his campaign later in Jerusalem. If one looks at a lot of things that Jesus spoke about, one will find strong evidence of a strange mysticism in his belief that good deeds in this life can help one transcend into heaven. Unfortunately, his parents could not shield him from the conflict in Jerusalem for long. A certain faction of the rebellious Jews found out about him and convinced him to come back to the real Jewish temple and take his place as the rightful Messiah of the Jews. It is important to again note the social context of life in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ re-entry into this historic city. The rebellious factions wanted a huge civil war to break out by instigating the Jews to not pay any of the taxes levied on them by the Romans. They thought that this money could help them fund their revolution and help them cut off the financial support that the Romans received from the Jews. Hence, it seems a little too convenient that Jesus’s dramatic entry into Jerusalem happened against the backdrop of such a critical event in history. If a section of the records are to be believed, Jesus was brought back at a time when the people needed a Messiah and the express task given to him was to convince the people not to pay the taxes. Words such as this coming from the anointed Messiah would be taken as words coming from God and would provide the wind under the sails of the fledgling rebellion.
However, what happened next was most unusual and interesting to understand. Once Jesus was accepted as the one who would lead the Jews into the Kingdom of Heaven, he was asked by the people in a public conference if the Jewish people should pay the taxes to Romans. It was Jesus’s answer to this question that showed his own rebellion that he was waging. His answer seemed to point to the fact that the taxes should be paid to the Romans, as it is not deeds like these that will help them gain entry into the Kingdom of Heaven but deeds that were far more spiritual and generous in nature. In a way this was an open declaration by Jesus to the rebels that he would not tow their line and that he had his own agenda and principles by which he would live. This probably paved the way to the eventual treachery that he suffered in the hands of his own followers that resulted in his death. But, this also displays the great strength of character that Jesus had and the vision for a peaceful life that he wanted the Jews to have in co-existence with the Romans. He was able to hold himself away from the politics of the time and espouse principles that he truly believed in. He wanted to establish the importance of kindness, generosity and empathy in a people and a time that had lost the meaning of this over centuries. He was ably supported in this cause by his followers and most importantly, Mary Magdalene who according to certain historical records, he may have married. But unfortunately in making Jesus divine, the importance of Mary Magdalene in his life was diluted to such an extent that most popular texts state that she may have been a prostitute that Jesus saved. If Jesus had lived longer and had the chance to finish everything that he wanted to do, may be the image of Mary Magdalene in specific and women in general as portrayed in several gospels may have been very different.
I stated earlier, that Jesus’s impact on the people was so powerful, even in his short life and it is this impact that won a lot of converts to his way of life. I say ‘way of life’ because Christianity before Constantine’s time was not so much a religion as much as a ‘way of life’. However, Constantine saw the divisive forces that were at play in the empire during his time and thought that a new faith that would bind people together was needed for the Empire to be more unified and manageable. He probably did what Jesus may have always wanted to do. He created a faith that mixed beautifully several beliefs and rituals of the Romans with the principles talked about by Jesus and created the initial form of Christianity. There are some texts which point that Constantine was not sure whether in the new religion, Jesus should get a divine status or not and he took this point to vote in the Roman council of ministers. The ministers supported the idea of divinity by a vote of 273 against 3 who were against it. This was probably the beginning of the delineation that happened between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. The Jesus of faith was the Son of God and divine in every respect, whereas the Jesus of History may have been a revolutionary who wanted to change the way of life of millions of people through his gentle beliefs and spirituality. But again, in the divification of Jesus, we probably lost the essence of what he wanted to preach and created rigid dogmas may not be relevant in the modern world. I wish Jesus had lived longer than his short 34 years and had recorded his thoughts and beliefs in a manner that could have stood the test of time, so we could truly understand what the Jesus of history wanted.
But whether it is Ram, Sita, Jesus or Mary, what stands out for me is that these were great figures, who lived by principles and beliefs that were unique and different in those times. They truly believed that these principles would lead to a happier, more contended and intensely spiritual life and held their lives up as an example of this. They did not believe in the rigid dogmas and rituals of those times and forged ahead to create something new and in the process built true faith in the lives of several generations. I am sure Ram and Jesus, wherever they are will be saddened by the mindless violence they see perpetrated in their names on issues like their birth and death places and which piece of land they considered the Kingdom of Heaven. It is time that we set aside our own rigidity which is based on popular gospels and books that may themselves have been twisted by the perspectives of the authors and try to understand the men behind these texts and their true teachings. Ram and Jesus stood for change and a new way of life in troubled and turbulent times. May be it is time that mankind took them seriously and realize that every generation and every period requires fresh thinking and principles that are relevant to those times. May be if each of us develop the empathy and virtue of Ram and the spirituality of Jesus, the earth will be a much happier planet to live on.

