The incredible hunger of being

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My earliest memory associated with a temple is keen, gnawing hunger! As a kid growing up in Delhi, and later Chennai, going to the temple meant an early morning bath (even on the coldest winter morning of Delhi) and departure, sans breakfast. The temple would be invariably crowded, as like us, others too had chosen to visit on that auspicious day. Standing in line, waiting to view the idol in the sanctum sanctorum, I would be light-headed, trying to keep a grip on reality, trying not to faint. Finally, when my turn came before the idol, my gratitude, as one can imagine, was truly heartfelt!

I especially hated the days when my mother or anyone in the extended family booked a special puja. The long wait, the intense heat from the smoking fire (really a torture on summer days, especially in Chennai), made the whole scene rather surreal. The priests chanting the mantras, would take on an other-worldly aura, and I would try not to think irreligious thoughts. The damp hair sticking to the neck and the constant flow of sweat which I would absent-mindedly wipe, only to smear the kumum across my forehead – it’s a wonder I didn’t have meltdowns. I used to wonder at the stupidity of adults who would allow themselves to be subject to this.

As a child, I had no choice. One did what was told to one. My mother was very sure that she wanted her family to visit the temple on all auspicious/sacred days. She was uncompromising about it. The only silver lining if one may call it, was the prasadam or offerings (in the form of payasam or kheer) at the end of the visit. I looked forward to it very much, the sugar rush just what I needed for my low glycemic state.

It was only much later that I understood that some of these experiences indeed help to shape one’s personality. It has to some extent honed my patience, and helped to focus when a tough task is at hand. Going hungry fosters a certain discipline and iron will. Also, but for such rituals and observances, I doubt if most Hindus would see the inside of a temple! The religion per se, doesn’t put any strictures on one, doesn’t made it mandatory to visit the temple every day or week. So, the human via media came up with the next best thing – make visiting temples on particular days more beneficial for one’s karmic being! Lo and behold, we make a beeline.

As an adult today, I have an abhorrence for crowded temples. Most of it also has to do with the utter mismanagement of crowds in temples. Given our devout population, there is bound to be much crowding. I understand that. But I also believe that most of the jostling and pushing is due to lack of systems in place. For instance, at the Sidhivinayak Temple in Mumbai while the queues are formed with great alacrity, and are manned by volunteers with even greater vigil, everything degenerates into utter chaos once the queues merge in front of the deity. So whether a lean day or a heavy day, the chaos remains.

Corruption has made inroads into our temples too. One can grease the hands of a stall owner or someone around the temple, and be escorted right into the sanctum sanctorum, after paying a hefty fee of course. Then there are special queues. So in temples like the Siddhivinayak or the Mookambika Temple down south in Kollur, Karnataka, if you pay ₹ 100 or ₹ 200 as the case may be, you get to jettison the aam junta line and join the shorter queue. I once eavesdropped into an intense debate a family of six was having at Siddhivinayak,  to decide whether they should opt for the special darshan queue. They would have been poorer by ₹ 600, not a mean sum for their straitened circumstances, I surmised from their conversation. They joined the general queue, which was particularly long that day.

Yet, to me, a temple is not just for communing with the Gods. Hindu temples, especially in South India, are splendidly entertaining. There are elephants to be seen and marvelled at from rather close quarters, green ponds with steps leading into them where one can sit and contemplate about life, and regular dance and music performances, which are often a treat to watch. The colourful hues of flowers mingle with the jewellery and resplendent saris of the female devotees, making the temple a bright, happy place.

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Elephants are a great hit with kids – a scene from Mookambika Temple

Once you reach the sanctum, the deity seems to be imbued with a radiance which is but all the devotees’ hopes, wishes and desires reflected back in a divine glow. I have always felt the most oneness with God in that nanosecond of looking at the deity without any hinderance. The direct communion with the idol, the sacred tone of the temple, or I guess any place of worship, is balm to the soul.

But make it mandatory to visit a temple on a certain day, at a certain time, and the entire charm fades away. There are many lesser known temples, which are never crowded, haven’t yet been accorded an exalted status. Where the Gods seem to be waiting for their devotees. Just look at the photo below, where the Nandi bull seems to be waiting for people to come visit him, doesn’t he have a stillness borne of extreme patience about him? Such temples are a treat to visit. One comes back in peace with oneself and the world.

