Ode to Dadu

During my childhood summer vacations, we would invariably pack our suitcases and after 3 days inside a hot, humid and packed train, we would reach Kolkata. Being the home of all our relatives our first step always used to be Beliaghata where my dad’s family lives. The scene inside the house would always be the same. Thamma sitting in her aged wooden chair making and eating paan (bettle leaf) and dadu sitting on the bed reading “Anandabajar Patrika” (a very famlous bengali newspaper, still in circulation). You would always find dadu wearing a chequered lungi (lunky) and a sando ganji (gents inner wear) at home with his broad rimed glasses and a small box of brown nohshi (snuff). Even in his old age you could see that he had been a very handsome and dashing personality in his youth. He had a tall and lean physique which unfortunately none of his progeny has inherited.
Dadu was an early riser and a major part of his morning was spent in reading the news paper. Once that was done he would go to the verandah to oil his hair and cut his nails with a blade. I still remember how scary it used to look when he would cut his nails with the blade. When asked why he didn’t use a nail cutter, he would reply, “Obbhasher baipar”(“it’s a matter of habit”).
Dadu’s evenings were always reserved for his group of friends. This was the time when he would take out his crisp white payjama-panjabis and sharp at five, when the rest of the household was still taking its afternoon nap, he and his friends would gather together and go to the lake side for a walk. As age progressed, a walking cane also became a part of this daily evening ritual. Even when he became too old to walk on his own, dadu never gave up on this habit. Slowly as the days passed, the place of adda (gossip) shifted from the lake side to the local corner store and in subsequent years, as the members of the group steadily kept on decreasing one by one, the place finally shifted to dadu’s bedside with only dadu and one of his friends now left to continue the tradition and reminisce about the good old days.
Dadu had a very hearty laugh. You could feel the laughter originating from the very insides of his soul and come out as a booming sound. It was a very enjoyable and infectious experience to watch him laugh. Perhaps the best of all such moments was when we would watch “God must be crazy”. I stil can’t think of this movie without thinking of dadu. We would invariably keep laughing and laughing even after watching the movie perhaps a thousand times. Even now, the movie has an additional laughter sound added to it in my imagination.
One of the funniest incidences that I still remember was when the entire family was having dinner together one day. A bengali dinner specially one cooked by the bouma (daughter in-law) of the house for her in-laws will have at least one fish item if not more. Dadu was eating a mudo (fish head) and chewing it the way bengalis do, chew it mercilessly to the extent that all that comes out is powdered bones. But that day what also came out with the remains of the fish was a tooth. It fell on the plate with a loud tonk sound. Everyone went quiet for a few seconds, each looking at the other. And then the loud boming laughter came. As if that was the que, the entire table erupted into laughter like a household possessed by madness. This incidence soon became a favourite tale for the kids and is often recounted even now when the whole family gets together for dinner and has fish.
Dadu knew I had a sweet tooth and so throughout the span of our stay the fridge would always be filled with lengcha and rosogolla. And the last day was always reserved for a trip to the corner store or moni-r dokan (moni’s Shop) for chocolate shopping, from which I always returned back with a brown thonga (paper bag) in my hand filled with kit kats and dairy milk.
It is said that you miss a person more when they are not around anymore. The images slowly start fading over the years and all that remain are the memories. Memories of a crisp hundred rupees note after each exam done well. Memories of holiday algebra lessons. Memories of all the tales you heared about the India Bangladesh partition. And memories of a dear dadu.

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“I am a Bengali”

Different taxis, different taxiwalas, a grey rainy day and Me, a Bengali

Coming out of Charni Road station West, I entered a silent, deserted road with a single taxi. Everything about the day was silent. The sky was grey and laden with clouds, no birds in the sky and a suffocating silence everywhere. It was the kind of day when parents warn their kids to not go out of the house. And here I was, in a deserted, silent lane with a single taxi. One look at the taxiwala told me that he was in a very sour mood. “Bhaiya, Malabar hill chalenge?” He pointed to a building nearby and said, “I am waiting here since the last thirty minutes. Waiting for a lady to come and pay my fare.” After pausing and thinking for a while he finally asked, “Where do you want to go in Malabar Hill?” I told him I was looking for a temple called Banganga and whether he would take me there. “It’s a very narrow road there. And I won’t get any fare back. I will drop you near the foot of the hill and the rest you can walk”, he said in a strict
no-negotiation-possible tone. Seeing I had no other option, I accepted his condition and got into the taxi. The taxiwala started pouring out his anger to me, “Such rich people; living in such big houses; having all the luxuries; and still they are trapped by their minds. Want to save more. What good will they get by cheating me of my fare? Are you a gujarati?”

Me: No.

Taxiwala: Kashmiri?

Me: No.

Taxiwala: Where are you from then?

Seeing that there was no possible way to escape from the discussion, I finally replied, “Bengali”.

Taxiwala: Oho! Bangali! Kothakar? (From where?)

Me: Beliaghata.

Taxiwala: Aamar baari bordhomaan (My house is in Bordhoman).

