There is a popular quote (falsely attributed to Buddha) doing rounds on WhatsApp circuit for a while: “In the end only three things matter, how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of the things not meant for you”.
People may have a contrary take on this philosophical stance. However, Ruskin Bond seems to be a living epitome of this impossible ideal.
Reading his autobiography, Lone Fox Dancing, one couldn’t help but wonder about this man, who has regaled generations of readers and their children with his absorbing stories of the hills, pangs of adolescence, lives of the ordinary and not so ordinary people and their ghosts in the hills.
This is the story of a man who was born in British India, to an English father and an Anglo-Indian mother, but made the newly-independent India his home. A man whose first and most enduring love of his life remained his father and with whom he lived his best, very short years in an army tent near Nizamuddin in Delhi. A man who could witness, from the very early days of his childhood, the withering away of his parents’ marriage while he watched the stars sitting outside his home. A child who was lugged around like many other uncomfortable belongings which his family couldn’t decide what to do with, especially after his father’s untimely death due to repeated bouts of malaria.
He got sent to boarding schools in Dehradun and Simla, made some amazing friends and memories, discovered his love for literature and a flair for writing. He then decided to try his luck as a full-time writer even as his mother was building a new life with another partner. A man, who constantly remained in search of a home, never giving up that longing despite the fact that people whom he called his home gave up on him very often.
He persisted in his gentlest manner, just like his prose, in the end winning them all, creating a family, the members of which have grown so large that he could never have imagined it to be.
And while doing all this, he almost became a hermit, living a life of solitude in the hills of Dehra and Mussoorie, away even from the local population. In the Prologue Bond writes, “I had a lonely childhood growing up in a broken home and a boarding school in the hills. Later, companions came into my life and went away, often never to return. Or it was I who left them behind and moved on.” A little later, he goes on to say, “Hope, love and pig-headedness.
Without these, I would not have survived into my eighties and remained in working order”.
So, this is not the story of a writer in search of his creativity, different milestones, or how he evolved as a writer for adults and then later for adolescents and children. He himself admits that that may be a separate book, for some other day. This is more like an intimate story of his loves and losses, and his undying optimism amidst all this.
Yet, in many ways, those who have had the fortune of reading his stories, very often thinly veiled memoirs, will obviously see how many of his characters appear in these, whether his very first Room on the Roof or later ones like Susana’s Seven Husbands. At places, he mentions some of these characters and how he got inspired to write particular stories e.g. Flight of Pigeons.
But the point of a writer’s autobiography is not simply to re-read his/her characters through an intimate memoir. That would be a lazy thing to do.
To come back to the central narrative of this tale, it can be divided broadly into two halves of Bond’s life (though I wonder if it was by design). The first half consists of his short stays, right from the days of his infancy, where he was born in Jamnagar, then a princely state; and then to Delhi, when his father joined the Royal Air Force; then to Dehradun, where he stayed with his mother at grandmother’s place; then back to Delhi, with father after his parents’ marriage fell apart; then to hostels in Mussoorie and Simla, where eventually, he faced the news of his father’s death that he never came to terms with; then back to Dehra, to stay as a semi-independent member of his mother’s new family and her new husband.
His decision to undertake a writer’s pilgrimage to England followed (a short, struggling stint despite his first major love and its quick loss and his conversations with Diana Athill, the publisher of his first book, The Room on the Roof, where you do get a glimpse of the way this book evolved even though it was published after he had returned to India) his return to Dehradun and then to Delhi. It was where his mother was trying to resettle her family with his two younger siblings and a new husband, while he worked for CARE, an American Charity. Here you get the first glimpse of the evolving social sector in India. You also see a glimpse of expanding Delhi through his walks, and his forays into his another short-lived love.
This rapid fire journey of different places, different struggles, has a common thread running through it: the search for a lost home. After which he chose wilderness.
And then you have the second half of this journey, almost frozen in time, primarily divided between two houses in and around Mussoorie. He eventually comes to terms with his solitude, not in resignation, but with a determined step to focus on his writing, while living in an isolated cottage off Mussoorie with very few neighbours or visitors, and later to Dehra with his adopted family members which continues to grow till date.
He writes almost wistfully, “One way to get over a failed affair is to get married. Another, is to trek into beautiful, deserted places”. This is the phase when his journey becomes almost metaphorical. Here you are running all over, desperately seeking friends, family, companions, losing them again and again — and, then, one day you decide to sit almost in a trance with sheer determination and then your family becomes so large that your solitude looks just one side of the same coin. Then random visitors barge in any time of the day even when you are in your towel, half-shaven to get a photograph clicked with you, he recalled in a brief Landour diary in the Outlook a few years ago.
