God yet again
It was my second trip to Brindavan in, I think, ten years if not more. Originally Brindavan, it was later renamed, I don’t know if formally, to Vrindaban or Vrindavan. Brindavan is a holy town off Mathura in the state of Uttar Pradesh in north India.
The first time I went to Brindavan was much earlier as a newspaper reporter. That was when the Ram mandir controversy was at its peak as was the BJP slogan of including Mathura in its political battle. I went to see the Shahi Idgah mosque in Mathura which the BJP had then threatened to include in its religious agenda. The mosque co-exists with the Keshav Dev temple in Mathura. I recall writing about it extensively though I remember very little of the content now.
That was also the time when I wrote about the widows of Brindavan: those driven out of Bengal to fend for themselves in Brindavan. They were then part of the bhajan mandli which meant sing ram bhajans the entire day and earn a handful of rice and two rupees a day. Literally Ek muthi chawal aur do rupayaa… I had also noticed several abortion clinics mushroomed in the small, sleepy town. Ofcourse no one would willingly discuss its nitty gritty except shrug their shoulders. I discovered a large scale exploitation of young girls at the hands of the mahants, technically monks, who then ruled the roost.
Well known artist Arpana Cour had painted the widows in a series of her work which I found very realistic. In fact it was these paintings which changed my opinion about Arpana as an artist. Till then I found her emerging but with her widows of Brindavan work, I saw her as a painter who weaved in pathos and pain in her work as well as she did colour. Her lines, however, improved much later as she mastered the Sikh guru, Nanak in his various forms.
While on Arpana, I cannot but mention her mother Ajeet Cour, a writer in her own right. She is one who has never got a foreword written for any of her 19 books on grounds that writers are solo players and do not need anyone to hinge his or her work on. Makes sense. Ajeet Cour is also among the few who has done commendable work in bringing together writers from SAARC countries.
This time around when I went back to Brindavan, the abortion clinics were nowhere in sight. However, the widows were still around. I do not know if the Bhajan mandli is still there or whether they still earn their rice. When I checked around I was told that they were rich and each one of them now had a fixed deposit of their own in banks. I was also told that exploitation, though it existed, had changed its master: from mahants and individuals gaining from the lot of widows, there were NGOs making money in their name. And big money.
Widows, I sensed, were now an industry to be churned by the crafty. Using them as an alibi, institutions have had acres of land allotted. Each time a donor or a funding agency comes calling, a handful are paraded as case studies. Hence it is a full-fledged money-minting racket now. I spoke to some of the widows, my advantage being that I speak fluent Bangla. They understand or speak no other language. From what I gathered, the amount of two rupees has been enhanced to ten per day and the rice is now measured: instead of a handful they get 250 grams per day with a pulse thrown in.
Brindavan is a lot cleaner than what it was several years ago. Ofcourse the situation about dangling electric wires remains unchanged. They stare you at your face and in the dark one does not know when it will fatally entangle you. The monkeys dance around on rooftops jumping at prashad packets at will. The beggars have reduced. I guess India’s fast paced growth has had an impact. Like it has had on the sadhus. Each carries a mobile.
There was one who I was introduced to: some kind of a Baba with powers. His long tresses which went around his head several times round needed a wash. He spoke to me about the scriptures and the death of Indian culture in India: His regret: Mother’s Day was celebrated more than Basant Panchami and Valentine’s Day had robbed India of its modesty: “He is” my host told me “more learned than many saints but has renounced the world in service of God”. The baba who had been watching me from the corner of his eye through the laudatory introduction simply smiled raising his hand to bless me. He probably expected that I would fall at his feet. I didn’t move. He lectured me on God and the futility of life. Till his cell phone rang. Without batting an eyelid, he reached out for his kamandal, ran his hand into it and out popped the ringing cell-phone. A kamandal, incidentally, is a small urn meant to store and sprinkle the holy waters on devotees. Even if I am not right about its accurate meaning, I am absolutely certain that it is not meant to keep cell phones. Like I am that those who have renounced the world should have no use for them.
The current period, I am told, is a significant one for the Banke Bihari temple: a sacred shrine of Lord Krishna. There is a phool bangla ceremony where the God is adorned and the temple bedecked in flowers. Traditionally the God does not move out of his enclosure but during the phool bangla ceremony he is brought out in the evenings everyday.
