From “September 25-28”

In another time, on another day, Basava and his river are exchanging subtleties on the nature of many-faceted truth. In September 2000, sitting in Shiv’s room in the university’s history department, Basava could well be on another planet. A Martian saint-poet.

Shiv has come to the Department to meet the Head, but all he wants is to sit alone in his room. All he wants to do is take down books from his bookshelf, find the right references, and begin writing a new lesson. He wants to go back to being a simple teacher. Go back to that essential process of collating salient facts and bringing it all together in some meaningful shape. He wants to recapture for a moment the experience of a creator, or at least a quasi-creator, of a design. Only that will make him feel at home in this room again. Make him feel it is indeed his, that he has a right to it.

Though he is faceless to the readers of his lessons, Shiv too felt the urgency of a teacher at one time, when he still had a real classroom. Later this urge to make someone understand what he had to say came upon him in fits and starts, usually when Rekha and he went for an evening walk. But he soon learnt to rein in that urge, what Rekha calls his attacks of professoritis. The irony is that it is now, when he coordinates resources for educational clients, when he no longer has a student walking shoulder to shoulder with him, that he is being tried, and displayed, as a real, living teacher.

Shiv tries to read the pile of papers in his In-tray, mark time before he sees the Head. But the memos and notices, all the boring, reassuring signposts of normalcy, are written in some indecipherable language. A foreign tongue. He puts them aside and looks out of the window; his recent conversation with Menon comes to mind. Menon, the sort of academic who feels safest in a maze of files, records and rules, called Shiv this morning to add a new anxiety to his hoard. “Shiv, you’re lucky all this is happening in Delhi,” said Menon. “You know how people here have trouble remembering what has happened in the rest of the country.”

Shiv waited patiently; Menon does not take kindly to being hurried out of his maze.

“It seems there was a similar controversy in 1994. But that was about a play on Basava, and the play was written in Kannada. Do you know anything about this?”

Since the call, as if the file in Shiv’s mind has just been waiting for Menon to open it, he has remembered. (It shocks Shiv that he, who prides himself on his good memory, has not recalled this in the past ten days of confusion.)

The play Menon was talking about was published in 1986. It won a state award and was prescribed as a textbook in a couple of universities. Then eight years later, some group in Karnataka – cousins, or ancestors, of Shiv’s Manch – woke up to the possibilities of the book. They accused the play of portraying Basava as a coward; implying that he committed suicide; casting aspersions on the “chastity” of some women saints; and letting some characters use obscene language.

The group demanded that the play be withdrawn from the university syllabus. There were the usual ban-the-book scenes. Copies were burnt; so was an effigy of the playwright. Rallies were held for and against; buses and trains came to a halt. There were protest fasts; one man attempted self-immolation. Most of all, it became a convenient election issue. Finally, “in view of the law and order situation” the book was withdrawn from the university syllabus in 1995 by government order.

Now, in 2000, the distance between the imaginary lands of literature and the prosaic city of history has shrunk. All occupy the same beleaguered space, the same territory under indefinite siege. The horizon, the sky, all wide open spaces are reduced to the size of a pinpoint; the Manch and its cohorts are telling them all that there is only one way to remember a great man, preferably their way. Only one way to remember the past.

Perhaps Shiv would be better off if he allowed his memory to be sullied; if he remembered less, if he turned his back on his father’s ideal historian. If he allowed a simple excision of memory, a few minor assaults on shade, nuance, complexity. But will he recover? Or will he skulk around the rest of his life, a paid witness, a hireling of thugs?


From “September 29 – October 2”

Shiv is back in his room at the Department the next morning. The door is shut. He is tempted to switch off the light and fan as well so that no one knows he is here. But he stops short of such cowardice; besides, he finds he can’t move from his chair. He sits there, empty-handed, listening to the pigeons making scrabbling noises on the cooler. He doesn’t have the heart to chase them away today. Instead he shuts out their presence, looks out of the other window.

The view of the parking lot, a bland view that has met Shiv’s eyes in so many moments of boredom and impatience, is comforting. Its loyal, unchanging features reassure him; the world outside the window is not – or not yet – a complete stranger. He counts four little Marutis including his own. Two Zens. A brave and battered old Fiat. And to one corner, a great big foreign-looking monster he can’t identify, glinting ostentatiously in the sunlight.

