Religion

Coping With Tinnitus This Ugadi, With Some Help From Alexa

Photo by Pattanawit/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Pattanawit/iStock / Getty Images

This is the coolest Ugadi I’ve had in years, I can say that now at the end of the day, a half-hour before bedtime. I prayed in the morning before the flower-decked deities, but only to say thanks. Dhruv was at home, he’d come with his parents yesterday, around midnight. They left after the simple Ugadi lunch — obbattu and mango-rice and obbattu-curry. I felt good to have started the new year with no expectation of a better life than the one I have. Is it Dhruv’s arrival into the world that is changing me so? The transformation people predicted a grandson would bring over me — it appears to be happening.

A tinnitus that arrived in my life three years ago and which was only a mild presence in my ear is asserting itself in recent weeks. It is like I have an ambulance on perpetual duty in each ear — the same revolving sound, but of a high, higher pitch. With the matter so serious, I went to a homeopath yesterday — the other docs say they don’t have a cure for tinnitus. He gave me two sets of the tiny globular homeopath pills, one a 0-0-4, another a 3-0-3, for fifteen days.

“Will I be cured in fifteen days?” I asked, surprised.

“Yes, sir,” he said. I’ve known the doctor fifteen years, from when he passed out of college. A tall, lean man, his dress is never creased, his hair never ruffled, his eyes never troubled, his voice never high and never low and never lacking in confidence.

It is only two days with the medicine in my system. The tinnitus is still on a riot.

I took my time telling my wife about this new affliction. Since I told her, she has been asking me to bend my neck one way and then another, miming the thing for me. She practices yoga off and on, you see, and she believes a neck asana would do the trick, and she is working to invent one. “Stop,” I’m saying, “you’re not a doctor. It won’t work.” She’s not giving up. She isn’t the quitting type.

Meanwhile, I’ve put away my nice Sony headphones, which are superb, on which I’ve been listening solely to western classical lately. I’ve promised the headphones I’ll come back for them in two weeks, after the cure has worked. I’ve spent the weekend ordering Alexa to play Chopin and Mozart and Beethoven. She has obliged me, but when I asked for Stravinsky, she was almost rude in saying she didn’t have him — and she surprised me, because Alexa’s roots are American, even if her accent is Indian. (I asked her for an affirmation now, but she said coyly that she is a Cloudian. That’s the humor that ferments in the Cloud, I guess.)

Ah. I paused from writing and asked for Stravinsky again, just now. She is playing him. “Igor Stravinsky,” she informed me, and put on The Firebird Suite. I don’t know why she said she didn’t have him the first time, but I am sure our relationship will improve.

All day long Amazon Echo has been playing at home, and my wife hasn’t once asked me to shut it down — even when I switched from music to the BBC World Service, which was covering the Turkish conquest of Afrin in Syria. She’s quite fascinated by Alexa, although she struggles sometimes to get her to do her bidding. She tends to speak with her as with our maid.

“Alexa,” she calls, and waits. And waits. She wants Alexa to say something like “Yeah?”

“Alexa won’t answer to being called,” I tell my wife. “She only answers commands and questions.”

Because Alexa of Amazon is Cloudian, my comfort with her doesn’t nettle my wife. She smiles, and nods.

Indian Christmas

   Gateway Hotel, Nashik, India

 Gateway Hotel, Nashik, India

I’m at a hotel in Nashik. It’s all decked up for Christmas. A plum cake was delivered to my room with Merry Christmas sketched out in chocolate on the plate. The hotel is sold out, but I can tell easily that most guests are not Christian. Some are Sikh. Most are Hindu. In the small world I move around in, Hindus appear to have appropriated Christmas.

Merry Christmas! And, because I’m entering a Buddhist retreat on Wednesday, and will observe complete silence for ten days with all my digital devices surrendered, I wish all you wonderful people right now: Happy New Year!

—-

I wrote this little thing after reading this Guardian story.

Gateway-Hotel-Nashik.jpg

Seven Little Buddhas

 16055586 - buddhist monk cartoon hand drawn illustration

Seven tender necks supporting seven shaven heads. At a distance behind them, I am seeing the back of them. I’ve been in the hall twenty minutes. I was watching my breathing, all alone in that space, and then I’d gotten up to leave, but sat down again when these maroon-robed boys with Tibetan faces came in. I wanted to see them before the golden Buddha. Why? I don’t know.

