In my Kolkata neighbourhood there was one kind of collective action that was unusually successful — this related to religious festivals.
Every autumn there was a tremendous collective mobilisation of neighbourhood resources and youthful energy in organising the local pujas for one deity or another, and on these occasions almost the whole community participated with devout dedication and considerable ingenuity (including openly pilfering from the public electricity grid for the holy cause — this art locally known as “hooking”).
had both religious and cultural dimensions, and Bengali society being highly politicised, politics was not far behind. In my childhood politics in my neighbourhood was dominated by the Communist Party, and contrary to what you’ll expect, the communists were often enthusiastic participants in those religious festivals.
The main difference with the pujas of non-communist localities was in the brochures they produced on these occasions (in our neighbourhood they would, for example, invoke the goddess Kali, the fierce deity of destruction, to come and slay the forces of the evil demon of capitalism) and in the list of celebrity artists they’d invite for their cultural soirees, containing mainly those of leftist persuasion.
Many years later when my Italian classmates in England used to discuss Catholic Marxism in their country — on one occasion I even participated in a vigorous discussion with them on the famous film by the Marxist poet-director Pier Paolo Pasolini titled The Gospel According to St. Matthew — I told them about the communist Kali-worshippers of my neighbourhood in Kolkata. I also told them of a communist activist Brahmin neighbour who combined, with touching sincerity, his daily activities as a mantra-chanting family priest in several households with his indefatigable party propaganda work every morning at the street-crossing near our house, trying to catch hold of passersby and apprising them of the evil doings of the ruling capitalist-lackey party and his marching in the streets in his lunch break from office work shouting slogans against American imperialism.
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This fluidity of ideology and practice only adds, as I told my Italian friends, to a long list of common characteristics India shares with Italy: a culturally-rich civilizational legacy, great cuisine, good-looking women (with liquid eyes), dysfunctional bureaucracy, mafia-controlled localities, widespread corruption, chaotic traffic, messy politics (Galbraith’s widely-cited description of India as a “functioning anarchy” is equally applicable to parts of Italy), and a general sense of triumph in evading laws (Italians have an expression: “Fatta la legge, trovato l’inganno” — no sooner is a law passed than someone finds a way to dodge it). One may now add to this list the ominous rise of right-wing populism in both countries, particularly in northern India and northern Italy.
In my graduate student days when an Italian friend was showing me around Napoli, he first took me to his university where he was teaching. In the large faculty common room I saw several old men dozing; he pointed to them and said that until these geezers die there was no vacancy and so no promotion — a phenomenon not unfamiliar in the Indian universities at least in those days. Walking the back streets of Napoli reminded me of my neighbourhood in Kolkata (now the widely-acclaimed novels of Elena Ferrante revoke some similar images). I also remembered watching in Kolkata the many, mostly black-and-white, Italian films based on such cities. In some of them there was Sophia Loren walking the cobbled streets in majestic defiance of the lewd comments and proposals thrown at her by the neighbourhood loafers, and her dismissive scattering of repartees in dubbed English (but with soft ‘t’ and ‘d’), “Do that to your mother, do that to your sister…”, as she went on her hip-swinging trot.
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In our Kolkata neighbourhood there was a large corpulent man, who was a bailiff or some such official in the municipal office. It was whispered that his illicit income at the office far exceeded his salary. Every morning before he went to office in his car, he donned his white suit in the sweltering heat, and a rickshaw would come to his door to take him to the four or five temples in the neighbourhood (his car could not navigate all the narrow lanes). In front of those temples, he’d stand and silently say his prayers, and then he’d start, first slowly, then ferociously, twisting his ears for several minutes, pre-atonement one presumed for his daily sins. Hinduism, like Catholicism, offers many ways of pacifying deities or buying off pardons for sins.
The case of this corpulent man was first pointed out to me by my father, a close observer of religious hypocrisies all around. When I was young I had many conversations with him on religion. He always took the hard line and quoted Marx on religion as the opium of the people. Much later, I found out that in the line just before that famous quote Marx was actually much softer on religion, he called it “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world”. Even though I have never been religious myself, my attitude to the personal religion or spirituality of others has been softer. I have, however, a visceral dislike for most organised religions, particularly if they are in the business of harmfully polarising or misinforming people.
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I have accompanied some friends and relatives to visit temples and mosques in India, admired their architecture from outside, but usually did not enter them. I often ended up with the duty to guard my companions’ shoes outside, as losing good shoes at the doors of temples and mosques is a common mishap. Some families even adopt the practice of leaving one shoe at one side and the other far from there. (I am reminded of the story an Italian friend told me of a Neapolitan mayoral election when the candidate distributed left shoes among his electorate, with the promise of giving them the right shoe on being elected). In cathedrals in Europe, if they are not crowded (which is impossible in Indian religious places), I have often entered, and liked to sit there quietly, just as I have enjoyed devotional music either in western or Indian classicals or in some Tagore songs.
In old age with the indignity of deteriorating health and of losing his control over most things, with friends mostly dead or incapacitated, my father was quite miserable, and unlike other Indian old people did not have religion to turn to. He then partly lost his mind, and took to ranting loudly alone in his room, all his frustrations and regrets of life came out like streams of lava. He did not go gently into the night. Dylan Thomas goes on to say: “Old age should burn and rage at close of day/Rage, rage at the dying of the light”.
In the midst of all this rage and rant, my father, always the teacher, would sometimes suddenly stop if the commentator in the radio set nearby made a grammatical mistake and he’d loudly correct them. In America when a plane is about to land, the captain usually announces that we’d arrive “momentarily”. This use of the word is in a long list of “no-nos” that my father had taught me, so I remember him every time as my plane negotiates its way down.
The author is Professor of Graduate School at University of California, Berkeley. The article was first published in the blog 3 Quarks Daily