Retrobrowsings: Different Times for Different Truths

Neelum revisits an editorial by Anees Jung, in Youth Times, in October 1976. The author states that if last week’s column had occasionally felt like a strange journey into a dated past, this one might well be a fantasia of a future on another planet. Was it only forty years ago that something like this could appear as an editorial and be accepted without outcries by the reading public? Here’s a review of a past issue of that magazine, in her weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.

This magazine of our young days was called Youth Times and, flipping through its pages, they do seem to be different times. This is one of Anees Jung’s editorial pieces, which used to be titled Flash Points. The year is 1976 and this is the October 15-28 issue. The piece requires no commentary as it speaks for itself. If last week’s column had occasionally felt like a strange journey into a dated past, this one might well be a fantasia of a future on another planet. A future reinvented out of the remains of horrific historic lessons on this planet and the backwash of different times and different configurations and integrations of our tortuous truths. Was it only forty years ago that something like this could appear as an editorial and be accepted without outcries by the reading public? We need to read it again:

“I do not believe in prayer meetings nor do I ever pray when I visit religious shrines. Instead, I watch those who have come to pray. I like to see what prayer does to people. Last Sunday I found myself among a group of people gathered at a Sufi centre in Delhi. They were a mixed group, gentle looking, friendly. Among them was a Nepali, a Japanese, an African, a bunch of young boys dressed in freshly washed, unironed clothes. Some were European faces, the kind that are in search for a meaning in life. Some were easily identifiable as Muslim faces – men with goatee beards, seemingly at peace with themselves. Meetings such as these were probably not as integral to their lives I felt. For religion in India, unlike in the West, continues to be a way of life and the people take to it as naturally as they take to what they eat or wear. Occasions such as these were not meant to remind them of a religion they do not have, nor were they arranged to help them to seek. They came to these gatherings as they would probably to any other ordinary occasion. Who were all these people I wondered – so different looking, so disparate yet so uniformly involved in the happenings of this small warm room? They sat on the floor, their eyes directed towards an altar with lighted candles, and an imposing European woman in black. She seemed like a high priestess at a Greek altar – garbed formally in a black gown, her hair carefully rolled in a twist; large black drops in her ears and bangles, green, black and yellow around her two wrists. The altar was arranged with candles in brass stands. Flaming marigolds rested on each of the small black leather books that were arranged in a row. One by one, she picked each book and read out passages from the Hindu, the Islamic, the Buddhist and Hebrew scriptures.

After each recitation she raised her hands and prayed. Her voice was strong and clear. There was something matter-of- fact about her manner, and an enforced formality about the occasion except for the white Lhasa dog that wandered aimlessly around the altar. And the two young boys who came forward and read out passages in Urdu, haltingly. It seemed as if they were just learning to read. The tremor in their voices made the prayer sound more real. Did they understand the other passages that were read in English? What meaning did a ceremony so formal have for them? I felt as if I was outside it. But the faces around me were quiet, attentive, involved. Some of the Europeans kept their eyes clenched, as if they were in communion with something higher. The Indians seemed less otherworldly. The little boys with their wide black eyes looked around.

“Some of them picked their noses. When the lady in black completed her ritual readings other things followed – a recitation of Sufi poems and a qawwali sung by two men with warm, virile faces. The crowd in the room quietly moved with the music. I was now less involved with the crowd, more with the music. Then a little girl, carefully groomed, was brought forward to deliver a formal goodbye to a young American man who had worked in her school in the basti. She read out a poem, garlanded him with a thin string of pink and white flowers and presented him with a red-paper wrapping. The young American opened it right away – it was a rose coloured tablecloth embroidered by the little girls of the basti school. The American was moved. We too were moved. It was a moment that spoke to all of us. Did the ceremony mean anything to you? – asked my friend as we left the centre. No, I told her. I am never moved by rituals. They do not make me feel spiritual. What then does? – she asked. When I am talking to someone and we suddenly understand each other; when I listen to a beautiful piece of music, watch a glorious sunset; and when I see goodness in any form. I felt spiritual, I told her, when the little girl said goodbye to the American and when the singer with the long hair sand the qawwali that he knew so well. It seemed to have a special meaning for him. He communicated that meaning to me.’

Reading this over in our fraught times, I find it a curious combination of naiveté and enlightenment. For wasn’t all this a packaged ritual too? A sequenced ceremony with its costumery, its performative appeal, its self-conscious enactment of ideas? There seems to be an undertext of dramatised difference, an underlying assumption that this is an island surrounded and possibly besieged by mainstream and warring religions. It is an idealistic departure from the hurly-burly of reality, a tranquil retreat into a sanctuary of sane inclusiveness in which the composition and choreography of the ceremony underscores the affirmation of all human beings belonging together rather than to truncated segments. And belonging together in reaction to something larger, potent and provenly destructive. The editor’s clear definition of personal faith in all its enlightened autonomy might not be construed a simple statement of individual sensibility and free choice today. In the battle of ideas, this has become a core issue.

I do wonder what became of the little boys in washed, unironed clothes, the little girl, the young American, the European woman. I wonder which page of which book they’re on now. Sufis, Dhamma-bums, Hippies, all the Conscientious Objectors of the 1960s and 70s who, even in their small numbers, swam against the current? Are there many such beings – older, resigned and quietly homeless in the historic moment, or have they been absorbed by the great transitions of our times and moved on?

©Neelum Saran Gour

Pix by author and Net.

Neelum S. Gour

Neelum S. Gour

Neelum Saran Gour is a well known IndianEnglish fiction writer and academic. She has been an active book reviewer, critic, translator, humour columnist, creative writing guide and jury member in the award of national literary prizes. She works as Professor of English Literature at the University of Allahabad.
Neelum S. Gour