The Gates to Common Ground

photosapiens agarbatti

Image courtesy of The Photosapiens, click to see more.

The Gates to Common Ground

 

India is a steaming melting pot of faiths and cultures, one I was briefly cast into as a callow youth. I brought all my first world certainties to that extraordinary, baffling country. I hope I left some of them behind.

My journey started with my ego nicely plumped. An armed guard met me at Delhi airport and deposited me in the bosom of my family in Lucknow. There, amidst those who had remained through partition and the lure of the West, I was loved and coddled. But my movements were bounded by the modest compound, and I lacked all the freedom to roam I knew from London.

Opposite the house there was a temple. While I never went there, it provides the strongest memory of the trip. Every day the temple PA system would squeak to life. Over the braying of streetwalking cows and the intemperate traffic noise, a female voice would rise up in worship. I knew nothing of this lady but the relentlessness of her prayer. Whether she was maiden, or mother, or crone; weathered by care, surrounded by offspring or virgin – I never discovered. Her voice has stayed with me over the decades.

She read a repeated litany of thanksgiving and beseeching. It went on for hours and was almost incomprehensible to me. Time and familiarity had created an elision of words that made them almost impossible to follow. At first it was just annoying. The annoyance bred ridicule: constant use had lined the lady’s throat with gravel, her voice lacked any melody or softness. It was harsh on the ear and grated on the nerves.

By the time I left it was something I waited for. I would sit on the rooftop as the swelling cacophony of suburban life overwhelmed the quiet of morning. And then the alien soundtrack would gather its ponderous momentum. The harsh voice would batter the worldly hubbub into submission, silencing the chatter that filled my head. In those moments, before the inevitable call to join the family for lunch, I found a peculiar peace and freedom. The petty concerns of living evaporated as I fell into the immersion of her worship. The transactions that form life were diminished. I relinquished my hold on them with increasing ease. I was no longer bound by the fading glory of the cracked walls and peeling gate of my uncle’s home. I relearned in that time the joy of writing, and thinking without constraint.

It was only later I recalled that I had felt that stillness and freedom before, in an environment that could not have been more different. It was at choral Evensong. The rooftop in Lucknow was painfully bright in the sunlight, with rowdy, impatient India rising from the street below. In contrast the chapel was dim and quiet. Ancient oak absorbed light and sound. Even my breathing was hushed, as if the enveloping robes for lay visitors laid a geas of monasticism upon me. The service was pretty high up the candle, designed to awe as much as inspire. It was during the Apostles’ Creed that the same sense of stillness claimed me. The possibility of a broader understanding reached out to me, unlocked by absorption and chant.

In itself that moment is not unusual or exclusive, it is often found in music and meditation. Now I am aware of the sensation I have found it in such prosaic circumstances as a long night drive. With the busy, practical part of the mind locked in concentration, the higher functions can be uncoupled and freed. What startled me was to find that outcome across such a broad religious divide.

I found it again most recently, and perhaps most surprisingly on Hajj. During three weeks of pilgrimage the quiet, contemplative moments were plentiful. What astonished me was to be so transported during the rite of Tawaf.

Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetime, if their health and financial wherewithal so allow. In past times those in poor far flung villages would save for a lifetime so that one representative could complete the Hajj from among them.

The spiritual function it performs no doubt varies from pilgrim to pilgrim, but some elements are at its core. First and foremost it reinforces the connection of the person to the divine and distances the individual from the concerns they left behind. It also seeks to engender a sense of oneness with all humanity and erase the sense of difference. All male pilgrims wear two simple pieces of unstitched cloth, the ehram. There is no rank and no precedence for wealth. The clothes are deliberately reminiscent of a shroud, the pilgrim will leave reborn.

One of the many acts Muslim pilgrims must undertake is the Tawaf.  They walk seven times around the black draped building in the centre of Mecca – the Kaaba. It is a rite than places God at the centre of creation, and man in his orbit. As one might expect, an endeavour in which several thousand people at a time are involved is stifling and chaotic. It is utterly different to the sedate choreography of Evensong, or the solitary rooftop. Not even the heat is a common factor. In India it was bright, baking direct sunlight; in Mecca it was a strength sapping sauna, fuelled by the skin crawling proximity of sweating bodies.

There is no organisation to it, there is no system. There is no queuing which my Britishness so craves. At any point in time some are beginning their seven circuits, some are in progress and some are finishing. Some people are not there for Tawaf at all, but to touch the building itself, or the holy black stone set in one corner. And there are more people trying to do all this at the same time than the orderly western mind can comprehend. For those familiar with rugby the seven circuits of the Kaaba are like a forty five minute rolling maul. It definitely shares all the rib cracking and toe crushing you would expect from the most violent of gentlemanly pursuits.