Important: The views expressed in this blog are personal and not meant to hurt or influence the sentiments of anyone

The Jesus Papers by Micheal Baigent
Holy Blood and Holy Grail by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln
The Fall of Jerusalem by Brandon
The Dead sea scrolls and the first Christians by Eisenman
Ram Charit Manas by Tulsidas
Ramayan by Kamban and Valmiki
In Search of Sita by Malashri Lal and Namita Gokhale

Friday, January 28, 2011

A King called Ram and a Messiah called Jesus – Part 1

Note: This is the first part of a two part series on the lives of Ram and Jesus

Growing up as an Indian citizen in a Hindu household and going to school in a Catholic Convent, both Ram and Jesus have had a profound impact on my life and personality. Every Hindu child in some way or other gets to know the story of the great King Ram, revered as God and considered to be the ‘Maryada Purushottam’ – the most virtuous and best among men. Every girl is told to grow up like Sita and boy to be a son and brother like Ram. I too belong to the generation that left all other work and sat in front of the TV at 9 am on every Sunday to catch the one hour telecast of Ramanad Sagar’s ‘Ramayan’ and this indeed formed a lot of the moral values I hold close to my heart even today. If Ram was an important figure for me at home, Jesus became an all-encompassing one at school. I remember various moral science classes (yes, it was a subject in school J) when story reading meant reading a chapter from the Bible or being told a short story from the life of Jesus Christ. The nuns at school used to hand out Bibles quite freely to students and I remember carrying one such blue copy home and reading it back to back, though at the age of 12 much of what it said was beyond my comprehension. But, the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus moved me immensely. Luckily, those were times when students were encouraged to learn from different faiths and these simple acts of nuns at school would not be labelled as coercive conversions like today.
Ram and Jesus to me were uni-dimensional Gods who were placed on pedestals and prayed to using elaborate rituals but no attempt was made to understand them or their lives. However, as I grew up and delved more into the history of these great figures, I realized the several layers to their personalities that we miss out due to their divine status. It is in unravelling these layers that I learnt the most profound lessons about faith, religion and God.  Let me begin with Ram, the most loved and virtuous king of all times. There are many mythological stories connected to the life of Ram and most of them delve into great detail on his birth, bravery in killing several demons to protect the sages of the land, his marriage to Sita, his voluntary exile to keep the word his father had given to his step mother and the war he waged against the great demon king Ravan to rescue his wife, Sita. The greatness of Ram can be understood if we look at the times he lived in. It was an ancient time when men took several wives and kidnapping a woman to quench one’s lust was not an uncommon event. It was in times like this that Ram’s decision to be monogamous, to sacrifice his throne which was a birth right and to fight one of the fiercest battles in history to rescue his wife is unique and a sign of great strength. But Ram is revered as the greatest Kings and not only a great warrior. Hence, the time he spent in Ayodhya after his return from exile, in governing the country is a very critical period in his life and one that has been lost somewhere in the annals of history. I use the term ‘governing’ deliberately because it was Ram who established the founding principles of governing a state and his rule is often referred to as ’Ram Rajya’, a golden period in India when the citizens of his state were happy, prosperous and well looked after. Careful study of many historical texts reveals how important fairness and justice were to Ram. Hence, he toiled to create a state hierarchy which promoted merit. He is famed to have created the system whereby individuals got classified as per the potential and merit they showed towards a particular vocation. Unfortunately, this took the ugly shape of the caste system in India and is the root to many malaises in today’s society. But the intention with which Ram created this system was to ensure that every person got a life that he deserved and had the merit to live that life. He created strict codes of conduct for people and made monogamy popular in a society where the size of a man’s harem accorded him great respect and envy in the eyes of his peers.
Ram was a fair and just ruler and it is this quality that earned him the love and respect of people in his Kingdom. If one studies the times and the feats performed by Ram, while they were great and proved his valour, were also repeated by his brothers and several other great warriors in India in the future. But Ram stands out for the feat he accomplished not in the battlefield, but on the throne by calming an unsettled Kingdom and creating a moral code that governs life for many Hindu’s even today. However, in my eyes it is this penchant for fairness which was also the reason for much grief in Ram’s life. While Ram is a much revered God, one thing that my feminine mind could not reconcile with is the way he treated his wife by putting her through a trial by fire at the time he needed to be the most supportive of her. Ram’s suspicion about Sita’s piety and his offer to her to go and marry any other man in the Kingdom after he rescued her from Ravan’s Ashok Vatika is highlighted in several regional versions of Ramayan, though this particular incident is glossed over in the most popular version of Ramayan – ‘Ram Charit Manas’ written by Tulsidas.  Careful study of several folk based versions of historical texts reveals that Ram is portrayed as a great man and a brave warrior in the original Ramayan written by Valmiki, who unlike later authors got a chance to meet and interact with Ram. He was presented as a great man who perhaps also made a few mistakes in his life, specifically pertaining to his wife Sita in order to portray the right image of justice in his Kingdome. Valmiki’s Ramayan delves in to the cultural context of Ayodhya and the personality of Ram in a deep manner and explains why public perception was important to Ram. Having inherited the Kingdom from his father who was much loved by the people, Ram needed to ensure that he earned the same respect in their hearts and he needed to do this quickly owing to his being away from the heart of the throne for 14 years. This also explains his decision to be a just king rather than a trusting husband when an ordinary citizen raises a finger of doubt at his wife.  It was a decision that probably cemented his place in history as a great ruler but also caused a lot of sorrow and loneliness as being the man he was, he would never go back from the word he gave to his wife to always be faithful to her and never marry anyone else.  But, later version ascribed a divine halo to this great man, making him an incarnation of God and ridding him of any human frailties as Gods are not capable of doing anything wrong. Hence, by the time Tulsidas wrote his version, the incidents pertaining to the mistreatment of Sita and her banishment by Ram are explained in an insidious manner or glossed over completely and this is the version that became a part of popular literature and is followed by many Indians across the world.
This is the bane of History because just as the name suggests it is always ‘his- story’, a story told from someone’s perspective where one cannot distinguish between reality and perception. However, I do wish History had highlighted this aspect of Ram’s character too. Instead it focuses on Ram’s greatness and Sita’s submissiveness which may not necessarily be true as Sita was a strong woman who lived a life of her choice and even in those arduous times took on the responsibility of being a single mother to royal heirs. Sadly, this is not how she is viewed and her trial by fire in modern times has taken the guise of bride burning and Sati which continues to afflict several women in India even today. It is at times like this that I wish, we would learn to understand our deities’ lives and learn not just from their virtues but also from their mistakes. Instead, we continue to use them as a way to further divide ourselves into factions, making where they are born and how they died more important than what they taught us and what they stood for. Nothing proves this point better than the story of Jesus and the several myths and historical distortions that surround it. I will delve into greater detail in to Jesus’s life in the second part of this blog which will soon follow.
Important: The views expressed in this blog are personal and not meant to hurt or influence the sentiments of anyone.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Across the Bosphorus - Mission Istanbul

