Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The sacred thread and the pav

I'm on my morning walk. A man in his mid-forties is walking with his son. The son's around eight years old. His head bears testimony to his thread ceremony having been performed a couple of weeks ago. Right now his hair's like a crew around a circular oasis of longer hair.

Most boys these days refuse to have their heads shaved in what we used to call the puri-chamcha cut. (The chamcha was the long tuft hanging out of the circle of hair.) They don't mind the ceremony itself because it makes them heroes for a day, brings them gifts and is denied to their sisters. I'm not sure they know that it is also denied to a whole caste of people called shudras as well. The sacred thread makes my young co-walker my social superior. His thread is a mark of his exclusivity. It makes him dwija, twice born, while I, my sisters and my shudra brothers remain once born. Those who have transgressed against this law have been punished. See what happened to Shambuka in the Ramayan when he dared to recite the vedas. But the British came and spoiled it all. Ignoring the laws of the land, they threw education open to everybody, thread or no thread. And see where it has brought us. As a dalit and a woman, Mayawati is twice once-born; and she is aspiring to be our Prime Minister!

To come back to my young co-walker, here's this boy adorned with marks of exclusivity, and there's his father who's just received a call on his mobile. "What?" he shouts, sounding irritated. "Pav? You want me to pick up pav? How many?"

Oops! Does the man know he is about to do spectacular religious splits in footing it to an Irani's for pav with a son who has just been anointed dwija? In the bad old times of the British, the pav was the Hindu's most feared pollutant. Missionaries were supposed to have garnered their easiest souls back then. All they had to do was fling a pav into the village well and out went the entire village from the Hindu fold. The moment the villagers drank from the well, they became instant Christians. The Marathi verb for such automatic conversions was "batane", which means, "to be polluted, rendered unfit for social intercourse."

How things have changed! By an expedient turn of events, while the thread ceremony is still going strong, the pav has lost its powers of pollution. Today it stands as a proud emblem of the Hindu Hriday Samrat's economic agenda. It is the wrapping that goes around the hallowed Shiv Vada, filling the stomachs and pockets of the Marathi (Hindu) manus. So who's afraid of changing times?