As he writes himself, “As a boy, loneliness. As a man, solitude. The loneliness was not of my seeking. The solitude I sought. And found”. This is also the phase which gave him strength to make peace with his mother even as she lay dying of cancer, laying out his barely hidden sorrow of being abandoned and getting to understand his mother’s viewpoint.
But his decision to be a full-time writer after leaving the well-paying job at CARE (barring one short stint with Imprint in between) had to be managed with some meticulous planning and work. While he had begun to contribute to weekly and monthly magazines for a while, it was at this moment that you also get a glimpse of what goes into the hard determination to be a writer where he made an extended list of all the English magazines, both in India and outside, carefully rating them at their paying potential and pursuing the same with a doggedness that gave him enough to survive in a cottage where he had only an old British woman as his neighbour.
Mussoorie has been home to some of the British people who chose to stay after the Raj bid its farewell, including the famous Alter brothers as well as Bill Aitken (about whom Bond has some interesting anecdotes to share, rather more on his lover, a Maharani). Through his eyes, you see an entire generation of such people who simply couldn’t call Britain their home even as others kept leaving. His life is an ode to all of those people. You almost wonder at times, how can one remain so dogged in claiming India as a home, when racially, legacy-wise you are branded as a foreigner. He mentions this too, almost in passing through an anecdote, in his signature gentle style. In the words of another such character who chose to retire to Mussoorie, “I don’t mind being dead, Ruskin. But I shall miss, being alive”.
Lone Fox Dancing An Autobiography (Hardcover)
By Ruskin Bond
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, New Delhi
Price: INR 599
Easter Sunday Massacre in Sri Lanka
By Lukman Harees
What happened in Sri Lanka on this black Easter Sunday, in a series of well-orchestrated and coordinated terror attacks on churches and other locations, is an unforgivable and brutal tragedy of catastrophic proportions. A deadly wave of suicide bombings ripped through many churches and few leading hotels in the capital Colombo, as well as in many other parts of the country, making, an otherwise serene, ‘Easter Sunday’ the darkest day in recent history. At least 290 people were reported killed, with 500 injured in this dastardly terror attack. The spate of senseless killings and terror attacks on innocent civilians, on a day when Christians were engaged in reflection and prayer, deserves severe condemnation by people of all faiths, which brought back ugly memories of the bloody chapter of an inhumane war which engulfed Sri Lanka for over three decades in its recent history. It is the height of depravity to target worshippers on their holiest days, proving that terrorists have no race or religion, and that perpetrators of these terror attacks speak for no one but themselves.
The Easter Sunday massacre was certainly a shocking tragedy. Sri Lanka appears to be heading towards another chapter of terror and violence after a period of relative peace and calmness since the end of a bloody war in 2009. However, what causes much concern and fear is that the potency of terror lies not in the act but in the aftermath. The act is death and destruction, horrendous in itself. The response is what gives it political traction. All that the terrorists want is the oxygen of publicity and for the nation to go berserk, declare emergencies, tear up freedoms, and organise attacks on the people at the grass-root levels who have nothing to do with the massacre, thus, creating mayhem in the already wounded nation by the scars of war. By capitulating to these desires, the country would vastly increase the power of terror – and the likelihood of imitation.
The government has imposed a state of emergency and a curfew to maintain law and order, as well as to prevent communal tensions, as there are fears that the Easter Sunday bombings could spark fresh sectarian violence. The state of emergency will grant police and the military extensive powers to detain and interrogate without court orders and was in force at various times during the civil war that raged from 1983 to 2009. As well as this, there are bans placed upon social media to prevent any dissemination of conspiracy theories and misinformation. Still, the government and intelligence services are being blamed for ignoring many prior warnings regarding preparations for an operation of this magnitude. One of the local militant groups immediately accused of orchestrating the massacre was National ThowheedJama’ath (NTJ), which was reportedly warned of by local Muslims, according to a top Sri Lankan police officer.
However, the more worrying aspect is rather the very nature, patterns, timing, planning, and execution of these despicable attacks. They clearly show tell-tale signs of a greater machination at work beyond mere cat’s paw involvement, aimed at creating further mayhem and disharmony among people who are recovering from the wounds of war and post-war communal violence. There are many factors which cause concern: the fact that many churches and members of one religious group were targeted; the manner in which the attacks had been orchestrated simultaneously across Sri Lanka (the level of ‘sophistication’ of which was not seen even in the days of the ruthless Tamil Tigers); and the targeting of leading tourist hotels in the capital. They bear the hallmarks of expertise and professionalism, perhaps with international affiliations and a vested political and economic agenda, rather than the work of ordinary lone wolves, psychopaths, or a small hate group; which raises much suspicion about the possibilities of many ‘outside’ interests.
