It wasn’t my first trip to India. But every time I come here, I am full of nostalgia, a very quaint sense of cheer… and questions. Yes, questions too. I do love India. Even though I have been living abroad for 20 years now. Perhaps more because of it. I haven’t seen the kind of twinkle in the eye us ‘NRIs’ have on the mention of India in any resident Indian. Well, there are NRIs who are not so besotted with ‘home’ back there. Yet, so many of us are! Not that we would really consider ‘settling’ back in India easily, still the heart does crave for many things Indian… the things only being in India can provide in its own idiosyncratic setting.
So here I was, once again, roaming around, shopping, socializing in the heart of Delhi. There was so much to do and such little time! I was being greedy and wanted to pack half of India with me. At least, it’s incredible experiences, peculiar charm and unique flavor.
In the middle of all this, I decided to visit a very ancient temple in North India, one among the oldest and the most revered ones in India. It wasn’t like I was too much into deities and worship but I had been reading a lot on Indian goddesses recently, which somehow seemed more natural being there than if I would have been living in India. So I felt a certain pull towards this temple now that I was here. I also felt a slight pang of envy that people here have all these high energy places right under their noses and they could visit whenever they wanted.
I didn’t think I would get any takers for company as my family and kids, apart from being agnostic, were very lazy too. As a matter of fact, my proposition was responded with more than a couple of eyebrows raised in query on the quirk of my newly acquired religious streak.
For me, it wasn’t really about religion. It was more to do with that eternal quest that makes you wonder. If there are people drawn to certain places for thousands of years now, what draws them? What is it about these distinct places?
Is this place I was going to, for example, teeming with divine feminine energy one can soak in? I had always wanted to know whether there was God. If yes, how does he/she/it looked/felt like. Call it childish questions, if you will, they were still young in my heart. They still made me wonder, read stuff and discuss with people who were open to dialogue. They still took me to various places, most of them being not temples, or places pertaining to any particular religion.
But now I was open, curious and excited, indeed. And I was even more excited when a really close friend of mine offered to go with me. She was more ‘religious’ than me, of course. She knew things and observed a lot of fasts and stuff. And she had ample devotion towards the goddess I was going to.
So after some admonition to the kids and whoever was around to listen on not caring about one’s culture and roots, we started with great aplomb. Thanks to Neeti, my friend, we didn’t have much trouble reaching the place. She had warned me it being a very ancient temple, wasn’t so ‘sophisticated’. “You know what I mean…,” she said in a very know-it-all manner.
Fortunately, I wasn’t looking for sophistication, we had plenty of that in the country of our residence. I was looking for that feeling of devotion and surrender, that momentous energetic connect. Yet I wasn’t prepared for the spectacle I had in front of me. Though a lot of effort seemed to have been made within the space available to make the entrance to the old, small place comfortable, it was nothing but a narrow zigzag of a dirty path strewn with shops on either side. The shops were brimming with paraphernalia about the goddess, cheap jewelry and a lot of useless odds and ends. The shopkeepers were quite aggressive in the customer acquisition techniques. They shouted for attention and advised on what to take for offering the goddess to please her the best. I was at a loss, a little rattled even. Neeti, on the other hand, was confidently walking down the path as if she was immune to these shouts. There were stray dogs roaming around. No, I am not complaining about them being there. Though not a great animal lover, I feel animals have as much right to this planet as we have, although that never seems to be the case. What saddened me was their state. They were skinny, hungry and completely ignored. Some seemed unwell too. There was eatables thrown here and there by reckless pilgrims that made for their meals.
And then there were beggars. Men, women, children, very small children… all looking at you with a look that is pleading, demanding and accusing at the same time. I cringed a little. I was yet to make up my mind about whether or not to comply with their very vocal behest, Neeti pulled me by my hand and said, “Don’t be so naive! They will all swarm you from all directions and make you go crazy.”
See, I have been raised in India, it’s not the first time I was seeing beggars… It’s just that they were at this place… so close to divinity… it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right to see a woman in tattered clothes nursing her dirty baby, who I doubt had ever known the pleasure of bathing, right in the middle of the path along the balustrade. She was so within the periphery of the greatest feminine force, hailed by millions as the ultimate liberating power. It could be my overactive mind on yet another overdrive but something was off. I am not in the favor of helping the poor, especially beggars, by providing charity undeservedly, yet something was off. She too was completely overlooked by one and all. And she seemed quite used to and comfortable with that treatment.
As instructed by Neeti, I bought a small package full of goddess worship thing from a shop she suggested while she went on to buy the biggest package available. We were given baskets full of material, size of the basket being proportional to the package we had bought. As a bonus, we were allowed to remove and keep our footwear at the shop (as you couldn’t take them inside the temple and leaving outside without supervision was as good as donating them).
