Friday, February 24, 2012

China and Dhanno-ki-Amma

Many readers of this blog send me emails, sometimes, with a very basic question, "Is your name really Desi Babu?" And sometimes, an associated question is, "Is that photograph really yours?" My answer to both these questions usually revolves around the two basic things that I believe in. That, every Babu from Des deserves to be called Desi Babu. And, that our photographs should really depict what we want to look like, not what we really look like. So, there you go.

To extend this line of thought, then, one might ask, "What should Desi Babu's wife be called?" Fortunately, I have an answer ready for you. My wife's name is Dhanno-ki-Amma. In fact, countless Desis, around the world, take great pains to name their firstborn daughters Dhanno, so they can call their wives Dhanno-ki-Amma -- for the rest of their lives. And this Desi, is no exception.

Our home has a china cabinet. And, it has some priceless china, that  Dhanno-ki-Amma received as wedding gift, a long time ago. Desi Babu is not allowed to go anywhere near that China. On days, on which I get a packet of steaming hot Jalebis home, and find that every single dish in the house is in the sink, I sometimes eye Dhanno-ki-Amma's china rather longingly. And, if she realizes what my intentions are, being a tigress who grew up in the great state of the Bengal tiger, she roars, "As far as I am concerned, you can eat your Jalebis off the floor, but if you dare touch my wedding china, you are finished!"  And so, whenever I hear my wife uttering the word "china", my first reaction is usually that of fear. 

There is another thing about Dhanno-ki-Amma that you should know.

While my reading habits are extremely pedestrian, and usually, the great literary pieces I read are written on the old newspapers that my Jalebis are wrapped in,  Dhanno-ki-Amma is a regular reader of newspapers and magazines, that scare me with their depth of analysis -- specially, The Economist.  Armed with one of those business degrees from the land of the free, she sometimes tries to explain to me, with great pain, what the difference between Keynesian theory and free market economics is. This rather futile exercise usually concludes with a blank stare from me. For no fault of my own, since you can never blame a man for not being too bright. But it does give me one of those complexes -- of not being too bright.

So, yesterday, Dhanno-ki-Amma was reading from a two-week old issue of The Economist, and suddenly she said something with the word "china" in it. As you might have guessed, my primal "flight or fight" response kicked in. But, after I regained my composure, I realized that she was telling me something that was of a truly historic nature. Apparently, from now on, The Economist, the most refined magazine for people who care about business, is going to have a weekly section on China. After 1942, this is for the first time, that they are adding an exclusive section on a specific country -- the previous two countries being Britain, and the Land of the free.

My first reaction was, "What does this mean? Has China finally come of age? I thought that they already announced that to the world, when they hosted the Olympics in Beijing."

Dhanno-ki-Amma had a more restrained reaction. She believes that China has finally become more newsworthy to business and finance people around the world. And, after their perceived "leadership" in trying to resolve the European crisis, the world wants to look at them more closely. And that, brought me to the second question -- does the editorial, announcing the "arrival" of China,  mention Des, somewhere? Well, there was a rather strange sentence I found with India in it, and I will leave it to you to make your own interpretation.

"In ways that were never true of post-war Japan, and may never be true of India, China will both fascinate and agitate the rest of the world for a long time to come."

Another thing that I decided to do, was to flip through the new "exclusive" section on China. There were a couple of stories about the tobacco industry in China (one of the largest in the world) and, about how a coffee "revolution" is brewing in a part of China, that is heavily into tea. A story, that caught my eye, was about "tribes" in China. No, it does not talk about painted braves wearing Mohawks, dancing around fire. Apparently, people in China are now grouping themselves into tribes. Some of the intriguing names of such tribes are --  yi zu (tribe of small town graduates moving into cities), shan hun zu (lightning marriage tribe) and fang zu (tribe of mortgage slaves). I found it rather strange that for some reason, the more developed we tend to get as a civilization, the more tribal we wish to become. I wonder what primal human thought process is at play?

