One of the first things I heard when I returned to Bangalore was that the glorious Indiana beef burger of my youth was no more. They now served only the lesser patties. Then I started to notice the absence of a beef section in Chinese restaurants. One day I succumbed to a craving for Mac Donald's and was upset enough to walk out when I found wall-to-wall chicken. Recently I found that another Bangalore institution no longer had their signature beef fry. The present state government is a party that has Hinduism as its platform, so I assumed that a policy of religious tyranny was at work. This was confirmed earlier this year in the rigorous efforts to push through a blanket ban on buying, selling or eating beef. It's being vigorously appealed but logic works in mysterious ways here so who knows whether one will shortly need to sneak into a backroom with blackout curtains to eat steak.
Hindu friends who are very religious are arguing that the cow is a sacred animal, so there's nothing wrong in protecting it. They and it are very, very wrong. The issue is not about protecting cows. When you start turning your personal religious practices into law you become Saudi Arabia. God does not come into our national anthem, we have no pledge that puts religion on the same plane as patriotism. Also, India has as many kinds of Hindus as there are Gods, and many of them eat beef. Even more important, India is not just a Hindu country.
The increasing number of idiots who've set themselves up as guardians of "Indian culture" are ignorant of or ignoring the fact that there is no such thing – each community has its own culture, and these are beyond counting. The only thing that could be called Indian is a certain unique richness of diversity, which seems to be on life support and in its final moments right now.
I smile every year when Americans are careful to say Happy Holidays rather than Happy Christmas, but we could take a few lessons from that. On Christmas Eve in Dehradun, I heard not a single carol in the shops. All I saw was a BJP rally in town, the saffron lotus hovering ominously above Rajpur Road's Adidas showrooms and cappuccino machines. I don't think the timing was a coincidence. And it made me uneasy that there was no sign of mosques or anything Muslim – if they were around, they were hidden, which is uncomfortably like the churches and temples in the hard-core Islamic lands. My country is a secular democracy, and if it's going to turn into a Hindu supremacy state, it makes me fundamentally homeless.
The temples in those parts were faintly menacing. I think it was the metal trident and flag over them, the rather militant symbols that seem to feature prominently in most Hindu agitations. The buildings were white or unfinished grey, and almost empty of ornamentation inside. The Gods themselves seemed roughly hewn. Being conditioned to the voluptuary leanings of the other half of the country, that sparseness felt like deprivation. The further south you go, the more luxurious temples become. The idols wear silk and gold and are washed with milk and honey. Every inch of their houses is carved or painted. The air is heavy with camphor and incense, the floors are slick with flowers and lamp oil. Even the smallest, poorest village deity has a velvet throne and a blinged-out carriage when it chooses to go walkabout. The cold, white atriums of the Gods here feel inhospitable and the echoes of devotees in the emptiness, dreary. But I was put in my place very neatly when a Punjabi colleague said he didn't like the South Indian temples for the same reasons that I like them.
For now, beef fascism or no, I'm glad I live in Bangalore – there is a temple on every street corner, but also equally visible churches, mosques, gurudwara and fire temple. If you wake before dawn in our house, you first hear the matins from a church of unknown denomination, then a muezzin's call from farther away, and that's followed by the chanting from the temple down the road. They have equal, independent airtime and are all equally annoying in their loudness. It's a brief glimpse of an India that could be, the country that's forgotten in the pages of the constitution because nobody read the manual.
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