Looking for Each Other, the Historical Task of the Hindu and Muslim

The Hindu-Muslim relationship needs to exhaust its ethical possibilities, not by disregarding or forgetting history but hearing what it constantly fails to tell us about each other.

Ali Sardar Jafri. Credit: Prashant Panjiar/Outlook archives

Ali Sardar Jafri. Credit: Prashant Panjiar/Outlook archives

Man does not meet. He is the meeting.
~ Martin Buber

The brilliant Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafri narrated a story while receiving the Jnanpith Award in 1997. It was a Bengali short story he had read years ago, but had no recollection either of the author or the title.

The story was set in rural Bengal. A group of women were bathing at the village pond, which was overlooked by a Durga temple on the top of a hillock. Suddenly, the women heard a bangle seller who was passing by call out to them. They eagerly invited him towards the bank. He settled down to sell his bangles, happy at his stroke of luck to find so many buyers at one place. The women came out of the pond one by one and bought bangles for themselves. As they left wearing his bangles, the satiated bangle seller got ready to leave. Just then he heard a voice from the pond, “Wait, what about me?” The bangle seller turned to find the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, still left in the pond. How could he have missed her? Looking embarrassed, he asked the woman to come and pick her choice. To the bangle seller’s surprise, the woman asked him to choose the bangles for her and also help her wear them. The bangle seller was only too glad to comply with her request. “I think red bangles will best fit those fair arms”, he said, and put them on her. When he asked for the money, the woman said, “I am afraid I don’t have any money on me. But my father is a priest in the temple you see up there. If you tell him, he will give you the money.”

The bangle seller walked up to the temple and met the priest. He told him about his daughter buying bangles from him and asked for the money. The priest was dumbfounded, “What are you saying? My daughter? Where did you meet her?” The bangle seller narrated the whole story. The priest ran towards the pond with the bangle seller in tow. They found no one there. In a flash, the priest understood who the woman was and what had happened. He broke down crying, “What sort of justice is this mother? I spent my entire life in your worship, and you chose to give darshan to this bangle seller?” The priest was inconsolable. Just then, the woman’s hands appeared in the water, showing off her red bangles.

The Bengali story ends here, said Jafri. But he made a slight addition to the tale: That evening, when people gathered in the village mosque for namaz, the bangle seller was also part of the crowd. In Hindustan, as we know, bangles are traditionally sold by Muslims.

Jafri’s addition does not merely add a sociological detail to the story. It grants the story a many-layered meaning that brings various affinities together.

In his essay on Tagore titled ‘Nation and Imagination’, Dipesh Chakraborty counters the mentalist and subject-centric idea of “imagination” (as propounded by Benedict Anderson) as the only available mode of relating to the nation. According to Chakraborty, anti-colonial imagination was different from its Western version not only in its various autonomous, cultural forms of imagination (as argued by Partha Chatterjee), but also in ways other than imagination, darshan being one of them. It opens up a new dimension regarding the act of “seeing” the nation. Darshan, as a performative mode, establishes an intense relationship between a deity and the worshipper. Chakraborty relates it to Tagore’s vision of ‘mother India’. Within this ambit however, the idea of darshan comes across as a limited and exclusionary symbol – purely existing (and trapped) within a Hindu religious framework.

In Jafri’s retelling of the Bengali story, the idea of darshan, in a radical turn, moves beyond the social and cultural codes within a religious community and embraces the field of a radical historical encounter between the Hindu and the Muslim. This encounter is also ethically demanding, as it looks to discover ways of acceptability between two vehemently different orders of faith.

Beyond the vision

Without Jafri’s addition to the tale, one may situate (and read) the reasons behind the goddess giving darshan to a bangle seller in moral terms, as a mark of favouring humility against vanity. In concrete terms, humility here also gets associated with people belonging to an underprivileged caste and class. Vanity is seen as a mark of the Brahminical elite. It makes a corresponding – and critical – social and cultural distinction, reversing the relation between (cultural) power and (moral) value, thus opening up the possibilities of a political reading of the story. But the story still remains within the context of the Hindu community. Jafri’s addition widens the context and meaning of the story by extending the discourse of value and power in the domain of the Hindu-Muslim encounter.

The idea of darshan is strictly Hindu, as the idea of divinity in Muslims exists without a form. But darshan, as Chakraborty has highlighted, does not depend on the person experiencing it being a “believer”. Relating it to the moment of darshan as articulated in Tagore’s poetry, Chakraborty finds the experience akin to an unconscious mode of habit. What is crucial is not the Muslim bangle seller not seeing his encounter with the goddess as darshan, but the priest’s belief that the goddess he worshipped all his life chose to appear before someone outside his class, caste and even religion. It is the priest’s moment of truth, where he finds himself humbled, though whether it instilled any degree of humility in him or not is conjectural. The feeling of being betrayed by the goddess may not necessarily translate into the recognition of his prejudices.

