Reverse Swing: Proof of the Pudding is in the Grocer’s Bill
In the big bad world of cunning men with their terrible striving, you live there where you have the papers thereof.
Yesterday evening, as I was entering my house, my father looked up from the Viveka Chudamani he was reading and sternly exclaimed, ‘Hey, who are you?’
I froze at the threshold. Not yet having taken off my helmet, I thought the dim evening light was playing tricks with dad’s ageing eyes. So I quickly yanked off the helmet, switched on the entrance light and said, ‘It’s me, dad’.
His voice got sterner. ‘Who is this “me”?’
This was alarming. He had been immersed in Adi Shankaracharya’s above-mentioned tome of 580 dense verses on advaita or ‘non-dualism’ for a few months now and suddenly it seemed like vivekam (discrimination) had deserted him. At last, he seemed to have arrived at the philosophical quandary between the real and unreal.
Again, I said, ‘Me, your son’.
His voice did not change. ‘What is the proof? Do you have any documents, any papers?’
This sounded like the dad of old when he used to ask me proof of how I spent my pocket money in school. So, he was probably in the mood to play a game.
I too got into play mode and airily announced, ‘Why, right here, in my back-pack, I have my passport. In my wallet, I can show you my Aadhaar card, driving licence, voter card, PAN card and a bunch of plastic credit cards that will establish I am a person of some means. And, what is more, the passport even has your name entered there as my father’.
He looked at me pityingly. ‘Do you have your father’s or mother’s or their parents’ birth certificates? Any legacy documents?’
Again, I realized this was no game. Too many hours of poring over Sanskrit sophistry had deprived him of the basic skill of distinguishing between ‘the serpent and the rope,’ a condition the great Shankara cautions against.
It was time to call in reinforcements. ‘Mom’, I shouted. ‘Come out. Something has got into dad’. Some lights were switched on in the front room and she appeared holding the carrot she had been shredding. Framed against the door frame, she paused and said, ‘Who are you’?
From a young age, she had been a devotee of Ramana Maharshi, the Sage of Arunachala, and this had been his famous question, ‘Who are you? What is your real self? What is the difference between an actor and his image on the movie screen? Are you real or is your shadow?’
Clearly, I was being bombarded today by advaita.
‘Probably you couldn’t see me because you came out of a dark room. It’s me, mom; your son’.
‘I’m sorry,’ she snapped. ‘Do you have any proof? Can you show me any link documents to the effect? Any proof of birth? Any certified copies? Anything to prove you are the genuine number?’
This was shooting holes into all the anthropological theories I held as immutable. Margaret Mead had taught me that ‘Motherhood is the original anthropological fact; fatherhood a mere assumption’. And here was my mom dissing all that cultural wisdom and asking me for proof. Is this how ‘Mother India’ is supposed to behave? Here I was planning to triumphantly turn the tables on dad and tell him, ‘I have no paternity proofs or documents or birth certificates, but Mere paas Ma hai!’ And, there she was, smashing the fantasy to smithereens.
But now, the water was flowing over the danger mark. I got serious and testily asked them to stop this charade and let me cross the threshold and head for the loo. But dad was deadly serious. He said, ‘We have deduced that the root cause for all the problems that beset this house stems from the presence of non-believers who live under this roof’. He gave me a significant look.
He continued, ‘Since I and my wife are strong believers, we have drafted new rules for residence here and have decided to officially permit only people-like-us (PLUs) within these perimeters. So I, in the lower house, and she, in the upper house, have passed a new Act which will determine who gets to live here. We have identified discriminated PLUs from three specific houses who face persecution based on faith and will offer them refuge on our premises. If they come with documents to show they are from houses in Rawalpindi or Kabul or Dacca, we will allow them to cross the Lakshman Rekha and find shelter under our roof. We will thus demonstrate our humanitarian solidarity with PLUs there and, simultaneously, display our deep distrust of non-believers’.
By now, my eyebrows were merging with my hairline. ‘But what about a discriminated son of this house? No solidarity on that front? It has been half an hour since you’ve been blocking me from getting into my own house and babbling about documents and papers in this era of paperless transactions. Anyway, organizing birth and other legacy documents are YOUR responsibility. I did not leap out of my mother’s womb flourishing a folder full of papers to prove my provenance. It is you, the State, which should have created the necessary systems on that front. If you don’t have it, it is you who should be punished; not me’. And, lest the message did not quite sink in, I added with an emotional flourish: ‘hum is desh ke vaasi hain, jis desh mein Ganga behti hai’.
It took me a moment to catch the triumphant glint in their combined eyes. In unison they chanted, ‘Forget about desh and citizenship; first of all, prove you are you’.
That was a parental KO, more deadly than what Cassius Clay dealt Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight crown. My flirtation with social sciences had familiarised me with the idea that the era of modern science and knowledge was inaugurated when Rene Descartes formulated his methodological scepticism in the rationalist formulation, ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ or ‘I think, therefore I am’. It is the strongest assertion of subject position, the foundational thought of individualism and, by extension, of citizenship.
But here, suddenly, I was being told that my selfhood constituted an absent integer unless reinforced with a file full of papers. Tagore’s poetic idea of nationality and citizenship being not merely territorial but also chinmaya (ideational) suddenly went prosaic. Even the advaitin Shankara would have said, ‘you are your own country’.
In school, I had been influenced by a three-line Hindi poem, with one English word in it – its title, ‘Nameplate’:
‘Sochta hun darwazey se nameplate alag kar dun.
Kyon bhala har koyi apne hi yahaan rahe?
Kyon na har koyi har kisi ke jahaan mein rahe?’
(I think I should remove the nameplate from my door.
Why should one live only in one’s own place?
Why not everyone live in each other's space?)
But that is fantasy. In the big bad world of cunning men with their terrible striving, you live there where you have the papers thereof. Ergo, the proof of the pudding is not in the eating but in being able to produce the grocer’s bill with the list of items that went into the pudding.