From a Yogi’s Diary: Warming up to PM Narendra Modi
During his silent meditative moments, does PM Modi seek forgiveness from the universe, Kavita Chandran wonders.
The day 31 May 2018, will go down in my life as the day I shook hands with a man I had loathed once upon a time. Only it didn’t feel that way when our eyes and hands met.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue with Asian leaders. There was much song and dance linked to the preparations before his visit, metaphorically and literally.
The High Commission of India was on its toes, as it should be, and I found myself discussing an idea with the Indian ambassador, Jawed Ashraf, about a yoga and dance performance to entertain the PM during his visit.
As you may know, the word “yoga” in the current Indian political scene earns everyone instant brownie points. And so, I ended up conceptualising and scripting a show about the seven chakras and the yoga sutras.
The dance company, Apsaras Arts Singapore, breathed magic into it by choreographing a mix of Bharatnatyam and yoga to music that could stir any soul.
I watched in amazement as the concept took shape into what can only be called a mesmerising performance that had Modi glued to his seat, his fingers tapping to the beats and his head swaying in appreciation.
Witnessing the Euphoria Around Modi in Person
I had watched the Modi euphoria from behind the stage curtains when he had walked in: a room full of 5,000-plus people with their phones perched on extended arms were recording videos that would soon clog many WhatsApp groups.
On another corner, an ecstatic mob of manic men shouted “Modi, Modi” in unison as they greeted a rockstar who strode in with celebrated confidence, folded hands and a warm smile, in what looked like a perfectly choreographed showman’s entry. What an actor, I thought.
My ugly perception of Modi was etched deep — as it still may be for many in and outside India — because of what happened in Godhra in 2002.
No, I did not cover the riots as a journalist, nor did I express much opinion to naysayers.
We lived in the US then — far away from one of the worst communal riots in India where then Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, was accused of allegedly initiating violence and suppressing evidence — and it was the next most embarrassing news from ‘back home’ after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992.
The best announcement that came for many of us NRIs after the incident was that Modi was banned from entering the US. Unfortunately, close Muslim friends of ours in the US who had lost some family members during the riots had to relocate to Dubai with relatives who had managed to escape. That had added fury to our heavy hearts.
This may be a good place to mention upbringing, and how – in my humble opinion - ‘religion’ is communicated and perceived by us during our growing up years.
As the child of an army officer, I grew up in various diverse cantonments, always looking for excuses to celebrate events and festivals. From Diwali to Christmas to Eid to Lohri to Navroz to Holi, the list was endless.
We were raised to believe ‘religion’ was man-made, and we must respect all beliefs and traditions just as we expect others to respect ours. Secularism truly was a thing.
What role did ‘religion’ play in your home when you were growing up? Or for that matter, in Narendra Modi’s?
After 2002, life sped by, and we relocated to Singapore at some point. Before I knew, it was 2014.
I watched on TV as India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, stood on stage at the Allphones Arena at Sydney, hands extended like a seasoned performer, receiving adulation from 16,000 hysterical people of different faiths in a hall that echoed with thundering beats and chants of “Modi, Modi”.
I decided I would never go back to a country that forgot, and forgave this man, and put him on an undeserving pedestal.
A Growing Obsession With Yoga
Somewhere along the years that had gone by, I had developed a penchant, rather an obsession, with yoga. Once away from newsroom duties, I would take time out to stretch, breathe and meditate on my mat every day.
Regular practice of yoga, which included dedicated breathing exercises and mindfulness, forced me to turn inward, learn about cosmic energies and chakras, Reiki and Nichiren, appreciate simple moments, be mindful, express gratitude, forgive easily, cherish the present, and turn to a less-judgmental life.
I was bickering less and becoming a nicer person, more acceptable of circumstances and giving every incident the benefit of doubt.
It’s hard to explain how yoga can bring about a transformation, but it does.
Some friends have dismissed it as a mid-life crisis, others have cheered me on.
A year after the Sydney performance, Modi convinced 192 participants at the United National General Assembly to celebrate 21 June, the summer solstice, as International Yoga Day to bring about “a sense of oneness within yourself, the world and the nature”.
