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Saturday, 28 September 2013

The ‘Little Creatures’

It was during one of my daily morning walks that this ‘friend’ of mine flagged me down from a distance. I walked quiet briskly, so he waved from a distance so that I get enough notice. He walked towards me on the walkway slowly.

As my experience goes there are three kinds of friends. The first group is those whom you have met, talked, and are or were somewhat in frequent communication with. You perhaps know his/her family members and may have even visited them. Maybe they and their family members have visited your home, too. One’s childhood and school or college friends are mostly of this type. The second type comprises of those with whom you have had some communications, but have never met. You know probably nothing about them, except their names and addresses. The third group is of people who you regularly or frequently meet, but have probably never talked to. You know nothing about them, except that you recognize them by face. You may have been travelling in the same bus or used to meet at some place regularly.

This ‘friend’ who flagged me down belonged to the third category. We used to meet frequently during our morning walks. We used to cross each other, sometimes smile or at least acknowledge each other’s presence. But we have never talked. I knew nothing about him. He knew nothing about me either.

I was slightly surprised at his signaling me to stop. I slowed down and stopped near him.
He said, ‘I am sorry to interrupt your morning walk. But I am curious and want to ask you something. I hope you don’t mind.’

I smiled and said, ‘No, not at all.’

‘My name is Varun.’

‘And I am Jayanthan.’ We smiled again and shook hands.

There were more people approaching us from both sides in the course of their morning walk. We, therefore, moved into the middle of the park around which the walk-way has been constructed, so that we don’t obstruct their way.

Then I told him, ‘All right, Mr Varun. You wanted to ask me something?’

‘Yes. Mmm. I have seen that you walk very briskly. Today, and on a few earlier occasions too, I noticed that at certain places you suddenly slow down and walk very cautiously stepping one careful step after another for a few metres. Then you resume your normal speed and continue to walk. I used to wonder why you do that.’

I thought for a moment. Then pointing to a corner on the other side of the park, I asked him, ‘Is that where you noticed me slowing down?’

‘Yes. There, in that corner. Today I saw you suddenly slowing down there.’

I said, ‘All right, let us go there.’

We walked to the corner. On the way I asked him, ‘Did you notice anything peculiar at the place where I suddenly slowed down?’

He said, ‘Yes, I did, but I couldn’t find anything.’

‘All right, let us see.’

I didn’t say anything till we reached the spot. When we reached I asked Varun, ‘Do you see anything particular there? Please look again.’

He looked again. It had rained a couple of days earlier. There was however, no trace of water forcing one to slow down lest one should slip and fall. There was no cow dung either, which sometimes we notice in the walking tracks. Stray dogs have not made the place dirty also. Sometimes both the animals use the place to answer nature’s call.

Varun said, ‘Nothing, I don’t see anything peculiar there.’

I asked him, ‘Absolutely nothing?’

He looked again and said, ‘Well, nothing, except ...’


‘Except ... the group of ants.’

I said, ‘Yes, now you know the answer to your question.’

He looked puzzled. He didn’t understand.

I said, ‘The ants are the cause of my slowing down at this particular place.’

He still did not understand.

I said, ‘Look, I do not want to crush any ant under my feet. I tread my way cautiously to avoid the ants. That is why I was walking slowly here.’

He looked at me even more puzzled, as if he was seeing me for the first time.

‘I don’t understand’, said he. ‘Is it to save these little creatures that you interrupt your pace? Are you crazy?’, he laughed as if he had cracked a joke.

I looked at the ants and told him, ‘Maybe they don’t share your views. Why do you think these so called ‘little creatures’ are not important? Aren’t they part of this vast nature? Have they not been created by God, too, like us humans? If you don’t believe in God, even then you will admit that these ants are as much part of the nature as we humans are. Won’t you?’

He was silent. He probably felt I was not joking and meant what I said.

He said, ‘Well, yes, maybe ... Yes, I think they are.’

‘Every living and non-living thing on earth is as important as we so-called wise and elite humans. The only problem is, we don’t realize that. Man has become so arrogant that he thinks everything in this world has been created for his own use, benefit, and happiness.’
I looked at Varun. I didn’t want to continue if he felt it boring. He looked confused.