They’re only boys: the oldest is about twelve, or fourteen, and the youngest perhaps six-years-old. They look back at the slightest sound, at me, and at another man who has entered, dropped a cushion and squatted on it.

The hall is a fifteen-minute walk from Starbucks, whence I came, where I’ve been two hours through the afternoon. There I’d had a large realtor sitting at the table before mine, his bulk overflowing his chair, challenging its thin wooden legs. A lot of these types come here, carrying two phones each — for some reason, they cannot function with a single handphone. I had businessmen back of me as well, two fellows with sleek silver hair and the complexion of the wealthy, who spoke lofty things: business excellence; benchmarks; Fortune-500 mentors; and so on. Left of me, a teenage girl learnt by rote from a book, waving a finger in the air to better push her material into her head. As anywhere in the world, half the cafe is always in possession of students. Nice.

Here in the prayer hall, after a time the little fellows sink unto themselves before the golden Buddha. On the white marble floor, I see now a pool of water leaked in from the centre of the dome above. (It has been raining unusually hard these days in Bangalore). Otherwise, the hall is clean and bright, and the calm in it subdues the sounds from the traffic on CV Raman Road outside. I like this place. I’ve been for looking something just like this to spend a few quiet moments when I need to.

At Starbucks in Sadashivanagar one seldom goes in to relax over coffee. Everybody drops in for a spot of intense work — alone, or in groups. I enjoy eavesdropping in this care: Men in their twenties discuss startups and targets of twenty or thirty or fifty million — the numbers are all in dollars; girls barely out of the teens announce launches of new stores on Lavelle Road or Cunningham Road or at UB City — boyfriends ask them to mind overhead. They laugh, even as they speak such serious stuff.

Here in the Buddhist prayer hall, the man who’d come in has left. The boys are still. I gaze again at their necks, and the meaning of “green behind the ears” begins to make meaning to me, although the boys are the colour of rice-husk. As regards me, I’ve been squatting longer than my legs can take — blood has stopped flowing in them. I must get up, I must go.

Outside, I make inquiries. The place is a seminary. A total of seven kids are being put through the mill. I like what I hear, but I’m also confused by it. I need all the time the extended drive through jammed traffic gives me, to reconcile to the fact that these kids are committed to monkhood. Who made that decision for them? The kids themselves? Grown-ups on their behalf?

Back at my desk, I’m still thinking about the boys and other kids who flow all day through Starbucks. I ask: Where really is the battle against dukkha being won?

I’m telling myself I should find out. Even if it takes time and some effort.

 Starbucks, Sadashivanagar

Starbucks, Sadashivanagar

Lesson in Crime and Punishment

I decided I’ll go to Haw Par Villa, having never been there in all the years I’ve been going to Singapore.

The brothers Haw (Tiger) and Par (Leopard) were the Tiger Balm entrepreneurs. It was the time of the Empire, and the pair started their business in Rangoon, and came down to Singapore and increased their fortune there. In Singapore the brothers built a mansion on a hill, and that estate in their time and afterward has transformed into a public garden with statues and dioramas that tell stories and parables and aphorisms from the worlds of Tao, Confucius, and the Buddha. The most touted exhibit there is a long man-made cave depicting the Ten Courts of Hell. A sign outside the grotto cautions there's gore inside.

It was blazing hot on the exposed hill; so the enclosed space was inviting. And who doesn’t enjoy gore? Also, I’m at an age where one is keen for hints of the afterlife, and I found them in that dark interior, in neat, dim-lit dioramas.

The virtuous dead have it easy. On arrival at the Courts, they’re split into two classes, somewhat like the gold and silver card holders of airline loyalty programs. The best get on the golden bridge, the next best are routed to the silver bridge, and both bridges offer a quick passage to paradise. The sinful dead are sent on a rough ride. They’re to be dealt with across ten courts, each ruled by its own Yama, its own god of death. When the dead arrive before the Yama and the sins read out, the Yama has a ready list of punishments to hand down.

The prostitute, for instance, is presented before the second Yama. Her punishment is to be drowned in blood. The third Yama's jurisdiction is ungratefulness, disrespect to elders, and escaping from prison. He also tries drug addicts, drug traffickers, tomb robbers, and fomenters of social unrest. He is severe: If you belong here, you could have your heart cut out, or you may be bound to a red-hot copper column and grilled. The fourth Yama tries tax dodgers, rent defaulters, fraudsters and sends them to a stone mallet for a pounding. The sixth Yama takes cheats, those who curse, abductors, misusers of books, patrons of porn, rule breakers, and food wasters, and he saws them in two, or throws them upon a tree of knives. The seventh Yama is named as King Taishan: He pulls out the tongue of rumormongers, and those who sow discord among family. The eighth Yama digs the visceral organs from those who abandon filial obedience, cause trouble for family and cheat in examinations. If you have robbed, murdered, or raped, the ninth Yama will see you. He will have your head and arms chopped off; if you have neglected the old and the young, he will crush you beneath boulders.

