Diaspora and Memory Susan Visvanathan, CSSS, JNU, submitted 5th October 2015 to Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla for the conference on Religion and Social Diversity, 12th to 14th October.
Indians tend to conflate their personal experience and relocate these in terms of the larger issues they are interested in, in the worlds they simultaneously cohabit . This issue of co-existence of differences, and their ability to relocate the problem of identity in an adaptative measure has been of interest to sociologists for many decades. Living in the world, has meant a certain pragmatism, a certain joi de vivre, a love for the present, and equally an ardour for the past. So, we need to understand why in Hinduism, the long memory captured by smrithi and shruthi are still so evident, not in literate descriptive ways, but also in photographs, forms of orality and landscapes of reterritorialisation, and the theatre of ritual, which includes the arts and dance forms.
Indians domiciled in India now composes 17 percent of the world population, and the figures for NRIs are 1,3799746, People of Indian Origin 17,075280, and Overseas Indians 28,4555026. We know that this demographic visibility is indeed the space of cultural re-orientation. All over the world, people know that the transmigration of ritual and ceremony is the visible way that Indians have communicated a love for the “natal country”, from whom they may be removed in reality, by three generations, or more, and the concrete symbols by which they show how resplendent this love is. In America, students who enter the universities are immediately drawn into the carnivalesque space of “India week”. Hot samosas welcome them, ( a celebratory break from the cafeteria hamburgers and fries, so ubiquitous in American student culture).They perform dances from their specific states, and the hall becomes rich with the yells, and cries of jubilation and recognition, and everyone, including the audience, loves dressing up in national costumes. Musicians and dance troops, having professional status are also welcomed, and the quality of the amateur and professional are sometimes equivalent. Senior citizens welcome the young, newly entered into the portals of academia, and these become the spaces where the love for country are then reworked into promises to serve the homeland. Money is collected, votes are garnered, and the vicarious Hinduism felt in exile is made more public by the customary membership into the VHP. For diaspora Indians, this membership makes them feel they belong, this is the only Hinduism that they can participate in, and their donations go a long way in the establishment of right wing Hinduism as a prototype of all that is Indian. As a result, the questions of justice, of reconciliation, with the real text of moral disruption through riots and hate speeches finds no mention in this discourse. Love for homeland obliterates the terror zones of riots, internecine war, pogroms, where the search for justice and equality continue in daily practise.
Diaspora Hindus recreate their homeland, through the symbols of food, dance, drama and temple ritual. In a way, this is the hyper-reality of their alienated existence far away from home. At work, they wear suits, and eat pizzas, drive fast cars, enter into liasons, both professional and personal, assert their identity against subtle or violent forms of racism, meeting often at homes for meals and literary readings, endorse Indian customs including arranged marriage, and dialects of speech, as well as being enthusiastic hosts to visitors from their home country. They have access to Bollywood films quicker than Indians at home do, as the circulation of videos is one way they keep in touch with the visuals of the homeland.
Banal as this may seem, we have to understand, that investment in the home country is not just through emotional chords based on nostalgia, but on the very real questions of how tradition holds them tightly in its clutch. The real problems for the “Confused” in the next generation is how to segmentalise their feeling for their parents and grandparents, and to keep their friendship circles in a foreign country intact. This has been the stuff of many popular films, and Indians at home love to watch these films. The return home is premised on the understanding that the village to which people return for their scheduled holiday is the village of their dreams, it is a metaphorical space, not just a geographical one, because it shifts to wherever the clan or lineage congregates to welcome them.
Among the St Thomas Christians of Kerala, too, their memory as genealogy is crafted in such a way that it extends, in printed pamphlets and handbooks, some times upto two thousand years. They have used this as a way to keep clan privileges intact, and though they may live abroad in United States of America, Europe, Australia or in The Gulf, Kudumbayogam is a very important part of their annual ceremonies. These meetings are held in homes, parish halls or hotels, and clan members assemble, and introduce one another to their progeny. Good food is eaten, hymns sung, news of marriage, birth or death announced. Facebook and Skype are very important institutions in the dissemination of information, and individuals and families return to their work places, replete with the memory of having met with their own blood. Every morning, before going to work, families living in Canada, Australia, Europe or America, converse, with their parents and relatives on the computer. The time difference is adjusted so that family dinner, or early morning, when waking up, gathering the children for school, or tennis practise is a Skype moment. Certainly, new marriages are arranged through gossip and pointed or focussed information culled from meeting clansmen and women, whether digitally or through intermittent visits.