‘Terrorism’ is far from a new phenomenon – neither in Sri Lanka nor elsewhere in the world. ‘Terrorism’ is nothing but the random murder of defenceless non-combatants, with the intent of instilling fear of mortal danger amidst a civilian population as a strategy designed to advance political ends. A philosopher Ted Honderich, in his controversial book ‘After the Terror’, says, “their (victims) deaths were not the first intention of their killers, but necessary in the carrying out of another intention, a justified one. Their very first intention may indeed be, achieving their political ends.” Thus, there is no doubt that terrorism, as Honderich suggests, is a subset of politically motivated violence that falls short of conventional war, and is both internationally illegal and, to say the least, morally questionable. It is, therefore, not possible to discount the possibility of political scheming too in carrying out this despicable Easter Sunday massacre, in order to gain narrow political ends and stay in power, especially when talks of another round of elections are in the air.
In the backdrop of these untoward developments, Muslims of Sri Lanka, who have also been regular victims of terror in the post-war period, are now in a renewed state of fear and insecurity. With media sensationalism playing both locally and globally—borrowing ideas from a powerful Islamophobia industry—the emerging situation shows signs of a social volcano waiting to erupt. It is too early to find out the intricate details of what led to this shameful chapter in the history of this Island, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean. However, in this confusing scenario, the peaceful mainstream Muslims now wake up to the reality that it is imperative, even belatedly, that they stand up to and confront the evil of a small fringe group amongst them. For the moment, both Muslims in Sri Lanka, as well as Muslim diaspora groups worldwide, are expressing their solidarity and offering support with their grieving Christian neighbours and other victims of this tragedy. This is undoubtedly the most challenging chapter in Sri Lanka’s recent history, and there is now an increase of public activism Sri Lanka, which asks the country’s political and religious leaders to follow the example of New Zealand Prime Minster Arden, whose calmness, compassion, and tough leadership style were praised by observers in the wake of the worst mass killing in her country’s modern history.Something must also be said about the stark contrast between the global reaction to the destruction of symbols of European Christianity in the form of the Notre Dame fire and the destruction of non-European dark-skinned Christian bodies and lives. Let this be food for thought.
Sri Lanka will have to figure out how to move forward so that events like this one do not recur. Things like ‘terrorism’ are complex issues of our time, and as other countries around the world have seen, they lack clear solutions: gun bans do not end violence; cracking down on social media does little to deter racism or hatred, and stigmatisation and demonising communities do not work. On the contrary, it is a concerted plan of action and public activism, across racial or religious divides that is needed. They will do the right things: avoid emotional outbursts, ensure people are alert to the evil elements amongst them, expose this evil, and forge unity among people to confront it, all whilst ensuring common values of humanity are protected at all costs. For the mainstream Muslims of Sri Lanka showing solidarity and resoluteness in healing the scars of the wounded nation, the foremost challenge is to project the real message of Islam in the public domain, confronting false propaganda media narratives from the clutches of radical and ‘extremist’ elements. As MuizBukhary, a well-known Sri Lankan scholar, says: “we need to work hard to put things right”.
Faith and Enlightenment Should Go Hand In Hand
By Zafar Aziz Chaudhry
In the early part of this month, during my sojourn to the Holy Land, the question which perplexed me most was whether there was a real connection between enlightenment and faith, and whether in their genesis these two are all-embracing or mutually exclusive. My deep reflections on various texts of the Holy Quran, and some references gathered from history did reaffirm my belief that they are mutually inclusive and do not conflict with each other. In fact for the future survival of Muslim nations with grace and dignity in competition with the rest of the world, it should be clearly understood that there is no schism between these two concepts. Rather an enlightened world-view is likely to rub off the accumulated centuries-old rust on the other-wise pristine fabric of Islam.
The European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasized reason and individualism rather than tradition. It was heavily influenced by philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent figures included Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith. It was a revolt against Man’s self-imposed tendency not to use his own understanding and only to follow tradition. It stressed reason, logic, criticism, and freedom of thought over dogma, blind faith, and superstition. In a broader sense, Enlightenment applied scientific reasoning to politics, science, and religion. Its followers were typically humanists who supported equality and human dignity, and it is wrong to suppose that enlightenment is in any manner opposed to religion. On the other hand, it acts as a bulwark against superstition, intolerance, and bigotry which have brought bad name to religions.