I continued, ‘Some humans think even other humans are created for their use as well. How many murders, rapes, and other types of violence do you read about in the newspapers and see on the TV every day? Relatives including father and brother raping minor girls, mother selling daughters, gang rapes, killing people for money, and what not? It is really disgusting.’

He was thoughtful. ‘Yes, I agree. But what has that got to do with my question?’

‘Oh, I am sorry. I suppose I got carried away. I was only telling that humans do not consider anything other than themselves worthy of living in this world. Man thinks that this world has been created for him. If he finds something not useful to him, he doesn’t mind destroying it. No, he rather enjoys doing so.’

‘Like these ants?’

‘Yes.’ We seemed to be slowly travelling in the same wave length.

People were walking briskly oblivious of the fact that they were crushing other living beings under their feet. I picked up a dead ant from the walkway and kept in my left hand. I showed it to Varun.

I told him, ‘This ant, when lived, may have been a father, a mother, a son, or a daughter. It probably had many dreams; like we all have. Maybe not of owning a bungalow or a huge car, but little things such as providing daily food for its family members. It was minding its own business without in any way obstructing our way. But look at its fate now.’ I pointed out to him a few more dead ants on the walkway. There were many which were convulsing violently. Most of them would breath their last in the next few minutes. I looked away, without seeing anything in particular.

Varun said, ‘Yes, but it happened because they were crossing our path.’

‘Yes, there lies the point. They were crossing ‘our’ path. Now, tell me, Mr Varun, what is ‘our’ path? Does this walkway or park belong to us? This little portion, just as any other piece of land on this earth, belongs to the earth, and only to the earth. We are all visitors and do not own anything here. We are born empty handed and we will depart empty handed. While we are here, we should respect all other creatures, including plants and animals. They have as much right to live on the earth as we have. Their being smaller in size or intelligence or backward in technology does not give us the right to harm them in any way.’

Maybe I had been talking too much. Mr Varun was silent.

I asked him, so as to wake him from his thoughts. ‘Have you watched these ants early in the morning, before the first man has begun his walk?’

He said, ‘No’. He looked at me suspiciously. He thought I was trying to trap him with another long conversation.

I told him, ‘I have. They all move in a straight line. None of them deviate from the pre-determined path. They use only a millimetre or two width-wise. Any man can very easily cross over the line of ants without disturbing them. But who has got the time to care for these little creatures? They are just not bothered. They crush them carelessly under their feet. No one knows how many husbands, wifes, fathers, mothers, and children they crush under their feet! To know their pain, man should put his relatives in their position.’

Varun was silent and thoughtful. He painfully looked at me, forced a smile, and said, ‘Thank you’, in a weak voice. Then, without a word, he slowly walked away.

********** *********

A few days later, I was overwhelmed  to see Varun treading his way very carefully at certain spots during his morning walk. I realised that the time I spent with him has not been wasted.  

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Tragic Commercialisation of a Pious Festival!

It was after nearly 40 years that I happened to be in Kerala during Onam (on 16 September) this year. As far as I can recollect, it was in 1974 that I last celebrated Onam in Kerala. That was the last time I celebrated Onam with my parents. (Read here earlier posts on Onam – One, Two)

I visited Kerala during Onam this year to attend a cousin’s wedding. The function was fixed for 15 September, the ninth day of the 12-day Onam celebrations. The last four days (uthradam, thiruvonam, avittam and chathayam stars) are the most important. Onam, the most important day of all, falls on the tenth day.

After the marriage function, I went to my ancestral home where my paternal uncle and his family live. It is my practice to visit them whenever I am in Kerala, however short the visit may be. It is mainly to pay obeisance to our family deity. My cousin, the uncle’s son, does the pooja (worship) at the temple.

I also spent the last three days meeting several people in connection with a writing project that I have been planning since the past several months.

