In the North, daily manufactured incidents keep communalism in continuous turmoil and people gather and wonder what the future holds.
The poet Ghalib aspired to “fursat ke raat din(nights and days of doing nothing). He must not have known the lucid expression in Malayalam: “Nalla Irippu(pleasant session, doing nothing).
This blessed state is a boon bestowed on Aruna, my wife and I at Kottakal Ayurvedic Centre, Kozhidoke. Having subjected ourselves to the magic of Ayurvedic herbs, oils, concoctions, decoctions through every orifice, we are too cleansed and delicate to immediately resume our frenetic life. “Nalla Irippu” is obligatory!
Kottakal, in the heart of Muslim-dominated Mallapuram, symbolic in itself, gave us another bonus: a southern perspective on North Indian communalism.
One of the female masseurs told Aruna that she would be taking the day off on Sunday; she must visit the Muslim houses of Bakrid! It would be wrong to compare the enthusiastic interfaith participation on occasions like Id or Onam at Mallapuram to our experience in South Delhi.
In New Delhi, ours is the only Muslim house in a predominantly Punjabi colony of those who came after partition. I am usually invited to raise the flag on August 15. But there are no spontaneous identity visits because Muslims are generally not part of their daily experience as they are mine.
This obvious and little noticed fact is essential to understanding the Hindu-Muslim equations. Hindu is part of the daily life of the Muslim – from the newspaper boy, vegetable sellers, shopping malls, restaurants and, above all, workplaces. The Hindu, on the other hand, has no opportunity to come into contact with a Muslim. My friend of 60 years whom I have to identify as Hindu (too bad, because our religious origins have never mattered all these years) has never known a Muslim except me.
A Hindu without any Muslim experience is prone to be afflicted with an apartheid of the spirit. For years I tried to persuade Hindu friends to come with me to Jama Masjid during Ramzan to see Muslim congregations, mill crowds, authentic kebabs and not even an iota of female harassment. Friends were reluctant. Politicians and TV stations have portrayed Muslims as such murderous monsters that friends make excuses and walk away.
That communalism as a political project did not succeed in Kerala is not for lack of attempts by RSS cadres and Congress leaders like the late K. Karunakaran. The Congress had two distinct approaches to the RSS-BJP. In Madhya Pradesh, Arjun Singh fought the BJP tooth and nail; Karunakaran made tacit adjustments with the RSS to inject its 1% vote for UDF candidates to thwart the left. Like center-right parties everywhere, the Congress too is more comfortable with Hindu nationalism than with the Communists.
In the North, manufactured daily incidents keep communalism in a turmoil and people gather and wonder what the future holds. For this batch, I have good news. They are guilty of extrapolating from their experience in the North and theorizing for the rest of India. UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat, part of Maharashtra and Bihar are under BJP control. I am not counting Assam and Tripura as a different set of circumstances operate there.
Even if you add the two together, a total of nine BJP-ruled states, minus Rajasthan for now, is far from a full saffron hue out of 29 states and eight union territories. If roadblocks in the BJP’s path in the North were caste politics, it will face linguistic and ethnic headwinds in the rest of the country. The federal spirit is a huge obstacle.
The political culture in the North is essentially conditioned by identity politics. Pardon my prejudices, but Kerala is truly God’s Country in every way, including the charms of Kottakal. A deep-rooted leftist movement gave the people a sense of dignity never seen in the North. Much of the credit for the saturation of the state through education must go to the Church.
One of Kottakal’s invigorating “treatments” is an oil massage. Four men in blue uniforms sit on either side of the massage table. An oil, laden with herbs, simmers on a stove. Hand towels, practically cooked in oil, are taken out of the container, shared by the masseurs who proceed to press the warm oil on the body. They slide the hand up and down over the part of the body that has fallen under the part of the particular masseur.
To break up the rhythmic monotony of the massage, I asked if they were all vegetarians, the only food available in Kottakal. They protested. In fact, it was the prelude to a conversation about politicians and their favorite restaurants. Turns out Rahul Gandhi, ostensibly on his way to Wayanad, his constituency, never misses an opportunity to visit Paragon, which even has my vote as the country’s top restaurant. The exceptionalism of Kerala is not limited to the culinary knowledge of the masseurs. They even savored Paragon’s food.
The 14 day exemption in Kottakal from pollution, evil policies and stories of police excesses in the North reminded me of something I had learned during my five years in the South, headquartered in Chennai: the whole Muslim experience in the South is at a considerable gap with the North.
Northern Muslims came as invaders who established empires. In the South they came as traders. Accepting local cultures was good business as well as great public relations. It was to help the traders pursue their new religion that Cheruman Perumal, a Hindu nobleman, built a mosque for their namaz in 629 AD near Kochi, three years before the death of the Prophet, making it the first mosque in India and among the first six in Islam.