Currently, I'm in the thick of Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa. Generally, a seven-year-old girl's eye on the post WWII upheaval in India, on religious differences, and on Partition and the holocaust there.
Some bits from the book itself & my reactions:
"And I become aware of religious differences. It is sudden. One day everybody is themselves - and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols. Ayah is no longer just my all-encompassing Ayah - she is also a token. A Hindu. Carried away by a renewed devotional fervor she expends a small fortune in joss-sticks, flowers and sweets on the gods and goddesses in the temples" (101).
"Yousaf is twirling [Hari's] plume of hair and tugging at it as if he's trying to lift him. I feel a great swell of fear for Hari, and a surge of loathing for his bodhi. Why must he persist in growing it? And flaunt his Hinduism? And invite ridicule? / And that preposterous and obscene dhoti! Worn like a diaper between his stringy legs - just begging to be taken off! / My dread assuming a violent and cruel shape, I tear away from Ayah and fling myself on the human tangle and fight to claw at Hari's dhoti....Someone pulls off his shawl....hands stretch and pull his unraveling mauve lady's cardigan...and rip off his shirt. His dhoti is hanging in ragged edges, and suddenly, it's off! / Like a withered tree frozen in a winter landscape Hari stands isolated in the bleak center of our violence: prickly with goosebumps, sooty genitals on display. / With heavy, old-man's movements, Imam Din wrenches the shawl from under our feet and throws it at the gardener....He is not at ease with cruelty" (126).
[Note: our young narrator, Lenny, is Parsi, or "Parsee," in the British colonialist spelling - I think it's REALLY interesting that the author uses this latter spelling in the book - a group of people who emigrated from Persia and who were generally associated with Zoroastrianism, which I know nothing about, except that it had some influence on a lot of other religions, including the dharmic tradition, and even Christianity and Judaism - seems appropriate that Lenny be "all-encompassing" herself. And I'll def be turning to Wikipedia after I'm done here.]
This may seem totally obvious, but as I was reading this, I thought, yes, people who are symbols/tokens are no longer PEOPLE - and this is what makes the violence possible. Only after you dehumanize your neighbor may you slaughter him.
And on Ayah, the figure who interests me perhaps most (except Lenny, of course):
"Only the group around Ayah remains unchanged. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsee are, as always, unified around her" (105).
"The covetous glances Ayah draws educate me. Up and down, they look at her. Stub-handed twisted beggars and dust old beggars on crutches drop their poses and stare at her with hard, alert eyes. Holy men, masked in piety, shove aside their pretenses to ogle her with lust. Hawkers, cart-drivers, cooks, coolies and cyclists turn their heads as she passes, pushing my pram with the unconcern of the Hindu goddess she worships. / Ayah is chocolate-brown and short. Everything about her is eighteen years old and round and plump. Even her face. Full-blown cheeks, pouting mouth and smooth forehead curve to form a circle with her head. Her hair is pulled back in a tight knot" (12-13).
"Things love to crawl beneath Ayah's sari. Ladybirds, glow-worms, Ice-candy-man's toes. She dusts them off with impartial nonchalance....I learn also to detect the subtle exchange of signals and some of the complex rites by which Ayah's admirers coexist. Dusting the grass from their clothes they slip away before dark, leaving the one luck, or the lady, favors" (28-29).
And at the part where I'm just at now, when Sidhwa first really starts to write about the violence, she writes it as having a very physical effect on Ayah:
"And on their heels, a mob of Sikhs...shoving up a manic wave of violence that sets Ayah to trembling as she holds me tight" (144).
And on witnessing a man pulled apart by two jeeps driving in opposite directions: "Ayah, holding her hands over my eyes, collapses on the floor, pulling me down with her" (145).
"The whole world is burning. The air on my face is so hot I think my flesh and clothes will catch fire. I start screaming, hysterically sobbing. Ayah moves away, her feet suddenly heavy and dragging, and sits on the roof slumped against the wall. She buries her face in her knees" (147).
