Travelthon Tales

Travelling is the best way to learn and grow in life but it is also important to be observant as well as aware of your surroundings. Watch the view as your journey unfolds along the vast roads, mountains and peaks. Under the sea, a world unexplored opens up – all blue and colourful, neon and bright, the world beneath the sea is a true delight. I enjoy this rush of the unknown and the unconquered. This is what it is. A perilous plane – a journey almost to the divine.

The temples and the faith, the jungles and the savannahs, the mountains and the vast terrains with canyons – it is all one when you see life through the eyes of a traveller. Travelthon Tales are my personal travel tales as I move along this life of freedom, wisdom, adventure and mayhem. The tales will be enlightening with morals, values, wisdom and teachings as I march forward in my quest to travel the world in search of peace, meanings, answers and, most of all, joy.

 


Prayers and Pethas in Agra

Agra’s claim to fame is the Taj Mahal. There is another speciality of the city – the translucent pethas, soft candies in novel shapes and flavours made with the local ash-gourd.

Known as kashiphal in Hindi, the ash-gourd is actually a fruit but is referred to as a vegetable because it is cooked and eaten as a vegetable. It has religious significance as well. Kashiphal is offered to the gods at religious ceremonies and is considered to be potent in warding off the “evil eye.” At some places, it can be spotted hung outside newly-constructed homes.

The petha is a sweet unlike other sweets. The use of ingredients like lime and alum in its preparation gives it an offbeat texture making it crispy, juicy, chewy or melt-in-the-mouth sweet. Petha, kesar angoori petha, petha paan and kesar petha paan are the names of some of the varieties sold in the market. Agra’s petha-making is a thriving cottage industry.

After admiring the Taj Mahal from close up and from behind the balustrade at Agra Fort, the objective of the family trip to Agra is fulfilled. Next, visitors search for shops selling the famed petha. The most famous is Pancchi Petha with the original shop in Sadar Bazaar and branches all over the city. Sadar Bazaar, a popular shopping destination, is not far from the Taj, Fort and Agra Cantt. Railway Station.

The chunks of syrupy pethas arranged in the Pancchi shop look very mouth-watering. The aroma of ilaichi (green cardamom), kesar (saffron) and kewra water (screwpine essence) floats lightly in the air as if trying to balance above the heavy fumes of the sweetness of sugar.

Other petha-selling shops try to match the competition. One is by innovation by finding new flavours such as chocolate, paan, khus, orange, pineapple, coconut, dry fruits and even a sandwich variety, which comprises of two layers of petha with a filling of khoya, cashew and cardamom. Another is by trying to mislead the prospective buyer by imitating the Pancchi brand name. Boards on lamp posts and rickshaws fitted with loudspeakers moving around the city announce the superiority of their pethas. But Pancchi leads.

Bhanwar Petha Bhandar, in the opinion of Agra’s petha-eating public, is the second best. It has never advertised, keeps its prices reasonable, makes just three varieties and has only one shop where its pethas are sold. The flagbearer 100-year-old shop, Bhanwar Petha Bhandar, is located in the Noori Gate area, home to nearly 1,000 cottage units manufacturing pethas.

Bhanwar started with the traditional dry petha and progressed to the kesar and angoori varieties. He earned his reputation by maintaining very high standards in the manufacturing process. After Bhanwar Lal’s death, his son Ranjit Lal took charge. He spared no effort or money to keep the flag flying high.

Then came India’s Partition in 1947. Taking advantage of the exodus to Pakistan, Ranjit shifted from his three-room accommodation in the back lanes of Noori Gate to a just-vacated haveli in the erstwhile Muslim–majority area. It was close to Thomson School which, in the same year, was renamed to Sarojini Naidu Medical College. This was where his wife Nandini delivered their daughter a few years later. They named her Bhanumati, the beautiful princess-wife of Duryodhana.

“According to Indian folklore, Bhanumati was known for her pitara (casket) containing wealth and goods that created happiness and surprises. It was known as Bhanumati ka pitara. Our 20th century Bhanumati will bring good fortune to our family,” a proud Ranjit would tell his workers. Gradually the 40-room haveli started filling up with relatives of Ranjit and Nandini. They helped the family’s petha business grow consistently as well as in further building up its reputation.

Bhanumati had no shortage of cousins, uncles and aunties. Laughter echoed in the corridors and aangan (courtyard) of the haveli from dawn to sunset. Bhanu would lead her sena (army) of cousins through the crowded lanes of Hing ki Mandi, Kinari Bazaar and Nai ki Mandi. They would run around the stray foreigners bargaining over models of miniature Taj Mahals, fancy clothing, Oriental jewellery and other knick-knacks. The children dodged rickshaws, tongas and burkha-covered women as they headed to nowhere in particular.

Bhanu, whenever she got some money from her father, would take her cousins for a treat to Chimmanlal Puriwale, a popular vendor on Daresi Road near Kinari Bazaar where they gorged on yummy plates of puri-sabzi-raita served in a pattal (leaf plate) and a sweet bowl of kheer (rice pudding). Little did she know then that she was destined to enjoy the plates of puris only. Her kismet had not included a shopping spree at Kinari Bazaar among her many achievements. The market offers a wide variety of Indian jewellery, trousseaus and other wedding wear.

Bhanu’s formal education started when her parents enrolled her in an English medium school. As she entered her teens, Bhanu took charge of increasing her knowledge about the family business. She would go to the Noori Gate factory and carefully observe the time-consuming process of preparing pethas in the traditional way as her grandfather had followed. The entire procedure took five days and the results were unmatched.

The procedure started with peeling and chopping of the ash gourd. This was followed by the overnight soaking of pricked ash gourd pieces in chuna (slaked lime) with water, the process of rinsing, the addition of phitkari (powdered alum) and again boiling the pieces in water, cooling down, and again cooking them in water mixed with sugar to give them a white coating.

Addition of kewra, repetition of the rounds of heating, cooking and cooling to allow absorption of the sugar took another 2 to 3 days. Crystallisation left the pieces firm from outside, slightly juicy from inside and very delicious overall. Seeing her determination of not getting trapped in the confines of a woman’s time-honoured role, her aunts would taunt her. “The petha is better than you. At least it is soft under the hard shell, and sweet too. You are hard all over and bitter as well.”

In a fit, Bhanu’s reaction always was: “Then why don’t you pay the rent for living in the haveli for the past ten years. Don’t forget the electricity and water bills as well. Then see how sweet I will become.” She did not take into account their contribution to the family venture.

“Don’t be rude to your elders, beti,” her mother would reprimand her. Bhanu would walk out of the huge wooden carved and metal-studded gates of the haveli in a huff. Her destination was always the Noori Gate factory where her confidante-cum-mentor, the toothless, white-haired Ghulam Ahmed, could always be found.

He had seen her grow up from yesterday’s baby greedily sucking her mother’s breast to the on-the-sly chewer of No. 300 strength tobacco paan (betel leaf) of today. “See Ahmedbaba, the masis and buas (aunties) are all jealous of my independent spirit,” she complained from the side of her mouth before squirting out a spray of red paan juice into the nearby drain. “Just wait till my day comes,” she said derisively and decisively.

Compassion and forgiveness were not part of Bhanu’s characteristics. Her “wait till my day comes” declaration arrived unexpectedly. The following week her parents went on a pilgrimage to faraway Vaishnodevi. The bus they were travelling in on the uphill journey skidded off the road taking the many lives of Ranjit, Nandini and all the other pilgrims. There were hardly any remains in the deep ravine.

Bhanu’s mourning ended on the 10th day after the tragedy. On the morning of the 11th day, she asked her long-staying relatives that if they did not pay her for their extended stay, they better pack their bags. “Give us a month to decide,” was their reply.

Three weeks later, while the haveli corridors echoed with the “gutur-goo” calls, the resident white-feathered pigeons had a haunted look about them. Bhanu’s relatives had departed or, so she wished, had turned into abominable spirits. She promptly recruited staff to fill up the vacant positions.

“I am soooo happy,” Bhanu informed the pigeons indoors and the squirrels outside the haveli busy nibbling raw green guavas hanging onto the branches of the guava trees. Her voice echoed so she repeated herself till she choked. She promptly walked down to her factory. On the way, she remembered a lesson Ahmedbaba had taught her.

During her schooldays, Bhanu recalled Ahmedbaba telling her that apart from the Taj Mahal, there were many other places to see in Agra. There was Sheesh Mahal Palace of Mirrors near Agra Fort, Ram Bagh, a few mausoleums and masjids. When one resides in a city permanently and is used to the daily sights and sounds, then the novelty of history fails to register. But Bhanu never could forget the uniqueness of one historic place.

In a bass tone, Ahmedbaba would start with the introduction. “Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of Emperor Akbar’s empire for 14 years,” he was very fond of repeating to Bhanu when she used to return from school and sneak into the shop to make off with a piece of petha when she thought no one was looking.

Then, to hold her attention, he would dramatically move his hands to illustrate his narrative. “The sight of the Buland Darwaza at the entrance to the courtyard of Jama Masjid and the tomb of Salim Chishti is mesmerizing.” Ahmedbaba always lowered his forehead and kissed his fingertips when he took the Sufi saint’s name.

The finale: the purpose of his narration. Looking into her eyes and in a singsong voice, he would intone: “The gateway of Fatehpur Sikri’s Buland Darwaza has an inscription in pharsee which reads: ‘Isa (Jesus), son of Mary said: ‘The world is a bridge, pass over it but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for Eternity; but the world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.’ So bitiya (daughter), remember this lesson. It is very valuable and Allah will be pleased.”

As she wondered about the meaning of the advice of Jesus to his followers, she reached the factory. “Ahmedbaba, salaam and shukriya (thanks) for taking care of the work as I could not leave the house.” Then in a whisper “Let’s have a paan together. Haan, and I want to meet that launda (youth) who got married recently and still has not found a place in Agra to bring his begum (wife) from her sasural (in-laws’ place).”

“Arre, here he is. Arre Anwarbhai, now there is lots of place in the haveli. If you are willing to pay a token sum as rent then why don’t you bring your begum over from the village and shift to the haveli this Friday?”

“Bhanuji you are so generous. My Noorjanu will be very blessed to be so close to you and be of some help,” was Anwar’s quick response accompanied by a dignified bow and an “aadaab.”

A week later, Anwar and Noor moved into one of the ground floor halls of the haveli. Pink-lipped, a fair complexion, slender figure, long hair and soft blue eyes, Noor was unable to hide her happiness as she stood in the indoor central courtyard with a verandah surrounding the living area. She threw her arms up in the air, spun around on her heels and embraced Bhanu till her excitement subsided.

The intricately-carved white-green-peacock blue painted stone jalis (latticed screens) bordering the verandah gave the rooms seclusion without depriving them of daylight. The high ceiling of the hall that the newly-weds were allotted gave the interiors a cool appearance. The floor was carpeted with white highly polished marble tiles and their four battered black tin trunks and one olive green dog-eared holdall looked out of place in this regal backdrop as did a large fan suspended from the ceiling.

“The fan is a recent addition. I got it installed three days ago just for you,” Bhanu informed them. “The light from the street lamps outside will shine through the massive windows and roshandans (skylights). So you better get used to sleeping in the roshni (light). Or just imagine it to be moonlight,” she joked.

“My drawing room is right above this hall. So don’t worry, I will not be disturbed,” said Bhanu, giving a quick wink to Noor. “If you people have any questions or need anything, just call out to me. Sound travels very well in this empty haveli,” she enlightened them with a laugh.

“You can roam around the entire ground floor and select which kitchen or toilet to use. There are plenty of choices. The water and electricity supply is not a problem. And don’t feel shy,” she added before heading for the wide arch-shaped stairs leading to the first floor. Then, as she went up the stairs slowly, she suggested: “It would be best if you sleep directly under the fan. It will take some time for the haveli’s musty smell to go.”

For the next one week, while Noor gained familiarity with the spacious haveli and the neighbourhood, Bhanu arranged for their meals to be sent from the nearby Zaki Restaurant and told her dhoodwala (milk supplier) to provide them with milk every morning. Anwar told Ahmedbhai of Bhanuji’s generous nature.

