Religion

Unhappy Diwali

 Image: Unsplash

Image: Unsplash

There were two instead of the one regular when I turned the corner of 1st Main and 5th Cross. They were leaning forward, peering, but they couldn’t see what was happening on 5th Cross from where I approached them. The dogs hadn’t the courage to come to the very end of the street and find out.

They weren’t firing crackers on 5th Cross. Still, seeing me, and probably thinking I was the creator of the sounds all around and the coloured lights exploding above, the pair turned and bounded back along 1st Main. I watched them until they disappeared after a gentle curve in the distance. Strange. They must’ve been through a few Diwali experiences, being full-grown dogs, not puppies. They were acting as though the apocalypse was upon them.

It was my turn to get apprehensive when I completed the length of 1st Main, went all the way down 3rd Cross, and turned into 2nd Main. Even before I got there, I could hear the serial explosions, loud and unsettling.

The chain ran about fifty meters along the middle of the road. About ten meters of the chain had blown, and cracker after cracker was sparking off the next in line in rapid succession — like a runaway machine gun, cruel, violent, with not a hint of the celebration of a good thing.

The man who’d perhaps lit the chain walked along it, in step with the crackers going off. A bunch of young men watched the scene, and they and the man by the chain were surely one party from a posh dwelling close by. The light from the streetlamp above had lit their hair, and it had caught their high-fashion silk sherwanis as well, which gleamed golden and silver.

I glared my nastiest at them. They were engrossed in their play, but after a long while, with the thudding of the crackers still going, they looked up. Seeing me looking as I was at them, they were surprised. They turned away.

The 2nd Main is the widest in my neighborhood and is host to a half dozen strays. They were all far down the road, in a single united pack, cocked and looking and perhaps whining a little.

On 3rd Main, where I live, after I’d walked a few paces the explosions from 2nd Main ended, but there was still a maddening din in the air, from fireworks going off all over town. They assailed the ear, the eye, the nose, and, most terribly, the heart. When I reached my gate, there was a little white fellow whom I’d never seen before. His tail was tucked in, and he was shrunken, and he was too much in fright of the sound and the fury to make any sign for help. Round his neck was a collar.

All dogs in my neighbourhood are so dressed in cute collars — the kept dogs behind the gate, the strays outside. It is an act of duty and kindness performed by most homes on all streets. The folks will allow none to be taken away by the catcher.

I opened my gate wide enough just for me. I slid in sideways. I closed the gate after me, and when I reached my front door, I looked back, to be sure the dog at the gate hadn’t somehow followed me in.

I hope this Diwali was perfect for you.

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.