Despite their different approaches, science and religion are also complementary. It is said that science can help you diagnose and treat your cancer, but it cannot touch the despair and dismay and terror you feel when you get the diagnosis, nor can it help you to die well. For that people turn to religion, which answers the deeper questions of our human predicament.
The survival of religion in the 21st century, according to Karen Armstrong, largely depends on its capacity to create compassion for the fellow human beings which is the ultimate object of religion.
But unfortunately religion is mostly misunderstood in our time due to our inability to take historical perspective of the social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional settings that shaped people’s lives and actions in the past. Such an understanding which is often termed as “historical empathy” helps us to understand the vast differences between us in the present and those in the past. Compassion also teaches us to transcend our limited world-view and place ourselves in the cultural and social environments of the past.
The Holy Prophet by his conduct and precepts has been admittedly one of the greatest and most influential personages in history and we Muslims believe that the Holy Quran, his revealed message to humanity, is a marvel of wisdom for the mankind. But the fate of Muslims everywhere is most pathetic, the responsibility for which can be traced in Islamic history.
The first shock after the death of the Holy Prophet on the question of his succession resulted in the tragic split between the Sunnies and Shias which also in due course divided the Islamic countries into two blocks.. The next significant setback which reversed the Islamic clock occurred during the Abbasid period when philosophers like al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD) fiercely opposed the Mu’tazilites practice of subjecting Islamic theology to rationalism which led the Abbasids to ban the Mu’tazilites. Islam’s vitality and appeal was gravely affected by the resurgence of literalist interpretations of Sharia (that treats man-made laws as divine) and the worsening of sectarian cleavages within Islam which has set in motion a perpetual cycle of violence that directly endangers the lives of ordinary Muslims everywhere.
Within a century of Holy Prophet’s death his followers had built an empire that stretched from Spanish Europe to Central Asia. The Rashidin caliphate can be credited for military expansion, but It was not until the Umayyad Dynasty-from 661 to 750-that Islamic and Arabic culture began to truly spread. The Abbasid Dynasty-from 750 to 1258-intensified and solidified these cultural changes.
The Golden period of knowledge in Islam began during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786 to 809) when he invited scholars from various parts of the world with different cultural backgrounds and mandated them to gather and translate all of the world’s classical knowledge into the Arabic language. This resulted into an astonishing growth of philosophers and scientists such as IbneRushd (translated Aristotle, and wrote books on Islamic jurisprudence) Al-Kindi (discovered rules of astronomy and optics) Khwarizmi (Father of Algebra and mathematics) IbneSina (Father of Medicine, astronomy and Logic) who ushered in a golden era of knowledge.
Ironically the dark age of Europe coincided with golden age of Islam. But it was the most tragic turn in the history of Islam that the fruits of hard labours of these philosophers and scientists could not reach the Islamic society because of the opposition to rational thought by the jurists and clergymen of the day and lack of wisdom and vision of their rulers who opposed a rational underpinning of Islam – analogous to St. Thomas Aquinas who lent rationality to Christianity in the Middle Ages. The theologians like Al-Ghazali and IbneTaimiyya refused to accept scientific change and discoveries and forced the Khalifa to ban Mu’tazilites who were advocates of rational thought. It was contrary to the teachings of the Quran and precepts of the Holy Prophet who had made no such restrictions on the acquisition of knowledge. According to the saying of the Prophet, Muslims were to seek knowledge even if they had to go to China.
The Islamic state also failed to patronize these polymaths by refusing them enough funds for their research etc under fear of reaction from the reactionary forces. But most importantly, contrary to the injunctions of the Holy Quran, the local jurists divided the concept of knowledge into two broad and disjunctive categories as “Ilm Ad-Din” (= religious knowledge) and “Ilm Ad-Dunya” (= worldly knowledge). Neither in the Quran nor in the authentic books of Hadith was there any such division allowed in the acquisition of knowledge. Islamic sources declare knowledge as an indivisible whole.
The Golden period of spread of knowledge ended with the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate due to Mongol invasions and the Siege of Baghdad in 1258 AD.
Even during the Ottoman Empire, nothing was done for promotion and development of science and technology, perhaps because the Emperors thought that it would be a threat to the opulence of the monarchs. On the other hand, a blunder was done through a wretched Fatwa, which banned the printing press in the Empire which remained in force for over 200 years. This left Islamic world in the dark when West sailed away with renaissance and enlightenment.
Thus there are enough grounds to believe that for the survival of Islamic civilization, faith and enlightenment should go hand in hand.
