White Mughals

After much difficulty, and intense workouts for my arm, I have finished reading White Mughals by William Darlymple! Let me warn you that this is the last book you want to pick up for bed time reading – you will be left struggling to find a way to hold the book while still lying down comfortably.

White Mughals combines literary sources from the period in question (the years that the colonizers were seduced by India) with the author’s own analysis of how the events came to pass. It is mostly the story of James Kirkpatrick, who was taken by the opulent life style of the ruling class, that he remained British only in his appearance; and Khair-un-Nissa, the young princess who is said to have fallen in love with him. Though this tragic love story remains the heart of the book, it is also equally a commentary on the situation in India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The sheer range of topics the author has touched upon is staggering.

It is interesting to note that several Europeans found the Indian subcontinent to be a land of many freedoms – religious, cultural, spiritual; and this was a far cry from the restrictions posed by a duller Victorian society. It talks of how many such men (the White Mughals that the title refers to) found happiness in their lives as part of the Indian way of life, and how they had to keep secret their love for the colony so as to prevent being treated unfavourably by the East India Company. The book leaves one with a different image of men such as these, for we are used to white men with bristling moustaches who cruelly tripled the taxes laid on poor farmers.

White Mughals also talks about the change in attitudes that came about later, when instead of living together in a semblance of harmony; it became acceptable to discriminate against Indians, and arrogantly declare the superiority of the rulers. It allows us to learn how we have become victims of the very same Victorian way of thinking that the White Mughals sought escape from.

Fact, fiction, poetry, prose, imagination, candour; but always engaging – White Mughals is a good read, but demands more of your time and attention than you may be willing to give.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

My brother is in Class 12 – this means parents get more concerned with how much time he spends watching TV every day, and also take turns to yell at him for playing too much football (consequently tiring himself out, which means he will study lesser and have poor concentration). Amidst all of this, he asked me a question that I did not have an answer for: Why did you study engineering? I see he is beginning to grow intolerant towards the numerous questions he is asked, regarding his plan for higher education. This is the year his name will be spoken of in hushed terms within family circles, whether in fame or shame, we are yet to know.

I do not know why. It seemed like the right thing to do, especially for “good students who chose to study Science” in Class 11. I went ahead and studied physics, maths, chemistry, biotechnology and english (in decreasing order of time spent on subject), performed reasonably well in my exams, took up chemical engineering, and got through four years of college. Everyone said to me in indulgent tones: Oh Chemical Engineer! Just like your father? Sometimes I agreed, to save myself from a conversation.

Having completed a Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering, and a Master’s in Environmental Engineering, not finding a job, working someplace far from what I imagined myself working in, not finding a job yet again, and now working someplace else which is definitely in my field of study but for roughly 10% of my first salary – I find that I still have no answer to that question.

From the time I was four to the time I was ten, I called myself Anusha IPS. In fact, people who know me from that time of my life still remember me as Anusha IPS. It appears as though I believed I would be a brave police officer, saving the innocent, catching criminals, and having people salute me. Ten years ago, I used to want to be a journalist. I imagined myself writing for a leading newspaper, others quoting me, and being famous. Somewhere along the way, I seem to have forgotten not only my dreams, but also how to dream, along with several telephone numbers. Isn’t it so much easier being a child? When you have vivid dreams and the courage to be anything you wanted?

In this deeply philosophical mode, I begin advising my brother on how one must do what they like, not do something because everyone else was doing it, or because it looked like the right thing to do. Of course, there is only so much patience a 17 year old will have. He closes the door and walks out of the room.

A day trip to Mathur…and some disjointed thoughts

My parents wanted to pay a visit to our ancestral temple – so that the family flourishes with health and wealth. I suspect that the other two point agenda was to pray for: (1) spectacular results for my brother next year (so that he gets into a good college); and (2) my marriage happening as soon as possible (the good Lord should somehow change my mind and allow me to agree to all their requests). I merely wondered if the family deity wouldn’t be confused – contradicting petitions from members of the same household? Whose wishes are to be fulfilled? The one with the most faith in the deity, or the one with the most faith in what they wish for? Time will answer this important question.

