Monday, December 21, 2009

Under the Banyan Tree

Even though my cousin had forewarned me that our ancestral place had changed beyond recognition, I had not prepared myself for the shock that awaited me as I approached the village after a long interval. The place, where once a mighty branching banyan tree stood, was now a bare expanse of paddies. The tree was very much a part of the lives of the villagers, who loved and venerated it. On summer days the ground under the tree resonated with the din kicked up by the children from the nearby school during the recess hour. The noise of the children matched the ongoing racket of the birds in the branches. After the children went back to their classrooms, the cowherd boy took out his flute and played melodious tunes as the cattle grazed the nearby fields. Weary travellers passing through the village rested or slept under the canopy, their heads pillowed on the gnarled roots of the banyan. Peasants took a break from their day’s work and relished their mid-day meals in its cool shade.

All these activities ceased as night fell, wrapping the whole tree in misty darkness. The oversized canopy, the myriad aerial roots and the medley of bird sounds rendered the atmosphere eerie. No one came near the tree during the night. The only exceptions were the nights of celebration. The annual village drama was staged on the make-shift podium built under the banyan tree. The same platform also doubled as a Durga Puja pandal. On those festive days the whole area became a small fair ground, complete with shops, food outlets and the like.

Once, an itinerant circus had pitched its tent under the tree. It became an instant hit in the locality. People from all corners flocked to the ground. But the show was cut short, when tragedy struck. A female trapeze artiste lost balance and fell to her death during one of her performances. The circus vanished from the village, with the dead body, before the police arrived the next day. The incident caused a great emotional turmoil among the villagers, who arranged a puja few days later to purify the banyan tree and also to placate the dead girl’s spirit.

A villager, passing through the ground late one evening, reported having seen a woman weeping under the banyan tree. Everyone agreed it was the ghost of the circus girl. The hue and cry over the sighting of the female ghost petered out, when it was discovered that the woman was indeed a housewife from a neighbouring village, driven out by her husband. She hid somewhere during the day and wept as she took shelter under the banyan tree during the night. The matter ended to everyone’s satisfaction when our mukhiya called forth his counterpart from the other village along with the contrite husband, and amicably settled the issue in the presence of village elders.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Speed Banking

Not long ago banks used to be sort of community centers where you spent languorous afternoons chatting up fellow visitors as you waited for your cash or draft. You knew jolly well that even if you moved heaven and earth you could not speed things up. You took it all in your stride and tried to make the best of the situation. You studied human nature from your vantage point, as you disinterestedly browsed the part of the day’s paper that fell your way. It was fun to see the clerks animatedly handling the voluminous ledgers, pepped up by endless rounds of tea and gossip. Life inside was indeed hectic, while very little really got done. At the end, when your business was completed, you came out with a sense of having accomplished something.

Not anymore. Banks are fast changing their ways. Speed is the buzzword for them now. Your account will be opened before your coffee gets cold—boasts one bank; while another sends the mobile ATM around, so that you may draw money nearer home. In the name of dispensing prompt customer service, banks seem hell bent to dispense with the poor customer.

With all kinds of machines crowding the scene, your business is done in a flash, without your having to visit the bank. Some banks even slap you a charge for visiting their premises. Banks would be happy to see the back of poor you at the earliest, or better still, not see you at all. But is speed the only thing that the customers want? Not always, as an enterprising banker learnt the hard way.

This young manager took over a branch which catered to a large number of pensioners. On every pension day, usually the first working day of the month, the branch turned into a veritable fish market, swarming with old pensioners. The total lack of order started to grate on the nerves of the new manager. He took stock of the situation and found out that just one cashier attended to all the pensioners, causing lengthy waiting time for them. Thinking that the pandemonium was a show of protest by the senior citizens over slow service, he made up his mind to set things right. On the next pension day, the whole bank was waiting to greet the pensioners and in a very systematic way they were disposed of one by one. During the lunch time as the manager was praising himself for a job well done, a host of old customers barged into his cabin and demanded to know why everybody wanted to drive them away from the bank. They said they eagerly looked forward to that particular day of the month, to be able to spend some time with old friends and colleagues. They enjoyed every bit of the hullabaloo as it brought some excitement to their monotonous lives. They would not mind waiting longer for their pensions. The enthusiastic manager had to reluctantly revert to the old ways.

Monday, December 7, 2009

In The Rain

It had not rained for a couple of days and that morning was particularly sunny.