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The patient Nandi bull at my ancestral Shiva temple in Palakkad, Kerala, where hardly anyone visits 

I do not believe that visiting a temple on certain days, or offering puja at a certain time is going to lead to my moksha or salvation.  I know there are any number of arguments in favour of auspicious days and why it is beneficial to conduct a ritual at the propitious time when certain planets and stars are in agreement….but then I tell myself, if there is only limited or even no salvation to be achieved, so be it. I am happy with the solace I get by being in a quieter place of worship.

Hinduism is easy going. Or at least it is supposed to. It really isn’t concerned about what the person next to you thinks or your neighbour’s beliefs and religion, much less what he’s eating – a cow, a buffalo, a pig, or plain grass. It just doesn’t matter. Everything is left to you, what you want to eat, when you want to fast, and when you will visit the temple. But when we make it matter, or we become fanatical about rituals and observances and others’ diets, we willy-nilly unleash forces of fanaticism and disruption. Hinduism is more a way of life for Hindus, and I wish it is left to be so.

So, in Mumbai, how do you find these ‘near empty’ places of worship? Just ensure that you avoid the days that are considered particularly blessed. So avoid Tuesdays at Siddhivinayak, Thursdays at Matunga’s Kochuguruvayoor, Fridays at Mahalakshmi…you get the drift? If you are willing to forego the ‘special’ benevolence, you will come back soothed, satiated, and raring to visit the temple again!

 

 

To Russia, with love

 

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The Union of Soviet Socialist Republic or USSR, no long exists. In fact, hasn’t existed for some years now. And the Russia we know today, is nowhere near the behemoth it was earlier. But for those of us who grew up in the 1980s India, there was no escaping USSR. It loomed large in our news, dominated our lives in many, many ways, and we were as much in love with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and that birth mark on his nearly bald head (which a clever cartoonist once depicted as an India map!), as his own people. It was a love affair like no other.

Despite our purported ‘non-alignment’, Pakistan and India were very firmly aligned on opposite ends in the Cold War – We with the USSR, and Pakistan with the USA. Here was the catch. We secretly admired and aspired to American pop culture and consumerism. We were crazily attracted to their stars and their TV shows. The USSR with its communist-socialist agenda, was austere, somewhat bleak. But repeated exposure to everything Soviet, turned us, perforce, into lovers of Russia too.

I remember reading a lot of Russian literature, in English of course. Anna Karanina, Lolita, Chekov’s stories and Russian folk tales were just some of the literature we were exposed to. I remember valiantly trying to read War and Peace and failing absymally. There were many nuggets about Russia which fascinated us. We were delighted to learn that when a woman took her spouse’s surname it was with a suffix of ‘a’ – Gorbachev’s wife was Raisa Gorbacheva. The Russian ballet caused endless speculation – how do the ballerinas stand on the tips of their toes? When the Bolshoi company’s ballet performances were televised, we watched avidly. We were introduced to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and spoke most intelligently about it.

The Bolshevik Revolution was discussed in much detail in school, even as we winced at the excesses of the Tsars, and lauded Lenin and later, Stalin. We learnt about the Communist Manifesto, and studied how we ourselves were much influenced by the USSR post our Independence. We took great pride in parroting that the first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova, from the USSR. The achievements of the USSR were our own. We felt secure under the enormous canopy of Soviet Russia! It was only later that I was introduced to Ayn Rand’s We the Living and her utter denouncement of the communist revolution. Suddenly, the blinkers were off. But then growing up is a lot about disillusionment too, isn’t it?

On their part, the Russians loved our movies and actors, especially Raj Kapoor. It puzzled me, as I couldn’t then see the charm of Raj Kapoor. Am not sure I see it today too, except that he was insanely good looking, of course. Presumably, the Russians were besotted with his looks too. There were exchange programmes between our students. I particularly remember a staid programme on DD (on its national channel, grandiloquently and imaginatively called DD1) where a bright young Russian girl mouthed a Hindi poem – ‘Sooraj mookhi, sooraj beena dookhi’ and it was hilarious. But also utterly charming.

And then there was Gorbachev. He was distinguished looking, a leader, a statesman. And when he introduced ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’, we lisped the phrases after him with much gusto. Eventually these led to the disintegration of the USSR, and with it, our fascination with USSR, which now no longer existed.

