Monday, January 15, 2007

Traditions are made

“… Every written word is a part of the silken strands that a spider weaves inside the hidden box; its strength of steel binding fortune to the corpse of freedom, while the unwary seek their destiny in the webbings of time…”

Tradition. Strange how the word resonates in our minds; its vibrations traveling deep down the path of time to string the cords of human history.

I heard somewhere that spiders are symbols of fortune and love in Japan. Japanese women followed a tradition of keeping a spider in a box, which was hidden, and once the creature has spun its silken weave, the pattern of the web was used to interpret ones’ fortune. Perhaps it was some such spider that the forlorn king saw in a cave, untiring in its effort to climb the wall in spite of dogging failures. I don’t know if all this would have meant much to the spiders; they seemed to be carrying on quiet well with their focused task of spinning an endless web. How ignorant the little spider is of the web of intrigue that tradition has spun around its simple existence….

With the onset of spring, the grand calendar of Bengali festivals comes to the auspicious day of ‘Basant panchami’; the fifth day of spring. Traditionally, the day is marked for the worship of the goddess of learning, ‘Saraswati’. The religious strictures associated with worship of deities are rather relaxed on this occasion, reflecting the benevolence of the goddess herself. The students take the initiative in the preparations for this festival, and I suppose this was the reason why students never got the time to study on this day, busy as they were with the festivities on the day of learning. Oddly though, I don’t seem to see spiders taking a moment off their labors to admire their own handiwork; they simply keep spinning. When I asked a friend why is it that nowadays no one seems to study on Basant Panchami, he merely shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, everyone does so. I thought this was the tradition.”

I don’t know what exactly is the meaning of tradition, though I have often encountered it, suddenly springing on me from invisible traps as I view the world from my myopic spectacles of rationality. I once asked my dad why is it that during ‘Bhai Phota’ (yet another festival, one where sisters bless their brothers and pray for their long lives) that we sit on the floor for the ceremony, and not on chairs. “It only leads to a lot of discomfort” I remarked, knowing perfectly well that I was headed straight for some invisible wall of convention. “We cannot do that,” my father said, quiet helplessly, “That would be against tradition.”

Perhaps it was from that day that I lost the innocence that cloaks tradition in the minds of the ignorant. The fast that I performed every year for the Kali pooja seemed to prick with the thorns of tradition, even though my reason for the fast was to merely do the opposite of what the elders had said: that no child be allowed to observe a fast. Now that they had quite settled with the fact that I would fast for the pooja, my new enlightenment refused to submit to mere superstition, and, rationality triumphant, I refused to fast that year, giving the elders yet another opportunity to condescend on the “ridiculous rebels that all young people are.”

I cannot agree with the elders, and yet I cannot quite appreciate my friend, a certain Bengali, for whom that term of identity ceases to matter beyond the mere providence of his birth to Bengali parents. He was born in Bengal, educated in Bengal (in a posh Anglo-Indian Catholic School), and yet his broken Bengali, picked up from rickshaw-wallas brings me to fits of laughter every time he attempts to speak. Unabashed by the laughter, I remember how he always smiled and said, “What would it matter if I knew bangla? I speak English at home and school. I don’t need to know bangla. Why should I bother?”

Perhaps in my college this will be operated upon as a post-colonial mindset, but to me it seemed perfectly rational. While I beg to differ with proclamations stating English as the ‘language of the future’ or the ‘language of progress and development’, I also acknowledge that in a world fast becoming a global village, this generation, this new millennium’s brood, has every right to have the freedom of choice over their identity, or as much as possible in this world where we all emerge with pre-conditioned identities. Gandhi only wanted his windows open, to let the breeze of other cultures permeate his home, yet he could hardly have pictured the coming storm of globalization, with its wild and uprooting ferocity. I wonder sometimes what great treasures have already been swept away from my house by this restless storm.

This new storm banged open the door of my mind, and I spent my time pondering over this uncanny battle of the individual versus the power of globalization, with the wreckage of tradition hinged to the frame of identity. It was simply inconclusive, I concluded, but remained restless all the same.

The spiders in my room, largely unaware of my existence, captivated me with their endless weaving and the endless traditions attached to them. The same Japanese also believed that seeing a spider in the morning signaled the beginning of a romance. I see them every morning, and regret the romances I missed for my earlier ignorance. Perhaps I was in some such mood when I heard my cousin, who wanted to marry a Punjabi Sikh girl, against, as his mother claimed, all family traditions, saying, shortly before his grand wedding, “Ma, traditions aren’t simply followed; sometimes traditions are made.”