“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul. “
Alphonse de Lamartine

What can I say about Istanbul that has not already been said before? This fascinating city sits witness to most major civilizations of the world and has been influenced by religions and cultures of all kinds. Yet, it is not as popular as some of the other high profile European destinations and I wonder why. Because it is the perfect tourist haven with beautiful architecture, amazing food,  a rich culture that is an amalgamation of so many different sub cultures and above all  wonderfully warm people who by the way happen to love Indians (specially Indian girls from the looks of it J). Strangely, I got to discover Istanbul not as a tourist but as a working professional when I got a chance to travel there for a project. I spent several months in the city and am glad that I got to see this beautiful place slowly, a weekend at a time, at a pace all my own, instead of rushing from one splendour to the other and losing the essence of this place in the process. Because truly, the beauty of Istanbul does not lie in only in what is explicit and written in the tour books, but is truly discovered while moving across the Bosphorus and experiencing the people and their lives.

Istanbul, historically known as Byzantium and Constantinople is the largest city in Turkey and 5th largest city proper in the world with a population of 12.8 million. It is also a megacity, as well as the cultural, economic, and financial centre of Turkey. It is located on the Bosphorus Strait and encompasses the natural harbour known as the Golden Horn, in the northwest of the country. It extends both on the European (Thrace) and on the Asian (Anatolia) sides of the Bosphorus, and is thereby the only metropolis in the world that is situated on two continents.  During its long history, Istanbul had previously served as the capital of the Roman Empire (330–c.395), Byzantine Empire (c.395–1204 & 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922). This interesting geographical and cultural placement is what makes this city a melting pot in the truest sense and a fantastic place to explore and discover for everyone, right from history buffs to architecture aficionados to confirmed foodies and gastronomes.
Out of everything that I saw and experienced in Istanbul, what touched my heart the most are the people and the lives they tried to etch for themselves. Turkey is a country with a 98% Muslim population that tries to forge ahead strongly in today’s world on the pillars of globalization and modernization while still staying true its values and culture. It was the erstwhile president Ataturk who created a new order in this country and helped in its urbanization. It is his vision that helped Turkey adopt an English language script and encouraged women to play a critical part in economic progress. It is in this desire to progress and forge ahead as an economic power that the European side of the country gets reflected. Most youngsters in Istanbul do not like acknowledging the Asian precedents of the city and want to be known as modern and forward looking Europeans. But Asia lies just across the Bosphorus in Anatolia and comes out strongly through the close knit family culture that exists across the country.  In my effort to discover the place in a better manner, I used several modes of public transport including the ferry in Istanbul and observed the people and their outlook towards life very closely. By and large, the Turkish are a buoyant and resilient lot who do not want to get bogged down by religious fundamentalism and forge ahead, practicing their religion in their own way as they see fit. To call it as merely a liberal outlook towards life and religion would be over simplifying the hard won peace they have made with this even while extremist forces raise their head from time to time that the government and the people try to keep at bay. Yet the city is picture perfect and a perfect canvas for postcards and artists with its varied hues of architecture, minarets, villas and of course the Bosphorus that lies as a witness to major historic events.

What surprised me the most is that every time I said I was Indian, the warmth of people would double and they would ask several questions about India and its people. I remember, a colleague and I were stuck in a snow storm outside our office building and could not find any cab to get home. A waitress in a coffee shop of the building saw us struggling and gave us shelter for a few hours till things got better. When she heard that we were Indian, she plied us with free drinks and cookies and dropped us to our hotel in her car, saying all along that she loved India and was looking forward to a visit someday. On another occasion a Turkish man gave up his cab on a deserted road to help me and my friend who was also a woman to get back to our hotels while walking to his destination.  I felt it was this hospitality and warmth that was so common to both our cultures that made me feel so comfortable in a strange city so far away from home and family. Over a period of time, I realized that the commonality extended to language and food also. I discovered several common sounding words in both the languages and also hit up on the Turkish cuisine. Turkish food is full of Kebabs, dals and vegetables that are common to the Indian palate and make it very easy for people to travel across the country without pining for good food. I had the chance to go to some local eateries run from the homes of people in Anatolia where I enjoyed a delicious home cooked 5 course meal. More than anything the genuine hospitality of the locals even though we did not know their language filled my heart with much needed joy and good cheer.

