November 30, 2012

Geeta Saar, Immortal Wisdom

I’m in Kurukshetra. It’s warm and sunny. The visit took a long time coming. Someday, I used to tell myself every once in a while over the years gone by, I’ll walk the hallowed grounds and imagine the setting that defined the consciousness of a nation, and the centrality of life in a home my Mum shaped for us.

Accompanied by Sharmaji I walk slowly toward the chariot behind Brahma Sarovar in Thanesar. I can see the charioteer in the distance. I see Arjuna, his quiver of arrows. Krishna holds the reins as he turns his face toward Arjuna. Both are frozen in a moment that adorns countless living rooms around the country, including our own from as long back as I can remember. The four horses stand poised. The legacy of a civilisation stands poised.

This was the place, I tell myself as I turn around and take in the serenity, and the silence. It’s around here it happened. It’s from here I derive a part of my identity. And it’s here Geeta Saar still echoes with its import and insight, radiating outward from the very earth that blood once covered.

Stepping up to a board Haryana Tourism has put up, I trail my eyes along the familiar, letting the words sink in, stirred by their import, their significance, and the insight of the charioteer, Krishna.   

क्यों व्यर्थ चिंता करते हो?
किससे व्यर्थ डरते हो?
कौन तुम्हें मार सक्ता है?
अात्मा ना पैदा होती है, मरती है।

Why do you worry without cause?
Whom do you fear without reason?
Who can kill you?
The soul is neither born, nor does it die.


जो हुअा, वह अच्छा हुअा,
जो हो रहा है, वह अच्छा हो रहा है,
जो होगा, वह भी अच्छा ही होगा।
तुम भूत का पश्चाताप न करो।
भविष्य की चिन्ता न करो। वर्तमान चल रहा है।

Whatever happened, happened for the good;
whatever is happening, is happening for the good;
whatever will happen, will also happen for the good.
Do not have regrets for the past.
Do not worry for the future.
The present is happening.


तुम्हारा क्या गया, जो तुम रोते हो?
तुम क्या लाए थे, जो तुमने खो दिया?
तुमने क्या पैदा किया था, जो नाश हो गया?
तुम कुछ लेकर अाए, जो लिया यहीं से लिया।
जो दिया, यहीं पर दिया।
जो लिया, इसी (भगवान) से लिया।
जो दिया, इसी को दिया।
खाली हाथ अाए अौर खाली हाथ चले।
जो अाज तुम्हारा है, कल अौर किसी का था, परसों किसी अौर का होगा।
तुम इसे अपना समझ कर मग्न हो रहे हो।
बस यही प्रसन्नता तुम्हारे दु:खों का कारण है।

What did you lose that you cry about?
What did you bring with you, which you think you have lost?
What did you produce, which you think got destroyed?
You did not bring anything, whatever you have, you received from here.
Whatever you have given, you have given only here.
Whatever you took, you took from God. Whatever you gave, you gave to him.
You came empty handed, you will leave empty handed.
What is yours today, belonged to someone else yesterday, and 
will belong to someone else the day after tomorrow.
You are mistakenly enjoying the thought that this is yours.
It is this false happiness that is the cause of your sorrows.


परिवर्तन संसार का नियम है।
जिसे तुम मृत्यु समझते हो, वही तो जीवन है।
एक क्षण में तुम करोड़ों के स्वामी बन जाते हो, दूसरे ही क्षण में तुम दरिद्र हो जाते हो।
मेरा-तेरा, छोटा-बड़ा, अपना-पराया, मन से मिटा दो, फिर सब तुम्हारा है, तुम सबके हो।

Change is the law of the universe.
What you think of as death, is indeed life.
In one instance you can be a millionaire, and in the next instance you can be steeped in poverty.
Yours and mine, big and small - erase these ideas from your mind, then everything is yours and you belong to everyone.


यह शरीर तुम्हारा है, तुम शरीर के हो।
यह अग्नि, जल, वायु, पृथ्वी, अाकाश से बना है अौर इसी में मिल जायेगा।
परन्तु अात्मा स्थिर है - फिर तुम क्या हो?

This body is not yours, neither are you of the body. The body is made of fire, water, air, earth and ether, and will disappear into these elements. But the soul is permanent - so who are you?


Later, we drive on to where Gita Updesh (Updesh = Teaching) was given by Lord Krishna to Arjuna in the middle of the battlefield, just before the Kurukshetra War commenced.

Here, portions of the celestial song rung again in the shade of the tree. Here. Here. Hear. Hear.

Note: Neither the shlokas nor the translations are my constructs. Like his teachings, they are to be found everywhere you turn, everywhere you do not seek.

November 24, 2012

Cops, Sunglasses, Roadside In Daryaganj

Three 'newly' minted cops of the Delhi Police find themselves in the bustle of Darya Ganj on Netaji Subash Chandra road in old Delhi.