"Just the right occasion to shun the rain-coat, which hangs around the neck like a millstone," I mused.

As I started to the office without my waterproof for the first time that monsoon, I felt light as a cork. Office work kept me busy during the day, so I didn't bother much about the weather. But in the evening as I emerged from the hall, a deafening sound baffled my senses. The heavens had opened up!

The heavy torrent lashed against everything that came its way, showing no signs of fatigue. That was enough for me. Suddenly, I was gripped by a strange impulse -- a kind of primordial instinct to step out into the open and enjoy the downpour.

The next moment, I was on the road. The piercing raindrops hitting my face at full force caused some pain in the beginning. But remembering the dictum 'inconvenience is adventure rightly considered,' I took my discomfort as a part of the game.

As my mobike gathered momentum, my spirit soared higher. I felt like the monarch of the road, with no speeding vehicles, blazing headlights or nagging traffic police to bother about. It was I and I only, with the rain to attend upon me.

Soon I was wet like a drowned rat -- water oozing out of my body, dress and shoes. I hummed a tune to buck myself up. People, squeezed under every conceivable shelter on both sides of the road, watched me in total disbelief. Some of them even whistled and shouted. Were they cheering my sangfroid or hooting at my craziness? I didn't care about it and continued with my adventure in the rain.

On reaching home, the first thing I received, apart from a few suspicious looks, was a steaming cup of tea. I don't know whether it was a reward for my bravado or a remedy for the inevitable cold, but to tell you the truth, it was the most satisfying cup of tea I had had for years. What a nice way to round off the delightful experience!

A parting bit of advice for readers -- next time you experience the deluge, turn your backs to umbrellas and raincoats, and jump outdoors.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tilt of Glory: The Leaning Temple of Huma

It was a picture perfect September morning in the late monsoon. We had just performed puja at the shrine of Goddess Samleswari, the presiding deity of Sambalpur, and our driver Junnu had arrived after offering his Ramadan prayers. A perfect time to start for the famous temple of Huma, 28 kms away from the city of Sambalpur. The landscape en route wore an extra layer of green, brought about by weeks of heavy rain. The only break from the lush green surroundings came from the occasional sightings of the river Mahanadi, racing restlessly forward. It was at a clearing on the bank of this river that our vehicle came to a halt. The scenic beauty of the place—a confluence of river Mahanadi and river Dhulijore—is breathtaking.

Small shops displaying hibiscus, earthen lamps and prasad flank the small pathway leading to the temple gate, but the sellers are not quite nagging—a welcome break from their brethren manning the more renowned centers of pilgrimage. At the archway the tilts of the main temple and other structures took us by surprise. Leaning seemed to be the most preferred posture at this place, without props of course.

As we joined the queue to offer puja to Baba Vimaleswar Mahadev—local version of Lord Shiva—we felt suffocated inside the cramped and dark hallway, the plump pillars taking up most of the space. One restless woman raised her voice against the lengthy puja the priest conducted for previous devotees as her irritated husband left the place out of sheer frustration—and other devotees supported her protest with deep sighs. When our turn came, we had to wait sometime under the stone doorway before the last devotee cleared the way. No prizes for guessing our postures under the dwarf doorway: leaning of course. The sanctum sanctorum provided no respite, with its 5 ft x 5 ft size and oily walls and damp floor. When shall poor mortals like me start ignoring these small distractions in the path to God?

Puja over, we went round the compound that housed smaller temples, an imposing white pillar, a colourful image of Hanuman and one building which housed the sadhus, who had made this seat of Saivism their home. The structure that fascinated me most was the one with a reclining roof to the left of the main temple, which looked like another residential quarters, presently not in use. It has its own compound wall, now moss-covered. Near the pillar were gathered stone figurines bulls of various shapes and sizes. One wondered how these were lying there in the open, without being pilfered. Was it for the notice board of the archeological department that declared the temple as a protected monument and warned people against vandalism? However the place is not well maintained and reeks of utter neglect.

The back door of the compound opens to the steps to the river Mahanadi. The ghat affords excellent view of Orissa’s largest river, full of grace and grandeur. Here on the ghat visitors get a chance to feed a particular type of fish, known as ‘Kudo’. Catching god’s own fish is considered sacrilegious, so the fish here grow fearless and fat, and feed from the palms of the devotees. Even they have their own names, with which the temple worker calls them for feeding during mealtime. It is a different matter if the doubting visitor had no clue as to how to verify this claim.