The beauty about being a history buff in Istanbul is that all the greatest historical sites that one wants to see are congregated in the Sultan Ahmet district of the city, within walking distance of each other. I marvelled and enjoyed the fact that all the places I wanted to see were around a square and each one could be viewed from the gates of the other, providing a tantalizing site of treasures and stories to be discovered. The first place I saw on a quiet weekend away from work was the Hagia Sophia (pronounced as the Haya Sophia), one of the oldest historical monuments in Europe. This was built in the 6th century as a church, later converted into a mosque and now a museum. What struck me about this building was that with its domes and arches, it seemed more like a mosque than a church and I wondered about this architectural puzzle. It was on speaking to a few people that I realized that in the 6th century, churches were built with domes and minarets and this architecture was later copied by the Ottomans to build their mosques and gained popularity all across the world as the highlight of Islamic design. Now if only we could borrow so freely from each other’s faiths in the modern world and forge new faiths and cultures, our planet would be a far better place.

As I walked around the museum in jaw dropping awe at the size of the dome (touted to be the only one of its kind standing without even a pillar to support it), another fact I discovered is that for the longest time, this was the largest dome cathedral in the world. I marvelled at how clean and well preserved this old structure was and was grateful that the Byzantines and Ottomans did not destroy this sacred monument like so much else that they did in this city, to erase the marks left by old rulers and create new marks of their own. I was so fascinated by this timeless monument, that I kept going back every few nights to sit at a restaurant close by (it was convenient that it happened to be an Indian restaurantJ) and gazed at it, sparkling in the moonlight. I felt that if only buildings could talk, this monument would have so many tales to tell us about empires built, civilizations destroyed and faiths that changed, merged and started afresh. Sometimes, I felt it was whispering stories that no one around could understand and felt transported to a different era and time.
Across the road from the Hagia Sophia is another cultural and architectural splendour, the Blue Mosque also known as the Sultan Ahmet mosque.  This mosque was an Ottoman empire’s effort to leave an indelible imprint on the skyline of Istanbul. Though this mosque was built in the 16th century, the resemblance its shape and architecture has to the Hagia Sophia is truly uncanny.  What surprised and pleased me the most about the mosque was that it was the oldest working mosque in the continent and yet it allowed people from all faiths to enter and spend time in it freely, including women. One was only required to cover their heads and carry their footwear in their hands to be allowed entry into the majestic building. I kept wondering, why it was called the Blue Mosque, but this mystery was solved, when I entered the dome and saw the walls inlaid with intricate and beautiful designs in blue mosaic all over. It could not be called by any name other than the Blue mosque. Turkey tries to be largely, a non-practicing Islamic country, but its love for the spiritual side of its religion was evident in the loving restoration of this centuries old mosque that the government was conducting. I thought this was a great testimony to the European penchant for order and organization helping in preserving the Asian affinity for culture and tradition. Everything from the mosaic on the walls, to the tiles on the floor, to the sprawling Turkish carpets in the prayer area gleamed anew and was witness to the mind-set of the Turkish to preserve not just history but also the best tenets of their culture and religion. It is this interesting co-existence of the yin and yang of life that makes Istanbul such a pleasure to discover and understand.
One can’t be in Sultan Ahmet and not visit the Grand Bazaar. This is one of the oldest and largest covered shopping areas in the world and truly lives up to its name. I was not so sure about going to this covered market as it is in a rather run down area of Sultan Ahmet and did not seem very inviting to me from the outside. But a friend dragged me inside on the pretext of buying Turkish carpets and I am glad she did. From the moment I entered the Bazaar I was lost in several sensory delights. The Bazaar was a colourful panorama of shops selling several uniquely Turkish knickknacks and smelt of cloves, cardamom and several other spices. As I visited a few stores and saw the way the shopkeepers and locals haggled, I realized I had hit up on an intensely Asian side of Istanbul, a side it does not readily acknowledge to a new comer.
Shopping at the Grand Bazaar is a lesson in Turkish culture and coquetry. Yes, you read this right, coquetry. If you are of the female species, no matter what you look like, the shop keepers will say you have a face like an angel and voice like a bird. They will try every trick in the trade to flirt with you and soften you so that you buy their wares. It definitely is a great ego booster for women and keeps them coming back to be beguiled by the sly and clever shop keepers. The market hosts everything from leather goods to knick knacks to carpets to clothes several of which are imported from Ludhiana in Punjab. I had the most delightful time haggling for a few stoles with a shopkeeper who had visited Punjab several times on business and wanted to know who the bearded man in the photos he saw all over that state was. Turns out it was Guru Nanak, the revered God of the Punjabis he was talking about, we had a heart laugh about that and I came away with a whopping discount on the stoles. Time slips away as you walk thought the tiled alley ways of the Bazaar and gain not just material things but also several friends and a unique glimpse into the arts and culture of this beautiful country.  It could turn even a non-shopper like me into an avid shopaholic and I am not saying whether I enjoyed the flirting or the shopping more J