It seems that you’re condemned to emerge from each court alive so you’re fit for punishment at the next court. After you have passed the first nine courts a fresh lease awaits you at court ten. Here a lady serves you a potion that erases the past from your mind, and sets you off on a new life, as human or animal, as the tenth Yama sees fit.

I regarded myself. I must prepare for the sixth Yama, and the eighth; I must prepare to crash on a knife-covered tree; must prepare to be sawed in two; must prepare to experience my visceral organs hacked. I haven’t known it was this serious to waste food; I could've been an obedient son. My belly writhes as I write.

These sins and punishments are declared on plaques posted alongside the thick-painted dioramas populated with expertly crafted oriental figurines — a diorama to illustrate each court. Reading the plaques, I wondered first if the Yamas catalogued them in an uncharacteristic fit of humor, and if the entire scheme is all in jest. Later, it struck me that the punishments lacked in imagination — they’re merely torture that man has inflicted on man down the ages. The retributions didn’t appear divine to me; they read like the secret penal code of a despot, ready for administering here and now — even as the sinner in the despot’s book lives. At any rate, I cannot imagine that the Ten Courts of Hell as described in Haw Par belong in the sagely Buddhist scriptures. They’ve perhaps mutated through time and in translation.

Leaving, in the cool of the taxi, the driver asked me, “First time in Singapore?”

“Naw … .” I told him how much I love Singapore, and how often I’m there.

“Foreigners don’t come to Haw Par, la.”

There hadn’t been many locals either. Haw Par Villa seldom made money over the decades when it was a for-profit. It’s a non-profit now, and entrance is free, and I’ve described only one exhibit from the sprawl.

I'm Turning Inward

 Halasuru Someshwara Temple, Bangalore

Halasuru Someshwara Temple, Bangalore

By way of architecture (predominently the Vijayanagara school) the Halasuru Someshwara Temple pleases lovers of heritage buildings. I spent a morning there with the INTACH folks. It is a temple in use, and perhaps for that reason it is greasy and messy. Those that have authority over it lack taste and annexes round it are hideous in contrast with the aesthetic of the 500-year-old central structures. People offer fervent prayers there, have done so a long time, and so the hallowed aura of the place will live as long as the temple survives. God is for ever, temples to Him are not.

The story of the origin of the temple follows the pattern we know. King went hunting, got separated from his party, lost himself in the jungle, and, tired, rested in the shade of a tree. He fell asleep and dreamt a dream in which God appeared. In this instance it was vassal Kempegowda who dreamed, and it was Lord Shiva who caused the dream and appeared in it. “There’s treasure where you lie,” he told Kempegowda. “Build me a temple with it.”

There’s another version: King Jayadeva of the same Yelahanka clan went hunting in the jungle, was lost, and after he’d tired lay down to rest under the canopy of trees. Shiva’s message to him was somewhat different: “There’s my Linga buried where you lie. Dig it out and build a temple to it.”

Neither would’ve dreamt that 500 years later, a Theresa May would visit the temple wearing a lovely silk sari, of the class that is draped round a temple goddess.

Some centuries before the time of Kempegowda and Jayadeva, in the twelfth century, when the great Hoysala ruler Veera Ballala lost himself while hunting, he did not sleep. He kept up the search for an exit and while at it he came upon an old lady who sheltered him in her solitary hut and made him a meal of beans. In gratitude he built a town dedicated to her, and called it Bengaluru, after the beans.

And here in Karnataka, Hoysala temples proliferated across the kingdom of the Hoysalas, all almost a millenium old, with intricate carvings and unique architecture of great beauty, marking a thanksgiving, a victory in battle, and such other vanities.


 Bull Temple, Bangalore

Bull Temple, Bangalore

The other famous temple in Bangalore is the Bull Temple, also built by Kempegowda. It is small and white and nice, and the face of the divine bull Nandi turns coy with the ornamentation in butter that it’s covered in. It’s a large Nandi in a small temple; even on its haunches it is 15 feet high. In Kempegowda’s time it had appeared in flesh among the jungles that covered the plains across from the hill where it sits now. It was of a blazing golden colour, and those who’d sighted it chased after it, and when they found it the bull had turned to granite. That night it appeared in Kempegowda’s dreams and asked for a temple also.


