January 2010 
Year 16    No.147

Man of the moment

Abook by Purushottam Agrawal, former professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal University and presently member Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), Akath Kahani Prem Ki: Kabir ki Kavita aur Un ka Samay (An Untellable Tale of Love: Kabir’s Poetry and his  Times) has created quite a stir in the Hindi-speaking world. The book deserves to be translated in English, and soon, for it’s sure to raise a similar global storm.

Agrawal has been engaged in a long-standing love affair with the weaver from Kashi. This much is obvious every time he puts pen to paper but there is more. Each time he does so, he shatters some long-standing myths. The myth, for example, that Kabir was an ambassador of inter-communal amity. Not so, argued Agrawal in an essay he wrote for Communalism Combat (July 1999), marking the 600th anniversary of the sant-poet. Contrary to the popular perception of his being an ‘apostle of Hindu–Muslim unity’, Kabir’s notion of the individual challenges both the Varnashrama and the Islamic belief system, Agrawal argued and convincingly so. "No one knows Kabir except me," claims the Pakistani qawwal Farid Ayaz in Shabnam Virmani’s outstanding documentary, Had-Anhad (Bounded-Boundless). There is none like him, the iconoclast who demolished mandir and masjid with equal fervor, he adds.

Ayaz speaks of ‘knowing’ Kabir with the possessiveness of a jealous lover but clearly Agrawal too is intimate with the one who continues to invite us – ‘jo bare ghar aapna, chale hamare saath (come join me, if you are prepared to set your own home on fire) – to break all barriers and reach for the boundless.

Now with Akath Kahani Agrawal shatters an even more deeply held myth, the myth that men like Kabir, Tukaram, Namdeo, and Ravidas were social freaks who lived outside their day and age. Akath Kahani is not only a ‘tale’ of Kabir, other sant-poets and the India of their time. It is also a tale about us. And what it says about us – the English-educated, English-speaking, English-reading public – is deeply disturbing. Agrawal tells us that English may well be our window to the world but because it came to us as part of the colonial agenda it also colonised our minds. The colonial masters have left long ago but our intellectual imprisonment continues, says he. Akath Kahani simultaneously challenges both the Hindu-nationalist notion of our ‘golden past’ and the modernist/Marxist notion that India was all darkness where men like Kabir were freaks until the Angrez Sahebs brought us modernity and enlightenment. English education such as it was taught us that the era of book burning and inquisition marked the onset of modernity in Europe while despite the huge social upheaval and churning in the then India articulated by men like Kabir, we remained an "area of darkness". The colonial masters used different intellectual frameworks to understand their own social reality and ours and they taught us look at our own reality through their lenses.

Akath Kahani is a compelling tale that can help us reconnect with our own past and once we do that we can begin to appreciate that there modernity arrived in India long before the British did, that men like Kabir were not freaks but simultaneously its product and promoters. Agrawal’s book needs to be translated in other languages because it has relevance for all Indians. It is Communalism Combat’s privilege to have taken the first step in translating excerpts from the book for its readers.

It is a matter of great shame for all Indians in general and Muslims in Kashmir valley in particular that for over two decades tens of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits have been forced to live as refugees in their own country. Thanks to some recent developments, the return of Kashmiri migrants to the Valley at long last seems a real possibility. We have in this issue a special report on this most welcome development.

For many, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 remains a shameful capitulation of the secular Indian state to the demands of the orthodoxy following the Shah Bano judgment. But ever since, courts across the country have been interpreting a clause in the much-criticised Act to the great advantage of divorced Muslim women. In a well-argued piece, women’s rights activist, lawyer and founder of Majlis, Flavia Agnes draws attention to this little known fact.



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