Sunday, May 03, 2009

Making God Laugh

Mom decided we ought to pay a visit to the temple town Nathdwara during our Christmas holidays. Dad made a fuss about the expense but Mom was firm: we hadn’t gone to pay our respects to the family deity, Shreenathji, for quite a while and we couldn’t put this off forever. Finally dad gave in and sent somebody from the factory to queue up at the railway station to buy the tickets for the family – which meant my parents and we three boys, the youngest of them being me and I was nine at that time.

Cut to Nathdwara.

The Nathdwara temple has eight darshans – which means, the temple gates are opened eight times a day to allow devotees to have a glimpse of the deity. The deity is adorned differently for each darshan hence each darshan is unique.

Now, if you are devout, and in love with the deity, even with its form, you would like to have as many darshans as you can. So I announced to my mother, “Tomorrow I will have all eight darshans of Shreenathji.”

“Hush!” said my mother. “You can’t say that. Say that and you’ll never be able to have all the eight. Only His wish prevails.”

“Just you watch. I will squat on the temple steps, right outsides the gates, all through the day and let’s see who stops me from having all the darshans!”

My mother shrugged. “Let’s see.”

The next day, I accompanied my family to the temple very early morning for the first darshan. After that, the family checked out the notice board for the timing of the next darshan and we left for breakfast.

I was edgy and kept checking the time on my dad’s wristwatch. But we were back in time for the next darshan. Then we hung around in the market street outside the temple for the one after that. It was close to noon when we emerged from that darshan, and the family decided to go back to the dharamshala for lunch and rest. Once again we checked out the notice board for the timing of the next darshan and left.

The family decided to skip the afternoon darshan and instead take a short nap. But I was adamant. I had vowed to myself that I would have all eight darshans and I would be damned if I didn’t. I quarrelled with my mother, who wanted me to sleep a while, and returned to my post on the temple steps.

I squatted there on the steps with the dogged alertness that comes from the reluctance to lose a bet. As soon as the temple gates would open I would scurry in, dash into the gaps amidst the adults and work my way into the front row for the darshan. This way I got two more darshans under the belt. Now there were just three more to go. It was a cinch. My location was perfect, my determination rock solid.

Now picture this. It is late afternoon. The town’s sleepiness has affected pilgrims too. There are fewer of them to been seen in the streets. There is a gentle breeze wafting across the narrow lane leading to the temple. On both sides of the lane are pavement stalls selling flowers, sweets, picture frames and trinkets. There are a handful of beggars near the temple steps, getting ready for the anticipated conversion of piety into alms. I am sitting there on the temple steps, watching all this. The temple gates are closed and the notice board clearly shows that there is still half an hour to the next darshan. I turn to watch the street scene. A few minutes later I turn back towards the notice board to give a confirmatory glance and I see a temple functionary, standing with his back to me, changing the timing on the board. I bounce up to look at the change he has made. Aw shucks! The darshan has been postponed by another fifteen minutes! I sigh and resume my vigil on the somnolent steps.

I suddenly notice a small crowd gathering in the narrow street. They are watching a madari’s monkey tricks. I stand up to see the show from the vantage height of the steps. Soon the growing audience blocks my view so I gingerly go down the steps. I can hear the sound of the dumroo but I can’t see the monkey perform so I work my way through the crowd to get to the inner line of the circle.

Wow! What a performance! The monkey has such intelligent eyes he almost seems human. And he is so smart he seems to understand everything the madari tells him! I laugh at his antics, I guffaw when he mimics a spectator scratching his head, I shudder when he lunges at us, I clap enthusiastically along with the audience when he takes a bow.

All of a sudden I give a start. Darshan! I elbow my way desperately out of the crowd and dash up the steps.

The temple doors are slowly closing. I have just missed a darshan.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Streethawkers Of Chandni Chowk

It's a summer afternoon in Chandni Chowk and you don't want to venture into the drafts of sauna heat. You are ten years old and are lying on your stomach, on a huge teakwood poster bed, reading Eric Ambler's Cause For Alarm. The window to your left is open but covered with a wet khus curtain to convert hot air into cool breeze. It's neither too bright nor too dark. Just enough light to read by.

Swinging your legs in the air as you read, you suddenly hear a street hawker. He sings, "Peelay ras ganney ka!" Then comes the subheading yelled in a loud rustic voice..."Peelay thanda meetha ras wala!" He is selling sugarcane juice. Driven by curiosity, you rush to the window, lift the khus curtain a wee bit and peer down the narrow alley. There he is. A copperish brown man with a yellowed white saafa (head turban) standing next to his compact wooden press, the juice extractor, which he has stationed on the opposite building's porch. A pile of sugarcane lies next to him. Even as you watch, he cups his hand to his mouth and sends another marketing call resounding down the alley.

You drift back to your reading. It's getting closer to evening. Then you hear another call from down the lane. "Faalsey! Khhattey meethey faalsey!" Back to the window, peeking from behind the lifted curtain. There is this stocky man in a striped pyjama and white knee-length half-sleeved shirt. His ware is stocked in large leafy cones in a wicker basket and it is your favourite fruit: small, purple-maroon berry-like fruits, tangy and sweet at the same time. Irresistibly exotic for a Bombay lad like you... you don't ever get to see these in Bombay! You hastily slip on your Bata slippers, gather a few coins from the aala (a small alcove in the wall) and dash down the stairs, with your grand mom yelling indignantly after you, "Where are you going?!" But you are already down, next to the grinning vendor, buying two annas' worth of faalsey. Then you amble up the stairs slowly, picking one faalsa at a time, popping it in your mouth, relishing the fountain of taste that explodes with each lick, and then as the fruit flesh depletes you bite to get at the comparatively neutral tasting seed. You have finished half the faalsey in your leaf cone by the time you reach home.

Now it's late evening. You find it peculiar that your grandparents have dinner by seven... you are used to having dinner only after ten back home in Mumbai. But you have a voracious appetite and you can handle a largish meal any time of the day. As you dig into the puris and subzi, you hear a call from the street."Chholey! Chholey! Chat patey chholey!" You look up sheepishly at your grandmom. She scowls, but you can cleverly make out a lining of indulgence in the scowl. Sure enough, she reaches into her anti, the folds that hold up her sari, extracts a few coins and hands them to you. You are off like a hare... slipping on Hawaii slippers, leaping down darkish stairs, out in the small street. There at the nukkad (street corner) under the street lamp is the chholey-wala. (And you can swear that to this day you haven't tasted better chholey). So there you are next to him, greedy and impatient, thrusting the coins in his hands, asking for the dona full of spicy, steaming hot chholey so you can get back to having them with your puris. And having procured them, you scramble back upstairs, triumphant, grinning as if you have just bagged a continent.

And your grandparents, and your mom, and your uncle and aunt, still at dinner, are all stifling smiles at your easy satiation.