Many of these institutions are stabilised by the presence of the church, since people look to integrate their children in the same religious affiliation. The numbers of Overseas Indians are huge, running into millions, as we saw, and so the Church provides through its “ecclesiastical bureaucracy”, as Max Weber called it, the means of formally inducting new members into the church, by its lessons and its homilies, available on the net. Shalom TV is a very important ritual medium, and though it is Syrian Catholic, the diaspora, whether in Bengaluru or Boston, watches it irrespective of its organisational affiliation. Tithe paying is a very significant part of time honoured conventions, since without it, burial ground at the time of death cannot be accessible. Those who are concerned with finding brides or grooms for their young, use church validated e-portals, and with the blessings of the parishes, which are often far flung across many continents, they find a suitable partner for their children. This involves travelling abroad to finalise the match, but as with arranged marriages, the young too are complicit, believing that their parents will make the “best choice” for them. “You find me a bride, ma, I am too busy,” is an often announced request by young men in the fast moving laboratories of the technological and digital industry. The contract of marriage is based on the traditional notions of maintenance of the house, respect and protection of the elders, and birth and nurturing of children on the part of the wife as unspoken obligations which are based on social patterns of acceptable and honourable behaviour. In reality, the story may swing differently, when careers are prioritised over nurturing of young, or protection of old. The fertility rate goes down with industrialisation, and in Kerala, the average birth rate is 1.68 or less progeny, as the Diaspora have experienced industrial life styles, without necessarily migrating to them.
Dowry and gifts of gold remain stable, and the young couple enters into marriage with parental support. Thirty years ago, in a study conducted by me, on behalf of the World Council of Churches, (Kottayam, 1982) we found that all the women, without exception, believed that dowry was their right or avakasham. The Mary Roy case which won equal rights of inheritance, for children, regardless of gender was turned into a travesty, with the Church coming out strongly against it, since the tithes that came into parishes would be affected if stridhan became an anamoly, as they received lucre from both parties, as record of the transaction of marriage.(Visvanathan 1989, 1993) Property is one of the key issues that is stabilised through discussion and gossip, when Diaspora members return to their village. Daughters are still not expected to inherit property, and if they do, the men work very hard to wrest it back into the male line. (Thulaseedharan 2014) Daughters are expected to build their home, away from the village or land, where their brothers have their home. This distance however is mediated with close family ties of bilateral filiation, so that all festivals, anniversaries and life cycle events corroborate with the intensity of filial devotion to the parents, and the equalising of emotions. Daughters are expected to be present at all these events with their family, and no contestation by them is expected, as their presence only communicates that love transcends rights to private property. Mannam or honour is the most privileged of sentiments. Filial obligations are now gender neutral, and both men and women are expected to contribute to the well being of their parents, as the parents often contribute with money to their education, and the offsprings’ subsequent financial success is seen to be a reference point for monetary returns, helping to pay medical bills, marriage of unmarried daughters, house repair and loans and old age maintenance.
The daughter’s absence during death, or funeral, is thought to be tragic, and the video industry now plays a large part in memorialisation, so that mortuary rituals are transmitted digitally as recordings. Who came for the funeral, the roll call of relatives, the lament of the artisans and servants associated with the family, the church and who officiated, the number of priests and bishops present, tell us a great deal of the status of the family.
Mapping social relations through the statistics of visits, phone calls and skype conversations is an interesting way to think of the mind body relationship. Ghasan Hage presented the JNU -ASA Firth lecture on 3rd April 2012, with the analyses of family gatherings across continents, with reference to the Lebanese living in Venezuela, Australia, USA, and Lebanon.(www.theasa)
Territory transcends location, and digital technology brings about emotional closeness, though people may be hundreds or thousands of miles away. The idea of the “relative” as someone who is no longer primary kin, but is mediated by marriage relations, so that the family of orientation is secondary to the family of procreation, is juxtaposed with the real solidarity of kinship networks. The new mapping practises according to Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin and Chris Perkins (2009:3) is as follows
In a sense, what they point to is the way in which ideas hold within them, a certain reified grammar, but the actor is placed in the historical context in which he or she has to make decisions. So relationships would be represented through the imaginative abilities of actors, where emotions and desires are played out appropriately through their abilities, financial or cathartic. Dodge et al suggest that we read the map subjectively, and as narrative, through insights drawn from cultural practice, psychoanalyses and linguistics.
