Rationally Speaking….

‘Honourable Rebel’, the theme for this years Latur VEDH was a celebrated one, and rightfully so. I for one, unfortunate to have missed attending the event in person, was extremely excited and quite impatient for the sessions to be released on AVAHAN, the YouTube channel. The enlightening and thought provoking interview of Dr. Hamid Dabholkar and Rukhsana Mulla, both, shouldering the responsibility of propagating rationalism through the Maharashtra Andhsraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) was indeed a treat to absorb. This blog is an expression of the impact it has had on me. I sincerely hope that my pen helps me in fluently expressing my views, for strong experiences often tend to numb me down.

As a child, I was naturally curious about a million things, reasons behind performing various rituals being one of the topics. This curiosity had a typical answer, “We do it because its advised in the Shastras.” I think this line goes as an answer for all the doubts like a pair of delicate gold earrings go well with most dresses in anyone’s wardrobe. Here’s an example- I once suffered the exasperation of the ladies in the household who were tired from cooking various delicacies, for serving salt in the plate that was to be offered to the deities on some festive occasion. I was ignorant of the ritualistic rules that stated otherwise. I wanted a reason behind this rule and my grandmother gave me the rehearsed line, “Its written in the Shastras.” My grandfather, a man honest to the core chipped in and observed, “My child, I think its because of the water in the salad preparation. Can you imagine how this residual water would go through the salt, encircling the plate and making everything salty?”, he said playfully and I laughed. But that was a much practical answer, I thought, willing to buy it.

When Rukhsana Mulla talks about how she rebelled against wearing a burqa, I remember an incident from my own childhood. Behold the irony. We had a function at school. The theme was to represent India. Our class teacher wanted one of the girls to borrow the burqa of one of our other teachers and wear it while presenting a chart on Eid. I was very excited to wear the burqa for when would I get to wear it otherwise? I volunteered for it but the teacher wanted the tallest girl in the class to do the needful because the burqa wouldn’t fit me. To my immense relief then and much sadness now, the girl’s family wouldn’t let her do it because they were Hindus who thought it inauspicious. I spent the day of the event looking like a sack, but enjoyed myself thoroughly, despite the obvious frowns and shock of those who asked for my obviously Hindu name. In all the irony that comparing these two incidences presents, the point is, it is not about the burqa! It is about the freedom- to wear it, and to not.

It is very clear that the level of irrationality I have experienced, although frequently isn’t as harmful and severe as many other instances that one reads about. After recollecting such experiences I have this to say-

People have a way of making meaning of the minutest incidences that happen to them. For example, having bought fruits that aren’t sweet enough, some might blame it on the way that unknown bystander was greedily looking at them. Others might take it as the fruits of their own karma, quite literally! Making meaning is necessary for human beings, for it helps in comprehending how the world functions.

A child, burnt by trying to catch the flame of a lamp, learns to avoid it in the future. Adults on the same lines, try and make associations out of rationally unrelated things sometimes, in order to avoid unpleasant consequences in the future. If one associates a failed interview to the shirt they wore that day, they would learn to avoid wearing it for important days in their life henceforth.
The child learning to avoid fire has evolutionary significance. We are all biologically programmed to learn to escape from unpleasant things and it has a completely evolutionary purpose. The person with the failed interview might either be an example of this biological need to escape harm gone wrong or the product of some irrational thought that dictates, “Things must never go wrong in my life. If they do go wrong, I will tear apart the incidence into pieces and make it right the next time!”

On the other hand, there is this belief, rooted in history, that looks at humans as basically aggressive, destructive and downright selfish. This further means that humans won’t behave in a way that maintains social order, unless there is fear. This can be anything from the fear of buying oil on Saturdays to fear of the stars, planets and how they were positioned on the day of one’s birth.

As psychology students, the first thing we are taught is classifying psychological phenomena as abnormal. There are three constructs that help in determining abnormality. The first is psychological dysfunction: the breakdown in cognitiive, emotive and behavioural functioning. The second is impairment in daily functioning, which means that the symptoms or the distress affects one’s routine negatively. The third construct, which is central to our theme is culturally atypical behaviour. To illustrate this, imagine someone panicking over a black cat crossing their path. This reaction wouldn’t raise eyebrows in India, it would rather invite pity. But the same reaction would definitely be abnormal in some other country, simply as the cultural context differs.

Connecting everything together, can we say that superstitions and stereotypes are justified abnormality? This justification is so strong that one fails to see how it curtails individual freedom. Ruksana Mulla’s heartfelt narration is the illustration of this very statement. The distress that people, those wounded by superstitions and on the receiving end of stereotypes face, is conveniently neglected to the point that most people on the receiving end learn to live with it too!

It is to curb this distress and the root of it: irrationality, that a social intervention, in the form of MANS’s work is the need of the hour. That it still presents itself as such an urgent need, despite such interventions by multiple thinkers through the pages of history, just presents a sad picture. The word abnormal essentially means the phenomena which are seen in the minority. Majority decides what is right and what isn’t. When the face of the majority is irrational, it gives me the undying urge to compare it to a heard of sheep, blindly following a path.

As mentioned before, the incidences of irrationality in my life are not sever, thankfully so. That however, doesn’t imply I am any less distressed by such situations when they tend to curb the freedom to live rationally- be it my freedom or the freedom of my countrymen. I wish the video of this session at Latur VEDH is watched by millions, for that would exemplify a wave of the social intervention we are hoping for.

The day after I watched this session, a new sun arose on my sky. Dr. Hamid Dabholkar says he was a de facto member of MANS, by the virtue of taking birth in the Dabholkar family. Rukhsana Mulla rebelled out of the need to educate herself and to ensure her rights are granted. I choose to stand by them actively, recognizing rationality as a value. What this gives me is a goal. Today, I recognize I unfortunately am not so courageous as to take it to a social level directly. What I have been successful in doing however, is this; I have been mindful of instances that have embodied irrationality during the past few days. I have examined and corrected some of my own thoughts compassionately. I hereby pledge, to actively ensure my own freedom in cases where irrationality curbs it and help others do it when empathy calls for it.

Shahu, Ambedkar, Dalwai, Dabholkar and Dabholkar, Mulla, have all envisioned a way of life, a rational face of the country for us. As slow as the change is, as unpromising and hopeless as certain assassinations make the picture, I choose to start contributing in my own small way. I promise to give myself this way of life we all deserve, as I pray others do too.

-Ketaki Joshi

To watch Dr.Hameed Dabholkar and Rukhsana Mulla’s session at Latur VEDH, click on https://youtu.be/xv4kgxE2jbM

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