I had been reading Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi, a riveting account of India in the years following Independence and the word “tamasha” leapt out at me. In both Urdu and Hindi the word tamasha—with its Arabic origin—means “crowd” or “saunter,” although the word has begun to mean also “spectacle” or “commotion.”
Guha used “tamasha” in that latter sense, meaning “spectacle,” to describe the farcical goings-on of the inquiry of 1977, the Shah Commission that probed Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s excesses during the Indian Emergency. For 21 months, she had the power to suspend elections and civil liberties and rule by decree. During the court proceedings held during the inquiry, Mrs. Gandhi would not answer any of the questions, claiming disingenuously that she was bound by her cabinet’s oath of secrecy. This travesty of the court process Guha billed a tamasha or spectacle, a term that’s popularly used in Indian journalism in mocking reference to the fractious tendencies of Indian politics as well as the raucousness of sociocultural gatherings. The word was popular during the British Raj and I’ve discovered several writings from the time that used the word—most often spelt “tomasha”—to suggest the cacophony and entertainment of an Indian festival.
In early September, I employed the word for the title of an album on Facebook to capture the mood of the crowd during a wedding in the San Francisco Bay Area. The main ceremony took place in the glare of the sun and several thoughtful touches pervaded many aspects of the wedding. The groom and bride had wished to serve sunglasses and parasols to the motley crowd of aging Indian aunties and uncles and high-octane young business graduates. One attendee who was used to blessing the circulating tray with the mangalsutra or sacred thread also absentmindedly blessed the tray of monogrammed sunglasses doing the rounds. Gossip flowed under orange parasols in the rising heat. I’d felt instinctively that the parasols were an ironic touch: the minute they were opened they blocked those in the back from watching the wedding proceedings on stage. Most of us realized that the wedding planners had been prescient. The point of an Indian wedding was never as much to watch the ceremony as to watch all those attempting to catch a glimpse of the ceremony. Under the sea of orange umbrellas, one old couple whose family had suffered through walking back from Burma after the Second World War exchanged notes with another woman whose grandfather too had endured such hardship. It was inevitable that tales of Rangoon naturally segued into a discussion of Rangoon rubies.
“Did you see that ruby choker on her neck?” my friend asked tilting her head in the direction of another common friend sporting her brand new 10,000 dollar choker studded with rubies.
“But why buy something only to put it away in the safe deposit box in a bank?” I asked. To that my friend said that unless a parent bought something as dazzling as that during the course of her life, there would be no heirloom to bequeath to one’s children. And while I didn’t entirely agree with her line of reasoning as justification for buying jewelry, I capitulated all the same.
Some of the most beautiful things our parents passed on to us I thought to myself, came giftwrapped in stories and memories. Their value was never more obvious to us until a connection had been severed.
For one 60-year-old guest in the audience, the September wedding offered yet another tamasha: the open bar raised questions about a once closed mind. The father of the bride, a lifelong teetotaler, had been generous enough to ensure that the best cocktails were served just so the friends and relatives of his daughter and son-in-law could have the time of their lives.
Under the flaming bright umbrellas at the spectacular golf club, a beautiful term from the previous night’s tamasha flitted from seat to seat: “Druncle,” a portmanteau word that described every good Indian uncle who had been found too inebriated to navigate a straight path to the bar.
I realized that what I liked the most about a wedding applied to news and politics, after all. “News is tamasha and what really bothers me is that people criticize it, but still watch it,” reporter Barkha Dutt once said to journalist Akash Bannerjee in an interview for Scroll. I thought what she said perfectly encapsulated the meaning of the word: “People like to watch tamasha.”
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.