The map thus becomes known through the ability to be mobile. The idea of the extended family remains the desired ideal, but given stringent work obligations, men and women may be separated from each other for long periods of time, sometimes years, but they will remain in consonance with each other, through the medium of the aerogramme in the 80s of the last century, daily phone calls in the 90s, and as the financial remunerations increased, mobile phone and skype in the 21st century. Since sharing becomes visual and auditory, rather than tactile, the interfamilial intimacy contributes to the immediacy of reception, and the emotions associated with them run in the same groove as if the family were indeed together. Faith and family prayer mediate the systematic conditioning to occupational hazards, war zones, aeroplane landings and departures, and the general conviviality of meetings in limited time frames.
Jeremy W.Crompton in an essay in Dodge et al (2009) titled Rethinking Maps and Identity, suggests that we return to the Platonic version, of being, becoming, and the place of becoming, the chora, or ‘ontogenesis’. It is like fire, ever changing and without fixed properties, yet seems to have a ‘fiery character’. In this very place, truth is made, it is not static, but constantly evolving.
When we think of the Malayalis, who fled Quwait during the Gulf war in 1991, they represented the waiting, the suspense, the camps, the get away, as a narrative of survival. This is echoed in the conflicts in Libya, and in Iraq, where Malayalis were trapped in ongoing wars in the second decade of the 21st century, and duly reported in the press. They returned to the homeland, (Naad,) bereft of income, and then started new ventures, such as pineapple cultivation on hitherto fallow land, and lived off their inherited or earned resources. When the war was over, they returned as migrants to the Gulf, because their life there had become a known entity, their children returned to school and life was normal again. However, they were always anxious, knowing that as temporary workers, they could never settle or really make it their home. In Saudi Arabia, they lived and worked under close surveillance, made fish curry with koddam pulli (indigenous tamarind, also called Kokum, dried and valued as a cultural legacy,) with bulbous organic red rice which they were traditionally accustomed to. They met in closed groups to pray in secret, formed close friendship groups, and at the end of twenty years, returned to Kerala, with happy or unhappy memories of their working life, where often the women were present too, as spouses, or kept hearth and home intact in Kerala. The stability of the family depended on these contracted arrangements, where women agreed to live apart for most of the year from their spouses. If asked how they managed, and would say depreciatingly, “Veedu Ondullu”, meaning ‘There is a house’, but meaning the complex relationships encompassing the Family.
Faith then becomes the cement, the intensity of which is compounded in formulaic prayer, expressed through the litanies of creed and bible readings. Men, who went without their families, and had to stay eight tenants in a room, would take turns cooking the food that they were used to in the village. The money they made was not spent, except for annual gifts that were taken back to the village. They paid mortgages, and dowries and education costs, so that from the average ownership of two and a half acres of land, which was the coinage of traditional belonging that they would not wish to sell, a new economy of servitude/service to the family would emerge. The needs of the family, in an ever spiralling cycle of costs had to be met.
Mortuary rituals for relatives who died, while the members of the clan were elsewhere, or who had actually died decades ago, became extremely important. Services and meals held in their memory assert the coming together of the clan. Family get together (kudumbayogam) on these occasions, with the traditional foods associated with the clan member such as cooked meats, tapioca, fish, payasam (rice cooked in milk and sugar and cloves) and unni appam (batter of rice powder, jaggery and bannanas, deep fried) end with the singing of hymns, which had been sung during the person’s life time. This essentially brings together a collage of memories, of youth and the effervescence of believing, the aura of a return to the past, when the ancestors were alive. Richard Fenn writes,
The sacred (the institutionalised Sacred) consists of a fragile set of symbolic defences that mimics the entire range of possibility with a substitute and counterfeit pantheon of possibilities. It offers a form of service that claims to be perfect freedom, and a form of renunciation that promises to give to the faithful the consummation of every desire. Thus, the sacred is a way of finding a safe place and time for the special graces, the charisma, of intimate, intense and enduring but evanescent and distant relationships. (Fenn 2001:6)
Gathering together with prayers and food, brings the dead close but in a harmonious way, not a malefic one. Where tombstones are no longer possible, because of population increase, the kin gather outside the vault, with the knowledge that the cement structures have been collectivised, and the dead anonymously, in aggregates, entropied by time and biological process.
Richard Fenn suggests that the spiritual process of touring the past, and assimilating it, is essentially to accept that memories create a place inhabited by the living as much as the qualities imbued in the dead by the survivors. Remembering becomes not the harrowed space of violent or antagonistic relations, but is characterised in terms of the strengths, including the motifs of allegiance and affection, not to speak of authority. (ibid 19)
The videography of the corpse, in Kerala, is one of the most macabre aspects of visual mummification, as the dead then enters into a space of continuous presence. The funeral becomes a transglobal phenomenon, as the living, where ever they are, may now participate in the prayers for the soul. The presence of the dead is given a corporeal and ever present immanence, and the bright lights of the video camera then record the emotions of the mourners in the indefinable space of an eternity which immortalises the deceased and mourners. As memory codes, the peacefulness of the visage, or the utter and total disfigurement is a testimony to the struggle against death.