I was glad I had bought a small basket as it turned out the path we just walked on was the coziest part of our journey to the shrine. The crowd somehow swelled mystically and grew closer to my body as we reached closer to the inner sanctuary. I was surrounded by and being pressed by the gigantic blob of the crowd from all directions. So much so, it was not I who was walking, I was being walked or swayed in by the crowd. Ok, that’s why Neeti had asked me to remove any jewelry and extra cash from my person before. There was no way I could have kept track of things that were on me in this rabble of humanity.
I was perspiring and it was getting harder to breathe. The month of May with its soaring temperature wasn’t helping either. I could see an ocean of mankind (more womankind, to be precise) heaving ahead slowly with baskets floating over it. That’s when I saw a BIG basket hover right over my head, trying to float ahead of its carrier, somehow through the top of the crowd. I turned my neck whatever little I could and saw the lady carrying that basket two spots behind me, trying to run ahead by using her basket. I politely asked her to remain where she was and keep the basket in the area around her own head.
What happened next was something that stunned me completely. The woman in saree, complete with all adornment befitting an ideal Indian woman, roared in a boorish way cursing me and asking me to keep my mouth shut. To make things worse, she seemed to detest my not-so-Indian attire and demeanor. To be honest, I was frightened. No way could I have matched her thunderous rage, so I just kept quiet and tried not to think about her basket over my head. In a while, as planned, she took some long, brutal strides and was now ahead of me. She must be a frequent visitor who knew the way around and had all the tips and tricks up her sleeves.
But, wait a minute… a frequent worshiper so desperate to please deities from some other unknown world… and have given up on any deference towards humanity? Something was off.
And amidst all pushing and pulling, we were in. I was trying to locate the statue through the crowd and just as I had had a glimpse, and could barely give my basket to the priest, I was pushed away to the out door. Apparently, with this much magnitude of population, only this much time per person could be allocated with the deity. From the corner of my eye, I could see the priest throwing things from my basket in different, measured directions deftly. Flowers went to the flower heap, chunni (a piece of cloth worn like a shawl) to chunni heap and so on.
Just near the out door, another priest was putting red tilaks (traditional dots on forehead with sandal or other natural pastes) on foreheads in such haste that it would look like a machine stamping other machines on a conveyer belt to aliens, if they saw us.
The door was a bit more jammed as people insisted on bowing to and touching the threshold. After a little struggle, we were out.
There was some confusion as there was a different path to exit, not through the way we had come in. As per Neeti, this was a new development. It would have been all okay except if we hadn’t left our footwear at the shop on the way in. We thought of working our way around the temple from exit to entrance, all the way to the shop. It was a great idea except our feet were burning on the scorched cemented floor. Now I take pride in my capability of walking barefoot and having a good pain threshold, but this was just unbearable.
Yet we tried to come full circle from exit to entrance and we got lost miserably. Neeti was red with heat, actually more from embarrassment. We had no idea where we were anymore. Many passers-by were happily interested in our misery and gave us various directions. We followed some but only got more blisters and frustration.
“It never happens like this, you know,” said Neeti trying to kind of redeem herself.
“Yeah, I must be special!” I did my best to smile through excruciating pain.
Then we got the brilliant idea to retrace our steps from this new exit to inside the temple and somehow reach that other exit. Strange as it was, we were successful. By this time, I was so shaken that I folded my hands contritely towards the temple and asked for forgiveness for whatever sins I must have committed unknowingly.
Having found our slippers and smiles back, we were on the way out (that Neeti knew by heart), when I was startled by a tap on my shoulder. It was an old lady carrying some sindoor teeka (a red colored paste) in a bowl asking me to put some on my forehead for the sake of saving my suhaag (husband, the good fortune of being in a state of having one). “It is Ma’s suhaag teeka, daughter,” she said coming too close to my personal space. I knew it was her way of asking for money as was some priests’ back there who were adamant on tying a red thread on our wrists. Not seeing any encouraging response from me, her voice went a little threatening, “You never ever say no to Ma’s suhaag teeka!”
I don’t know what took me over, I started almost running, to Neeti’s amazement and to my own.
Applauding myself for not having tried to force kids to this excursion, I was wondering if I was actually inviting any harm to my ‘suhaag’.
I am not saying that deities are not real or their power is not real. I cannot say that for I don’t know that. (I wonder if I know anything at all.)
But I had went in with much more inquisitiveness, eagerness and reverence in the search of liberation and came out with so much fear.
Where does a person go when they are riddled with fear? Fears that are beyond their human understanding and solutions? And then it struck me – it was fear written all over their faces more than any existential quest.
That was their hurry… to put their fears at ease by pleasing someone greater than their limited human selves…
I wonder if fear is magic formula that keeps people going in again and again.
Well, it certainly is one of the ingredients.
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