It’s Sunday and 'Life's Good'. The lane heading north toward the intersection with Meena Bazar that runs on to Jama Masjid is floored under all manner of wheels. The other lane is relatively empty.

If it isn’t for the fact that it’s a pleasant winter morning and nothing is amiss in the capital, the flood seen from a distance would appear to be the only road out of the city, one its population is using to flee.  

The footpath adjoining the lane is worse. There’s no room to breathe, nor exclaim. Yet the vendors wanting to make the most of the Sunday bazaar manage to breathe and coax their breath out in high pitched voices shouting their offers over that of their competitors.

Come weekday the shops open their shutters for business while Darya Ganj’s Sunday market vendors retreat from the footpaths to elsewhere and wait out their turn until the next Sunday when the shops close again.

It’s likely that one such appeal to the passing public drew the attention of the three policemen to the footpath vendor in a frayed full sleeved shirt selling sunglasses arranged in neat rows on a white sheet. The choice of white is no coincidence. It was meant to set off the sunglasses.  

The sunglasses face the vendor so passers-by picking them up will do so by the temples, sparing the lenses soiling from dirty fingers. Or if the vendor has to hand one over to a buyer, he will do so with the crossed temples facing the customer.

The three policemen stop to have a look at the sunglasses. Without dark glares the menace a cop can project is limited to his looks. With dark sunglasses on, eyes hidden, the face acquires a sinister potential.

If menace is not the sole objective, coolness is the other alternative. Police uniform and dark sunglasses complement one another.


Tiwari is flanked on the left by Kumar, and Singh on his right.

Tiwari picks up three sunglasses. I cannot be sure if he chose three to choose one from among them or if he chose the other two for each of his two colleagues.

Whatever the case may be, the vendor forgot all else and fixed his eyes on Tiwari and the three sunglasses in his hand. The three cops took turns examining them, returning them to Tiwari who turned them over, comparing, looking, making his mind.

By now I could tell the vendor was a worried man. As a street vendor he must know that asking cops to pay for items that catch their fancy can jeopardise their freedom to do business on the street. Pucca shops are a different matter, not to say they can be any more immune than a makeshift operation on the street.

Street vendors are particularly vulnerable.

Awaiting trains on platforms it may not be uncommon to find a policeman place his boot in front of the shoeshine boy before walking off without paying after the shoeshine boy shone his shoes until they could shine no more, or for that matter the thirsty security man in uniform cooling off on a tender coconut before turning his back on the coconut vendor without paying. Limboo Soda. Steaming cup of chai. The list is as endless as the items hawked on the street.

But exceptions exist among men in Khaki. Maybe more exceptions than we give them credit for.

Palm facing up, the vendor now extended his hand and kept it extended while the three cops turned the sunglasses over in their hands. The gesture served to remind the cops he wasn’t taking his eyes off the sunglasses. The hand tensed not in demand that they return the sunglasses but in silent entreaty – ‘ Do not walk off with them without paying.’

Tiwari became aware of the vendor’s hand soon after I noticed it. Young, but with a hardened face, he looked similar to his colleague, Kumar. If not for the surnames -  Tiwari, a Brahmin, and Kumar, likely a Jat or a OBC, I’d have taken them to be blood brothers. Here they were brothers-in-arms. From one angle they looked like twins.

Tiwari, made aware by the nervously extended hand of the vendor’s concern, reassures him in a voice that rings authority – “Don’t worry, I’ll pay for whatever I pick up.” He repeats, “I’ll pay for what I pick.” Tiwari smiles as he reassures the vendor.

The hand retreats. But I’m not sure if the vendor’s concern did similarly. I’d like to believe it did.

I continued along the footpath without waiting to find out how the transaction ended. I believed the policeman words of reassurance in this instance.

Too often, reputations precede uniforms, at times justified, other times not. In uniform, it must be difficult to declare your integrity to street vendors while it’s usually taken for granted in those not wearing them.

And to do it on a daily basis must wear the person so.

November 20, 2012

Uttarayan Time On Ahmedabad Streets

“Hum Gujarati log mast log hai,” the rickshaw driver merrily informed us in Hindi liberally touched with Gujarati accent. He was smiling away and looked at me in the mirror to gauge my reaction. We had seen enough evidence of the Gujarati joie de vivre already, on the streets and elsewhere to take him at face value.

“I know,” I replied, “People here are generally joyous and easy going.” My answer pleased him as I knew it would. It is one thing to believe it yourself and quite another to have a visitor validate it. Rickshaw drivers are more likely than not tourists’ first contact with the place. But, I had resisted adding “with the exception of rickshaw drivers here, some of whom are as suspect in their dealings as those elsewhere”.