The taxiwala was now smiling. Suddenly, he got into an animated description about Mumbai and its fast and weird life. About how much simpler life was back in Kolkata. He told me his story. Why he had to leave his beloved Kolkata and his family to come and live in Mumbai. “Somedays I sleep inside my taxi only. People here are running after money all the time. Taina? (Isn’t it?)” I reply, “Money flows like water here”. Hearing this he started laughing uncontrollably. “Do you have a lot of friends here?

Me: I have my office friends. I came here just three years back. So I don’t know a lot of people.

Taxiwala: Unknown to the people around you, you are a Bengali.

This sentence got me thinking for a while. Then suddenly he said, “Don’t worry, I will drop you near the temple.” At that moment, I sent a silent thank you to god for making me a bengali. Soon, we reached the entrance of the lane that would take me to the temple. “I will wait outside if you want”

Me: It is Ok. You can leave. I will take some time.

With that, we bid farewell and went our respective ways. I proceeded towards my first destination of the day – The Banganga Temple.

Near the edge of the Arabian Sea at the southern tip of Malabar Hill, several small crumbling temples and shrines surround a rectangular pool of holy water amidst modern-day skyscrapers and encroaching urbanization. The Banganga Tank is an ancient water tank which is part of the Walkeshwar Temple Complex in Malabar Hill area of Mumbai. In the shadow of one of present-day Mumbai’s most prosperous neighborhoods, Banganga continues to function as a timeless devotional hub, its tolling bells and mantra-chanting pujaris drawing devotees to worship the divine.

Entering the complex, you will find a rectangular pool surrounded by steps on all four sides. At the entrance are two giant stone pillars with intricate and beautiful carvings. According to local legend, The Banganga Tank was built over a freshwater spring. The spring is believed to be an underground offshoot of the Ganges, so the waters are considered just as sacred and effective for healing as those of the great river itself. Legend has it that the spring sprang forth when Lord Ram stopped at the spot five thousand years ago in search of his wife Sita. Overcome with fatigue and thirst, Ram asked his brother Lakshman to bring him some water. Laxman instantly shot an arrow into the ground, and water gushed forth from the ground, creating a tributary of the Ganges. The tank’s name has been derived from this legendary story itself: Banganga, the ‘Ganga’ created out from a ‘Baan’ (Arrow). The temple complex of Banganga is one of Mumbai’s holiest sites and the oldest surviving structure in the city.

From a local priest there, I came to know that the area has a Hindu cremation ground as well. Walking around the tank, you can see various priests performing last hindu rights surrounded by white-clad bereaved family members. The tank water, completely covered with flower petals of various colors, stands still as if to pay its last respects to the dead. Ducks float serenely on the water, quacking occasionally at people and then dipping inside the water to eat the bread crumbs thrown at them.

There is a shivalinga inside the temple which, during the morning puja, is dressed up in dhoti and the hindu sacred thread janayu and priests perform various religious activities, all the while chanting mantras. Various priests sit around the temple reading palms and horoscopes. From inside, the temple is full of chants and chatter. Outside, the place is surrounded with serenity. And sitting on the steps of the temple with a view of the tank and the activities around it, I forgot for a moment that I was also sitting in one of the busiest cities of our country.

With the mantra chants still ringing in my ears, I left the temple complex towards my next destination of the day, The Tower of Silence. Locating a taxi, I went up to the taxiwala and asked him whether he was aware of any parsi monument in Malabar hill.

Taxiwala (in a perfect English accent): Is it the Parsi Agiari?

Me: Umm, I think so.

Taxiwala: There are three agiaries in Malabar Hill. Which one do you want to go to?

Me: Umm, the one near the hanging gardens?

Soon, we reached a small cottage and the taxiwala told me that this was one of the parsi agiaries.

Me: Where is the Tower of Silence?

Taxiwala: The Tower of Silence is not here. It is near Kemps Corner. Behind the hanging gardens.

Me: Oh, that’s where I wanted to go.

The taxiwala started his taxi again and we started towards the Tower of Silence.

Taxiwala: So why do you want to go there? Are you a Parsi?

Me: No I am a Bengali.

Taxiwala: Then why are you going there?

Me: I just wanted to see the place.

Taxiwala: You know right that the Tower of Silence is where Parsis keep their dead people?

Me: Yes.

The taxiwala started telling me about Malabar Hill and the various places to see there. While we were busy talking, I suddenly noticed
that the surrounding area had become very green and the sky laden with clouds brought the area a very fresh feeling to it. Soon, a very large gate came into view and a small path winding inside. The entire place had perhaps more trees and greenery than entire Mumbai’s trees put together. We went inside the gate, through the narrow path lined with trees and bushes and soon reached many small cottage like structures. At the entrance was a very beautiful statue in white. There were a few parsi men sitting inside one of the main cottages. They were all sitting silently, some praying and some lost in their own thoughts, probably lost in the thoughts of those they had lost.

