Most of the time it’s best to keep your mouth shut!
Dasara (as Dussehra is called in southern India) is a big thing in this part of the world. Schools shut down for weeks, and processions disrupt traffic. Streets are lined with bunting, and temples see many times the regular numbers of devotees, all dressed up in their festive best.
The holidays bring invitations, some of which I can’t avoid. And so, on the big day, my wife, our Canadian friend Phil, who was visiting, and I set out for a “traditional” dinner organized at a nearby convention centre by an acquaintance who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. My wife, who doesn’t mind dressing up occasionally, was comfortable, and so was Phil, who always wears jeans. I wasn’t, because I had on traditional dress, a dhoti, or mundu, as we Malayalis call it, the hitch being that it could come undone anytime, with no prior warning.
What irked me most was that I couldn’t even relax with a drink, since I can’t keep a dhoti in place while having a few. And so, after our host welcomed us in and introduced us to a few other visitors, I got myself a glass of lime juice that would have to last me the whole tedious evening, and began gingerly to circulate, Phil at my side.
It wasn’t as tedious as I’d feared. By the time we got to the party, it was already going well, most guests equipped with glasses of their favourite tipple. Our host introduced us to a couple of newspaper reporters, one of whom began to grill Phil about life in Canada. “How do you find India,” asked Nikhil. “After the freedom of speech you’ve got in Canada, you must find it restrictive.”
“Not really,” replied Phil, who thinks before he speaks. “We have restrictions that can, at least theoretically, get you in jail for a couple of years. A recent law obliges you to refer to transgender people by the pronouns they prefer.”
“A professor in Varanasi lost his job because he said that women would be better off reading the Constitution rather than fasting for Navratri,” said Nikhil, his speech a little slurred. “That’s tough, isn’t it?”
Eric, the other reporter, said, “That was thoughtless. His timing was miserable. In Varanasi, of all places, just before a big festival, in a city full of hardcore religious types, to say that women would be better off doing something other than fasting… That’s just stu… Well, indiscreet.”
Nikhil disagreed vehemently. “It’s not stupid!” he said. “If you restrict opinions in universities, you’re cutting off the country’s intellectual progress.”
Both reporters had raised their voices. Others, hearing the conversation, gathered around. A large jolly-looking man with a handlebar moustache joined in. Waving his glass in the air, he said excitedly, “We can’t have professors telling their students to give up traditions,” he said. “Look at all of us here today: we’re here to celebrate one, aren’t we? Now if professors begin to say that the it’s useless, and that you should do something else…” He paused for a long draught from his glass. “How would you people like it if a professor told you that you should stay at home and read the constitution instead of coming to this traditional dinner?”
There was a burst of scattered laughter, followed by a silence as everyone in the group took a long pull at their drinks. It was broken by a plump lady, obviously the large man’s wife, who grabbed his arm. “You’ve had enough, Bhaskar,” she said. “Besides, what’s traditional about scotch with a Dasara dinner?”
The large man laughed. He took her hand and said, “See? She doesn’t understand! Scotch is so traditional that it goes with any other tradition, even ours!”
A stern-looking man, dressed in a dhoti and holding a glass of lime juice, like me, spoke up, addressing the large man and his wife. “You have no right to make fun of our traditions,” he said. “No matter what you say, scotch is Scottish. It has nothing to do with Dasara.”
The large man, caught off balance, said, “But I wasn’t making fun of anything! I was just trying to raise a laugh! There’s no need to be so serious!”
More people joined the stern man, all wearing disapproving looks. “You shouldn’t make fun of tradition!” one of them said. “This is an old custom! You should respect it!”
“Right,” said the large man, whose wife was trying to drag him away, and failing. “So let’s have toddy instead of scotch!”
“Don’t talk such nonsense!” said the stern man. “Have you no love for your country?”
The large man’s wife managed to drag him away but there were others to defend him. More guests had arrived to watch the melee, a few had begun taking sides and talking loudly, and the noise level was rising. Others were flocking to the bar to refresh their drinks before joining in. Phil, clearly uncomfortable with the way the argument was going, was eyeing the side of the hall where the buffet was laid out, with chairs and tables for diners to sit. He nudged me. “No one’s thinking of food now,” he whispered in my ear. “Shall we eat and leave before it gets any worse?”
We found my wife and the three of us made our way to the buffet. “These days you can’t say anything without offending someone or other,” she told us, taking a plate. “It’s like the arguments over hijab in schools. Neither side is willing to listen.”
“Yes,” said Phil, looking back at the growing crowd arguing. “I just learnt something valuable: most of the time it’s best to keep your mouth shut!”