How not to travel anywhere

TRAVELLING can work in opposite ways. It can come as wanderlust that gives one a feel of new horizons befitting a seeker. Or it can be a temptation to contaminate new climes with hidebound habits. Mirza Ghalib prescribed the first route in the 19th century. The second way has been popularised by Narendra Modi.

Hasad se dil agar afsurda hai, garm-i-tamasha ho/ Ke chashm-i-tang shaayad kasrat-i-nazara se va ho. That was Ghalib’s prescription. A good antidote to suffocating ennui or chashm-i-tang, he said, could be kasrat-i-nazara, the expansiveness of new things to see, new people to meet, new ideas to ponder. Marco Polo and Ibne Batuta would have warmed the cockles of Ghalib’s heart. T.S. Eliot captured the Urdu poet’s advice succinctly: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’/ Let us go and make our visit.” The lines from Eliot’s much-critiqued poem — The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock — have nudged many towards nirvana.

Modi’s apparent insecurities with his identity — or his search for one, as his constantly changing attire reflects — can be seen in loudly choreographed cultural assertions. This obviously was not the case with the more confident Nehru and others who preceded him, not even with A.B. Vajpayee who Modi grudgingly respects.

Modi’s avoidable complexes have found him distributing copies of the Bhagvad Gita to visitors even as he makes bold claims to insights into India’s hoary past. Come to think of it, the pope, whose job it is to proselytise, doesn’t offer free copies of the Bible to his visitors. If anything, world leaders who come to the Vatican to confer with him would not miss the opportunity to visit the Sistine Chapel and be awestruck by Michelangelo’s work of art. Modi, though, would derive greater pleasure from securing an easy sanction from the ruler of Abu Dhabi to build a temple in the oil-rich emirate.

Would Modi visit the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in New York, a catalyst for the gay rights movement in the US?

Ghalib, to return to the master of cultural assimilation, memorably set off on a journey to colonial Calcutta from his modest perch in Mughal Delhi. En route, he composed an amazing tribute to the majesty of Benares and its Hindu populace, and their reverence for River Ganga. Savour an excerpt from Qurratulain Hyder’s translation of Chiragh-i-Dair or ((temple lamps):

May Heaven keep/ The grandeur of Benares/ Arbour of bliss, meadow of joy,/ For oft-returning souls/ Their journey’s end./ In this weary Temple-land of the world/ Safe from the whirlwind of Time,/ Benaras is forever spring,/ Where autumn turns/ Into the touch of sandal on their foreheads/ Springtime wears the sacred thread/ Of flower-waves/ And the splash of twilight/ Is the crimson mark of Kashi’s/ Dust on heaven’s brow.

We’ve seen snapshots of Modi’s engagements with his Indian fans abroad. Had he gone to New York to gain first-hand knowledge about a multicultural city instead, the prime minister would have visited the streets of Harlem with Savona Bailey-McClain. The African-American art curator and historian would have walked him through the evolution of the district. Ghalib described British vengeance when they flattened the old city of Delhi after 1857. Modi would now learn that the British also burnt down the district of Manhattan (centuries before the advent of Osama bin Laden) in their pursuit of George Washington’s ragtag militia.

Savona, if she found any curiosity in him, would escort Modi to Harlem’s Schomberg Centre, currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Black Power movement. Visitors here delve deeper into the heterogeneous and ideologically diverse global movement that shaped black consciousness.

Would Modi visit the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in New York, a catalyst for the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world? Marie’s Crisis is a piano bar in the vicinity. Its main room is wedged below street level, so that you descend into it as you would to a secret rendezvous. All the men and women of varied sexual orientations can be found in the evenings singing everything under the sun — and utterly tunefully too. What they would not sing is any remotely patriotic song — a lesson for the zealous South Asians.

The inimitable pamphleteer and documentary-maker Michael Moore is currently appearing on Broadway in a play about himself. It is called The Terms of My Surrender, a 90-minute one-man show mostly about how to get even with Donald Trump’s ideology of hate and racist violence. Moore announces to each packed show how he keeps a seat in the balcony for the president of the United States. We recommend he keep a place for Mr Modi too.

“How the hell did this happen?” Moore’s opening gambit sets the tempo for the absorbing monologue. The audience goes into raptures. Moore reasons how things may not be as bad as they look. The president, the vice president, the supreme court, both houses of Congress belong to the rivals. “But we have the majority.” Moore’s optimism flows from the actual headcount, which gave the Democrats a majority of the votes while the electoral college robbed them of victory — a message for the needlessly disheartened on how to bring down a Nixon.

Ghalib would enjoy the planetarium in New York. “Our sun is an ordinary star, just one among hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy,” a plaque reminds us tersely. “As the only star we can observe in detail, it provides a basis for our understanding of all stars.”

The message unwittingly summarises Ghalib’s own fulminations: Hasti ke mat fareb mein aajaaiyo Asad/ Aalam tamaam halqa-i-daam-i-khayaal hai. The universe deceptively fits into a single hole of the fisherman’s net that resembles the mind, said the poet. The Big Bang occurred 13 billion years ago. And 3.8bn years ago, life took root on Earth. How ancient is religion or any nation, including Mr Modi’s?

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2017

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