As political parties around us continue to appropriate and re-appropriate historic figures from the past in a desperate (and despicable) attempt to reap mileage from their reflected glory, a few days ago we reflected on the idea of revisiting the writings and documentation of some of these resurrected (and often misinterpreted) heroes. Fittingly, we started this journey on Shahid Diwas, a day to mark the martyrdom of the three icons of the revolutionary side of the Indian struggle for Independence- Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. The idea was connected to a discussion last week between Udai (my nearly 12 year old son) and my mother-in-law on atheism and belief, the chief takeaway being the importance of informed opinion that builds from a knowledge of all possible points of view, not just one’s own position.
In this context, we decided to read Bhagat Singh’s famous Essay titled ‘Why I am an Atheist’, written in October 1930 and available here in an English translation from the Punjabi original. I made Udai read it aloud to us (and several new words were learnt and discussed along the way, but that’s another discussion). I hadn’t read it before either and it was eye-opening. I’m sharing some excerpts that I think are particularly relevant, both to today’s political situation in India and to my immediate objective of expanding the debate within our home.
Questioning the status quo
Udai’s outcries against religion (and many children go through this phase) are almost always based on the idea of the lack of scientific proof that a higher omnipresent power exists. Add to that the idea of what the rational arguments could be for or against the existence of God. Bhagat Singh’s passionate plea in support of his atheism, however, rests on the idea that a periodic critique of existing ideas and beliefs is the only way forward. He writes:
“It is necessary for every person who stands for progress to criticise every tenet of old beliefs. Item by item he has to challenge the efficacy of old faith. He has to analyse and understand all the details. If after rigorous reasoning, one is led to believe in any theory of philosophy, his faith is appreciated. His reasoning may be mistaken and even fallacious. But there is chance that he will be corrected because Reason is the guiding principle of his life. But belief, I should say blind belief is disastrous. It deprives a man of his understanding power and makes him reactionary.
“Any person who claims to be a realist has to challenge the truth of old beliefs. If faith cannot withstand the onslaught of reason, it collapses. After that his task should be to do the groundwork for new philosophy. This is the negative side. After that comes in the positive work in which some material of the olden times can be used to construct the pillars of new philosophy.”
The corollary: When society represses the urge to question and shrinks that space, especially for young people, we also throttle the pathways to progress.
Belief in oneself despite all odds
All atheists I know have an unwavering faith in themselves, including my late father with whom long discussions on the matter of religion and belief systems were a common occurrence. It is not that they are devoid of self-doubt. On the contrary, they have no choice but to work very hard to find conviction within themselves, to question their own actions and motivations frequently and they work to re-focus themselves. It is an exhausting task!
This is because the solace of faith, in which sacrifice and good behaviour is ‘rewarded’ by freedom from re-birth (as in Hinduism) or the experience of paradise (as in Islam, Christianity) is not available to an atheist. Bhagat Singh points this out very clearly as he counters the allegations that atheist is born out of vanity or arrogance. Remember, he wrote this only a day or two before he was sentenced to death.
“Beliefs make it easier to go through hardships, even make them pleasant. Man can find a strong support in God and an encouraging consolation in His Name. If you have no belief in Him, then there is no alternative but to depend upon yourself. It is not child’s play to stand firm on your feet amid storms and strong winds. In difficult times, vanity, if it remains, evaporates and man cannot find the courage to defy beliefs held in common esteem by the people. If he really revolts against such beliefs, we must conclude that it is not sheer vanity; he has some kind of extraordinary strength. This is exactly the situation now. First of all we all know what the judgement will be. It is to be pronounced in a week or so. I am going to sacrifice my life for a cause. What more consolation can there be!”
Some questions raised: Does your religion empower you or does it work as your crutch? Are the positions of atheism and faith contradictory or can they both find space in a broader discussion on morality, empathy and self-empowerment?
What are we learning from Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom and struggle?
It is getting harder and harder to propose empathy and cooperation as strategies to wage a war that is increasingly violent, repressive and chauvinistic, be this the war on terrorism, the war of identities or the war with oneself as young people navigate the complex pathways to economic mobility and ‘success’. There is no patience for this approach, which is perceived as too slow, too risky. The dangers are put forward as imminent, the solutions needed as urgent. The liberal perspective is not exciting, perceived as the bastion of those already comfortable, and run down as impractical for a nation full of impatient youth in a race to get ahead.
But think: Are the dangers we face today any different in urgency that what Bhagat Singh and Rajguru faced in the 1920s? Are the quandaries and moral dilemmas those young men found themselves in any less heart wrenching and difficult? If Bhagat Singh could question what was prevalent, so must young people today. And that is the legacy we must take forward. Not the machismo, not the ‘nationalism’, but the thinking and rationalism that drove it.
After the divine Parsi breakfast, so unexpected in the Maharashtrian countryside, I took the wheel next and we crossed over into Gujarat driving past towns like Vapi, Salvav and Pardi, more familiar names like Valsad and Navsari and bypassing Surat via Kamrej. This was the stretch where we saw the most interesting stuff being carried on trucks and where our nostrils filled with strange smells at some of the industrial areas we passed by (a post on trucks will be contingent on Nupur supplying me the pictures!). A large number of rivulets, tributaries of the mighty Tapi river, criss-cross through this part of Gujarat heading down to meet the Arabian Sea not far out to our left and it was fun reading out their names.
