Wednesday 13 August 2008

The caged bird

I want to shatter the bars of my cage,
With the fluttering of my wings.

But like a caged bird in a painting,
There is no possibility of being free.

Morning breeze, tell the garden
That Spring and Autumn for me are alike.

How should I know
When one comes, and the other goes?

[Bahadur Shah Zafar. Aslam Parvez, Bahadur Shah Zafar: Anjuman Taraqqi-e Urdu Hind (New Delhi, 1986) as cited in W. Dalrymple, The Last Mughal 38.]

If anyone has the Urdu original, I would love to hear it!

Zafar's lament

Na kissi ki ankh ka noor hun

When in silks you came and dazzled
Me with the beauty of your S;pring,
You brought a flower to bloom -
Love within my being.

You lived with me, breath of my breath,
Being in my being, nor left my side;
But now the wheel of Time has turned
And you are gone - no joys abide.

You pressed your lips upon my lips,
Your heart upon my beating heart,
And I have no wish to fall in love again,
For they who sold Love's remedy
Have shut shop, and I seek in vain.

My life now gives no ray of light,
I bring no solace to heart or eye;
Out of dust to dust again,
Of no use to anyone am I.

Delhi was once a paradise,
Where Love held sway and reigned;
But its charm lies ravished now
And only ruins remain.

No tears were shed when shroudless they
Were laid in common graves;
No prayers were read for the noble dead,
Unmarked remain their graves.

The heart distressed, the wounded flesh,
The mind ablaze, the rising sigh;
The drop of blood, the broken heart,
Tears on the lashes of the eye.

But things cannot remain, O Zafar,
Thus for who can tell?
Through God's great mercy and the Prophet
All may yet be well.


(Ghazal attributed to Bahadur Shah Zafar, and popularized by Mohammed Rafi in the film Lal Qila. From W. Dalrymple, The Last Mughal [New Delhi: Penguin, 2007] 25-26)

Tuesday 12 August 2008

The historical effects of the fall of Delhi in 1857

Our current image of the Muslim as dirty, often uneducated and mostly untrustworthy; the pre-conciliar Catholic attitudes towards all things Indian; the absence of information about Hindustani music, Urdu poetry, Mughal and other Islamic cultures in our school textbooks; the present Hindu-Muslim divide; the phenomenon of world Islamic terrorism; Deoband; all these and many other features of our contemporary experience seem to have their roots in the Great Uprising of 1857, the fall of Delhi, and the ascendancy of the British.

Thanks to William Dalrymple’s The White Mughals, we are becoming aware of the way several of the British inculturated themselves into the then dominant Mughal culture: Ochterlony and his harem of wives; the half-Christian half-Muslim families of people like him and Skinner ‘Sikander Sahib’; Begum Sumru, wife of the Germany mercenary Sombre, who turned Catholic, petitioned the Pope for a chaplain, and received the Capuchin Julius Caesar, with whose help the Begun built the Indo-Muslim Sardhana Cathedral…

All this came to an end with the crushing of the Uprising. There followed the systematic blackening of the face of the Indian Muslim, the correlated ascendancy of the Hindus, and the increasing divide between rulers and ruled.

Reading Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal, I became aware of how much the fall of Delhi continues to affect us still.

Ten years after that fall, some hardline Muslims got together and founded a seminary north of Delhi at a place called Deoband. Deoband went on to become the centre of Islamic hardline positions, in contrast to the Anglophile Aligarh Muslim University. It also gave rise eventually to the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. Its effects are there to be seen and felt.

The West probably still does not realize how its own attitudes of intolerance and shortsightedness have been part of the cause of international terrorism.

Actions and attitudes cannot certainly be justified by history. But knowing history does have its advantages. Those who ignore it are bound to repeat its mistakes. They also tend to indulge in reciprocal bigotry and contribute to the downward spiral of violence.

One often has to act; but one’s actions do not have to be fueled by anger, hatred and passion.

Reading a book like The Last Mughal is a good lesson in history.

Wednesday 6 August 2008

School history in India

I weep for Zafar, Bahadur Shah Zafar, descendant of Timur, last of the Mughals.

But why should I weep for him? His ancestors were probably as bloodthirsty as the British who murdered all his sons and razed his empire to the ground.

