It was Pongal day. I was at my creative best trying to get the toddler in the house interested in something, so that I could focus on the idiot box. Only, the content I was consuming was at odds with the description of ‘idiot box’. I was watching veteran debate specialist Solomon Papaiah and his entourage on song, providing more than enough food for thought. Much like the delightful goodies that my (much) better half dishes out, television debates chaired by the elderly gentleman have become a part of the average Tamilian’s festivities.
This was of course, after the usual puja during the auspicious time of day. A few years ago, I knew of this hour and a half window only when I called to wish the folks back home. That has changed thanks to the conscious effort in picking up a calendar that listed this opportune time. A few more years away from home, and we realised that some things that have been followed as part of tradition, would be lost forever. We weren’t willing to let go of what we grew up with. We knew it would happen though, if we did not make an effort. The proof was all around us, including in the building we live in.
The traditional distribution of sweets and savouries to neighbours, resulted in enthusing an elderly couple into embracing the festive spirit. A few hours later, they returned the favour, with sweet pongal we had inadvertently prompted the lady into making for her grandson.
For a lot of people who have ‘left home’, the connects with their roots are fragile. This happens for a lot of reasons, including lack of time and social context. If you are going to live in America, even if you are a Hindu, chances are that you will spend more time ‘celebrating’ during the Christmas holidays than you would during Deepavali. It is but natural. One might try and explain the context of the festival and its significance to the next generation growing up there. But how much of it does the current generation of young parents know, to pass on? A lot of it has been lost already.
One big grouse I have against Madras University is for allowing us to answer our Sanskrit paper during graduation, in Hindi, Tamil or English. I wonder if we ever got to appreciate the nuances of the language. It’s not the same thing. Although at that time it seemed like a fantastic idea to reflect on Kalidasa’s work with our own English prose. A loose analogy this, to the fact that we celebrate festivals with the rituals associated with them, but are perhaps losing the context. I know of many who chant shlokas without knowing their meaning. I do too, with deep regret and a promise to myself to make amends.
For the uninitiated, Pongal is a harvest festival, though some argue that it is defined by the Hindu solar calendar. My point is not about religion. My angst is about losing out on our cultural symbols and contexts that are uniquely our own.
Dr MG Parameswaran in his book ‘For God’s Sake...’ (read the excerpt below) points to the case of the ‘missing bindi’ in ads over the years. I am not making the case for women sporting one, but is there a case to chronicle and communicate the belief that it has meaning beyond its ornamental value? It is evident from Ambi’s book that religion remains relevant and will be. But are the critical and meaningful parts of religion, or for that matter tradition and culture, lost as people move away from their roots? If we go by what Shoppers Stop has managed to do with migrant Bengalis during Durga Puja (next page), there is hope. Marketers have a lot to lose if the Indian cultural context vanishes.
As ritualistic celebrations continue, it may make sense to add meaning to those rituals. Or else, it is quite possible that even the rituals are discontinued, or disfigured to a point where they are unidentifiable with their roots - like theose practising them.
It’s alright if some of my urbane friends call me a ‘tribal chieftan’ for saying this. But this is the truth. I would be ashamed if my daughter, when she grows up, had to search the web to understand the significance of our harvest festival. I would be depriving her of the most valuable part of her inheritance if that happens.
Gokul Krishnamoorthy, editor, Campaign India