Nationalism as a Stand Up Tragedy


The shrill discourse on nationalism, which started with the advent of the BJP to power in mid-2014, touched a new low last week. A two judge bench of the Supreme Court issued a directive as part of an interim order, upholding ‘constitutional patriotism’, making it mandatory to play the national anthem before the screening of films in movie halls  around the country and for audiences to stand up during the course of this exercise.

In other words, nationalism will now be drummed into the heads of cine-watchers, who would have no option of escape either, as the court order specified that all doors should be closed when the national anthem is played closed.

People are disappointed, questions are being asked whether the learned judges have not overreached in their zeal to ‘nationalise’ the nation. The most worrying part of the judgment , however ,is that the judge who wrote will be heading the Supreme Court soon. So, we better brace ourselves for more such  patriotic flatulence in the years ahead.

Nationalism is like religion. Are you born religious? Do you get it automatically from somewhere? No. You need to be schooled in the rites and norms of religion. There is always a suspicion in the minds of the Purohits and Pandas of the cult that the followers suffer from a permanent lack. They prescribe daily private and periodic collective rituals to keep their religiosity alive. So, reformers who have tried to de-ritualise religions to get to its pure kernel are sadly mistaken. Religion without its ritual part is beyond human comprehension.

Have you not seen people who fill their notebooks with Ram Nam? After all, in our culture Nam Jaap enjoys great respect. But Naam is an abstraction. Unless you put a face to a name it is meaningless. So Nam has to combine with Roop. What is the Roop, or face of this nation?

Before answering this question, let us recount a story which is part of our puranic tradition but which must be a product of the folk genius of this great, ancient nation which never misses a chance to puncture the claims of high culture. It is about the venerated Narad who keeps chanting Narayan, Narayan during his cosmic wandering. One day, filled with the pride of his own Bhakti , Narad went to Narayan to stake his claim to being the Lord’s foremost devotee. As the legend goes, Narayan just smiled and ignored the demand.  Who remembered the Lord more yours truly, the hurt Bhakt asked. Narayan pointed in the direction of the Earth, where mere mortals lived, to a farmer tilling his fields! ‘Go to him’, commanded the all pervading  Life Giver.

Narada rushed to the Earth with divine speed to confront his competitor. He followed him closely without being seen. The poor man was busy with his dailyness. There was nothing spiritual about what he was doing. Caught in his mundane existence, the name of the Supreme never appeared on his lips. When the eventless day drew to its close, the tiller before retiring to his bed or whatever was there in the name of it, whispered, Ram, Ram.

Narad was filled with indignation. Only once in a day and that too as a lullaby! And the Lord has the cheek to pitch him against me,  whose very existence is entwined with the name of the Almighty! Without losing time , he went back to Narayan and asked him how can he be compared with that lowly farmer.

Narayan  propsed a test. Narad had  to carry a bowl filled to the brim with oil on his head for a day. Condition was that he had to come back to him without spilling a drop of it. Narada was amused but did he have an option to tell his master that this was no way to test his loyalty! He put the oil filled bowl on his head and started his journey. Constantly aware of the condition, he moved around without letting a drop fall. At sunset, he returned to the all-knowing , filled with a feeling of triumph: he had passed the test.  Despite having cosmic ears , Narayan asked him how many times he had remembered him. Narada was dumbfounded. Not once! His mind was constantly on the oil- bowl and the fear of spilling its contents. “See, you forgot me completely and how!”

In the old ways of story telling, there was always scope for elaborating on the moral of the tale. Modern fiction sneers at  moralising , so let us be content with the story. We know that by making him enact a story, Narayan could not mend the ways of  Narad. He still roams around with his veena and his chant and the farmer still goes on tilling his land and from time to time, hangs himself,not by the thread of Ram Nam but with a noose around his neck.

Religions have lived through stories. Nations also fictionalise themselves to communicate to their people. But stories which are written with a mission of moralising bore their listeners. They have to endear themselves to their readers. They have to be humorous, sensual, unpredictable to keep the readers engrossed with them while they unfold.

A good reader is one who reads his novel at least twice. And good novels are mines, which are dug again and again by the readers for new gems of meanings. Nations, to be alive for their people have to have this aesthetic appeal in them. They are a two way meaning making exercise. They also have to find meaning in their people. They have to have a sense of incompletness in them, a sense of inadequacy. They wait for new readers. They are unfinished paintings, there is always scope for a new stroke, a fresh colour. They need to be soiled by impure,working hands. They are not sacred , like museum pieces  not to be touched or altered.

Our good lordships know their Ramayan and shastras for they did remember the oft quoted  Janani Janmabhumishcha…. But they are better advised to visit them again to read them as tales of exiles and think somewhat deeply about the final exile which Sita had to endure. What was the nation of Sita, my lordships? Ram did return to his Ayodhya. But where did Sita return? Why did she not accept the invitation of Ayodhyapati Ram to come back  and instead preferred to disappear? How did Ayodhya lose its inviting charm for Sita? Read the Ramayan again my lords , there are at least three hundred of them!



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