Shiv has escaped here for an hour or two of silence. To be completely alone, to try and think dispassionately. The telephone receiver is off the hook. He thinks of Rekha’s yoga instructor telling her to empty her mind of all thoughts but one. Hold the one lone fragment firmly in view till it grows bigger and stronger, filling the frame. The Head, the Dean, Amar and his band, even Arya’s promise of more trouble to come, tumble out of Shiv’s head. Meena, weighed down by her cast, is less willing to move. He shakes his head to clear it and fix its sights on his father.

This is an old habit; every time Shiv asks himself a question, it is his father who is the audience in his head. His reader, his fellow-questioner, his quiet but critical listener.

Shiv now asks himself (or his father): What makes a fanatic? A fundamentalist? What makes communities that have lived together for years suddenly discover a latent hatred for each other?

As if in answer, Shiv hears a distant rumble, then the parking lot fills with people. Even at a distance he can sense the tension in them, bodies like clenched fists, voices angry and shrill.

Shiv gets up slowly, deliberately, as if any sudden movement might break a bone. He moves to the window in a dream, in a hypnotic trance of horrified fascination. He has never seen so many students before on this campus, he thinks. Then one of them looks up, catches his staring eye. In that instant of recognition, Shiv knows he is not a student. He remembers that it’s the easiest thing in the world to hire protesters. All it takes is the price of a meal. Hungry touts are unlikely to ask what they are protesting against. They are also unlikely to shy away from violence.

The mob. A mob for Shiv, his own private adversary running him to earth.

There is a knock on the door and almost immediately the door is pushed open. It is Menon. The sight of him fills Shiv with gratitude. Menon must have known Shiv was here, yet he has left him alone. Shiv resolves never again to complain about Menon’s lack of social skills.

“Shiv, what are you standing there for? Come on, you should leave from the back before they come up here.”

They hear the flapping of wings on an ascending note. The pigeons have taken off. Abruptly, Shiv’s trance lets go of him; his body comes back to life.

Menon and Shiv rush out of the room and dash down the stairs. When they get to the parking lot, it’s empty.

At the car, Shiv turns to Menon. “I don’t feel right about this. Why don’t you call the security people? I could try and talk to the protesters till they come.”

“I’ve already called the security,” Menon says, and takes the car keys from Shiv. Shiv notices how unsteady Menon’s hand is as he unlocks the door; Shiv’s desire for dialogue or confrontation dissipates.

He gets into the car and Menon slams the door shut.

As Shiv pulls out of the lot, his foot firmly on the accelerator, he has a glimpse of what he is leaving behind in his rearview mirror. Menon’s back hurries out of the frame. Then, in the empty lot, a parting shot reaches home though Shiv is physically untouched. A shower of glass, a flying chair, papery confetti. His room, his books, stripped naked. A sullied place, no longer any one’s refuge.

His room has been pushed into no-man’s land. Like other disputed structures, it has a lock on the door. All it takes, it appears, is a simple little lock to keep history safe.

Shiv tries to picture his ransacked room. He has not been back, but Menon has told him that the table and chairs and bookshelves are broken, the walls defaced. There are torn books everywhere, cupboard and files open-mouthed and in shambles. A jumble of crumpled paper. His nameplate is on the floor in a heap of little pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle that will need patience and imagination to put together again. And the pigeons? wonders Shiv. He has hated those noisy, dirty birds all these years, conducted warfare on them. But now the thought of his room without the pigeons at the window makes him feel bereft. Are they back? Or have they been scared away for good?

Now that Arya and his cronies have made sure he cannot go to the Department, Shiv is a full-time fugitive. Housebound, his own home feels like exile. And the inevitable flurry of reactions has set in – phone calls, meetings, newly set up committees. (“We suggest a committee be set up to constitute a committee…”) At the same time, Shiv’s desecrated room is being pushed into the background; even as he tries to keep it in focus, it blurs, turning into history. What remains, what takes over, is the aftermath – what the enemy will do next; and where (and how) the argumentative battalion of soldiers on his side will march together.

