Seth & Beethoven
It's a lazy Sunday morning at nine. The Sun is in no mood to show up from beyond the thickly veiled sky. I give in to the ambience and remain reclined, reading Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and listening to Beethoven's 9th. Clothes that were dumped into the bucket yesterday still lie there. An undergarment may have started bleeding green once again, threatening to dye the shirts. I don't know, I don't care. The wardrobe got a makeover yesterday in lieu of my probe for socks...just preparing the ground for the impending hunt.
Seth's novel revolves around the most important event in the life of an Indian: marriage. Indeed, even the birth of a child or burning the funeral pyre pales in comparison to tying the nuptial knot. Lata (the prima donna) is falling for the charms of Kabir, a guy whose firstname lends enough ambiguity to his religious belonging. Lata is immensely perturbed when her confidante unearths the fact that Kabir is a Muslim, something that could potentially make all hell break loose on her family. She, however, is helplessly drawn to him and offers meek protests to his romantic overtures. Love gradually begins to triumph and Lata is giving in. That's where I am in the novel.
Lata's fledgling yet frail romance coupled with a phone call I received last night made my mind race back in time. Ours is a country of deep divisions and many multiplications. The divisive factors that have stratified our society could be blamed on many evils, the greatest amongst them easily being religion. Hinduism is especially plagued with caste and creed sectarianism, a scourge whose intensity is sometimes lost upon city dwellers. The barriers are chronic and run deep into our psyche. I got a taste of the importance of my caste when I sought temporary lodging in a dharamshala in Jaipur a few years ago. I joined a queue that lead to a counter manned by an old guy in traditional turban and thick glasses. Among the things he documented in his thick and yellowed register was the caste of each entrant. I was flabbergasted and panicked in despair. What the hell was my caste? I had to think quick, there was no time to ponder over the mysteries of why this bit of information was important in the first place. I had a caste, but never bothered to know which one actually claimed me. I began to zero in on a prospective and impromptu caste by applying the theory of negation.
- Brahmin, I wasn't. I never attended the thread ceremony, I didn't trust any of the countless gods and I knew no hymns.
- Sudra, I wasn't. I would hate belonging to the lowest caste. Also, I ran the risk of being shown the exit if I expressed my affiliation to the harijan community.
- Vaishya, I wasn't. I hated commerce. Business is nothing but a glorified term coined by those who made an art out of exploiting the needs of others. I know my thoughts were and still are misplaced, but I'm allowed my mental aberrations. And I'm not a leftist.
- Kshatriya, though ludicrously contrasting to my timidness, was the only one left on my platter. It seemed the least revolting of all the candidate castes.
So there I was, decidedly Kshatriya. Thankfully, the turbaned man didn't find my newly crafted caste a total misfit on my hapless stature, begging for inexpensive shelter in a strange city heavily steeped in history. I was ushered into my room.
A few days earlier, I had yet another taste of the hollow pride that fills those who have nothing else to feel proud about. The porter in a hotel in Udaipur I had decided to stay in for a couple of days beamed with great pride when he tactfully steered a discussion into the greatest revelation I was about to be let in: he was a Rajput. Rajputs, at least a vast majority of them, were small time worriers who spent most of their time heaping praises upon their lineage and royalty and who would go to any extent (generally verbal) to salvage his blue blood. Petty battles were the mainstay of their existence and their history was marred with mutual quarrels that would sometimes escalate to the rusting sword being pulled out of its scabbard. We've had thousands of such Rajputs, many of whom staked claims to kingdoms no larger than a village. When the British came, these were the very people who tried hard to outdo each other in laying down arms. Of course, this doesn't discount the valour of a select few who indeed deserve most of the merit our overzealous historians sometimes bestow upon them.
Oh well, our porter needs to swell with pride when he recalls the gallantry of his ancestors. I'm sure they must have been the bravest of souls to have ever walked the earth. My humble salutations to the guy who had just conclusively proven his superiority to me.
I was in the campus hostel of BIT, Mesra a few weeks later. Two young lads, perhaps aged around four and eight knocked on my door and demanded alms. And why did they demand, not beg? Oh, they were proud Brahmins and demanding was their birthright. There were more shows (though less spectacular) to follow, like our library being divided into sections that could be accessed by all and those that were exclusively accessible only to the backward castes. My wandering mind settles on the present. The law of the land is reinforcing the caste divides in all walks of life. Educational reservations are all set to get a whooping boost while the corporates will be similarly burdened in a few years.
Running jarringly contrary to these thoughts is the lofty strains of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Often hailed as the greatest piece of music ever composed, the 9th yells of liberty and equality right from the first notes of the first movement to the dying notes of the finale. This masterpiece, much in keeping with Beethoven's own traits, is a non-conformist. The second and third movements seemed to have swapped tempos and spirits while the last is radical because of its pioneering use of the human voice. Beethoven rejected the steady and assured employment of the monarchy, he found the idea of being commissioned to write music suited to the shallow tastes of his employers absolutely abhorring. His thoughts were free, as was his music. No tyranny could chain him, no fantasy could bound him, no pleading could melt him and no praise could flatter him. He never bowed to anyone, just mildly titled his head in acknowledgment. The peerless Goethe was chided for bowing. Even the mighty Napoleon incurred his wrath. He insulted his royal patrons as being nothing more than mere accidents of birth. Arguably no artist before him had had ideas so audacious and avant-garde. His music had scant respect for the laws of tradition.
But even Beethoven couldn't shake off the lure of belonging to the aristocracy. He went to great extents and concocted innumerable fabrications to prove that he was of noble origin. Cheap shot by even the greatest of thinkers! Luckily, all this personal skewness hasn't affected the beauty nor stained the chastity of the Choral Symphony.