Lives after the Cyclone

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Portraits From Ayodhya: Living India's Contradictions by  Scharada Dubey, book reviewThe demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya came out of nowhere one peaceful Sunday in 1992 and threatened normal city life for a week all over India with enforced curfews and army parades to ensure that citizens stayed safe. However that was the boiling over of an issue that had been festering in the Indian heartland side by side with the Bhopal Gas crisis and the Sikh riots. The problem, of course, began because Hindu extremists laid claim to Ayodhya as the birthplace of the epic hero Rama, elevated to the status of divinity. However, Ayodhya was not just a place of Hindu pilgrimage – it was a meeting place of several religions, including Buddhism, Sufism, Jainism, and Islam, all of whom held Ayodhya equally sacred. Even though for the bulk of the residents, the squabble was just part and parcel of all the other land based controversies that belonged to the Ayodhya way of life.

Scharada Dubey used to visit Ayodhya from time to time which is why she decided that it would interesting to do a survey of people’s lives after Babri Masjid. She chose 25 residents of Ayodhya for her experiment, people who were all, in one way or the other, involved in the Babri Masjid controversy grouping them under the headings of Mavericks and madmen, Establishment entities, and People like us.

The problems had their root in 1984 when the VHP held their first public meeting to demand a temple in Ayodhya. Dubey takes Peter Van Der Weer’s description of the event, “On the side of the platform a large painting was fixed representing a fight between Muslims with swords and sadhus with no weapons.” Dubey, however, does not tackle the issues arising from Babri Masjid from an authorial viewpoint – instead, logically, since this is a story of portraits – she asks different people about their responses to different occurrences.

Portraits from Ayodhya begins with the story of Vineet Maurya whose father had originally tried building temples on land laid aside for Muslim graveyards in 1949. Despite this overtly Hindu past, Maurya’s family had their land taken from them for a theme park which was supposed to depict the stages of Lord Rama’s life and Vineet became a Buddhist in an attempt to point out that Ayodhya did not just belong to Hindus. However he was embroiled in a episode where a picture of Rama was garlanded with shoes in protest against anti-Dalit verses in the Ramayana.

His story perhaps best illustrates the fact that in Ayodhya the dice can fall any which way. Then there’s Sadhu Ram Sharan Das who serves god by cleaning the gutters – something that priests don’t normally do and Yugal Kishor Shastri an activist who wants to avoid demolition controversies but is accused by his neighbours of using it to further his career. However, because the locals are not communal, Shastri can survive.

The book highlights the contradictions in people’s lives that have arisen after 1992 through stories that have not generally been brought to media attention. It also showcases a way of life that is in danger of disappearing – there is the journalist who writes his articles by hand and despatches them to his office through the tempo driver, the guardian of the Ram Niwas temples who wishes their world had room space for poets or the doyenne of the vanishing art of the Ram Leela. In addition there are interesting historical nuggets like the Korean project which arose because one of the rulers of Ayodhya married a Korean prince.

Ayodhya is many things to many people – in a way it is a microcosm of India, contradictions, small kindnesses and turbulence. Everyone regardless of what side they were on admits that what happened over Babri Masjid was wrong. But thereby, Dubey implies, hangs a tale.

Portraits from Ayodhya by Scharada Dubey
Published by Tranquebar Press in India, December 2011

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Portraits From Ayodhya
by Scharada Dubey

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Written by Anjana Basu