History has taken its course since 1991, and the end of the Cold War. We have been beset and preoccupied with our own problems. Our foreign policy has undergone many twists and turns. Yet, today, as 18,000 Indian football fans head to Russia for the World Cup, among them, the men of my family, I wonder how much of this history they will even relate to. To my son, I tried to convey something of the colossal history that is Russia’s. But to a generation exposed mainly to American culture and entertainment, it’s inexplicable that we were once so firmly on the ‘other’ side. His only introduction to Russia are the Russian signages that restaurants and department stores in North Goa sport. Every season, Russian charter planes brings loads of Russian tourists directly into Goa. They are everywhere during the season, on bikes, bargaining with the vendors, buying vegetables and fruits for their temporary homes.

The Russia of today is a far cry from the erstwhile USSR. The macho Vladimir Putin may beg to differ. But for us, that particular generation of Indians, those days were innocent days, when the world was either black or white. Life was more simple, and unidimensional. I don’t wish for those days to come back. But I can certainly look back and reminisce about that era when another country so dominated our mind space.

Here’s to Russia, with love! Hope you do a great job of hosting the World Cup…

 

The story of my Carvaan

I have just acquired Carvaan, the digital audio player from Saregama. It was an acquisition more than six months in the making. I first heard about it at a friend’s dinner. About 5,000 old Hindi songs and ghazals of various artistes, FM radio, USB drive, and remote. What was not to like? It was an easy decision to make.

But caught in the rigmarole of daily routines, more than a month had passed before I was reminded of my decision to acquire it – and in a most disconcerting way, by Facebook! It had worked out (by a series of algorithms?) that I was interested in this product. (Or wait, did they just eavesdrop on my conversations via the app on my phone as proven by events that unfolded later…;-) But the advertisement for Carvaan which popped up on my page, was on a website for senior citizens. Oh, my! Did that deflate my enthusiasm! They were now positioning Carvaan as something you would gift your elderly parents (not youthful parents, mind you:-) Oh, Oh. That sure gave me pause.

I was, to put it mildly, put off. I am not an ‘ageist’, nor do I fear getting there one day. Perhaps sooner than I think. But the positioning of that product on the senior citizens website wasn’t energising at all. This had touched a raw nerve. The introspection started. Am I a dinosaur, truly? Are my interests caught and trapped in the music of the ’60s and ’70s…well, at a stretch, the ’80s? I have been accused of being ‘technology illiterate’ and ‘unadventurous’, of living in the past often…of using ‘archaic’ lingo. The hubby has gone into paroxysms of laughter just because I said two friends had got into ‘fisticuffs’. What’s wrong with fisticuffs? Many people use that word. Haven’t you?

As you can imagine, I have history on this topic, anyway, this is neither here nor there. So, in a fit of rebellion I decided that a product whose makers pitched it only to a particular demographic, didn’t need, or deserve my patronage. I was quite sore. And cross. And vowed not to think about Carvaan again. I resolutely ignored the product whenever it popped up on any platform, told myself there are far too many options to source good music. Carvaan knows where it can, well, you know….

Till an innocuous visit to a store called Prime in Nariman Point’s CR2 Mall. Prime is a higgledy piggledy treasure house of household and kitchen stuff. I pick up this kitchen cleaning cloth from there, and can swear by its efficacy and durability. Anyway, while idly surveying the shop, my eyes settled on a shelf which held the Carvaan, and two different models of it, sitting pretty. Sigh! It was love at first sight.

CArvaan 2I turned and looked at hubby, who nodded sagely. A wise man. And the cherry oak Carvaan is now mine, to hold and treasure:-) As I write this, Gulzar’s Tujhse naraz nahin zindagi is playing on it…soulful music, a blog, and the quiet and peace of night…what more can one ask of life!

 

 

The planning :-(

On Jan.10, 2018, our household was abuzz with the birthday preps for my son’s 11th birthday the next day. He wanted a pizza movie night with his friends at home. Our evening was spent in excited planning for this ‘seminal’ event. We debated endlessly over the food, the movie to be screened the next day. The evening passed in pleasant conversation, breathless anticipation and affectionate banter. It was a cosy scene of domestic bliss. A child secure in his home and hearth, knowing he is loved and he is safe.

More than a thousand kilometres up north, in a place called Kathua in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, at that same moment, there was some planning taking place too about a child. A girl child. Eight years old. It wasn’t about her birthday. Or her vacations. Or her play. It was about her kidnapping, her rape, and her murder. Brutal assaults, planned by adults and carried out by adults. Asifa, the little girl, was kidnapped, drugged, assaulted by many, and cold-bloodedly murdered. To teach her community a lesson.

Where is God’s justice? How do we ever, ever get over this?