Past forward

Avtar Singh | Updated on May 31, 2021

Love kin do: Mid-autumn festivals in the past were dominated by community activities. Kids from the neighbourhood would make moon cakes together and play with traditional toys   -  ISTOCK.COM

Conservation of culture has to be part of any meaningful dialogue about progress

A chance post by a friend in Delhi alerted me to something I would have noticed when I lived in that city: the flowering of the Alstonia scholaris, a fragrant harbinger of cooler weather. The sweet smell isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I always enjoyed it. I am an infrequent journal-writer, but the small white clusters on the tree Dilliwalas call the saptaparni always had me reaching for a pen.

It wasn’t just the smell. The blossoming of those distinctive trees meant that summer was actually over. The flowering is also reasonably concurrent with the festive autumn season. I remember walking as a boy under an avenue of umbrella trees (as we called them) to where I’d watch my local ramlila. Even as the percussive backbeat of patakas unsettled us, the top note of the saptaparni flowers softened the blow.

In my memory, that mixture runs together with markets dressed for the season and people buying gifts. Every time I return to Delhi, I am heartened by the fact that the haats of the city still live on, catering busily to those that don’t have the money, inclination or time to go mall-ratting.

I’d like to think that the young children of Delhi can still buy a tacky wooden sword wrapped in tinsel from a cart. That, just as much as its ageing trees, is a link to my own experience of that distant city, at this time of year.


In Beijing, the mid-autumn festival passed more than a month ago. Beijing’s summer, a bit like Delhi’s winter, is short and sharp, and people mark its passing.

A friend who had us over to celebrate the occasion with her family told us about its significance. It is based on the lunar calendar and celebrates the harvest moon. More interesting were her memories of observance. She grew up in Beijing before China had really started taking off on its “growth” trajectory. She remembers a time when the neighbourhood kids would make moon cakes together and play with traditional toys. Everyone knew the poetry that was to be recited, as they’d learnt it in school. Particular music was to be played, which came over the radio (there was nothing else), or from neighbourhood musicians.

That was what was available. People made do, and were happy doing it.

She was nostalgic — that time is gone, she said — but also happy to share her memories. She told us how the mid-autumn festival was traditionally a huge occasion for families, as far-flung members would gather to break the moon cakes together. Her family offered us cakes and tea while the children charged about. There was music, she recited a poem from memory, and then there was the moon.

It was absolutely wonderful.

In India, when we’re not being envious of China’s growth, we resent it for the junk it’s seen to have flooded India with; rubbish that’s replaced much of what we remember most fondly. It is instructive to remember that China, with its own harsh fractures, has known loss as well.


One way in which India wants to emulate China is in the “cleaning” up of its big cities. In Beijing, certainly, the push to show its best face means that irritants such as hawkers have been summarily externed (one reason why the sort of celebration my friend yearns for from her childhood isn’t coming back). What this does to the eco-system of the street is well-documented — briefly, it destroys it. But which of us hasn’t heard a friend, lover or relative wish for exactly the same sort of thing to happen in India as well?

I don’t want to museum-ise that which is disappearing, of course. To allow observance to be removed from culture is to kill it anyway.

But I do have issues with an idea of progress that distrusts its own soil. Why must growth and culture be inimical? Put another way, why must progress be so homogenising and bland? Why must we adopt a beige simulation when our own palettes are so much more vivid?

I was at a discussion recently featuring Patrick Kabanda, the Ugandan musician and author of The Creative Wealth of Nations, the foreword to which is written by Amartya Sen. Among the issues that came up was the very intangibility of “culture”. This finds its mirror in the willingness of policymakers to jettison culture whenever it is positioned as oppositional to growth, which is practically always. The reason why it is almost never seen as linked positively to growth or progress is simple. What use is it if you can’t put a figure to it?

To attempt to quantify the worth of culture is to miss the point. These things — observance and memory, a moment your child will remember as clearly as you do — matter precisely because they exist at a level that doesn’t have a price.

Of course culture needs to be disputed, debated, even fought over. Of course it is evolving, and its more retrograde elements unquestionably need to be dumped. But we need to have that conversation, and not disregard it.

Otherwise the wooden swords will be gone, but we’ll still have the pollution.

Avtar Singh   -  BUSINESS LINE


Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing

Published on October 26, 2018

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