And they in their turn, were they very different from the hordes that came into the land of the Sindhu and overran an ancient and elegant civilization, to establish themselves as the owners, the natives, the people?

But is that not the history of the human race? A history of blood and war, of injustice shouting out to heaven?

Yet that is not what I thought of writing. What I thought of writing about was the history that we are taught, in our schools and colleges in India. It is a heavily slanted history. It is history from a largely Hindu viewpoint. How little I knew about the spendors of the Mughal court! How little I knew about Bahadur Shah Zafar! How little we were taught about the glorious culture of the pre-Nizam Sultans of Hyderabad! Their poetry, their music, their ghazals, their lore, their architecture... True, they were conquerors, but as Forster says, the only difference was that they came later...

I would celebrate the beauty of Hindustan, whether Muslim or Hindu or Christian. I would celebrate it as I celebrate the lotus that grows out of the muck. There is an eternity to art that I cannot avoid. It is part of the Rumour of Angels.

Learning from history

I have been reading William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal these days. I have come to the fall and sack of Delhi, and I find it difficult to read on. The book has aroused strong emotions in me: how arrogant the British were, how like them to find excellent legal, moral and religious reasons for doing what they did... Dalrymple points out, for example, that the Emperor Zafar could not have been tried for treason by the British, simply because the British were administering in his name and under his authority... It was he who should have tried them instead.

But Dalrymple also teaches how history catches up with us. It is well known that the Sikhs and Pathans supported the British in the siege of Delhi; without their aid, the British would not have been table to take Delhi and crush the Uprising of 1857. (If the rajas of the Punjab had not lent their elephants to the British, the British would never have been able to drag the guns and canons that were used to batter the walls of Delhi.) But why would the Sikhs have sided with the British? There lies a story: the Mughals had killed two of the ten gurus of the Sikhs, and the Sikhs never forgave them for that. Bahadur Shah Zafar was probably the most peace loving of the Mughals, and he was certainly a poet, an extremely cultured man, and even a mystic in his own right. His court was one of the most elegant and refined in the world. But history caught up with the Mughals - unfortunately, with one of the best of them, and at a time when they had become tolerant, peace-loving, civil.

One weeps over the destruction of such a culture, of so much beauty. One begins to understand the rage that sweeps through Muslim hearts. One is horrified at the way the conquering British eliminated every man, woman and child in the fallen city. One is outraged at the way they razed to ground the beauties of the Red Fort and the wonderful Mughal monuments.

But then there is also the observation of Julian Saldanha, SJ, in a review of The Last Mughal. Dalrymple, he says, could have at least acknowledged a larger picture. He reports the observation of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, that if the sepoys had triumphed and the Uprising been successful, the social liberation of the lower castes would have suffered a setback, because most of the sepoys were from the upper Hindu castes...

The Uprising is still with us. Before the Uprising, the general British attitude was one of admiration for the culture/s they found in India. Dalrymple has fascinating things to say about this in his The White Mughals: David Ochterlony and his harem of wives; James Skinner, Sikander Sahib, with his half-Muslim half-Christian family; Sumru Begum, wife of the German mercenary Sombre, convert to Catholicism, builder of the cathedral of Sardhana... But leading to the Uprising, according to Dalrymple, was a new and militant evangelism in Britain. And following from the crushing of the Uprising we have the rigid separation and estrangement of rulers and ruled, the contempt for all things Indian, the rewriting of history from this viewpoint... It made me understand the sub-culture of the Indian Church that persisted up to the Council and the great movement of Indianization and inculturation that followed. We had inherited the attitudes of the British after the Uprising. It was perhaps inevitable.

The inculturation movement that followed the Council was a first reaction, the antithesis. Is the synthesis being born? And are we going to part of that process?

Preserving memory

I think often of the fact that Don Bosco remembered the hardships of his younger days, and remembered them in such a way that they became for him a bridge to the difficulties and hardships of the poor youngsters for whom he worked.

Treasuring memory is an important part, therefore, of Salesian spirituality. Our memories, especially of the hardships, humiliations, poverty that we might have experienced in our younger days, need to be redeemed, they need to be appropriated, they need to be lived before God. Then they become for us, not sources of shame or things to be swept under the carpet, but channels of God's love and bridges to the lives of the poor, young or old as the case may be.