Literally a phool bangla is a house of flowers, in this case for the Lord God who is bedecked in floral ornaments. Every day is different and devotees book years in advance to get a chance to make an offering of a phool bangla to Lord Krishna.
The floral tribute is not confined to ornating the Lord alone. It means doing up the entire temple in flowers. The bangla, a distortion of the word bungalow, stands on wooden frames of different shapes and sizes. Actually they are like building blocks strung by unending rows of flowers…as intricate as a mesh is.
Given its size and proportion, it is an expensive affair. But religion, like Love, knows no bounds. Gopi Goswami, my host and the temple priest, informed me that often flowers are flown in from Bangalore to bedeck the temple: “Sometimes devotees spend as much as rupees five lac for an evening” he said.
The temple, when I visited it, did look very beautiful and picturesque as did the deity. Later after the ceremonies concluded and we ate the prasad in leaf plates, I saw dozens of men mercilessly pulling down the floral decorations: tons of flowers being brought down and tampered upon. Before I could ask, Gopi said that every day floral installations are put up and pulled down. To suggest that it was such a criminal waste of money, I guess would have been profane.
The norm at the temple is to say “Radhe,radhe”. In fact Krishna is not uttered at all. When I asked why Krishna was missing in prayers and it was Radha all the way through, Uma Sharma well known dancer who I was accompanying could not give a convincing reply: “Radha was all pervasive” was all that she said which was neither here nor there. I thought I would check with the mobile wielding know-all sadhu but I did not get a chance.
Gopi Goswami is hilarious. Actually one of his kind. A perfect host, he is also an obliging priest. He keeps an open house and devotees visit him in large numbers. He is after all their route to God because his writ runs inside the temple. So if you want darshan or want to stay in the presence of God longer than your stipulated half a minute or avoid jostling crowds and bag a prime place in the front row, then Gopi is the answer.
His Man Friday, whom he kept addressing as Antim, seemed a bit dumb. Gopi’s explanation: “His name explains it all”. Antim is a Hindi equivalent of end. A bit intrigued that any parent would name his child Antim, I decided to check this out myself. In Gopi’s absence I asked Antim the full form of his name. He said: “Antim Krishna”. The last Krishna. It changed the entire meaning and with that Antim’s body language. The suffix suddenly made him confident.
As I said Gopi is a gracious host. Mention anything and he is ready to bent over backwards to make it available. I made one such mistake of asking him about a particular brand of supari which I wanted to carry back for someone close. Before I completed my sentence, Gopi shot back: “Supari kya, uske malik to bulata hoon jo jitni chahiye dilli bejega”. Will summon the manufacturer who will ensure supplies at the doorstep. It was quite a task to dissuade Gopi from doing just that.
I have always believed that people in small towns have the warmth, the time and the grace which many of us in big cities lack. We are time bound and appointment oriented. We find it difficult to deal with if people just drop in. We have to juggle around to accommodate them. This is not to suggest that we lack sensitivity but work-pressures tend to overtake human issues. In small towns the atithi devo bhavah sentiment still prevails. Guest is god.
On my way back I could not help thinking about my friend Shatrughan Sinha, film star turned politician, who had recently dubbed me as being BJP. His take: I had finally seen sense and started believing in God. His remark followed my phone call to him to help me access God in a well known temple which also has years of waiting for special prayers. I said I needed to take my son before his results were out. Shatrughan had chuckled and said that even though late in life, at least I had turned believer. I concede that in recent months my interactions with God, be it through film or prayer, have been much more than in the past. That I have been profane to some is another matter.
In one of my blogs I had, while professing that I am a shaakt, worshipper of Goddess Shakti, called Ram and Krishna lesser Gods. Last week when a senior leader, whom I hold in high esteem, recalled my remark, I felt guilty. A trifle irresponsible because I was condescending—actually derided people whose path of faith did not coincide with mine.
That evening I learnt that profanity was neither mine nor anyone else’s right. I questioned my freedom to write where it hurt the most. I have no straight answers. All that I have and owe is an apology for unwarranted comment on one’s faith, religion and their Gods.