Will someone please tell North Block that pleasure's no sin?
Diwali is around the corner and one of the few occasions when Indians allow some pleasure and joy to enter their lives. However, if you were growing up in a sombre and austere middle-class household like ours, you wouldn't have known it. As children, we were reminded that 'pleasure is a sin and sin is pleasure', and 'a life of pleasure' was an expression of abuse. When I was a child I was mostly up to no good, and before I could even ask her anything, my mother had a standard reply: 'No'. It became such a habit with her that for a while I believed that my name must be 'No'. Later, when I began to read the daily newspaper, I discovered the same prejudice existed in the media. Our paper focused relentlessly on bad news — murders, rapes and wars — and the only pleasurable things, even today, are the advertisements.
Fortunately, my grandmother disagreed with the majority view in our family. She did not believe in suppressing desire but in 'cultivating' it. Cultivating pleasure meant that you were in charge and not the other way around. She was far more connected to our classical Sanskrit civilisation in which kama means both desire and pleasure. Our kama optimists, she told us, had elevated pleasure to 'trivarga', one of the goals of life. In fact, kama was the 'first born' in the Rig Veda and the cosmos was created from the seed of desire in the mind of the One. Alas, we also had our share of kama pessimists — yogis, rishis and other renouncers — who held that bodily pleasures were indisputably wicked. My grandmother drew a distinction between sensory and intellectual pleasures and she was a devotee of the latter — especially the delights of reading, thought, and beauty. Like all good things, she said, cultivating pleasure required education.
Before you could enjoy the singing of Kishori Amonkar, you needed to be trained in the basics of a raga. Before you could enjoy a painting of Tyeb Mehta, you had to be acquainted with colour, line and shape. Before you could enjoy Shakespeare's Hamlet, you had to acquire an understanding of the human condition. One of the great sources of pleasure, she felt, lay in human friendship. With good common sense, she believed that physical pleasures were also a necessary part of the human life. What was bad was excessive indulgence, not the pleasure itself, which as Aristotle says, is essential to the good life.
Our family was divided among those who approved of Nehru's socialism and those who opposed it. The kill-joys in our family supported a 125% excise duty on cosmetics which was levied by the government to discourage luxuries and encourage the production of necessities. My grandmother protested. 'Even a village belle likes to look beautiful,' she said, 'why must she be made to pay for talcum powder through her nose.' She called officials in the finance ministry 'commissars who hate to see people happy.'
Old habits die hard. When India embarked this year on the goods and services tax, the most sensible tax reform in our history, the commissar mentality of the licence raj reasserted itself. Talcum powder, cinema tickets, cement, paint, furniture and a host of items of everyday use were placed in the highest (28%) tax category. Knowing that housing is the largest creator of jobs, it is senseless for a nation clamouring for jobs to tax housing materials as luxuries under the 28% tax bracket. In a rare confession, Mahender Singh of the Central Board of Excise and Customs and the GST Council admitted that the 28% rate was 'unnecessarily high on items of daily use'. Pleasure is still a bad word in North Block and the finance ministry needs to be reminded that its job is tax collecting, not social engineering.
Finally, my grandmother introduced us to the Chinese ideas of Yin and Yang. She explained that the 'doing energy', the exerting, producing, and delivering results is associated with Yang. Our post-reform society wants us 'do more, work harder!' Because of this, she felt we have forgotten the Yin side of our lives — the joy of being alive and of doing things for the sake of pleasure and happiness. And so, on this Diwali, don't succumb to bursting firecrackers, which are now illegal, but follow my grandmother's advice and cultivate genuine pleasure.