Finally, with a grave expression on her face, Dhanno-ki-Amma asked me, "So, what is your opinion on this whole thing about China?"  I wanted to tell her, that to find out the long term impact of such a momentous editorial decision, we should conduct a small Desi experiment. We should get a bull off the streets, feed it some Jalebis laced with Bhang, and release it in a China shop, and see what happens.

For some reason, I chose to remain silent. Divinity was not too far behind.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The symbols of Shiva

Today is Mahashivaratri -- perhaps, the only festival that matters for people, who believe in the religion of Shiva. 

Ours is not a family of temple goers. But, we do make it a point to visit the local Shiva temple, once a year, on this holy occasion. And the one we visit, is not much into pomp and splendor. It is an old temple, surrounded by trees, and hidden away from development, in a little spot left untouched by the concrete jungle that our city has come to be.

On our way to the temple, we decided to pick up some flowers, and my wife insisted that we should get some Bilva (wood apple) leaves, considered very holy to Shaivites. As an old legend goes, a poor and hungry man was once lost in the woods, and found safety in the highest branch of a Bilva  tree. And there, through the night, he wept -- praying to the Lord.  His teardrops and the Bilva leaves fell on a Shivalinga under the tree, and the man achieved the blessings of Shiva. And so, many people say that water and Bilva leaves are all that you need to worship Shiva. And, make sure that you bring your devotion with you, when you visit the temple, for devotion is all that matters.

Since I have done this many times in the past, when I sifted through a bunch of bilva leaves, I looked for a trifoliate -- three leaves together, that are considered very holy. But today, for some reason, I also remembered the symbolism behind the trifoliate. Some people believe that the leaves represent the three functions of the universe: creation, preservation and destruction. Others believe that the leaves represent the three eyes of Shiva. The symbolism that I like, is related to the three gunas or tendencies of universal nature, which reside in all of us : rajas, sattva and tamas, fundamentally linked to the three functions of the universe. Shiva teaches us how to control them inside us, and understand that they need to exist in a balance, destined for us, much before we began to be.

And while I was thinking about it, I also remembered the many other symbols that are associated with Shiva. Most Hindu deities are shown with multiple heads and limbs, usually, wielding a variety of symbolic objects. I have rarely come across a depiction of Shiva that shows him with multiple heads and limbs. The most powerful deity of the Hindus, Mahadeva Shiva -- or the God of gods --  is usually depicted as a man. Of course, dressed as a wandering ascetic. And usually, in a meditative pose.

The symbols, one comes across, while looking at this ordinary Yogi, are quite extraordinary.

First, there are the three Bilva leaves, which any wandering ascetic can tuck into his hair. But a quick look at the other two things stuck in his hair -- and one wonders, why Shiva is called the God of gods. The Ganga,  a river that has sustained life and given birth to the modern Indian civilization, is shown flowing from the dreadlocks of Shiva. And so is the crescent moon, which represents the flow of time through its waxing and waning. Since Shiva is above space and time, one of the largest rivers that gives life, and a celestial object that keeps time, are shown as mere ornaments in his hair. 

Then, there is the blue throat, which represents all the evil that came out of the churning of the universe. Those participating, wanted the nectar. But with good, comes evil, and someone had to drink the poison to save the rest of us.

One of Shiva's symbols, which is particularly dear to me, is the garland of Rudraksh that he wears, representing purity. A Rudraksh is an intensely blue fruit, which, when dried is used as a rosary bead by many eastern religions. It is considered very dear to Shiva, since Rudra is another name for Shiva. A Rudraksh, has many faces, and I often think that it probably sums up the contradictions in Shiva, more than anything else.

And, if one has to complete the list, one cannot forget the trident, representing the gunas,  the drum, representing the creation of knowledge from its sounds, and the tiger skin, which represents control over our senses. Try looking at Shiva's freestanding trident by itself, specially, in places in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes, if you concentrate on the trident long enough, you can almost see the Lord out of the corners of your eyes. It is as if, he is right there, standing next to you, admiring his own trident.