But it was the Narmada at Bharuch that really halted us in our tracks. Mighty and magnificent, we were fascinated by these waters as we crossed the long bride over it. We spotted some ghats (steps) and impulsively turned in their direction. I have to mention that on this trip, impulsiveness was as much a reward as planning. We found ourselves in a temple on the banks of the Narmada. A few families were there, including one all the way from Bengal, engrossed in rituals and filling up on the holy waters. We sat on the ghats, watching some young men fish, some cattle wandering past and an old lady staring into the water.
This was a spiritual experience of sorts, just watching this massive body of water flow by us. It was hot and still and life seemed to simply stop. There are so many legends around holy rivers in India. You need to find a spot like this next to one and take the moments off to appreciate why!
Nupur was driver next. A short halt at a nondescript Café Coffee Day to rehydrate, grab a bite and empty the bladder and we were on our way to Amdavad, where we planned to halt for the night. An aside on the bladder issue: I was anticipating finding decent places to relieve ourselves to be the biggest issue on the trip, but we got lucky with this aspect, finding halfway decent toilets most places.
The Vadodara to Amdavad highway is a dream run in many ways and perhaps the most enjoyable section of the trip. Sadly, I slept through some of this. What makes it work are good design (verges, exits, landscape, all much better than he standard NHAI format), excellent road surface (we saw them repair it and they don’t do patchwork but actually take off and relay the surfaces that need attention) and the lush green landscape. I was pleasantly surprised to see neither Vadodara not Amdavad sprawling endlessly along the highway and neither Anand nor Nadiad that fall on the way made their presence overtly felt as we drove past. A new experience indeed!
Our divided political views were what made the Gujarat stretch particularly interesting. I am no Modi supporter, nor is Nupur, but Rachna is of the view that he is a doer and deserves a chance. We’ve ended up arguing about this once before, but I think we all decided to leave the issue aside for this road trip. Driving through Gujarat though, it’s hard to ignore the obvious signs of development—industrialisation, managed urban growth, agricultural prosperity all stare you in the face. Finding fault was a task and terms like vikas and prateek were being bandied about. At one point, Rachna asked me why I was so taken in by these two men? And I answered, “That’s because I am a men’s lady (inverse of ladies’ man). That’s the sort of ridiculous humour that marked this leg of the trip, intertwined with more serious observations and the twitter hash tag #vikaskaprateek was thus born!
The tag took on a slightly sarcastic tone as we crossed the vast slums of Narol on our way into Amdavad city. Congested and unsanitary, I could see this was a Muslim majority stretch, another sensitive topic we avoided. Conflagrations weren’t on the menu for the trip!
Google Aunty got us right to Pappu mama’s doorstep. Nilay Kapoor is Rachna’s mama (mother’s brother) and we call him Pappu mama. A figure from our schooldays, he works for India’s large public sector rural bank NABARD. I remember him as one of the most intelligent people I knew outside of my parent’s medical community back in the Lucknow days. He was always urging us towards academic excellence and I had fond memories of Pooja mami, his wife, who was a pretty young mother back in school!
An evening of family fun ensued. Amid chai, nashta, nostalgia and chitter chatter, Pappu mama offered nuggets from his own visits to rural India, on other postings and here in Gujarat. An unapologetic fan of Narendra Modi, I was impressed by his neutrality as he discussed Gujarat’s struggle with education and malnutrition and praised its co-operative movements and community feeling. Kejriwal, not one to be left out of any discussion on politics today, was also on the menu, as was shopping and the delectable Gujarati thali at Sasuji on CG road. I was, of course, tickled to find that idli sambar had now officially become a part of the Gujarati thali here! Another example of the myriad manifestations of cultural exchange in our country that make life very interesting.
Nothing is more gratifying to a parent than receiving positive feedback about her children. This week, we have received super progress reviews for both Udai and Aadyaa. Shikshantar progress reviews for pre-primary and primary school (and beyond) are descriptive and do not make the grave error of reducing the child’s assessment to a grade or mark. For each child, progress is reported under various heads like math skills, science, language, physical development, large/fine motor skills, creative skills, personal and emotional development and such like.
I’ve always felt that the progress reviews are way too positive though. You have to really learn to read between the lines to truly understand where your child stands. I’ve brought it up with teachers before, but they insist that I am the doubting parent and my child is really as angelic as the script depicts! In Udai’s case I’m even willing to believe that, but Aadyaa, an angel? Naah! 🙂
Another issue with descriptive reviews is that the quality heavily depends on the judgement powers as well as expressiveness of the reviewer. In Aadyaa’s review for instance, I can clearly see that her usual teacher has not written it. And true enough, when I asked her, Aadyaa told me that didi has been unwell and the other (less experienced) didi has written the reviews. In Udai’s case, the analysis is sharper, reflecting the alertness of his present duo of teachers.
But on the whole, I would rather get this qualitative, detailed feedback for my children rather than something that places them in relation to the rest of their class. For Udai, the review benchmarks the child’s skills against a class average of sorts, denoting whether the child meets, exceeds or falls short of expectations in each area. The level of detail (for language, for instance, spoke, written, comprehension, grammar, fluency, vocabulary are all separately assessed) helps us understand where more work might be needed.
Most importantly, the review helps to gauge progress from the previous semester. To me, that is the most critical aspect. For the self-aware, highly intelligent children of the 21st century, the toughest competition is with the self!