Lamenting the decline of a quaint ‘ngejot’ tradition

I have been thinking about adding an ‘Opinion’ category to the blog for quite some time as often there were issues – some topical, controversial or the odd book review that I would love to share with our Ashram/Gandhian minded community. But like a number of my bright ‘sparks’ it stays on the back burner, waiting for the ‘fuel’ ingredient to allow for that combustion to blast me off my backside (no, not literally as literally I have to do the opposite and ‘sit’ on the said thing and punch on the keyboard). And make a time for this inaugural opinion article.

Last week a Facebook posting by a ‘nephew’ (as he is the son of an older cousin – my mother’s vintage so technically a second cousin but in Bali, he is a ‘nephew’) lamenting over the passing of a seemingly innocuous and quaint tradition in Bali, caught my eye. Just the fuel we need!

It is called ngejot which is the act of giving or sending food to neighbours during ngejot festival-holidays such as Galungan and Kuningan, or during private ceremonies such as a baby’s three month’s, as a way of ‘sharing’ the joys. But the ngejot specifically mentioned here was the reciprocal ngejot as practised between our parents and their non Hindu friends (perhaps in the 50s or 60s – yes of the last century) has connotations outside the traditional ngejot amongst simply us the Hindu Balinese.

To me this seemingly simple gesture conveys quite a number of messages between friends but with one underlying and often overlooked theme – respect. That they respect/value the friendship and that they respect their respective, no pun intended, beliefs. This gesture was made even more profound in the context of the economic hardship in Bali/Indonesia at the time which made the ‘simple’ gesture not so simple (and at times I’m sure it was even felt as a bit of an imposition). It was the days of Zimbabwean like hyper-inflation and high unemployment and parents had to be very creative in making ends meet.

This nephew then made a very perceptive observation and reminisced about how the ngejot tradition made us children rejoice in the celebration of the friends faith, be it Idul Fitri or Christmas or Chinese New Year, and presumably they of ours.

As well as the ngejot practice, I personally recall the excitement at Idul Fitri of visiting a Muslim uncle’s family for a big feast (one of the most genuine, respectful and compassionate person of integrity – yet very modest and humble – I have ever met, the auntie is my mother’s younger sister; and their family is held in very high esteem by our extended family, the fact that they belonged to a different faith seemed to matter little. Though not articulated at the time as such, I always look at our very natural mutual respect of our differences in faith and ethnicity – the husband was a Sundanese from West Java – as  something to cherish as natural, innocent and touchingly beautiful). As long as I can remember at Christmas time we always received food parcels from our Christian friends and mother was always busy sending Christmas cards, primarily overseas. We weren’t as involved with the Chinese New Year but always knew when it came around with a nice big cake from the mother of my brother’s Chinese classmate (I’m referring to ethnicity, like Balinese, as we were all Indonesians), delivered by him on the back of his Vespa scooter sans licence – hence through the back streets route at night to avoid the police.

We as children were not about practising ‘tolerance’ as living the respect and the friendship. In any case it’s a term that has been misused as I’m still having trouble using it without having to qualify it first.

Tolerance comes from (to) tolerate or to put up with of something that you otherwise strongly disagree or dislike or think of being inferior (ref. orig. Latin toleratus, past participle of tolerare to endure, put up  with; akin to Old English tholian to bear, Latin tollere to lift up, latus carried – suppletive past participle of ferre, Greek tlēnai to bear First Known Use: 1524 Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary). In fact to tolerate, just as its origins meant, conveys something that one has to bear and endure under sufferance while suppressing one’s dislike or total disbelief of what one tolerates.  While lack of suitable alternative ensures continued grudging use of ‘tolerance’ even by the great man Gandhi himself, perhaps we should really put more emphasis on the respect aspects (of other beliefs, race or simply people) as respect promotes the desire to know,  find out and understand more about the concept or peoples that is ‘unfamiliar’ to us or we ‘have not yet fully understood’, and not simply condemn it as ‘undesirable’ or ‘inferior’ that does not deserve further investigation that one simply needs to ‘tolerate’.

