Dil Se...

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 9 February 2019

Love is a multi-coloured umbrella, offering a different view, each time you swing it around. Ahead of Valentine’s Day, Ambika Shaligram widens the scope of love and looks at it through the prism of mysticism, books and heritage

Just four days are left for you to announce the biggest life-altering truth of your life! You must have planned the works — roses, rings, chocolates and perhaps a bottle of wine, or is it champagne? Whilst you are buzzing around, the naysayers will be whispering, ‘Don’t fall prey to this... marketing blitzkreig’, ‘This is just one day tamasha’ or some such thing. We don’t intend to be a killjoy here. But we do want to widen the scope of ‘love’ and how it can be experienced. By reading romance books, for one. By understanding Tasawwuf or Sufism and treasuring the heritage that you were born with. And, deciphering that special ingredient which makes food so yummy.

Aha! You read romances?! The question mark and the exclamation mark are loaded with meaning. More than anything, they dumb down your literary taste and serve to emphasise ‘How old are you? Teenager?’ Such sundry remarks have often been tossed at people who rather bravely prefer to read books with titles like The Best Man (Kristan Higgins) Mail-order Bride (Debbie Macomber), Can’t Buy Me Love (Molly O’Keefe) in public. 

No ‘serious’ author worth his salt would be caught dead writing for Mills & Boons (now Harlequin) romances or reading them! And, yet there is a readership for soppy, ‘happily-ever-afters’, and those Tall, Dark and Handsome men who have the women going weak at the knees. But, hey, times — they are a changing. Now, we have well-rounded stories of individuals, not sticking to time-tested formulas. And who better to tell us the changed trajectory of romance genre than Nikita Singh, who has written nine romances, including her latest, The Reason is You. 

Ask her if it’s difficult to pen love stories and Singh replies, “It is difficult to write any novel. Out of my 12 books so far, apart from one non-fiction and two young adult books, the remaining nine have revolved around love stories. These books explore a variety of subjects and the atmosphere in each is very different. However, they share a common thread — all of them have an optimistic take on love. In the current climate in the world, it’s difficult to be hopeful about anything, especially love. I have done it. So I’d say it isn’t easy to write love stories.”

Singh read her first romance when she was 17 and picked books of Penny Jordan, Debbie Macomber and Susan Elizabeth Phillips from her parents’ bookshelves. Ask her if there are any personality traits associated with a romance writer, and the author replies, “Apart from the essential traits in any writer, like imagination, empathy and discipline, romance writers need a special brand of optimism. Of course, it can’t be too optimistic because seeing everything through rose-tinted glasses can get really tedious. But my characters, even when they are in despair, I make sure to include an underlying hopefulness, a fight for them. For that to happen in a book, even a realistic writer (like me) has to have an optimistic attitude towards life.”

Singh, who has written books like Everytime It Rains, Like A Love Song and The Promise, explains how the genre has undergone change with mainstream players now publishing romance titles. She says, “Books categorised as ‘romance’ by mainstream publishers now are more balanced. They are well rounded stories about individuals, who attempt more and achieve more. For example, you could categorise The Reason is You simply as romance. However, on further inspection, you’ll find that it is layered, talking about our attitude towards mental health and loss. It also talks about the constraints of traditional monogamous relationships and second chances. If you look beyond the central themes, and at the general atmosphere of the book, you’ll see references to society, careers, life in India, pop culture and such.” 

Quiz any chef about what makes their food so special and they toss up the answer ‘Love’. Those who cook meals, sometimes twice or thrice a day, swear by this. Your mom’s trained culinary skills is just a part of the process. It’s her love, affection and concern for your well-being that helps her rustle up delicious, finger-licking fare. 

Meghana Desai, a homemaker and part-time chocolatier, says, “It is love for your family, nothing else. I have always loved cooking and would always try out something new in the kitchen. I still do. But that alone won’t make me a great cook. You care for your kids, husband, you want to make something special, take into account their culinary palate, and that shows up in my cooking.”

Would she be talking this if she was working and also had to raise two daughters and cook all three meals? “Yes, I would,” she says. “I would never feel trapped in the kitchen because I love being there. It’s just an extension of my personality. But, yes, I do manage my time well. I guess, I would do that as a working professional balancing my home life too. For my convenience, I have drawn a weekly time-table. I cook the dishes that I have chalk-marked, taking into account my schedule, my family’s tastes etc.”

Desai, who has been cooking for two decades now, started making handcrafted chocolates on a whim. “One of my friends had learnt the art and she said, ‘Let’s try’. I agreed because I have learnt cooking by trial and error. We made chocolates, sent out a few batches to friends. They liked them. We got a few orders and then the business grew by word-of-mouth,” she says, adding, “It has been six years since we started making chocolates.”

“We don’t sell chocolates at any store. Rather, it’s a home-run business, allowing us to invest enough time and creativity in making the gourmet chocolates in several varieties like soft centred, tender and so on. For small orders, we can supply at a short notice. For bulk orders, we need about 15 days or so. We have realised that honest feedback works and we rely on our friends for that,” she says. 

Discussions about heritage in its tangible and intangible forms sound very daunting, almost like a relic, stuffed away in the cupboard to be forgotten. But, try as we may, we are a part of many types of heritage — the way we live, speak, eat or read has been contributed by our parents, grandparents and the geographical and historical location of where we stay or work in. So we have to love and cherish it. And, helping us identify and instilling a sense of pride is INTACH — Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, a membership-based organisation. 

Supriya Goturkar Mahabaleshwarkar, co-convenor of INTACH Pune, says,“INTACH is an open platform for all Indians who care for heritage and can contribute to the cause.” Mahabaleshwarkar is an environmentalist, and was eager to study sacred groves or devrai. While researching, she realised that man and nature can’t really be separated. “In India, culture, environment, religion are all inter-linked. When you talk of a wada, you also talk of the wada culture, of the people living there, their daily lives, the food they eat. You can’t separate the built from the intangible,” she says.

