Monday, January 12, 2009

One Bindi - My Talisman against Communal Horror

I normally carry a strip of bindis in my toilet kit when I travel-but this time it so happened I forgot to take any. I had only the one I wore on my forehead.

That bindi proved to be more precious than silver and gold to me. It was to contribute to my sense of safety during those few days I spent stuck in a room in a hotel in Vadodhra.

It was 27 February, 2002. I had traveled to Vadodra for a break from work, and to spend a week with my husband who was on official duty there.

I do not know if that date means anything to you at the first glance, but I flinch at the very mention of that date. A type of fear surges through me. I distract myself instantly by forcibly pegging my thoughts on some nearby object that my eyes fall on. With a fair amount of success, I push away the date and its reaction from my thoughts, and stay them from hovering around in my conscious mind; but banish them from my subconscious or the unconscious – no. That’s impossible. Unfortunately, fear and its cause cannot be uprooted and cast away that easily from those inaccessible regions of the mind.

Why do I remember it now? Yesterday, The Rosebowl Channel screened Mr. & Mrs. Iyer. The intended main focus of the film may be human relationships, but for me it is the background - the post-Godhra riot- that appealed to me.

‘It’s so easy to kill a man”, says Meenakshi after she sees, through the camera zoom lens, blood gushing out from the slit throat of a Muslim.
In the course of this conversation Jehangir Choudhary (a Muslim) says, “I’m alive today because you gave me a name – MR. Iyer”

What’s in a name, asked Shakespeare. Everything, I say. When Mr. Jehangir Choudhary was temporarily bestowed the name ‘Mr. Iyer’, his life was spared.

Six decades back, a group of people known as “the Jews” were gas chambered en masse; another known as Pundits were threatened, killed and driven out of their homeland in Kashmir. Charles Darney, though a good man, was condemned to be guillotined, simply because he carried the burden of the name ‘Everemonde’ (A tale of two cities).

In 2002 March, thousands were killed in Gujarat, because they belonged to the category named Muslims.

In this world of ours, nomenclature is all. It can decide whether you have a right to existence or not.

The idea is so powerfully brought out in Mr. & Mrs Iyer. Meenakshi, a South Indian Brahmin, is the very epitome of extreme conservatism. But another dimension of her personality - that of an instinctive humanitarian – emerges when, in a moment of crisis, she temporarily lends the object most revered by a woman of her breeding, namely, the name of her husband, to a man whose religion and cultural habits are so diametrically and irreconcilably opposite hers.

The movie is the surest statement that caste and creed are but cultural truths which a human should be willing to give a secondary position to in the face of a humanitarian crisis. Meenakshi becomes a true Brahmin when she decides to save a life – even at the cost of subversion of cultural values.

It’s not birth which makes one a Brahmin – but deeds.

Now back to the post-Godhra riots. The burning of the train carrying pilgrims to Ayodhya was a terrible, condemnable tragedy. The culprits should have been brought before the law of the land and severely punished by the state machinery. But the state decided to do something else before the culprits were apprehended. It decided to organize a systematic decimation of the tribe of the culprits –men, women, children. And the modus operandi? Kill, burn, loot and rape. All with silent official sanction.

Terrorism is bad. But state engineered terrorism strikes terror in the hearts of the citizens, as it did in mine when we were stranded in Vadodra, waiting for things to normalize.

I thanked God I had at least one bindi. I stuck it on the mirror everyday and took it out and wore it every time I came out of the room. I became anxious when the gum became weak from over use – kept on feeling my forehead to see if the bindi was there in place. I belonged to the minority and was in a state which had officially/unofficially let loose a reign of terror on the non- majority. The centre too played along – it took more than three days for army’s flag march to begin.

Will I become a victim?

At the bottom of my commitment to secularism, there is, I guess, this constant fear of being unsafe in my country to which I belong, and which belongs to me.

So I treasured the bindi - it was my passport and visa to survival. Given the choice, I’d forget those terrible days when we sat in the lobby of the hotel while people like me were killed, assaulted and raped out there; when the smoke of arson clouded the distant skies day and night; when the conversation in the lobby revealed truths best left unsaid.

And there is a picture that continues to haunt me after so many years, a picture which makes me indulge in Modi bashing whenever I can, a picture which made my heart sink into unknown depths of depression when Modi won twice after that. A picture that prevents me from applauding Modi’s huge success with the development agenda.

After the army arrived, my husband and I used to venture out into the roads after sunset, and after the curfew was lifted. I made sure I had my bindi on my forehead. We saw the army trucks plying, with soldiers holding guns and looking grim. That was a pleasant, welcome sight.

But there was another that I cannot get over – not even after so many years.