I think what we experienced as children was about embracing the friendship which conveys respect of the friendship, and the diversity that came with it – definitely not dislike or suspicion implied by tolerate. Children do these without intellectualising the action nor weighing the pros and cons of  tolerance but by simply doing it and living it naturally, or celebrating the underlying intent of the practice (as they – the children – often do tend to get the essence of the situation, or in today’s parlance ‘get it’, much faster than us the adults). So the lesson comes from the positive experiences about people and friendship all intertwined with nuances of respect, compassion, generosity, trust and the likes. Knowing them as friends do break down a lot of the barriers and those inane fears and prejudices of the unfamiliar.

Now how else can one engender such goodwill in children, that good feeling about peoples of other faith or ethnicity and race that will always be a positive factor in their attitude and choices later on as adults? One will not get it in the class rooms nor in religious classes and certainly not from any amount of government decrees on ‘tolerance’! The good conducive environment of our childhood certainly left its mark on myself and my brothers with our ex school friends coming from varied backgrounds. A number of us still have them – in my case now also includes their adult children – as very good friends of ours (the varied faiths circle of friends now extended to many agnostic and agnostic/spiritual, or atheist, friends many of whom I met through the Ashram network or, in one instance, through marriage, which I’m obviously quite comfortable with).

Touched by the above sentiments I quickly posted my thoughts on the decline of this ngejot tradition, basically attributing it on the increasing affluence of the now time poor middle class Balinese, or Indonesians in general, that eventually seen the profligacy of supermarket style ready-made ‘instant’ product or the ‘outsourcing’ of the hours of care and labour that used to be invested in producing the culinary delights for the exchanged food parcel, or jotjotan, which reflects one’s respect or value of the friendship.

However, one of the subsequent comments came from a distant relative (I think! and I hope this doesn’t give the readers the impression that all inhabitants of the tiny island are related!) who came out ‘swinging’ suggesting that the decline in the practice was also due to the rise in the religious fanaticism that renders the offered food parcel as no longer  ‘halal’ (i.e. not prepared according to the Islamic laws, or ‘kosher’ as the term used in the West, and apologies if some people consider the analogy not appropriate). Quite a bold statement on a delicate matter in a ‘façade-centric’ country but when queried she stood her ground and made her case and citing personal experience that only one ex classmate would continue to accept and consume the ngejot’s food parcel – even then covertly for fear of offending her fellow Muslim friends. This was quite an eye opener and educational for me as I had obviously missed this rather important point altogether earlier (or may be it had crossed my mind but I had subconsciously repressed this possibility knowing about the potential upsets and controversy it may cause, and the mind’s defaulting conveniently to the easier and less problematic – and risk-averse! – option, in this case quickly discounted the possibility? The mind is very clever indeed in convincing or justifying to you to always take the soft option).

A rather sad and awkward issue indeed to stand between (I hope not ex) friends and I think the said fanaticism has a lot to do with the global rise of what I would label as ethnic and religious militancy. To be fair this militancy is not confined to one group and one only has to look at the religious right in the US and Hindu fundamentalists in India, and even in Bali I have detected similar tone of militancy that also exists amongst some Balinese, not unsurprising given that they are exposed to these faith/ethnic issues all the time, where as my own environment is perhaps much more insular or sterile in comparison (I used to tease and playfully describe my mother as a ‘fundamentalist Hindu’ which at the time was so preposterous for a supposedly passive and inclusive faith that it was actually funny, until years later with the rise of the very such Hindu militancy in India when it became quite real and no longer funny ‘ha-ha’).