Ahmedbhai heard his bitiya’s praise and tears welled up in his eyes. He raised both his palms skywards and silently chanted his favourite Persian axiom: “The world is a bridge, pass over it but build no houses upon it.” Rubbing his face with his rough, calloused palms, he thought: “Bitiya, you are great.”

That evening Anwar presented Bhanuji with a kulhar (earthen pot) of freshly made rasgullas as a ‘thank you’ gift. He needn’t have, Bhanu thought with a crafty smile. As the night progressed and silence reigned over the haveli, she switched off her bedroom’s chandelier and tiptoed to her drawing room. Rolling up the thick carpet from one side, she stopped at the point where the fan was positioned in the room below.

Patting down the carpet and lifting up the heavy tile above the fan, she lay down on her stomach, chin resting on her knuckles on top of the upraised rolled-up part. In a comfortable position, she had a clear view of the central portion of the room below. The bed of the newlyweds was visible from the space all around the fan’s cup attached to the 20-foot-high ceiling. Right below, she clearly saw Noor folding the bedcover and Anwar fluffing up the pillows.

Bhanu knew she did not have to wait for long. She had been observing the newlyweds every night for the past one week, all the way from the start to the finish. They kept the hall lights on and had not disappointed her even once as the Bhanumati ka pitara unwound and rocked in the hall below her. After all, she thought: “He who hopes for a day, may hope for Eternity; but the world endures but an hour.” She could wait for that long.

Waah, Ahmedbhai. Waah Buland Darwaza,” she muttered, moving her wet lips in silent prayer to the enterprising voyeuristic nightly entertainment. “Kya kamala ki cheez hai tuu,” she patted herself, feeling her body turning as soft as a petha. It was time well spent, she contented, as she could “Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.”

 


Mumbai Ki Bahon Mein

It is early morning in Nizamabad. An hour before sunrise, the sound of a crying child shatters the silence of the night. The crying is the curtain-raiser for screams of grownups. It is clear that all these sounds are being made by women from one hut. The village dogs take up the refrain with a mournful chorus of howls. Disturbed by the untimely din, crows caw angrily to their heart’s content from the leaf-covered branches of trees.

Woken up by the jarring notes, Azma, living in one of the huts nearby, woke up her husband. “Seems Mumtaz has delivered. The wailing indicates that it is again a girl. Just imagine, this is the ninth daughter. Never a son.” Clearing his throat, Hussain, her husband, laconically observed, “Sab Allah ki marzi hai (It is the will of God)”. He lit a biri before getting up to check the texture of the clay kept in the verandah.

Nizamabad is a village in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh. About 20 km from the district capital, the village is famous for its black clay pottery which is used to make household and decorative items like engraved flower vases, lacquered bowls and plates. Originating from the Kutch region of Gujarat, the craft was brought to Nizamabad by some potters during the reign of Aurangzeb, last of the great Mughal emperors who ruled from 1658 to 1707.

Indeed, Mumtaz had delivered a daughter. But the effort was too much and as the newborn took her first gasps of life, her mother coughed softly before going on her journey to Jannat (Paradise). Hasan, the child’s disappointed father, on being asked some time later, on what to name the child, said, “Call her Nawaz (ninth).” Chiding him, Hasan’s sister Zubeida declared, “So what if she is the unluckiest of all your daughters. She deserves to be named like a queen. Just see the colour of her eyes, they are blue.”

The name chosen was “Mehrunnisa,” meaning “benevolent” in English. Emperor Jahangir’s wife Nur Jahan‘s name prior to her marriage in 1611 to the fourth Mughal ruler was Mehrunnisa. As any student of Indian history would know, Nur Jahan had considerable influence and political authority and was regarded as the most powerful female personality of Mughal India. Born a little over 300 years later, only the Almighty would be aware of the future of Mehru, as she was called by one and all.

So Zubeida phuphi (Hasan’s sister) took charge of Mehru. In the 1980s, when Mehru entered her teens, her antics were too numerous to be related and none of her eight elder sisters could control her. Mehru, prettiest of them all, was an accomplished gupmaster (bluffer). “It is getting difficult to restrain Mehru’s mischievous side,” Zubeida told her husband Javed one morning.

Javed was sitting at the potter’s wheel. The rotating wheel was where the black pottery originated, made with locally available fine-textured clay. The clay moulds were baked, rubbed with water and mustard oil, decorated with floral and geometric patterned grooves and baked again to give the ware their shiny black surface. The grooves were then filled with silvery powder making the shine stand out against the black background.

So when Javed, faced with problems over an export consignment of potteryware being held up in Mumbai suggested “I’ll take Mehru with me for the company,” she gladly approved Mehru’s trip to Mumbai. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of villagers of the districts over 650 villages had migrated to Mumbai tempted by dreams of making money in Bollywood’s ancillary businesses.

At that time Abu Salem, originally from Azamgarh district, was operating a telephone booth at Andheri in Mumbai. Involved in petty crimes, he came in contact with the underworld’s D gang and became a gun-runner for them. In Mumbai, crime and the underworld had become a sunrise industry that attracted the villagers of Azamgarh district simply because they knew someone employed in India’s commercial capital’s world of gangsterism.

The birth of Mumbai’s underworld took place in the 1960-70s. The original dons, Haji Mastan, Yusuf Patel and Varadarajan Mudaliar were said to be variously involved in smuggling, bootlegging, gambling, passport racketeering and the sex trade. Karim Lala, reportedly a violence-prone don from Afghanistan, ran the Pathan gang with his sons. In the 1980s, there were fights between the Pathan gang led by Karim Lala and the Desi gang led by Haji Mastan.

Dawood Ibrahim, once a member of the Pathan gang, in retaliation to his elder brother’s killing in 1981 by the Pathan gang, wiped it out leading to bloodshed on both sides. Dawood, a petty thief in the 1970s, became the leader of the D gang.

Ahmed, sitting at a tea stall near the Mahalakshmi racecourse opposite Haji Ali Dargah, wondered if he has missed the opportunity to find a safe and secure livelihood. Seated next to him was Abdul, also from Azamgarh, who worked at a Unani dawakhana (clinic) in Goregaon East in suburban Mumbai.

When the D gang was scouting for youngsters in Azamgarh, Abdul’s father had packed him off to Mumbai to find a safer way of survival. It took him two years and a lot of hard work before he got the job in the dawakhana run by a highly experienced Hakim Ijaz Ali. “I’ve nicknamed him Ilaj Ali,” joked Abdul. Ahmed, in a detached manner hypnotically started his narration.

“With faith in my heart, I will walk towards this white spectacle of domes and minarets to this island in the Arabian Sea and be blessed by Sayyed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari,” managing to impress his friend. Abdul paid the chaiwallah, kissed the tabeez on his forearm, turned his palms skywards and with a “Salaam” in Ahmed’s direction headed towards Byculla station to reach Hakimji’s clinic in Goregaon.

Ahmed crossed the road and headed for the dargah set 500 yards into the sea when it had been constructed in 1431. He had not told any of his friends and acquaintances in Mumbai the problems he was facing. The news would reach his parents and they would be pained. When he sat on the pathway to Haji Ali Dargah with a handkerchief spread out before him, the dargah was a source of money and food for him as also for the many hawkers and beggars.

Beggars can’t be choosers was a proverb Ahmed had never heard. Ahmed, as a beggar, always considered the Hindu temple Shree Siddhivinayak Ganapati Mandir dedicated to Lord Shri Ganesh located in Prabhadevi a better place to seek alms. The temple was often visited by politicians and Bollywood film stars to seek Lord Ganesha’s blessings.

The choked roads of Mumbai overflowing with traffic and filth, naked children playing on pavements, all this sickened the youth from Azamgarh. Ahmed had his happy moments too, especially when he went to Juhu beach on weekends when the place was crowded. He often managed to get leftovers of street food like bhelpuri and sevpuri. The dancing monkeys, lithe acrobats and smiling visitors amused him.

The cosmopolitan city had it all. From Bollywood to crime, grand malls to ugly slums, Udipi restaurants to Irani cafes, bun maska to pasta, the imposing Gateway of India to sleazy dance bars. The dissimilarity took a toll on Ahmed.

He finally did what his father had feared and had dispatched him from Azamgarh. He joined a gang of criminals and was on the road to earning some izzat (respect). From a roadside beggar, he started sleeping with “bhailog” in a hut in Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi. He had no assets, no liabilities. His futuristic journey to earn an income through extortion, kidnapping and prostitution had begun.

The return journey of Mehru to the village was cert in spite of her wish to see Mumbai properly. Javed’s work on the export consignment concluded and he was impatient to reach his village. He was thankful to his chhote nana (grandfather) Hakim Ijaz Ali for his hospitality in Mumbai. Mehru was reluctant.

“I want to stay longer with Nanaji,” she pleaded. Javed agreed and Mehru danced with joy. She loved to visit Aarey Milk Colony and see the bovine population chewing cud, at peace with their existence. She had not got the chance to visit Film City in Goregaon. Spotting their favourite stars is any small-city girl’s dream and for starry-eyed Mehru, her dream was so close.

So one day when there were hardly any patients, Abdul took Mehru to Film City. The huge sets, the world of make-believe, the swaggering junior artistes, all fascinated Mehru. That evening Ahmed landed up in Goregaon to meet Abdul. He was introduced to an all-too-thrilled Mehru who was imagining that somebody would spot her for the role of a heroine. A generous Ahmed offered to take them out for dinner. Another first for Mehru, going to a restaurant for dinner with Nanaji and the two youths excited her.

The entrance to the restaurant near Goregaon railway station was shabby but the insides were tidy. Once seated, Ahmed showed his familiarity with the place. Best place to have non-vegetarian dishes, especially seafood. The taste is typical Maharashtrian,” he spoke while ruffling the menu card. Ahmed ordered for all of his guests

Hakim Sahib and Mehru, unaccustomed to the environment, felt uncomfortable but when the mehak (aroma) of the Masala Chicken in the serving bowl floated in their direction and the platter of Mutton Biryani was placed before them, they were too occupied to notice anything else. Ahmed had not missed the look in Mehru’s blue, starry eyes, the hunger to lead a life better than the present one.

Businessmen, shady dealers, touts, gangsters, informers showed their enjoyment of the jhatkas, belly-dancing, hip-grinding and chin-thrusting moves of the dancers on the platform by showering them with high-denomination notes. A sprinkling of curious tourists was an exception. The bar girls moved their hips suggestively and jiggled their breast in tune to loud Bollywood numbers under blinking, red, green, blue-coloured lights in a hall reeking of liquor, food, cigarette smoke and sweat.

The morning after the Goregaon dinner party, Ahmed visited “Mona Aunty” at the Paradise Dance Bar to discuss a deal. “Mona Aunty” did not haggle with Ahmed. She pushed a package of currency notes on the table towards him.

From past experience, she knew Ahmed brought her only “A” quality goods. She also knew the worth of undamaged, unbroken, brand new goods. Ahmed put the notes in his shoulder bag, once again promised to deliver the goods on the day fixed, clicked his heels and left as silently as he had come.

It was child’s play for Ahmed to send Mehru to meet “Mona Aunty.” An unwilling Mehru, picked up by his bhai log (gang members), was forced to join the army of many thousands of bar girls who earned their living by dancing, their looks and their thin bodies. There was nowhere for them to run. The Mafia controlled and owned their lives. It took a few months but Mehru gradually came to terms with her future. The baby born before the sun had risen learnt to survive the nightly debauchery.

While pirouetting on the platform in a tinsel-encrusted green sari worn much below her navel and a bright red blouse barely covering her breasts, she would imagine travelling into another world. Spinning round and round on her heels, she could imagine herself to be the wet clay spinning on the potter’s wheel. The wheel only spun faster and faster. When a drunk customer tried to clutch her gyrating hips, it was like he was giving her body a shape, fingers shaping a body made of willing and wet clay.

As the heat in the bar increased, she would feel as if she was being baked in the kiln. The silver sequins on her sari border reflected the silver powder filled in the grooves of the finished ware. Then she would quietly open her sad blue eyes to view the triumph of the tragedy of her soul which shone as black as the clay pottery of distant Nizamabad.

