Johnny-came-lately writers, like yours truly, face daunting dilemmas. With apologies to the budding young writers and their ilk– the future life just doesn’t have enough of mileage for the late comers to keep going.
However, the flip side is that novice writers like me have traveled such a long time on this earth that ideas can be plucked out of the journey with the ease of gulping down “paani-poories” from a plate that gets replenished by the paani-poorie vendor with a flourish.
More often than not, we generate fresh ideas to enrich the language so that it lasts to eternity.
What were the compulsions to come up with the story of Merbai?
A lot of my friends asked me “Is this a real story? Where did this happen? Where is the dehri of Mohan – Merbai?”
The historical real life character of Meerabai never failed to excite and inspire me. Just imagine! More than 400 years ago, in the most conservative of the regions of Mevaad in Rajasthan, a young princess mustered up the courage to proclaim Krishna as her only true husband.
To utter it once, in the spur of a moment, is easy enough but to stick to it for life must have been a monumentally tormenting task for her. What is more, She gave a big impetus to the bhakti movement, producing reams of bhajans that became the signature tune of woman empowerment!
Fast-forward 20th Century this story is set in:
Today, even in the pseudo-liberated society such as ours, in most conservative homes, the life and the aspirations of a woman cannot be hers alone. On the face of it there is a semblance of liberation for women, a grudging acceptance; a sort of controlled allowance – let her do what she wants; and if she strays too far pull her up to bring her back to her senses!
I had to put this story of Meerabai in a new form. What if a young boy, for whatever reasons, proclaims one of the innumerable Devis to be his wife/consort / lover?
Wouldn’t hell break loose? The diehard Devi bhakts (worshippers) would be at his throat!
Not just that boy! Even I would be pilloried or hanged for penning such heretical story!
The prospects of getting hanged by the delirious worshippers in the form of an instant justice were too daunting for me. So I took the middle way out. Chickened out, guys!
I conjured up the story unfolding in a remote village of Dangs – by the way no such village by the name exists there – and drummed up the story of a fictitious Kuldevi called Merbai. Diligent readers would figure out the rhyming names of Merbai, Mohanio, Rukmi as Meera bai Mohan (Krishna) and Rukimini – all related to Lord Krishna in some way or other.
For the Gujarati version, while a large part of the narration of the story is in normal chaste Gujarati, the inevitable dialogues had to be in the local lingo of region around Surat. Some well wishers warned me that the local Surti as spoken in the villages around Surat would not be easily understood but I stuck to my scheme of things as otherwise the local flavor of the story as well as the punch would be lost.
Can you imagine a story being told or shown on the silver screen in chaste Hindi that shows the location as Mumbai? It has to be the bambaiyaa Hindi, right?
The classic Dilipkumar – Vyjayanti starrer Hindi movie Ganga Jumna would have been a cropper were it to be in chaste Hindi instead of the lilting Bhojpuri.
To be honest, it became clear that in order to do justice to the main theme of the story, the local flavor and the culture of a distant village would have to be woven in.
It was the end of the story that tested my nerves. While the idea of the story kept haunting in my mind for days together I needed to come up with a strong end. So the end that the readers see is the culmination of dozens of ideas. Many readers got so engrossed and involved in the story that it was nerve-wrecking for them to stomach the end that I have finally decided.
Unwittingly, my own take on the religious beliefs gets exposed in the story.
When the villagers express their resentment at Mohania being unable to get on with his premonitions, he declares “I worshipped Merbai and she guided me all along through my involuntary dreams but now that she is a part of me the knowledge of the future in store for me and me alone is unnecessary. The deity that I worship now resides in me and I should have the faith and confidence in my own self to chart out my future. All of you do likewise so that there is no need for someone else to forewarn you.”
Most of the readers would vouch for the general belief that the astrologers are able to peer into the crystal ball and forewarn ‘other’ people on their future but cannot predict the future of the astrologer. My own motto is create your own destiny by painstakingly chiseling away at the raw life given to them. I have made no conscious attempt to hide it in the story.
Is this a Folklore or a story?