When Ramana Maharishi died, his corpse was photographed by the eminent French photographer Cartier Bresson. This collection is with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. People came from all over the world and India, to have darshan of the Sage, and the return to view Maharishi was in a way the recreation of his life, which was observed visually as a meteor that crossed the sky at 8.47 pm on 14th April 1950, the time of death. People saw this meteor in other parts of India, and the next day, the news of his death was confirmed. Fenn writes,“Religious language possesses the capacity to embody possibilities excluded from social discourse and from the conventional imagination. Not merely to point to that possibility, but to embody it, that is the core of religious speech.”(ibid 27)
In contrast to the pilgrims, coming from many parts of India and the world, who sacralise by their continuous involvement, the life of the sage, are the children of the old, who visit them in Old Age homes. There is a great deal of mutual embarrassment, as love predominates over negligence, and yet, co-terminously there is a utilitarian sense of time and obligation to the work world, which both recognise. Old Age Homes are Kerala’s gift to the rational soul who knows that his or her obligations are to the next generation who have to be educated and fed. The loneliness of the old is circumvented in collective activities, where prayer, music, sociability, autonomy are all seen to be values in themselves. Often crèches are run in the premises of the Old Age Home, as this provides for the mutual pleasure of interaction, which Radcliffe Browne, as every undergraduate Sociology student knows, called “the merging of alternate generations”. Phone calls from children and grandchildren become the high point of interaction because there is information that is exchanged on both sides. When senility falls like a shadow, the institution knows how to handle it with the help of specialised staff, and the offspring are protected from the humiliation of being absent, and seemingly non-caring.
The pilgrim, the tourist, the countryman who is privileged to return home are co-incident. They bring with them the exhaustion and the joys of their working lives. They communicate on their return that this is a holiday which is won. They work very hard to please the family, to make long journeys to spend an hour or two with distant kin, to attend betrothals, marriages, baptisms and death rituals. Their success, financially and experientially is a sign of their honour. They left the homeland because there was no avenue of employment, but having made good, the trip home annually or less frequently, is an embellishment of love of family and country. Martin Buber suggests that beyond the cult of the individual, the monolith of The State or of Collectivities, is “relationship” as the total social good. How is this made possible, how is dialogue the virtue of those who wish to remain connected? He describes it as anguish and expectation, as the context in which all religions maintain not a uniformity, but a specificity. Dialogue is not traffic, it is relationship. (Buber 1992: 47)
Accordingly, even if speech and communication may be dispensed with, the life of dialogue seems, from what we may perceive, to have inextricably joined to it, as it’s minimum constitution, one thing, the mutuality of inner action. Two humans bond together in dialogue must obviously be turned to one another, they must, therefore – no matter with what measure of activity or indeed of consciousness of activity – have turned to one another. (ibid 47)
It is this tuning into one another that allows for the intimacy of the return, the ability to forgive and forget, the realisation that the homecoming is always painful and yet liberating. Love transcends class differences, and the return to poverty, or at least frugality is made evanescent in the exchange of confidences, the sharing of mutual sorrows and joys, and the exchange of consumer items such as foreign soap and shampoos or perfumes and colognes, for jasmine flowers, yams and home reared goat meat, chicken or duck eggs, fresh water fish from the nearest river, and jackfruit chips, or mangos and bananas from the yard, all seen to be novelties that the home country still provides, including eating on banana leaves.
It is the meal as a cultural signature of community life that has it’s greatest significance. In Kerala, as there is no ban, beef is served, (fried with coconut slices,) but is called Poth (ox) or kalla, (bullock) as India becomes more self conscious about cow totemism. The diaspora are used to eating hamburgers and steaks unselfconsciously, in cafes or at home, and the political connotations of this with regard to specialised forms of bovine totemism in several parts of the home country quite escapes them. Where there are bans, the diaspora eat from cold storage what is available and permitted. Certainly that export of beef occurs is a well known fact, and sometimes the beef exporters live in a village where people remember them for their initial poverty, and then the palatial house they were able to build with their new wealth. Ban on beef in India means increased export to the West. There is no social taboo to eating beef, since in Kerala, it is not the cow belt politics that pervade north India, and for Malayalis there is no taboo, unless self imposed, through systematic Sanskritisation by the RSS, or because of traditional Hindu upper caste affiliation. In North Malabar, Christians eat pork to differentiate themselves from Muslims. The idea that what one eats is one’s own business is a very dominant position taken in Kerala vis a vis ritual taboos, probably because of a century of the anti Brahman, Self Respect Movements, and Marxism.
