Reading Ram

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What does the word Ram, the name of one of the most important Hindu gods, mean to you? Do you think of thousands of Indian Muslims who have died in the violence unleashed under his name? Do you think of Mahatma Gandhi who died while saying Hey Ram? Do you think of LK Advani, the Karachi-born BJP leader whose Ram Temple movement is single-handedly responsible for the killings of thousands of Indians?

Last month, on September 30, India stopped. In Delhi, the markets were shut down. Heavy security cover was laid to the Muslim-dominated Jamia Masjid area. The impending release of latest Bollywoood films was postponed to the next week. Schools declared a holiday. The attendance in offices was thin. The city roads went empty. The Prime Minister appealed for calm. The smug anchors of TV news channels looked nervous. All attention was focused in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh (UP), where a bench of the Allahabad High Court was preparing to declare its verdict on Ayodhyas Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, a conflict point that, I feel, holds the power to destroy Indias soul. Was Lord Ram really born on the exact place where Mughal emperor Babar built a mosque in the 16th century, and which Advanis Hindus demolished in 1992? The three-judge bench (one of the judges was a Muslim) ruled that Ram was indeed born there. The court ordered the disputed plot of land to be divided into three equal parts among three petitioners, including Muslims.

What happened next?

During Advanis temple movement in the nineties, the communal riots across India killed more than 500 Muslims. Expecting something similar, the country held its breath and prepared itself for Hindu-Muslim riots. But nothing happened. The next day, newspapers declared that India has moved on. If its true, then this maturity has arrived at a heavy price. The lives lost in the Ram Temple movement will never come back. Theres also a spiritual question. Is the name of Ram permanently tainted with fear and violence? Is that the sum-total of this god in the 21st century?

My dear Pakistani readers, I want to inform you from across the border that there are thousands of Hindus whose feelings for Ram run far from inter-religious conflicts. For them, that god is about love, not hatred. You may, of course, be having Hindu friends in Lahore or Karachi but let me take you into the drawing room of a middle-class Hindu family in Delhi.

Last week, as the Hindu festive season started, Pushpa Singhs living room was turned into a makeshift temple. She and her husband Kshetra Pal were hosting Ramayan Paath, a continuous reading session of Ramcharitmanas, the Hindu epic on Ram. Written in Avdhi, a Hindi-language dialect spoken in UP villages, it was composed by the 16th century saint-poet Tulsi Das.

Living in a gated residential complex in Sahibabad, a Delhi suburb, the 63-year-old bridge player sent telephone invites to friends, neighbours and also to security guards of her apartment society, which has no Muslim residents. A priest was hired for a new pair of dhoti, kurta and Rs 101.

The Ramayan Paath is an important event in the Singhs social calendar. Singhs daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter came the day before from Bombay. Her niece, who is married to a Muslim professor, arrived from Aligarh. The reading lasts for 24 hours. On the first day, Singh, who is a vegetarian, woke up at 4am and supervised the cleaning of the entire house. The sofas and the coffee table in the living room were moved into her husbands study. The satellite radio was shoved into the guestroom cupboard. The widescreen LCD television was shifted to the bedroom. The marble floor was carpeted with mattresses. The bronze statues of Lord Ram and Sita, his wife, were dressed in silk and installed where the love seat was. A Christmas tree, decorated with Chinese lamps, was placed beside the idols.

Christmas tree is for the show, said Singh to me. You need some decorations around the Gods. The statues were also decked up with banana leaves, rice grains, basil leaves, marigold flowers and other holy knick-knacks. Assembling them together was no easy task but Singh was an old hand. It has been 30 years since she started annually hosting the Ramayan Paath. This is a matter of my feelings, she said. I feel satisfaction.

Ramcharitmanas is a fascinatingly complicated classic. Its sub-plots have multi-layered ironies to invigorate the intellectual curiosities of non-Hindus as well as pure atheists. In its grey areas, good is not always good and evil is not always evil. The sweeping story has a simple core: On the eve of being anointed Ayodhyas king, Prince Ram is unjustifiably exiled to 14 years in the forest. There, Lankas demon king Ravan kidnaps his wife, Sita. Ram invades Lanka, kills Ravan, rescues Sita, returns to Ayodhya and becomes the king.

In the Paath, the legend of Ram an obedient son, a faithful husband, a kind king and a nemesis to enemies is recited in a sing-song tune. Besides its social message, said Singhs husband, Ramayan Path gives you peace.

During the reading, Tribuhavn, Singhs son-in-law, provided a break by singing a devotional number that had references both to the Hindu and Muslim God:

Ek tu hi bharosa, ek tu hi sahaara, Is tere jahan mein nahin koi hamaara, Eeshwar ya Allah, yeh pukaar sun le.

(You are our only trust, you are our only support, We have no one in your world, O Eeshwar, or Allah, hear our call.)

Everyone clapped and I left Singhs house with a new understanding of the power of a religion, any religion.

The writer is a Delhi-based writer and photographer. He runs a blog called Pakistan Paindabad