This is not folklore in the strict sense of the word since no such event has actually occurred in any village that I know of. If a deity called Merbai is being worshipped anywhere in India I am not aware. So it is not a story I have built around some old wives tale type folklore going around. It is a definite story to rekindle the idea of Meerabai into the modern society, promoting tolerance of views other than the dogmatic insistence on age old beliefs.
Some people, especially some critics from established Gujarati magazines have questioned the wisdom of incorporating the local language in some of the dialogues. Their questioning reeks of contempt for the hitherto unexplored variants of the Gujarati language.
Aside from the reasons that I have elaborated elsewhere in the epilogue, I wish to touch upon the process by which any Indian language flourishes through incorporation of colloquial slangs, idioms. It is well nigh impossible to bring out the flavours of the culture of any region without drawing from the colloquial vocabulary.
Let us take the example of Gujarati literature.
It has been nourished through the efforts of giant literary figures such as Zaverchand Meghani, Pannalal Patel et al who have copiously written (‘Saurashtra ni Rasdhaar’ and Maanvi ni Bhavaai’ respectively) in the local lingo of the region to which the story belonged. I do not know what resistance they may have faced from the advocates of chaste Gujarati at that time. Over time, learned readers have learnt to understand and assimilate the local lingo to appreciate the stupendous literature created by these stalwarts.
Sure, some regions of Gujarat may have, for some historical reasons, fallen behind in contributing towards the growth of the traditional literature – here by tradition; I mean the sum total of literature already created in certain regional flavours. The way the Gujarati language is spoken in the region of South Gujarat perhaps is a case point. It has drawn and adopted words from the rich heritage of language spoken by the adivasis (aborigines) of hilly regions of Dangs. The purists are prone to recoil in horror at the insertion of such sentences/ phrases in some of my dialogues in the story. Even Saint Tulsidas had to face wrath faced of the purists Brahmins for rewriting the epic Ramayana in the local language spoken in the Uttar Pradesh.
Come on guys, be a sport. Don’t parade your prejudices by putting down the language spoken in South Gujarat as a some dialect of the chaste Gujarati generally accepted in the literary world so far. The evolution of any language cannot be in the hands of a particular caucus.
Let the Gujaratis with no hang-ups read and appreciate different forms of the language as spoken in South Gujarat instead of continuing to relish the vice-like hold that established writers have created for a century or more.
Coming back to the end of the story once again:
Mohanio himself cannot fathom the turmoil he is going through. All he knows is that he worshipped the deity Merbai along with his poojari father for years ever since he was a child. As the old story goes, Meerabai finally merged into the image of Krishna.
The pressure from his parents to get married gets Mohania confused. Merbai for him is inseparable from his psyche. The ritual of him being married off by the Mahatma is pregnant with a hope that he would regain his normal acceptable behavior. But, the idea of immersing the image of Merbai – the one he got married to – is full of anguish just like the glass of poison in the case of Meerabai. He fears that the old-fashioned villagers will not let him live the way he wanted to and would keep mocking him.
What better way than simply taking a Samadhi (watery grave of his own volition) with his beloved deity. Besides, he had already created hundreds of bhajans that would live through ages.
So I allowed him to jump off into the swirling waters along with the image of Merbai. The worshipper and the deity he worshipped merged and became one. Isn’t that worshipping all about?
The desire to marry a religious deity seems too outlandish even today. I am certainly not mooting this idea into the minds of young worshippers!
But the idea is to start questioning and reviewing old, outdated religious practices and make the religion compatible with the new knowledge gained through science. All that the science says, invents or discovers may not be good just as all that the religious practices may not be bad. Science keeps testing its own hypothesis all the time. All religions better do likewise – question, test and reform in the light of new verifiable facts.
Mortal men and women, over the centuries, have endeavoured to breathe fresh ideas and inevitably they have been crucified only to be resurrected later. Around the same time that Meerabai was doing her bit the great Saint Poet Narsinh Mehta revolutionized the society by joining the low caste villagers over dinner. Heretical as it may have sounded at that time it took several centuries to throw up a Mahatma Gandhi to resurrect Narsinh Mehta.
आ नो भद्राः करतवो कष्यन्तु विश्वतो
“Let knowledge and noble thoughts come from all directions”