The story establishes a lesson by using a subject who is outside its religious context, but someone who is nevertheless related in cultural, historical and ethical terms. The Muslim bangle seller, being outside the shared symbolic world between the goddess and the Brahmin priest, helps illuminate the priest’s moral and ethical shortcomings. The point is, the priest read the incident as an act of darshan, while the bangle seller experienced it at best as a spell of beauty. And yet, by tricking (and escaping) both the bangle seller and the priest, this divine spell of beauty manages to impart an ethical lesson, without herself turning into a fetish object of worship.

bangle seller

The bangle seller. Credit:

There is an act of playfulness written into the script of darshan in both instances in the story, the goddess wearing the bangles from the bangle seller and then showing them off to the priest. The resistance against becoming a fetish object of worship by the goddess/woman is doubly reinforced when she reappears, assuaging the priest’s complaint a little bit by showing him her bangled hands. Here is playfulness along with the (political) message that she has accepted the bangles by an ordinary man (of another caste/class/religion). The image is paradoxical from the priest’s point of view: a trace of darshan that comes as a token of benevolence with the disturbing lesson that it does not belong to him alone.

What ethical question does this story raise regarding the historical and cultural encounter between the Hindu and the Muslim? The Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, left behind perhaps the most intriguing passage on the ‘meaning of the other’ in history, as quoted by Paz:

“The other does not exist; this is rational faith, the incurable belief of human reason. Identity=reality, as if, in the end, everything must necessarily and absolutely be one and the same. But the other refuses to disappear; it subsists, it persists; it is the hard bone on which reason breaks its teeth. Abel Martín with a poetic faith, as human as rational faith, believed in the other, in “The essential Heterogeneity of being,” in what might be called the incurable otherness from which oneness must always suffer.”

We may argue, the idea of darshan in the Bengali story retold by Jafri moves away from the world of ‘rational faith’ into the realm of ‘poetic faith’, where one faces – grudgingly or soberly – the presence of the other. What is ‘poetic faith’ in this or any other context? It is perhaps closer to the meaning of messianic faith that Jacques Derrida defined in Spectres of Marx as “the experience of the impossible, which can only be a radical experience of the perhaps.”

Both the priest and the bangle seller experienced a moment outside the everyday, whose meaning is both speculative and mysterious, but haunted by the presence of beauty. Their respective rational faiths are incapable of drawing meanings about the incident that brought both of them together. The woman who fled the scene left them with a number of questions they need to find answers for. If the goddess is analogous to the goddess of the nation Tagore dreamt of in his poetic experience, the story forces us to ponder on the relationship between the Hindu and the Muslim.

If darshan, as a Hindu mode of performative faith, and messianism as a term having affinity with Islam and Abrahamic religions, can both be part of ‘poetic faith’, certainly a dialogue can emerge from within these discourses. For it is ‘poetic faith’ alone, that Machado’s apocryphal character Abel Martin says, which recognises the presence of the other. It is this ‘poetic faith’ that has its residue in the future, for it leaves behind questions that the limitations and prejudices of ‘rational faith’ have to address. The idea of ‘rational faith’, after all, equates self with reality, trapped within the structure and ethos of the singular subject. The presence of the other that expands (by challenging) one’s notion of faith (in oneself) allows the question of the “perhaps” to come into the world, into one’s thought. It is the element of “perhaps” that enriches the Bengali story as much as Jafri’s historic addition. This “perhaps” draws the characters of the bangle seller and priest together, even though their relationship with the goddess (of the nation) is different.

There is another story, an anecdote rather, that may further illustrate the relationship between ethics, poetic faith and the Hindu-Muslim relationship in India.

It is a story of my meeting the famous Sufi qawwal from Karachi, Farid Ayaz. I caught him in his tent at the India International Centre, where he had come to take part in a festival on Kabir. After initial greetings, I requested him for a photograph. He displayed mock hesitation by singing aloud, “Mera tasveer lekar kya karoge” (What will you do by taking my photograph). It sounded like the first line of a possible ghazal. I found myself inspired to reply in his own style, “Ek Kafirana shauk pura karenge” (I will fulfil the pleasure worth a Kafir). Ayaz’s eyes lit up, he smiled, and this time simply spoke, “Par hum to Kafir ko wahan dhoond rahe the” (But I was looking for the Kafir there), pointing towards the horizon with his finger. It was my time to smile, as I completed the exchange, “Aur dekhiye, hum yahin mil gaye” (And see, you find me right here).

Perhaps this encounter holds many obvious secrets behind the ethical possibilities between the Hindu and the Muslim. When Ayaz pointed his finger to the horizon, stressing on the word ‘w-a-h-a-n’ (there), I was reminded of the term “horizon” in the Jewish thinker, Emanuel Levinas’s discourse on ethics. It is in the ‘horizon’ – what Paul Celan would call “the Meridian” – where one meets the other. This meeting entails a waiting as much as a hearing, endlessly postponing the bloodshed of history and the self-centric certainties of ‘rational faith’. If history cannot solve our problems we have to stop listening to it for answers. For the only answer it has always offered us is violence, a violence that refuses to meet, or hear, the other.

Perhaps, with the ‘poetic faith’ at our disposal, we have to trust the meeting where, as Martin Buber suggested, we are ourselves the meeting, ourselves consisting of what we call a meeting, exhausting everything else. The Hindu-Muslim relationship needs to exhaust its ethical possibilities, not by disregarding or forgetting history but hearing what it constantly fails to tell us about each other.  The historical task of the Hindu is to look for the Muslim and for the Muslim to look for the Hindu. The task is historical but the demand is ethical: To find a way out of history.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi

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