While it ‘may’ be factually correct that the change in attitude (on ‘rejecting’ the food parcel) may be attributed to the rise in religious fanaticism, a similarly ‘militant’ response (or by applying pressure, however subtle, to restore the interfaith ngejot tradition) will only inflame the tension and will set us of different faiths, or even worse still friends, further apart. My own view now on blunting this militancy/fanaticism, like on many other emotive issues, is to try to stay away from the emotion and them and instead to focus on reasoning and self and our own individual/personal ownership concerning these issues. In this case through the children-like embrace of individual personal friendships while introducing adult maturity of open discussion, cushioned by the rigours yet gentle philosophy of Gandhian thoughts.

The maturity of any true friendship should be a reflection of the freedom for each party to discuss all matters under the sun and, most importantly for countries with strong emphasis on religion, about one’s belief.  A good follower of any faith, or Truth seeker, often embarks upon what Gandhi calls a process of evolution and re-interpretation of the religion of our conception (which is an acknowledgement of our imperfections and for us mere mortals life is about striving for that perfection). The discussion should be viewed from the nonviolent ahimsa approach which encompasses love, respect, humility, generosity and yes self-suffering for while we should be critical of our own faith and be active in adopting the good elements of other faiths, one must restrain from criticising elements of other faith that one does not readily comprehend for it may become clear in the future and, if not, it may be clear to its followers, and one must respect that. Changes must come from within, and to me continued engagement and individual friendships embracing the above values appears to be the only way to promote such an environment where these changes can flourish.

What attracted me to the teachings of Gandhi was the inherent logic underlying many of his thoughts that sits comfortably with the scientific bent of my left brain and, understandably given Gandhi’s own background, the Hindu philosophy of my upbringing. Also many of his views such as his strong advocacy on interfaith; his insistence that all things – even religious writings and edicts – must stand the test of reason; and his (and the Hindu’s) belief that diversity of thoughts or faiths is not only desirable but essential for our spiritual growth all resonate very well with me (not unlike to that in nature where the diversity of species is essential to sustain the survival and health of the ecosystem).

Concluding on the upset over the unilateral breaking of our quaint tradition over the halal food, I think the ‘solution’ lies in our acceptance of such choices made by our friends and we shall continue to embrace the friendship as only through the good qualities of maturity and authenticity of these personal friendships that we can continue the engagement and the dialogue and only then we are likely to develop what Gandhi calls equiminded attitude to our respective faiths. In the end a healthy community, nation and ultimately global interfaith/interracial attitudes of mutual respect can only rise on the foundation of these countless individual friendships that break down the otherwise many seemingly insurmountable barriers. Some of us were lucky to have experienced the beauty of the ngejot tradition and may be its very essence inspires me in my small ways to do what I can to support such bodies such as the Gedong Gandhi Ashram in striving to provide such conducive interfaith/interracial environment at the local communities and international levels.

Postscript:

I must mention here that I arrived at the above conclusion only while writing this article, and it was as much a surprise to me as the outcome was rather the opposite to what I had intended to conclude at the start of writing the document! The focus had shifted from what could be done about ‘enlightening’ the fanatics (them) to one of resisting our own emotive reaction through Gandhian nonviolent ahimsa or love (self); from things that one can not control (for others to change their behaviour) to what one can control (to broaden our own thinking, and to keep the dialogue open and accept that changes/outcome would rise naturally – which may be ‘our’ way, their ‘way’, a compromised way or a completely different option that escaped us altogether at the start). Considering all possibilities is what ‘open mind’ is all about and can only be derived through a discourse of mutual respect and continual ‘test of reason’. And ‘magically’ in the process fanaticism will also disappear, naturally, for it feeds on lack of  – or mis – understanding of other views or peoples. Gandhi’s letters and writings certainly have been a great source of logic and wisdom and have helped me understand the subtleties of the concept of Truth and Ahimsa and the close couplings between the two a little bit more. Having to write it down and put it together in a coherent order (hopefully I have!) requires a certain discipline that helped unlock it for me.  Finally, the quotation below that literally popped up on my screen as I was writing the final sentences – talking about immaculate timing! – truly encapsulates my experience while writing this article:

The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.— Gustave Flaubert  

Let me hear your thoughts.

Om Shantih!

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