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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chanting by the Banyan Tree

As a kid, I used to be scooped onto an inter-state bus by my sprightly granddad and taken to a small a village every now and then. As I grew up, obviously, the frequency of these trips slowed. It’s only now, looking back on the 2-3 day expeditions to the sleepy little temple-hamlet, that I “get” it. I understand why I was taken.

As a five year old, it was all an adventure. The 10-hour bus ride was fun. I would lie down on my granddad’s lap and sleep or look out the window at the windy hill roads with fascination. I was five. My time in Sakori would fly by. My granddad’s sisters were all priestesses from the age of 11 or 12 in our ancestral temple there. But to me they were just cheerful old ladies who pampered me with sweets and even the occasional afternoon of TV. We own a little room right next to the temple’s impressive cobblestone entrance. It is nothing more than a first floor room, to be absolutely honest. The floors were crude stone and there was a stove in an adjacent “kitchen”. There was a door that opened onto a front balcony that overlooked the village’s courtyard and temple gate. There was a backdoor that opened onto an exposed path that led to the “bathroom”. No heated water or flushing toilet. There was a hole in the floor and a bucket with a 1950’s electric heating stick. A tattered mosquito net lay folded on the sofa. It sounds like a refugee camp, but I was five. It was all an adventure and I barely spent any time in the room anyway. In the interiors of India, there are plenty of things an enthusiastic grandfather can do to keep a five-year old entertained.

Inside the temple complex were trees to climb and cow sheds to explore and sacred rooms that were occupied by former swamis. There were the children of the cooks and temple clerks to play with. I remember being taken to see the cows, one morning. They were so big and intimidating, with great big scary eyes that followed you. I remembering being frightened, even of the tiny calf. I would run through the various rooms of the temple, muttering playful prayers as I passed each deity. Lunch was served in a stone-floor hall, on rickety wooden tables. I would restlessly finish my food and speed off with the other children to go climb a new found tree: a new challenge to fill my day with. In the evenings I would go for long walks with my granddad, along the sugar-cane fields and right into the heart of poor, rural India. Those vast sugar cane fields hid mud huts and dark skinned children with clay-like hair. But I was five, I ran ahead, chasing a farmer on a bicycle.

Going back there five, seven, ten years later, things changed a lot. I’d lost my innocence and the place had lost its charm. Going to Sakori was a chore that had to be done to please grandparents and ancient, ailing priestesses and the Gods, I guess. The yearly pilgrimage became something I had to ‘endure’ with my sister or younger cousin or whoever I was going with. I hated everything about the place. There was suddenly nothing to do. I no longer spoke Marathi and therefore looked shiftily at my feet when introduced to the same children I’d frolicked with years earlier. The food suddenly went from being food to being tasteless/spicy vegetarian food. The bus ride was excruciating; the windy hill roads became a nightmare that I tried to sleep through. No more tree climbing or cow milking. The temple was now a place where one’s shoes could get stolen. The ground I used to walk on barefoot, carelessly, suddenly was a minefield of sharp stones and prickly gravel. It’s amazing how bored I got at the thought of going to Sakori. Shambhavi and I would start taking cards along and playing cards at the end of a particularly boring day would become its highlight. The evening walk into the sugar cane fields became a time where I could daydream of Hong Kong or London or wherever I was currently living at the time. Perhaps saddest of all was my grandfather’s inability to draw happiness into me from the place he too had grown up with. He’d enjoyed afternoon naps with the three docile dogs in the temple courtyard. I was no longer five.

The room became a prison - the village itself, an island of boredom and punishment. I would yearn for the bus or car to whisk us back to civilisation, back to my cousin’s big house in Colaba.

And yet I found myself thinking about Sakori, the other day. I was stuck in the kind of traffic at Mahim Junction that makes you want to get out of the cramped taxi, jump into the sea and swim the rest of the way to suburbs. Out of the blue, I remembered the view from the balcony of our little room, at sunset. The immeasurable peace brought about by the orange late-afternoon light and the shadows it beams through the nooks of the old banyan tree. Immeasurable. I was taken back, so that I was sat next to the thin men who rest cross legged on the edge of the water tank that flanks the food hall. I was taken back to the men and women from the city who take care not to get their white kurtas dirty as they make their way across the square, to the temple. I remembered the reverberations of the chants themselves: the intoxicating energy of chants you’ve repeated subconsciously as a child. I remember the way a hundred voices echoing inside the main room weren’t loud, just powerful. All the chaos of the road, all the heat of the afternoon, all the humidity on my brow suddenly flooded back and drowned me and I wondered where Sakori had gone.

There is something abstract, something intangible about that tiny, tiny temple town that keeps my uncle and parents and relatives going back every once in a while. I think sometimes we all want go back in our minds to climb trees and run amongst cows and feel the warmth of priestesses prayer.

1 comment:

Rohini said...

'But I was five, I ran ahead, chasing a farmer on a bicycle.' I like the line. It says a lot about childhood and innocence and memories.
And this: the intoxicating energy of chants you’ve repeated subconsciously as a child.
Well written