Ambiguities of Heritage /*/

I start by reminding myself that I'm thinking about questions of "heritage" and "identity" here, within this society, in these United States of America, where much too frequently -- simply on the basis of my looks -- I am viewed and treated not as an individual but as a representative of a people, a people who in turn are seen as being all alike in some essential sense. I guess I resent that treatment. The trouble is that this society and this polity also make it easy, sometimes even advantageous, for me to think of myself as just that -- a representative Indian. And this feeling gets confirmed when no Indian ambassador who comes to Chicago fails to remind me that I'm one of the hundreds of thousands of "true" representatives that India has in this country. In other words, what I resent at some moments is what I assertively claim at other times. It's really this paradox that I try to remember as I go about sorting out questions of identity and heritage.

The word "heritage," as commonly understood, seems to have something to do with birth and the past. I was born in India, so India's past is my heritage. But who am I, and what is India, and how far in the past do we go? Certainly I must have some satisfactory answers to these questions before I claim my heritage and proceed to possess and preserve it. Needless to say, I have not always followed my own advice. Too much work. Sometimes, also, a bit disorienting. No one here would object if I claim the Taj Mahal as my heritage. But how and in what sense is it? What relationship do I claim to have with Shahjahan, who financed it, and Ustad Ahmad, who designed and supervised the construction? Perhaps only a tenuous religious identity. Then what about the multitude of individual craftsmen who did the actual work? Most of them were probably not Muslims. Sahir Ludhianvi, a Progressive Urdu poet more famous for his excellent film songs, first gained a somewhat dubious fame when he wrote a poem denouncing the Taj, calling it a symbol of imperialism. In a similar vein, if we recall that Mumtaz Mahal, in whose memory the Taj is said to have been built, died in giving birth to her 13th or 14th child, one can also call it a monument to a wife who was literally loved to death by her husband. Do I still feel comfortable claiming it as my heritage? "Don't be ridiculous," some of you must be muttering, and I won't. Let's call the Taj what the poet Tagore did: the frozen tear of a lover. The trouble is that if every lover can claim the Taj as a symbol of his or her love, it might as well be in Atlantic City, NJ, as in Agra, India. Now it doesn't matter whether it was built by Shahjahan, as thousands of scholars believe, or by some Hindu Rajput, as is believed by one scholar. But I don't want to lose my special claim, for that is my true comfort and pride. I want something of the Taj to rub off on me, make me at least a little bit special.

There is an interesting moment in one of Naipaul's earlier books where he describes something that used to hang on a wall in his father's house: it was the skeleton of a charpoy that had belonged to his grandmother. She had presumably brought it from India. The broken and twisted webbing and its splintered frame probably looked like some spidery found object. There it was on the wall, like some cherished painting. However, it couldn't provide any functional or emotional referent for Naipaul's benefit. When I read that section I was reminded of a scene I had come upon several years earlier in an orchard near Yuba City, CA. We were a group of Indian and Pakistani students, who had gone from Berkeley to spend a day with the "Indian" -- more accurately the "Punjabi" -- community there; the orchard belonged to a Sikh settler. Wandering around by myself I suddenly came upon a scene that was so familiar that it came as a shock. Two or three Indians, including a woman, sat on a charpoy, while nearby another man squatted on the ground. Their soiled shalwars and loosely wound turbans, the humid stillness of the afternoon, the surrounding, rather dusty trees that cut off all presence of the America beyond them -- I could have been in some village in Punjab. I spoke to them, but their Punjabi was much better than their Hindi-Urdu; my Punjabi is non-existent. Apparently they had just recently come from India and were related to the owner of the orchard. I was curious about the crudely-made charpoy and one of them proudly told me that he had made it. I can't recall the reason he gave, or even if he offered one, but it must have been the very first thing he had made in his new home. Finding out his reason couldn't have been important to me, anyway, for I had lived with charpoys all my life and had also read the Urdu humourist Rashid Ahmad Siddiqui's long, delightful paean to this all-purpose piece of furniture. That man must have felt lost, adrift in the new land, and needed the familiar lap of a charpoy to anchor him to some certainty. Should we not then rightly say that in knocking together that charpoy he had recovered and preserved something from his heritage? Or is a measly charpoy not quite fit for that label, which is best used for such grand edifices as the Taj Mahal or the not-that-grand temples and mosques that have been going up in recent years?

Perhaps the first communal building -- in the sense of serving an entire, speculated community -- that the more recent immigrants from South Asia put up in any American city was some sort of a religious place -- a temple, a mosque, or a gurudwara. In a sense, it was the first big step out of their individual drawing rooms, which till then had been the gathering places, the communal sites. Looked at that way, these temples and mosques may appear as the first expression of a desire to have some larger, more transpersonal notion of the self. But I'm not sure. Rather than some transcendental, universalist, all-embracing impulse, the driving urge appears to have been to essentialise religion and make it exclusive towards everything local and personal.