I've been reading Ayah as a figure for the (mother)land itself. Ania Loomba, in Colonialism/Postcolonialism, a really good overview of that subject, writes (I paraphrase because I can't remember her exact words) that women are the "porous boundary by which the nation is penetrated," a device I think is operating here, even with the British on the verge of leaving, even internally. And Ayah is that woman/nation, rich-bodied and fertile, literally the NURSE, voluptuously sexual and explicitly able to reproduce whatever ethnicity catches hold of her, able to literally (pro)create whatever may potentially be the new nation. All of the men - or, to see with Lenny's new understanding, all of the different religions - cluster around her and vie for her. But at the same time, as these same men tear apart the land, they tear apart Ayah. Superficially, her reactions to the violence are natural to a Hindu woman watching the brutality that has subsumed her holiday, Holi, but I think, too, that they reveal her visceral connection to the female body of India, land and nation.
And finally, on Holi:
"And the Muslims shouting: 'So? We'll play Holi-with-their-blood! Ho-o-o-li with their blo-o-o-d!' / And the Holi festival of the Hindus and Sikhs coming up in a few days, when everybody splatters everybody with colored water and colored powders and laughs and romps... [...] And instead the skyline of the old walled city ablaze, and people splattering each other with blood! And Ice-candy-man hustling Ayah and me up the steps of his tenement in Bhatti Gate, saying 'Wait till you see Shalmi burn!' (144).
Reading this, I had such a personal reaction of horror, more specific than the horror of such massive massacre. A few months ago, I serendipitously stumbled upon a huge group of people celebrating Holi (the holiday of spring and renewal) and, curious to know what was going on, joined them. And it WAS such an amazingly joyful experience! The colored powder, the food, the dancing! And everyone was so good-willed! People had just dropped their bags and coats and whatever else all along the peripheries of the square so that they could dance and eat and talk unhindered - no fear of theft! And people were so welcoming, and so happy to explain things to me. And there was one especially wild dancer, Ram, who invited me to dance, and taught me some moves. Another kid wanted me to try some of the different kinds of food. Another gave me a keychain to remember it all by. It was one of the first sunny days, too, since I'd arrived in London. I think, too, the day rates among my top experiences here.
After having this experience, and then reading this paragraph - it made it so much more real. Remembering the absolute joy I'd seen, it made me sick to think of such an amazing celebration being appropriated for violence. And this is violence that still has reverberations today, obviously on the large-scale, but still even in my personal life. Rasheed is a practicing Muslim, and was at first a little resentful of my participation in Holi, and then was made very uncomfortable by the sudden appearance of my new keychain in the flat. He won't ever carry my keys, and when the keychain is just lying around, he turns it goddess-side down (the other side is just text) if I forget to. At first, I was a little unnerved by his minute attentions to this seemingly harmless token. I was upset by it, and I wasn't quite sure why; I knew it wasn't at all about me, but still, it nearly felt like a personal affront. I was a little disturbed to discover this seeming anti-Hindu tenacity in my loved one, though he of course does not discriminate against PEOPLE (only, apparently, their religious icons, but I think this has a lot to do with the poly/monotheism split and the non-representation of God in the Islamic faith, something I wish would have happened in Christianity, as I find the image of a white, blue-eyed Christ a little irrelevant and irreverant), and speaks with sympathy for the way Hinduism seems to drop out of the family with each generation in America. I think, too, that it made me uneasy because I've never had such strong feelings against any other religion (in fact, I remember getting into quite the altercation once with a Sunday school teacher who insisted that EVERYONE but Lutherans were going to hell - I was aghast by her intolerance). I've always been ready to learn about any aspect of any other religion, any new aspect of God.
I guess with that, I'll just say: please read Cracking India. Though written about events that transpired half a century ago, it's still so relevant today. I own a copy, and will more than happily lend it to anyone when I'm done reading it.
Also, I want to leave you with some pictures from my own first Holi experience: