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Portraits From Ayodhya

Scharada Dubey

Tranquebar Press

Pages: 327 Rs. 295

Talking to Ayodhya ­­— Lost narratives from a riven city

In her latest work, Scharada Dubey talks of an Ayodhya that defies binaries, of a place where an ‘idea for all humanity’ died a tragic death, writes Pragya Tiwari

Pragya Tiwari  8th Apr 2012

The demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 brought Ayodhya to national attention overnight

ost of my school vacations were spent in a small village near Ayodhya where my father's extended family has lived for generations. The Ayodhya of my childhood was a humble, quaint town that wore its multi-layered legacies with beguiling charm. Twenty years later it bears its story like a cross. Events in the last two decades have turned it into a place where the gloriously complex identity of a nation was brought to its knees by the reductive idea that the pride of an ancient faith could only be reinstated by bringing down a medieval mosque. Today it is the epicenter of some of the worst carnage independent India has seen and a powerful symbol of the threat to its democratic ideals.

Ayodhya is the albatross around Hindutva's neck but in its quiet heart it is also home to a few. Scharada Dubey's Portraits From Ayodhya is a collection of short character sketches of the inhabitants of this town. For most of these people the age-old property dispute over a site where Hindus worshipped the idol of Ram in a dilapidated, disused mosque was just one of the many rampant squabbles over land in the region —assimilated unselfconsciously into daily life in that bewildering way in which the Indian juggernaut rumbles along.

Then came 1984 — the year that fulfilled Orwell's prophecy of doom nowhere quite as poignantly as it did in India. While the nation grappled with a horrific gas tragedy and anti-Sikh riots, the VHP held its first campaign demanding a temple in Ayodhya. Dubey quotes Peter Van Der Weer to describe this event. "On the side of the platform a large painting was fixed representing a fight between Muslims with swords and sadhus with no weapons." Thus was sown the poisonous seed of VHP's idea of India as the cradle of a clash of civilizations.

Dubey seeks to understand the impact on this town's people of the series of unfortunate events that followed this campaign, culminating in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Through her examination of this microcosm she draws out the innumerable contradictions that make us who we are as Indians and contravene the basis on which communal forces incite hatred — the idea that religion divides us wholly and completely into separate, clashing monoliths.

Portraits From Ayodhya turns the debate over the disputed site on its head by humanising it. Through the prism of the small lives of this small town the media discourse on the issue disintegrates into equal parts of tragedy and farce.

The book begins with the story of Vineet Maurya. His father was one of a gang of five who established temples on Muslim graveyards before 1949. When this family is forced to give up its land for a theme park based on Lord Ram's life (one of the many initiatives taken to revamp Ayodhya as a flagship for brand 'Hindutva'), Vineet converts to Buddhism and begins efforts to popularise Ayodhya's Buddhist heritage. His family supports him but is deeply hurt when he is implicated in the act of garlanding a picture of Lord Ram with shoes as protest against alleged anti-Dalit verses in the Ramayana. Vineet regrets his association with this scandal just as much. No matter what side you are on politically and philosophically, in Ayodhya no one disregards Ram.

Activist Yugal Kishor Shastri, another figure linked with the demolition, is also keen to dissociate from it. But the townsfolk view this self-professed sentinel of secularism with suspicion. They accuse him of exploiting Ayodhya's political situation to further his career as a secularist. Perhaps their disaffection is born of the fact that secularism is still somewhat a foreign concept for them. Their lives have been so inherently syncretic and symbiotic that they have never needed to use the external tool of 'secularism' to carve out a co-existence. Their bonds and their differences are far too complex to toe the seemingly straightforward line between Hinduism and Islam. Shastri agitates for Dalits to be allowed to worship in Hanuman Garhi but fails. The head priest of this very temple, however, is known for having organized iftar for Muslims and negotiating with the Muslims parties in the dispute.

n old, frail sadhu, Ram Sharan Das, on the other hand, defies caste prejudices and adopts a unique way of serving God — serving his town by cleaning its gutters. He quotes the Ramayana as his source of inspiration, the same epic that was accused of being anti-Dalit when protestors garlanded a photograph of Lord Ram. But the heartbreaking, inspirational figure surprises Dubey by betraying a narrow prejudice against Muslims, talking of them as usurpers, although it is unclear if this prejudice translates into practice. He is known for his friendship with Hashim Ansari, the oldest litigant on behalf of the Sunni Central Waqf board in the title suit. Ansari, who is admired by Hindus and Muslims in Ayodhya, was ironically a childhood friend of the most prominent crusader for the Ram temple in the town — Paramhans Ramachandra Das. "We stayed friends until the end. His nephews and chelas still give me a lot of respect", he tells Dubey.

This is not an exceptional story in Ayodhya. In fact, it is hardly surprising. Whatever their individual positions on the issue, almost everyone Dubey interviews denounces the politics the BJP and VHP played over the disputed site. Instead they collectively mourn the fate of the languishing town.

Accounts of the constant security checks, the restrictions on movement, the fear that the pregnant and the ill might die before making it to hospital, and life under the siege of a constant, ruthless guard remind one of stories from Kashmir. Except the citizens of Ayodhya are still unable to comprehend their place in this enforced battle. The lament of Satyendra Das, the head priest of the Janmabhoomi, seals their testimonies- "Ram lalla ki dayaniya dasha dekhkar lagta hai un logon ne Raja Ram ko bhikhari bana diya." (The pitiable condition of the idol of Ram after the demolition makes you feel they've turned the great king into a beggar).

Dubey reacts to her subjects but does not judge them. She records more than their take on the politics over religion in Ayodhya — she chronicles a fast disappearing way of life. The journalist who sends handwritten articles to his newspaper's head-office in the city through a tempo driver, the romantic keeper of the Rasik Nivas temple who regrets the shrinking space for poets and spiritual seekers, the ageing Marxist who is nostalgic about the once robust culture of impromptus intellectual debate and the old custodian of the dying art of the Ram Leela. Portraits From Ayodhya turns the debate over the disputed site on its head by humanising it. Through the prism of the small lives of this small town the media discourse on the issue disintegrates into equal parts of tragedy and farce.

There are many Ramayanas. In my father's version that I heard as a child whenever I visited our ancestral village, Ram was an idea for all humanity. A God who gave up his place in heaven to lead men and women to their highest possible destiny, a king who gave up his throne to exalt moral strength over the struggle for power, a governor who turned Ayodhya into an ideal state — free from poverty, wars, injustice and mistrust. Historically, present day Ayodhya may or may not be the place where he was born, but it is certainly where this idea of him died.

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