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.
I had a lot of fun updating my #100sareepact gallery yesterday! My heartfelt gratitude to everyone who, in their own way, has encouraged me and egged me on. I’m nearing the end slowly and steadily and people are beginning to ask if I would continue to wear sarees after Day 100 is done and dusted. A friend who wears sarees quite a bit but is not doing the pact asked me if the frequency of wearing sarees would change drastically and why that would be so….
These are very interesting questions, because they go to the core of what motivates a person like me to do the #100sareepact. Hopelessly addicted to over-analysis, I’ve been questioning myself about whether it is the adulation over social media that drives me rather than my love for sarees. What if I wore sarees and didn’t post? Wouldn’t that be enough as well?
On the other hand, I’ve made many friends, re-connected with many I knew from before, found common interests and gained a lot of knowledge because we are all sharing our saree posts. It’s the stories that go with the pictures that fascinate not just me, but everyone I know who has been avidly following the pact, whether they are pacters themselves or not.
What we wear, what we choose to wear is so intrinsic a part of who we are. It is an expression, but it also shapes our journey. By choosing to wear sarees, I make a statement to myself first and only then to everyone around. About being comfortable in my own skin. About being unapologetic about the extra 10 minutes I spend everyday choosing a saree, ironing it, draping it and accessorizing my look for the day. These acts give me that edge of confidence, bring out that inherent sexuality and power within me; they center me.
The #100sareepact has also coincided with a particularly industrious phase in my life. A career-focused phase, an ambitious forward-looking time, a time of re-invention and action that followed a rather long period of introspection, dithering and decision-making. The extra boost of confidence that wearing sarees has given me plays no small part in whatever I have managed to achieve. And for that, I shall remain eternally grateful to the pact.
Whether I will wear a saree as frequently post the pact remains to be seen, but I do know that the saree is now firmly entrenched among the regular choices I make about my attire. I think of the myriad motivations that have driven women across the world to take up the saree with such enthusiasm. I think of conversations last night with friends about how hard women are working to make a mark in the world around them, often against severe odds. I think about how desperately we sometimes need validation and encouragement and yet are too inhibited to seek it. And I know why the pact is so successful.
Anju, Ally, you struck gold with this. For all of us.
I got a call from a childhood friend last evening. We are particularly close and talk often, especially when we need to share something that we hesitate to even tell our own selves.
She asked me a strange question; in fact, it was a strange conversation:
Her: “Is it ok for me to borrow money from my parents or my brother?”
Me: “What do you need the money for?”
Her: “Just like that, I want to keep it with me. I have no savings.”
My friend is married, with two children. Her younger one will start school soon. She is a trained nursery school teacher and immensely talent with children. She used to teach, but has given up her career for the last three years to bring up her children.
Me: “I would not borrow unless I needed the money for something specific. And how will you pay it back?”
Her: “I don’t know. I don’t have a job right now. When I start working, I will repay I suppose.”
Me: “Would your parents not get worried if you ask them for money just like that? Is everything well at home? Did you have a fight with <husband’s name>?”
Her: “No, no. Nothing like that. But yea, I need money for myself, for small expenses. I have been spending from my savings from when I was teaching and now I have run out of money. I am not used to not having anything in my bank account.”
By now, she is sounding really distraught and confused. We talk things through and then agree that it would be best to talk this out with her parents when she visits them next and just ask them for some money to tide her over instead of taking a loan.
I also ended up urging her to look more aggressively for work and not feel guilty about leaving her young ones at home or in daycare. I reminded her that the decision to have a second baby was a joint one and that her husband is also responsible for her decision to be a home maker till the children grow up a little.
I was upset that she hesitated to ask him for expense money. That she felt guilty about wanting little pleasures in life. That she was so conflicted between her duties as a mother to her children and her need to be financially independent.
So many of us women are in this boat. Why do we accept the taunts and jeers, seemingly harmless but actually potent, that our husbands and others dish out to us, about decisions that are perfectly rational- like not going to work for a few years OR choosing to remain working even when our children are small? An individual has her own reasons to take these decisions. There is no formula here. Everyone is entitled to do what makes her a happy and satisfied person. And it is binding on a woman’s partner to support her just as he would expect his wife to stand behind him through the trials of life.
Marriages, relationships are so complex and intertwined, and so so fragile. Communication (especially about aspirations) and financial transparency are key pillars that both partners need to work on together. This is what I would say to the men of this world: If your partner’s happiness is not important to you, if seeing her smiling and confident does not make you proud, if you find yourself unable to respect what she wants and expect her to always pay heed to your needs over hers, then you are not cut out to have a woman in your life! Let her go and let her lead her own life. Whatever that life may be, it will be better than wasting her talents and love and energy with you!
A bit radical, but that is what I really think! I know the black and white options do not work in reality. Many of us struggle desperately to make things work against many odds. And whether to hang in there or make a clean break is also, in the end, an individual decision that we must respect.
Related blog post, also interesting!
For all the love-yourself-the-way-you-are sentiment that I carry around myself all the time, for all the self-confidence I have and the unadulterated vanity I can live with; for all the feminism I think I believe in, for all the women’s empowerment I want- I do still want to look good, wear the clothes I want to wear, I do still have serious body image issues, however disguised I might make them by telling myself that the motivations are health, fitness, energy levels, etc. Yes, we humans are tremendously delusional and I live with the constant sense of just how many conflicting and contradicting thoughts and feelings I walk around with. Of all the issues I feel confused about, hypocritical even, body image aka weight issues holds the first place.
I’ve blogged about this before, but really- What do I do when I just feel depressed about being fat, even though I know it doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of things, whatever that might be! As I grow older, I get more practical about it. I can look at a garment and tell that it will be a frustrating experience trying it on, even in my size! I know that shopping time is over after 2 hours, 7-8 shops. I know where the enjoyment stops and the frustration begins. I have learnt to stop short of that point and avoid going down that spiral of self-obsessed self-pity that was such a familiar state in my 20s!
These past few months though, I have had the growing realization that dealing with the problem in my head is not going to make it go away! I am obese (and perhaps unfit too?) by any standards and I simply have to do something about it. What the targets should be and whether the strategy for reaching there should be drastic or tempered are matters of detail, but there had to be a structure to this process. So I made a small beginning today, in my head and in reality. No procrastination, Mukta! I have a target- to be as gorgeous as the image in my head by the time I hit 40. That is a few years away, but even so, having that target makes me feel a whole lot better!!
To hell with faux-feminism and pretend emancipation, if looking good is important to me, it simply is and I have to be true to myself first before being true to any cause! This is one of many battles to fight and I intend making it as fun as it can get.