The Comfort of Masks

Aatish Taseer new novel, The Way Things Were, will be published at the end of this year. His weekly despatch from Benares will appear through the elections
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The masks are a celebration of sameness from which many people feel shut out. They convey both the euphoria of this election and its air of mutual distrust
Few things better capture the mood of this election than the Modi mask. We’ve seen them now for a while, those smiling bearded faces with the eyes hollowed out. Here, in Benares, where the election has acquired the pitch and fever of carnival, they make a special impression. I see them almost every evening on the ghat, fastened to the faces of one or two people in a small cluster of men in saffron caps. They contain a double mystery. One neither knows the man behind the mask nor does one entirely know the man

who the mask is a likeness of. And, as such, there is something sinister about them. The masks are a celebration of sameness, of a homogenising vision, from which many people feel shut out. They convey both the euphoria of this election as well as its air of great mutual distrust.

Muslims are the most obvious group to feel excluded from this majoritarian celebration. But there are others too, including many among the English-speaking classes in the big cities. They sense that this election is not simply about governance or development, but that it contains other strains too; that there is a tension along cultural and linguistic lines, a hint of class warfare in the air. And they are not wrong. I sense it too, now in a group of tea drinkers at Benares Hindu University, who feel Modi is the only man to save India from another descent into ghulami, now in a boatman who hopes he will chase away the ‘Angrezon ki sarkar,’ now in a young BHU student of Sanskrit, who feels India’s minorities have abused its culture of hospitality. “They can stay, of course,” he says easily, “we have given them sharana (refuge). But they must not grow any bigger.”

These are not the only voices to emerge from behind the masks; there are others, far more benign, who want nothing more from Modi than good roads and jobs and electricity; but the voices that contain this note of cultural tension are important. They represent the deeper vibrations of this election and they are part of a realignment, long overdue in this country, of which the rise of Narendra Modi will one day come to be seen as an inevitable consequence. But before I say more about this, let me tell you—for it is not unrelated!—a little bit about the house where I am staying in Benares.

It used to belong, this river-facing house with its blackish yellow facade, to a woman called Alice Boner. She was a Swiss artist who, through her connection to Uday Shankar, came to India in the 1930s. She fell in love with Benares, moved here in 1936 and lived in the house where I am living till a few years before her death in 1981. Much under the influence of the Sri Lankan art critic AK Coomaraswamy, she dedicated her life to Indian Art. She was especially interested in the relationship that exists between a country’s Art and its system of beliefs, feeling ‘that every architecture, every image has to be an expression of the inner life’. She wrote: ‘It is an elementary and obvious truth that the particular form language of any art is conditioned by the cosmic, psychological and metaphysical conceptions that lie at its base.’

The influence of Coomaraswamy, as well as her own discoveries, gave her a particularly acute understanding of the relationship between cultural power and political power. And, as Indian independence—to which she was witness— approached, Alice became concerned as to what independent India would do to dismantle colonial education and to resurrect its relationship with its own past and traditions. Alice was someone, I think, who would have felt that a political awakening in a country like India, emerging from centuries of foreign rule, would be meaningless if not accompanied by a cultural awakening of some kind. I think she would have wanted independent India to feel the confidence that comes to a country from a vital relationship to its past. On 25 June 1946, after a conversation with Sarojini Naidu in Delhi, she recorded this diary entry:

‘I asked [Naidu] whether, when India would have her own government, they would not consider calling Coomaraswamy back from America to give directives for the new education in art and other fields. I thought that he was the man who could really put India on the right path and help her keep her own tradition intact, while recognising her whole social and economic life. She would not hear anything of this. “Oh no!” she said. We have other things to do now! We have to rebuild India politically. Those things will come much later! And, besides, he is old now, and out of touch with India.” I felt disappointed and wondered who was more out of touch with India, whether a man living in America and devoting all his studies and deep penetration to the exact meaning of Indian tradition, or people living in India and looking all the while towards Europe for inspiration and direction for all their activities?’

So much of Naidu’s attitude—her easy contempt for cultural things, her foolish disregard of Coomaraswamy, her inability to grasp the relationship between culture and politics—is still prevalent among English-speaking Indians today. For India, even after decades of political independence, never really got around to culture. And what a heavy price she has paid! India is not an authority on her own past; Indians do not write the great works of Indology; modern India’s cultural life is stunted and slavish. Her young people live in a state I would describe almost as a kind of linguistic apartheid, in which they are routinely made to feel small for not knowing English, the power of which they see around them all the time. Worst of all: through their education system, they are systematically denied contact with India’s classical past, which would nourish their interior life and bring forth their genius.