 


Ganga Ki Sagarika

I am Sagarika. I was born in Gangasagar, a small island in coastal West Bengal. I was 11 years old when cyclone Aila lashed through our village. It was the 25th of May 2009 when I saw, for the first time in my life, the tall coconut trees bow before snapping into two, thick groves of green bamboo being ripped off their leaves and the waves of the Ganga soaring up high as the strong winds from the Bay of Bengal ripped through the coast and headed inland.

The cyclone had wreaked considerable damage at Sagardwip, about 130 km from Kolkata. Fields full of the ripening paddy and vegetables were destroyed and freshwater fish in ponds died with the flood of salt water. Thatched mud huts were swept away, roofs of pucca houses of the village were ripped off and the residents’ clothes, pots and pans, plastic chairs, wooden cots and other household paraphernalia vanished before their eyes.

All of us had nowhere to take shelter, no food to eat, no water to drink. Having seen all our possessions disappearing skywards with the strong winds within nanoseconds, we sought comfort as I huddled close to my mother and father. This was the tragic scene at the small island in the Gangasagar region of Sunderbans.

The island’s uninteresting village Sagardwip, otherwise, had a quiet charm amidst the unspoilt and silvery beach on the estuary of the mighty Ganga. It was only in December and January during Makar Sankranti celebrated in mid-January every year that thousands of people would descend to take the holy dip at Sagardwip’s southern tip in the Ganges delta above the Bay of Bengal. All the villagers would look forward to the flood of pilgrims coming from mid-December onwards.

For the rest of the year, there were tourists, mostly from Kolkata, who were interested in seeing the attractions such as the beach, Marine Park, the lighthouse, Ramakrisna Mission Ashram, Sushama Devichowdhurani Marine Biological Research Institute, Chimaguri Mudflat which is the entry point to the mangrove forest and the windmills from which the Island gets its power.

My father used to set up a stall and sell maachh-bhaat (dish of rice and fish) to visitors while mother sat on a jute mat nearby selling marigold and desi gulab (red rose) garlands to pilgrims. The income generated till the end of January kept us simple villagers happy for the next few months.

The Gangasagar pilgrimage and fair is the second largest congregation of mankind after the holy Kumbha Mela. The latter is observed once in four years at alternate locations in north, central and central-west parts of the country whereas the Gangasagar pilgrimage is held annually.

The temple for which Gangasagar is held so sacred is the Kapil Muni temple at Sagardwip. This is the fourth constructed temple in the island. The first was razed by a tornado and the next two were destroyed by the sea. In 1961, funds were given to construct the present temple which was completed in 1973. Gangasagar is about five times bigger than the Vatican State and has the holy Ganga and the Bay of Bengal for company.

There is a common belief among the locals that girls who take the holy dip on Makar Sakranti get handsome grooms and boys get beautiful brides. On completion of the dip and other ritual obligations, devotees head towards the nearby Kapil Muni temple to worship the deity. It is said that holding the tail of the cow while wading in the Ganga wipes out the sins of the devotee. The pujaris (priests) borrow calves from local villagers to perform this ritual called Baitarani Par (cow worship).

I never had to look far for company or friends in the months of December and January. The sandswept coast was jam-packed with hundreds of thousands of devotees offering prayers and flowers, smashing coconuts, lighting sweet-smelling incense, offering sweets at the colourful Kapil Muni’s temple lending to it the typical and familiar aura of Hinduism. My friends and I roamed around in the mela the whole day and, at times, would wade in the Ganga waters to collect coins thrown by pilgrims into the Ganga.

Temporary stalls bedecked with silver and gold-coloured streamers made of paper sold food, clothes, clay gods, offerings like flowers, sweets, etc. Flower-sellers sit behind heaps of garlands made of golden and yellow-coloured gainda (marigold) flowers and the delicate red roses. Kirtans (devotional songs) are sung in rhythm with harmoniums and dhols (drums) by the devout. At night, the Kapil Muni temple is lit up by purple and blue light bulbs.

Dharamshalas and temporary shelters set up by charitable organizations, religious bodies, social activists, government authorities, non-governmental organizations, etc. are where many of the thousands of pilgrims stay for two-three days. If not praying or picking up souvenirs from the temporary shops, they frequent the restaurants dispensing sweet tea in earthen pots or eating freshly-made puri-alu and maachh-bhaat on pattals (leaf plates).

At Sagardwip, the Bharat Sevashram Sangha temple, while not as religiously significant as the Kapil Muni temple, is larger. The Sangha’s Ashram has hundreds of rooms for pilgrims, a charitable dispensary and monastery, a primary school, a free hostel for its students and other facilities.

The Ramakrishna Mission Ashram at Mansadwip is actually a school but for the duration of the pilgrimage, turns into a shelter for devotees. Volunteers make arrangements for the provision of meals during most of the night on the main Sankranti Snan (holy timing for taking bath in Gangasagar) event.

A year after the 2009 cyclone Alia, when my parents could not subsist on their meagre earnings, they decided to shift to Kolkata and try to improve their prospects. Leaving Sagardwip was another first for me. After Dussehra in 2010, my parents packed our few belongings and caught a bus to Kochuberia to cross the Ganga by ferry and reached Hardwood. A local tempo took us to Kakdwip from where we caught a train to Sealdah railway station.

We stayed for a few days with my Manu masi (mother’s sister) till my father found a job in a restaurant and mother secured work as a housemaid. As we could now afford to live in our own hut, we shifted to a para (colony) in ShibpurHowrah.

Soon my mother found me a job and I started working at a house near a very large park which was known by the name of Indian Botanical Gardens. It is famous for the Great Banyan Tree which, it is claimed, has the largest canopy in the world. I had, over a few months of working, never seen the tree and had not gone into the park.

That is what the memsahib told me once when she came to the kitchen to see the preparations for the dinner. The cook had gone to the market nearby for some last-minute purchases. I was sitting alone on the floor chopping vegetables with the boti (chopper). She came and sat beside me. She is always dressed in simple but stylishly printed cotton saris when at home. I felt the scent of her perfume overpowering.

Stroking my back slowly and firmly with one hand and gently patting my cheeks, squeezing my nose, tugging at my lips with the other hand, she said: “Do you know how beautiful you are? Your eyes are like a deer’s, your lips are so shapely and the way your figure is developing, so, so beautifully. You will never run short of admirers.” She stopped speaking, rubbed her face with her sari pallu, got up with a start and left the kitchen.

I was puzzled. Memsahib had seen me on a number of occasions and had ignored me. This was the first time that she had spoken to me. So when the cook returned, I told him that I was going for a walk and would be back in 10 minutes. I needed to calm my nerves. I headed straight for the park and sat down on a bench which was coated with green paint. Then I saw a youth, a little older than me, coming in my direction.

He wished me “tumhee bhalo” (“how are you”) when he came near and sat next to me. For a few minutes, he sat silently. Then he started telling me about his background. His name was Shantu and was from a village in Sundarbans near J Block beyond Raidighi. He had run away from home to earn a livelihood in Kolkata. For the past two years, he had been working in a godown where potatoes were stored and his job involved carrying heavy sacks of potatoes on his back to load on or off trucks whenever necessary.

One afternoon, Shantu took me to the Howrah Bridge. I had never seen such an impressive construction. Shantu said there were beautiful temples in the city but we had no time to visit them. He named a few such as the Kali Bari, Belur Math, Dakshineshwar and Birla Temple. He talked of places known as the Victoria Memorial, Eden Gardens, Birla Planetarium and a lady called Mother Teresa who worked for the downtrodden. He had visited these places and happily described them to me.

I started frequenting the park every afternoon to meet my one and only friend in the city. I told him how I missed my village, those stolen rides on the rickshaw vans, the sound of the cock crowing at dawn, the sight of ducks paddling noisily around muddy pools, the country boats in the bay and fishing nets spread everywhere. He relived his memories, mostly about life, before the cyclone had changed the lives of the people.

Then one day, we decided to run away. Shantu said his parents would welcome him back and he would introduce me as his wife. I did not inform my parents and did not appreciate playing the “wifey” role. So on the evening that we “eloped”, we went to a temple where Shantu applied the red-coloured teeka to my maang (forehead) and only after that did we headed to Raidighi in a bus. The journey was uneventful, considering that we were a “newly-married” couple.

The early morning breeze at Raidighi was very pleasant. One of the tributaries of the Ganga flows through Raidighi. It was a welcome sight, of water bubbles kissing the river banks, of the fast flow of the currents and the swirling waters shining in the sunlight. The sludge-filled Hooghly in Kolkata cannot be compared with this happy sight. My spirits were lifted. I was happy to be closer to home.

Our reception at Shantu’s parents’ home was a happy experience. They were happy to have their son back and, that too, with such an attractive ever-smiling bahu (daughter-in-law). A month passed in bliss for me. Shantu found work as a mechanic at a garage. I took care of my in-laws during the daytime and Shantu took care of me at night.

But my parents had never rested ever since the loss of their beloved daughter. In a small world comprising of only static villages, flowing rivers and wagging tongues, news travels fast. My parents learnt of my so-called marriage and the name of the village where I was living.

So on one pleasant day, while I was rubbing oil in my sasuma’s (mother-in-law’s) hair, I saw the familiar sight of my parents walking down the narrow ribbon of upraised soil, that we called a road, to the thatched hut that we called home. “So you have run away from us to this ramshackle village!” my father shouted when they had reached within hearing distance. I started trembling as I knew the outcome of their visit.

As I said, news travels fast and within 10 minutes, Shantu along with half the village’s population had reached the “battleground”. My parents stood firm. There was no documentary of the proof of our marriage and neither Shantu’s family nor any of the villagers had witnessed any ceremony.

After some arguments, my mother caught me by my wrist and started walking back to the main cemented road where their taxi was parked. My father spat angrily on the road, took out a paan (betel leaf) from a foiled paper and contentedly parked it in the side of his mouth. Mission Accomplished, the signal seemed to say. Caught but not guilty, I was howling. Shantu and my in-laws stood dazed watching the drama unfold. That was the last time that I saw Shantu.

Back to Kolkata and a return to backbreaking work at the homes of the rich. Then I met Deb. A whirlwind romance followed. Knowledge of the newly-discovered pleasures of the flesh learnt with Shantu were further enriched with Deb. He presented me with a mobile phone and I talked to him in my spare time. One day, the memsahib caught me with the mobile and called my parents. After I spilt the beans to them about Deb, they decided to pack me off to Delhi where my pishi (father’s sister) lived.

Another train journey, another city, another life. Shreya pishi lost no time in securing a 24-hour job at a flat in Gurgaon. Living in a 3 bedroom flat on the 10th floor of a multi-storeyed building with security guards strictly checking visitors to the Sector 30 colony, I missed the freedom and fresh air of Gangasagar. The family I served consisted of the husband and wife with one daughter who studied in a school in Nainital and came home only during her vacations.

The sahib left for his office by 9 a.m. to return by 7 p.m. six days of the week. The memsahib had friends visiting her for gossip sessions or she watched Hindi serials on TV. She was very conscious about her figure, exercising daily in a skin-tight track suit and watching what she ate. Sometimes she allowed me to watch Bangla serials and films. On those occasions, she’d sit on the sofa and make me sit in front of her with my back resting on her legs. She loved to stroke my long tresses, play with my ears, stroke my neck and rub my shoulders.

As her fingers explored my shoulders, she loved to ask me about my experiences in Kolkata and the villages where I had stayed. I told her about my romantic attachments, the short-lived affairs, and the meaningless excitement in an otherwise dull existence. At that time, I had not known where I was headed to and even now, I was living directionless. Little did I know about the vast ocean of love that was heading in my direction that would turn around my entire life.

One fine morning when her husband went to office earlier than usual, she complained of pain in her lower back, a result of the bending exercises she had done that morning. She told me, after having a light breakfast, to come to her bedroom with the massage oil. I helped her take her t-shirt off and started massaging oil on her spine, shapely hips and slim waist.