I do not know if I was happy or sad at being in Kerala during Onam this year. Though not deliberately, I was forced to compare the earlier ones, which I was part of (40 to 50 years ago, that is!). Onam, though not a religious festival, has religious connotations, being connected with gods and demons such as Vishnu and Mahabali. It used to be more of a family function. This is one occasion when all the members of the family are almost sure to get together. Those who study or work at reasonably distant places (so that Delhi can be excluded!) come home to be with their parents and other members of the family for the happy occasion. In Kerala schools and colleges are closed for ten days and offices and even shops are normally closed during the last four days.

This time, however, it was different for me. I was, kind of, alone. My parents are no more. Brother (at Indirapuram, UP) and sisters (at Palakkad and Kozhikode, in Kerala), with their families, were at far off places. My children were not with me. My wife, though in Kerala, was not with me either. We had temporarily parted our ways soon after the marriage ceremony, since I was going to be busy with the project work.

This year’s Onam had been completely washed away by the rains. The rains which started in the last days of May continued even after Onam on 16 September. This is very unusual. Usually the rains stop by middle- or latest by end-August. (It looked like there was an unusual pact between Lords Sun and Indra, the god of the rains, that Sun will not shine over Kerala for five months and Indra could have his stomach full of Keralites’ miseries (and curses!).)

The main cash crop of Kerala is rubber. Since the last few decades, most of the paddy fields have been converted to rubber estates. It is only in the Palakkad area (meaningfully called the granary of Kerala) that one can still see paddy fields. It has been more than five months since the rubber plants have been tapped because of the rains. Every day it rains at least for a few hours.

One thing that pained me is the lack of flower decorations in the front courtyard of each and every home during Onam. The circular flower decoration starts on the first of the 12-day celebrations on atham star. The decoration continues till the ninth day. Each day, the decoration gets bigger and bigger, having added one round more than the previous day. We used to have different flowers for each separate round. On the ninth day (uthradam star) we used to have the biggest and the most beautiful decoration of all. The flowers would all have been collected by us children wandering through bushes and tiny forests which were abundant forty years ago. Sadly, not any more! The exotic designer decorations that we can very commonly see these days were not very popular then.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
The bushes, unruly grown plants, tiny forests, all of them have been destroyed to construct buildings and roads. In the nearly half a square kilometer area we had only a dozen or so houses then. The nearest motorable road was about half a kilometre away. (When one of my uncles got terribly burnt in our family temple during those days, he had to be carried on a cot to the road where a jeep was waiting to carry him to the hospital. He had slipped and fallen into boiling arunazhi payasam – an offering prepared in the temple using about two kg of rice with six kg of jaggery!) Now there are roughly a hundred houses in the same area with motorable roads to each of them. Each family owns at least a two-wheeler, and many of them, cars. Is this development? Maybe it is. Well, something has to be destroyed to build ‘new’ things. That is nature’s law.

Another tragic part is (I am sorry, I am only talking about tragedies related to Onam!) flowers for the decoration need to be purchased from market; flowers are brought from nearby Tamil Nadu state with very few choices. Whereas we used to collect several types, shapes, and colours of flowers, now the choice is limited to two or three. Wherever I went this year, the one prominent flower seen was marigold. In fact, that is the only one I saw! How tragic!

Another more disturbing fact is, Onam is being more and more commercialised. Well, what more to expect when education, religious devotion, culture, art, and music are all being commercialised! Dirty commercialisation at that! From a purely family get-together, Onam has since grown to a social and commercial celebration. In every village there are clubs which celebrate Onam. They conduct cultural programmes, competitions and such other events. Most of the expenses are sponsored by local establishments or rich individuals. And they also collect money from families and individuals by way of priced coupons. Every club looks forward to earning profits.

How time flies! How people change! The pure familial, simple, and enjoyable Onam has now become a highly technological, showy, social, and money minting festival! Well, if father and mother can be made commercial commodities (father’s day and mother’s day), why not Onam?

Friday, 13 September 2013

Navami Celebrations – Some Recollections

We celebrate Navami (literally, the ninth day) in October every year. The next day is Dasami (the tenth day), also known as Vijaya Dasami and vidyarambham (beginning of education) in Kerala.

