Sunday, 23 May 2010

Children of mixed gods

Yesterday, I was at the presentation of Fatima Ahmad's new book "Aukui". Fatima's mother was half Indian and half Vietnamese, her father was Somali. Fatima was born in Cambodia, where she lived for the first 21 years of her life, till the war broke out and they were forced to migrate to Somalia.

In Somalia, Fatima faced the more orthodox side of her religion. She was not supposed to go out, not to talk to men. It was different to grow up as a Msulim in Cambodia, a predominently Buddhist country than in Somalia. After three years in Somalia, Fatima moved to Italy. (In the picture below, during a reading from her book - Fatima is in the middle)

Fatima Ahmad, Roberta Sangiorgi from Eks&Tra & Stefano at Casa Khoula library Bologna

"Aukui" means "black devil" in Cambodian and refers to the difficulties she faced in Cambodia because of her skin colour. She also had to overcome barriers created around her disability. She said that she has written this book to tell her story to her younger brothers and sisters, who were born later and do not know about their roots. About her religious beliefs, Fatima said that she takes what she likes from Islam, Buddhism and Catholicism.

Discussions about mixing of faiths and religions immediately resonate in me. In my family, we have three religions - Hinduism, Catholicism and Sikhism.

I think that with globalisation, with people moving from one country to another, there will be even more opportunities for people of different religions to meet, fall in love and make families. I also think that today, with greater awareness about ideas of human rights and religious liberalism, there are greater opportunities for people in mixed families like ours to maintain our distinct religious identities and yet be all together in harmony.

A couple of months ago, I was in Vietnam and one evening, I had a discussion with a friend, who is Buddhist and has married to a Catholic. They are planning to shift to Italy in a couple of years. "I continue to be Buddhist", she had said. I had thought that in her words, there was an unexpressed anxiety about shifting to a predominently Catholic country and yet, continuing to be a Buddhist.

"And the children of such mixed families, what about their religion?", sometimes people ask me. I don't know how did others deal with this, I can only share how we dealt with it. For us, all children have a right to their family traditions from both the sides, mothers' and fathers' sides. This means that children should be able to feel at home in all their family religions, should participate in all their religious traditions and rites. We had had a church wedding and a hindu wedding, our son had his baptism and his mundan.

It is true that sometimes religions have prayers that talk about supremacy of their god and being the only true religion, but I think that if children can understand that their parents are in peace with each other, they grow up with their own understanding of their religions.

I feel that these children growing with shared understanding and beliefs of different religions, will be the new citizens of the world. I also feel this understanding is precious and should be valued and nurtured.

In India, because we grow up with different religions around us, over the centuries we have developed so many examples of mixing up of religions and traditions. Between Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Christianity, etc.

Once I had read about one of the first Indian censuses done during British times and how people had difficulty in telling their religions, they were not sure if they should call themselves sikhs or hindus, and were forced to decide. Over the past decades, growing ideas of religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism among all the different relgions, seem to strengthen the differences, the divisions and the boundaries between religions and beliefs.

We, the children of mixed gods need to counter this and ask for respect of our religions, our mixed religions.

I have been reading debates about Indian census and if we it should ask questions about the castes or not. I wish that Indian census would also ask about religions of persons and give them the possibility of giving multiple answers - we can also be Hindus and Muslims at the same time, Sikhs and Jains at the same time, Hindus and Sikhs and Parsi at the same time. I wish there is a question that asks, how many believe that there is just one god for all human beings not withstanding their different religions? and how many of us also pray in religious places of other religions?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Alternate world histories

Tamim Ansary has written an alternate world history. Born in Afghanistan and settled in America, Ansary was asked to edit a school book on history and his job was to identify the significant world events, divided into ten units, each unit with three chapters. Thus, the world history had to be broken down into thirty chapters.

In the introduction to his new book, Ansary explains his experience of dealing with members of his school editorial committee, negotiating with them about what events can be significant enough to go into those chapters, and how those persons didn't see Islam as important enough to have a chapter.

