Village Cosmopolitanisms: Or, I See Kabul from Lado Sarai
By Anand Vivek Taneja
A Brahmin Has Said That This Year Is Good:
The common ground on which differences became mutually comprehensible, at least in the story as it was remembered, was the village itself. Gaon ki beti. Gaon ki izzat. The daughter of the village. The honour of the village. To understand this common ground perhaps we need to take the metaphor literally—the ground that we stand upon, our shared geography, is our common ground.
To propose an alternative to the linear, teleological presentist modes of thinking history, Manan Ahmed Asif sketches out an alternative model. Imagine, he says, three concentric circles. “The innermost circle, labeled 1750-1250 CE, is where a specific dialogue of political theology is mostly concentrated, though it emanates outwards. The second circle, labeled 1220-1850 CE, is the site of development of a new political language, administrative and localized. The third circle, labeled 1480-1947 CE, is the space of a distinctly visible vernacular culture, though it permeates back towards the center.” To his model of three concentric circles, I want to add a fourth. We can think of this as the smallest circle—for it is a local, intimate circle, the circle of a shared sacred geography.
One of the unexpected findings of my dissertation research in Delhi was just how closely many of the sacred sites I was interested in—sites of veneration for both Hindus and Muslims—were intricately connected to the ecology and topography of the city. For instance, in his Asar-us-Sanadid, Syed Ahmad Khan wrote about Bhuli Bhatiyari ka Mahal, a small and mysterious structure built upon a fourteenth century Tughlaq check dam along the scarp of the Pahari, or hilly ridge, just to the west of the plain of Delhi. Bhuli Bhatiyari ka Mahal was the site of an annual mela or fair.
This building has been built atop a high hill from which the natural scenery can be seen far and wide and especially in the rainy season the water flowing everywhere and the waving of the greenery in the wind all around gives wondrous pleasure… here there is a very big fair of Pavan Pareechha (testing the wind) in which all the city’s Brahmins, [Hindu] astrologers (jotishi), fortune tellers and [Muslim] astrologers (najumi) gather to test the air and test it by planting a small flag (jhandi) and thousands of Hindus and Muslims spectators gather to watch. (2007, 267)
The mela was held annually on the full moon of the month of Ashad, which corresponds to the beginning of the monsoon in Delhi. By testing the winds the Brahmins and astrologers would predict how the rains would be that year, and hence how the crops would grow, and hence whether the year would be a prosperous one for the folks of the city and its hinterland, or a lean one. I like to imagine that this fair and its annual predictions was what Ghalib was playfully thinking of when he wrote this sher:
Dekhiye pate hain ushaq buton se kya faiz
Ik birahman ne kaha hai key eh sal accha hai
Let’s see what grace lovers find from idols
A brahman has said that this year is good.
One of the places that the Deccani nobleman Dargah Quli Khan wrote about in his account of his mid-eighteenth century visit to Delhi was what he called a chashmeh (a spring or well near the dargah of the 14th century saint Hazrat Nasruddin Roshan Chiragh-e Dehli (d. 1356), located within the village of Chiragh Dilli.
In truth you are the lamp of Delhi, rather you are the lamp and the eyes (chashm o chiragh, dearly beloved) of all Hindustan. The pilgrimage to your tomb is on Sundays. In the month of Diwali the crowds are especially impressive. In this month the people of Delhi come on every Sunday to gain the bliss of pilgrimage (ziyarat). There is a spring/well (chasmeh) near the dargah, here they pitch tents and enclosures and bathe in the spring and often people find complete cures from their old diseases. Muslims and Hindus both make the pilgrimage in the same fashion (yaksan). From morning to evening the caravans of pilgrims keep coming regularly. In the shade of every wall and every tree they spread out carpets and give due praise to luxury and the happiness of hearts. It is a strange and wondrous excursion and amusement and an extraordinary spectacle. Everywhere there is color and music and in every nook and corner there is the sound of the pakhawaj and morchang (drum and jews harp).
Dargah Quli’s account indicates that the fair associated with the saint Chiragh Dehli (The Lamp of Delhi) happened in the month of Diwali, a festival month in the Indic calendar, which does not necessarily coincide with the ‘urs of the saint, which is calculated by the Islamic calendar. It was only when I was at the shrine of Chiragh Dehli, and saw the clay lamps lit in offering there, which are the same as the clay lamps traditionally lit during Diwali, that I made the connection. In the festival calendar of Delhi, every year, the festival of lamps (Diwali) was celebrated at the shrine of the lamp of Delhi (Chiragh Dehli), a festival at which all the chroniclers note that both Hindus and Muslims came together. Across different mythologies, histories and religious identities, the connotative equivalence of chiragh and diya/deep had created the possibility of a shared life-world. Diana Eck has asserted that the “common cosmos” which underlies the sacred geographies of India is dominantly “Sanksritic”. “Within India, there implicit a kind of geographical “Sanskritization” that has constructed a common cosmos by the local adaptation of names and qualities of India’s renowned rivers, mountains and tirthas…(Eck 2012, 55).” The presence of Chiragh Dehli in the Indic festival calendar of the city, and the prominence of his shrine in the sacred geography of the city, indicates not just a process of Sanskritization, but acts of translation which made the landscape as Persianate as it was Sanksritic, without any exotic particularity, or insurmountable difference, left over in the process.