Until quite recently, mosques and temples in South Asia did not exist in exclusive or excluding contexts. Hindus and Muslims grew up accommodating both structures in their visual and other experiences. As young boys, my friends and I got as much pleasure out of annoying the old Imam Sahib by stealing guavas from the trees in the yard of the main mosque as from pestering the equally aged pujari at the temple near our school for extra-large, totally undeserved portions of the sweets offered there. Coming out of the mosque after the early evening prayer, particularly in the month of Ramazan, one often encountered women, including one or two Hindu women, who would be holding a small pot of water which they expected us to bless by blowing upon it. I am equally sure that whenever there was a threat of smallpox, any number of Muslims in my village surreptitiously offered a copper pice or two at the roadside shrine to Shitla. Of course, the beggars that came to the big mosque on Fridays and blessed us while asking for alms in the name of Allah were the same who stood around the Dhanaukar temple on Tuesdays blessing the worshippers there in the name of Bhagwan. 

The mosques that are going up in America are not a part of any neighbourhood as a whole; they are merely edifices that serve and represent a religion. In that sense, these new mosques are not even like the first mosque I visited in Chicago, way back in 1961. It was a Yugoslavian mosque, on Halsted, in what is now a Mexican neighbourhood. We prayed in a hall upstairs, then went down to a community centre and a neighbourhood bar that served everyone in the neighbourhood.

For a number of reasons that we may talk about later, the religious heritage that is being projected here and then sought to be preserved and passed on to the next generation, is closer to an ideology than to a faith. It has more certainties than doubts, more pride than humility; it is more concerned with power than salvation, and would rather exclude and isolate than accomodate and include. In any case, in the cultural discourse of the Muslims of South Asia, mosque stands for the awe-inspiring aspect of a doctrine; it does not represent the mystery of a faith or the passion of a quest. Let me quote an Urdu verse from Ghalib to make myself a bit more clear.

"Church and Mosque -- repetition of the same desire
Tired zeal building shelters for itself"
Here "desire" stands as much for Man's longing to gain a knowledge of God as for God's own original wish to see Himself in the mirror of His creation. Ghalib perceives a failure on the part of both, made visible in the diversity and number of these "homes of God." For Ghalib, both Church and Mosque must fail to encompass or reveal what is boundless and inconceivable. When in December 1992, I heard on the radio the news of the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, the first thing that came to my mind was a couplet by Sauda, an 18th century poet who in fact spent several last years of his life in Fyzabad. This is the couplet:
"Don't grieve, O Shaikh, if the Kaaba was demolished
It wasn't someone's heart that it can't be built again"/1/
At the moment I was preparing for a class in Urdu poetry and on impulse I decided to check through Sauda's collection of ghazals. Not to my surprise, even a rapid look brought up some 15 or 18 different couplets of a similar nature, and the next day's class could be devoted to those verses. They also came handy when I got calls from some of my Hindu friends who wished to share with me their own shock and grief.

If this contextualisation of the mosques in South Asia and their implied differentiation from the mosques going up here and now, seem a bit too abstract or "academic," consider the following. In South Asia, mosques exist, not only in the context of temples and churches and Urdu couplets but also in the context of Sufi shrines -- dargahs -- tombs and graves of people believed to have been "friends of God" or wali-allahs, seekers of Truth, believed to be still alive in their graves, still possessing their miraculous powers, still functioning as conduits of God's baraka or blessing to all and sundry, regardless of religious distinctions. There are no dargahs in America as yet, or at least not the kind where a South Asian Muslim and a South Asian Hindu would together go to obtain that special pleasure of communion or that equally special comfort of a personal intercession with God. Here are only mosques, and in them hold sway either the Tablighi Jama'at or the Jama'at-e-Islami. Neither allows for mixing, compromise, erasure of boundaries -- doubts. Going to a shrine would be considered by both as a horribly superstitious act, if not outright un-Islamic. And I'm sure their counterparts in the other new "houses" of Bhagwan would be equally "rational" and "scientific" within their own circuit.

Doubts, ambiguities, contradictions -- each is integral to every tradition or heritage. Disquieting, nevertheless integral. No tradition is without them; none can be without them. And contrary to what dictionary definitions might lead one to believe, one is not just born into a tradition or heritage; one has to claim it and claim all of it, the "good" with the "bad." Only after claiming the whole can one proceed to the real task concerning one's heritage, namely to challenge it and be challenged by it. Otherwise, one only lets oneself be deluded by "myths and inventions," a particularly threatening possibility given the politics of identity that is as much raging here as in South Asia. I began these remarks with a reminder to myself, I conclude with another reminder, this time from a recent essay by Eric Hobsbawm, entitled "The New Threat to History":

Myth and invention are essential to the politics of identity by which groups of people today, defining themselves by ethnicity, religion, or the past or present borders of states, try to find some certainty in an uncertain and shaking world by saying, "We are different from and better than the Others."/2/
I don't know what durable certainty one can find in this uncertain world by laying claim to some essential difference; I do believe, however, that by claiming to be better than my every Other, I'm likely to make this world much more unstable and dangerous, not just for my Others but for myself. 


/*/ Originally published in The Toronto Review 14,1 (1995). First given as a talk at Yale University in 1993(?).
/1/ [2005: At the time I ascribed the verse to Sauda, as it has been in several books, but much later realised my error: the verse is actually by Sauda's contemporary, Qa'im Chandpuri. Obviously, my error further substantiates the point I'm trying to make.]
/2/ Eric Hobsbawn, "The New Threat to History," The New York Review of Books, 16 December 1993, p. 64.


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