Pointing to crowds outside shops selling kites, and spools for kite thread, waving his hand about clusters of kite string (manja if it’s laced with ground glass bound by adhesives) makers roadside, he continued, “Uttarayan is one festival equally enjoyed by the rich and the poor alike. It brings all sections of the society together. People fly kites all day long.”

I had little doubt about his assertion, having walked the streets dodging enthusiastic manja makers dyeing kite string with bright colours using a mix of colours and ground glass, the latter to sharpen kite thread for use in kite fights in the skies over Ahmedabad.

I was warming to this portly Gujju in white merrily breezing us through traffic as we approached the stretch that swung left and drew parallel to the Sabarmati in Khanpur area of the old city. It’s January. We had sallied into Ahmedabad in time for the International Kite Festival held on the banks of the Sabarmati to coincide with Uttarayan, the day the Sun embarks on its northerly course, a day nearly all of Gujarat turns out to fly kites.

As January approaches memories of time spent on the streets of Ahmedabad break surface once again. I haven’t been around Gujarat much, surely not enough to form informed opinions of Gujarat or Gujaratis. However, January in Gujarat when the state prepares to celebrate Uttarayan is as good a time as any to be on the streets as any.

In the days leading up to Uttarayan, the streets are awash with activity centred around kites – kite making, making kite thread, dyeing kite thread, drying them street side. Streets in localities known for business in kites transform into a gathering of creators and consumers, both bound by an old tradition and marked by friendly banter that includes old fashioned bargaining and cajoling.

Patang Udao, Mauj Manao turns into a byword come January, come Uttarayan.    

Spindles for kite thread on sale in a roadside shop. Along any given stretch of road dealing with kites, outlets and kite thread makers complement one another.

Buy a spindle, hand it over to the manja maker roadside, collect it after he has wrapped kite manja around it, head over to an adjoining outlet, buy some kites, and head back home for an evening of kite flying on the terrace with your neighbours.

An elderly Muslim man runs his padded fingers along kite string, applying a fine paste of ground glass mixed with adhesives made from rice paste among other things.

More likely than not, manja makers are Muslims from lower economic strata. The days leading up to Uttarayan open up earning opportunities.

Drying manja in the late afternoon sun. Riding along the street they appear like dollops placed streetside to entice passersby.

The youth sitting by the handle will spin it slowly to ensure the Sun wraps around the thread evenly. The Sun was warm, comforting laying its friendly hand on my shoulder and warming my neck to just the right degree.

He had ridden up to the manja maker and waited patiently for his lot of kite string to be completed, and wound on the spindle he had carried along.

“The kite string has to survive atleast 6-7 kite fights else I don’t consider it good quality,” he told me. 

November 16, 2012

Gauri – Ganesh Visarjan, Day 5 Of Ganesh Chaturthi

I position myself roadside, out of the way of crowds streaming toward the lake, the men bearing Ganapati idols, and women, Gauri idols. Men carrying Ganapati outnumber women carrying Gauri. It is day five of Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations.

The police have blocked off the approach to the lake for regular traffic, only letting in rickshaws or tempos bearing devotees carrying Ganapati idols that come to a stop at the entrance to the lake.

Families get off. The head of the family, a male, carries the Ganapati idol resting against his chest before placing the colourful idol on a retaining wall surrounding the lake. Chants of Ganapati Bappa Moraya rend the air.

There, they perform puja and offer prayers before carrying them to a makeshift barricade where bare-feet workers wearing saffron t-shirts with the name of patrons prominently displayed on the back carry the Ganapati idols to a waiting boat fitted with an outboard motor.

In no time the makeshift platform is occupied by Ganapati idols placed by their bearers to be taken out to the boat by local youth. An official, possibly from the fire brigade detachment positioned for rescue operations should any mishap occur, warned the boat-bearers in saffron t-shirts against coming drunk on duty, telling them they can do so once they're done with loading the boats, implying it would hurt religious sentiments of devotees to see their beloved deity handled by drunk bearers.

Yet, one of the bearers smelled heavily of alcohol. It takes all kinds to pull off a festival on the scale Mumbai hosts it.

Once the boat is loaded with Ganapati idols and a few devotees who want to do or see the immersion themselves, it motors out to the middle of the lake.

I watch women in sari walk with large Gauri idols balanced on their head, accompanied by more women, among them their neighbours and relatives.

Ganapati idols outnumber Gauri idols 10 to 1. The sight of women bearing Gauri idols during Ganesh Chaturthi is heartening, indicative of responsibility equated in matters divine. All around me are excited voices. They mingle with invocations to Ganapati, and sounds of cymbals.

Ganesh Chaturthi can be a noisy affair. Vibrant and noisy. Among them the Sonar family who accompanied the deity with much pomp and colour. All eyes turned to the riotous procession drumming their way along.


For eleven days Ganesha reigns supreme except day five when he has to share the spotlight with his mother, Gauri as Parvati is popularly known in Maharashtra, and elsewhere.