 I have always felt that it is in aimless wanderings that we discover the most significant things in life. That is how I discovered Turkish baths and dervishes. It was a cold November night when I was returning from my regular visit to the Hagia Sophia when I spotted a large board called Turkish Hammam (traditional Turkish bath). I remembered that the Ancient Romans were avid users of the Bath concept and it is the Roman rule that left this imprint on Turkey. I was feeling adventurous that night and decided to try the Hammam after checking with local friends on the safest one. I was glad of my adventurous self as it turned out to be the most calming and relaxing experience I have ever had. It started off with the attendant leading me into a warm, humid room with a raised stone platform (goebektas) in the center, surrounded by bathing alcoves, in pretty coloured quartz tiles. The tiles remove static electricity from the air, and help to relax the mind and body. The light, diffused through glass in the ceiling was soft and relaxing. I was made to sit on the platform, which is heated, and work up a sweat. The attendant then gave me the scrub of my life, quite literally and after a heavy Swedish massage left me to sleep for a bit on the platform which was a warm shelter from the cold winds outside. I emerged from the hammam feeling refreshed and rejuvenated and ready to take on the world. I thought the Romans were quite smart to have hit up on this idea to relax and realized there were many such clever things that ancient civilizations had invented and sadly so many of them may have been lost as new civilizations destroyed the legacies of old ones.
Many Indians may have seen a whirling dervish for the first time in the song ‘Khwaja mere Khwaja’ from the epic Hindi movie ‘Jodha Akbar’. I was fortunate to have witnessed and seen an actual whirling dervish in another one of my aimless wanderings around Istanbul. Fortunately for me, the year in which I was in the city happened to be the 1000th year celebrations of the death of the Sufi poet, Rumi. On one of my walks around the streets of the Sultan Ahmet district I saw the advertisement inviting everyone for a whirling dervish performance in the memory of Rumi and best of all it was absolutely free. I entered what seemed like a large hall and saw several foreigners congregated, waiting expectantly for the performance to begin. Everyone was curious to know the rituals of the whirling dervishes that are symbolic of a deep seated spirituality of the Sufi sect in Islam.
The rituals of the Rumi's followers (Whirling Dervishes) are among the enduring as well as the most exquisite ceremonies of spirituality. What I realized is that the ritual whirling of the dervishes was an act of love and a drama of faith. It possessed a highly structured form within which the gentle turns become increasingly dynamic as the individual dervishes strived to achieve a state of trance. The music that accompanied the whirling from beginning to end ranged from sombre to rhapsodical, its effect intended to be mesmerizing. Chanting of poetry, rhythmic rotation, and incessant music created a synthesis which, according to the faithful, induces a feeling of soaring, of ecstasy, of mystical flight. It is then that I felt that I had not just watched a performance but the dervishes own way of paying obeisance to their supreme God through their trance like state. The dervish performers also stayed back after the performance, answering question which ranged from the inane like how they did not crash into each other to the esoteric lie what was God to them. One performer I spoke to said that he had to train for 5 years to be allowed into the monastic order he belonged to and that this was not just a dance or a performance, but his way of offering prayer to the supreme Lord. I came away in a trance myself and felt extremely fortunate that I was able to stumble upon a well-kept mystical secret of this magnificent city.
Istanbul is not just about history, art and culture but is also touted to be the party capital of Eastern Europe. Nothing proves this epithet correct like the pathways full of pubs and interesting nightspots in Taksim square. I was very keen to see a belly dance performance, a form of dance that has become a very popular export to India and trolled the streets of Taksim to find an interesting place to see this dance form. However, while I enjoyed many a night spot in Taksim, I quite did not get to see the kinds of folk dances and specially belly dancing that I wanted to see, until I stepped into the restaurant on top of the Galata Tower. The Galata Tower was built in the 13th century by the Latin rulers to serve as a lookout tower against the enemy during the crusades and is one of the longest standing and tallest structures to dot the skyline of Istanbul. What made this ancient tower even more interesting was a restaurant that had been built on the top most floor of the tower that showcased several dance forms from Turkey. It is here that I saw some authentic Turkish folk dances and also the sensuous belly dance performed by some pretty and accomplished Russians (apparently the Turkish men find Russian women more attractiveJ). I was a little mystified when the maître’ d asked us our nationality and placed an Indian flag on our table at the beginning of the meal. I forgot about it until a while later when the in house singer, Husein, came to our table, peered at our flag and started singing an old Raj Kapoor song – ‘Awara hoon’. Believe me, Raj Kapoor is still the most popular Indian hero in Turkey, even more popular than Amitabh Bachan and Shahrukh Khan and for the first time in my life, I danced to a Raj Kapoor numberJ. But it was Husein who blew our minds by singing songs in 20 different languages to cater to the people who had come from varied nationalities to share a meal and a dance at the restaurant. That night I saw another side to this city and was amused at how the icons we have forgotten are still remembered and cherished with so much love in this unlikely corner of the world.
 I am glad that out of all the chances I have had at glancing at the world, one of them was Istanbul. Even today when I close my eyes and think of the most beautiful place I have seen, the view of the magnificent city with its ancient minarets and multi layered history from the Galata Tower fills my senses and my soul. For those who have not been to this place, start saving from today itself so that you can take yourself on the adventure of a life time. Believe me you may come back poorer in money but you will be a millionaire in terms of experience and spirit.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Invisibles

