Who wants to know your gotra?
When BJP spokesperson asks Rahul Gandhi his gotra on entering Mahakaleshwar temple, I wish my country goes back to the days when we could enter that temple without a janeu and declaration of gotra
As children of parents who hailed from two states - one north, the other South - we grew up forever listening to a proud father who loudly proclaimed to all who cared, "My children are the true products of national integration."
That was all that mattered in our home as we were growing up - we were brought up with minimum rituals and knowing very little about castes and sub-castes in the country. My father refused to have me put down anything in the caste column while sitting for board exams, telling the school principal, who wouldn’t send up my form without It, all that he needed to know was we would not be applying for reservations (I still do not know if that column was filled or not, but I did sit for the exams and got a good education).
Growing up around army personnel (my father was a defence metallurgist), religion was of little consequence either. It was a jolt to have myself described as a "Hindu" by a Christian friend who took me along to visit her grandmother when I was in my 20s. "We are Roman Catholics, " she informed me then and that was a real discovery.
But one thing I could never discover for a long time was my own gotra. My maternal uncle was the district magistrate of Ujjain when I was a child and though we visited the Mahakaleshwar temple there, I do not know if anyone objected to the DM not wearing a janeu or refusing to disclose his gotra. I picked up the habit of visiting temples more for their architecture than for their gods from my father but nowhere was I stopped from entering until I followed the sounds of the temple bells in the middle of a jungle during mandal elections in Andhra Pradesh in the late 1980s. The temple looked quite ancient with wonderful carvings and a sanctum sanctorum that looked very deep and beckoning.
I was in those jungles at the invitation of the People’s War Group to report on their side of the story. I do not now remember if they were for or against the elections, though I have a clear memory of a scorpion on the wall of the room in the house of a member they had put us up with. And how I sat up all night staring that arachnid down, too afraid to sleep on the mattress on the floor for the fear it would sting me if I shut my eyes even for a second. So the early morning temple bells were very welcoming. But imagine my shock and surprise when I was stopped from entering the sanctum sanctorum because I did not know my gotra! The priest did not believe me, "Everybody knows their gotra," he said suspiciously.
My modern parents, so proud of their children growing up in Nehruvian India (we did not even think of ourselves as north or south Indians), never thought they needed to educate us on something that was so inessential to being good citizens and good humans.
He then asked for my origins and since neither of my parents belonged to Andhra Pradesh, there was clearly some violation or overstepping of the mark as I thought from the disapproving look on his face.
" Where have you come from?" he asked.
He was startled when I said I was from Bombay reporting on the Mandal elections in the state. He knew then instantly that I could have been so deep in those jungles only at the hospitality of the PWG. But he still did not stop trying.
"What is your surname?"
It certainly was not a caste name and he looked quite hopeless by now but didn’t dare stop me any more for fear of incurring the wrath of the PWG.
So he sprinkled some holy water on me, chanted some mantras I had never heard before and gave me a gotra before letting me in he presence of his god. As I left, he told me resentfully, "Agli baar idhar ko aana hoga, toh apne maa-baap se gotra pooch kar aana!"
I knew I would never return to those jungles or even the temple so I hid my own resentment and nodded in acquiesence. I still remember his face and hostile demeanour, though I will never be able to locate the temple on my own again.
I returned to the big, bad city with the question now really troubling me - what was my gotra, indeed!
When I asked my mother, she replied frostily, "Who wants to know?"
She thought I had met someone but when I told her why, she relaxed and said it was not important. “You will know when you need to know.”
I had to be content with that.
Of course, eventually I did find out because another priest insisted he couldn’t complete rituals on my father’s passing without knowing the gotra. In recent years the honour killings in states like Haryana over gotra issues did bring it back to top of the mind but I had to look up the Internet to understand why a gotra was so important to some people. My modern parents, so proud of their children growing up in Nehruvian India (we did not even think of ourselves as north or south Indians), never thought they needed to educate us on something that was so inessential to being good citizens and good humans.
So now when BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra asks Congress president Rahul Gandhi for his gotra on entering the Mahakaleshwar temple, instead of his plans for India, I wish for my country to return to the days when my DM uncle boldly entered that very temple without a janeu and no declaration of his gotra. In Nehruvian India, no priest dared stop him despite his “loss of caste" – everyone in the temple town knew he employed personal servants from among barred castes and even allowed them to fetch his water, but no priest dared object.
I also wish for a return of my India to the time when another priest didn’t dare ask me for my caste in a post-Nehruvian India, though I was not the district magistrate of his town who he needed to fear for practising discrimination.
I wish today more parents (including Sambit Patra's) would be resentful of people asking after castes and gotras and I wish for a return to the time when being labelled as ‘Hindu’ rather than an Indian would sound as strange now as it had then.
I hope the country will return to those times in May 2019.