After some time, she turned around and I, Sagarika, was thrown roughly into the strong waves of cyclone Aila. I am Sagarika. I was born in Gangasagar. I am 19 years old and the date today is the 25th of May 2017. I have been drowned of my own choice and as I love my karma and the ebb and flow of the tide, refuse to be rescued.


Love in Khajuraho

“If the temple bells are made of carved stone, then can you hear the sound of their ringing?” asked the schoolmaster of his wards sitting under the canopy of a 100-year-old banyan tree. The 35-year-old fair-complexioned Panditji had paan-stained teeth in contrast to an excellent physique and sported a Bollywood variety of green-lensed rimless dark glasses, Shah Rukh Khan-style, on the bridge of his nose.

He swished the cane in his hand to frighten the boys and girls before dragging his chair closer to the front row of his students. The children looked vacantly at one another before some crows flew past and distracted them. A huge shiny-white Volvo bus had stopped outside the school boundary wall. The squelching of its pressurized shock absorbers had made the crows take flight.

The children and Panditji waited for the bus doors to open so as to disgorge the foreign tourists on their visit to Khajuraho. The foreigners, for the villagers, were a perpetual source of entertainment. The temporary visitors found the carvings, temples, local shopping sprees and cultural performances an amusing diversion.

Colourfully dressed men and women emerged from their air-conditioned comfort into the heat and dust of the village. A team of ushers appeared carrying white-topped beach umbrellas to escort the tourists to the nearby hotel. As always, Panditji straightened his dark glasses to stare at the shapely pink female flesh on display. When a wealth of erotic statues was easily available in his village, it still fascinated him to daydream about the firm bodies of the women tourists under their skimpy clothes.

As the last of the tourists marched into the gates of the hotel, Panditji came back to his senses. He realized that this touristy interruption of the class had upset the schedule. He headed for the gong hanging from an iron chain and clanged it to announce the closure of the school for the day. The students jostled with one another as they jumped up joyfully and noisily collected their bags to set off for their homes earlier than usual.

Only Ramesh, one of the students, kept sitting. Panditji could ring the school bell but the temple bells did not produce any music. One was made of iron and the other of stone. But Ramesh knew that stone could also sing.

He used to hear his mother, Roopvati, lustily singing Bollywood filmi numbers when she scrubbed soap on her body while bathing in the courtyard in the back verandah of their house. His imagination started building up.

Her partially-covered body, Ramesh had slyly seen, was as curvaceous as the statues of the surasundaris (divine nymphs) on the outer walls of the Kandariya Mahadev temple. Ramesh had never seen such a beautiful woman as his mother in the entire village. Sometimes, when his imagination would get the better of him, he used to imagine that the father-grandfather duo had stolen a statue from the museum.

His father, Mithila Prasad, was a sarkari tourist guide. His late grandfather, Som Prasad, was a sarkari chowkidar at the old museum which had now been rebuilt. So one night many years ago, Mithila Prasad helped by Som Prasad, took a small piece of their work home and, to take the boredom of his sarkari duties, his father in cohorts with the ojha brought the sarkari statue to life. Or so, Ramesh dreamt.

The museum did not miss the stolen statue as they had eight times the number of artefacts and statues than they could display. So what was one voluptuous erotica less? His father was accustomed to taking tourists around the temples, repeating his narratives daily to them and seeing their eyes bulge in excitement at the carvings of love-making. But they were outsiders. Not the kind who were accustomed to seeing erotic carvings day in and day out.

All this was what Ramesh dreamt about especially after his father told him to sleep under the neem tree at night, saying “Kasam se, neem to teri sehat ke liye bahut achcha hota hai. Tu kal subah taaza ho jayega.” (“I swear the neem tree is very good for your health. You will feel like a new man tomorrow morning.”). Ramesh never felt the difference but he would note the glow on his mother’s face when she came to wake him up the morning after.

Back to the Present.

Panditji, friend of Som Prasad, pulling up his greying dhoti had started shuffling out of the schoolyard when he spotted Ramesh day-dreaming. “Ghar jaa be. Maa teri intezar k-k-k-kar rahi hogi,” (“Go home. Your mother must be waiting”) he yelled in exasperation. As Ramesh was out of sight, Panditji’s thoughts were about the statuesque Roopvati. Rubbing his hands, he moaned in pleasurable anticipation.

“All the children have reached home and you are still dawdling away,” Roopvati lovingly upbraided her only son when he reached home, a 30-minute walk from school. He dumped his school bag and went to the tap outside and washed his hands and face. “Another busload of tourists has arrived,” he announced to his mother. The news conveyed was good for his parents’ prosperity, he was aware of that.

Roopvati served him his favourite bafla (wheat cake) and desi ghee with daal. He loved to be with his mother every afternoon. Her kajal-lined eyes, dark-red round tikka in the centre of her forehead, her oiled braids tightly knotted and sari pallav crisply tucked into her waistline reminded him of the dancers who performed every year in March at the Khajuraho Dance Festival.

The women dancers wore colourful silk saris, coated their lips in different shades of red and wove a magic with their intricate dances every night for a week. He tried to imagine his mother pirouetting on the stage with the temple in the background. Under the dark sky for the duration of the Dance Festival, his mother, father and Panditji, would clap along with the appreciative audience at the end of every performance conducted in the open-air on a temple chabutra (pedestal).

His father would be very busy during the winter season. “It is the tourist season. The only time for me to make lots of money,” he would explain to Ramesh who, on a school holiday, had happened to accompany him on one of his guide assignments. His father had given the usual glib information, Ramesh boringly thought, to that batch of tourists that he gave to all the others.

“The entire temple complex is beautifully built and decorated. Khajuraho is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Of the 85 temples originally built by the Chandela dynasty between 900 A.D. and 1130 A.D., only 25 remain. Please do not miss the erotic carvings that depict men, women, and animals engaging in. . .” That would be the moment when the Indian women giggled, covered their heads and stepped away from their menfolk. The men would converge towards his father and, with a smirk on their faces, pile questions to his father.

“The temples are an everyday sight for me,” Ramesh wanted to tell the gawking shehri-babus (city-dwellers). “What I see daily on my way to school and back is boring, very boring,” he wanted to add. But he held his tongue for the sake of the dawat (treat) his father always gave him at the end of a day’s rewarding work.

In the evening as the tired tourists left for their hotels, his father would take him to Panditji’s house next to the school to chat with his jigri dost (friend) about the day-to-day struggles, rising prices, shrinking incomes and life in general. After smoking a few biris (rolled tobacco cigarettes), the friends took leave.

The treat came on their way home. On the opposite side of the Western Group of Temples stood the landmark Raja Café. Som Prasad had seen the café when it was an ordinary structure with two firangi (foreigners), the founders, trying to run the café. The two women, friends of the Maharaja of Chhatarpur, had bought it from him in the late 1970s. In the early years, Khajuraho had not been on the must-visit list of tourists as it was today. Business was booming thanks to tourism promotion by the Madhya Pradesh Government.

The treat comprised of a glass of cold coffee, one each for the father and son, from the establishment as it was part of the biradari (community) of hospitality-keepers. When the two finished their cold drinks, noisily slurping up the last dregs at the bottom of their glasses with plastic straws, a waiter approached them and shyly placed a plastic bucket of the day’s leftover vegetarian dish with an indication that this was a “present” from the manager.

The father and son salaamed (thanked) the manager, gifting him and his family “a long life,” and, with the spoils of the day, exultantly headed for home. As they walked, they kept talking about the ways that they would give Roopvati a surprise with the present.

During the 30-minute long walk home, Som Prasad entertained his son by telling him the names of the hotels whose lights twinkled all night long in that sleepy village. The Lalit Temple ViewRadisson Jas HotelRamadaClarksSyna Heritage Hotel and Hammeer Garhi Heritage Resort were places from where the tourists gave him handsome tips.

In the tourist offseason, when the visitors were from various Indian States, he would have to seek his customers from the unbranded cheap hotels. Their behaviours disgusted him, he told Ramesh. They stained the temple premises with paan and tobacco-laden spit, threw emptied food pouches anywhere and ogled at the women tourists.

What he did not reveal to Ramesh was that these same men paid him handsomely for the “underhand” dealings like obtaining hashish for their evening pleasure and rounding up the local “darlings” for their nightly fantasy. But then, he reasoned, the statues at the temples celebrated womanhood.

They were heavily ornamented broad-hipped, well-proportionate apsaras (women) on the walls, the surasundaris frozen in stone as they put on makeup, washed their hair, played games and pouted as they looked into the mirror. Little did the father know that Ramesh had moved into a different world. Starry-eyed, he was imagining that one of those divine nymphs had, through a miracle, been restored in the form of his mother.

Ramesh’s grandfather, once part of the museum security, had been a terrific raconteur. “Cunningham sa’ab ka kamal thaa jo Khajuraho unki godi mein aan pada” (“Khajuraho landed in Cunningham sahib’s laps due to his achievements”).

Ramesh was given many a lesson in history when Dadaji would tell him that as a young boy he used to climb the khajur (date palm) trees after which the village was named. Today, hardly any trees were standing which had added to the old man’s distress.

“Mandir to sahi hain, murtiyan bhi khadi hain, magar khajur ka satyanas ho gaya” (“The temples are fine, the statues are still standing but the dates have gone to hell”), was Dadaji’s lament till his dying day. His Dadaji also talked about Shakti, Energy, the Primordial Power and Tantricism but these subjects went over Ramesh’s head.

What Ramesh did learn from Dadaji was that Khajuraho’s sculptures were made in five categories. The first category comprised of cult images conforming to canonical formulae. The second category was of family divinities and minor deities less formal than the cult images. These two categories included images of significant symbolism.

More interestingly, the third category consisted of the surasundaris, the finest and most numerous sculptures at Khajuraho. Decorated in jewellery and fine garments, they represented youthful, charming women portraying common human moods, emotions and activities.

The fourth category was of miscellaneous sculptures which included erotic themes. These were some of the finest sculptural compositions as they almost brought stone to life with their sensuousness. The fifth category consisted of sculptures of animals including the Sardula, a heraldic beast represented as a horned lion.

Back to the Present.

Panditji came one winter Sunday morning when Som Prasad was leaving for an appointment with a group of tourists. “Arre bhai, kya time chuna tumne. Mein to jaa raha hoon lekin tum chai-vai pee ke hee jana” (“What a time to come. But do stop and have some tea”), Som told his friend.

Panditji, carrying a large steel tiffin box in his hand, replied “Chai to piyunga hee, khana bhi khaonga. Kal raat dher sara murgha pakaya tha” (“I’ll have tea and a meal as well. I cooked a chicken last night”) showing off the tiffin box.

Panditji lived alone as his wife and children stayed in Jhansi with his parents. On weekends, he would occasionally spend some time at Som Prasad’s house. “Mein to sham ko hee lautunga. Kuchh mere liye bhi bacha lena” (“I’ll return by the evening. Save some for me as well”), Som Prasad said as he hurried away.

Roopvati stepped out of the shadows of the house. Wearing a bright red sari and white blouse, she provocatively snatched away the tiffin box. “Ab aur kiska murgha banaoge” (“And who else’s chicken will you cook”), she said, arching her eyebrows at Panditji and slowly biting her lower lip. Opening the tiffin box, she let out a “Kya kamal kar diya Pandit tune” (“What wonders have you done Pandit”).

The visitor smiled at the compliment as Ramesh reached his mother’s side to take a look at the chicken pieces floating in red oily masala. Looking outside to see her husband’s disappearing back, Roopvati chided Panditji. “Magar hara dhaniye ke bina pura mazaa nahin aayegaa” (“But the full flavours will come only with fresh green coriander leaves”).

She took out a one-rupee note from her blouse and handed it to Ramesh with instructions to go to the vegetable market and get dhaniya patta. As he was going to the market, a shopping list was quickly prepared by Roopvati and Panditji. The three entered the house and Ramesh got 20 more rupees along with the list. Panditji handed over a fiver and said, “Fruit chaat bhi kha ke aana” (“Have some fruit chaat as well”).

