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Friday, 1 February 2013

In Good Faith: A Review

While much work has been done on exploring and exposing communalism in India, relatively little attempt has been made to understand its conjoined twin, secularism. Is it because communal forces outweigh secular ones? Or, is it because communally-charged narratives make more compelling reading than the gentler milder cameos that are seen as picturesque and quaint rather than hard-hitting and gritty? Or, is it because, cynical and jaded as we are, we find it difficult to expect words like syncretism, pluralism, tolerance, inter-faith dialogue, to mean anything much as a lived reality?

Saba Naqvi, Political Editor of Outlook, makes a valiant attempt to hold on to her idealism and, in the process, pick clean the tangled skeins of religion, politics and culture. Despite the nature of her work (she has been covering the major political parties) which inevitably breeds cynicism, she explains why it is important for her to believe in an India that is ‘tolerant and safe for all communities, an India that synthesises identities instead of atomising us all into a Hindu atom here, a Muslim particle there, a Christian molecule some distance way, a Sikh on the periphery.’ Giving a glimpse into her own mixed background – with a Shia Muslim father, a Protestant Christian mother and her former husband a Hindu from Bengal – she writes:

‘This is my offering in an age when Hindu majoritarianism is always raising its ugly head, when Islamic puritanism is on the rise across the globe, and when issues of identity still determine our politics.’

The product of several years of journeying into the distant corners of India, In Good Faith brings together the many ‘little cultures’ that have survived – sometimes on the margins of and sometimes cheek by jowl with – the dominant ‘big tradition’. We are familiar with some that pop up as tokens of ethnic chic in cultural festivals and melas: such as the Baul singers and the qawwals, the Manganiyars and Chitrakars. But others are new and startling in their combination of contraries: such as Bonbibi, a Muslim goddess in the Sundarbans or the Sufi saint in the temple town of Trichy.

In Urdu literature, there has always been a tradition of studding abundant and vivid descriptions of composite culture into larger narratives. Many Urdu writers have presented composite culture – referred to commonly as ganga-jamuni tehzeeb -- as an antidote for communalism and other forms of sectarian strife. Naqvi takes us into obscure nooks and crannies to show how widespread this tradition is, how many people have created a space for themselves in the face of an orthodoxy that demands exclusivity and unitarianism. What is more, these essays also show the importance of culture in the daily lived lives of the Indian Muslims and, in the practice of a myriad different rituals and mores, how far removed Indian Islam is from the homogenous monolith of popular imagination.

In picking out the secular thread in the fabric of modern India, Naqvi reminds us of the futility of viewing religion and politics as adversaries. By drawing our attention to those communities and traditions that have successfully countered majoritarianism, she shows us that there is hope, yet. Like a candle in the wind, her book tells us that a belief in pluralism and composite culture is intrinsic to the Indian Muslim ethos. It is challenged day by day, yes, but is not hopelessly eroded yet. The horrific communal violence of the partition, the continuing communal clashes in the decades thereafter, the sense of besiegement and alienation that came in its wake, events triggered by Assam and Kashmir or Ayodhya and Gujarat challenge and occasionally weaken it. Its pattern – sometimes muted, sometimes vibrant – can nevertheless be traced in the many little cultural pockets that survive in the face of all odds. The warp of religious-cultural pluralism and the woof of secularism weave a tapestry that is as richly textured as it is sturdy. In compelling prose, Naqvi plucks these little local pictures from the threat of obscurity and places them for a larger viewership.

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