A prayer for my country

Published : Feb 27, 2009 00:00 IST

Balinese celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year at a temple in Kuta, Bali, on January 26.-FIRDIA LISNAWATI/AP

Balinese celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year at a temple in Kuta, Bali, on January 26.-FIRDIA LISNAWATI/AP

AWEEK on the island of Bali, away from the usual tourist spots, in the tree-covered hills and green rice fields, where the sense of tranquillity is enriched by the gentleness of the people, leaves one saddened as one returns home. This is not the kind of regret one feels when a holiday comes to an end; it is something much deeper and different.

There is much that one sees in the lives of the Balinese people in the villages and small towns that is very familiar; it is like a life one remembers as a part of ones past the morning prayers and ritual offerings made to the family deity, and, underlying this, a sense of courtesy and kindness, of civility of a kind one knew many many years ago. There are, of course, other elements that are familiar in a different way; the bargaining for almost everything, bargaining that can vary from being a fine art to straightforward theatrics, with many references to starving children and mothers (or some other relative) on the verge of death, and the swarms of importunate vendors who descend on one at some scenic locations such as Kintamani, from where one can see, across a tranquil lake, the great volcano, Gunung Batur, wreathed in mist, and smoke from its many craters.

But all of this is overlaid with that sense of civility; the ready smiles and the helpful advice given to visitors who are clearly lost and not familiar with every place. On a rare visit to a bustling suburb of Denpasar, the capital, my wife and I were caught on different sides of Jalan Seminyak, a road that has been rather grandly compared to Londons Oxford Street and Paris Rue Faubourg St. Honore.

The road, which is very narrow, has a dense never-ending flow of traffic, making crossing it virtually impossible or, at best, a miracle. One motorist noticed this and stopped, thus holding up the endless traffic, waving my wife across.

The local people often refer to the shared traditions they have with India. But whenever I heard this, I must say I cringed. They, certainly, have kept much of what is good and essentially civilised, and I wondered if they had any idea what we have done to our traditions that were, undoubtedly, once like theirs.

Perhaps the most noticeable characteristic is the absence of hatred. There was none of the suppressed anger that seems to simmer in our society, erupting in ugly forms that have only hatred in common, whether it is the incident in a Mangalore pub, or the attack on a police unit by the so-called naxalites (where every victim was killed, and most of them had their limbs severed and some their eyes gouged out), or the numerous instances of road rage that occur in Indian cities every day. Readers will forgive me if I turn, as I frequently do, to a poet whose work seems to me to reflect the human condition with an insight that is unique. W.B. Yeats writes:

My mind knows that to be choked with hateMay well be of all evil chances chief.If theres no hatred in the mindAssault and battery of the windCan never tear the linnet fromthe leaf.

We have moved in substantial measure from the grinding poverty that engulfed almost the entire country some 60 years ago; estimates made by the research firm Indicus Analytics based on National Sample Survey 2004-05, quoted in a leading journal, indicate that, from 1993-94 to 2004-05 the share of the population below the poverty line dwindled in practically every State. In Assam, for example, it fell by 21.02 per cent to 20.30 per cent of the population of that State; in Tamil Nadu, it fell by 12.66 per cent to 22.79 per cent of the States population, which is marginally more than in Haryana, where the fall was 11.45 per cent, but then the proportion of the population in that State below the poverty line was much less than that of Tamil Nadu 25.02 per cent in 1993-94, and which dropped to 13.57 per cent in 2004-05.

But no one measures how civilised we are, and whether the level of civility has fallen too. It certainly seems to have, given the increase in hatred and violence, and in the unearthing of more and more instances of corruption and vice. To quote Yeats again:

all hatred driven hence,The soul recovers radical innocence

And learns at last that it is self-delighting..

It seemed that the Balinese never had to drive hatred away; they never had it to begin with. They had resisted the Dutch colonial power not once, but twice once in the early 20th century and then at the end of the Second World War when the Dutch, who were driven out by the Japanese during the war, returned. And yet there is no anger, no shrill slogans seeking to use this to garner some kind of political power, something we are so familiar with. Many Europeans have settled in Bali and have been accepted with the same gentleness that they never seem to have lost, something that comes so easily to the Balinese.

It may well be the deep reverence and belief that every Balinese has in ritual and in the traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation, of behaviour and of social proprieties. Not in any restrictive sense, by no means; these are not Taliban-like restrictions, but what appear to be commonly accepted norms of behaviour which they treasure, because they are not restrictive in a narrow sense, and yet bring to their social life a richness born out of mutual goodwill and respect. On a special festival, not unlike the Biswakarma Puja that Bengalis observe (I mention Bengalis because I am ignorant of the customs of other communities, though I know there are similar pujas among them as well), when all schools were closed, we saw groups of school children, in school uniform, but with brooms and no books, walking towards their school. Our Balinese friend, the genial Mr. Agung, told us that they were going to school on their own, not because they were expected to, to clean and sweep the rooms and courtyards.

It seemed to epitomise the ethos of the community living on that tranquil island.

How but in custom and in ceremonyAre innocence and beauty born?

Yeats again. That is what the memories of the island hold; of a community that has innocence and beauty as no other. It may have been that, thousands of years ago, we too had something similar. But it has been long gone, and there are very few to mourn its passing. Levels of poverty may fall, and in the fullness of time we may become an affluent nation. But in that endeavour, noble though it is, something seems to go missing. Something that would provoke derision today, among the arrivistes who throng the malls and multiplexes today. Innocence and beauty it is as if Yeats was using it as a metaphor for a way of life.

And, appropriately, all the lines I have quoted are from a poem called A Prayer For My Daughter. If only we could, by some miracle, transmute that prayer into one for our country, where poverty levels are falling, and we are moving, however slowly, to greater levels of economic prosperity.

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