Saturday, April 11, 2009

Your Culture, My Culture

I get a call from Popo (name changed) in the middle of a busy day – ‘I am coming for Bihu!!! Will have to do a lot of utpat (its English equivalent will be something like excessive fun, the kind that makes you so happy that it irritates your neighbour, family and other people around you and make them very unhappy).’ Just his excited tone gave me an immediate hangover. My body remembered all that I will have to go through (indubitably with my consent and desire) during the festivities. And my mind remembered the last Bihu…

I had just arrived back from South Africa. And my 15 year stint out of North-East had kept me away from Bihus for many years. All that I remembered of Bihu was the essay we had to learn in primary school – “Bihu is our national festival. There are 3 Bihus in a year… On the first day of Rongali Bihu we wash the cows and the buffalos with halodhi (turmeric) and mah (lentil) paste. We touch our elders’ feet and dance Bihu dance. Rongali Bihu is the festival of fun and joy. Blah blah.”

Of course in my city ridden existence I have never had to wash any cow. The last time I remember touching my father’s feet was to cut his nail as he can not do it himself due to his broken back. I never had to touch my mother’s feet because she has not broken her back yet. Rongali Bihu was full of drunken people all around, lewd remarks in Bihu gatherings and even nightmarish experience of slimy bastards pinching your bottom or squeezing your just pubescent bosom. Anyway I never really liked gatherings of masses. Unless my friends are performing at a Bihu function (these by the way are huge public affairs) and I could be backstage, I don’t like going to Bihu.

So I arrive in Guwahati after a long absence from Bihu and learn there is a rave party in Guwahati. A DJ friend from Delhi is playing. Now, although I do not like gatherings of masses, I do love parties. Especially if they hold promises of intoxicants and beautiful girls. The parties also give me numerous occasions to be rude to people who try to socialise with me. And I do love music and dance. So off we go to the rave party…

On our way we crossed the Bihu public function, the drunken masses and a few righteous losers who scorned at the mention of a party on Bihu. Bihu is the time to be cultural. We should listen to our own music (no matter how bad the sound system is or how many mosquitoes bite you in the open air). I have never been very good at tolerating righteousness. And alcohol does not help my peeves at all. So we moved on merrily to celebrate Bihu with underground electronic music.

Sometimes towards wee morning when we were coming out of the party, I was blinded by some very bright light. Now, after a whole night of hard work at consuming illicit amounts of alcohol, bouncing, jumping and making weird contours in the name of dancing etc, all that a normal person wants to do at 4 am is go home and die in her/his own bed. (Don’t even remind me of the hangover that is to follow). Blinding light is not the most pleasant thing at this time, you know. Soon I also heard rude shouts of people saying – “All of you, who ever is here, must come out.” Now at this time of the morning all the decent people had left the party hours ago. The left over were me and my friends. Being very thoughtful people, we always come back from parties after the helpers etc have washed the dishes, folded the upholstery and hidden the empty alcohol bottles. Sometimes they have to carry us out of parties on their way home. We hate leaving people behind. The poor DJ was still around as we had forced him to play on till we were ready to leave. A bunch of similarly discontent people who had to stay on because we refused to leave were also around. When I looked confusedly at who was shouting and blinding us I realised, there was a horde of policemen around. The blinding light was coming from flash light of video cameras. The party has been busted!!!

After another hour of harrowing confusion (the police did not know why they were there. The media was trying to act all moral and righteous asking stupid questions like why are you here?), we managed to leave. A friend of mine insisted the TV people (a local bullshit news channel owned by a minister in the government and manned by a bunch of ass licking nit-wits - the kind that makes you embarrassed about their lowliness) take his photo. They did not. They took my photo while I was swearing at them and aired them the next day.

Now, you must be wondering why the party was busted. So were we the next day when we could open our eyes and somehow croak our thoughts despite the massive hangover. The TV report it seems said there was drugs and sex in the party. There was no drug in that party for sure. Being a fan of entertaining psychotropic, I personally had gone and asked everyone if they had anything on them. I wanted them. And sex??? Get real man! In India, where you do not have the privacy to have sex in married people’s bedrooms you think people would have privacy to have sex in a party?? We were also disappointed that there were no girls in the party. We wanted to bring them home! And if there was any sex and drugs happening in my presence, I would surely be involved in it.