Just as he stepped out of the main door, he heard his mother, fidgeting with her blouse, tell Panditji “Aaoo, tumko meethe khajur khilati hun” (And I’ll give you some sweet dates”). From where, he kept wondering all the way to the market, did his mother get the khajur. He recalled his Dadaji telling him “… magar khajur ka satyanas ho gaya.” Dadaji was wrong, he surmised.

 


Mansarovar Magnet for Four Religions

Every year, thousands of devotees make the pilgrimage from different parts of the world join the trek to Mansarovar Lake and Mount Kailash, one of the most difficult treks of its kind. This fascinating journey involves trekking at a height of 19,500 feet under inhospitable conditions. The good news is that on the way are some of the most beautiful places one has ever come across. There is no unnecessary noise or pollution and only peace and calm prevail. The mountain ranges are spread across three countries, India, Nepal and Tibet.

Different people interpret the importance of the place in their own different ways. Kailash Mansarovar is a sacred place for Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and followers of Bon religion, a native Tibetan religion. For Hindus, Mount Kailash is the abode of Lord Shiva where he meditated along with his wife, the Goddess Parvati. The mountain also has a description in the Vishnu Purana, according to which the four sides of the mountain are made up of ruby, crystal, lapis and gold.

It is said to be ‘pillar of the world’ and symbolises a lotus for its location in the middle of six mountain ranges. Lake Mansarovar, also known as Mount Meru, is believed to be the first lake created in the mind of Brahma. According to legend, the lake was created by Lord Brahma for meditation, hence the name, as Manasa in Sanskrit is the “mind” and Sarovar means “lake”. Aryan cosmology claims that Meru is the navel of the Earth as well as the centre of the Universe. Swarga, or Heaven, is situated on its peak, ruled over by the Lord Indra who is also the God of Rain that brings prosperity every year to farmers living in the Indo-Gangetic plains.

For Buddhists, the place is an embodiment of Lord Buddha. Sites in the region are associated with Guru Rinpoche who established Buddhism in the region in the 7th and 8th centuries. Lake Mansarovar is also associated with many teachings in Buddhist literature. According to Tantric Buddhists, Mount Kailash is the abode of Buddha Demchok who signifies Supreme Bliss. Buddhists believe that Lake Mansarovar is the site of the conception of Lord Buddha. Myths claim that Queen Maya was given a bath in the lake by the gods before the birth of Siddhartha. The shores of the lake are home to several monasteries.

According to the ancient text of Kangri Karchhak, presiding deity of Kailash is Demchhok who, like Shiva, wears a tiger skin and has a necklace of skulls around his neck, holds a damru (small drum) in one hand and a trident in the other. His Shakti, or spouse is Dorje-Phangmo or Vajra Varahi. Ancient Tibetan paintings and idols show her clinging to Demchhok in a convoluted embrace. On the western side of Kailash as smaller snow peak called Tijun is said to be the abode of Doric-Phangmo.

There are many other legends about Mount Meru in Buddhist literature, Jain legends, Bon beliefs which inspire not just religion but also art, architecture, literature, naturopathy and mythology. The manifestations of Meru are numerous and varied and found in the inner journey of the human psyche. The importance of Kailash and Mansarovar proves the essential unity of all religions Jains refer to it as Meru Parvat or Sumeru. The mountain next to Kailash is Ashtapada, believed to be the site where Rishabhadeva, the first Jain Tirthankara, attained Nirvana.

The Bons believe that their saint Shenrad descended on the peak of Kailash. The region is the seat of all spiritual power and it is said that Lake Mansarovar is the abode of Zhang Zhung Meri, a sacred deity. Mansarovar lake has a circumference of 110 km. The locals, it is said, cover the distance in a single day on foot. Inexperienced trekkers, on the other hand, may spend at least up to three days for covering the distance. This act is known in Hindi as a parikrama.

Undertaking a parikrama once washes off the pilgrim’s sins forever. If done 108 times, the pilgrim can attain Nirvana or Salvation. Imagine, if one trek around the lake takes three days, how many days would one have to spend in that shivering cold for a leap into salvation. Buddhist pilgrims perambulate clockwise around the mountain and the Jains and pre-Buddhist, Shamanic Bon religion’s pilgrims walk counter-clockwise around Mount Kailash. Yaks and ponies are available for those who are unable to walk the distance.

A dip in the sacred waters of the lake is said to cleanse one’s sins from the past seven births. This is the reason for many Hindus from across the world choose to purify themselves at least once in their lifetime. It is also said the best time to visit the lake is between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., the period known as the Brahmamuhurta, or the time when the Gods come for a bath in the lake. Gauri Kund, a water body that is also known as the Lake of Compassion, lies on the way while going on downwards from Dolma – La (Dolma Pass). At an altitude of 5,608 metres, the lake is also famous as “Parvati Sarovar” as this was the place where Goddess Parvati had acquired her son Ganesha (the elephant-headed God) from the lather on her body and she had breathed life into it. A visit to Gauri Kund, a group of five natural small reservoirs with emerald-green water is a must for pilgrims.


A Glimpse of Kailash Mansarovar

The natural wonders of Mount Kailash and Mansarovar Lake lie nestled in the majestic Trans-Himalayas in a remote corner of the exotic west of Tibet. The lake is named as ‘Jewel of Tibet’ as it is a brilliant marvel in blue with crystal-clear waters.

The lake, located at 4,590 metres or 15,060 feet above mean sea level, is surrounded by the towering, snow-capped Kailash, standing at a height of 6,638 metres or 21,778 feet above sea level. The region has enchanted people for centuries and sages of many religions believe that it is one of the places where Nirvana can be achieved.

Lake Mansarovar is a large freshwater lake but most of the lakes in the Tibetan Plateau contain saline water. Mansarovar Lake is popular for its exceptional beauty. The colour of the water changes from clear blue around the shores to emerald green at the centre. The lake looks magical under a moonlit sky.

The source of few of the longest rivers in Asia, the SutlejIndus RiverBrahmaputra and the Karnali are located within 50 km radius, and in four distinctive directions. In the west flows the Sutlej river, in the east the Brahmaputra (locally known as Yarlang Sangpo), south is the Karnali and to the north the Indus river.

The lake is round in shape, circumference about 88 km and it is 90 metres or 300 feet deep, with the surface area being about 320 square kilometres. The natural Ganga Chhu channel connects the lake to the nearby Lake Rakshastal, a saltwater lake. These lakes were part of the Sutlej basin but the region was detached due to tectonic activity in the region.

Some interesting facts:

  • Mount Kailash is located exactly 6,666 km from the monument of Stonehenge, England.
  • Time travels quickly for those at Kailash, something not witnessed anywhere in the world. Pilgrims have reported quick hair and nails growth within 12 hours which, under normal conditions, would take at least two weeks elsewhere.
  • There are two lakes, namely Mansarovar or the ‘God Lake,’ and Rakshas Tal or the ‘Devil Lake.’ These are next to each other, divided by a narrow isthmus of the mountains. The two lakes represent solar and lunar forces, good and negative energies respectively.
  • As the sun sets the shadow falling on the rocks draws a huge swastika, as if the Sun God is paying homage to Lord Shiva.
  • People have not been successful in climbing Mount Kailash. The reason is that the mountain changes its position as a result of which all expeditions failed. It is said that only one person reached the top. He was a Tibetan saint Milarepa. Milarepa who preached Buddhist teachings through songs and poetry.
  • Many travellers claim to have seen mysterious shimmery lights rise and fall into the lake.
  • There are tales that the Sapta Rishis or seven sages mentioned in Indian mythology come and bathe every morning at the Mansarovar lake.
  • The Russians conducted a study of Kailash and claimed the mountain could be a vast, human-built pyramid, the centre of an entire complex of 100 smaller pyramids.

The mountain shines as if made of gold. It is square with four sides larger at the top than at the bottom. Its four sides are made of four different precious substances: the south of lapis-lazuli, the west of ruby, the north of gold and the east of crystal and the southern side of the mountain is blue. The shine of the blue lapis-lazuli reflects on the lake waters in front.

Each of Mount Kailash’s faces reflects different moods. The southern face, covered with snow, reflects majesty or splendour. The shadow cast by the rocky outcrops on it draws a huge swastika.  It surrounded by eight mountains. On the southern side are two mountains named Kailash and Karavira, which extend east and west for 144,000 miles.

On the northern side, extending for the same distance east and west are two mountains named Trisrnga and Makara. The width and height of all these mountains is 16,000 miles. On the eastern side of Mount Meru are Jathara and Devacuta, which extends to the north and south for 144,000 miles. Similarly, on the western side, the Pavana and Pariyatra extend north and south for the same distance.

For Hindus, the mountain is the home of the God Shiva; for Jains, it is where their first leader was enlightened; for Buddhists, the navel of the universe; and for adherents of Bon, the abode of the sky goddess Sipaimen.

The Hindus revere the mountain as Kailash, while the Tibetan name for the mountain is Gangs Rin-po-che. Gangs or Kang is the Tibetan word for snow peak and rinpoche is an honorific meaning “precious one” so the combined term can be translated “precious jewel of snows”. Tibetan Buddhists call it Kangri Rinpoche or “Precious Snow Mountain.”

Bon texts have many names: “Water’s Flower,” “Mountain of Sea Water,” “Nine Stacked Swastika Mountain.” Another local name for the mountain is Tisé (Tibetan) mountain, which derives from “ti tse” in the Zhang-Zhung language, meaning “water peak” or “river peak”, connoting the mountain’s status as the source of the mythical Lion, Horse, Peacock and Elephant Rivers.

In the same way as “a rose by any other name” would smell as sweet, Mount Kailash, known by many other names, would still retain its highly religious significance in the world of Dharma.

 


 

Anupriya’s Lover: Chapter Two: Get Down, Get Dirty

As she with a swift move snatched the pillow from beside me and with one gentle stroke of her hand pulled her hair behind her shoulders, she lay on the bed beside me. Her pink top and transparent bra straps were the first things I noticed along with her broad dusky shoulders. Her voluptuous hips swilled by my side as she let it know with her ample oomph that she was no less than a diva.

“Oh, I have this impact on people” she whispered close to my ears, her perfume cascading on my body whirled its melodious scent in the room. The whiff of pure pleasantness and coolness permeated from her and from me. It was like my scent catching hers immediately. There was a sudden surge of connection between us, a sort of electricity, a charge that fuelled our passions. I slipped in with my own bit of banter and intellectual conversation. “You know, have you seen my tattoo?” I took off my t-shirt to show the great painting of Socrates’s last hour where he is about to take the hemlock poison and is surrounded by his weeping friends. “This looks fantastic but you know that this tattoo is incomplete.” she chided me. “I know that and that’s because I couldn’t sit longer during the tattoo sessions. It does burn and itch for weeks when you get the shit done.”

I stood in front for her to give her a taste of my acting ability. She sprang up with excitement and joy “Yes you will do it, you will do it.” as if encouraging me. She was a plump chick with vitality and vigour. We were intertwined with each other and pleasantly surprised at the electricity between us. I put my arms around her shoulders and walked her to the door. I was being a gentleman, of course, and we had just met. So it was only appropriate for me to watch my actions. I had already slipped by showing under case but it was clear that I had made the first move and she had liked it. Her face gleamed as her young skin begged to be touched. She just walked away with a huge smile on her face, a passing smile, a flirtatious smile, at least, that’s what I could feel.

Bang! Next day, she was back all excited and giggles like a Power Puff Girl as she sat beside me on the bed to show me her pictures on her smart HP Laptop. She clicked away pose after pose as I admired, applauded and kidded her at the most energetic and whack poses as she had made infant of the camera. But today, I was wearing my white OSHO robes as we drowned ourselves into idea conversation. My balcony window was open and a strong fresh breeze blew into the room. She felt it on her face as a curl of hair brushed past her bright and clear forehead “You are one intelligent girl, such surety and poise is rarely seen at such a young age.”

Next morning, I woke up. Still, the scent of her perfume lingered in the air. I could see her board smile as she had turned toward the lift and guess what? She turned back and said “Stop looking at me with those Majunu eyes” as I stared at her beauty from afar. My gaze fixed firmly on her as she teased me with a sail of her booty. I had her number on my phone and sent a teasing message to her “I have a hard on as big as the statue of liberty.” Waiting for her to respond to my brazen innuendo and my intentions clear and precise. It was sex that I wanted and it was early morning.