“You’re a temple-going man,” a Malaysian customer used to tease me each time I declined his offer of a drink. That’s not 100% true, though I don’t deny that I’m the praying type. So when I visit a temple for its archeaology, the art on its walls, half my mind is given to the worship that must follow. I’m fervent in my prayers, because I’m afflicted with depression for some years now, and live in mild, perpetual fear of impending misery. I worry about mistakes I might make in the puja and cause slight to the gods. I look for omens, but I don’t know the things that count as omens, so I weigh everything that happens round me while I’m at prayer in a temple. If my wife is with me, I ask, “Is that an omen?” I repeat myself until annoyance creeps across her face. Then I stop.


I’d made a vow and I’d gone to the Male Mahadeshwara Temple to better seal it. It was early morning when I stood in line, and even then it had gotten really long. When I neared the deity I saw how little time each devotee was getting before the Shivalinga, after all the pains taken to reach that most sacred spot. So I pulled a large note from my wallet and when I arrived before the deity I kept the note on the collection plate in the hands of a young priest. He noted my contribution, and looked away, allowing me to linger, but in a moment he recovered and began to chant: “Move on! Move on!” So I went out and rejoined the line and returned a second time, and repeated the trick with another large note. I got a few extra seconds once more, but I had no more the presence to look for omens, and came out feeling dirty.


The very prashast Gavigangadhareshwara Temple is on a granite rise in South Bangalore. This, too, was built by Kempegowda, this time to mark his release from emperor Ramaraya’s prison.


Mid-year in 2016 I traveled to the great thousand-year-old temple in Tanjore in Tamil Nadu. The Tanjore Temple to Shiva was built by Rajaraja to proclaim his victories and overwhelm his foes and friends. The largest temple in these parts, its height and mass and girth stun you into sublime silence.


In which temple shall I worship?


“I visit a small temple quite near Ayyappa’s,” a big-time criminal lawyer whom I know once told me. He once saved an employee of mine from goondas who were out to cause him grievous harm. “She’s a very powerful goddess.” The lawyer lives in Bangalore, and the city’s temples appear to have disappointed him. The temple he goes to is among the misty folds of dense hills in the tail-end part of the Western Ghats in Kerala.


As regards me, I’m turning inward.

We Are Not India's Enemies

I pass the Shia mosque near Johnson Market workdays when in Bangalore. Early morning I see a blur of it in good traffic; evenings, I’m force-paused before it, and I gaze in boredom at the all-white thing. Saturday last week, I went in there with some folks to look.

It was built in 1891 on an ₹800 charity from Iranian immigrant Aga Ali Asker. The purse came from wealth he’d accumulated in Bangalore, trading in Arab horses imported from home. The British in Bangalore and the Maharajah in Mysore were his patrons; he could count Mark Cubbon his friend, and sit in the Rajah’s private durbar.

Ali Asker’s grandson Mirza went to school with the Rajah, and became the Rajah’s diwan when the two had grown. The diwan’s life is a celebrated one, despite daubs of communal colour attempted on it season to political season. There are considerable luminaries succeding Ali Asker in his lineage, but it seems that wealth on the scale of Ali Asker’s hasn’t stayed in a single pair of hands after him. Perhaps it cannot; perhaps it shouldn’t.

On an expansive tract in the area where his Shia mosque came up is where Ali Asker settled, set up stables for his studs and fillies, and built his home. The central structure in the area is the now-crumbling, largely empty, dark and dank Johnson Market. Behind the the mosque and the market used to be Ali Asker’s house, now razed. Between these spots run alleys that are called Arab Lines, and on the widest Arab Line a high wide gate leads into what looks like a homestead which encloses an elegant colonial-style home, a big whitewashed structure that must be a private ashurkhana, and other, lesser structures. M.H. Agha, direct descendent of Ali Asker, lives there.

From the mosque we went over to Mr. Agha’s. We were a group of six, on a walking tour of the area. Mr. Agha offered tea soon as he saw us, walked us to a room on the front of the compound and, seating us there, began to speak. Tea came soon after, made and carried by his daughter, served sweet in gilt-trimmed china.

How was life here during Ali Asker’s time? Mr. Agha was ready to tell it, but first he needed to narrate his own story, his career at state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics, and his part in defending India against Pakistan in ’65.