About the most striking feature of the 17th century temple, that is tilting, many theories are put forth. The most popular and the plausible seems to be the one that points to the movement of the ground soil during floods in the river. Another view is that the ingenious architects designed the structures like that to protect structures from flooding of the two rivers from different sides. This is why the many structures are leaning on different sides. This ‘by design’ theory also explains why the degree of tilting remains the same all these years, and does not grow as in case of the other renowned tilting structure, the leaning tower of Pisa.

We come back to our vehicle, minds still preoccupied with the mystery of the tilt. A cement plaque carrying the names of the high and mighty of the society stands forlorn on the ground. It is the foundation stone for accommodation facility for the tourists. There is no sign of any such construction coming up at the place. Despite the utter neglect and apathy, faith and the love for antiquity brings visitors to this wilderness in large numbers.

For similar stories please read Hits and Misses. Buy it at or at

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Shoe Issue

From an object of veneration to a tool to give vent to one’s rage—the descent for the footwear has been steep. When Rama was sent on vanwas, younger brother Bharata tried his best to persuade him back to Ayodhya. What he was able to bring back instead was a pair of Ram’s sandals, which he placed at the foot of the royal throne, as a mark of respect to the wronged brother. Bharata agreed to govern Ayodhya, not as its ruler, but only as Rama's representative.

As a prisoner in South Africa, Gandhiji made a pair of slippers for General Smuts, who had sent him unjustly to jail on three occasions. These slippers symbolize so effectively all that the Mahatma stood for, refusing to demonise even the oppressor.

Shoes help lift up the spirit and add to the melodrama of Indian weddings, when the bride’s sisters hide the groom’s footwear and demand a steep price from him to restore them.

Lest you feel that there could be no wrong step for the footwear, please sample the following sandal scandals.

For Imelda, wife of the infamous dictator Ferdinand Marcos, her legendary collection of expensive footwear represented a life-long passion, but did a lot of harm to her already tarnished image.

While excessive possession of shoes may bring you plenty of uninvited attention, your bare feet may not guarantee the desired peace of mind. Master painter MF Hussain learnt this the hard way, when he raked up a controversy, trying to enter a private club without slippers. Indian footballers were deprived of their hard earned berth in the Soccer World Cup because they had not learnt to play the game with boots.

After these trickle of skirmishes involving the footwear, the shoegates were really opened in the recent years. When the dreadful plans of the ‘shoe bomber’ were foiled mid air, it was realized by one and all that shoes could hold terrible possibilities. Of late shoes have established themselves as a popular implement for expressing dissent and more often than not, hatred. The targets of this popular political missile are the high and mighty, such as the American president, the Indian prime minister and home minister, a Supreme Court judge, a Bollywood actor and of course many vote-seeking netas.

All shoe flinging episodes produce a lot of uproar, and at times—as the recent Chidambaram incident has proved—the desired effect.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Leaves of Desire

At first Mumbai appeared the most unlikely place to look for turmeric leaves (haladi patra in Odiya, haldi patta in Hindi). We required the leaves to prepare enduri pitha, an Odiya cuisine, at home. The delicacy made of rice and black gram flour, comes with a filling of coconut and chhena (cottage cheese). This much would have been yummy enough, but what adds that additional tang to the taste is the aroma of the turmeric leaf, in which the cake is wrapped while steamed. Not many delicacies can surpass the taste of the well cooked enduri pitha—any Odiya worth his salt will vouch for that.

Internet took me nowhere in my search for the leaves in the maximum city. “Try Dadar”, suggested someone, “what you don’t get anywhere else, you get in Dadar”. That was reassuring enough. When I saw rows upon rows of greenery laid out on the sidewalks of Dadar, I knew my search had come to an end. Coming closer, I found leaves of all shapes and sizes being sold by the vegetable sellers. Spinach, banana leaves, celery, mint, curry leaves and what not, but sadly no turmeric leaf.

Then I went to the flower section attracted by the green leaves on display. There also I came a cropper. When I asked a dealer of leaves where to get my item, he replied that it would be available during Diwali, when folks needed it for some local preparation. But I wanted the leaves for the ensuing Prathamashtami, of which enduri pitha was a crucial part.

