Monday, September 18, 2006

Extremely disconnected thoughts (if Virginia Woolf were a blogger II) - Tagore, my great-grandmother, Brahmos and s. 377

Baghdad May 24 1932

The night has ended.
Put out the light of the lamp
of thine own narrow corner
smudged with smoke.
The great morning which is for all
appears in the East.
Let its light reveal us to each other
who walk on the same path
of pilgrimage.

- Rabindranath Tagore

I have just finished reading a biography of Tagore by Krishna Dutta & Andrew Robinson, and after following him around the world for 80 years and 370 pages, I unexpectedly burst into tears at the end. I'm weeping over my case studies. This is a serious methodological problem, some would say. (In order not to be intimidated by the stature of said case-studies, I have taken to calling them Robi-da and Habibi Edward.) After Robi-da died, mourners sang one of his songs at the tenth day ceremony. As with everything he wrote in Bengali, translation kills something; but since I have only ever known him in translation, here it is:

The ocean of peace lies ahead of me.
Sail the boat, O pilot
You are my constant companion now.
Take me in your lap.
Along our journey to the infinite
The pole star alone will shine.
Giver of Freedom
Set me free.
May your forgiveness and compassion
Be my eternal resources for the journey -
May the moral ties fall away,
May the vast universe
Hold me in embrace,
And with an undaunted heart
May I come to know the Great Unknown.

Whenever I read about Brahmos, I am reminded of my great-grandmother who died earlier this year. She wrote her autobiography a few years ago and ended it with a poem by Tennyson, followed by her inevitable 'Sri Ram Jaya Ram Jaya Jaya Ram'. Here it is:

Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me
And may there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea.
Twilight and evening bell
And after that the dark
And may there be no moaning sadness of farewell
When I embark.
For through from our voyage of time and space
The flood may bear me far
I hope to see my pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

I have been thinking about Brahmos a lot lately, not least because of the influence of my subversive bhadramahila friend SNG. She informs me that when a group of Brahmos started agitating for the marriageable age for women to be raised to 14 sometime in the mid-19th century, they caused a great stir among the bhadralok. The Brahmo Samaj split into a radical 'progressive' faction pushing for the higher age of 14 and a more conservative lot who wanted to hang on to the old ways of child marriage et al. (In practice, the Brahmos always spanned a wide range of social tendencies from the highly Anglicised at one end to the staunchly nativist at the other.) What amazes me is that by the time my great-grandmother got married in 1933, even 14 would have been considered retrograde in families of the equivalent social class in South India.

When, last weekend, a group of eminent Indians signed a statement calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality (a demand that I support and whose logical conclusion is full citizenship in every sense of the word for sexual minorities of all kinds), I could not help but wonder if they were the new Brahmos. Some will cringe at that comparison, but I don't mean it in a pejorative sense at all. The statement is a fabulous initiative and I fully support it. And this movement is undoubtedly different, for the 'Brahmos' are joined by some very non-Brahmos - hijras, kothis, sex workers, the very antithesis of the bhadralok. But the parallels are there and the parallels are striking. People sneer at us for pushing an 'elitist' cause. Perhaps we should just shrug that off as the epithet that has always been hurled at the Brahmos. But we also need to learn from the marginality of the Brahmos, from their failure to be 'organic' intellectuals in the Gramscian sense. Without the non-Brahmos, this will be another arrested passive revolution.

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