Shiv feels like a body that has been taken over. A body in a lawless country, a body that has somehow unlearnt the law of gravity. There is a sense of surging ahead, of careening; of the wheel having taken over from the hand steering it. Every now and then he braces himself and waits: any moment now the tires will skid and everything will go out of control. The whole world, all of life, blurs into frenetic movement till the imminent crash seems, by comparison, pure mercy.

Fan mail, hate mail. Quotable and unquotable quotes. Questions, interviews, sweat and powder and flashbulbs. Bytes and more bytes, a world of biters and bitten.

Vested interests. Hinduisation of the past. History as armour. History as propaganda. History as battleground. History as the seed of hatred. History in the hands of the mob. Conspiracy theories. Rightist conspiracies, leftist conspiracies. Foreign-handed conspiracies. A Babel of voices is trapped in Shiv’s head, a play with a cast of thousands. These characters never stand still; they run from meeting to rally to interview. All of them have something urgent to say, and they say it in as many words as possible.

For instance: Guru Khote is addressing his third seminar of the week. He rounds off his talk with his usual trademark from The Encyclopaedia of Great Quotations. Now he says with an air of supreme profundity, “As Thomas Paine said in The Age of Reason, My own mind is my own church…” (Amita nudges Shiv. “You know what he is called in some circles, don’t you? The Quote Guru.”)

Professor Fraudley, the eminent Indologist no one heard of till six months back, has flown down to Delhi to make his contribution via newspapers and websites. “As an international expert on all matters Indian, I have no hesitation in saying that Indian Culture has always been spiritual, and it must continue to keep its Spirituality Quotient (SQ) high.”

Amar, committed young activist (CYA), distributes leaflets that scream in 24 point bold type: “Is the past up for grabs?”

Arya’s hired students put up posters which reply, “Down with Foreign Craze! Long Live Patriotism!”

The erudite old historian Amir Qurieshi is helped on to the stage to whisper passionately: “Identities are never permanent. This obsession with identity uses the past to legitimise the political requirements of the present.”

The Manch spokesman froths at the mouth. “Who are these historians to talk when they don’t know the first thing about the past? Man first took birth in Tibet, originally a part of Bharat. All beings were Arya beings. It is from there that they spread out into the fields. It is now 179 million crore, 19 lakh, 59 thousand and 84 years since man stepped on this earth.”

Guru Quote: “Who speaks for the people or their religious beliefs? As Swift said, we have just enough religion to make us hate each other…”

Arya: “Are these foreign-lovers nationals of our land? We will accept only people whose loyalty to our traditions and our heroes down the centuries is undivided and unadulterated.”

Fraudley: “Sanskrit is not a dead or elitist language. It is the symbol of cultural unity and ancient wisdom. Besides, computer scientists agree that Sanskrit is the ideal language for software.”

Qurieshi: “The nationalism practised by these sullen, resentful, intolerant men is very different from the nationalism of the freedom struggle. This new brand of nationalism is monstrous. Look at examples all over the world.”

Manch: “What can even a thousand policemen do when we emotionally charged people take to the streets?”

Amar: “The big picture is out of fashion. Now it is all specificities, a chaos of small pictures. Only caste, or only gender, or only environment. Next it will be a movement devoted just to the right to have an orgasm. All funding is for fragments of the big picture.”

And Guru Q, coming up on stage to deliver “the vote of thanks”: “If I may be allowed one last quote… h’m — ” Arya: “They are all against Indian philosophy! We should not let them speak!” (The hired students kick aside chairs and rush to the stage and grab the mike.)

Ministers, lefties, righties, bandwagonwallas, touts, students, student leaders, spokesmen, spokeswomen. Historians, journalists turned politicians, engineers turned linguists, computer experts turned archaeologists.

In the middle of this dizzying circle, in the lone eye of the storm, Shiv waits with clammy hands and a weak heart. The beast is preparing to charge him, the beast with many heads, many masks, many voices. Is there no escape? Shiv could extend his leave, resign, then slip out of sight. His supporters, grateful as he is to them, unsettle him. The others, the fanatical revisionists, terrify him, bewilder him. What has happened to history, the history his uncle thought was a dull, safe choice of subject? It has become a live, fiery thing, as capable of explosion as a time bomb.