***

On our way to the temple, about 275 kilometres from Chennai (may take anywhere between 5 and 7 hours depending on how many vehicles you choose to overtake), we made an emergency bathroom stop after we crossed Cuddalore. Barren land, with a big board proclaiming that we were in SIPCOT land. The security guard was nice enough to allow us to go in and ask the people residing in the guest-house if we could use their toilet. A Gujarati man answered the door and told us, By all means, please feel free, do you want some tea or coffee, why don’t you rest for some time before you start driving again. How wonderful! Pleasantries were done with, and the bathroom was used by all. GujaratiMan then starts talking to my father.

G.Man: Kya aapko Hindi maaloom hai?

Father: Haan ji!

G.Man (more enthusiastic now): Kahaan jaa rahe ho? (and other such questions)

Father: Mathur. (and proceeds to explain why we are going there, from where we are, etc.)

Looking at our family, it is obvious that we are all Tamizh, and have managed to learn Hindi owing to our stay in different parts of the country.

Father (to be polite): Aap yahaan kaise? SIPCOT mein kaam karte hain aap?

G.Man: (Some technical details involving how the Gujarat state has purchased this particular zone, and how they send their people to work here.) Mujhe ye bilkul pasand nahi. Tamil log ka soch bahut ganda hai. Ejjucated hain, par phir bhi bahut ganda hai soch. 

Father: ????

Me: ?!?!??!?!?!@!*&@!**&^%$#@!

(We are sitting right there!)

Now G.Man is unstoppable. He wants to talk more, and eloquently goes on to describe how he can’t stand the heat, the place, the people, the negligible number of people who speak Hindi, and how we will never see any progress owing to our depraved way of thinking.

(Why is he surprised that there are very few who speak Hindi? He is in the land of Tamizh after all.)

Father: Bahut dhanyavaad ji. Hum chalte hain. 

G.Man is now offering us snacks for the road.

No, I don’t want to eat anything he gives! Suddenly, I feel almost disloyal for having eaten theplas on the way here. Maybe we should have stopped somewhere and had Vennpongal and filter coffee.

***

The abhishegam was most excellent. Our temple is dedicated to Ayyappan, who is seen here with his two wives Poorna and Pushkala, and that is a rarity. Since the temple is situated at the border of the village, there is Ayyanaar, the fierce guardian deity, with his majestic horse and two dogs. It appears as though there is a belief that stealing the Pillaiyaar from an Ayyanaar temple brings good fortune to the thief. And hence, the Pillaiyaar was stolen last year. The thief has ethics – the money remains, and so do the other idols. A new Pillaiyaar has been installed, in the hope that no one steals this too.

There is a dog which resides in the temple. This dog has kind, brown eyes, and follows you quietly. He does not like thayir sadam, but seems to love chakkarapongal. He dislikes the flavour of asafoetida, I hear. After his banana leaf containing chakkarapongal is licked clean, he settles down for a siesta. I was reminded of myself (I like both thayir sadam and chakkarapongal, but what I like even more is taking a nap after my lunch).

***

We also went to a Sivan temple (Sathya Vaasagar) in the village. This temple had been in ruins, owing to nobody taking care of it in the past 8 decades. My father, along with some others initiated a restoration of this temple a little over a year ago. “Some others” includes a man from Dubai, who announced himself to be an ardent Sivan devotee ever since his childhood and who now sports a tattoo of Ardhanaareeswarar on his bicep. We don’t know how he came to know of the plan to restore the temple, I think he must have read the call for help which appeared in a newspaper. The temple now looks new and spruced up, but most people still use the premises as a garbage bin for their plastic.

Legend has it that Kanva Maharishi was meditating at this spot, when he came upon a Lingam. He installed the Lingam and continued his prayers. When Markandeyar was in danger of being whisked away by Yama, the God of Death, he prayed to Sivan (his Ishtadeivam) and proceeded to ask Kanva Maharishi for help. Through this Sivalingam, it was divined that Markandeyar should go to Thirukkadaiyur where he will be saved. Markandeyar hugged on to the Sivalingam in the Thirukkadaiyur temple, and thus saved from death; Yama couldn’t take him away. Since the Sivalingam at Mathur had uttered the truth to Markandeyar, this deity was named Sathya Vaasagar (He who uttered the Truth). There is a shrine for Soundarya Nayaki, the consort of the Lord here. In addition, we have the usual smaller shrines dedicated to Vinayagar, Subramanian, Mahalakshmi, Chandikeswarar (one of the Nayanmars), Kanva Maharishi himself, Bhairavar and Suriyan.