That Diaspora, when abroad, eat the best produce, exported from India, from the fisheries or mango orchards. When they return, they find that with their remuneration, they are able to afford expensive sea fish, or fruit, but their neighbours cannot. Often religion becomes a divisive force, when lower income groups, on their return from the Gulf, can afford expensive food, and upper castes who have remained in salaried jobs in the home state cannot afford the same. Alcohol consumption rose so substantially that in 2015, the Kerala government banned liquor in the toddy shops and the government retail stores, but permitted hoteliers and tourists to stock alcohol. This led to a public outcry, and the Malayalis who had become addicted to liquor found vendors setting up stalls at the Coimbatore border. Fried beef and arrack were the common man’s staple, and the shutting down of the indigenous pubs created a hue and cry. Dilip Menon had argued that the Tiyyas were politically powerful in the 19th century because of their ability to provide alcohol to the Nairs for their temple rituals, where libations of toddy was an oblation. However, the use of toddy was in fact a time honoured beverage, included in cooking even in Syrian Christian domestic use for pancakes, and could still be procured from the Ezhava community, on request, since every family had a toddy tapper bring down their coconuts according to domestic need or for sale. The real abuse came from the sale of hard liquor, and since the Kerala government was receiving crores in excise duty, the recent ban did not come into place till the rates of suicide, rape and murder were too high to ignore.
The cleavage between Hindus, Christians and Muslims became increasingly evident in the 21st century. Since the sensibilities were further aroused by the ideological provocations of political parties, and religious communalism, the loud speaker became a site of continuous contestation, and small towns were riddled with noise pollution from the churches, temples and mosques, all expressing their right to profess their religious beliefs equally at the same time.
Maurice Blanchot writes
The Book always indicates an order that submits to unity, a system of notions in which are affirmed the primacy of speech over writing, of thought over language, and the promise of communication that would one day be immediate and transparent. Now it may be that writing requires the abandonment of all those principles, that is to say, the end and also the coming to completion of everything that guarantees one culture – not so that we might in idyllic fashion turn back, but rather so we might go beyond, that is, to the limit, in order to break the circle, the circle of circles; the totality of the concepts that found history, that develops in history, and whose development history is. Included in all this are events, lapses, and interruptions: death itself. ( Blanchot 1993:xii)
Once the Book closes on itself, each religious community then defines its boundaries, excluding those who will not accept its totalising dictates. The Syrian Catholics in Kerala began to have prayer camps which were magnetising in their power to ‘charismatically’ draw in large numbers. The Mar Thoma Church had its Maramon Convention, which innovated with music, and drew in international gospel evangelists. The Pentecostal Church drew in larger and larger numbers from all affiliations, since it offered miraculous cures, and catharsis as the total experience uniting all members. The Muslims began to go on Hajj, thus creating a hierarchy among themselves of those who could attain this life changing ascent to Mount Arafat, and the circumambulation of the tomb of Mohammad the Prophet, and those who could not pay the travel agent for such a trip. The Hindus, namely the Nairs, returned to their traditional Martial rituals and arts, representing the cult of self defence not just as aesthetics, but also as war fare. The Ezhavas dominated Marxist politics, and the Dalits began to organise themselves to counter Brahmin hegemony. The Brahmins felt increasingly marginalised, and either departed to foreign lands, including metropolitan cities in India, or became professionally displaced.
The pilgrim to Sabarimala created new osmotic boundaries between caste, class, gender, region and physical ability to enter a sacralised space, crowded beyond measure. The new dispensation was to the forming of new rules of conduct which became binding on those who belonged to any specific association. People just became used to the atrophy of dialogue as neighbourhood and family practise. These became codes of conduct, which were articulated publicly, and found their permanence in inscription. Any move towards flexibility and syncretism was frowned upon.
For the Diaspora, Work was panacea, but the high turnover at the work place because of recession meant that families quite often lived in different continents, and women were often overqualified at the workplace as cashiers and school teachers when they had been educated as engineers or doctors or academics in the home country. Siblings too settled in other countries, and so people travelled in various directions, because they could afford it, to meet their kin.