Ansary says, from the view point of the academics in the West, the world history can be sub-divided more or less into the following significant areas - birth of civilization (Egypt and Mesopotamia); the classical age (Greece and Rome); upper rennaisance (spread of Christianity); Rennaisance and riforms; Illuminism (sicence and exploration); the revolutions (democratic, industrial and technological); the coming up of nation states and the fight for the empires; first and the second world wars; the cold war; and the triumph of democratic capitalism.

However, Ansary proposes to look at the world from the point of view of Islam and to identify their significant events for the world history, and he comes up with the following list - The antiquity (Mesopotamia and Persia); birth of Islam; the Caliphate and the search for universal unity; the fragmentation - the era of Sultanates; the catastrophe - the crusades and the mongols; the rennaisance and the era of three empires; the permeation of the Orient by the West; the reform movements; the triumph of modernist lays; and the Islamic reaction.

Thus, Ansary has written a book called, "Destiny disrupted. A history of world through Islamic eyes".

I like the idea of the book and I think that it will be interesting to read about the world and the events through an alternate point of view. The Western worldview is so dominating that we end up thinking that this is the only way there is to look at the world.

I think that it will be equally interesting to read about the world histories as seen by other points of views. For example, from India, what events we see as significant, that shaped the world? Probably it will start around Mohanjodaro and Harappa, go on to spread of agricutlure in the Ganges valley? What role will play Ashoka and Buddha in shaping the history of the whole Asian continent?

And the Chinese world history, how it will it differ from others? And the worldview of an African or a south Amerindian?

Perhaps, some book publisher will bring together persons from all over the world to write an alternate world history, that brings together the significant events from all our pasts! I would like to read that.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The old pictures

It was an old black and white photograph. There was nothing particular about it. Yet, it caught my attention. And I must have glanced at it only for a moment. With my sister, we were going through old papers of my mother, trying to think of things to keep and those that could be given away or may be thrown away.

Margaret Loiuse Skinner, Fullbright professor, 1921-1992

There were too many things to be looked at, so we were just trying to look for really important things, and to keep them separately. At the rest, we could take a look later.

"Margo", I told my sister, showing her the picture. The name of the person in the picture had come to me in a flash. There were two of her pictures there and a postcard. I had put them in the bag of things that I wanted to look first.

My mother's diary was the most important thing among those papers, and it was the first thing I did - transcribed it on computer. Day after tomorrow, it will be three months since she died. Going through her papers, her diaries, her pictures, is perhaps my way of trying to hold on to her memories.

So yesterday, while going through some of my mother's papers, I again saw that black and white picture of Margo. It has her signature on it, with her full name, Margaret Louise Skinner. But she liked being called Margo, I remembered it.

I had met her in Hyderabad in June 1960, when I and my other sister, had gone there to spend the summer holidays with our father, who was working in that city at the office of Socialist party. I have a vague memory of going some where with Margo and my mother on a rickshaw. At that time, I had no idea of who she was and what she was doing in Hyderabad. She was obviously angrez, a foreigner and a friend of my father. I also thought that she was somehow related to Socialist party, perhaps someone admiring Dr Lohia, the socialist leader - I don't think that anyone had said it to me, I must have assumed it.

Some months or may be a year later, when we were back in Delhi, I remember her parcel from the USA. There were two animal figures like soft and furry gloves in the parcel, where you can put your hand inside the glove, put fingers in the eyes or mouth of those animals and move your fingers to make them move like puppets. It also had some make-up things like lipsticks and eyeliners for my mother. I remember looking at those gloves once, but I never found them them again and slowly I forgot about them. May be my mother had put them away as they must have been very precious because you couldn't have found something similar in India in those days. Or perhaps, she gave them to some body?

Those childhood memories, sharp and vivid once, slowly faded as I don't remember hearing her name again. Some of those things came back, as I looked at her pictures.

The postcard is from Florence, it has a postal stamp of 19 January 1961. The card is addressed to my father and she has signed it as "M". In the card, in small and neat handwriting she talks about her stay in Florence and the things she has seen in the city ("staying in a pension, for 5 dollars a day, including three wonderful meals and wine"). She also wrote that was getting ready to leave for Paris and then to take the boat back to New York.