For the first time I found myself applauding to an idea which made more sense than having days reserved for secretaries, bosses, valentines, mosquitoes, dogs and burgers (Look it up, they all exist!)
I read up about Modi’s tryst with yoga, and learned about his disciplined routine, his breathing exercises and his meditation — a habit that keeps him energetic despite his whirlwind worldly tours.
I found out about the pranayama that allows him to complete a good sleep cycle in only four hours, and leaves him awake and alert for the rest of the day. I discovered that apart from vegetarianism and fasting, he was also a big fan of nimbu paani.
Does He Do What a True Yogi Would?
But then, I wondered, how was such a yogi accused of some very un-yogic conduct?
Did meditation help him detach from atonement and only focus forward? If his chakras were aligned, did his mind not crave forgiveness? Does he regret his nonchalance? What was the story behind that story? This is more a question linked to the conscience, lest I am attacked with lectures about the politics behind the Hindutva support, RSS votes, and religious mangling.
Does he believe his purpose is to be the messiah that leads his country to a ‘developed’ status, even if at the expense of serving fanatics and ignoring fallouts?
Modi marvels at Singapore each time he visits, and yet, he’s never borrowed a single lesson of lawfulness that makes this tiny island the safest in the world, one where someone with the “intention” of rape is subject to the same penalties as someone who actually commits it (which could mean jail term of up to 20 years with severe caning).
India, on the other hand, despite rising up in the Global Innovation Index ranking, sinks in shame each time it is referred to as the world’s “rape capital.”
The Prime Minister does little to crack a whip to change that reputation, just as he stalls from rendering an apology for past wrongdoings.
The only yogic reasoning, perhaps, are Abhyasa and Vairagya, the art of “practice” and “detachment” as explained by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, both acts ultimately lead to a calm state of mind.
As the Yoga Sutras came alive in a dance form called Anushasanam at the Marina Bay Sands ballroom in Singapore that night, I stood next to the stage, barely 15 feet away from Modi, who sat on the front row in his white kurta, pants and grey jacket – his quintessential fashion vest that has now quashed the name and popularity of the “Nehru Jacket”.
His legs were folded, his arms rested by his side, his spine was straight, and his fingers tapped their way to the enchanting music. He was truly enjoying the present moment — the here and now.
Moments later, as we all, dancers, yoga practitioners, script writers and choreographers, bowed to thundering applause from the audience, Modi walked up on stage with his hands folded.
He congratulated all the performers, constantly remarking words of praise — “very good”, “excellent”, “bahut badhiya” — as well as “take care of your health” to some.
When the High Commissioner introduced me, Modi leaned forward and extended his hands — his very soft hands — and he looked me in the eye, and said, “Thank you. It was an excellent show.”
I noticed how big and twinkling his eyes were, not an iota of fatigue anywhere inside. His skin was creamy, flawless and shining. What caught my attention the most was the warmth he exuded, like a father figure who was touched by the effort involved in impressing him with a performance around yoga.
I wanted to judge him and dislike him, but I saw no double standards, no hidden agenda, no ego, and no malice. I saw only appreciation and gratitude.
I saw him again at Clifford Pier two days later, where he unveiled the plaque of Gandhi close to the waters where some of the Mahatma’s ashes were scattered after his death. As his car pulled out after the ceremony, he bent from the backseat to wave at fans, and our eyes met again.
To him, I was probably just another Indian face, craving a glimpse of the man who was even worshipped by some.
But to me, he was a simple man with a simpler, but heavy, heart, serving his purpose in life — one that carried the burden to deliver, to achieve, and to let sleeping dogs lie so as not to stir the hornet’s nest.
I wonder if at some point, during his silent meditative moments, he says a prayer and seeks forgiveness from the universe. Because that’s what a true yogi would do.
( Kavita Chandran is the editor and publisher of Yoga Journal Singapore, and founder of Sankia Wellness. She is also the author of a book on yoga called ’The Head that won’t Stand’, and has worked as a business journalist with Reuters, Bloomberg and CNBC for 20 years.The views expressed above are of the author’s own and The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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