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Of Shared Stories and a Generation Adrift

The shared stories that formed the bedrock of our faith are now wiped out from public memory. What is left behind is a generation adrift and ready to clutch whatever comes their way: imagined nations, enumerated faiths, purported mother tongues and careerism-cum-consumerism.
Tholpava koothu shadow puppet Ramayana show. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Suyash Dwivedi/CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

There used to be a god-knows-how-many-years-old saint known as Paramhansa Baba in the town. He spent most of his time under an old banyan tree in a bagiyaa adjoining the British-era railway station. He was always surrounded by lots of people, devotees, and self-appointed disciples, but no one ever saw him speaking. He occasionally ate whatever people offered him. There was no clear pattern though that one could discern from when he accepted offerings, what he accepted as offerings, and whose offerings he accepted. The randomisation seems to have added to his appeal.

Amma once asked me to take her to the ashram that had grown around the Paramhansa. She stopped when we reached a point from where we could see the saint. I had assumed that she would want to spend some time in the ashram. Before I could ask, she explained that we should not disturb saints as they are always immersed in meditation. We left a few minutes later. This was the first and last time I had a darshan of a Paramhansa, even if from a distance. But we had grown up hearing tales of Paramhansas and other saints who dwelled in our district and the neighbouring Gwalior during the early 20th century. Our menfolk had served the princely state in various capacities and treated the village with all kinds of tales from there, including the ones featuring Paramhansas.

The two fixed points of a Paramhansa tale included his (always a male) dramatic spiritual transformation (leaving us wondering why similar encounters did not awaken us) and the idiosyncrasies that set him apart from other saints. In addition to the Paramhansas, there were other saintly figures. Khatkhata Baba, a bureaucrat turned ascetic. Dinanath Baba, a soldier turned ascetic. A gentle Mahamandaleshwar who paid a visit to our village. An enigmatic fakir who occasionally visited the village but disappeared after curing a child of chronic knee pain.

Expressive Parshuramas complemented reticent Paramhansas in this world. Ramlila was a major cultural event and Parshurami was among its highlights. Parshuramas were groomed in akharas, where both Hindus and Muslims were teachers. When Parshurama entered Raja Janaka’s assembly during Sita Svyamvar he supposedly thundered and stomped. The stage ought to creak when a credible Parshurama stomps. It is easy to understand why only wrestlers would fit this role, but they were also expected to cultivate an interest in Tulsi among others.

People would laugh remembering how an itinerant Parshurama was embarrassed when he kept stomping, but the stage stood like a rock because it was built using the takht of such and such person. That takht acquired an aura of its own and remained unbeatable over the years. The daily routine of those devoted to wrestling and their successes was recalled in great detail. Children would hear with both amazement and irritation how wrestlers drank buckets full of milk in the morning. Some even had a buffalo to themselves and allegedly drank milk until it flowed out of their nostrils.

Ramlila, Ramayana path, and Bhagvata path were also occasions for collective deliberation on finer points of literature and life. Many of the celebrated participants in these conversations had learnt the texts such as Ramacharitmanas just by virtue of having sat through recitations since childhood. These non-literate savants would spend whole nights debating a couplet or two. (Their college-educated grandchildren struggle to string together 140 characters.) Stories told and debated in these gatherings became part of the collective wisdom of the village and it turned to them in case of a dharma sankat.

Not all stories were built around spiritual or mythological characters though. Feasts were another highlight of village life. Voracious eaters, generous hosts and great cooks were heroes of many a story. A host locked up a baaraat in his large compound and fed them over several days until they couldn’t eat anymore. A gentleman with a voracious appetite could be satisfied by only two households in the entire region.

The village was in turn nested in a larger universe that included other neighbouring villages that belonged to brothers, who partook in our stories and contributed to our pool of stories. These villages shared a three-tiered origin myth beginning with their displacement a millennium ago from a distant land in the wider Braj region culminating in their eventual settlement at their respective present sites before the arrival of the British. The village was also bound through marriage to a wider network of villages around the Yamuna and its tributaries that further enriched the pool of stories. Occasionally, influences from beyond intersected this universe. Swami Dayanand Saraswati paid a visit to a brother village’s titular family whose path later also crossed that of Motilal Nehru. Stories for another day.

These stories are our (lived and) remembered world. Even those of us who were born and brought up in distant towns belonged to this world because they were raised on a regular diet of these stories. The stories served as the bedrock of our faith that otherwise did not have visible anchors as there has never been a temple within the village. (A century or two old chabutra/platform in the middle of the village though has retained an assortment of small unrecognisable fragments of a medieval Hindu or Jain temple. Also, there are two minimalist platforms dedicated to Hanuman outside the village.) The hearth and tulsi at home, a banyan in the village and a peepal in the fields served as our axis mundi, with the world of stories wrapped around them like amma’s cotton saree.

Photo: LivinTheDream/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In our newer urban homes, each of us populated the space around our axis mundi with seemingly unconnected things. A dargah in Nagore and a church in Trivandrum, the grand Srirangam and a barely noticed roadside temple in Old Delhi, a Gupta temple in Lalitpur and a village deity in Jaisalmer, a ziarat in Budgam and an asthan in Sopore, a monastery in Leh and a Gurdwara in Kargil, sacred trees in Senapati and Niuland, a courtyard of a goddess in Srinagar and a church in Pungro. All these and much more fit in effortlessly in the small but capacious world conjured by rustic storytellers, who had not heard of most of these places. The world they built is like our puja ghars where 33 crore gods and memorabilia from their tirthas quietly squeeze in without complaints. It is like Amma’s tiny cot that accommodated the five of us. In that matchbox-sized space, time stood still in the punishing summers of the north. There she wove bizarre tales of epic proportions spanning ages and universes, featuring gods, ghosts, and gentlemen.

Our storytellers built a world with a small number of mostly implausible tales, which were told and retold innumerable times till no one knew or cared what the original or the origin was. It was often not clear if the storytellers used local tales to fill in the gaps in Ramayana and Mahabharata or used the latter to fill in the gaps in the local tales. In any case, the world of stories we inherited easily accommodates both the unknown and the unknowable. And it is to this world that we turn to when we find ourselves in times of trouble. These shared stories are the means through which we understand ourselves and the world around us. Until a decade or two ago, outsiders understood us as the sum of our personal idiosyncrasies and the stories told in and about our village.

The bedrock of our faith, these stories survived the last century. But, perhaps, for the first time in ages, the older generation has begun to forget the stories even before having been able to groom storytellers among their grandchildren, who have been claimed by urban dreams sustained on maddening inputs of men and material. Completely oblivious of the enormous cultural loss and ill-equipped to imagine alternatives, the grandchildren are adrift and clutch at whatever comes their way or is hurled at them – imagined nations, enumerated faiths, purported mother tongues and careerism-cum-consumerism.

Vikas Kumar teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru and is the author of Numbers as Political Allies: The Census in Jammu and Kashmir (Cambridge University Press, 2023).

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