In that environment, so far removed from any other experience, and while in constant motion, it seems strange to claim access to the stillness. And yet it was there. The key was in the repetition of prayer, simple words of entreaty and gratitude, over and over. The sensation of elbows and heels and moist collisions faded. I was surrounded, and yet there was a zone of complete calm in which I could orbit. It was a planetary stillness, in which movement was effortless and irresistible and entirely natural. In the very beating heart of Islam I put to use the lessons learned from Hinduism and Christianity.

Somehow in heat and breathless endeavour to put one foot in front of the other, to progress and not impede anyone else, and to pray in fervent helplessness I unlocked the door to which a distant chaplain and dedicated lady had provided the key. In that thronging multitude I found my unique connection to the divine.

And of course we are all built the same way. Our brains are abuzz with inputs and reactions. We respond because therein lies survival and progress. How curious then that the connection sparks into life when that immediacy is constrained.

When we silence the babble of an inquisitive child with a new toy, then the quieter sibling, the one that sees much and says little, can speak up. Only when it is certain of our undivided attention will it share its precocious insights.

All of which left me considering the nature of faith, religion and prayer. In three incomparable religious circumstances I found the secret to freedom from the passage of time, and the constraining awareness of the mundane. The common thread was a method to distance the base concerns of living. Repetition of prayer seemed to be an essential part of the key that unlocked this state.

So what? Have all the world’s faiths merely found the same intellectual opium? Does a morphic resonance underlie the spiritual mind, if there even is such a thing? Do we all crave the same momentary high and nothing more?

I’m wary to claim epiphany. But in those moments of separation and elevation there was a distinct sensation of something more. I sensed a design grander than the primitive needs of food, shelter and procreation. Nor am I willing to categorically state this was a religious experience. These were moments of acknowledgement that the human mind has capability beyond the cunning and avarice of a higher animal. Does it matter if this is an evolutionary trait that promotes adaptation and innovation, or a divinely inspired gift? The fact is that it is there. Whether we ascribe to an external deity or the god within, we are more than the sum of simple biological processes.

More alarming, more heretical still is the realisation that this is no secret at all. Without searching I found the key in plain sight in three different faiths in three different parts of the world. Is it unreasonable to say that faiths of which I have no experience also share it? Or to suggest that other modes of living that do not characterise themselves as faith, or religion, share it too? Look closely and you may find it at the Wailing Wall, in the manic solfège of Sufi singers, or the throbbing intensity of an underground night club.

I wonder how different the world would be if everyone could take that moment to pause, meditate, pray, and touch the sensation of possibility?

I also wonder, as a Muslim, what it might mean for greater interfaith understanding if the restricted precincts of Mecca and Medina could be opened to people of all faiths or none. How would it be if the welcome I have always found in churches and cathedrals could be extended from the holiest sites in Islam?

What if the chaplain that lead evensong could swap his cassock for the rough unstitched ehram, or the chanting lady of Lucknow don a hijab, and join the orbit of chaos and connection? How different would our conversation be when we could say “I have seen what you see, I have been where you have been.”

My instincts say that openness, sharing, the cross contamination of ideas and beliefs is always a good thing. If we look for similarities perhaps we will lose our focus on differences.

If we all share that higher consciousness, the ability to see beyond our own cravings, then perhaps we should share the paths by which we get there.

END

 

More of my writing here

I should admit that The Photosapiens are all younger cousins of mine, from the Indian branch of the family, and I did not ask their permission to use the photo – I just told them I was doing it. That’s just how scions of multiculturalism roll.

Advertisements

Jaw Jaw and the Censure

IMG_3236

The Hindustan Times reports that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to address the senate of the University of Cambridge during his three-day visit to Britain in November. This has caused considerable consternation among those currently attending the University, whatever their capacity, and among alumni. The letter at the end of this link is addressed to the Vice Chancellor of the University requesting that he withdraw the invitation. It cites the reasons why such a person should not address the University, among which are his complicity in mass murder, and his systematic silencing of dissenting voices. As an alumnus I have signed the letter. I urge any fellow Cantabrigians reading this blog to consider doing so also.

When I promoted the letter on Facebook it drew two interesting observations from two friends of mine, both men of letters and learning, and in friendships that persist and thrive despite significant differences in our political leanings. The first observation was on whether this action constitutes an act of censorship. This friend is unwavering in his belief that freedom of speech should never be constrained, no matter how hateful the message, or the messenger, as this is a route to, and symptom of a more insidious tyranny. My other friend brought a considered tone of both treating a foreign dignitary with respect, and tempered this with a healthy dose of real politik. Alienating India, a key regional ally, and economic power would be damaging to our self interest. My friend and I learned the phrase “jaw jaw not war war” from the same history teacher decades ago. He went on to argue that by engaging with Mr Modi we have the opportunity to extend our influence over him, and over time draw him closer to our standards of openness and democracy.