The second picture gives a little more information. It is the "afternoon tea" offered in the faculty to "the Fullbright professors Miss Skinner and Miss Smith" in 1953. From the faces of the persons in this picture, I think that it must have been taken somewhere in Philippines. So this means, Margo was a university professor and had been a Fullbright professor outside USA! May be she had also come to India as a Fullbright professor in 1960?

Margaret Loiuse Skinner, Fullbright professor, 1921-1992

I did an internet search and discovered somethings more.

One Margaret Louise Skinner was born in San Francisco on 10 April 1921, and she had died in 1992. In 1990, together with a person called Fritz Leiber, she had published a book of poems under the name of "Margo Skinner" titled, "As green as emeraude" (Dawn Heron Press, USA).

There was another Margaret Louise Skinner, born in 1921 in Kentucky, who had also died in 1992. She was married but didn't have children.

I couldn't find any of their images on internet, so I was not sure if poet Margaret was the Margo I had met in Hyderabad or was it the Kentucky one?

I tried to look for more information on the poetry book and found my answer. Among the titles of her poems there are - At an Indian wedding, At Mahabalypuram, Vishnu and ... To Deepak.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Calling names

This reflection about names of places and countries started from the book "Empires of the Indus" written by Alice Albinia.

Indus is the mighty river that starts from high mountains in Kashmir and goes to end in the Indian ocean through a wide delta in Sindh region of Pakistan. All the other important rivers on the western parts of India (Satluj, Ravi & Beas), Pakistan (Jhelum & Chenab) and eastern part of Afghanistan (Kabul), end in Indus. It is this river that gave India its name, though today most of it belongs to Pakistan.

Albinia writes that when India was divided, and Pakistan chose its new name, Jinah was expecting India to take the official name of Bharat and was aghast when it decided to keep India as its name, the name of the undivided country. It meant that India could claim the heritage and history of the past associated with the name "India", while Pakistan had to invent a new history for itself.

However, this reflection about Indus and India took me into another direction of thoughts. The Indian name for Indus river is Sindhu.

Rajesh Kochhar in his book "The Vedic People - their history and geography", makes an interesting point about development of languages in western part of the Indian subcontinent. His story starts with persons from central Asia. They moved into Afghanistan and then some of them migrated towards Sindhu river (Rigvedic people, as they wrote Rigveda) and others went towards Persia/Iran (Avestan people, as they wrote their sacred book Avesta). Later, as iron became available and thick jungles in the gangetic plains could be cut, the Rigvedic people migrated deeper into India.

Kochhar says that Avestans, used "H" more commonly in their language while Rigvedic people used more "S" in their language. Thus, Rigvedic group had names of many places and rivers starting with "S", including Sindhu river, while Avestan group had the same names starting with "H". So that for the Avestan group, Sindhu became Hindu.

Among other things, Kochhar proposes that Rigveda is mainly about three thousand years BC, when these persons were living in what is today called Afghanistan. To support this theory he explains the lack of references to Ganga river (Ganges) in Rigveda. Thus, he says that Sarayu river of Rigveda is not the present Sarayu in Uttar Pradesh, but is actually Haroyu (present name Hari Rud) of Afghanistan; in the same way, he arguments that Rigvedic Sarasawati river was actually the mighty Afghani river, Harahvaiti.

That is how, persons living on banks of Sindhu river were called Hindu and their religion became Hinduism. Come to think of it, Rigveda also does not mention any religion called "Hindu".

And, where did the word Indus came from? I guess, it came from Latin, the language of Roman empire and the lingua franca of the classical Europe, where "H" is silent and rarely used. For example, in Italian, Hinduism is called "Induismo" and Himalaya becomes "Imalaia". Therefore, the name of Indus river and country's name, India, both probably come from Latin.

All these reflections about names of places and country, worry me a little.

Thinking of all the campaigns for reclaiming our roots through name changes (Mumbai, Bengalaru, Chennai, etc.), perhaps one day there will be a campaign to change India's name to Sindhia and Hindus can call themselves Sindhus, and Hindi can become Sindhi?

That obviously raises another question - how are Sindhis going to call themselves?
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