So many questions to ask
The questioning spirit has been so bludgeoned that people have given up the old habit of asking simple questions.
WAS Yuri Gagarin your hero, as he was to my generation? If so, you would remember how a competitive Kennedy sought to airbrush his feat, goading American space scientists to catch up with the communists. The rivalry led to Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon but even that landmark event could not stop religious clerics from condemning the conquest of space as illusory and irreligious. Gagarin’s dimpled smile remained undeterred as it continued to shepherd an entire generation towards a resurgent scientific spirit, a very troubled commodity today.
It was 50 years to the cosmonaut’s death in an air accident on March 27. Many of us learnt of Gagarin’s achievement through the radio or Soviet Land-like journals. He was the first important man, as far as I can remember, who nudged a whole generation to ask questions, all manner of questions. One question that surged with his foray into space concerned the measurement of space itself. What were the dimensions of space, school kids asked their teachers. Did it have a boundary, if so what existed outside the boundary? The potential answers were so wrapped in mind-wracking calculations that many opted for humanities after school.
I later discovered that Mir Taqi Mir’s mysticism was intriguingly rooted in a kind of questioning spirit. He was smarter than most of his contemporaries and ours to have attempted in the 19th century a question that has dogged everyone since Darwin.
Had the human species evolved from the ape as was claimed or were we created as humans by an act of the Maker, as major religions posit, Mir’s conclusion answered the essential question frontally, if subtly. “Mat sahel hamein jaano; phirta hai falak barso’n/Tab khaak ke pardey se insaan nikaltey hain.” We are complex. The constellations are on the move as they have been for eons. And that’s how, from the swirling curtain of dust are we born. What could be more scientific than that?
So much has regressed since Gagarin flew and Mir wrote. Our 24×7 TV channels mock even the simple rudimentary questioning spirit of Kabir and Nanak. Sample a scene from one of dozens of channels that vend obscurantism without let or hindrance in a great lucrative venture across South Asia.
“Babaji Namaste! You have blessed me always. Today I have a favour to ask,” the woman was in tears. “My younger son is jobless. Please, sir. Please will you help him get a permanent government job? Will you not? I shall forever remain indebted to you, Babaji.”
Babaji, stroking his right temple gently, elbow resting on his armchair, moved to probe if the petitioner had eaten any gulab jamun recently. The woman, uncertain if it was a serious question or a joke, recalled that she may have eaten the north Indian sweetmeat long ago, perhaps in the previous year. “Get a dozen gulab jamun,” she is commanded. “Eat two and give two to your deity. And share the rest with the neighbours. Your prayers will be answered favourably.”
In a country where farmers are committing suicide in droves because they have been conned into destitution by India’s variants of Charles Ponzi, where the system is rigged against the poor and weak, spiritual and temporal quackery is a roaring business. One guru became rich by teaching yoga on TV. That was fine, but then he revealed his hidden bonding with right-wing nationalism and today runs a billion-dollar industry ranging from herbal medicines to noodles.
Another guru, equally beholden to crony favours from the state, began by collecting middle-class followers, mostly housewives, teaching them the art of living happily. He is now pressing for a Ram temple in Ayodhya. If anyone dared to seek the protection of the law, particularly if the Supreme Court also were to decree a legal remedy, and which falls short of a nod for the victory of faith over reason, there could be civil war in the country, the guru warns.
Then there was this faith healer from Puttaparthi in southern India. He tried to hoodwink the prime minister of Sri Lanka. Her son suggested to Sirimavo Bandaranaike that her crippled toes could be healed by the coiffured baba in Puttaparthi. She flew in on a special plane, took the blessings but her twisted toes failed to straighten. Her Buddhist followers went up in arms against the prime minister’s naiveté, not that they were themselves shorn of the mumbo jumbo that stalks South Asia like a mutant virus.
We can’t have anything against people visiting shrines of this or that spiritual legend to seek a boon. That is human nature. But we would be failing in our duty as people of reason if we didn’t spot the obvious mismatch between hope and delivery. Indira Gandhi, Hossain Mohammed Ershad, Ziaul Haq, Benazir Bhutto, and Pervez Musharraf have all approached a revered shrine in Ajmer in their day, seeking a boon or two only to be left to their own devices with tragic outcomes. Faith may or may not be a healer but it can be a great leveller.
With the rise of unreason as a conduit to political power, the questioning spirit has been so bludgeoned on most public forums that people have given up the old habit of asking simple questions. The network of gullibility built around blind faith has become a political asset.
Gagarin was not only a symbol of reason, but as a working-class man with a cheery smile he also anchored hope for post-colonial men and women of his generation who were learning to find their feet after centuries of denial.
“I am a friend, comrades, a friend,” the euphoric cosmonaut told farm workers after he had safely returned to Earth, in a field near Saratov in southern Russia. That was way before a current Indian minister, a doctor by profession, would exult in his belief that the Vedas had a better grip on science than Albert Einstein.