No one killed Jessica and apparently, no one killed Aarushi too.
There are a few crimes that capture the imagination of a nation and make people come together like never before. The Aarushi case is one such crime against an innocent 14 year old girl that has captured the imagination of this nation and definitely shocked, perplexed and confused several people including the CBI. It is a case I have followed very closely and feel that there are certain skeletons in this closet which may never come out if the parents of the girl themselves don’t come clean about certain facts. But, in all the hue and cry about Aarushi, the death of another human being went totally unnoticed. Hemraj, the 45 year old servant of the house who had served them loyally for years and became the easy target of suspicion initially when the murder was discovered has been laid to rest without a question or a mention in most cases. This was a man who apparently took care of the girl when the parents were not around, and in all probability got killed defending her (I don’t think I will ever subscribe to the absurd theory that the 14 year old Aarushi was having an affair with him that the Noida Police wants us to believe) and who even Nupur Talwar (Aarushi’s mother) unequivocally claims, loved the child as his own.
Why is it that while Aarushi’s death catches everyone’s attention, Hemraj’s goes unnoticed? I realised, there are so many Hemraj’s that live amongst us. They don’t lead very comfortable lives, but spend their time serving people like us and do it with a pride and happiness that we can never summon for our high profile jobs. They are all around us in the garb of the driver, the cleaner, the maid, the ‘chatwala’. But, sadly for these Hemraj’s all their efforts go unnoticed so much so that even their brutal murder and unexplained death does not merit even a mention on national news. How is it that people like Hemraj become invisible in the larger scheme of things? Why is it that their lives are not worth a protest when they get brutally murdered or run over by drunken stars that get away with it? I don’t intend to change the system’s apathy towards this class of people although I hope that someday our perspective on them changes. I only wish to highlight the quiet dignity and never ending optimism with which these people live their lives by highlighting a few experiences I had in the recent past with some people who I feel definitely merit at least a mention and a salute here.
I was recently very sick and had to undergo a surgery. As a part of the treatment process, I had to get regular injections at home. My doctor recommended a nearby clinic from where a nurse could come and give me my daily injections. That’s when I met her for the first time. She came in with a shining face and a wide smile, scampering away from my dog with a look of concern for my bed ridden self. She said her name was ‘Deepa sister’ and right off the bat assured me that I would be up and about in no time at all. She was brisk and professional at her job but somehow brought a brightness to the day and a lot of re-assurance to me on my recovery. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I learnt that she was an orphan who worked as a maid all through her childhood in the day and got her nurse’s training in the night. She was the single mother of a teenage daughter and son whom her husband had abandoned years back. She was not sad about it but accepted her plight in a matter of fact manner. She had put her kids in a hostel so that they would get good education and be disciplined, because she being a working woman could not give them all her time. What amazed me about her was that she was not bitter or cynical because of the hardships she had faced in her life. She took pleasure in the simple things of life and would jump with joy at the thought of calling for Chinese for dinner along with the other nurses at the clinic who were on night duty with her. She did not curse her husband or God for making her life so difficult. She travelled an hour from Mahim to come to my place to give me an injection to earn an extra Rs 150 for the day but never complained. Not about the traffic or the inflation or how she got paid peanuts for all her efforts.   She helped me bear my pain with a lot more dignity because I didn’t have the heart to complain about my health or life in front of her effervescent, smiling face.
The second person I would like to talk about is Altaf. I met him when I went to eat chat at a small stall near my house. He was the boy making chat at the stall that day. He made some of the most lip smacking chat dishes I had ever eaten and if you saw him at work, you would think that he thought of himself as the master chef at the Taj kitchen. After stuffing my face with a few more ‘sev puris’ than I ought to, I wanted to get some dishes packed for a friend, who ran a boutique right next to the stall. Altaf heard me check with her what she wanted to eat and asked me not to bother with getting anything packed. He would serve her the dishes in her boutique itself. I paid him the money for it, but was not sure if he would be true to his word. But in 5 minutes, I saw him rushing into the boutique with the chat dishes that he laid down with a smile and said in broken English, “Enjoy please”. I saw him walking into the shop after a few minutes, this time carrying tissue papers with him and I realized that we would need them to clean up after we had eaten. He came back again in 15 minutes to check if we were done and also cleaned the table for us without us even asking for it. It was only after he left that one of the workers in the boutique told me that Altaf had become deaf in the recent train blasts that had rocked Mumbai. He ran the chat stall to support his family and was honest to the core. I realized, he did not hear me talking to my friend but read my lips and may be even my mind. When I see him now, whistling at his work, like he has won a huge lottery and carry his responsibility so lightly on his still young shoulders, I know that it is because of people like him that India leads in all the happiness and optimism polls that we read about irrespective of the reality of our lives.
The last invisible is Baldev Singh. He was Baldevji to all us young consultants who worked at my office and was the veritable ‘He-man’ of the office at 6.4 feet and 120 kgs. He was the office driver and responsible for carting all our consultants from one client to the other. When I first met him, I was a little intimidated by his gruff manner and earthy Punjabi tongue. But as time went by, I realised he was a gentle giant who not only cared about his job, but also about all the people he met with and carted from place to place. My family was always assured about my safety when they knew Baldevji was driving me, especially on those late night drives back from Puna or town. He kept us regaled with stories of how he has seen Bombay change to Mumbai and Shiv Sena’s metamorphosis from anti Udipi to anti UP. It was on one such long car ride back from Puna that I discovered that Baldevji came to Mumbai when he was a boy of 18 from Punjab and started his career as an auto driver. Through sheer grit, hard work and determination, he fought the local Marathi unions and got his taxi driver license and slowly became the owner of 3 taxis. I was surprised to know that he actually owned 4 cars that he gave to other cool cab drivers to drive and worked as the driver for my company because he liked the people as they gave him a lot of respect. He had put 2 sons through college with one of them actually working with an MNC Bank in Canada. I realized that he did not really need to work as a driver. But yet, when one saw him clean the car or perform his duty, he did it with a pride and contentment that we all envied. I remember, one day I was reminiscing that it had been long since I had homemade ‘paranthas’ and voila, the next day he actually had his wife make hot ‘paranthas’ for me early in the morning and made sure I polished them all off on our long ride to town. It was this empathy that he showed to us as people that made him Baldevji and not just Baldev to us.
The common link in the personalities of all these people is the grit, dignity and optimism they show in the direst circumstances in life. They live difficult lives and have only their hard work to fall back on to help them change their circumstance. They are the back bone of this country and give back much more than they take through backbreaking labour. Sadly, they are also the most vulnerable section of our society with nothing to protect them from stray terrorist bullets, irrational unions, train blasts or drunken stars running them over in their sleep. Their deaths and murders are but a by line in the papers and do not merit national attention. I guess it is the tragedy of India shining that if you do not belong to a high profile, hi flying, glitzy, glamorous sect, you are not worth the media’s or the nation’s time. But, in this New Year, I have decided, I will pay attention to these invisibles, I will understand the lives they live and fight for their right to live with dignity and die with honour. So, I am truly praying Aarushi’s killers are caught and fervently hoping that when they are, they are punished not just for brutally murdering Aarushi, but for also snatching life away from Hemraj. I fervently wish that the invisibles become visible and justice prevails for all, but above all that fairness irrespective of class is the new perspective we all gain.

