Monday, August 04, 2014

“In Kochi, members of different communities dislike each other”

Prof. Ashis Nandy analyses the people of Kochi, as well as the behaviour of Indians during the 1947 Partition

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, political psychologist Ashis Nandy, 77, had come to Kochi to do a study on the people. But before he came he was told that there were no serious ethnic or communal violence for the past 3000 years. “That is difficult to prove, because the history of 3000 years is not available,” he said. “I then found that there were records available for the past 600 years. Essentially, Kochi has passed all the tests of good citizenship.”

When Nandy asked the local people the reason for this long peace, broken, with long gaps, by small communal flare-ups, these were some of the responses: 'We are secular.' 'We are progressive.' 'We have a high literacy rate,' and 'We don't fight like the uneducated ruffians.'

The closest I came to a personalised response was when some of them said that Kochiites were not like the North Indians,” said Nandy, as laughter erupted among the audience during the talk, 'Another Cosmopolitanism', organised by the Kochi Biennale Foundation.

However, on further investigation, Nandy made a surprising discovery. The different communities, whether it be Hindu, Muslim or Christian, had a mutual antagonism. “Alas, Kochi's marvellous cosmopolitanism was based on dislike,” said Nandy. “But I did find some unusual factors. Nobody could describe the city without invoking the other communities. For the people, the landscape has always been full of multiple communities. While each group thought it was the best, and regarded the others as inferior or flawed, they also knew that the others thought of them in the same derogatory manner.”

In his essay, 'Searching for the Alternative Cosmopolitanism of Cochin', Nandy described this attitude as an 'epic culture'. “In Indian epics, the Gods as well as the demons are never perfect,” he says. “The interaction between them is a human one. Along with enmity, there is an element of affection.”

Nandy noticed this affection among people when he was researching the religious riots during the 1947 Partition of India. “40 per cent of the respondents, who fled from Pakistan, confirmed that they had been helped by members of the other community,” said Nandy. “There were Muslims who died while trying to save Hindus. The survivors told me that. The angry Muslim rioters also killed their brethren when they came to know that they were shielding Hindus.”

But it was not only Muslims who were reaching out. In Pakistan, Sikhs were saving Muslims. There was a young Sikh who abducted a Muslim woman, and brought her home. His elderly father said, 'Son, this is not permitted by Sikhism. Return the woman to her family.' But the youngster had seen his friends abduct woman and some had even married them. So, the boy refused to obey his father. Consequently, the patriarch took out his sword, killed his son, and returned the girl to her family.”

A Pakistan researcher told Nandy that there were more than hundred cases like this. “Our people don't need advice, theories, and concepts from the middle class to learn how to be hospitable,” said Nandy. “They don't need to learn tolerance and secularism from textbooks. They have their own humane principles which are often grounded in their own religion.”

Nandy recounted a story told by a Hindu woman, Neelima (name changed), who grew up in Pakistan and had lost the majority of her family members during the Partition. “She used to play with her neighbourhood Muslim girls,” said Nandy. “But her family, particularly her mother, used to beat her when she ate at their house. So, one day, when she went to her friend's house, Neelima told the mother, 'When I come to play with your daughter, my family is happy about it. But if I eat at your place, they beat me up. But I like the food at your house more than the food at my home.'”

The mother said, “That is not a problem. I will solve it. Do you know any Hindu mantra?”

Neelima said, “I know the Gayatri Mantra.”

Okay,” the woman said. “I will teach you a verse from the Koran. When you leave your house, you should recite this. By the time you arrive at my house, you will become a Muslim. Then you can eat anything. When you leave, you must recite the Gayatri Mantra, so that you will become a Hindu when you reach your own house. But don't say this to your family.”

Indians, especially those who live in cities, which did not witness colonialism first-hand, like Kochi, have the ability to accept the otherness in people who are different from them, says Nandy. “So, all types of people – like the Jews and the Konkanis – were able to find refuge in Kochi,” he said. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

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