One of the interesting aspects of globalisation has been the need that the Diaspora has for magnificence in the site of home and place of worship back home. When they return to the village of their forefathers, they immediately constructed huge houses, larger than the neighbours. Inside they maintain much the same level of comfort or discomfort, as they knew previously. The electricity routinely goes off in the monsoon, which because of climate change extends much beyond the Harvest festival of Onnam. These mammoth houses are constructed ostentatiously, as the nouveau riche see the need to exhibit carpets and chandeliers brought back from the Emirates, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, or Oman. They like to communicate that they are different from the Malayali, who has not had the Gulf experience, and so vivid colours are used in painting the exteriors. However, when it comes to agricultural work, the NRI or Overseas Indian is perfectly capable of setting up a haystack with childhood friends, or sharing in ritual offices in the local parish. Since many return when they are in their early fifties, they take up honorary occupations as principals of trust colleges and schools, or work in any capacity available to them. They enjoy meeting their former colleagues in get togethers which are titled Gulf Employees, or they write their memoirs and read newspapers. In places like Kuruvillangad, or Ranni, the elite have transformed their hitherto obscure villages by duplicating South of France villas. The demand for a privately constructed airport has been vociferous in the Chenganoor area, as the numbers of Gulf returnees are huge. In one village ten kms from the town, all three hundred and fifty families, had members who worked in a Gulf country. In Cochin, the large number of flats which have surfaced are establishments, mostly unoccupied, as the rentier class of Syrian Christians living in the Gulf or Australia or Europe or America, built them, but they do not live in them, nor is ready to rent them out. Absentee landlordism takes a new avatar.
Near Chenganoor, the Gulf returned are so many, that they have demolished an ancient Church and produced a huge and stunning edifice. Parumalla Tirumeni was the humblest and purest of souls, a Saint recognised by all, and his living quarters are still preserved, his actual room the size of a large dining table! Yet, the miracle church associated with him has been turned into a massive cathedral, such as the medieval churches of Europe, built from the loot of war. This church however, built with Gulf remittances has modern abstract art glass windows, and three eucharist celebrations occurring on simultaneous altars, at which three different priests preside. The influx of the faithful is so large, that the size of the church is a matter of pride for the residents of the hamlet. However archaeologists and sensitive laity are aghast. As one of them, Fr Iganatious Payappilly, a well known archivist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru said to me, in October 2013, “I wrote to the Parish priests of several places, saying that Tippu Sultan did less damage than people like you. He only took off the thatched roofs of ancient churches but you have totally demolished them.”
In an email to me, dated 22nd June 2015, Dr M.P Joseph (IAS) responded to my concern over the confabulation of images and expansion of churches,
The Cardinal Alencherry, Head of the Syro Malabar Church has now advised all parishes that they must avoid ostentation in the building of churches. He has also made it mandatory for the Cardinal’s Office to approve designs of new churches to be built. And more pertinently, there is a growing appreciation among the laity for the need to preserve these old churches and their beautiful architecture, however innocently they may have put motifs of the Swastika or the Eye or whatever.
A letter to a cardinal in Kerala about the ostentations of the church went viral on Facebook, and is reproduced here. It may be remembered that the concern about new art is often open to interpretation. A Times of India journalist Annu Thomas wrote to me on June 11 2015, to ask if the eye depicted in the wall art in the church, or the swastika was a sign of the devil, to which query Ignatius Payappilly and Hormis Tharakan (IPS) replied to me, that it would be creating misunderstanding between religious communities if such a view was taken. The idea that shared symbolism might in fact lead to communalism and misinterpretation was a very real fear. The contemporary data on exaggerated renovation as representing the vested interest of the Diaspora in affirming it’s piety in the home country is interesting primarily because of the traditional syncretistic motifs of Hindu Christian art, as ancient crosses, temple walls, peacock motifs which have been presented in the first chapter of my book, The Christians of Kerala (1993) as that aspect, where in the contexts of architecture and symbols, the osmosis between religions is notable, its legitimacy authorised through assimilation into dominant Hindu motifs,when Christianity in Kerala had royal patronage.
