another look at that divine smile called Hassan

The stadium in Hassan TownHassan appears abruptly on NH48, without an arch, without an announcement, with no landmark at all. Arriving from Bangalore, you turn right from the highway to go into town. The train delivers you into the same street, which is named the Bangalore-Mangalore Road. You cannot yet fly in—birds still command the airspace over land allotted for an airport. No one is missing an airport in Hassan. There is a wish for a direct train to Bangalore, about which if some people are vocal they are speaking in whispers.

Hassan is a quiet town. You must count out the recent aberration.

The street runs into the town square with the typical buildings of small-town India flanking it. For a town which is the headquarters of the district which covers the Hoysala heartland, there isn’t anywhere a serious attempt at architecture. But there is a strange, becoming air to the town, to the wide main street, and the pleasing, sprawling town-square to which a statue of the great Dr. Ambedkar points from the government offices, without actually meaning to.

In the line of sight of that illustrious man, a leisurely policeman sometimes guides traffic which mostly manages itself.

Bars line the street, some of which open at six in the morning after having closed at eleven last night. I have watched a show in a movie theater in their midst. There were enough mosquitoes for each person to have their own private swarm to torment them, but when the movie commenced and the speakers burst into peak-volume, no one cared about the mosquitoes: the star was Shriya, and with Rajanikanth’s voice at its desired depth, everyone put up with every suffering, ignored even the smell of sweat, and the moist heat and cool that blew from hefty fans on the walls.

Hassan is as agrarian now as in the time of the Hoysala—it was agriculture that powered the art and architecture of his golden age. Today’s farmers may be seen in town, in shops that sell farm implements, fertilizers, and tractors and tillers. The furrows on their faces seem to me the deep lines of fortitude, and I have admired their inner and exterior strength. They are often in Hotel Hassan Ashhok with executives from Pepsi and such, who are helping them to grow potatoes for chips, and I have marveled at their enterprise.

Over dinner last week, Dr. Nagaraj, soil scientist with Hassan’s Krishi Vignyana Kendra, spoke with me regarding the challenges before Hassan’s farmers. He had returned from a field trip where a farmer had narrated his story before his wife, while his mother tended a buffalo nearby. Last year, he’d pledged his wife’s thali, and his mother’s, to raise money to grow potato, and the crop failed. “What shall I do now—anna,” he had cried. Nagaraj argues that there is no solution for the farmer save a strong intervention by the government.

I don’t understand how, but they enjoy this risky business in Hassan. You can tell that in the district stadium, where in the morning people walk and jog to radio broadcasts on the best methods to grow ragi, sunflower, rice. When I was there last month, the topic was uddinabele. Last Thursday, I listened to the incredible medicinal benefits muttidare-muni holds in every cell, and was filled with remorse at having so relentlessly teased that angel-shrub all through my childhood. The young in the stadium are unto themselves, and I cannot tell if the elders listen, but several of those I pass speak of gains from this crop and losses on another, of buying a tiller or bolstering a bund, of loaning some pipes and losing two valves.

McAuliffe is General Manager of Allana Coffee, and lives on its campus south of Hassan. At 70, after decades of sifting and processing coffee, he is a revered expert. Right now, he is short of labor at his coffee curing plant, but where are all the young going? “The women to the factories; the men to construction work.” But manufacturing jobs are not so many: Himatsingke Seide have employed several hundred women in their new factory in the Hassan Growth Centre. The National Textile Corporation has established a textile SEZ before Himatsingke. But two is not a large number, and in the remaining vast area only a few medium-sized factories have surfaced, for cold storage, automobile servicing, granite processing, hollow-block manufacturing.

Increased construction activity is visible, though: A new “high-tech” bus stand, almost ready; a spruced up train station; new government colleges for engineering, medicine, and agriculture; new hospitals; expansion and diversification among existing educational institutions; a large campus for training for the transport corporation; an institution for biofuels; windmills over low hills in the distance; and fresh activity at ISRO MCF. All these, happening simultaneously, suggest imminent change.

Is growth finally coming to town? There’s a place in Hassan where you can go for answers.

The Hasanamba Temple is on a spacious quadrangle in the middle of a tight maze of small shops and old houses, some pretty and well preserved. The deity is Parvathi, manifest as a hutta in this temple, and in the mind’s eye of those gifted with such sight, she is smiling. So she is Hasanamba, the smiling Goddess, and this hometown of hers is Hassan, after her divine smile. Her darshan is allowed for a two-week period once yearly, around Deepavali. Tradition has it that while closing the temple after Deepavali, they leave before her some rice, flowers, and a lit lamp. Next year, when they open, the rice is hot and ready to eat, the lamp is burning, and on the flowers there’s morning dew. Some say that perhaps miracle of the rice happened only in the virtuous past.

The Hassanamba Temple’s twin is in the compound, whose deity is Siddeswara, carved on a rock face, into which ten centuries of worship have infused a divinity whose weight is in the air. The rock face is plastered with a good number of moist flowers, and when they dry they fall, each in its time. When I entered, an old man had squatted before the deity, was speaking to it. Would something he’d planned succeed? Twice the flower had fallen on Siddeswara’s left, and the man wouldn’t leave without an amen: “So many times you have blessed me; you have given me everything; what happened now?” I closed my eyes for my prayer, and afterward, anxiously avoided seeing what fell, and where—one fall would damn, or delight us both, simultaneously. I left; his monologue continued.

Without new industries arriving, Hassan will stay a mere bed for a night or a place for a meal for those in transit to Belur and Halebid, or the coffee belt, the ghats, or Shravanabelagola. Even emperor Chandragupta came by Hassan, but only for sanyasa. What is it in the air now that signals that Hassan is astir, and will draw people who will stoke great enterprise in it?

They may know at Cafe Coffee Day, who have advanced until the twenty-seventh kilometer to Hassan. When will they arrive in the town square?

Hassan's railway station