This blog is dedicated to the invisibles in all our lives

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Palace intrigues and Nira Radia

Another new year, another new decade and once more the time has come for reflections and resolutions. 2010 will be remembered in history as the year of scams for India. From the common wealth games to Adarsh society to food prices to radiagate, it is a year that has made us question our politicians and their intentions like never before. No political party has escaped the scanner or come out spotlessly clean in this scrutiny. However, the scam that shook my convictions especially about media and the role it plays as the gate keeper of our social conscious has by far been ‘Radiagate’.
Being from the corporate world myself, I had never heard about Nira Radia until the tapes broke out all over Twitter and I went about searching for a copy of the Open magazine to find out what exactly was all the brouhaha about. I was fascinated by the guts, gumption, intelligence and influence of this lone woman who had powerful personas right from Rata Tata to Mukesh Ambani to Vir Sanghvi eating out of her hands. In certain instances, she was dictating their actions like they were school children waiting for the teacher’s instructions. Radia’s exploits have been much recorded and debated and she has shaken the foundation of Indian politics and media like never before. But, I kept wondering what egged her on? What did she want to achieve at the end of it? She stayed in the background, managed critical lobbying and snatched important posts for her front men through discrete phone calls and back end manoeuvring not once showing her cards fully. In this day and age, when powerful and ambitious women such as her wanted to be in the forefront of all action, how did she not give into the temptation of playing for power more explicitly and blatantly?  And then, I found my answer in the several parallels I could find between the lives of Nira Radia, Draupadi and Empress Nurjahan.
I know, these are three very different women, residing in different parts of history and living in cultures and times that were vastly different from what we see today. But all these women were powerful in their own right and were the driving force behind several wars and coups that changed the lives of millions of people. However, the exact role they played is often not captured completely in our historical texts. Had it not been for the Open magazine tapes, Radia’s role in the way politics and business is being shaped in India would also be obscured forever.  Let’s delve briefly into the lives of each of these women and see how they drove the events around them and became crucial parts of some of the most defining moments in history.
Draupadi – All we know about her is that she was married to all five of the Pandava brothers and performed her wifely duties with the utmost propriety to all of them that earned her an elevated place in history. However, I always felt that this was a uni-dimensional way of looking at one of the most complex characters in Indian history and mythology. Careful scrutiny of some historical texts throws light on Draupadi, the woman who loved one man but pledged her loyalty to five men and never swerved from her duty towards them. She prided herself on being the ‘Queen of queens’ and never allowed any of the other women her five husbands married, to step into her place thus maintaining her supremacy both in the Palace and in her husbands’ kingdom. One might look at this as the spitefulness of a jealous woman. But this was a well thought through political move which gave precedence to her and her children and nipped any political coups in the bud with the other wives never being able to step into the kingdom itself. When one reads the part she played in helping her husband turn ‘Khandavprastha’ into ‘Indraprastha’ and the vision she had to build the most beguiling palace of all times, one does not wish to begrudge her, the quest for power and kingdom. It is a tragedy that she also saw the downfall and destruction of all that she so lovingly built and nurtured.
Not many may be aware, but Draupadi had the power to stop the Kurukshetra war had she told her husbands to forget about getting revenge on her behalf. She held great influence over the five bravest warriors in history and could have got them to acquiesce to her wishes if only she said the word. Instead, she spewed vitriol for 13 years on the injustice done to her which was grave indeed, but one she could have forgiven had she been a different kind of woman. She deliberately accompanied her husbands on their exile, though she had the option to stay back at her father’s palace, an option that all their other wives took. But, she did not want the band of her influence over her husbands to be loosened and she accompanied them so that every day, she could remind them of the humiliation she had to suffer due to their inability. It is difficult for 5 men to live on revenge for 13 years but with one vengeful woman amongst them, they never had a chance to forget their revenge or her vengeance. She helped them forge key alliances during the war and held her men to the word they gave her in fits of anger and vengeance. She probably caused the deaths of millions of people and pushed several women towards widowhood while losing all her children in the battle. But, she was the veiled face, who stayed behind the palace walls and egged the greatest war of all times on. We might think it was her destiny, the task she was born to do. However, she never questioned her destiny and changed the course of history while staying behind her veil all the times and never letting the men even guess at the part she was silently and slyly playing.