Losing Hope in God’s Mercy
By Ejaz Naqvi
Ever since I was a child, I used to hear the sermons trying to instill the ‘fear of God’ in me, whereby the Imams will warn us to be straight or else! Decades later, as I started to study the Qur’an myself, the kind and forgiving nature of God became so apparent making me wonder why the focus of the clerics was so much on the wrath of God.
I would hear multiple times ‘the correct way’ to greet, the correct way to bathe, the correct way to step into the bathroom, the correct way to enter the mosque, the correct way to offer Salat and fast and so on. If I didn’t, I was risking having all my good deeds deleted. If I erred a little, I would face the anger of God. The “right path” was so narrow that it would be impossible not to stumble and fall out of the mercy of God.
It is true that the Qur’an is full of warnings for the wrongdoers. But it is also full of the good news. In fact the prophets, including Prophet Muhammad, are often referred to as Basheer (bearer of good news) and Nazeer (the warners). For some reason, the clerics got stuck mostly on the Nazeer part.
Growing up, I thought I would never ever be able to make it and be on the good side of the Lord. No matter how hard I worked, if I stumbled a little, all my good deeds would be washed away. It was as if God had his finger on the ‘delete’ button and ever so ready to use it. The truth is that He does have his finger on the ‘delete button’, but it is our sins and wrong actions that He is so willing to delete!
To be perfectly honest, I still don’t know if ‘I made it’. Only God knows that. Only God is the Judge.
However, I am actually much more hopeful of God’s mercy. I realize the most commonly repeated attributes of God in the Qur’an are Rehmaan (the Most Gracious) and Raheem (the Most Merciful).
And in terms of God deleting the good deeds, the fact is that the Qur’an is full of passages on God’s Mercy and His Forgiveness. This verse says it all.
Say: “O my Servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah: for Allah forgives all sins: for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. 39:53
We tend to forget that in Islam, one of the biggest sins is to lose hope in God’s mercy! The exegetist differs in their opinion if this verse was revealed in reference to a particular group of Muslims or a larger group or the entire humanity. Many do believe it is addressed to all ‘servants’ and all humans are considered His servants.
And whoever does evil or acts unjustly to his soul, then ask forgiveness of Allah, he shall find Allah Forgiving, Merciful. 4:110
There are other passages that clearly state that everyone will be rewarded for even an atom’s worth of good deed.
‘Acting unjustly to his own soul’ or ‘transgressed against their souls’ refers to the fact that if we do wrong, we only hurt ourselves.
One way I look at the Qur’an is that it gives us plenty of information and education on the consequences of breaking the law, as well as obeying the law.
I realize the Day of Judgment is also called the Day of Reckoning (Yaum e Hissab), so I am accountable for my actions (and inactions). It is also very true that the Qur’an’s description of the punishment for the wrongdoers and deniers of God’s signs is rather graphic but its description of the reward and mercy for those who believe AND do good work is also repetitive and I would argue more prevalent. The Qur’an acknowledges that humans are not angels and that we are prone to sin, and therefore calls for us to repent and ask for forgiveness. The greatest sin in Islam is considered to be associating partners with God. That sin cannot be forgiven, except when one repents.
Surely God does not forgive that anything should be associated with Him, and forgives what is besides that to whomsoever He pleases; and whoever associates anything with God, he devises indeed a great sin. 4:48
Many of the ’99 Names of God’ refer to His forgiveness.
Al-Wadud: The Loving One
Al-Ghaffar: The Forgiving
Al-Ghafur: The Forgiver and the Hider of Faults
Al-Afu: The Forgiver- this refers to forgiving as in ‘rubbing off’ or in deletion of sins as if they never occurred!
Al-Rau’f: The Clement (Lenient)/Kind
Like the Qur’an, the Old Testament is also sometimes viewed as a bearer of a wrathful God, ready to set everything ablaze. But it too makes many references to God’s forgiveness and mercy.
Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness and truth; who keeps loving kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” Exodus 34:6-7
Similarly the Gospels make references to forgiveness on numerous occasions- even more so then the Old Testament. Salvation and forgiveness are integral part of Christianity. The Gospels add another element- to forgive each other so God can forgive us- something that is part of the revered ‘Lord’s prayer’ as taught in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4
….and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Luke 11:4 and Matthew 6:12
Of course I don’t want to ‘take advantage’ of Lord’s forgiveness and continue to wrong myself. But I do realize we are all humans and that I will err. When I do, I will never lose hope in his immense mercy and His forgiveness. That’s the biggest hope out there no matter what they say!