I responded to both thus:

In the first instance the stance we are taking is not one of censorship, but censure. I admit though to relishing the irony of not letting a man who suppresses voices air his own. But as PM of India Modi does not lack for platforms from which he can spread his messages. The action is not to silence, but to withhold the cachet and implicit acceptance that goes with speaking at Cambridge when the speaker’s mores are so horribly at odds with the tolerance and intellectual freedom we so value.

Modi will undoubtedly speak at dinners hosted by Cameron and will be toasted by business leaders. The ballrooms and convention centres of Southall and Birmingham will be filled with Indian diaspora hanging off his every word, blind or willfully ignoring the atrocities in which he is complicit and hate mongering of which he is culpable.

Nor are the freedoms we love so cheap that we will hawk them in the bazaar to whoever passes with a purse full of copper. Have you been to India? The inequality there is of a scale you cannot comprehend if all you have seen is the local tragedy of the western homeless, sleeping in the rain shadow of skyscrapers. There an abject, withering poverty sits beside wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Is it to those vaults of hoarded rupees we should sell our self respect.

Are we the world’s penniless drunk, sitting at the bar hoping the brash new money that walks in will buy a round for everyone? Are we the dissolute master returning to his suddenly wealthy manumitted slave with a shy smile, saying “I raised you up and only flogged you gently, and see how well you learned my lessons of violence and entitlement. Take me to lunch and tell me how you did it”?

I am not so readily bought. My Alma mater’s most precious asset is the ennoblement of mind it confers on those who pass through its halls and cloisters. People come to speak there to bask in its reflection. I hope the institution listens to the voices it has nurtured and withholds its light from this murderer of masses, from this silencer of voices.

And yet should we not hold him close? Talk to him rather than shun him, allow our sensibilities to seep into his own? It is a sentiment so self evidently true and right that it should immediately raise the hackles of suspicion. Look carefully at those who eschew estrangement from the things we despise and argue that we should bring our influence to bear. And then follow the sickly sweet scent of the money. It is as self serving a position to take in this instance as it is in our Prime Minister’s toadying with Saudi Arabia, and it is just as fruitless. I have not seen any evidence of influence bringing lasting political change to bear. More than that I think our influence in Britain is a myth we have spun to fill the emotional chasm caused by the loss of an empire. We keep close to other nations to pick their pockets or sell them our silver. Hard money and the consumption of things talks louder than the abstraction of influence. I suspect Churchill knew that in 1954 and his famous quote is just another pillar in his personal myth creation. Perhaps if he had been truthful he would have said, “more, more, not war war”.

END

More of my writing here

Our Works and Days

What we lost.

The interior love poem
the deeper levels of the self
landscapes of daily life

from Buried 2 (iv) by Michael Ondaatje

v2-1051

There is little that survives of my grandparents on both sides, or indeed my father. I did not meet any of them. What I have pieced together is through the distorted reflection of what my mother remembers as seen in others. My nephew has something of the precision of my father, my cousin shares the earnest, naive idealism of my maternal grandfather, I have something of my maternal grandmother’s gift of making.

I walk and laugh like my father, my brother inherited his enormous sense of responsibility.

It is these touches that endure, fragments of other lives that find their reprise in a syncopated, mutated form generations later, only recognised by those who form the bridge and can remember the stories.

The ankle bracelets in the picture belonged to my maternal grandmother. Little else survives from that era. My wife was given these when we married, and as we are preparing wills she needs to decide where they will go next. Fortunately there is another pair of similar weight from my wife’s family, so we will be able to arrange something equitable for our two daughters. To them my grandmother is just a portrait that hangs in my brother’s house.

More difficult to bequeath will be the family treasure. My brother is custodian of the decoupé art of my ancestor Abu Jaffer (and before you begin planning a heist, it’s not actually worth anything). The family legend is that the girl Abu Jaffer loved married someone else, and he spent the rest of his days a bachelor. There is some suggestion that he may have been a skilled poet, but among my ancestors that at least is not a peculiar distinction (if only a couple of poets could instead have been born with the ability to manage estates and make good decisions, but that story is for another day).

P9204431

He had no children, he lives on only in these beautiful but fragile bits of paper, and a half remembered romantic tragedy. Or perhaps not, it has been remarked that most of my own stories are romantic tragedies. Perhaps a little of him endures in the family line after all.

END

If you are interested in my writing please check out more here