To me, what has always been fascinating about Shiva is the way he manifests himself amongst us, the ordinary. Shiva never shows up with a burst of light and a halo around his head, he never makes a public display of his powers. As if, he doesn't really need the attention -- he already has too much of it.

In fact, time and again, in multiple texts on Hinduism, Shiva appears as an ordinary man. Perhaps, a hunter stalking wild boar, and perhaps, as a mendicant asking for alms. In fact, the fearsome Sadhu you passed by today, with red eyes and the colorful dreadlocks, could well have been the Lord himself. And so,  I always think that Shiva has a very subtle message for all of us, about how we should conduct ourselves.

Perhaps, we should be more aware of the fact that when we come across a person, who seems ordinary to us, we should treat him or her with as much respect, as we would treat Shiva himself. If we knew beforehand, that we were blessed with his presence.

May the Lord shower you with his choicest blessings on Shivaratri. And perhaps, you can partake in the festivities by enjoying a glass of  the Lord's favorite drink. Trust me, it will make you laugh. 

Om Namah Shivayah! 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Leaves, wrapped in leaves

My grandfather had a very nice garden, tucked away at the back of his house.

I have very fond memories of sitting on his lap and watching the birds and squirrels he would beckon, with peanuts and grains of rice. And then, he would tell me stories of gods and demons, and somehow, the squirrels and the birds would always find their way into the stories. We would sit on a small khatiya, that had coir rope woven into a standard desi pattern of diamonds and triangles. And I remember jumping up and down on the khatiya, when grandpa was not around, since desi khatiyas can always double as trampolines for kids.

I never saw grandpa smoke or drink. In fact, he led a very disciplined life, and lived to be ninety. However, grandpa had one small "vice". Every morning, he would get up at daybreak, and smoke a bidi, before he went to the toilet. And then, even after he had bathed and readied himself for the day, he would smell of it. For quite some time. I remember the faint smell of bidi coming off of grandpa, when I would sit on his lap for story time.

Many years later, in my engineering school, I learned to smoke. I am sure grandpa would not have approved. But then, I learned that as engineers, many times in our lives, we would be expected to pull all-nighters. There would be motors that broke down and turbine blades that needed cajoling, there would be engines that needed their midnight oil and power lines that would snap in two. And so, we were told that we should know how to stay awake at night, so others, who relied on our work, would get to sleep.

We were told that the best way for an engineer to pull an all-nighter, was to smoke cigarettes and drink chai. And with boatloads of assignments our professors would hand out to us, we did pull our all-nighters, and we did smoke a lot of cigarettes and drink a lot of chai.

But then, there would be times, specially, at the end of the month, when we would be completely broke. So much so, that we couldn't even buy the cheapest cigarette money could buy.

And then, we discovered bidis.

For the price of an average cigarette, we could buy ten of those. Sure, they stank, and the stink lingered on for hours, but it was a consolation to know that there were tobacco leaves wrapped inside the tendu leaves, that make up the bidi. And, that we could still pull an all-nighter, on a low budget.

I always hated smoking bidis. For some reason, they made me feel broke. Very broke. And, if you are not used to smoking them, you have to re-light them frequently, they don't burn with the same ease that cigarettes do. I had promised myself that once I had a paycheck, I would never ever smoke a bidi again.

Recently, my office had a few renovations done, and the contractor got a gang of workers to come inside and take a few things apart. Most of the workers were from remote villages, and some of them were members of the same family. An old man, who looked like he could barely walk, stood out from the rest. For his age, he was a hard worker, and I saw him putting in longer hours than anyone else. However, I would see him taking frequent breaks to go to a courtyard area, outside the building. Shortly afterwards, I realized that he would go there to pull a bidi out of a small bundle from his pocket, and enjoy a smoke. 

On one particular day, I went to the courtyard to smoke a cigarette. Suddenly, I heard someone clear his throat. Then, I saw that the old man was sitting there, and smiling at me. The smile, that only a fellow smoker can recognize -- the smile, that tells you, "I'm out, can I borrow one from you?".