Groups of Muslims – sometimes a large joint family(once I saw a four generation group), sometimes several families moving in clusters, walking silently through the streets of Vadodra, with cloth bundles in their hands. Apparently, they were fleeing to safer areas unaffected by the riots.

They had death in their eyes.


  1. Grim are the realities that stare at us. Bhishma Sahni's 'Tamas' has a scene in which a family that belongs to one religious group risk their lives to protect their neighbours who believe in another religion, in God by another name. 'Tamas' was serialised for national telecast on DD but was taken off the air after somebody in the higher echelons felt it would rekindle old rivalries. Strange, how such a powerful portrayal of truth can be perceived as a threat.
    Rohinton Mistri's 'A Fine Balance' too has a similar scene.
    It's not just the 'bindi' that can save your life in times of communal trouble. A purdha, folded neatly and packed in your hand bag, can sometimes save your life, depending on which city you are in at the time when terror strikes. Or, if you were in Bosnia during the war, wearing a cross or not wearing one would make the difference between life and death.

    However, that which we see right before our eyes seem to get engraved deeper in consciousness, seem to alter our perspectives much more drastically, than that which we watch on television news or read about, even when we know these are as true and authentic as the first hand experiences we have had.

  2. @ paul M
    yes. i used to watch tamas too - cant say i was upset it was taken off air - used to get tense just to think of having to watching it.truth is always painful.

    u r right. but to think that we need a bindi or a cross or a purdha to feel safe in this world driven by scientific attitudes - -

    do u blog? would like to read your posts.

  3. Great Post.I liked 'Mr and Mrs Iyer' very much too.
    Did you read the retired IPS Officer RB Sreekumar's interview in Malayala Manorama Onapathippu abt Gujarat riots? Somebody should have translated it to English and given more publicity.

  4. I haven't seen the movie but I understand how you must have felt. I can never hear any talk of Modi's development and governance without thinking of what he did in Gujarat. We were in Kochi and I was glued t the TV, a friend (from Gujarat) had sent a CD with some Modi propaganda - I never saw it ... It is difficult to understand how any attempts at justifying raping or killing of little babies be justified.

    I blogged about how BJP changed the whole attitude of Indians with their protect Hinduism agenda.

    It's not just religion, language is also a matter of life and death in this country.
    If we continue voting like Gujarat so sadly did, we will remain a divided nation.

    Nice post, the last bit gave me goose bumps. Please write more about this - you were there ...

    We should not forget this.

  5. Like Paul said, a bindi would've given you security at some place and some time. But the same may act against you in the same place at a different time. No one, whether minority or majority, is safe.

  6. Good post.. I have experienced a minor version of this, but it's scary to even think of incidents of this magnitude..

  7. No, I don't. Nor surf often. And 'that this world is driven by scientific attitudes' is just a myth. A myth we would all like to believe in. Get down to reality.

    Or keep holding on to your dreams. To your peril.

    Paul M.

  8. I saw the last 20 minutes of the movie in Rosebowl that day but I didnt know the name or the context under which he became Mr Iyer. Makes more sense now.

    What you wrote in the end really shook me up KT... you dont have to see blood or physical pain to see horror...

  9. Dostoevsky, master of human mind, said he does not believe that a man can be inherently evil.
    I wonder if it true anymore.

    We have seen so much, been through so much, undergone so much change; that it makes me wonder whether our souls themselves have been corrupted. You wrote long long back about an animal that resides in human hearts. Waiting for a chance to come out..

    Religion is that way of life which seems to bring the animal out of humans.

    What a paradox isn't it?

    Sorry for the extremely pessimistic comment, but could think of nothing else.
    I think the world needs a major distraction to realize that what it has been fighting for, was all worthless. And that life itself was the only priceless thing which it should have valued.
    I dare not name a distraction!

  10. Mr. and Mrs.Iyer had a moving premise, though I was a tad bit underwhelmed by Konkona Sensharma's much lauded portrayal of a conservative Tamil Brahmin.
    Have you seen Perumazhakkaalam? I thought that was even more poignant in some ways than Mr. and Mrs.Iyer, both in plot and performances.

  11. ”In 2002 March, thousands were killed in Gujarat, because they belonged to the category named Muslims”

    This is a very biased statement. Out of the 1044 killed, 254 were Hindus. Is it just because the numbers of Muslims were more you resort to blame??

    “But the state decided to do something else before the culprits were apprehended. It decided to organize a systematic decimation of the tribe of the culprits –men, women, and children. And the modus operandi? Kill, burn, loot and rape. All with silent official sanction”

    Earlier you said about Kerala that it is not a state sponsored terror. Asgar, who was killed in Marad by his own men by accident, was given Rs 5 lakhs by the Government. Can you ever imagine a State giving money to a terrorist?? You also said about Kashmiri Pundits, Who initiated the attack? This is the only country where its own citizens are refugees. 2,17,000 is the approximate number.

