The Subversive Power of a Pinhole

Dr.Vikas Bajpai 

Dear Friends,

Sometimes there can be a strange confluence of thoughts. While participating in a demonstration in support of the agitating farmers today morning at Jantar-Mantar, I was suddenly reminded of the story of ‘Birbal ki Kichdi’ (Birbal’s porridge). I cannot be blaming if you are intrigued by the connection between Birbal, his kichdi, and the ongoing peasant struggle. The subject of the mail – ‘the subversive power of a pinhole’ only adds to the intrigue of this incantation.

Towards resolution let us first be reminded briefly of ‘Birbal ki kichdi’ story. A poor washer man happened to take on Emperor Akbar’s challenge to stand neck deep in the river through the night in an exceptionally freezing winter, all to win the hefty prize money on the offer. Impressed by the daunting feat of the washer man, Akbar sought to know what gave the man hope to last the ordeal. The flickering lamp on the roof of emperor’s palace was the source of his supplication, the man submitted humbly. For reason of mischievously deliberate stupidity perhaps, the emperor concluded that it was the warmth of the lamp that enabled the man’s feat rather than his stoic endurance. He was thus disqualified from receiving the prize money.

As is characteristic of Akbar-Birbal tales, it took the witty gravitas of Akbar’s trusted court noble and friend Birbal to have justice delivered to the poor washer man. It was communicated to the emperor that Birbal is unable to attend the royal court until his ‘kichdi’ is cooked. Piqued as Akbar was with the reason for Birbal’s absence, he landed at his friend’s house to investigate things first hand.

There sat Birbal in his courtyard, with a pitcher hanging from the top of a bamboo pole as a dainty fire lit on the ground. Apprehending the obvious query from Jahanpana’s countenance Birbal assured the emperor of his method’s validity in much the same way as the warmth of the lamp could comfort the washer man. Akbar broke into an irreverent laugh at this, and the washer man soon became nouveau riche.

Things acquire their meaning from the context in which they play out. Hindustan then was perhaps the world’s richest empire, and Akbar its genial emperor who loved and cared for his people, and sought their emancipatory cultural amalgamation. The significance of the flickering flame of the lamp could be dismissed under the circumstances extant then.

We live in a different Hindustan now, where the rulers feast on hatred and thrive by drawing the divisions between their ‘subjects’ deeper. For our times, when the rulers seek to engulf us in an ever deepening darkness I substitute the metaphor of the ‘lamp’ with a ‘pinhole’. The more menacing the darkness the greater is the subversive power of a pinhole.

In times of darkness opening of doors and windows to let in the brightness of hope ushered in by the fragrant breeze of peoples’ struggles becomes possible only when there are people willing to drive pinholes in the walls of darkness when these appear most daunting. The problem is that the ruling classes seem to grasp the subversive prowess of pinholes much better than many of us who despair the moment struggles ebb and the silence becomes deafening.

Despair can hardly lend us to our salvation, and none seem to know this better than the peasants who have come knocking at the door steps of Delhi in their tens of thousands. I was happy to be part of a crowd of little over two hundred at Jantar-Mantar who had gathered to lend their support to the agitating peasants. They had come determined to drive their drills into the walls of darkness erected by this regime.

It is time that we all grasp the subversive prowess of a pinhole.