This Article is From Jul 11, 2017

An Indian Moon

I love the moon-talk in our land. Take, for instance, this very month - packed into one lunar cycle are three moon-rich concepts that allow us to revel in being Indian. I say Indian, not South Asian, for while we share a common civilization, our neighbouring countries have defined themselves in such a way that they have lost this easy ability to access different cultural and religious notes. We're hanging on to ours for now - by the sliver of a moon.

The faint crescent line of the moon marked the beginning of this lunar cycle with Chand-Raat (the night the festival of Eid is declared, which was on June 25 this year). Just the name - Chand-Raat - evokes images of congested bazaars, frenzied shopping at stalls lit ingeniously by naked bulbs where women flash their wrists as they try on glass bangles or wait patiently for their mehendi to dry. Over the years, at several Chand-Raat bazaars, I have been that typical onlooker who rarely wears adornments, has nothing to buy but is drawn by the concept of moon-spotting and its celebrations.

This can get too much for the more conservative maulvis who find the celebrations of Chand-Raat, too 'Hindu' for their liking. Pakistan's late premier Zia-ul-Haq, an Islamist hardliner, was so troubled by this moon-spotting business, he took it away from the neighbourhood maulvis and gave it to a committee. 

This year, I found it hard to participate fully - the grim headlines have taken the sparkle from most festivities - but if I had, I'm sure I would have had to parry the same commentary that marked several Chand-Raat excursions in the past. It would be easy to dismiss this commentary as harmless, typical of conversations between communities, except now there is an increasing danger that these prejudices can harden into bigotry.

A common refrain is that I participate in "Muslim festivals" with great vigour while I'm ignorant of Hindu ones. Actually, I respond to the moon quite indiscriminately, SharadPurnima being my most favourite full-moon. 

Then there are those who extend this logic to argue that Hindus are happy to participate in "Muslim festivities", but Muslims don't reciprocate, so this cultural intermingling exists only because of the "Hindu ethos". Oddly, in my life, many of my Muslim friends have been the ones to acquaint me with this "Hindu ethos". In any case, even if it is about the "Hindu ethos", what's the problem? Celebrate it, why should there be resentment?

Incidentally, the commentary comes from all quarters. There are some elite intellectual Muslims who have condescendingly smiled at my Chand-Raat, Eid ka Chand excitement as typical of Hindus who have created constructs from films with the "Islamicate" (a term the jargon of film studies revels in) or simply have a tendency to "exoticize the other". Honestly, if there's any merit in this, then we're just lucky that we can find the exotic without stepping out of our homes.

Personally, I'm most patient with those fatigued by the clichés of "Ganga-Jumni tezheeb" that such moon talk may suggest. The truth is that most romantic notions have been blasted away by 20 years of field reporting. I know just how uneasy and fragile our secularism is. We cannot depend on such ideas for saving our secularism, but our secularism counts for little without such ideas.

Besides, this is not about rivers, this is about the moon.

This year, the Eid ka Chand is going to wax into the full moon of Guru Purnima which falls on July 9, a day dedicated to teachers, to those who are "Siddh" (enlightened), particularly meaningful to those who've had some contact with the world of classical music or dance. In the years I learnt Kathak, on Guru Purnima, all the students in my class would perform a small "tukda" (piece) as "hazari" (offering) to our guru-ji, who is about the only person I have ever obeyed willingly. 

A traditional guru, Nandini-ji would always tell me that I was lucky to be in a position where I could draw from tradition only what I needed with the privilege of being able to throw out its rigid rules and hierarchies. She would rue the use of the word "guru"! in our times.  

"Your generation thinks of gurus as either saffron-clad quacks, which they increasingly are, or you use the word too loosely. Everyone is a guru - a political guru, a guru of technology. What a waste of a word that's etymological root in Sanskrit means the remover of darkness."

An eloquent description of Guru Purnima came from Bahauddin Dagar, a friend and talented musician, one of finest players of the rudraveena. In an interview, he described how on every Guru Purnima, he plays specific ragas as tribute to all his gurus: "For my father, who was also my guru, his guru, an entire lineage of gurus and at its furthermost tip we remember Saraswati, a goddess, but also a symbol of knowledge and learning.'

Then there is one my mother's favourite  homilies from Kabir - "Guru Gobind donon khade, kaake lagoon paay; Balihari guru aapne, gobind diyo batay" (The Guru and God both stand at my door, who should I bow before? Hail the Guru, for he shows the way to God).

As the lunar cycle unfolds, the full moon of Guru Purnima will wane until it disappears into the dark night of Hariyali Amavasya on July 23.

I think you have to be Rajasthani, maybe a Mewari, and that too from Udaipur, to really revel in this festival that celebrates the rains, nature and the colour green. It can best be described as a three-day mass carnival which marks the advent of the monsoons across north and central India. The epicentre of this festival is one of Udaipur's beloved lakes - Fateh Sagar - a lake that has the status of a family deity amongst both my maternal and paternal Bordia/Bhandari clan.

The first day is exclusively for women, who would traditionally turn out in a sea of green - wearing green lehengas and odhnis or lehariya (tie-and-dye) saris. The second day is for the men, whose pagris would mirror the green of the past day. Seeing the continuing popularity of these two days, the Rajasthan tourism machine jumped in to declare a third "family day," a sarkari mish-mash that only diminishes what precedes it.

For villagers, especially the Bhils, Hariyali Amavas is an occasion to come into the city. The fair extends from the lake to Moti Magri - a small hill with a towering statue of Rana Pratap riding his horse Chetak. My childhood memories of this festival are magical. Chetak was our favourite hero, Rana Pratap was yet to fully become part of the Hindutva agenda. The colours were breathtaking; add the cotton candy, ferris wheels and the boating (us children of the 80s were easily entertained) and Hariyali Amavas was a vacation highlight. Each year, my aunt and grand uncle, Ravi Nana, would call, urging us to visit Udaipur for Hairyali Amavas. He died this year and so the date of the festival, a fortnight away, haunts me.

Having already burdened the moon with indulgent childhood memories as well as identity politics, let me stretch it further to say that at a time when a lot of the romantic notions about my country are being lynched out of the system, it is a month like this that allows me to retain some faith in being Indian.

To feel patriotic about the moon, I realize, sounds politically and philosophically absurd, but surely it can't be more absurd than the notions of patriotism floating around these days.

(Radhika Bordia is Features Editor at NDTV)

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