Aijaz Zaka Syed

Can the south save India?

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It has been raining like cats and dogs in Hyderabad in India since the return of the native. Yet, the heat coupled with humidity is never far away. It is back as soon as the rains take a break.

After long years of being part of the endlessly monotonous and parched environment of an Arabian existence, the melody of monsoon rains and the vibrant colour green everywhere is incredibly soothing to all five senses, and more than welcome.

But if you are wowed by the gorgeous green sported by an arid Deccan plateau after the monsoon rains, you would do well to travel further down south to states like Kerala, celebrated as ‘God’s own country’ by the proud Malayalees. Which is what we did.

And it truly feels like ‘God’s own country’. The southern state overlooking the Arabian Sea on the Malabar Coast during and soon after the monsoon is a ceaseless, spectacular feast for senses.

Every time I visit Kerala, I hopelessly crave for more of it and vow to return soon. For the words of mere mortals like me cannot capture the beauty and magic of this wondrous land of the endless expanses of green, rivers and hills during the monsoon.

Indeed, this is where the monsoon arrives first in India in the first week of June, which the whole of parched India and South Asia awaits with bated breath after a typically long and scorching summer.

Veteran Australian travel writer Alexander Frater chronicles the annual rites of passage of this extraordinary and spectacular natural phenomenon in his fantastic book, ‘Chasing the Monsoon: A Modern Pilgrimage’(1987).

Realising his dream of a lifetime of witnessing first-hand the most dramatic of meteorological events, Frater literally chases the Indian monsoon, from its ‘burst’ on the beaches of Trivandrum in Kerala to its journey throughout India, and into Bangladesh next door.

I have been thinking of Frater and his incredible journey of discovery during my own travels through Kerala and other southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana over the past couple of weeks.

For thousands of years, India has traded with the world thanks to the fabled spices and ivory of Kerala. Long before Islam arrived in India with the Arab traders, Arab ships plied between the Malabar Coast and the Gulf. Indeed, they travelled further afield to China and all the climes around it including today’s Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

It was these very same sea routes that British, French and Portuguese colonisers later followed as they set out to capture the fabled wealth of India.

Contrary to what Western and Hindutva historiographers would have you believe, Islam found acceptance in India not because of the invading Arab or Turk armies from the northwest, but thanks to those Arab traders who won hearts and minds with their stark simplicity, honesty and humanity. Like the monsoon rains, they brought salvation and spiritual rejuvenation to a land thirsting for hope and deliverance.

Having visited Kerala years ago and fallen in love with it, I have long wanted my children to experience it. And against the loud protestations of my kids, we travelled by train from Hyderabad, leisurely meandering through the five southern states.

I have always been crazy about trains. There is something magical about the old-world charm of rail journeys. It is a whole different world out there. And I have hopelessly missed it during my years away from home.

In the words of American travel writer Paul Theroux, the author of ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’, who made a career out of writing about train journeys, “I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it”.

Being away from home for nearly a lifetime, I have inexorably missed this old-world charm of Indian Railways. However, my attempts to ignite the same love of train journeys in my children haven’t been too successful.

Which is a shame. For every train in India is a microcosm of this great country, mirroring its incredible and mindboggling diversity, and its highs and lows. You learn to negotiate and respect its contrasts and tolerate each other’s unusual eccentricities and boundaries.

On this southern sojourn though, we have travelled by every possible mode of transport. From the exquisite houseboat on the backwaters of Alleppey to the SUV to the hill stations of Munnar and Kodaikanal, known for their lush-green tea plantations and heaven-kissing hills, and by trains and buses throughout Tamil Nadu, it has been an extraordinary journey of learning and discovering ourselves and our roots.

At a time when hate and bigotry have become the new normal of Narendra Modi’s India and Muslims are being hunted and killed like animals in the rest of the country, the south still seems to hold on to its sanity and humanity.

People are simple, humble and incredibly tolerant of each other’s identities and differences. Nowhere during our long journey did we attract any hostile attention because of who we are. No one seemed to even notice the hijab of my wife and daughters.

Indeed, a Marwari family from Hyderabad, returning from a wedding in Erode, Tamil Nadu, got on famously with my own, endlessly chatting about elaborate wedding costumes, and various customs and ceremonies that remain common between Hindus and Muslims.

Our houseboat in Kerala was manned by a crew of three people – Johnny, Arjun and Bashir – and they gelled and worked like a close-knit family. Our driver and guide Salam tells me that the share of Hindus, Christians and Muslims is nearly equal in the state’s population, and all of them indeed live like a large extended clan.

Religious rancour is almost non-existent. It is common to spot hotels promising ‘halal’ food. Beef is easily available in most hotels across Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Our driver-guide insists that no Kerala wedding, including those of Hindus, is complete without beef. In fact, those treating guests to chicken and mutton are frowned upon.

This is how people still live in much of the southern peninsula despite the growing footprint of the BJP and its extended Parivar. It is still great down south, folks, and it still feels like India. The idea of an inclusive and tolerant India, allowing everyone the freedom and space to live as he or she wishes, is far from dead.

This is a world far from the reign of terror and lawlessness of the past four years and more under the current order. I wonder if the south can still rescue India from the clutches of demons of hate and intolerance. Can the south save the idea of India for which Gandhi and thousands of others offered their lives in sacrifice?

Courtesy The News

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