India had a few aircraft that were down, he told us, whereas Pakistan’s squadrons were in fine shape. The chief of our air force called Mr. Agha, and challenged him to get them off the ground. Mr. Agha went and dug out every spare they had, took them to his “dispensary”: The ailment of the planes was in their engines. With ingenuity he had them spinning again, and the planes soon had their noses up in the air, pining for the skies.

Mr. Agha mimed with both hands the flying planes. When the enemy jets came over the border, Indian planes met them with the full force of their second wind and cut them down.

One among us was a journalist from New York, working in Asia ten years now. She is published in the Wall Street Journal and The Far Eastern Economic Review. She applied more than once her skill.

“Sir, can you describe this place to us in Ali Asker’s time?”

“Yes,” he said, surprised each time to be so interrupted, “but I must finish my story first!”

It is not easy to dislodge an elder from his mission, and Mr. Agha’s was less to sell the glory of Bangalore’s old Shia than to secure in us an understanding of the living Shia here, even if we were a mere inconsequential six in weekend attire. So he went on to the story of his son, a sportsman who has won the Ekalavya award, and then to the message of love and peace in the Muslim religion. The picture of Ali Asker's times, when Mr. Agha came to it, was dealt with in a single brush-stroke: "Yes, you can come again. Please call me before coming."

But he took us into his home, and allowed us to peer into showcases, and at portraits and photographs on the walls — Diwan Mirza with the Maharaja Wodeyar, Mr. Agha's grandfather in a very long car of the day, and so on. The past was living well in the nice old house.

Men at the mosque had also described Islam earlier in the morning. They'd narrated the history of Karbala, “the greatest tragedy ever”, to which the Shia identity is tied. They'd explained Shia icons, and robe, and sword, and turban, and asserted: “Whether Shia or Sunni, the Muslim is not an enemy of India." They'd urged us to go to the annual gathering at Karbala. “Five crore persons gather in a city smaller than Mysore. You'll find there the meal you demand. Idli-dosa? Just wish for it. You’ll see miracles all round you in Karbala.”

Ali Asker arrived here circa 1824. He didn’t come with an invading army. He was an immigrant in a place ruled by a Christian colonizer through a Hindu maharajah. His assets spanned the best parts of Bangalore, and many of them are landmarks well after his time. The official residence of today’s governor was Ali Asker’s, which he gave Mark Cubbon, which free India inherited. The length Ali Asker Road has been populated by a multicultural set of a quiet, elegant, rich people. When the Prince of Wales visited Mysore, the Maharajah introduced an aged Ali Asker to him.

We were visiting a community Ali Asker’s enterprise had spawned. We were listening to decent people of that community who, in these complex times, feel a need to explain themselves to others. I didn't feel good about that. But I'm glad I discovered Aga Ali Asker.


Reference: A Turquoise Cloud

A Visit to the Chola Temples in Tanjore

King Rajendra's Temple, Gangai Konda Cholapuram

We left for Gangaikonda Cholapuram (GKC) at 7:30, which wasn’t early enough, because there was already traffic congesting the 65 kilometer stretch from Tanjore. Roads in Tamil Nadu are the Kannadiga’s envy, but this one was narrow even if the asphalt was thick and hole-free. Anyway, we weren’t driving, and Chandran, the hotel driver, did his job in sober silence, and Sujaya and I relaxed, looking out at this sunsplashed, green part of Tamil Nadu. Rice Bowl of the State. In the cool inside we couldn’t tell the 38°c outside, so deceptive was the sight of fecund land through the glass. There were staple crops in the fields, and patches of teak, and tamarind and occasional mango and neem alongside the road.

The heat hit when Chandran opened the doors at the grand temple in GKC. The barefoot walk in the precinct was agonizing. The stone seared the soles as we went the distance from portal to door.

I envy the Christians their chapels. They are always clean, anywhere in the world. When you go in, the altar is immediately in view, you don’t compete for a darshan of it. There’s never noise there, and you can go in with shoes on. I’ve sat many times in the comfort of chapels and cheated the church a bit and meditated on the god of my choice.

But the GKC temple was clean as well, and quiet, and, very important, I could see the deity—a tall large Shivlinga—right from the door. It’s a long walk from the door to the sanctum in this magnificent temple.