‘Twas Useless to Mourn Destructions?
If we turn back to thinking of the four concentric circles of South Asia’ alternate histories, we will also have to think of destruction radiating outwards from the center, like a mushroom cloud. The circle of shared geography, sacred and mundane? Almost obliterated, by the massive transformations of land use and land tenure, but still tenaciously surviving in the shared sacrality of Sufi shrines. The long development of political theology? Almost obliterated by nationalism and the bio-political logics of post-colonial states, but still surviving as a counter-memory of justice in the darbars of pir-babas. The political languages of Indo-Persian culture have been widely displaced by English, and in India at least, by highly Sanskritized local vernaculars. But even then, when that master orator of the Hindu Right, Atal Behari Vajpayee, really wanted to get a point across, he would often use an Urdu couplet.
For the largest circle of all, that of vernacular culture, yoked to the technologies of cinema and radio, cable TV and Youtube, seems to have outrun the mushroom cloud of destruction, or at least sees to have grown faster than it. That thing called Bollywood,
enables the creation of new cultural referents, and provides a common vocabulary; most crucially it keeps long-standing historical and cultural these within living memory—the particular view of love, of jealousy, of friendship, of the beloved that we can easily trace to the vernacular epics of the seventeenth century. Most of this is not a surprise, considering that that from the very beginnings of Indian cinema, the epics (from the Mahabharata to Laila Majnun) have been a popular source, and that the film industry has remained far more agnostic on the faiths of its workers than its surrounding society (2013, 51).
Bollywood films and film songs are in the end, a commercial product, aiming for maximum popularity by going for the lowest common denominator. It’s the common denominator itself which happens to be not a mathematical simplification, but a rich and complex amalgam of shared histories—including shared affects, shared joys and sorrows and pain. I have argued elsewhere that the perceived “Muslimness” of Hindi cinema, and the popularity of “Muslim socials” as a genre is because “Muslimness” is metonymic for the shared pre-modern culture of north India—with north being a somewhat loose term, stretching at least as far south as the territories of the Nizam (the “Nizam territory” is still a distribution area for Hindi films which does not coincide with the boundaries of the linguistically organized state of Andhra Pradesh).
There is a scene in the film Kabul Express that really gets the ability of Bollywood songs to encompass shared culture and shared histories across all kinds or borders. It’s set in a jeep, traversing the war-torn landscape of Afghanistan. It’s been a picaresque journey with an Afghan driver, an American war correspondent, two Indian journalists and a Pakistani “Taliban.” As the journey nears its end, one of the Indian journalists tunes his short-wave radio, and through bursts of static we hear the famous song from the film Hum Dono—Main zindagi ka sath nibhata chala gaya. The Indians and the Pakistani, part of a shared community of listeners because of the popularity of Bollywood across national boundaries, start humming, and then loudly singing along together.
It is a cinematic masterstroke. The sound-track of the scene is diegetic—everything making sound is included in the frame. But the song coming through the short-wave radio blows the frame wide open.
Barbadiyon ka sog manana fizul tha/ Barbadiyon ka jashn manata chala gaya, the song goes. It was useless to mourn destructions, so I kept on celebrating destructions. Not just one destruction but plural. Barbadiyan. The song was a huge hit when the film came out in 1961, perhaps because the incongruity of the jauntiness of the tune and Rafi’s singing, and the stoicism of the lyrics, captured something of the mood of South Asia, fourteen years after the horrors of Partition, fourteen years into the destructions integral to the making of the new nation state and its national citizens—the way to deal with destructions was not to mourn but to celebrate, to focus on independence not on Partition, to smoke like a chimney to forget all those thoughts and worries that arise unbidden. Jo mil gaya usi ko muqaddar samajh liya/Jo kho gaya main usko bhlata chala gaya. I accepted as fate whatever I found. Whatever I lost I kept on forgetting. People found new countries, new homes, new identities on the other side of the never ending barbadi. But the forgetting was never quite done—I kept on forgetting. The plot of the film Hum Dono, as it unfolds, about a man MIA in World War 2 and his look-alike who reluctantly takes his place back home, must have resonated hugely with those who saw it— for they knew about missing homelands and missing beloveds that you never quite forget, and the substitutes never quite being the same.
And so this bittersweet song makes Indians and Pakistanis bond as they drive across the barbadi of Afghanistan. The song leads to a shared smoke, and a moment of incongruous closeness despite the tensions of their journey. I’ve always said, the Pakistani says, Madhuri Dikshit de do, Kashmir le lo. Give us Madhuri Dixit and take Kashmir. It’s a moment of hope in the bleak comedy of the film. Yes, of course, shared culture beats divisive politics. Madhuri Dixit trumps the Kashmir issue. But, says the Indian journalist, Madhuri Dixit got married and went off to America. Ah, says the Pakistani sadly, All our good things go off to America. And then in a screech of brakes and bullets, the conversation ends and the madcap—and tragic—finale takes over.
All our good things go off to America. Tell me that’s not true.