After getting directions, I started walking towards the tower. The entire path was lined with lush green trees and flowering plants. The eerie silence was so loud that even my own thoughts started feeling loud to me. I passed a few more cottages inside which, men and women were praying with sorrowful eyes. However, the silence around brought in peaceful feelings with it. Soon, leaving the cottages behind, I saw a garden ahead. I was about to pass the garden too when I heard a voice from the garden, “Kidhar ja raha hai?” The security guard called out from his post.

Me: Wo Tower hai na idhar, wo dekhne ka hai.

Guard: Gujarati hai ya parsi?

Me: Bangali hai.

Guard: Sirf parsi logo ko aage jaane ka permission hai.

I tried convincing him for a while. Finally giving up, I turned back. Being a Bengali did not help me this time. After walking through the path once again, I finally came out to find the taxiwala still waiting there.

Taxiwala: I knew they would not allow you to go in. Where do you want to go next?

After roaming around for some more time around Malabar Hill, I decided to head back home. The sky had already started looking too dangerous to stay outside any longer. I took my last taxi of the day. This time the taxiwala was a quiet person, which gave me an opportunity to peacefully enjoy the ride down the famous stretch along the sea of South Mumbai, famously known as the “Queen’s necklace”.

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Accepting Religion

For a very long time, I used to think of Hindus as a confused lot. Born in a hindu-brahmin family, I grew up with a healthy dosage of various trips to temples, fasts, prayers, festivities, etc. But every time it used to be for a different deity. Soon I started understanding the fact that there actually are different religions in this world, and what was more confusing for me was that they all had their own respective gods/goddesses that they would worship but none or very few of them had more than one deity. Why then, as hindus, were we worshipping so many different gods and goddesses? This question however remained subdued for a very long time until one day I began to question the very existence of religion. I came face to face with perhaps one of the biggest questions that is haunting the peace and equilibrium of mankind: Which religion is the best?

I dived into the resources available on the internet. After spending many days and nights reading about some of the most famous religions, I came to understand that we could basically categorize our religious beliefs in three groups.

The first group I came across were religions like Islam, Christianity, Judaism, often also known as the Abrahamic Religions. These are monotheistic religions and all descend from Abraham. These religions will tell you how god, through their prophets and messiahs came to help human beings after facing many hardships. God, in these religions, have been shown to go through larger than life forms of struggle and pain for the betterment of mankind.

The second group of religious beliefs that I came across were those people who worshipped saints, monks, or even normal people. This group could include Buddha, Mahaveer, Sai baba, Osho, St Xavier, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teressa, Ramdev baba, Santa Claus, or even Amitabh Bachhan and Sachin Tendulkar.  Most of us have seen these saints or know for a fact that they existed. They were normal human beings who did good for the society at large, healed people suffering from diseases, or guided lost souls towards the right path. There are no larger than life mythological tales to be told in this group.

The third group would perhaps include religions like Hinduism and the now extinct religions followed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. These religions essentially follow multiple gods and goddesses (also known as Polytheistic). They have deities for war, well being, music, art, food, money, women power, love, and even sex. These religions tell us stories of grandeur and magnificence. These religions glorify their deities and their activities. These religions tell stories that, as a human being, I used to find difficult to believe in at times. For example, during the famous Draupadi Cheed-hadan incidence in Mahabharata, how was it possible for Lord Krishna to produce yard after yard of saree from his palm? The more logical and humanly possible explaination of this story might have been that Lord Krishna brought a saree and gave it to Draupadi to wrap herself in.

Reading through various religious resources, I had finally understood to some extent the concept behind the different religions of our world. Though somewhat  satisfied, I was still not too comfortable with the concept that my religion, Hinduism, followed. I still wanted to understand why I was worshipping so many larger than life gods and goddesses. I was unable to come up with an answer for these questions for a couple of years, and this time even the answers available on the internet could not satisfy me.

Understanding, like inspiration, can come from a very wide range of most unexpected sources. In this case, it came from a simple conversation over the phone with a friend. Talking on different topics, the discussion eventually came to religion and I explained my doubts and confusions about Hinduism to my friend. He explained it in a very simple way:

Hinduism works on the principal of Karma. Most of us find it difficult to accept the concepts behind Hinduism because we think that if we worship god, we will get what we wanted. He exemplified it by saying that we worship Goddess Saraswati believing that we will get good marks in our exams or that we will become good musicians. But that is not how it works. You cannot expect to become A. R. Rehman by just worshipping Saraswati. What Hinduism teaches us is that worship your work, your vocation. Spend time with it. Practise. Live your life with it to the extent that it becomes your god and you start worshipping it. And then you will excel in it. It is not necessary that Goddess Saraswati should be your inspiration. For you, it could be Michael Jackson as well.

It was then that I understood that even Hindu gods and goddesses must have been normal human beings after all. The only thing that glorified them and set them apart from us was their passion for what they believed in, the hard work and struggle they did to achieve perfection in their chosen field.

I understood that day that more than worshipping our deities, we need to be inspired by them. Inspired to become better people, inspired to spend our time working towards our goals. Each religion in its own way has taught me this same conclusion. That day I finally made peace with my and every other religion and have since accepted them.

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