Two chains hang on either side of the Shivlinga. Three oil lamps are attached to each chain, six in sum, and they are the only light source in the sanctum. The coils of Naga (the divine serpent) round the Linga, the hood of Naga flared over the Linga, the entire length of Naga from head to tail-tip is gilt, and it catches the lamplight and glows. The giant Linga is covered in a sheen framed by shadow. My hands went up on their own, folded in namaskar, in spell of a swelling worshipfulness that engulfed me.

Gangaikonda Cholapuram translates as the City of the Chola Who Conquered the Ganga. King Rajendra Chola’s marches went up to Bengal in the North, Lanka in the South, and the Khmer kingdom beyond the eastern seas. Winning the North, he brought to his capital the holy water of the Ganges, earning the title Gangaikonda Chola, rising to the greatness of his father Rajaraja who’d ruled 37 years before him and who’d begun the golden age of the Cholas. This was 1000 years ago.

King Rajendra’s temple in GKC is smaller than the great one his father built in Tanjore, but the artistry and technique employed here are more sophisticated, they have stood on the shoulders of what’s been achieved by the father.

King Rajendra's Temple, Gangai Konda Cholapuram

Outside, a bony sunburnt mali was hosing the quite-green lawn. In sparse shadow we sat and watched the art on the walls. The form of the Chola statue is slender, the pose delicate, and the features of both male and female are sharp enough to cut with. West of the Cholas, contemporary Hoysalas had a taste for the buxom. My wife voted with me for Chola art, and evening in Tanjore we bought two Chola bronzes, and I’m still worrying if we paid too much for them—though we brought down the quoted price by a half.

Brihadeeshwara Temple, Tanjore

Then we went to the Big Temple of Tanjore, built by Rajaraja. The scale of everything dazzled us: the Nandi, the main deity which again is the Linga, the vimana, the expanse of the place, the subsidiary temples round the main, and, of course, the crowds. But the crowds were considerably less during this, our first visit; due the heat, perhaps, and maybe because of the aashada maasa, at which time nothing auspicious is done, no important project begun, or prayed for.

A veena player was performing by the great Nandi before the main gopuram. He had a full accompaniment backing up the sweet plucking sounds from the veena. The man tossed his head up and around a lot, sending his long hair flying, adding drama to mastery. The style was Carnatic, and his rapt audience comprised the young and the old and kids and locals and tourists. I asked an old man before me who the performer was.

Rajesh Vaidya at the Brihadeeshwara Temple, Tanjore

He turned and smiled a disbelieving smile. Rustic man, with a grey stubble and wearing a stripe shirt over a soiled white veshti. He asked in Tamil, “Don’t you watch TV?” He repeated the question, glancing at the folks around, who were watching us. “That’s Rajesh Vaidhya,” he said, engaging the onlookers. Everybody raised a smile to that.

I’ve since looked up that Tamil artiste on Wikipedia, and I think the old man at the performance was a kind one. My question to him was as asking, in Liverpool, “Who is John Lennon?”


Some more pictures …

A Goat Sacrifice Turns Veggie

“Crazy guy!” I swore from the back seat.

A Renault Duster swerved ahead of us, going off-road and climbing back, steadying only as it passed us. Mahesh was silent, he is always silent, the best driver I've ever had. Then he spoke.

“Snake,” he said, dropping speed.

I looked back. It was a long one, the length of a rat snake. Non-venomous, a kere haavu. It was sleek and smooth and shining, a blue n’ white beauty, winding and unwinding and stuck on asphalt. A car behind had wised up to what had happened and had also slowed down to watch.

“It’s run over,” Mahesh said.

We were a half-hour away from our coffee plantation, where we visit twice a month from Bangalore. Being close to destination, we were more earnest on completing the journey than stopping to contemplate on how to end a creature’s suffering.

And anyway, I haven’t it in me to do a mercy killing. I’ve cut open anaesthetised frogs in school and seen their little hearts pumping while I’ve poked their other organs. But, being born vegetarian, I cannot kill for food, and I'm too squeamish to kill for sport, or in imitation of "Christian kindness".

This trip was for the annual prayer offered at the Devi’s shrine on the plantation.

~~~

Until this year, every year for eight years now, I’ve been pressing my fingers first on a goat’s brow, and pressing them next on my forehead. After that ritual, the plantation workers have led away the goat for slaughter in Devi’s name. “You mustn’t stop it. The villagers will blame you for misfortunes that might befall them,” the priest from the nearby temple told us when we bought the plantation eight years ago. Even the priest from the Shringeri temple, the temple to the goddess of wisdom, said the same thing.