September/October is the festival season in India; Dussehra/Ram Lila in North India, Durga Puja in the Eastern parts of the country and Vijaya Dasami in South India. Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated in the Western part of the country at the same time. Most of the festivals are celebrated to commemorate the victory of virtue over evil. Vijaya Dasami is also celebrated as ayudha pooja (worship of the weapon) in the South. In this context ayudha (weapon) does not depict gun or sword or even a knife. The word stands for any item of equipment, instruments, or implements that are used for making a living or to achieve our goal. On the day of Ashtami (the eighth day), the ayudha is kept for worship in front of a picture of Goddess Saraswati. The worship ends on the morning of Dasami. Students used to worship their text books and even note books which are their ‘weapons’ or implements on the path of education. I remember we were very particular to keep all the texts and note books of the most difficult subjects so that they become easier from the next day onwards! Farmers, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, everybody, keep their implements for the pooja (worship).

Our reason for celebration was, however, entirely different. It had nothing to do with triumph of virtue over evil, or the pooja, or anything religious. The most important, sweet, and cherished part of the whole celebrations is that you are not supposed to read or write anything during the time the books are under pooja. So if mother asks us to go and study on the day of Ashtami, we used to say, ‘But, mom, today pooja starts.’

And she would remind us, ‘But pooja starts only in the evening. There is a lot of time before that.’

And we would, with hesitation and a lot of ‘hmm...hmm’, open the books, pleading with God, ‘Oh, God, why doesn’t it become evening sooner?’ But starting the afternoon, we would not even pay heed to mother and she would also let it be. And in the evening the books are kept for pooja (worship).

The next day, Navami, used to be the most beautiful day of the whole year! We should not read or write anything that day! It is the middle of the year and for a full day no one would yell at us to go and study! Is it not like heaven? The whole day we would run and jump and hop and play and enjoy. When we realize that the shadows have lengthened and it will soon be evening, we would earnestly request Sun god to slow down, sometimes even at the top of our voice (so that the voice reaches him!).

We would say, ‘Please, please, hey Sun god, please, have mercy on us, do not travel so fast. Please slow down, let us enjoy for some more time. We get only one such day in the whole year.’

But the Sun god, though looked at us sympathetically, could not slow down. He, too, is controlled by time, and would slowly descend into the ocean in the West to have a bath. We would then retire for the day tired after having spent the whole day indulging in all kinds of adventures and plays. How nice it would have been if every day was Navami!

This festival is also known as Vidyarambham (beginning of education). Early next day (Dasami) morning we used to go to temple, pray to Goddess Saraswati (the Goddess of learning, art, literature, and culture), write in rice or sand the first letters that we learned, Hari Sree Ganapathaye Namah, Avighnamasthu! (Salutations to Lord Ganapathy! We pray to you kindly to remove all obstacles in the path of education). Lord Ganesh is the God who removes all kinds of obstacles. Therefore, before doing anything or starting any new venture, we always pray to Lord Ganesh to appease him so that there are no obstacles in whatever we do.

It is very auspicious to write this prayer on vidyarambham day year after year, without regard to one’s age or education. 

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Letter to a Teacher

[Every year September 5 is observed as Teachers’ Day. A day to remember one's teachers. This is a story about one of my favourite teachers.]

When I used to be in school, a ‘teacher’ was always a lady teacher. A male teacher was always referred to as ‘sir’. For example, Annamma teacher, but Joseph Sir.

Annamma teacher used to teach us English in Government Upper Primary School, Puthuvely, where I studied from classes five to seven. She was one of the teachers I liked very much.

Annamma teacher took three months’ maternity leave and was away for her child birth. Though it was not very common for students to write letters to teachers, I could not help and wanted to write to her. For several days I thought about the propriety of a student’s writing to a teacher.

At last I decided, “Yes, let me write to her.”

And I wrote a letter to her. I don’t know what all did I write but I particularly remember one sentence. I had asked, “What about the matter for which you have taken leave?”

I thought it was impolite to ask a teacher, ‘have you given birth to the child?’, and I resorted to the long and curved route. I thought it was wise and polite. And I was proud.