Several of the Mughal empresses borrowed heavily from Draupadi’s ideology and if I may add fine-tuned the way she held her influence over the most powerful men of the land to great levels of sophistication. But, no empress did this better than Nur Jahan. Born as Meherunnissa, into the family of a lowly Persian noble who fled his homeland with 2 gold coins in his pocket, her rise to become the most powerful wife of Emperor Jahangir is the stuff of folklore. She overcame a failed first marriage that resulted in a girl child and several financial setbacks owing to the dishonesty of her father to reign supreme in the Mughal Kingdom in the early 1600’s. Those times were not easy for the women of the imperial family. The Mughal emperors were known for the harems they built and were in the habit of collecting women for these harems. Only one woman could reign supreme in the Imperial harem and she would be given the epithet of ‘Padshah Begum’. The politics that one needed to play amongst the women to become the ‘Padsha Begum’ would put today’s politicians to shame. Being the twentieth wife of an aging Emperor, known for his roving eye, Nur Jahan used all the political skill and machinations she could to reign supreme in the harem where she was a late entrant from a lowly family.  She borrowed from Draupadi, by slowly and steadily, enhancing her influence over Emperor Jahangir, the most powerful man in the Kingdom. History has it that, the King was so enamoured by her that she was to become the last wife he ever took. For 17 years, he never travelled anywhere without her at his side and took her counsel and advice on all critical matters.
 Jahangir is credited with having the vision to leave imprints of Mughal architecture all over his kingdom through the various tombs, palaces and other monuments he built. But, not many would know, that it was actually the vision of Nur Jahan who wanted both her and her husband’s name to remain in posterity. It is also believed that Shah Jahan, her estranged step son was inspired by the tomb she built for her father in his design of Taj Mahal but never gave her this credit. However, just like all ambitious woman, Nur Jahan also gave vent to her plans and greed by trying to place her dim-witted son in law Shahryar on the Mughal throne instead of the more eligible Shah Jahan. She was responsible for the bloodiest coup in Mughal times, whereby Shah Jahan killed all his brothers and caused his father’s death to get to the throne. Nur Jahan’s influence and her ambition were instrumental in Jahangir turning against his own son and had he lived longer, she may have succeeded in her plans. But his untimely death, sent her into exile and in spite of being the resourceful woman that she was, even she could not overcome the stigma of widowhood in those times to wrest power from Shah Jahan’s hands once again.
When I look at the way Nira Radia operated in enhancing her circle of influence around the who’s who of Indian business, politics and media, I can see that she is borrowing heavily from her illustrious ancestors. Modern times don’t require her to be married to a powerful man to wield her influence. But she did recognise the most powerful men and in some cases women in the triumvirate of business, media and politics and succeeded in winning their confidence. Her resourcefulness must be of gargantuan proportions as she got to handle the public relations of two differing and warring conglomerates like the Tata’s and the Ambanis. One can only guess at the balancing act she would have had to play to keep both the men happy with her work and gaining for them the political mileage they needed to succeed in their respective ambitions. Just like Draupadi and Nur Jahan, she fuelled the ambition and greed of some very powerful men to further her own agenda. I only wonder what was the goal she was leading towards and would have loved to know what was the ultimate vision she had but I realize that no good may come from that.
While the woman in me admires the guts, cunning, intelligence and ambition of all these women who have left their mark on history in some way or other, the citizen in me wishes that these immensely powerful women would have used their resources more wisely and for the greater good. I wish Draupadi had been more tolerant of the injustice of her time and avoided the death and destruction that came in the wake of her vengeance. I wish Nur Jahan would not have set the precedence of brothers killing brother for the throne. It was this precedence that got Aurangzeb to the throne after Shah Jahan and thus began the downfall of the powerful Mughal Empire. I wish Nira Radia had used her considerable connections and influence to push for more honest ministers for key portfolios. I wish she had pushed for good governance rather than a more convenient one. I realize it is naïve to think that these women could have altered the course of history singlehandedly. But the steps they took brought some key changes in our society and are probably instrumental in making us who we are. I hope that in the New Year, we can take some positive lessons from all these women and realize that we can yield immense power if we only wish to. However, it will do mankind a great deal of good if we remember that with immense power comes immense responsibility and responsibility well handled, can help us leave a better legacy for the generations to come.   
Palace of Illusions – Chitra Devakurni Banerjee
Mahabharata – Rajagopalachari
Twentieth wife, Feast of roses and Shadow Princess – Indu Sunderesan
Travels in the Mughal Empire – Archibald Timmins