~~~

A fresh young government officer near Tumkur was faced with such a problem some months ago. His townspeople killed a buffalo each year to appease the deity in the main temple. When the event came up this year, soon as he learnt about the imminent sacrifice, the officer gathered priests and devotees and asked them if they shouldn’t stop the practice in this time and age. He was met with silence.

He met them again. “If we don’t pour a paav of buffalo blood over the goddess we’ll all face doom in the year,” the men submitted. After hours of argument the officer struck a deal.

“Why kill a whole buffalo for a paav of blood? Why not ask a vet to draw only so much out?”

He won. I read the story in the papers. And I showed it to my wife, who has twice the normal woman’s will, and the same measure of pluck.

She called the plantation last week, and told the manager, and the foreman, that we’ll not have a sacrifice on our plantation this year. “Government orders,” she said. I know of no such order. The other side of the line returned silence.

“That’s good,” she said. “None of them protested.”

I sat back watched the wife in action.

She called an astrologer in Kerala, a state that stocks the best of them. He gave her permission, and a vegetarian solution: “Smash to the ground a water-gourd stuffed with kumkum. Smash two gourds, actually.”

My wife had the manager and the foreman buy two fat gourds, and one more. They did her bidding even if they didn’t break their silence.

“They don’t seem worried,” she said to me.

~~~

The same priest does the ceremony each year. He is head priest at the big temple nearby, so he’s much in demand, and should be booked two months ahead. He can’t help play prima donna, but he was a changed man this year. He smiled when I entered the hallowed ground. He decorated the deity better than all past years. He spoke kindly to the poor villagers who squatted about. When his cell phone rang, he ignored it.

When the finale comes there’s not even the sound of breathing, or the rustle of leaves among the press of coffee plants and shade trees. Even the birds are hushed. The breeze halts. With grave deliberation, the priest makes a hand-sized base of sand, presses a coconut into it, spreads a copper foil on the coconut, balances a block of hollowed-out vibhuti on the foil, inserts a lime in the hollow, and settles an egg on top of the lime. He takes a machete; he raises it over the assemblage before him, and closes his eyes, and meditates. Then, in the terrible silence he has caused, he brings down the machete, cleaves the assembly into equal halves, a sharp crack pierces the still and silent hearts gathered there, bringing gladness and relief with it.

The right hand of every man and woman rises to the breast and stays there. Eyes close. The goddess is happy. She will protect these her devotees; she will hand them the fortune that’s been prayed for; and a good crop; and she’ll keep out every disease from the old and the young.