The major angle to the story however, (when I actually managed to see it through the hangover) was very sinister. And to talk about that I had to write this long background wasting one whole working day at office. The party was wrong because it happened on the day of Bihu. Bihu, our national festival. On Bihu, when girls should wear mekhela-sador (the Assamese traditional dress) and dance Bihu to protect and preserve our tradition and culture, a bunch of urbanised, modern Assamese young people were listening to western music and dancing? Now, that is wrong. They were having more fun than most people who were preserving culture the very same moment. Has to be exposed, shamed and punished. Thankfully I am shamed by very little and am an exhibitionist (so exposure is actually a pleasure). The only embarrassment is actually the association with the lowly media. Makes me want to laugh. But let’s look at this culture thing again. And this time in context of Assamese culture and Bihu.

What is Assamese culture today? When I look around me I just see a group of extremely materialistic, corrupt group of people whose lives are devoid of any philosophy or ethics. All that remains of a close knit, supportive community is competitiveness on who is driving which car and using which phone. In this back dated parochial society, people proudly display money earned through corruption and I have not seen a single person who thinks it is wrong. The media is full of crap and games of using power and politics to earn more money. Stories of media houses blackmailing politicians and politicians running media houses are real. Educated people make their children chose Hindi as an alternative language in school instead of Assamese and proudly announce their lack of knowledge about their own language. There is no respectable Assamese intellectual today who is talking sense or objectivity. All around it is just pretension and more pretension. This is Assamese culture today.

However each year during Bihu we remember our culture and celebrate it with deafening blasts of ridiculous music that is a tasteless, confused mixture of west, Bollywood and Bihu. Women wear mekhela-sador worth thousands of rupees (must be better than the neighbour’s) bought with their husband’s black money. Boys get out in unruly mobs and behave in uncivilised ways that would put a cocaine-stuffed Mike Tyson to shame. The desperation to be noticed is so high that having fun amounts to performing buffoonery for people around you in public spaces. And the organisers and performers (the self-appointed culture keepers) are not clear as water either. More politics on which artist have to be invited, stealing money raised for Bihu celebrations, drunken fights amongst organisers; drunken non-performance by artists…the list is endless. And if you are an Assamese, you do not need more details. This is how the Assamese celebrate Bihu and upkeep their tradition and culture each year. And if you refuse to do any of this, then you are doing apa-sanskriti (anti-culture).

Now, the only thing I have preserved in my life is a few copies of Safura (the children’s magazine, edited by Dr. Bhaben Saikia) and temporarily in phases, some Soh-yong jam from Shillong. I have never accepted the responsibility of upholding any culture and tradition. In fact I am one of those westernised people (sadly no longer young) who find culture very boring and tradition very dated.

My culture is to party, party and more party. I love to dance till my feet hurt and sing till my lungs cry. I read pornography and love Rumi’s poetry. I cook a mean pork with bamboo shoot and can hold a respectable amount of alcohol without ever molesting people sexually. My culture lets me be myself, take responsibility of my actions, think about marginalised people around me, not indulge in corruption, love different languages, read, think and create. My culture does not differentiate on the basis of religion, caste, class and colour. My culture believes in equality. My culture is to love and let others be. My culture is to be true. Bihu (the way it is done today) is not my culture.

Why must then I be stopped from having parties on Bihu? As a citizen of a democratic country I have the rights to rave whenever. I am irritated by being disturbed in the middle of it. Or was it in the end? And as I plan to have another raving Bihu this year (what with my friends visiting from different parts of the country and the world), I pose a challenge to all the traditional fools – STOP ME IF YOU CAN.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Religious Peeps

The other day, I had to go see the owners of my flat to pay my rent. I also had to make complaints about a few things not working in the house – a plug in the kitchen, the bathroom light, the bedroom fan… The good landlords assured me they will send an electrician in the evening and then all full of consideration and concern for me asked– “Do you have problems if a Muslim enters your kitchen?”

I took a few seconds to register the question before I burst out laughing. While shaking my whole body in all directions with convulsive laughter I managed to shake my head sideways and say – ‘No, there is no problem.’ The elderly couple waited for my epilepsy to subside and said with hurt sensibility – “We have no problems either. We let them enter the kitchen.” (In the same tone that whites say, ‘I am not a racist. Some of my best friends are black.)

