Coping with Corona season, confined with books and great cinema we stumbled upon Polish film maker, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterpiece, Dekalog, a 10-part series which explores ethical issues raised by the ten commandments.
In the eighth episode, thou shall not bear false witness, 40-year-old New Yorker, Elizibieta, who had earlier translated works of Sofia, a Polish professor of ethics at Warsaw University, visits the university to attend the lectures of the teacher she obviously admires. In passing, the camera focuses on the cross she is wearing, establishing her Roman Catholic Polish background. Trust my Uttar Pradesh obsession, the film directed my mind unexpectedly towards avatars of Brahminism.
Elizibieta raises an issue in Sofia’s class which she continues even at Sofia’s apartment. It turns out that in 1943, when anti-Semitism had taken a murderous turn, a six-year-old Jewish girl had been left in Sofia’s apartment for protection. This child was Elizibieta. Sofia and her husband, practicing Catholics, flinched at the last moment: baptizing Elizibieta was the only disguise that would guarantee protection from the Gestapo. Their faith was at risk of being compromised. This despite the fact that Sofia and her husband were progressives in the Resistance. Elizibieta, who found shelter with other progressive Catholics, was baptized, a fact which facilitated her passage to America in the care of Polish Jews migrating to what was then the promised land.
Were Sofia and her husband really faced with a dilemma? The choice was between saving the life of a child placed in their care by trusting Jewish parents or risking the child’s life by rigid adherence to the Commandments Moses received from God?
Kieslowski’s portrayal of a bruising reality reminded me astonishingly of the Kanpur riots in December 1992, post-Babari Masjid demolition.
Cameraman Kabir Khan and I were directed to a two-room accommodation where a certain “Panditain” (widow of a Pandit or a Brahmin) had saved a Muslim woman from a rampaging mob which entered her quarters. “Where is Aisha Bi?” they demanded in deafening decibels, flourishing their weapons. “I don’t know” she said. Can you swear by Lord Rama that you have not hidden Aisha Bi?
Not only did she willingly swear but she enhanced her credibility by pointing to a plaster head of Lord Rama above her bed. “I swear by that statue I have not hidden Aisha Bi in my house.” The mob, which had done its homework on Aisha Bi’s whereabouts, found itself impossible to challenge the Panditain once she had sworn by Rama.
Once they had begun to slink away, the Panditain hurriedly removed mattresses, quilts, blankets, washed clothes from on top of a large, window-size wooden trunk. She lifted the cover. The portly half conscious figure of Aisha Bi, drenched in sweat, was lifted out.
Revert to Warsaw of 1943. Sofia faced a dilemma. She made a choice a consequence of which could well have been tragic. Elizibieta may well have ended in Auschwitz had other Catholics and Jews not collaborated. The Panditain of Kanpur faced no dilemma. She fell back on tact as distinct from a lie. Invocation of Rama’s name was in the situation in effect an act of mercy.
Parallels between the two episodes in Warsaw and Kanpur have risks. The debate will inevitably slide towards comparative religions, rituals. Times are not ripe for such debate.
How would the Urdu poet steeped in Sufism respond:
“Karein hum kiski pooja aur charhaen kispe chandan hum?
Sanam hum, daer hum, butkhana hum, but hum, barahman hum”
(Where do I turn for my prayers;
I am His image, am the room for bowing to him, the keeper of His idols, Indeed, I am the idol, the Brahman)
Waris Shah, the high Priest of Dewa shrine outside Lucknow, was more succinct.
Asked, “Why do you not say your Namaz regularly?” Waris Shah replied, “Where is the space to go down in supplication?” The implication is: “He is in me,” the essence of Advait or non-duality (Wahdatul Wujood).
The Kanpur riots yielded more sociological narratives of a different order. A mob carrying Trishuls, rods, axes and swords were blocked by a solitary man from entering a gated garden where scores of Muslim families had taken shelter. The man’s name was Tripathi. In another area an elderly lady, described by neighbours as Mishrain (wife of Mishra), threatened the rioters with construction bricks piled on her terrace. The mob retreated.
A certain Pande-ji stretched his arms across a narrow lane to thwart an armed mob trying to enter a row of houses occupied by Muslims. Like many other stories, the Kanpur story would have been canned and possibly forgotten. Since we were leaving for London in the next few days to film a feature on an Irish school teaching Vedic mathematics, Kabir’s edited copy of Kanpur also found its way into our baggage. Gopal Gandhi who was then incharge of the Nehru Centre in London, selected the Kanpur feature for screening before a packed hall.
That Hindus helped Muslims during the riots was an obvious attraction, a sort of relief for an audience fed excessively on communal brutalities post-Babari Masjid. But the edited episode on Kanpur shed light on another piece of sociology. Wherever armed gangs baying for blood were stopped from advancing towards Muslims, the individuals happened to be a Panditain, Tripathi, Mishraen or Pandey – all Brahmins, something not fashionable to mention in the caste convulsions boosted sky-high by the Mandal Commission report. The point of emphasis is not that Brahmins alone are filled with the milk of human kindness to check a blood-thirsty mob in its track. A different group would simply not have the self-confidence to confront a mob baying for blood. I write from my experience in Awadh and districts around Kannauj where political opposition to Brahmins contradicts their social standing.