~~~

Post-finale, for a touch down, the sacrifice. A vegetarian one this year. Into a narrow incision in the gourds the priest asked an assistant to pour red kumkum powder, and seal the incision. On either side of him he had two young men raise the gourds as high as they could. At his command they brought down the gourds with the full strength of their arms. From the smashed gourds red juice flowed, redder than blood.

~~~

In peace I write this, at my table in Bangalore.

On Forgetting to Make a Wish in Rishikesh

 Rishikesh Town in the Valley

Rishikesh Town in the Valley

Leaving at seven in the morning, we had an easy drive to the Neelkant Mahadev temple. Still, it took us an hour to get there, because though the traffic was thin, and the hotel car was a superior SUV, our driver Kuldeep worked less the pedal and more his tongue.

We didn’t mind it. We rather enjoyed his Hindi, and tried speaking it a bit ourselves. The first part of the drive was down the mountain to Rishikesh town, and then we went up the mountains watching the play of the sun on the speeding Ganges. The sight of the river kept up for quite a while, and then we turned into pure mountain, passing occasional vendors of lichees and tiny dwellings with men and women working public hand-pumps for water.

“How old is the temple?” I asked Kuldeep in halting Hindi, unsure of the gender for the noun.

“Very old, sir,” he said, in lilting Hindi.

That was a good enough answer for me, because Rishikesh is almost as old as the religion that was sired in the mountains round it, and raised in the fertile plains that extend from it. I worked up a hazy vision of a large ancient temple, on the scale of the behemoths in southern India. I was wrong in my imagining. A temple dating to the founding times of the religion cannot be large. Big temples came later, rather like what the Christians have in Jerusalem, which is small, when compared with what they’ve got in the Vatican.

The deity at the Neelkant is the size of what Kuldeep claimed it was: The throat of Shiva in human form. By legend here’s where Shiva drank the poison the oceans threw up when gods and demons churned them to extract from them the death-defying amruta. Shiva did that to save creation from sure extinction, and was himself saved by his wife Parvati, who gripped his throat to prevent the poison from advancing. After he’d consumed the poison, Shiva cut off his throat and left it behind in Rishikesh. Our forefathers built a shelter round it.

This was Kuldeep’s story, told in sweet sing-song. The first part, we’ve always known. The latter was new.

Wikipedia says the deity in the Neelkant temple is a Shivalinga, the phallus of Shiva. The throat, then, must’ve been Kuldeep’s twist. Anyway, the deity as I saw it seemed neither like phallus nor throat; my memory holds out an image of a liver whose colour has turned.

That’s all right, I suppose. What matters really is what Shiva means, and his meaning lies but within us, which we carry inside of us everywhere we go.

The shelter over the deity is a small plain white cuboid building which you reach after an hour in line on a good day. A conventional temple-shell houses the cuboid, and the not-too-large hall round it. In the line, which crawled, the devotees were patient. They were mostly simple country folks, most of them aged. I was expecting a dramatic appearance of the deity, housed in a gilt-trimmed grotto, and so I was surprised by the austere cuboid and, when I entered, the so-small rock jutting out the ground. The priest who slouched on a stool by it was the more domineering presence. By his side lay a large metal basin in which currency notes of every denomination were piling high.

Will he surrender all that money to the temple fund? Or, are they all for him to take? I couldn’t push back the questions that came to mind, on the spot, and my punishment was served on the instant.

By tradition of that temple, I’d to pour a cup of water on the deity, sprinkle bael leaf on it, empty a tiny bottle of honey, and a same-size bottle of rose water. Confused by how the temple had turned out, I poured only half the cup of water, and forgot about the honey and the rose water. Liveried Kuldeep, who was doubling as our guide, asked the priest for a special service for us, and what we got was to linger there a few seconds longer.

Anxious that I hadn’t made a prayer before the deity, hadn’t made a single wish in this very special temple in this most holy place, I went out and walked up and stood in utter disorientation. An aged man, about seventy-plus, walked past me, and knocked my elbow as he went, sending a small, holy Shivalinga that I was holding flying off my hand. My anxiety doubled: Was this an omen?

Good things had been hoped for, such as a flower falling off the deity while we were there, or some such sign saying life would be splendid this day on. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, I forgot to make a wish; and my Shivalinga went crashing to the floor.

We walked back to the car in the sun, noting how the cool from the cloudburst of two nights ago was still prevailing. Down the mountain, in a bit, the Ganges reappeared, curving outward from a mountain group, rushing down the deep wedge between mountains, showing up her sinews in the sun, a picture of strength and resolve and endless striving. My spirits lifted; they couldn’t have stayed down on a birthday.

life among colored cushions

The orange cat that mews unseen from the foliage surrounding the cafeteria was unusually loud the other day, and insistent, and was out among the stairway steps in view of everyone. After she'd been at it a long time someone realized she was pleading for help and a few went up to her she led them to a ditch on the campus. She had littered under a granite slab over the ditch, and her kitten were covered over by a swarm of large black ants. That was in the morning. The babies died in the afternoon. Now she has taken to greeting me at the main portico when I arrive. Whether she is greeting my arrival or she is submitting a complaint, I cannot tell. Last week, I saw her in the courtyard by my room, and she bounded up the wall and leapt out of sight, just as I caught a glimpse of a large brown ball in her mouth, most of the furry thing out and bulging. Brooding over that hapless thing, I remembered another rat that rose to the skies some weeks ago, a big furry round with a thin long tail, still like frozen, gripped by the talons of a hawk. How long is the rat alive, and aware, from when the cat or the bird commences to feed on it? I don't want to know. On the weekend, a snake's lifelong run in hiding ended in a gutter that runs by the factory stores. The security staff called home to inform about the catch, and described the colors of the snake: not a cobra, from the colors and the lack of a hood, not a water-snake either, from the length. "It's a viper!" Sujaya concluded. I tried to imagine the patterns of the colors, and pictured a beauty, and wondered at the habitat of that lovely creation—sometimes in the grass, sometimes among branches on trees, upon a rock basking in the sun in moments of perceived safety, and in ditches and drains and dank anthills at all other times. All these creatures all round my workplace remind me now and then of rebirth, and of my sins small and serious. Will I be reborn a human, and returned to a life among colored cushions? Or, have I slipped already, and am I doomed to fall into something like a snake's life? Or worse? I am glad to not know. Read More