“Keep your morning spurs in check and the statue of liberty is of a woman you dumbo!”. I was impressed even more “Superior intelligence, a great sense of humour and beautiful breasts but those I have yet to see. “This time her reply was faster “It’s all about you. I am sure that you tried to make a move on my friend Disha also.”

I could not wait any longer “Move in with me, I have awakened my sixth kundalini, you will tremble with orgasmic pleasure.” she was in haste too “it’s all about you. I will never move in with you. Are you forcing me?” I could not control any longer. The morning sun was upon us and its orange hue and sunlight fell on the curtains of the room. “Oh, how much I would like to kiss you and smell the whiff of your hair on mine as I rip off your panties to taste your nectar. I want to hear you mourn and beg me not to stop. Oh, what pleasure it would be to make love to you.” That’s it. I said it. I let it all out bare in the open as it is as I saw it and as we have all seen sex through the ages. It was khajurao full-time sex with a spirit, sex with a God and, of course, it did not work. I mean who the fuck wants to mix their religion with their sex. It was laid bare down and dirty for the both of us to see and then came the long pause as if a climax and a sudden release. We surely got down and dirty of only in my imagination.

 


 

Climax in Katra

Gopi felt cheated on his second visit to Katra near Jammu. The typical Indian village, base camp for visitors to the Vaishnodevi Temple, that he had seen on his first visit in the late 1960s had entered the pages of history. Even the residents of Katra had moved progressively. “Then why am I still living in the past?” wondered Gopi with the times.

In the 1960s, Gopi remembered, was the time when the local villagers would keep their ramshackle wooden doors open at all hours generously offering accommodation in their ready-to-tumbledown homes and happily share their frugal hospitality with the motley groups of pilgrims who would religiously trek uphill on a pathway to reach the venerable Himalayan abode visible as a speck in the distance.

Priests at the small temples and dharamsalas would admit larger groups and for longer stays. Faith, not money, was the consideration in those days. The trek, uphill or downhill, used to be a journey of faith and the villagers accepted with grace whatever money the pilgrims gave in the form of donations. Today, the tarred roads, the hotels, restaurants, brightly-lit shopping areas, loud music, crowds carrying shopping bags emerging from the marketplace, couples behaving like vacationers, even a helicopter service to ferry pilgrims close to the Bhavan, reeked of commercialisation and entertainment.

Today, in 2017, the hordes of people at Katra, Gopi felt, resembled the scene at a Mall in his hometown Shimla during the summer season when the tourists would arrive like tsunami waves. The Vaishnodevi Temple-bound crowds, the glut of hotels, eating places, shops displaying flashy wares, dry fruits and much more, the roadside hawkers, rickshaw-wallahs, touts, all with the sole intention of relieving the visitor of his money, was as apparent to Gopi as was the eye-catching view of the white-painted Bhavan glowing in the sunlight in the distant Trikuta mountain.

To change his mood, Gopi looked up at the cloudless blue sky instead. The sky is innocent, he thought. “What a change!” he exclaimed to Shailaja, his wife. She was standing outside the taxi which had brought them from Jammu that morning, helping her mother and younger sister extricate themselves from the taxi’s interiors.

Considering their figures and fitness levels, Gopi had his doubts about his ma-in-law and sister-in-law’s capability to trek the entire uphill route of 14 km to the temple. And then to tackle the return trip, clambering down the same distance.

His mother-in-law was the first to react to Gopi’s comment. “Everything changes, son. Look at us. Ten, twenty years ago we were different from what we are today, aren’t we?” Sheila, Gopi’s sister-in-law, frowned. “No Maa. Nothing changes. The sky, the gods and goddesses, the earth, the rivers, they are still the same. I only wish…”

“Must we have this discussion?” interrupted Shailaja. She knew her sister’s capacity to argue on trivial matters. “Let’s get the luggage out and arrange for a hotel,” continued Gopi, in tune with his wife. Considering that there was no paucity of hotels in the vicinity, the task of securing a room was over in 10 minutes. Their room was on the first floor overlooking the crowded road and busy marketplace.

“Didi, let’s unpack, change and go out for lunch. I want to see some shawls and buy lots of things from here.” Sheila said excitedly to her sister. “Ok. Ok, Sheel. First, we’ll shop and eat afterwards. Maa can rest in the meantime,” replied Shailaja.

“You two sisters, eat something light, and have you come on a pilgrimage or a shopping spree?” Gopi teased his sister-in-law. She reacted by school-girlishly sticking her tongue out at him. When she wanted her way, she was quite a tomboy.

The two sisters quickly washed their faces, changed into navy-blue track suits and sports shoes, picked up their purses and left the hotel room. Their mother had discarded her chappals, washed her face and wiped it with a towel. She was tired because of the journey and the lack of sleep. So she lay down on the bed.

Gopi sat on a chair near the window and positioning his feet on a nearby table, looked out at the milling crowd. His feeling of being cheated returned. So what if 50 years have elapsed and time had taken its toll in the process. He went back to gazing abstractedly at the sky.

Gopi wondered whether a visit to a holy place could be considered a pilgrimage when it was combined with a sport where the contestants displayed the extent of their wealth in a variety of forms. Blessed were those villagers of Katra in the 1960s who offer accommodation and food to strangers determined to climb the steep, unpaved route, armed with the name of the goddess on their lips.

The march of time could not be stopped, the purchasing power of money is limitless, and greed knows no bounds. If the simple villagers of Katra had changed, it was only to keep in tune with the city-smart visitors, he concluded. Maybe some of them were running the hotels and food outlets today, he wondered. Gopi fell asleep with a frown on his forehead.

An hour later the sound of laughter woke him up. The two sisters had returned loaded with packets of almonds and walnuts, dried apple slices, rajma, or red kidney beans, a favourite item in some parts of North India, copper rings, bead necklaces and knick-knacks for giving away to friends and relatives.

“We had such fun. There were so many things we wanted to buy. But we were scared that Gopi bhaiya would scold us,” complained Sheila as she naughtily narrowed her eyes while looking towards Gopi. “Not if you order us some hot tea and samosas,” Gopi retorted.

This group of pilgrims was in a happy mood. They had left their domestic worries back home and looked forward to enjoying the holiday and a strenuous yet inspiring trek. After a comfortable night’s rest, they started the trek early next morning. They were so excited that they were out of breath soon after the uphill climb started.

Shailaja and Sheila tried joining in the full-throated cry of “Jai Mata di” by trekkers bearing red-coloured flags along the route but could not match up to the intensity or speed. The religiosity was intact but their lung power fell short. By the time they reached the crest, even the flesh was waving the white flag of surrender. “I am dead tired,” announced Sheila resignedly as they reached their destination, Bhavan.

“You may be exhausted but I am amazed at how you three managed to reach here in one piece,” Gopi said with pride in his voice, frankly declaring his earlier doubts at the same time. They planned to hire a room, rest for the night and visit the shrine the next morning.

A room was booked, dinner was puris with aloo ki subzi at a nearby restaurant, and this group of pilgrims went to sleep. Their stomachs were full, they were happy though tired. The next morning would be the day of their darshan in the cave.

It was a beautiful morning. They were awakened before sunrise by the insistent pealing of the temple bells, the metallic rhythm of the bhajans blaring away from loudspeakers, the unmusical cawing by the crows in the distance. These were familiar noises. The only jarring and unpleasant sound was the neighing of ponies from the pony stand in the neighbourhood, not to mention the stink.

As the sun rose, the sky turned orange which added lustre to the saffron-coloured pennants waving in the morning breeze. There were plenty of colours as bright green parrots competed with bluish-grey coated pigeons and corporal-striped, brown mynahs attempting to dominate the space between the grey-coloured rocks and the green-hued trees in the valley below. The millennium-old Baan Ganga river continued to streak its milky-white ribbon-like flow at the rocky junction far below.

Once in the sanctum sanctorum inside the cave, Gopi bowed his forehead in devotion. His wife did the same, as did her mother. “Keep moving, keep moving,” admonished the priest as Sheila took her time in paying obeisance to the idol. The family, except for Sheila, was happy. The mission had been successful. Only Sheila was disappointed. Her mind was distracted. Her inner voice had barely whispered her wishes to the goddess. On top of that, her legs were paining.

“Don’t worry Sheel. We will all return to Katra on ponies,” said Gopi as he tried to blow away the grey clouds hovering over Sheila. So four ponies were hired and the family started from Bhavan so that they could reach Katra by the evening. Sheila smiled. The family smiled. The clouds, the sun, the birds, the trees and the entire valley smiled in unison.

Gopi knew of Sheila’s trait as a chatterbox. Sheila, sitting astride the pony as it plodded along the road, got into her elements. The four youths guiding the ponies were chatting among themselves in low tones in the local language, probably Dogri or Kashmiri. “What’s your name?” she asked the youth holding the reins of her pony. “Dilip,” he replied shyly. He looked smarter and was better dressed than his other three friends.

“Dilip, my name is Sheila. I live in Delhi. My daughter Geeta lives in Bangalore with her husband Srinivasan who is a South Indian. They have two children, Gitika and Gautam.” Details of the family’s economic status, educational standards, social standings, awards won, holidays taken, every iota of information were revealed to Dilip and his friends who were guiding our ponies. The youths, in turn, started chatting among themselves, sharing smiles and laughing as they walked alongside their ponies.

Sheila was proud of the achievements of her son-in-law and her daughter. The more she told the youths, the more they chatted with one another like magpies, in a language that we could not comprehend. Sheila was all abeam with happiness. The stories about her family continued uninterruptedly.

We passed Sanjichhat and stopped for tea at Adhkwari. The chapter on her son-in-law’s achievements seemed never-ending. But the route was long, the ponies trod slowly and carefully downhill and Sheila ran out of the plethora of her family’s tales.

Then, focussing on Dilip but including the other three youths in her spotlight, she changed gears. “This is my elder sister Shailaja and that one on the brown pony is her husband. They live in Shimla. We are Punjabis but Gopi, he is a Kashmiri. So we are an all-India family, you see,” as she went on to elaborate on my family’s achievements.

It seemed as if the four youths had been struck dumb. They looked apprehensively at Gopi, then stared at one another and looked away.  Gopi did not enlighten the youths that he had never lived in Kashmir and did not know a word of Kashmiri. The youths turned their attention to their ponies, scratching the worn-out leather straps, pulling at the stray woollen strands of the blanket under the saddles, looking for mites in the manes of their ponies.

Anyway, one person talking non-stop throughout the journey, highlighting the family background, present and future generations, was sufficient. Sheila started enjoying the totally devoted attention of her now-dumbstruck captive audience. The four youths had other things to worry about. Would the sahib refuse to give them bakhsheesh and would he shout at them for having made fun of Sheila in their local tongue?

Nothing happened. When the journey ended at Katra they received their standard payment and a generous tip from the sahib. The only person who was complaining at the landing platform was Sheila. “My legs are still aching. I want to rest at the hotel. Let’s hurry up,” she said in an irritable tone. Shailaja and Maa held her up by her elbows and guided her along the pilgrim-wearied road to the hotel.

Dilip, sizing up the situation, helped Gopi by carrying the water bottles and shoulder bags. Walking a step behind Gopi, he mumbled “If the madam has a foot massage the pain will vanish,” and he claimed “I have massaged many such pilgrims from the cities who come here. Just one hour of maalish and the madam will be running around.” Gopi acted as if he had not heard the boy but could not stop the boy from following him to the hotel.

This just-returned group of pilgrims stopped at the hotel entrance. Shailaja and Maa collected the bottles and bags from Dilip. He repeated his proposal to them. They looked at one another and then at Sheila. “What’s the harm in trying it out,” exclaimed Sheila unhappily. Gopi took a step back, showing his reluctance. “I learnt the art from a maalishwallah here, Madamji. He was a professional,” Dilip bluffed with confidence.

