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Monday, April 19, 2021

‘There is no religious monolith’

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Someone once said that Pakistan was “like a country of broken dreams and broken dreams that are begging for someone to fix them.” I used to think the same about India. But now I realize India is like a country of broken dreams that is begging to be fixed by a fanatical.

That’s the metaphor used by Pankaj Mishra, who concludes his very impressive travelogue with a visiting scholar at Cambridge University, who writes often of his disdain for the “fanatic asceticism” of India’s religious right:

There are fanatics of every persuasion who want their scriptural/cultural dogma to become a great nation, one which will become a satellite of Moscow and Tehran. Some of them have even adopted uniforms. The one which seems to be enjoying a renaissance is, in the era of Partition and partition nostalgia, that of the Muslim nationalist who is no longer a deadhead, but is a rank-and-file fanatic.

To stay in India, that fanatic, the writer Asif Zaidi, must “goad his fellow Muslims … into identifying with the Islamic conquests … which enabled India to become the largest parliamentary democracy in the world.” And one way to stay on the good side of “the fanatics,” Mishra says, is to persuade others that Pakistan is not perfect and that “there is no religious monolith”:

He [Zaidi] just needs a silver-spoon Hindutopper, known and feared because of his patronage of caste-role-played sages, to explain that Hindus should not invent Pakistan, but reluctantly accede to it, not because they are bigots and chauvinists, but because it is the natural outcome of the Partition and will make a better world in itself.

(I personally care about the Hinduas — is anyone else suspicious of them? — since Hinduism has always been limited to India and Hindus in Pakistan are also in the minority.)

Mishra also says India’s fanatics are frustratingly jaded. They think they can “undo” what Mahatma Gandhi did, “in the hope that India will now be transformed into a separate nation, but not before time or sacrifice.”

Who could blame them? But, as a young Hindu Brahmin, Mishra was the ideal person to discover and embrace India’s fanatics. He is a forceful and humane writer who in his conclusion tells us something we often forget about the Brahmin. Buddhism and Hinduism might explain many of our societies’ ills, but this tradition still has to be carried to its roots: a belief that things begin to work themselves out rather than imposed on them, that religion can be a way to forge a community in a place of uncertainty.

For a couple of years, Mishra was in a difficult position. He was a visiting fellow at Oxford and he was about to take a post in Sri Lanka. Suddenly, he had some decision to make. His editor, a Sri Lankan, thought he’d make a good candidate for Sri Lanka’s post at Oxford. Just this kind of suggestion was not welcome by the Sri Lankan press and the new dean of Oxford’s Philosophy department liked the idea of “an Indian living in Sri Lanka.”

So Mishra was uprooted. To make an American, he was supposed to take a job in the United States, at Princeton, in a couple of years. But by this time, he wanted to do something in Europe. He might have stayed in Delhi, but only to follow the road and ashram of his Hindu ancestors. With his graduate degree and his travel, he’d already spent a few years in London. Now he wanted to move across Europe — to the bright lights of Switzerland.

Yes, he had a job waiting for him — a teaching post at the University of Zurich, to begin in January. But Mishra had made a commitment, a promise. When he arrived in Zurich, he almost immediately became a symbol. The morning I spoke to him, I found him surrounded by a crowd of reporters.

His decision to return to Delhi and the India of his childhood was understandable. He wanted to write a piece on his return. But why did he want to go back? I felt a bit uncomfortable — my moment to feel comforting and comfortable. After all, there must be a proper home for a traveler who is a god in one’s lifetime. I felt a little rudely used in that way. But the question is this: Can you ever get to your true home?

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