When memories are not redeemed, we have the ugly spectacle of Salesians who have themselves experienced poverty, but are so harsh and arrogant with people, whether in schools or in parishes or in mission areas.

The memories need not be only of poverty and hardship. They could be memories of our youth, and for most Salesians these will be memories of the adventures we have had as young Salesians. I find it salutary to remember these: the escapades, the scrapes, the grumbling against 'superiors,' the money that was kept, perhaps the love affairs... Treasuring such memory is not a call to license and permissiveness. In our adult lives, as educators, we will have to intervene, guide, direct, 'correct'... But when we recall the memories of our youth, we will do all this with a hidden smile; we will not take ourselves too seriously, even and especially when our current crop of youngsters gets our goat; we will not be harsh and excessive in the way we deal. Because we know we have been there ourselves, that we have been forgiven, that we have hopefully grown...

Where is the experience of God?

Where can we find the experience of God?

Perhaps when we are asked questions like, Have you experienced God, we tend to look for particular experiences or events in our lives. These are, I think, the more outstanding moments in what is probably something far more widespread and diffuse than we think. For if the experience of God is God loving us, and if God loves us constantly, always, already, then the experience of God is probably as large as our lives, though the intensity varies. It is like a room full of music, which is sometimes loud and noticeable, but most often soft, so soft that we get used to it and often fail to even notice it.

Somehow we can block the experience / love of God, and so I hesitate to say that our lives coincide with the experience of God. But God never stops loving us, drawing us to himself, knocking on the doors of our hearts.

I love this passage from Bernard Lonergan which I would like to share on this feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord:

Experience of grace, then, is as large as the Christian experience of life. It is experience of man's capacity for self-transcendence, of his unrestricted openness to the intelligible, the true, the good. It is experience of a twofold frustration of that capacity: the objective frustration of life in a world distorted by sin; the subjective frustration of one's incapacity to break with one's own evil ways. It is experience of a transformation one did not bring about but rather underwent, as divine providence let evil take its course and vertical finality be heightened, as it let one's circumstances shift, one's dispositions change, new encounters occur, and - so gently and quietly - one's heart be touched. It is the experience of a new community, in which faith and hope and charity dissolve rationalizations, break determinisms, and reconcile the estranged and the alienated, and there is reaped the harvest of the Spirit that is '... love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control' (Gal. 5:22). (Lonergan, A Third Collection 32-33.)

Experience of God

It has become a fashion to speak of 'God-experience' after the Council, but we often tend to slip into a Pelagianistic type of speech, as when we say: "We must have God-experience," "Let us have a God-experience," etc.

I tend to think that one of the most basic tenets of the Christian faith, that God is the one who first acts, that the initiative is his, that it is he who has first loved us, tends to be lost or neglected or forgotten or not quite understood. People will rarely deny this tenet if put to them straight up, but the point is to understand it and more importantly to integrate it into our speaking and our living.

"God-experience" is not something that can be at our beck and call. It is not something we do for ourselves. It is not something that we can have if we try hard. It is a gift.

It is also, I think, a gift that is always already given, for God-experience is God loving us, and he does that always, already, continuously.

In that sense, what is often missing is our part in the whole matter, our free response, our loving response to love. In that sense perhaps the exhortations of preachers and guides makes sense. The language used could, however, be more felicitous: not "Have a God-experience" but "Beg God to touch you," "Be open to God's love," "Do what is in your power to remove the obstacles to God's love."

Friday 1 August 2008

Alphonsus de Liguori

Alphonsus' feast reminds me of a story I heard at one of the Lonergan Workshops a while ago. I forget the name of the narrator, but he was, I think, an English priest associated with Newman's Oratory, and for some reason he was telling us this Alphonsus story. The story went like this. A wife went in a rage to the Madonna, complaining about the floozie downtown who had cornered her husband.
"Giustizia," shouted the woman. "I want giustizia!"
And the Madonna seems to have replied:
"I know nothing about giustizia. I know only misericordia. And besides, that floozie says her Three Hail Marys every night."

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