Bidis and cigarettes are like apples and oranges, usually, if you like one, you don't like the other. But, in times of need, one learns to ignore the difference. I handed him a cigarette, and he took out a match and lit ours up. Since we did not have much to talk about, we smoked in silence.

A few days later, I was feeling a strong urge to smoke and it was only after I went to the courtyard area that I realized that my packet of cigarettes was empty. I pulled out my wallet and found that I did not have enough money in it to buy a pack, and I would have to trek to an ATM to withdraw some cash. For some strange reason, the memories of college came back -- I was "broke".

Suddenly, I heard someone clear his throat. The old man was standing there, holding out his bundle of bidis, with a smile on his face. I smiled back, pulled out my matchbox and lit both our bidis.

We smoked away in silence. It was the best bidi that I ever had.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Prayer time in a Hindu household

I was born in a family, that considers Krishna as its Kuldevta or the family deity. That makes me a Vaishnava by birth. And my mother, because of her own religious beliefs, made it a point to raise me as a Shaiva -- to me, Shiva is, and always will be, the supreme lord of everything that exists. My wife, is from a family of those, who worship Shakti, or, the powerful feminine form of divinity. So, between us, we have all the major sects of Hinduism covered.

All my life, I have toyed with philosophies that either out rightly reject the idea of God, or, are skeptical of it. First came communism, when I was in high school, with Marx and his famous "opiate of the masses" bit. Then came Buddhism, which didn't exactly acknowledge the existence of God, but didn't reject it either. And then, things came a full circle for me, when I discovered that the core of Shaivite philosophy was not really very far from what I had started believing in. That God was not very different from man, and man, could search for God inside him, instead of making countless trips to places, that didn't really matter.

Me and my wife both believe in a supreme being who forgives us our daily trespasses, and we think of Him or Her, when we pray. Many years ago, we started praying together as a family, when we were living outside the country, and wanted the kids to get exposed to the menagerie of spiritual practices that we too had to follow, as kids. In a way, we were trying to pass on centuries of collected religious baggage to them, so that they could take their own decisions on what to retain, when they grew up. Although, what we preached, was not necessarily what we practiced.

It has often made me feel that we are somewhat of an archive -- of various mantras and yantras that our families gave to us. And in case our children lose the archive, what better way to preserve it than the internet. So, here is how your average Hindu household, headed by a confused couple that is borderline agnostic, prays. If you have a flight to catch, we can guarantee that you will be done in about ten minutes.


We have a small shrine for the gods and goddesses at home, and my wife makes a delightful display of fragrant flowers around it, right before we sit down to pray. First, we blow a conch shell to the ringing sound of a ceremonial bell. Then, we light an oil lamp or two and a few sticks of incense. This has the effect of purifying the environment, and making the mind attentive of what lies ahead.

We always start with a verse dedicated to Ganesha. Shiva himself had recommended that all worship start with a prayer to the lord, who removes all obstacles.

vakra-tunndda maha-kaaya surya-koti samaprabha
nirvighnam kuru me deva sarva-kaaryessu sarvadaa

Oh the one with the curved trunk, large body, and the brilliance of ten million suns,
Please make all our work free of obstacles, always.

Next, we pour water on a Shiva-lingam, as we typically pray once a week -- on Mondays, which is a day auspicious to Shiva.  While pouring the water, we chant the Maha Mrityunjay Mantra, one of the oldest chants known to Shaivites. 

aum tryambakam yajāmahe sugandhim pushti-vardhanam
urvārukam iva bandhanān mrtyor mukshīya māmrtāt
We hail the fragrant three-eyed One who nourishes and increases the fullness of life.
As the cucumber is liberated from the captivity of its stem, may we be liberated from the circle of birth and death.

This is followed by the what is possibly the simplest Mantra in Hinduism, one that offers salutations to Shiva, three times in a row.

        Om Namah Shivaya.  Om Namah Shivaya.  Om Namah Shivaya.  

