Grandparents and grand stories

the human condition. (picture from Tale from Merwan’s)

Past always has an indelible romantic quality to it. I often revel in nostalgia. Not to say I forget the struggles and glorify the wins. Only that the motivation and the cause of a particular sequence of events becomes clearer once a certain amount of time has passed. I often fall in love with this clarity and this is the romance I speak of.

People who share personal anecdotes and tell stories are also fascinating. The combination of these two interests often pulls me to historical places and to history.

These two elements come together beautifully in grandparents. I have not had the good fortune of engaging in conversations with my grandparents about their past way of life. They all passed away when I was young. It’s as if I am getting a second chance now. So, by far, the most exciting thing about getting married is a set of new grandparents. I picture each one of them as those story-telling, advice-doling, past-recollecting wise owls in children’s story books.

All my knowledge of my maternal grandfather comes from my mother. From the little that I know of him he sure seems to have lead an interesting life. He certainly lived a great story. He died in his sixties and left behind so many colorful stories of his life. He was a freedom fighter teaching young men to fight with long bamboo sticks and swords. He knew how to read and write Urdu, which apparently was quite commonplace in those times due to Nizam rule. He fought in the razakar movement against the last of intolerant, barbaric Nizam rulers. My grandfather and his two friends and their young wives traveled around Andhra Pradesh, absconding and hiding from the razakars for a couple of years. One of my grandpa’s two friends was killed while running and jumping over a well, the other friend is still alive and I hope to meet him this winter.

Having heard these anecdotes, speaking about conservative Islamic regime with my guide in Istanbul and reading more about Islam in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, I know that modern liberal Islam does not follow the Quran to the T. This is true of modern liberal Christianity as well. I read an account of one person’s year of living biblically and following all rules set in the Bible (including using fabric that is allowed). This is probably true of every other religion. It is absolutely ridiculous when people try to follow an ancient text so literally, especially when these texts were written at a time when war and pillaging was commonplace. It is also ridiculous when these same people try to impose this nonsense on others around them.

Live and Let Live?

In some way or the other we all integrate — into new lives (when we start to co-habitate with a partner) or into new places (when we relocate). Similarly when immigrants or refugees move to a new place, governments often have to decide how to set laws — whether to incentivize integration or allow people to live their own way, which often leads to segregation. These questions boil down to how one identifies oneself. Consequently, I have been thinking about ‘identity’ more often in the past few months (also goaded by Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel) . Two big and powerful components of identity are, usually, nationality and religion.

For instance, I identify as an atheist. Here’s my reasoning — religion was created so that a group of people can use this identity by association and live together peacefully. Strength always came in numbers in the days of war and pillaging. All religions needed at their center a ‘superpower’, a force to reckon with and a voice of authority. When religious texts were written by smart leaders (prophets or messengers or biographers or what-have-you), they imbibed into these texts a ‘moral code’ that they deemed essential for societal harmony and attributed all mysterious, unknown phenomenon to this superpower. You are a good leader when you successfully create a new identity that transcends the identity that people had before they associated themselves with this new identity. In some religions, you owe a superpower your undying loyalty throughout your life on earth and this superpower would decide whether they would reward you once you move on from this world. I grew up with a poster of Vivekananda on my wall. It said ‘ Take the whole responsibility on your own shoulders, and know that you are the creator of your own destiny’. As a teenager I decided, I would rather take ownership over my life and actions rather than live a life of indebtedness, so theism didn’t play into my set of beliefs. I also felt capable of developing a good moral code for myself. I often face religion or spirituality among my kith and kin, it comes in the form of awe or as a source of strength. You can never find fault with either of these. The only kind I find fault with is blind, uneducated, and superstitious faith.

A brilliant scientist such as Einstein believed in a superpower because he was in awe and also very aware of the questions he could not answer . He once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious; It is the source of all true art and science. The scientists’ religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.” Such awe is heartwarming.

Going back to holding onto past stories, here’s the video from which I took the first quote. I love how it celebrates the history of a small Bombay cafe and it’s place in that city.