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Children’s Day: A letter from a Poet to his daughter

I am writing this letter to you not exactly from a prison as Jawaharlal Nehru did when he wrote his letters on world history to his daughter.

By: Express News Service |
Updated: November 9, 2014 1:00:12 am
(Courtesy: K Satchidanandan) (Courtesy: K Satchidanandan)

From a Poet to his daughter
‘The capacity for accommodation is our strength’

Dear Sabitha,

I am writing this letter to you not exactly from a prison as Jawaharlal Nehru did when he wrote his letters on world history to his daughter, but from a country that threatens to turn into a prison for the lovers of freedom and those committed to democratic openness and cultural plurality. Amma and I have been proud of you not just as a brilliant student, a much-loved teacher and now a Commonwealth scholar, but for having been socially concerned and politically alert from your early days. There has hardly been any major protest movement in Delhi of which you were not a part — whether it be against atrocities on women or suppression of human rights. Your poetry reflects your concerns, while your research looks at the colonial representations of India in the East India Company paintings and related texts. These are what encourages me to write to you about some of the anxieties that we both share.

Democracy, as you well know, must constantly expand its base, remove the curbs on people’s freedom and reduce the presence of the state in their everyday lives; but I fear the opposite is happening with our democracy now. I know from your Facebook posts and our conversations that you have watched its recent turn — elevating to power a political outfit that has opposed a secular outlook, freedom of expression and cultural diversity that was so dear to the founding fathers of our nation like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar — with shock and pain. This party has upheld the idea of a highly reductive and standardised “Indian” culture which to them means only their own mutilated and sanitised version of an imagined “Hindu” culture that ignores the contributions of other modes of life and faith to our composite civilisation.

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I need not tell you how India has always not just lived with, but been proud about the multiplicity of her religions, world views, cultures, knowledge systems, landscapes, languages and literatures, the very source of her cultural richness. How poor our culture would have been without the Mughal miniatures and architecture best represented by the Taj Mahal, Sufi literature and music, Buddhist and Jain mythology and art, the Parsi ways of thought and life, Guru Nanak’s syncretism, the translations of the Holy Bible and the churches in Roman and Gothic styles. How poor our philosophy would have been without those beautiful conversations and arguments among the several systems including Sankhya and Charvaka, Buddhist and Jain that had no place for the idea of God. And how poor our literature would have been bereft of Shantideva and Ashwaghosha, Ghalib, Mir and Bulle Shah and scores of writers who belong to different religious and non-religious thought systems!

Our tribal cultures, that are genuinely native to India, with their immense variety of languages, oral lore, music, dance, paintings and sculptures were never considered “Hindu” until their “Sanskritisation” began recently. Our folk cultures, from which emerged epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata and many collections of tales such as the Kathasaritsagara, Brihatkatha and the Jataka, and the systematised forms of music and dance that we tend to call classical, too, were seldom recognised as “Hindu”, an umbrella term used by those who came from outside to qualify those who lived by the Indus river.

The champions of cultural Hindutva have manufactured an inauthentic and unified-looking collage of a religion by choosing certain elements from our past to the exclusion of so many others. Ours has been an inclusive culture with an infinite capacity for absorption of and negotiation with cultures that had their origins outside the country. This quality is evident in our clothing and cuisine and even within our languages that carry words from so many tongues. Our mother tongue, Malayalam, for example, has many words borrowed from Arabic, Dutch, English, French, Hebrew, Kannada, Persian, Portuguese, Sanskrit, Tamil and then nativised so well that we do not even recognise them as foreign. Some states in the North-east even have English as the state language.

This capacity for accommodation and absorption is not our weakness, but our strength. And this is what is being sentenced to amnesia in the divisive practices of fundamentalists and cultural nationalists. Now some of their spokespersons, who had earlier sent a great artist like MF Hussain into exile, attacked the great Bhandarkar Institute, destroyed the tomb of the poet Wali Dakhani and razed to ground Babri Masjid, are taking up cudgels against the most eminent of our historians. They are striving to crush every voice of dissent in their attempt to foist a monolithic culture on India.

The future of India is in the hands of freedom-loving, forward-thinking youth like you. I am sure we will work towards this end together once you are back, and you will continue my work even after I am gone.

With hugs and kisses,

K Satchidanandan is a Malayalam poet and critic. Sabitha is a PhD student at the University of London

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