At INTACH, therefore, the team is involved in various projects, with their focus being on spreading awareness. Mahabaleshwarkar adds, “In art and craft section, we are working on copper craft revival project in Tambat Aali. It is a historic, geographic area in Kasba Peth and the members of  Tvashta-Kasar community practise a skill, which is of immense value.”

But like in other areas connected with history and legacy, the youngsters are not keen to take up the traditional livelihood. Says Mahabaleshwarkar, “This is a major challenge. Youngsters today have many options to choose their livelihood. So they wonder why they should be doing all the hard work, especially when their skill doesn’t get due recognition within their community or from the wider society at large. We are trying to open up the market for them. Economy plays a huge role and livelihood has to go hand in hand with craft revival. We also conduct heritage walks and a token sum is given to Tambat Handicraft Association. Also, when foreign and domestic visitors appreciate their products, it gives them a sense of pride. Handicrafts are valued so much in European market. This is not the case in India.”

But things are changing. “Having lost what was once our culture, wadas for instance, some owners are now coming to us to learn more about technical expertise in conserving their homes,” she says. 

INTACH is also working with other organisations in the city to promote the cause. It is curating the Vedh-lecture series with Maharaja Shivachhatrapati Pratishthan (MSPT) held at Sarkar Wada, Shivasrushti Heritage Park. The MSPT is developing the park.

Says Shrinivas Virkar, Trustee, MSPT, “The MSPT was established by historian Babasaheb Purandare in 1957. Through this trust, Babasaheb has tried to spread awareness about Chhatrapati’s work. There are few physical evidences of our history — for example, you can’t show the forts in all their former glory. So he thought of developing Shivasrushti, first as a temporary exhibition and then as a permanent one. He always felt that history should be explained through the medium of art. In 1985, he worked on putting up Jaanata Raja, a live theatrical performance. The funds generated from this show went for development of Sarkar Wada. The permanent heritage park is taking shape. Currently, the work on constructing life-size replicas of Raigad’s Rajya Sabha, Pratapgad’s Bhavani Mata temple is in the first stage,” says Virkar.

You really can’t escape Rumi-speak on social media. In fact, your day begins with many on your friendlist posting pithy quotes on life and love. Sample this: ‘Wherever you are, and whatever you do, be in love’, ‘Close your eyes, fall in love, stay there’. Does this make Jalaluddin Rumi a modern day ‘Internet Love Guru’? For the uninformed, he may be one. However, to quote in millennial-speak, Rumi is deep and so is Sufism. 

To start from the beginning, Sufism or Tasawwuf is the mystical arm of Islam. Shedding light on it, Islamic scholar Anees Chishti says, “Tasawwuf means to remove or do away with unwanted (negative) emotions and getting closer to god, almighty. Don’t we use a winnow to remove the chaff from the foodgrains? This is what Sufism means.”

“Our bodies are ephemeral but soul is perpetual. There are three main organs of the body — liver (Tamasgun) which epitomises desire and greed; brain (Rajogun) which is the abode of knowledge; heart (Satwagun) is the abode of god, of love. The one who controls and conquers desires and worldly affairs is a Sufi,” he adds.

The Sufi sect grew and reached India through Kashmir in 11-12th century. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti is considered as the first Sufi saint in India. “In India, there are two main orders or branches of Sufism — one is Chishti and the other is Suhrwardi. Hazrat Shaikh Shahabuddin Suhrwardi believed that if you want to understand Sufism, then you have to practise Islam whereas Chishti believed that Sufism doesn’t need the bedrock of any particular religion,” informs Chishti, who has written more than 50 books in Urdu, English and Marathi. 

Explaining the qualities of Sufi masters, he says, “Sufis encourage people to do the right thing, follow the right path. They believe in penance and jaap. The Sufis lift their neck and let it fall in a certain way, called zarb. It hits the heart. It’s called ‘Dil par chot dena’ and you do that while chanting god’s name. You see, the heart acquires a blackish tinge because of our negative qualities. When you chant the name of Allah, while doing zarb, you cleanse and purify your heart and it becomes effulgent or lit with brilliant radiance. The moment the Sufi becomes effulgent, he gets close to almighty.”

Chishti also shares a few tales from the lives of the Sufi masters, especially Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. “Many people would visit Auliya and they would be asked to stay back for meals. Hazrat Nizamuddin would only eat once a day, in the evening, that too a stale roti and a vegetable made of bitter leaves. People would often bring him gifts which he would distribute amongst other followers. One day, a person got him a pair of scissors. Auliya told the man, “I work at bringing people together. You have got me something which works at separating things. Get me a sui-dhaga instead’. There is another story of a sceptical who got Auliya mud as a gift. When he realised that the gifts were to be opened and distributed after the evening namaz, he panicked. All the gifts were distributed, only the packet containing mud was left. When the sevak asked what to do with it, Auliya replied, Mere desh ki mitti hain. Isse mein sirhane rakhunga.”

The Sufis were simple, transparent souls. Hence Chishti isn’t impressed with the pop culture’s appropriation of Sufi. “You won’t find Sufis in our midst so easily. They will have vibes, positive vibrations, but you can recognise them, only if you are searching for them. You can search them only if you understand their teachings. For that you have to read works of Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, Baba Farid, Nizamuddin Auliya, Naseeruddin Chirag Dehlvi. And, also the poetry of Rumi, Mir Taqi Mir and Hafiz. The internet version will only focus on ‘love, kindness, compassion’. But Rumi and his ilk were also strong critics of empires,” he points out.

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