I waited for a few days for her response. I was very impatient. But when I didn’t receive any, I thought, maybe the postal department has faulted and not delivered my letter to her. Or, I also thought, maybe she was too busy to respond to one of her several students. Or maybe she was busy tending her new-born. How does she get the time then? I was sad, but gradually reconciled to the situation. It would have been great to receive a reply from her. I could have become a hero in the class – the one (the only one!) to receive a letter from the teacher, which is not very common those days. But, alas, I was disappointed. Several days, or maybe a few weeks, had passed after sending the letter.

Then one day I was standing in the play ground talking to a few friends during lunch break. Mathew sir called me, “Jayanth”. That is how he used to call me, neither Jayan, which was a natural shortening of my name, nor Jayanthan, the full name. May be he was instrumental in my signing my name as ‘Jayanth’ in my Secondary School Leaving Certificate book. This remained my signature for many years. Those days we had the notion that one’s signature should not be legible. (So that nobody imitates it, and withdraws the thousands of rupees which you dreamt of acquiring when you grew up!)

[Only God and kings could have a lakh of rupees. And a crore remained only on paper. It was only used for indicating something which was far beyond one’s imagination. Even thinking of a crore of anything frightened us. No man could earn a crore of rupees. Not in this world, not in any worlds! Not in this life, not in several lives.

Another word which we children used to express any number beyond our wildest imagination is kaakkathollaayiram (kaakka means crow and thollaayiram means nine hundred). Kaakkathollaayiram was the ultimate number and no number could exist beyond that. Fortunately none asked us, ‘what if somebody adds one to that?’ Well, if somebody dared to raise such a stupid question, we would have said, ‘No, nothing, absolutely nothing, can be added to kaakkathollaayiram.’ I don’t know if anybody has researched to find out the origin of the word. As far as I know, it existed even kaakkathollaayiram years ago.]

Now, to return to the story.

When I went to Mathew sir, he asked me, “Jayanth, did you send a letter to Annamma teacher?”

I looked down on my toes and trembled. I wanted to say, “No”, because I now suddenly realized what I had done was a crime. But lying was not in my habit then. I could not lie to anybody, what to talk of lying to a sir!  

I hesitantly said, “Y-e-s.”

I was sure to be reprimanded for doing something which I should not have done. I stood in front of him with bowed neck ready to be reprimanded or even thrashed on my thighs with a cane. I was so tense that I thought I stopped breathing.

He then asked, “Yes? What did you write to her?”

He did not look or sound angry or threatening or ready to punish me. But I was still not sure what was in his mind. His was a tricky question which I didn’t want to answer. How could I tell him that I asked her about her child birth? Oh! God! What should I do? How did he know I wrote to Annamma teacher, in the first place?

I remember mother and some other relatives had burst out laughing and could not stop it for a long time when I told them that I asked the teacher ‘what about the matter for which she took leave’.  So I didn’t answer. I also thought maybe it was wrong for me to have asked such a question to a teacher.

I didn’t know if Mathew sir expected a response from me. When I continued to look down without responding and ready to be thrashed, he must have felt sympathy for me. He didn’t repeat the question. Instead he said,

“All right, here is a reply from Annamma teacher.”

I thought I was dreaming. A response from Annamma teacher! This was something for which I had been waiting anxiously for several weeks. I was disappointed when I didn’t receive any. I had, however, reconciled, at last, to the fact that I was not going to receive a reply from her. So the sudden announcement by Mathew sir that she had replied was like a little bombshell. I didn’t know if what I heard was what he actually said.

But, it had to be right. Here was Mathew sir standing in front of me, holding a post card in his hand. He handed it over to me. Sure enough, it was from Annamma teacher. I could instantly recognise the beautiful rounded handwriting. I don’t remember what all she had written in that card, but she had not replied to my all-important question. But Mathew sir told me that she had a baby girl a few weeks ago.

And, sure enough, I became a hero in the class. I showed the letter to everybody. Most of them were jealous of me. I made sure that I did not hand over the letter to anybody, lest they should by chance tear or otherwise damage it. I remained a hero for several more days. When I reached home that day I proudly showed the letter to mother. She had not believed that the teacher would respond to my letter. She too was happy that the teacher did.

That was probably the first and last letter I wrote to a sir or teacher while in school.