And then, we chant the Gayatri Mantra, again a very popular verse amongst all sects of Hinduism. Many people believe that this verse from the Rigveda, the oldest religious text of the Hindus, worships a goddess, Gayatri. In fact, the mantra pays its respects to one of the least known deities, Savitra, and has been used in religious ceremonies for more than three thousand years.
Om bhur bhuvah suvah tat savitur varenyam
bhargo devasya dhīmahi dhiyo yó naḥ prachodayāt
May we attain that excellent glory of Savitra, So may he stimulate our prayers.

At this point, our mantras are over, and it is time to sing. We sing a bhajan, which is more than a hundred years old, and is probably sung in millions of households  and temples in India everyday.

 Om jai Jagdish hare Swami jai Jagdish hare
Bhakt jano ke sankat Das jano ke sankat kshan men door kare
Om jai Jagdish hare

Jo dhyave phal pave dukh binse man ka Swami dukh binse man ka
Sukh sampati ghar ave Sukh sampati ghar ave Kasht mite tan ka

Mat pita tum mere sharan padoon main kiski Swami sharan padoon main kiski
Tum bin aur na dooja Prabhu bin aur na dooja aas karoon main jiski

Tum pooran Paramatam tum Antaryami Swami tum Antaryãmi
Pãr Brahm Parameshwar Pãr Brahm Parameshwar Tum sabke swãmi

Tum karuñã ke sãgar tum pãlan kartã Swãmi tum pãlan kartã
Main moorakh khalakhãmi Main sevak tum swãmi Kripã karo Bhartã

Tum ho ek agochar Sab ke prãñ pati Swãmi sab ke prãñ pati
Kis vidhi miloon Gosãi Kis vidhi miloon Dayãlu Tum ko main kumati

Deen bandhu dukh harta Thãkur tum mere Swãmi Thãkur tum mere
Apne hãth uthao Apni sharañi lagão Dwãr pada hoon tere

Vishay vikãr mitãvo Pãp haro Devã Swãmi pãp haro Devã
Shradhã bhakti baðhão Shradhã bhakti baðhão Santan ki sevã

Tan man dhan saab hai tera, Swami saab kuch hai tera
Tera tujhko arpan, tera tujhko arpan, kya laage mera

Om jai Jagdish hare Swami jai Jagdish hare
Bhakt jano ke sankat Das jano ke sankat kshan men door kare
Om jai Jagdish hare

Oh mighty lord of the universe, you banish the sorrows of all your devotees in a moment
He who's immersed in devotion, reaps the fruits of thy love Lord.
You free us from all the worldly problems and provide the material comforts of life to us
Lord, thou art mother and father, at thy feet I seek eternal truth
There's none other than Thee, Lord, you are the guardian of all our hopes
Thou art perfection, oh omnipotent master of all
My destiny's in Thy hands, supreme soul of all creation
Thou art an ocean of mercy, gracious protector of all
I am thy humble devotee, grant me thy divine grace
Thou art beyond all perception formless and yet multiform Lord,
Grant me a glimpse of thyself, guide me along the path to Thee
Friend of the helpless and feeble, benevolent saviour of all, Lord,
Offer me thy hand of compassion,  I seek refuge at thy feet
Free me from the earthly desires, and the sins of this life
Grant me undivided faith and devotion, in eternal service unto Thee
My body, my soul and all my possessions, all belong to Thee,
What is yours, I offer to thee, since nothing is mine.


We conclude our prayers with a moment of reflection. Sometimes, there are a few sugar cubes to go around as prasad, an offering, that was made to the Lord. They sweeten the tongue, and leave a good feeling in the soul -- right after our promise to the Lord, to rid ourselves of all the worldly pleasures that exist. 

My wife usually takes a copper plate, with an oil lamp and an incense stick on it, and walks around the house. The idea is to spread the light and the fragrance of the divine, whose presence blessed us during the prayer. Some superstitious people believe that doing this rids the house of all evil spirits, who lurk in the corners. We just like the fragrance to linger on, as it reminds us of the few moments of joy that we had, praying together as a family.