My only hope was now the office, because people from all parts of Mumbai and outskirts congregated there, and there was a free flow of information. I tried my luck with our messenger first and eureka, he had the solution to my problem. He offered to bring a bunch of turmeric leaves for me the next Sunday from Thane, from where he commuted daily.

Next Sunday, when I collected my coveted object from my helpful colleague at the platform, I felt triumphant, having accomplished a difficult mission.

It was a different matter that we had left behind Prathamashtami by a few days.

Friday, November 20, 2009

ATM and Atma

It was just another routine visit to the ATM, but the experience was once in a lifetime. As I collected my cash and the card, my mind wandered to the realms beyond the immediate. A sudden realization came upon me thatI had just connected my soul to something extraordinary, beyond the ‘here and now’. I felt as if my atma had found shelter in the blissful lap of the paramatma.

ATM and atma or atman have commonalities that go way beyond their spellings. Like the countless atmas perennially roving about the universe ATMs are strewn everywhere. As there is no destruction of soul, there seems to be no end for the ATMs.

Both are subject to the consequences of your karma. Your karma determines the status of your atma’s journey to or away from the paramatma or the Supreme Soul. Just like that your ATM use is dependent upon your material karma. You may connect and draw only if your karmic accumulation has not fallen below the stipulated minimum balance. If your karma is good enough nirvana is only few buttons away. Deliverance or moksha for atman is similar to getting your cash delivery.

But is it really so simple? It is said that the winding path to salvation is littered with too many false starts and uncertainties. One who uses ATMs frequently is no stranger to such false starts in the shape of link failures and exasperating cash-out situations. If the ATM swallows your card or your cash, you are left to the vagaries of fate for getting them back.

Man in his essential nature is divine. Behind the finite man is the atman, ever free ever pure and ever harmonious. Atman is the universal life principle, the animator of all organisms. ATMs do not fall much behind. They are the prime mover of the shopward-bound, the animator of the youth and the driver of the material man.

The life giving principle of the ATM machine is caught aptly by the catchy slogan i had once seen emblazoned on the T-Shirt of a sprightly youth: “My Father is an ATM”.

As I walked out of the ATM booth that day, i was saying to myself, “What is atman after all but `an ATM` in disguise.”


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Waiting For the Book

However much he wanted to, my twelve year old son could not hide his strong yearning to possess the forthcoming Harry Potter book. Ever since the news about the book “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” hit the headlines, his mission of tracking all developments about the publication had got underway.

As he bombarded me with all the tidbits about the book, I found myself getting interested. Then one day, an online bookstore announced taking preorder of the book. The image of the book cover in the preorder page became our computer’s wallpaper. Every time I switched on the computer, Harry Potter’s tranquil face stared at mine. Other Potter trivia got piled up in the house and clamored for attention; soon it became impossible to put the magic boy out of yur minds.

Amid this entire brouhaha one thing struck me as unusual. Although the coming of the new book had set my son agog, he had never asked me to preorder one for him. A little prodding dug out the reason—he didn’t want to burden me with the prohibitive price of a brand new American edition. He could wait for a moderately priced Indian version that was sure to come out in a few months. Very thoughtful for a twelve year old in-deed!

But how could the indulgent father in me capitulate to this kind of the considerate thinking of a child? I could not allow my son’s excitement wither away like this. Next morning, a brimming son was seen thanking his contented father before a computer screen, showing the payment accepted message for the new Harry Potter book. The countdown for June 21, the book release date had begun. With the magic date so close, the air of anticipation became so palpable that you could stab it with a bookmark. As my son waited for the book with bated breath, I felt a strange sense of déjà vu.

The English teacher of our new class had suggested that we all used a particular dictionary. A few students got it immediately. When I checked it up in the library, I fell in love with the book instantaneously. The dictionary was complete with pictures, usages, and many useful appendices. The desire to own one possessed me. But this foreign edition boasted a price that was too steep for my limited monthly allowances as a hostel border. I wrote to father to send extra money immediately, but he asked me to wait till his next visit. I can still recall my mounting expectancy as I waited for the appointed day.

The magic moment came, the book was purchased, and a contented father did not mind the absent-mindedness of his son for the rest of the evening. I remained preoccupied with my prize possession for many weeks to come. I am still using the dictionary twenty-seven years after it was purchased.

As we waited for the new Harry Potter book, I only wished that my son grew out of its spell much sooner, unless of course he chose to make a career out of the fictional celebrity.

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