    Thanks you dislike the word Pseudo Secularism.

  12. "Religion is that way of life which seems to bring the animal out of humans.
    What a paradox isn't it?"

    I'm not deep into statistics, but I've heard it mentioned (I'm not even sure this is true) that more blood has been shed in the name of religion in the annals of history than in the two world wars put together.

    If this is true it's time we gave some serious thought as to what our religions have done to us, what kind of blind, murdering beasts they have transformed us into.

    "Those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it." - Bhishma Sahni.

  13. @ eashwar
    all i'm saying is if democratically elected govt -be it in india, bosnia, germany or wherever inulges in killing its own people on the basis of religion, caste, culture or ideology, the citizens'd feel very insecure.
    if kerala govt, as you say, indulges in this crime, it not only needs to be condemned in the strongest possible terms, but the culprits need to be brought before the law. to the best of my knowledge, there's been no instance of state sponsored terrorism in kerala. communal clashes yes.and the govts, have been guilty of protcting the culprits.this is condemnable and all concerned should be punished with extreme severity.
    but the govt. leting loose a reign of terror on its citizens, giving instruction to police not to respond to SOS from a certain community, delaying the entry of the army to bring the situation under control, in connivance with the govt. at the centre- scary. absolutely scary.
    perhaps you can justify it, but that doesnt change the fact that some sections of the citizens get scared to death.

  14. I did two years of my schooling in an Upper Primary School run by an order of Latin Catholic nuns. The nuns were not all very enlightened, of course; though I did not know it at the time. [Some of them could not even write Malayalam correctly. Writing SSLC from their own nunnery-schools, passing from their own TTI and being appointed in their own Aided Schools, they were all technically qualified to teach young minds and to sign for their monthly salaries to be collected by the nunnery from the government. During Fr. Benedict’s trial, we were all made to say prayers for him during the Lunch Interval. Those whose families subscribed to Malayala Manorama daily which used to report the Trial in detail, were told to stop the subscription or else-]

    My friend R, with me from Nursery, used to be in trouble with the nuns at times. She would wear her Pottu [Bindi] and the nuns would insist that she remove it because it was un-Christian and un-godly. Her eldest brother was himself Headmaster of a nearby non-Christian School and may be that was what made the eleven year old toughie bold enough to find fun in irritating the nuns once in a while. I did not know much about religion etc at the time; my family not being interested in such things, presumably because one of my father’s uncles was one of those responsible for bringing Communism to Travancore. R tried to teach me that she was a Marthomite and was real Christian; and the nuns were not. [She was more of a boy than me, in conventional terms. Later in life, I once asked her to marry me when she came to me for help about a non-interested and neglecting lover [or BF, as we say now]. She said she would have married me if I had been Scheduled Caste because then, the government would take care of the children of an irresponsible father. When she got married to a rich businessman two years later, I presented a feeding bottle and baby napkins in a big box; and went away before her sisters-in-law opened it. She was only sister to eight king-sized brothers.]

    The Bindi was anti-God in those days. May be, Madam was not schooled in Kerala? Anyway, good that you never went to the North East wearing a Bindi! It might show you to your grave, there.

  15. "May be, Madam was not schooled in Kerala?"

    Sorry, say it again? Exactly what did this question mean?

  16. @ stoic
    part of my school edcn was in kerala-in a latin catholic school too. true, in those days, the bindi was frowned upon.But the nuns have come a long way since then-i dont attach much importance to prejudices rising from ignornce.

    u were aked to pray for fr benedict. possibly because all were convinced about his innocence. five years back, the family of those who framed Fr B sppoke to the press about the complicity of the members of their family in the frame up.

    'R tried to teach me that she was a Marthomite and was real Christian; and the nuns were not'.
    the usual claim of all divisions & subdivisions of xians in kerala:-)

  17. @ kochuthresiamma p .j..
    "But the nuns have come a long way since then"
    How far some of them have come away is not a good topic even for academic discussion.

    As long as it all remains a job, and not a calling; humans prone to error would err in altars and pulpits.
    Would it be better to confer clergy-dom only on those that have lived human life for sufficient number of years; seen the futility of it all and crossed over the sea of human frailties?

  18. @ stoic
    'How far some of them have come away is not a good topic even for academic discussion'
    naughty:-) no comments. u see i learnt so much from them in my formative years that i cant help being grateful to them. one bad apple does not make the whole bunnch rotten.
    'Would it be better to confer clergy-dom only on those that have lived human life for sufficient number of years; seen the futility of it all and crossed over the sea of human frailties?
    then clergy would be made of only disillusioned people and escapists.

    by the way, i asked this once before. how do i access your blogsite.


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