In Palakkad, the temple dedicated to Siva called Kalpathy Viswanathaswamy has a long history of renovations, since this takes place routinely according to the prescribed temple calendar. However, when Indira Nooyi became President of the Pepsi cola company, her mother who was originally from the Kalpathy village, dedicated a meditation chamber in thanksgiving, as her own father, Justice Narayanswamy was from Kalpathy. As renovation had proceeded on a grandscale, according to the desires of the local community, based on their donations, the wooden pillars in the temple were substituted by stainless steel pillars, and the archaeologically significant pillar thought to be an emblem of the 14th century king, Raja Ittycheryan, was polished, and the inscription removed. The Tamil Brahmins of Kalpathy are an upwardly mobile community and for them the modern is the epitome of the present. The past is legend, it is necessary as a bulwark to their present circumstance, but the present is sacred. People return from all parts of India to initiate their new-borns, to conduct mortuary rituals, to be present at the annual Rath festival, and ofcourse to hear the musicians from all over South India, who perform on the invitation of the trustees of the Kalpathy Viswanathswamy temple. There is really nothing old according to this view, in that sense, because the new must presents itself in keeping with the needs of the believers. Archaeologists, of course, feel differently. Heritage thus becomes a loaded term, with people contesting the State and the requirements of the Tourist industry, which was clamouring for the old and the traditional. However, there are critics, and they are often influential, as the following letter shows, for St Thomas Christians, who often feel their voice has been taken away from them arbitrarily in the market place of the church. The call to frugality comes at a time, when Kerala is rapidly changing its traditional rural urban continuum, and tourism and Diaspora are looking for highways to turn the State into a site of continuous hedonistic visuality, be it IPL games, a la Shashi Tharoor, or monstrous shopping arcades and magnificent sites of worship. Places where the Techno Parks have come up, have promoted the Laboratory as being less polluting than the Factory, but, in truth, the needs of the cereberal workers are such that owning several cars, and shopping brings with it a huge cost on the delicate ecology of the State. Building large churches on paddy fields has brought about the distinctly dangerous phenomenon of sinking floors, and parishioners have to carefully skirt the ragged construction and repair works as they come to pray and sing. The response has been to ban construction on paddy fields, and to call on parishioners to be more circumspect in their architectural renovations.
Such a letter clearly comes from a powerful member of the laity, whose family has a strong history of honours and obligations to the church, whose very past is retold through print, general opinion, and rumour to record its special place. The Tharakan family history has been recently published as Profiles of the Parayil Tharakans, Glimpses of the History of a Family, a Region, and A Church, written and collated by P.K.M Tharakan, who lives in Belgium, and the work is replete with genealogies and photographs of family mansions, housing not just eminent kinsmen, church honours, brave actions, but also the material culture that accompanied them. As Medievel pepper merchants, they became immensely famous for their cosmopolitan ability to deal with the Portuguese and the British colonists, during the period of the commercial revolution. They were the keepers of the Varthamanampustukam, the first travelogue, which communicated that the Malayalis, even when Christians, referred to themselves as Intugal, or Indians and wanted more than anything ecclesiastical jurisdiction to be placed with Indian priests and prelates. (Visvanathan 1995 (Interview with Ambassador A.K. Damodaran, IFS,) Maleykandathil 2013).
Interestingly, with tourism, family mansions become the site of bed and breakfast arrangements, as the beauty of these 18th century houses is memorable, and well maintained. The Diaspora return to boat rides on backwaters in Kuttunad, eating the traditional fare of the Malayalis, and at the same time, savouring the sense of being an elite that has the best of both worlds. The lives of artisans and the working class, such as shop employees, or professionals such as nurses, working in the Gulf, as has been pointed out by Prema Kurien, in Kaleidoscopic Ethnicity is marked by a certain conspicuous consumption. This has much to do with the way in which we think of subsistence economies, where the remuneration is such that it cannot always be defined as stable or permanent. Here and now is sufficient, because of tomorrow nothing is known.
In the case of Kalpathy, Palakkad, we have a genealogical tradition which goes back to the 14th century, where a King, patronised a widow, Lakshmi Ammal, and built a temple for her. She had been to Benaras with her husband’s ashes to be interred in the Ganga, and returned from there with a lingam. This was installed on the banks of the Kalpathy river, a tributary of the Neelam. Steps were built, in emulation of the ghats of Benaras, and this temple, the Viswanathswamy temple, became the site of mortuary rituals, for those who could not afford to go to Benaras.