Sheila was not used to physically challenging activities such as trekking uphill and riding a pony downhill. Her legs, hips and back were complaining. Climbing, for her, was escalator-assisted in the air-conditioned shopping malls in Delhi and Gurgaon, and the car was meant to avoid the need to walk.

Her body was screaming with pain. “So why are we standing here? Let’s hurry up and go back to our room. My whole body is aching. I just want to lie down and rest,” Sheila told her mother. The pilgrims progressed towards their room to the first floor. Dilip followed them discretely, a step away.

By the time the family had reached the room, the mountains had swallowed the sun, the streetlights were cannibalising circles of captive flying insects. The aroma of rajma-chawal and chole-bhature was being jettisoned by exhaust fans of restaurants in the vicinity and pilgrims who had returned from that day’s darshan were doing their last-minute shopping.

All the pilgrims who had returned from the Vaishno Devi shrine had a bow-legged style of walking which identified their elevated status unlike the confident swagger of the newly-arrived visitors as if they were without a care in the world. For the newcomers, tomorrow would be their day of reckoning, when they would acquire a robot-like gait.

Sheila was, for once, not concerned with the world outside the hotel. After Dilip unlaced and removed her sports shoes, she stretched out her legs and lay on the bed. “Could you give me some hair oil,” he asked Gopi who was standing behind him suspiciously. Gopi went to the bathroom to get the oil while Shailaja kept an eye on Dilip.

On getting the oil, Dilip first adjusted Sheila’s saree to uncover her ankles and then rubbed some of the oil on his palms before massaging Sheila’s ankles and feet. One by one he rubbed the oil onto her fingers, giving special attention to her toes and soles. His heel-to toe rub gave Sheila such relief that she was purring like a kitten.

As a smile came on Sheila’s lips, and as she closed her eyes, pushing the back of her head, chin upraised, into the softness of the pillow, Maa and Shailaja laughed simultaneously. Gopi clapped his hands together joyfully. The family was happy once again. Dilip had his back to the lamp so the shadows prevented them from seeing the crease lines on Dilip’s forehead.

“Maa, I am going downstairs for some tea and biscuits,” announced a much-relieved Gopi. “I’m also coming with you. Shall we bring something for you, Maa,” asked Shailaja. “No. I’ll drink some water and rest here,” the mother replied in an exhausted tone. She hobbled over to the wicker basket on the table and took out a banana.

Gopi and Shailaja quickly went out of the room pushing the door shut behind them. The mother ate the banana and limped across to the bathroom to wash her feet with warm water. Dilip took some more oil from the plastic bottle kept on the floor. The mother returned, sat on her bed, wiped her feet with the towel and with a long sigh stretched out on the bed to rest her aching back.

Sheila also lay down on her cot. The difference was that her mother went to sleep in five minutes but Sheila, although her eyes were closed, was awake. She felt Dilip’s soft and oil-smoothened hands moving from her ankles up to her knees, squeezing them gently. The base of the saree too had moved up. The massage had reached the next level, she realised as she tried to resist the creeping drowsiness.

She felt his fingers tenderly squeezing her knees, the palms squeezing hard into her skin as he moved his hand down to her ankles. He repeated this, she counted, five times, and the pain in her legs seemed to have seeped away. Then she discerned the rhythmic sound of her mother snoring lightly. She must be very tired, thought Sheila.

At the same time, she felt Dilip’s fingers change direction. Instead of moving them downwards from her knees, they were pushing upwards gently. It felt as if his fingers and palm had fused into her soft skin.

She forgot her aching body and the painful pony ride. She was oblivious of her mother’s snoring, the sounds of neighing and the stink coming from the ponies standing outside the window. The heady scent of agarbattis, the sound of pealing of bells, the chanting of slokas entered her thoughts. A flash of brilliant lights exploded in her mind accompanied by an inner voice, along with a deafening echo. “Jai Maa . . .” was only a whisper of the echo that eagerly escaped from her quivering lips.

 


 

The Clown

He is a small clown in a busy Circus. The circus has many animals, trapeze artists, jugglers the guys who ride around in the Death Well . Of course not to miss the various fun rides like the Giant Wheel ,Rocket Train , horse riding and a lot more . The  clown takes a walk around the circus waves to Samson the lion pats Jumbo the elephant then he bends to pick up some hay .This he gives to the horses who are getting ready to take the kids for a ride . He slowly trudges off into the extreme right of the Circus .This is where the Circus manager has his office .The clown has been summoned by the manager this morning .He has some important and rather urgent news to share with the clown . The Clown is in his mid thirty has a paunch, broad shoulders with short skinny hands . He is wearing his red nose and his hair are colored orange and red .They are long and shoulder length. He walks with a little hunch and stoop of his shoulders.

The clown stops at a near by tent the sign reads Circus Manager .The Clown stops he dusts himself up , combs his long hair , fixes his red nose and enters the tent. The circus manager greets the clown and offers him some tea .He is in a reflective mood the manager and slowly come to the point .

“ Look here Burty I know you have been in the circus for donkeys years , and we owe you a lot .In the great decade of the 50’s and 60’s you were a rage young acrobatic and mega talented . We have done hundreds of shows together and made a lot of money .You know what they say buddy time and tide wait for on one .Things have changed now the movies are the in thing , the disco’s , the night clubs nobody wants to come to the Circus .You know the family system is breaking up all around the world .People go to strip bars for fun these days or maybe watch football at home. Circus is just is not the in thing these days Our total wages have increased but our revenue is more then 60% down . “

The Clown took a deep breath as if to contemplate that the worse was about to come. His words were making him edgy as if a bomb was about to be dropped on him . “ In the light of the above Burty old chap we will have to ask you to relinquish your services to the Circus , we are going to have to ask you to leave.” It came as a big shock , he had been with the circus for over two decades .I mean the circus was what all he had known as a child his only home. This was all he had ever known . He had no skills to survive in the outside world. I mean what would he do ? How was he to support himself? These questions were whizzing past his head. He was the third generation clown , his grandfather and father had distinguished themselves as clowns at the circus .They were very  popular acts in their days .His father Cirus was especially Famous for his The Flying Clown acts ,where he would fly out of a cannon into the arms of acrobatic trapeze artists. His grandfathers acts in the lion cage were legendary . With such a lineage how could he be asked to leave the circus . It was just not right , I mean where would he go , he had no home apart from the circus , he would be on the street . “ Benjiman I have served the circus since a child for over twenty years , I would not know what to do.” He took off his wig and nose and kept it on the table.” I mean I don’t even know now what the real me is . I am I Burty or am I just the clown .Which face is for real and which is not”. With these words he started sobbing , as tears rolled by the circus master realized that this was not going to be an easy task . He kept his arms around Burty as if to reassure him, that things were not all that bad . He took out his check book and wrote out a check to Burty .

This was sheer bad timing , he had a growing asthma problem and the clown just had an asthma attack . As Benjimin handed him a check the clown started coughing and wheezing . He took the check nevertheless and kept it in his coat pocket . Benjamin looked at him with concern in his eyes . He then escorted Burty  out of the tent . The impact of what had happened had just hit Burty as he slowly walked towards the rear end of the circus where his tent was. His strides where slow and unsteady .He walked into his tent and looked around .There were trophies on the wall , photographs with governors of past years , photo’s doing his juggling act . The vast variety of masks , coats , fur and hats adorned the walls . The clown slowly opened his cupboard and started to pack his belongings into a case . He first kept the clothes ,shirts , trousers and boxer shorts then he started packing his photographs ,his red noses lying on the table .He couldn’t control himself now , he sat on the bed and started to cry . With a heavy heart he finished his packing . Now finding the tent totally empty he found himself totally alone . He paused for a while then switched off the lights and left his tent.

As he strode out into the fast field he saw the animals again one by one .The lions , the elephants and the horses .He slowly waved them good bye , the animals nod as if they were replying to him. He saw a bunch of trapeze boys having their morning tea . ‘’We will miss you Burty old mate .” One of them cried out .Burty waved to them and did a little juggling act with the red balls , something for which he was famous for. He walked up to the iron gate where Gogo the gatekeeper is waiting for him to come . Gogo opens the gate for him and then takes his hat off and bows , just out of respect . The clown gives him a nod and a wave and passes by the circus gate .He trudges along and then turns back as if to see the gates of the circus for the last time. He has a tear in his eyes and takes a red handkerchief out to wipe them off.

Now he is all alone, unequipped to live in the real world. He finds a near by park in the middle of a busy street and sit’s on a bench . He looks around to see traffic passing by , noises of the city resonate in the air . He slowly takes a sweet bun out of his pocket and begins to eat it .He then realizes that he has a check given to him by Benjamin in that pocket too. He takes the check out looks at it and looks around .He sees a bank and walks right in to in cash the check . As he goes through the banks revolving door he comes into a huge lobby .He sees a busy man in a suit and tie sitting in a cubical marked Bank Manager.

He tells the man he has a check to in cash and that he wants to apply for a job in the Bank. The manager looks at him with disdain .I mean the clown was looking ridicules with his fiery red hair and red nose asking for a serious job in the bank .The manager refutes the idea and asks him to leave immediately .The clown looks around and sees advertising posters, banners and pamphlets of the bank. All these are making huge service product promises like our bank has over a million satisfied customers, our bank makes people smile, we keep customers happy. He points out to the manager saying, “see love that’s what working in your bank is all about, it is about making customers happy and about putting a smile on their faces. I have been doing just that for the past years in the circus .I Burny the Clown has been making people smile, who could know that better then me”.  The manager is not pleased says ”Look Burny you don’t have the experience or the qualifications required to work in a bank , hell we would not know what to do with a clown ‘.The clown is persistent and takes  out four juggling balls from his pocket and starts to perform his juggling act . Everyone in the lobby is pleasantly bemused and start looking at what the clown is doing . He then takes out more balls from his coat pocket and starts to throw the balls higher and higher . As he stops everyone has gathered around him and start to clap and smile. The kids start to dance for joy to see the clown in such a mood . When he stops he looks at the bank manager as if to say” look I made your customers smile in minuets , how am I not qualified to work for your bank”. The bank manager is having none of it and asks the guards to throw the stupid clown out of the house .  As he is being taken out from the other door a little girl walks up to him and gives him a lolly pop .The clown looks towards her with compassion and has a tear in his eye. The little girl pats the clown and the clown gives her a red nose and squeezes it . The  girl giggles and the clown is ushered out of the door.

He goes back to the park bench and sits on it again disappointed that the real world has no place for him where he could make a living. He looks around again with a sense of helplessness and despondency . He sees an airline office, ah! his eyes light up with glee .

He walks into the airline office .The big brass doors usher him in. He sees the way to the manager’s cabin sits on the chair and introduces himself. The airline manager who has just finished having a banana , looks at him as if to say “ What can I do for you now.” He tells him the same story that he is Burny the clown and wants a job at the airline. The manager looks amused I mean what cheek .He waves the clown away saying that he had no merit to be working for an airline. The clown is persistent in his efforts , he looks around to find banners and posters proclaiming what I fine airline it was . How they made millions of customers smile .How happy each customer was with their service etc. The clown asks why he is the most qualified to work here , since he has made people smile and be happy all his life .He takes out his red balls and starts to do his famous juggling act again.

All of a sudden people start to come forward into the lobby and start to cheer the clown, who is busy doing his juggling act. The crowd begins to clap and smile. Laughter bellows through the lobby the prospective customers are in a state of delight . The airline manager however hates the commotion that the clown was causing and asks him to leave. Two guards come and catch the clown by the hand and take him to the door. As the pulling and tugging is going on a small girl breaks the cordon of customers and hugs the clown. She gives the clown a lolypop, which the clown gleefully excepts. He then pats the girl on her head brushes her cheeks and walks out of the office.

THE FINAL ACT

The clown has finally got his just deserves in the real world .He has found his vocation his calling outside of the circus .He is now a marriage councilor having an office of his own. A man and wife are sitting in front of him . By the look on their faces they have had enough of each other and want a divorce .The clown starts talking to them with a look of concern, telling them to be more positive let love, joy and smiles into their lives . There can be no time to fight if love is around us. He holds their hands and within no time he is doing his juggling act again. The tension eases between  the couple  break into a smile .They understand the message the clown was trying to give them . The clown takes them by the arm and walks to the door of the office. The couple now understand that there is no need for a divorce and that there is a lot of life left in their marriage.

