Quiet flows the Ganga

'The Ganga has successfully stalled the Hindutva juggernaut of hatred'

Not completely unperturbed by the poisonous politics and man-made pollution it carries on its meandering journey — and yet staying stubbornly unrelenting in its stoic composure — the Ganga has flowed through the rugged mountains and parched plains of India from time immemorial.

Now that Narendra Modi has claimed Mother Ganga had summoned him to Varanasi to save India from his version of evil, let’s consider a few snapshots of the mighty river, the poetry in its many myths and its increasingly offensive earthly retreat.
As legend goes, the river, which was a beautiful maiden in its previous avatar, was sent to Earth to nourish back to life 60,000 warrior brothers who were slain and burnt to cinders by the curse of a sage.

Since the Earth could not be trusted to cope with the torrent with which Ganga would descend from the high above, it was agreed that Lord Shiva should cushion the impact in his bunched dreadlocks. But it would be thousands of years before he would finally release the river on terra firma from his matted hair.

Before Narendra Modi filed his candidature from Varanasi the one link that had stood out between the Hindu holy city on the banks of the Ganga river in Uttar Pradesh, and his state of Gujarat, was Wali Dakhani’s searing couplet in early Urdu:

'Kucha e yaar ain Kaasi hai Jogiya dil wahee’n ka baasi hai'. (My beloved lives in Kaashi, My hermit heart belongs there.)

Kaashi, or Kaasi as Wali calls it in a rustic vein, was the old name for Banares, now Sanskritised into Varanasi.
Known also as Wali Gujarati, the 17th-century Muslim poet’s simple grave in Ahmedabad was flattened in the communal frenzy of 2002. Modi built a road over it, ascribing the move to his fabled development drive. The mobs under the chief minister’s watch in Gujarat also attacked the resting place of another cultural icon, the legendary classical singer Ustad Faiyaz Khan, in Vadodara. It hardly seems to strike a chord in today’s frenzied mistrust that Faiyaz Khan’s disciples spawned the moving composition in Raag Yaman 'Darshan deo Shankar Mahadev'. (Give me a glimpse of your presence, O Lord Shiva.)

That’s not the end of Modi’s deep contempt for South Asia’s enviable cultural heritage. His men in Varanasi found themselves seeking out the late shehnai wizard Ustad Bismillah Khan’s family to help him file his nomination, a kind of a politically handy photo opportunity. There is something we have to admit here on behalf of Ganga’s prowess: she successfully stalled, at least for now, the Hindutva juggernaut of hatred, of mocking the country’s fine arts as well as its practitioners, many of whom happened to be Muslim, Christian or dalit.

Yet, contrary to the endless mainstream media projections of his invincibility, despite the proclaimed blessings of Mother Ganga, Modi is not safe in Varanasi. Which explains the less daunting Vadodara gambit. The two constituencies he has fielded himself from are thus, in a heartrending way, connected with the insanity he helped unleash. Wali’s ode to his beloved from Kashi and Fayyaz Khan’s tribute to Lord Shankar fell on deaf ears.

Gangetic bathos is often as compelling as some of the heart-tugging narratives linked with the river. When Mr Modi claimed that he came to Varanasi by some kind of divine intervention, his rival in the Bharatiya Janata Party, the man he evicted from that constituency, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, must have squirmed.

The brahmin that he is had made Dr Joshi popular in the city where the religious hegemony lies with his community. Had he not won several electoral battles as the Hindutva ideologue from Varanasi? So why had Mother Ganga felt the need to throw him out to fight his election in faraway Kanpur, and give his place to someone who had no claim on Uttar Pradesh, let alone Varanasi?

We may have found a semi-divine explanation for Dr Joshi’s unspeakable quandary. Again it has to do with Ganga, which flows by Kanpur too before it meanders on towards Allahabad and thence to Varanasi on its way to its delta in the Bay of Bengal.

The hamlet of Bithoor on the bank of the Ganga in Kanpur had witnessed one of the game-changing battles of 1857. This was where Nana Sahib, the last Maharashtrian peshwa, though he was not recognised as such by the British, had linked up with Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to fight a famous battle.

Nana Sahib fled to Nepal after Gen. Havelock overran his forces. Many of the Pune brahmins vanished into the Himalayan foothills along with the peshwa. My surmise is that Dr Joshi belongs to that stock. In any case, he has moved upstream of the Ganga, a prerogative the brahmins enjoyed over the lower castes on a river’s course. He should not complain.

The story of Ganga’s pollution had done the rounds in France when Rajiv Gandhi went to Paris in June 1985 to symbolically mix Ganga water with the Seine. Protests broke out in France and the media there joined the chorus against polluting their river. The embarrassment found Gandhi setting up a still-born Ganga Action Plan to clean up India’s most sacred river.

With Modi’s ascendance it seems Ganga could do with another equally urgent plan — to somehow stop the manufactured hatred of many of those who have mostly rejoiced in and thrived on the river’s many legends.

By arrangement with Dawn

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