I called up all my friends to tell the story and everyone laughed almost as hard as me. Some of course laughed harder. One Muslim-phile (he is trying to be an expert on Kashmiri Muslims and thinks he is Muslims’ best friend) however said that this was a very democratic question. At least I was asked if I had problems. Most Hindu’s in India would assume that I would have a problem and hence would never send a Muslim to fix things in my kitchen. I do not know much about Indians or Hindus. I have luckily managed to escape them in marijuana induced sufi-fakir-baul sentiments in the past 20 years of my adult life. As you know Marijuana causes memory loss and I am only too grateful for that.

But the incident did remind me of a few Muslim stories...

In South-Africa my friends Dina and Moxa (names changed just for kicks. Might get me kicks from them for changing their names) went to a white school. Dina is (I think) a Christian and a Hindu and Moxa (may be) half Muslim by her grand mother’s birth and Christian. Both of them are Indians. In the white school that they went to, Muslim students would get an hour or so off on Fridays to say their prayers. So every Friday religiously Dina and Moxa would skip classes after lunch to go and smoke up behind the prayer room with other ‘Muslim’ girls. One day they were all talking about sex and drugs sitting in a circle during the prayer break and a teacher walked in. They all folded their palms the Muslim way and said some gibberish, looking like they are deep in prayer. The white teacher, who of course had no clue that Muslims and Indians can be different identities, respectfully left them to their religious ritual. Makes me wish we had off periods for saying prayers too… I would have converted to any (actually many) religion, to skip class and smoke up behind the prayer room.

The other favourite story involves my idiotic brother and Muslim cousin. I have a set of cousins who are Muslims. My uncle married my aunt and converted in to Islam, giving us the pleasure of pualo and korma on Id in the family.

One day my brother and cousin went for a hair cut. When they came back, my brother was looking sullen and my cousin laughing his hems apart.
My brother says – ‘You know that idiot Mridul?’
I say – ‘What happened?’ My cousin in the meantime is about to kill himself by not giving his lungs enough time to take in air.
My brother – “You know how boys always talk about Muslims, Muslims are like this, like that? When we were in the salon, Mridul walked in and started swearing at this other guy we know.”
More eardrum breaking shrieks of laughter from my cousin.
My brother says – “He was saying –‘that bloody Muslim guy. All Muslims are like that (followed by swear words)”.
Brother continues – “You know I had Saz (our cousin) sitting next to me. I felt very awkward. So I said – 'why are you swearing at Muslims? Not all Muslims are the same. Don’t you know what Jesus Christ said? He said – hate the sin, not the sinner'.”
At which point Saz burst out laughing and Mridul the swearer told my brother – “I think you have lost your mind”, gave him a dirty look and walked away using the same swear words on him that were used on Muslims before.”

The story became quite a legend in our family to my brother’s embarrassment.

My other favourite Muslim story is about a Brahmin friend’s family. Her parents are very proud to be Brahmin and truly believe that Brahmins are a superior race. They also believe that it is a duty of every Brahmin to preserve this superiority by mating only with Brahmins. Naturally they threw a fit when they came to know that their daughter was seeing a non-Brahmin boy. The boy was a brilliant student, on his way to become a successful professional and a very nice person. After months of psycho-drama she eloped with her boyfriend. They got married in Delhi, started a new life together and are living happily ever after now…

Her parents have accepted her marriage and are ok with it although that has left a deep scar in their hearts, their inflated egos and their fragile social faces. There is a deep sense of resignation as if accepting a loss knowing it is inevitable in life anyway. Naturally her younger brother has been under tremendous pressure to do the right thing. Their daughter has disappointed them, so as the only son, he now had the responsibility of bringing back their lost honour by marrying a Brahmin girl.

And the other day I got a frantic call from my friend… the son fell in love and has married a Muslim girl. Makes me love the world and believe in poetic justice again…

I have many more Muslim stories. In fact I have many more stories. But I am ending today with a translation of this beautiful Bengali song by this band from Bangladesh called Bangla. My favourite singer Anushe sang it.

Emon Manab Samaj Kobe Go Srijon Hobe – When will a humane society be created
Jethai Hindu, Musolman ----- Where Hindu and Muslim
Boudhdho, Kristan ------------- Budhdhist and Christians
Jati, Dhormo ----------------- Nationality (?) and Religion
Nahi Robe …. ------------------------- Will not be there….