At the best of times the Mumbai street is crowded, leaving little latitude whatsoever to manoeuvre your way about. 

Come Ganesh Chaturthi, especially the main Ganesh Visarjan (Immersion) days – Day 2, Day 5, and Day 11, the streets leading to lakes, wells and the sea (Girgaum and Juhu) are impassable as traffic shares roads with the loveable deity being borne to the water in a steady stream of families making their way to the numerous immersion locations around the city.

Newspapers publish in advance the routes rearranged by Traffic Police. And I’ve little doubt that it’s one of the most widely read sections. No one fancies being caught up in temporary dead-ends that seem anything but temporary once stuck in it for hours on end.

Drums and occasionally trumpets accompany the rotund elephant-headed deity to his watery abode, families seeing him off with affection. 

Hundreds of Ganesha idols make their way to the water. In the evening all the roads leading to immersion spots turn into a sea of colour. Soon boats ready to carry their esteemed 'passengers' to their resting place, a time of much emotion and sadness.

Those who cannot muster music along for want of people to accompany them or lack instruments, will hire brass bands to do it for them.

On immersion days, the Brass Band will be rolled out with smartly dressed musicians bringing up the procession.

It repeats year after year.  

It’s only on the fifth day that Lord Ganesh is not on his own instead sharing the spotlight with his mother, Gauri, as she accompanies him to the immersion place to be immersed herself.

However, not every Ganapati is accompanied by Gauri, only those who’ve installed Gauri idols in their homes alongside Ganapati will carry them both else Ganesha makes his journey alone even if he shares the cart with Gauri, both emerging from different homes.

Likewise, families who’ve only installed Gauri idols will carry Gauri to the immersion point all by herself. The absence of Gauri idols in Hindu households does not mean she’s not worshipped, she is, since Gauri Puja is an important and integral aspect of Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, except they’ll use more traditional forms of representing Gauri – small earthen pots my mum said used to be painted over with fighres of Lakshmi, Shanka (shell), Chakra (wheel), Tulsi Vrindavana, and a Cow with a calf.

Now she says, copper vessels are readily available with these signs engraved on it. Some use silver vessels for the same purpose, all so as to avoid the ‘hassle’ of finding an earthen pot in urban centres and possibly the lack of immersion points within easy access.

Men carry Ganapati, and women, Gauri.

Women bearing Gauri idols for immersion on day five of Ganesh Chaturthi is not as common elsewhere as it’s in Maharashtra. While Gauri Puja is a thread that binds Hindu womenfolk across India, carrying Gauri idols for immersion is not as prevalent elsewhere.


She further says, ‘Mysore-side, she’s known as swarna Gauri and is installed a day before Ganapati is installed.’

‘Elsewhere in Karnataka, she’s celebrated as Jyesta Gauri, also revered as Lakshmi, and installed on Anuradha Nakshatra which appears on the second day of the commencement of Ganesh Chaturthi, sometimes on the third day.’ Gauri Puja ritual is interesting.

‘Rice is placed in the copper vessel with the five signs, some will use wheat depending upon what’s staple for the region or the household in question.’

‘Once the Puja is done on the third day following Gauri installation, the rice or wheat as the case may be is removed from the vessel before the Mula Nakshatra goes away and is made into payasam or payasa. Unlike rice that can be boiled and made into payasam, the wheat needs to be ground before it’s mixed with milk and made into payasam.

I grew up seeing Gauri Puja performed at home. Unlike Ganapati where the entire family is involved right from the time decorations commence to his immersion, Gauri Puja is primarily driven by the women of the house.

She tells me the thread is placed in the vessel, and as with rice or wheat offerings, it’s removed from the vessel upon deinstallation and worn on the wrist or around the neck until the day before Dussehra when it’s removed and buried in the earth around the Lakshmi pole.

‘In some regions, women remove the thread on the full moon (Purnima) after Dussehra. An alternative is to cast it in the river to avoid it channelled out along with garbage.’

In older days she remembers seeing Brahmins going house to house, Brahmin homes, selling thread made from cotton. ‘Thread offered up to Gauri during Gauri Puja would be made of 16 strands. A second 16-strand thread, or a third depending upon the number of married women in the family, would be similarly offered during puja to be worn by the women either around the neck or on the wrist once the puja was done and Gauri de-installed.

The thread is made wet, applied with haldi (turmeric) and Kum Kum (vermillion) and placed in the vessel for the duration Gauri remains installed. In instances where married relatives elsewhere are unable to perform Gauri Puja then a 16-strand thread would be dutifully placed for consecration on their behalf and mailed by envelope to their address.’

I distinctly remember this as I would carry the envelope with its distinct haldi strains to the post office and mail it out. Other times the postman would bear an envelope home and opening it Mum would extract the thread.

Seeing haldi now evokes many different memories and times.