When Rivers Meet

I am an NRI, translated into: no-real Indian.  I follow Indian cinema in my quest to find only one million original films before humanity as we know it disappears.  I will use the term Indian cinema sparingly because I only have access to Hindi films, not Malayalam, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Konkani, Nepali, Khasi, Dogri, Garo and other languages.

I spoke about my joy in an earlier blog – Ravaan South African Connection -  in finding my language in Mani Ratnam’s film, where the song says ‘makube njalo’, translated into ‘let it be.’  

In our quest to declare ourselves superior and our culture better than all cultures, it is comfortable to forget that there are more things than bind, rather than divide us.  It is the only way we can justify slavery, oppression, racism, general war and genocide.  This brings me to Es’kia Mphahlele and his book entitled simply Es’kia.

Similarities African and Indian Culture
What does that have to do with Indian cinema and Hindi films in particular?  Indian scholars or academics are probably aware of Professor Mphahlele because he wrote extensively when he was in exile, during apartheid South Africa.  He also lectured on ancestor worship, one aspect of African religion.  That is where I’ve created the link.

Africans in my part of the world believe in the here after.  We worship ancestors because they know our problems on earth since they also lived this life.  We tell them when we move house because we don’t want them wandering about, not knowing where we are. 

We tell them when a girl leaves to get married, and they are very happy when a girl from another family joins us as a daughter-in-law.  She will keep our family warm and give us sons to continue the family name.  We call a daughter-in-law umakoti.  I stand corrected but she is called bhabhi in India. We thank the ancestors when children are born and we also admonish them when they shower us with drought, war, famine and general misery.

Every film I’ve seen gives me the impression that Indian religion also believes in ancestors.  You see that at the beginning of the film.  There’s photo of a man or woman with flowers around it.  The garland means that he or she has passed on. 

All ancestors have passed on
That is why Rohan (Akshay Khanna) was so mad in the film Aa Ab Laut Chalen, when he found his father (Rajesh Khanna) alive and well in New York.  He thought of his garlanded photo back in India and his mother, who prayed daily for a husband she thought was dead.

Just recently, I visited a home of an Indian neighbour in Johannesburg and I saw a photo of his mother with garlands around it.  Maybe films do have some merit because I would never have known if I wasn’t a student of Indian cinema.  I’ve seen temples in homes of South Africans of Indian origin, when they open their homes to potential buyers during show day, which is usually on a Sunday in South Africa.  Parents who have passed on have garlands around their photos.

Indians and Africans both worship ancestors and they have their own unique ways of talking to them.  This is how Professor Mphahlele puts it.  “Land is a source of food and holds the dead.  The soil is a gift of the ancestors.  The beginning of the ploughing season, harvesting time – these are occasions that the ancestors are called upon to bless.” Es’kia, Page 147.

There are people in India and abroad who are not great fans of Hindi movies.  Reasons vary.  One of them is what is called ‘song and dance’.  Aishwarya Rai (was not married then) has acted in several Indian movies that resulted in converts to Indian cinema like myself.  She told David Letterman, a U.S. television host that there is song and dance because of her culture that has various celebrations.  Cinema just incorporates them.
Es’kia Book on Professor Mphahlele
Professor Mphahlele relates how Africans do it.  “Religion is a celebration of that which we possess or experience.  Festivals, feasts, dances, music, artistic expression, recreation of myths – they all celebrate and strengthen the community against evil influences.  Indeed, no distinct line is drawn between entertainment or celebration and the functional purpose or utility motive.” Es’kia, Page 148.

A scene in Mohabbatein, directed by Aditya Chopra suggests that it is normal to address parents who are no longer on this earth.  Megha (Aishwarya Rai) who lives with her father Narayan Shankar, (Amitabh Bachchan), likes talking to the photo of her garlanded mother and wearing her clothes. 

We also talk to ancestors.  Although few families can afford it now, we slaughter a goat first if we are going to have a big celebration that involves the slaughtering of a cow.  We say, ‘inkomo iyabikwa’ which means we must report to the ancestors that we will be giving them a present in the form of a bigger animal.

Some people even argue that it is not only Indians and Africans that practise ancestor worship.  All religions do.  All the people in the Bible are long gone.  Christians worship the photo of Jesus and his life of long ago.
Nonqaba waka Msimang is the author of Sweetness The Novel.

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