Of Gods Past and Present

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When I was a child, gods were everywhere.

My mother would spend most of her waking hours with them – chanting prayers, singing hymns, preparing things for pooja or performing it. The pooja room of my tharavad (ancestral home) had a million – or so it seemed – framed images and statues of gods, with the central position given to my mother’s Krishna statue. Our backyard was under the supervision of Ayyappa and the many Sarpas (serpent gods), from whom we often borrowed space to play in the afternoons. 

Our family and its property was remotely protected by goddess Kali; the former by Chitturamma who lived a few kilometres away, and to whom we proclaimed undying slavery every year in the form of a coin placed on a brass sword. Another Amma, who lived in the middle of the paddy fields and demanded an annual pooja, guarded the latter. No one like a mother to take care of her family! 

When we bathed, it was either in the pond that was part of the Krishna temple next door, or the one near the Shiva temple a little further. Either way, a visit to the temple was mandatory at the end of each hour-long bath.

Gods were quite demanding, back then.

Our next door neighbour, as I said, was Krishna (the blue one who played flute and teased women, and was generally a cool dude as gods went). We kids gathered every evening at the temple, gossiped, skipped rope, played hide and seek and giggled at secrets. We prayed too, but mostly in times of emergency; an impending exam, for instance, brought out all our latent piety. 

Whenever we lied or cheated, we would silently appeal to him for forgiveness, swearing that we would never do it again. Until next time.

We would often bribe him too – three extra laps around the temple, two incense sticks, a banana… And most of the time he would oblige. I remember how he breathed life into Amitabh Bachan after his accident on the set of Coolie, just because my friend Vimala had offered to light a whole packet of camphor if he (Amitabh, of course) lived to tell the tale. She had been in tears for days, and as our friend and neighbour, he (Krishna) could not turn his back on her request now, could he? 

Gods were generous, back then.

The nuns in the school I went to – Vijaya Matha Convent English Medium Girls High School, Chittur, the only convent school in the radius of 10 kilometres – brought Jesus and Mary into my life. I remember how I had taken an intense liking to ‘Samayamaam rathathil njaan…’ (little knowing at the time that it was a funeral song) and would sing it at the drop of a hat each time someone asked me to. My pretty PT teacher in grade two was my biggest fan, and the huge smile on her face each time I sang it loud and clear for her used to be my biggest reward. 

We had in our class a girl called Beena who would fast during Ramadan. I secretly admired her determination to not even sip water, though I could not understand why she did it. It used to worry us, her classmates, that she turned all pale and near fainting by the end of each day, and we would be eager to support her in all possible ways. I don’t remember if Shani used to fast, but it was from her that I learned to pronounce Bismillahi Rahimani Rahim properly. I was so proud when she told me that I now knew Qur’an, which was a good thing. 

Gods were good things, back then.

I also remember the metre-tall lunch box that Shani’s mother used to send with the driver every afternoon, from which came out the most divine mutton cutlets and biriyanis I had ever tasted. (My lunch box usually had rice and eggs in varied forms, a meal that got a little unappetising over the years.) The best school lunches in my memory were the ones that Shani, Sheeba and I had shared, sitting on the floor of the landing next to the locked terrace door of the school building. 

Later in college, Nazir would bunk classes till lunch break so he could bring steaming hot pathiri and chicken curry his mother had made for his ‘college gang’. After lunch, we would all gather around Henry listening to him sing ‘Nilaave Vaa…’ for the nth time, good-naturedly indulging our – Honey’s and mine – repeated requests for Tamil songs. I would pester Henry for the meaning of the lyrics, and Praveen, Nazir and Anand would tease me mercilessly for that, chorusing ‘and that means…’ at the end of each line. Subramanian would intervene with words of wisdom and common sense, and all would be well. 

In my Bombay days, I used to seek sanctuary in the pews of St Thomas Cathedral near Flora Fountain on Saturdays after work before heading back to my hostel. My most intimate conversations with god would happen there, below the high-arched ceiling, under the marble eyes of the bas-relief angels that adorned the walls.

One day I admitted to the priest there that I tended to address Jesus as Krishna in my prayers, and he reassured me that He wouldn’t mind. Later, when I told him I was getting married, the elderly Father advised me to make sure that I retain my own individual bank account – not just share one with my future husband. It was important, he told me, that women were financially independent. I folded my hands and bent before him. He drew a cross on his chest and blessed me with closed eyes.

Gods were fluid back then.

They kept us separate, but did not divide.

Then came men with metal rods and plastic bombs. And gods are not the same anymore.

***

Photo: St Thomas Cathedral, Bombay – Marble Bas-relief (courtesy https://playingwithmemories.com)

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17 thoughts on “Of Gods Past and Present

  1. Lovely piece, Mini. Took me back to my summer holidays in Kodungalloor where I spent many an enjoyable May in the company of my uncles, aunts, cousins and Shivan, Krishnan and Bhagavathy. The last three were in no way directly related to me and very blissfully resided in pictures and neighbouring temples.

    By the way, not many, even in Kerala, know that the moving, soul stirring Christian song, ‘Samayamam rathathil njaan…’ had been composed by a German evangelist Fr Volbrecht Nagel IN MALAYALAM!! We believe that it’s a funeral dirge but he hadn’t intended to be so. It is as much about life as it is about death.

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  2. Thank you so much for your kind words, Manietta! For the gen on my childhood anthem too. Always thought it was too good to be just a song of mourning. (The word ‘dirge’ is also new to me.) A song that is as much about life as it is about death… Beautiful, isn’t it?

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    1. This splendid song had been so beautifully shown in that timeless Malayalam classic, ‘Aranaazhiga Neram’. I had heard it for the first time when I had watched this movie. The scene where the three women kneel in front of the altar at home and sing this song, even as the head of the family is fast reaching the end of his journey had had a profound effect on me, Mini.
      I had never known about its origin. And neither had my rather knowledgeable friends. Strange, how an alien took the trouble of learning a language that had been so very different from his own native tongue and composing songs in that language to boot, isn’t it ?!

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      1. Good that you told me about all this… And yes, there is some connect between German and Malayalam – been there always. You do know that the first Malayalam dictionary was created by a German, don’t you? A Dr Hermann Gundert. And just now, while trying to find info on him, I come to know that he contributed much more than that to Malayalam. And that he was the grandfather of Hermann Hesse, whose books had changed the course of my life and thinking at one point. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermann_Gundert

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  3. I’m not too sure but I think Gundert’s Dictionary had been printed in a press in Kollam. His grandson was Hermann Hesse?! Herman Hesse as in author of ‘Siddhartha’?! Ww! That’s news to me, Mini! Thanks a heap for this nugget of info, dear.

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    1. Mini, I’m posting ‘sacred groves’ on my Facebook page. I feel it needs a bit of publicity. Of course, the last thing I want is these lovely places being overrun by noisy, camera totting, selfie taking tourists.

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  4. Woof! Took my breath away! A community I admire is the ‘Bishnoi’ spread in parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan. They have been practising nature conservation centuries before words like ‘eco-friendly’ entered our vocabulary. Google ‘the Bishnois’, Mini. You’ll fall in love with them. They take love of fellow creatures to incredible heights! Incidentally the word ‘bishnoi’ means ‘twenty-nine’ as this is the number of deities and saints they worship.

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  5. Srilakshmi Srinivasan

    If I start commenting about every one of your writings. I’ll end up saying the same all the time. Where did you get this gift? So beautiful, every bolg is poetry. I just wish I imbibe the talent just by reading.

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