On a Saturday morning pleasantly refreshed by a light drizzle, I drove down the winding hill roads towards Ooty. My destination was the Nilgiris District Library which over two days was hosting the Ooty Literary Fest. Just in its second year, the Fest had already attracted several famous literary names from various parts of India, especially the southern states.
As I parked my car in a corner of the ample Library compound, I could not but help but admire the elegant colonial structure before me. Though founded in 1858, the Nilgiri Library moved into its present building in 1869 which continues to impress with its high Gothic arches and stately Victorian architecture. Its striking red and white exterior conceals a warm interior boasting of wooden flooring and several pieces of claw-footed antique, dark teak furniture.
I proceeded towards the central reading room where a panel discussion on “Feminisms of India” was scheduled to begin shortly and found myself a comfortable chair. The hall soon came alive with discussions of various strands of Indian feminism, expressed through stories, mythology and art. Maharashtrian writer Urmila Pawar described how Dalit women suffer double discrimination while Bama recounted how gendered constructs like “mothering” and “maternal” affection actually shackle women to weakness. Samhita Arni on the other hand talked about various lesser-known versions of Ramayana which explored the predicament of characters like ‘Angad’ and ‘Mandodari’ who bear the brunt of the King Rama’s war on Lanka.
What emerged was the realization how Feminism can be more than a cry for women’s equality – a tool to chisel away at other forms of discrimination like casteism just as it can liberate men from equally oppressive gendered expectations, of “macho-ness” and “masculinity”.
As bell hooks, says
How little we know of our own history!
In Kerala for a holiday weekend, this realization struck me with wonder and a tinge of regret. In the north Malabar city of Kannur, or the erstwhile Cannanore, is located the Arakkal Museum. Though rather plain looking to eyes used to Mughal glamour and Rajput grandeur, the traditional architecture of the Museum building – with its low long structure, laterite tiles, gleaming wooden beams within and pearl white walls without – blends beautifully with the palm-fringed verdant landscape.
The Durbar hall of this former Arakkal-kettu or palace complex has now been transformed into the main display area where a visitor can glimpse various objects associated with the royal family, ranging from the original handwritten letter to the East India Company to weapons, utensils, furniture – right down to an antique telephone which still has instructions for use.
What I found most interesting though was the presence of so many women in the photo gallery of the Arakkal rulers. Kerala has a history of matrilineal social instiutions – where lineage passes through the mother. Even then it was more often the eldest male member in the maternal family who would be the real power centre. The Arakkal famly is not only the sole Muslim royal family of Kerala but also has the distinction of having the senior most member – whether a man or a woman – as the ruler. While the male ruler would take on the title of the Ali Raja, the female ruler would be known as Arakkal Beebi.
Queens and female rulers have been less of a novelty in India than mainstream historians would like to believe. And yet only few writers and researchers have bothered to find out how such women negotiated deeply entrenched patriarchal institutions to fight and rule. Who knows, some day the Arakkal royal history may yield fascinating new knowledge not just about the country’s and state’s past but about its women rulers as well.
On the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of India’s freedom from British colonial government – celebrated as Independence Day in the country – no other poem feels more relevant today, than this one from Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize winning anthology, Gitanjali:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake
Paradoxes attract me. So the other day when searching online for images of inspirational quotes, I was quite intrigued to find so many by the Buddha. For a world battling violence, hatred and destruction at multiple levels, it is curious how popular his words are.
This is turn motivated me to refresh my knowledge of Buddhism. Dating back to 5th century BC, this religion preaches nirvana or liberation from the cycle of birth and death through the practice of meditation, morality and wisdom. Buddhists believe in the Four Noble Truths according to which this world is chiefly characterised by impermanence and suffering which can be avoided only by walking the Eightfold Path of right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.
Though Buddhism does not believe in rituals or worship of deities, its followers regard the Buddha or the Awakened One as the ultimate source of spiritual wisdom. Originally a prince of the Shakya clan, Siddhartha Gautama, went through a spiritual journey which ended in the sixth century BC when, seated under the Bodhi tree, he received enlightenment on how to move beyond the cycle of suffering and rebirth to nirvana. The teachings and ways of living that emerged from this enlightenment eventually became formalized as Buddhism.
How is then Buddhism relevant to the contemporary world? For a society steeped in materialism and vulnerable to violence, do Buddha’s precepts apply at all? Some would say his messages of non-violence and detachment to earthly pleasures are more pressing than ever. But to me, it is the focus on personal spiritual development that is most empowering. Removed from all notions of ritualistic practices and human inequality, his is a call to discover the core of stillness and purity within the human self and then act accordingly in the outside world.
Many a time when I am used by people, I am described as white – does it mean I come in other colours? The other extreme, perhaps – black? Or an indeterminate, in-between shade – grey, maybe?
Of far more variation is the purpose to which I am put – to gain power, riches, love or to kill and hurt but equally to save, protect, indulge in social niceties and sometimes simply to make someone feel better. At times, I am dragged into a matter merely to act as a ballast to an ego or conjured into existence simply out of habit.
Isn’t it curious that considering the rampant use that people make of me to realize their own interests – small and big – they are equally keen on inventing mechanisms that are supposed to put me away? Personality tests, behaviour study, graphology, high-tech machines and even the practice of swearing on a holy book before a court!
Men and women, young and old – each human makes use of me sometime or other. However there have sprung up popular legends about some personalities who reportedly became famous without much help from me – there is George Washington and story of the cherry tree as well as the persona of the ‘Honest Abe’. Again the iconic proponent of non-violence, Gandhi, conceived an entirely philosophy and plan of action named ‘Satyagraha’ in opposition to me.
Sure, there are people who claim to be able to do without me just as societies and religions devise ways and means to find me out. But guess what – I am gonna be here a long, long time, my friend…after all, how will the world run without a lie?
-Extract from, The Autobiography of a Lie
It was while writing my book on 20 Greatest Explorers of the World, that I first came upon the figure of Sacagawea – an amazing Native American woman who played a crucial role in the success of the early nineteenth century Lewis-Clark expedition which became the first American group to discover a route to the unexplored North-western part of the USA – all this at a time when women were expected to stay at home and bring up children!
Here are a few more jaw-dropping facts about the woman pioneer:
- Sacagawea was the only woman in a 33 member Lewis-Clarke expedition
- She was from the Lehmi Shoshone Indian tribe and acted as a guide and translator for the expedition thus ensuring the leaders of the expedition could negotiate with the Indian tribes along the way in a fruitful way.
- Her traditional survival skills were of great help to the well-being of the expedition. She was extremely knowledgeable about where edible roots, plants and berries could be found in the forests – all of these were used as food and sometimes, even as medicine.
- When the preparations for the trek began in full swing, Sacagawea was pregnant with her first child. By the time the Clark-Lewis expedition set off, Sacagawea had given birth to a baby boy who would be named Jean Baptiste and would also make the entire trip and back, snugly resting in a sling on his mother’s body.
- In July, 1998, the then US Treasury Secretary Rubin announced that an image of Sacagawea would be chosen as the face of the new dollar coin. Though the decision led to some controversy since it ended up replacing the Susan B. Anthony coin, eventually the choice of Sacagawea put the seal on her rightful place in the annals of the great explorers of the world.