When the Kumbabishegam of this temple was performed in 2013, to mark its resurrection, everybody saw a white necked eagle (or maybe a kite) descend on the temple, sit patiently, only to fly away after the ceremony. Birds of prey are a rarity in these parts. Garuda blessed us, they say. We will prosper. Belief is a beautiful thing.

***

I was introduced to a man, who has given up his urban lifestyle and voluntarily settled down in this village. He cannot tolerate life in a concrete jungle. He has built an ashram of sorts, for he is a devotee of Ramana Maharishi. He lives here with two other women; they all have spouses elsewhere, and children who are married. They live in this space they have created for themselves with some ferocious dogs, cows and goats. They have a well, a land on which they cultivate few crops, and free electricity (some government scheme which provides free electricity to those farmers who do not reside near water bodies, allowing them to irrigate their land without the added burden of having to pay for electricity). This trio has a refrigerator, a microwave oven, even an LCD television mounted on the wall in their hut. I do not understand – they want all the comforts of an urban lifestyle, but choose to live elsewhere. It is easy to live without electricity, we should not be so dependent on it. Why then are all these appliances present?

I was reminded of an image of a certain Mr. Mohandas (blasphemous, I know).
It is so easy to advocate a simple lifestyle, when you have all the wealth to do so.
***
The trip came to an end, and this long-winded post comes to an end too.

A little magic

It was a cold and rainy evening in Libertyville, not later than 5.30 pm but dark as night. I had finished working for the day and was about to step out, when the security guard told me, Careful young lady! It is really slippery today. I did not think much of it, and proceeded on my way out, and then I understood what he meant. If I took one step forward, I moved three steps sideways! It was slippery, unlike anything I have encountered. The rain was falling in big, fat drops, and something which resembled shards of ice. I was wearing my fleece, a waterproof jacket over that, my all weather boots, and I was having a miserable time. I tried to call a taxi, but the weather was not cooperative enough for a taxi to come to my rescue. I decided to walk to the bus stop, not very far at all; but on that day, it took me twenty minutes and what seemed like a balancing act worthy of a trapeze artist.

I was angry with myself. I had been meaning to buy an umbrella, but never got around to it. Two umbrellas had broken on account of the wind and I was reluctant to buy another one just to have it break again. I pulled the hood tighter around my head, and stood huddled at the bus stop. which was a pole on the road. I was feeling colder by the minute.

The cars kept whizzing past me. I was hoping that the water wouldn’t splash on me. Suddenly, a car came to a halt right next to me. The window went down, a lady peeped out and said to me, I can’t give you a ride now, but here you go, take it take it, don’t say anything, just take it. And then she thrust an umbrella at me. She drove away almost as soon as she stopped. I was a little taken aback, I don’t remember her face, and I am still not sure if I even mumbled a thank you. She had given me a big, sturdy, beautiful Coach umbrella. What made her stop and give me that umbrella? She must have paid a handsome price for it, but she gave it to a stranger without hesitation. Numerous other cars drove by, but nobody stopped, not even an empty taxi I tried to hail.

The bus finally arrived, and I got in, grateful for the heating and relieved that I wasn’t standing in the rain anymore. As the bus was nearing my stop, which was two streets away from my apartment, the bus driver stopped one street ahead, and looked at me. The signal was green, but he chose to stop anyway. He said to me: Wouldn’t this be easier for you? You don’t have to walk that much. And he opened the door, at an intersection that was not a designated stop. How did he know what I was wishing for? I did not recall having seen him before, I usually recognized the bus drivers for there was only one route in Libertyville and I was a regular. How did he know this would be closer to where I lived?

I got down and walked, a shorter walk than usual, and reached home. I didn’t slip anywhere, I was dry, and I was left wondering. Something came to my mind then: Kadavul irukkuraaru Kumaru.*

Half a year has passed since, and I have moved back to India. I brought the umbrella with me. It reminds me of the kindness of strangers, and the magic that hides in mundane events.

* – God exists, Kumar. As said by Kokki Kumar’s friend to him, in Pudhupettai.

Reading Devdutt Pattanaik

Every time I go to Senthil Lending Library – my library of choice for more than ten years now, my friend, the librarian, enthusiastically directs me to one of Devdutt Pattanaik’s books! எடுத்துக்கோ மா! ரொம்ப நல்லா இருக்குமாம்! There is a waiting list for all of his books (but I can get them as I am being shown favouritism). Who can ignore advertising? I read as many as four of his books.