A few days ago, in my conversation with students at Benares Hindu University, I encountered some of the agony this experience can cause. At first glance the university—set up in 1916—seems to be the exact expression of a vital relationship between a modern culture and its classical past. It is a vast and beautiful university, its streets scalloped with the heavy shade of north India’s great trees. Its impressive buildings of mixed accents, all yellow and red, seem to strive for a synthesis between the traditional and the modern. There are, in its Sanskrit faculty, departments of m-ım-a .ms-a—Indian hermeneutics! But BHU, though it contains the spirit of a time when India really was in the midst of a cultural awakening, seems, like India itself, not to have been able to come through on the promise of that time.

And that wasted promise will produce anger. It was easily audible in the voice of a young PhD student of Hindu Law—Priyankar Aggarwal—when he spoke of his education, which far from being nourishing, had been a trauma. “You might not believe me,” he told me, one windless afternoon, a few days ago, “I studied until the 12th in an English medium school. But, at the end of it, I could neither speak English nor understand it. That is the effect of this modern education system.” The word he used again and again, and with great effect, to describe the stultifying effect of his education was stereotyped. “In Sanskrit, I saw a vast horizon. That is why I chose it. But in the other subjects, it was so stereotyped. Just mug up what’s in the textbook, give the exams, get your marks, and bhool jao: bhaadh me jaaye!” It was nirasa, he said. And this word, when it came from his mouth, this man who truly knew what rasa was, seemed to contain all rasas’ meanings: not just sap or juice or flavour, but essence. This was what he felt his education had lacked. I knew very well what he meant. My own education, though it had included a far more profound engagement with the West, had left me with a similar feeling of lack. It was what had brought me to Sanskrit too, and the language had given me more than I could ever have imagined. What is it Wilde says of Christ in De Profundis? ‘…like a work of art: he does not teach anything, but by being brought into his presence one becomes something.’

But the Sanskrit department at BHU, as with other branches of Indology in India, was a bleak place to be. Priyankar described it as a desolation, attracting only those people who couldn’t get in anywhere else. And though many achieved competence in the language—a thing in itself!—they were not active in research, he said. Not pushing the boundaries of what was already known, not renewing their connection to the past. The only possibilities, he said, for someone coming out of university with Sanskrit to earn an income were in astrology and liturgy. I was very sad to hear him speak like this because at Columbia University—where I was part of an on-line reading group, reading The Birth of Kumara—this was not the case. There, academic research was happening—good books were being written, boundaries were being stretched— and someone, with Priyankar’s passion and learning, would have been a welcome addition. One had only to join the dots, and it was only a matter of time before someone did. I had, in fact, met people like him, scholars of Hindi and Urdu, who had escaped the corruption and listlessness of India’s university system for the respect and support other places had to offer.

But even if Priyankar found his way, none of this was good news for India. The past could not be ignored; a country that did not probe its past, did not allow itself to be made new by its relationship to the past, would invariably end up the victim of crude revivalism. This was already happening in India. People, acting out of insecurity, while feeling keenly the loss of the past, were turning it into a thing of slogans and pamphlets, something sacred but inert, which demands reverence but does not fire the imagination. And when piety becomes the only way of engaging the past, people are quick to take offence. Coomaraswamy, long ago, sensed this danger for India: ‘In the nineteenth century, we have to remark two special conditions beside the survival of the past in the present. First, that Indian culture was already decadent, that is to say, suffering from the inevitable consequences of all formulation. The formula, however admirable, is inherited rather than earned, it becomes an end instead of a means, and its meaning is forgotten, so that it is insecure.’

That insecurity, if not quenched in real learning, expresses itself in all varieties of chauvinism, false pride and prejudice. It expresses itself in the actions of little men like What’s-his- name Batra who had Penguin pulp Wendy Doniger’s book. Or: Mr Ashok Chowgule, of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, who wrote to me last week to warn me not to call Benares Benares, but Varanasi. What better example of the smallness of this mentality than to want to limit this city of innumerable names to one name! Men as these are not interested in their own past. What they really want is to recast Hinduism in the spirit of Victorian Christianity and Islam. They want to make a Prophet of Ram, and a Bible of the Gita. And one has at least as much to fear from them as from the people, who, in the name of secularism, would put a stake in the heart of Hindu India.

These are our culture wars. It is tempting, in this season of political and cultural change, to imagine a different India: one with a place of importance in the world of Indian learning, a country whose scholars produce the work foreigners are producing, and whose children do not leave its schools and universities without the confidence that comes from a serious engagement with the past. But perhaps one does not ask anything of so uncertain a time. Especially, here, in Benares— known also, Mr Chowgule, as apunarbhavabhumi: the land of non-recurrence—where there is now a great feeling of flux. The place is crawling with journalists; Modi and Kejriwal are both in town; and, as sa .mdhy-a—the hour of juncture— falls over the river, there are many discrete realities to contend with. There is this little house, with its view of the Ganga and its library of books on Indian art; there are the ghats, full of people immersed in the instinctive life of Tradition; and now, more numerous every day, there are the orange-capped agents of the new time to come, threading their way through the crowd of bathers, ascetics, students and tourists—the men in masks.