As the three of them reach the door the clown sees sitting on the steps the same little girl who he had meet at the bank and the airline office . He lifts her up in his arm .The couple who had come to get a divorce were the parents of the little girl and the clown had just stopped them from parting ways. He had saved their marriage and thus also saved the childhood of his little friend. The girl who had encouraged him to go on in the bank and the girl who had given him a lollypop in the airline office.

His little friend thanks the clown .Who is pink as roses . He waves to the entire family as they walk away .

The clown looks up to the heavens as if to give a big thanks .He takes a deep breath and walks away.

Appeared here first


A Hookah, A Houseboat and The Dal Lake

It was early hours in the morning that I arrived in Srinagar, the capital city of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. We parked into the Sitara Lodge which was just opposite the main road and the vastness of the beautiful Dal Lake. There was a chill in the air and the traffic on the road was terrible as I escaped into the crowd wearing a white sherwani and leather chappals in full Kashmiri style.

As I walked past shops and hippies, I caught the glimpse of the lake. Its stillness and tranquillity were soothing for the eye. Various shikara boats floated on the lake. Some were looking for passengers and some were just floating lazily on the lake. At the back of all these were houseboats all clumped side by side. Each houseboat had a distinctive name like Bloody Mary, Chaplin, Nausrath, Dawn and other such names. The sun came out in the afternoon and the lake was shimmering with its radiant light. Holidayers and tourists wearing colourful clothes, jewellery and shawls walked side by side enjoying ice cream, kehwa and cold drinks.

It was time for us to head towards the houseboat called Rose Marry in the middle of the lake. I ventured onto the shikara boat that would lead us to our destination. My tour guide Sagar was with me and he carried booze, chicken, mutton, seekh kabab and a hookah with him. This was my grand gift for the evening – sleeping over at a houseboat on the dull lake while smoking a Hookah.

Our houseboat keeper was a local Muslim fellow called Kasim. He was thin but tall, fair and had a typical long thin Kashmiri Nose. “The militancy has died down now sir. Yes, I know we still have stone throwing, bandhs and lockout especially at Lal Bazar area but those are just pent up frustrations of the local unemployed youth.” he said as he arranged the Hookah for me. He carefully lit the charcoal and then poured tobacco and essence into it. He puffed away with some large pulls to get the Hookah really burning. The smokes filtered through the water in the apparatus as one inhaled and then puffed it out.

The fragrance of rose and sandalwood filled the moist air as I peeked out at the lake from the window of my shikara. “Can we get some stuff like you know, Kashmiri chars?” I asked Kasim with a glint in my eye. “It is possible. I know someone who can get it from the mountains across but it will take time. It’s one hell of a walk.” I gave him money and asked him to get the stuff. So what if I got married to LSD, I couldn’t lose the opportunity to get high on the dull lake.

I waited for my cherished rose as Kasim came back with the stuff. “I used to know a lot of people in the Azadi movement who used to sell this. It was their mode of earning. I used to befriend some of them.” He sprinkled the char as powder on the top of the steel foil on the mouth of the hookah. That’s it. It was lights out from there as I sank into my dreamy world intoxicated by the moonlit night in the shikara on the Dal Lake. The plants, trees and skies looked different now. They almost stood out as if they were trying to reach me. The air grew musty as the smoke of essence coped with chars sent up into the air from our shikara. It was truly Dum Maaro Dum Rose Marry!

Suddenly, the strange pungent smell of something burning started coming from our room. I jumped up as my Razai was on fire. “Arrey, it’s the hookah you fool! You were so out and intoxicated you didn’t see the charcoal that fell on the carpet. Now, the whole thing caught fire! You are lost my friend and now you will have to pay for the damages!

I was unhappy with the way Kasim rubbed me. After all, I was a guest and accidents like these happen all the time when one is partying or on vacation. I gave him a 100 rupee note for the damage that happened. Then I drank my hot Kashmiri nahi and walked straight to bed still intoxicated with the Dal Lake.


My Dad – My Bheem Shila

As I wandered around the banks of the Ganges, I stopped at Haridwar and Rishikesh, the Vedic towns of India. By lacing steep into spirituality, these towns did wonders to my health and vitality. I used to bathe in the river early in the morning and then go for long walks as I admired the ancient traditions and cultures of the place. My first major religious journey was to Char Dham which consists of the four spiritual pillars of the Uttarakhand region namely Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.

It was Kedarnath and it’s snow peaks that fascinated me the most as I reached there by helicopter. The temple is made of grey stone and in the middle lies the Shiva linga. This linga is crooked stone with many edges and not your typical Shiva linga which is round and cylindrical. Outside the temple is a huge stone statue of Nandi. Near the entrance sat a group of fierce looking aghori. They were covered in ash, tridents, tiger skins and were smoking and puffing away at their ganja leaves through their mighty chillums. I too got pulled towards them as I sat myself down amongst them to share a smoke.

The air was chilly, dry and a bit thin but the sub-zero temperature was bringing the fast breeze from the Sumeru Mountains. “You know, life can be strange and one has to go through it to understand its meaning and decipher the many experiences that one goes through.” I said as I looked at the most fearsome aghori who sat opposite to me. “We are the outcasts. We are just lowly beggars. I am happy that a man like you came up to us to talk and share a smoke.” he said with a smile as he passed his smoke to me. I took a puff and bellowed in the vicinity as, slowly, thin and fluffy snowflakes started falling from the sky. It was as if the boards wanted to shower us with his blessings. “You know, Bhola saved this temple from ruin and destruction. When the floods came in the river Ganges, the Mata roared across the hills. It turned the mud and the stones upside down. Trees, houses and huts all washed away. Man and animal buried under the same mud. It was sheer distraction except…” he looked around as some pilgrims offered some money to him. He bought a cup of tea with the money and started sipping it to feel warm again. “Except what… Yes, I believe this place has a story. A shila rolled over from the mountain and stopped right in front of the temple.” I said with faint recollection.

Yes, the shila broke the path of the flow of the Mata and the river passed from the side of the temple. It kept the temple complex totally safe and unharmed by the landslide and flash floods that destroyed these hills a year back.” The aghori smiled with self-admiration as if he was gloating on his knowledge. I said “Well, I am here also after a major upheaval in my life. My dad got murdered and I was left all alone by the horrific incident. Somehow, I blame myself for his death which could have been prevented. This guilt has brought me here in search of redemption and some peace.

Your father… Ahh, he was a brave man, very brave. He fought two of those guys with no weapon in his hand. He was strong.” the aghori said with pride as his eyes swelled. “Yes, he saved my life by sacrificing his as those people were going to kill me next.” I said with some panic in my voice as I tried to recollect the horrid incident. The aghori put up his arms as if he was blessing me and said “Bheem Shila, don’t you get it? The meaning is so simple. It stares you in the face. Your father was your Bheem Shila. He protected you from death and sacrificed himself so that you could live.” As he said those words, a bulb lit up in my head Yes, indeed, Dad was my Bheem Shila. He was my rock and he saved me to the very end. I looked up to the skies and prayed for peace and his soul.


Getting Thrown Out of the OSHO Ashram in Pune

I am a diehard fan of OSHO and have admired the man for his intellect, rebellion, philosophical preaching, sex and meditation. I am a regular at the ashram in Pune but I still can remember my first time there. I walked in one day for the morning meditation with my maroon robes into the huge pyramid shaped hall that is specially built for meditation and the transfer of energy. The place is full of foreigners and most of the instructors are European or American. So here I was jumping up and down chanting OSHO OSHO as the laughing meditation started. We were asked to throw our hands up in the air, jump and chant vigorously.  Everyone went into a frenzy as the drum beat went into overdrive and then suddenly there was a pause and everyone froze in their current postures. Everyone became still and quiet. This on and off period of frenzy and silence is called dynamic meditation and is very popular in the ashram. When one is suddenly still, a pause appears in the mind as thoughts become nothing and a blanket of blankness overtakes the mind. For a few glimpses, one is able to experience the state of no mind as the pause expands and emptiness remains.

I was trying to get the pause but my damn car keys in my pocket kept jiggling and making a noise when I started to dance. It kept happening again and again till the angry instructor walked up to me and asked me to leave the auditorium. She saw me through the gate and was unpleasant in my behaviour. She said “Hey, you go back to your hotel room. You are disturbing everyone’s meditation. Look at you, you have such a funny face. You even look like a monkey!” I was heartbroken as I walked out into the garden and sat on a bench musing to myself. A thought appeared within me. “I am in the house of a man who got thrown out from everywhere in the world. Where does a man go who gets thrown out of his house?”

With this thought humming in my mind, I wandered to the cafeteria and sat down with my fellow meditators to chat. I asked them the same question. Finally, as I was about to grab some breakfast, an old lady who had heard my conversation with the others walked up to me and said “Son, there is still a place you can go to and that place is within.”

Bang! I got my answer. Yes indeed, within is the last refuge for us all and one can retreat inwards at any time no matter what.


The Monk and The Courtesan

Once upon a time far away in the land of Lhasa in Tibet lived a monk. The young monk was full of vigour and wisdom. One could bathe in this monk’s aura as he exuded wisdom, serenity, light and peace. He was well-respected, admired and even worshipped in the small town. He preaches to the people while sitting under huts and banana trees. The words were full of light and people bathed in this nectar of life and joy.

This monk, this holy man, once sat under a hut teaching about the divine and his great creation. Beside the hut was a well where a courtesan sat with her bucket to fetch some water. As she turned, she saw the monk who she had heard so much about. She was excited to see him and walked towards the hut to greet the holy man and to sit by his feet so that she could bathe in his preaching and also uplift her life. She was just a lowly courtesan whose job was to please the rich men of the city and provide them with hollow love and some sex. She felt small but her courage was bigger as she approached the monk to touch his feet. The monk knew her and had heard about the courtesan who was quite popular in the land.

“Please, dear woman, stay away from me. I have my preaching to deliver and you are an obstacle to my path.” the monk said as he moved away from her to take a walk towards the porch in front of the hut. “Oh sire, oh enlightened one, why do you walk away from me. Is it because I am just a courtesan and so low in your eyes? Or are you protecting yourself from my charms?” The saint tried to walk in haste with his heart full of malice towards the courtesan as if he was looking down at her. He walked up to the well and poured some water to drink. His parched lips were quenched by the sour well water and quietened his thirst for a while. As he pondered, he thought about his behaviour towards the courtesan. He was not being nice to her. He felt full of disdain as he thought the woman was one of ill repute who sold her love for money. The courtesan observed the monk and with the stretch of her arms said “Why sire, you look upon me with borrowed eyes and with mistrust? I am a courtesan, a lady of the night, but sire, we are all the same in your eyes. You of all should realise that.” The monk turned to her realising that he had let impious thoughts evade his mind. His eyes grew soft and his body less tense as he watched the glowing face of the courtesan. The monk noticed her serpentine hair, her slim and tender waist and long piercing eyes, the scent of her Gajrrah as she burst into a bhajan “Meera ke Girdhar Gopal.” It is a bhajan on Lord Krishna sung originally by Meera. It is a song of adulation and true spiritual love for the Divine. The song echoed in the air as the buzz was evident. The monk now stood still and mesmerised by the softness of the bhajan. It was like a pithy poem being recited by an angel. All of a sudden, the courtesan transformed into an angel of love and tranquillity.

The monk who witnessed this was no other than Vivekananda, the great Indian sage of the eighteenth century, as he fell on the feet of the singing courtesan to beg for her forgiveness “Mata” he said “Forgive me for having such lowly thoughts in my heart about you. You are like my mata and a woman to be revered.”

Thus, in a lot of spiritual stories, saints have had an amazing connection with prostitutes. Jesus also once saved a woman of ill repute when he stopped men from stoning her by saying “Only those should throw stones who have never sinned.” Through my travels, I have met both whores and monks alike and found them to have an uncanny connection. They both sell love and joy to the world at large, the difference being the whore sells her body and the monk his wisdom.

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