The Smartha Brahmins (Iyers) had been invited by the Palakkad king, migrants from drought prone areas, around Tanjore and Chidambaram, and settled in 18 villages in Palakkad. The Raja was wrathful to the Namboodris who refused to serve him, since he had a liason with a tribal woman, whom he wished to marry, and so the drought affected Tamil Brahmans took their place on invitation. The Kalpathy Iyers, descendants of the migrants from Mayiladathurai, became very well known in the early 20th century, for the remittances they made to their families from the Presidency towns of colonial India, as service providers, clerks and administrators, to the British government. The rich traditions of the Brahmans had been preserved through their culture of food, architecture, temple rituals, mathematics and music. Milton Singer, has very well described the segmentalisation of home and workplace in his classic work, When a Great Tradition Modernizes, (1972) and so have C.J. Fuller and Harpriya Narasimha, in their recent study, Tamil Brahmans (2015). The latter authors assiduously describe how third and fourth generation mobile Brahmans from Tamil Nadu were able to assimilate into the West, as soft ware engineers, and in the cosmopolitan cultures of the big cities of Modern India, such as Chennai. However, as a community, they always communicated total loyalty to their traditions, and were able to express solidarity through their loyalty to their village, small town or city, through participation in temples, and domestic rituals, including their renovation and management. A new and non Brahman resident in Kalpathy, a collector of antiques, reported to me that downward mobility is frequent, and that the Brahmans are going through a decline, which happens to many communities during historical periods. They have lost traditional occupations and skills, and have become auto drivers, shop keepers and labourers. (interview 28th June 2009)
Preservation of culture is not limited to buildings, it is about vedic culture, about music, mathematics and knowledge, specifically Sanskrit, according to another informant. The Tamil Brahmins in Kalpathy remain “migrants” in Kerala, though they have been here for centuries. In September 2013, in Palakkad, they have asked for minority status and privileges, including reservation.
Joan Punzo Waghorn in the Diaspora of the Gods (2004) defined the specific ways in which the mapping of the temple, mosque and church in the Mylapore Luz area was a representation of the syncretic nature of religious persuasion in a historical framework. The Tamil Brahmins came in to do their shopping, alongside with visiting the Gods, including the purchase of necessary silk sarees for festivals and rites of passage, and so the juxtaposition of market place and religious sites were indeed very visible. The Diaspora is conversant with the best places to shop for the traditional items needed for pujas, and they take back to America the appalams, the sambar powders etc, which they may equally find in the Indian stores in their work places. Diaspora of the Gods describes the duplication of ritual sites in cities abroad, so that people will feel comfortable far away from home. Equally, in temple and mutt pathshalas, young Brahman boys are trained to carry out their responsibilities as temple priests in far off countries.
The ability to represent the cults of Hinduism as sites of ritual transfer is well known. Americans have invested in the Hare Rama Krishna movement for decades, and the skill of the orators of other cult representatives of Hinduism is the new machinery of conversion. At street corners in Boston, one meets white devotees of some Hindu cult or another selling copies of the Ramayana or Mahabharata. In Santa Cruz, California, a quiet sanctuary exists for those who are drawn into the meditational practises of Sri Ramanasramam, but the temple aspect, the iconography and the representation of the Gods in a traditional place of worship is well accentuated. The integration across race, caste and religious lines is clearly established. Whereas, previously, Hinduism represented itself as an exclusive religion of ascription, one had to be born a Hindu, the globalised world has communicated its need to be absorbed in Indic practise, whether Hindu or Buddhist. In Santa Fe, the Sikhs have established a cultic rendezvous, well entrenched in the post modern practises of finding a comfort zone, where ever one may. It is no longer necessary to be Indian, to fit into the kaleidoscopic religious ferment. This is in stark contrast to the idea of endogamy and religious community discussed previously. It may be noted that in the urban metropolis the move to homogenisation is strongly resisted by the youth, who see the senseless killings in the name of religion as abuse of faith. Right through the 90s, the middle class urban youth expressed great interest in religion, communicating that all the Gods were interesting to them, visiting pilgrimage sites as devotees. Sacred Heart Cathedral in Delhi, juxtaposed with the neighbouring Sikh Gurudwara, the Hanuman temple on Baba Khadak Singh Marg, and Nizamuddin Chisti’s dargah just 8 kms distant from the city centre, all had the sense of thronging crowds and the vibrancy of accompanying markets, where amulets, sacred pictures, holy water and food are available along with prayers for blessing, cures and favours. In contrast, the lumpen proletariat and the avaricious, so-called ‘faceless mob’ is always marshalled by politicians to murder and desecrate across religious lines. Is there a justification for mass murder? Those who engage with it ascribe to themselves martial status, and deny citizenship rights to others.
The choice of faith and acceptance with respect for all religions is the most interesting aspect of Indian secularism. Clearly, these young people were very different from the fanatics of each religion who had closed the gates of their faiths to the other. Terrorism, which Indians had been familiar with for decades, and struck fear in every heart was the ugly face of fanaticism, and communalism was equally rampant. Festival, fair, carnival and trade that integrates communities, went against riots and pogroms and the easy dealing of death by those who carried the cards of violence. (Visvanathan 2012)
The Diaspora often returned even during days of riots and violence, because of their commitment to families and neighbourhoods. What we need to understand is that while war, espionage and terrorism are every day events, the normal world revolves around the ability to carry out mundane tasks.
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