Myth=Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology, The Pregnant King, Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata, Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana.

And then I decided I’ve had enough.

I was mildly interested in the handbook, slightly enjoyed the travails of the pregnant king, made my way through the life history of Pandavas and Kauravas, and completed my learning of the miseries of Sita with indifference. The first two books read well – there was a flow to them, and as the story moved along, we turned the pages to find out what was happening. But with his take on the two epics, it felt as though the author seemed unsure of the tone he wanted to use. There are sketches, and there are plot points, and then there are boxes containing information (which reminded me far too much of NCERT science textbooks – when the teachers told you that information given in the boxes was optional, but you could never be sure of what the final exams would test you on). He does not want us to dismiss the stories as mythology separated from fact, which could probably explain the presence of nuggets of historical data scattered throughout the book. He wants the reader to visualize these books as an engaging retelling of the grand epics, while simultaneously offering commentary on how ancient Indians led their lives and what we could learn from them to enrich our own modern lives (including some important lines on empowerment of women, and how Sita might have been wronged, and how the feminists might be wrong in declaring Sita to have been wronged, for she is not defined by her body). Maybe this is a new genre in itself – that is aspiring to be C. Rajagopalachari, A.K. Ramanujan and Amar Chitra Katha all rolled into one. Devdutt Pattanaik’s books seem to want to take over all the domains – that of the non-believer, the practical person, the historian, the believer, the one who believes as well as questions.

There is an influx of these books now, with various authors attempting to teach the young Indian a thing or two about tradition, while trying to be as fast paced as the screenplay in Director Dharani’s movies. Of course, Devdutt’s books are infinitely better to read than the Meluha trilogy (which is poorly written, to be kind). For me, though, there is nothing more magical than Uncle Pai’s immortal illustrated stories – Amar Chitra Katha. 🙂

24!

I am now 24 years old. After one of the most uneventful birthdays in recent times (which included reminding a couple of my friends to wish me), I am thinking about all the different ideas that I have come to understand.

My brother (who hasn’t yet finished school) thinks I’m too old – in fact, he thinks I belong to the previous generation. Some of his reasons include: I’m almost seven years older than him, and owned a smart phone only a year before he did.

My parents think I am old, and getting older, old enough for panic to set in regarding my future. Of course, this idea quickly gets old, for there isn’t any teasing and banter involved; just more paranoia that you can’t seem to address.

My friends don’t think anything of it, most of them are separated from me by seven seas, to use a figurative term of speech, and they just got confused as to which time zone they would have to consider before wishing me.

As for me – I watched Vijay Awards and went out for dinner with my family.

I hope this is a year for a few of my wishes to come true, even though there was no blowing of candles on a cake! 🙂

Romance, as we learn it

If movies were to be believed, everyone is hit by lightning love in the most unlikely of places.

While running to catch the train before it pulls away, The Woman looks so lovely and fresh faced, that The Man will have no choice other than to endure the skipping of his heart beat.

Or in a crowded bus, The Man (who is our hero and hence he must hang off the foot-board) catches sight of The Woman in the same bus, with wind-swept hair.

Of course, for the rest of us normal people, we have a hard enough time finding space to stand in the bus, and the sweat sweeps our hair in eight different directions, simultaneously making it frizzy. How will the magical moment ever happen?

Let us also take a look at the single man or woman traveling by train over a long distance. In movies, it is essential that he or she shares a compartment with a person whom he or she is instantly attracted to. Also, this person turns out to be the epitome of goodness, they share excellent chemistry (evidence: romantic song in an exotic location), they are compatible beyond doubt (they complete each other’s sentences within minutes of meeting each other). Most people I know have crying babies, uncles and aunties as travel companions.

The Man’s neighbour must always be beautiful – she is most probably fighting against poverty in whatever spare time she has, and spends the rest of the time making sure she looks wonderful while doing the above (so that when The Man does begin to stalk her, it will be a pleasing visual for the audience).

Why is this love-at-first-sight the most common form of love we are shown? Nobody I know has ever loved that way! What are the odds that you will end up marrying the person who crossed the road along with you, or sat in the same mode of transit as you while they got home? I have always thought movies mirrored life in some way, for I also believe in the other adage – fact is stranger than fiction; but in all honesty, this is something I just cannot explain away!