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Archive for the ‘Past forward’ Category

Childhood

Just beyond the wrought iron gates along a section of the curving driveway stretches a row of dull brown rattan, gleaming brass, and brilliant colours.    Giant circular brass plates stand mounted on waist-high hourglass-shaped wicker bases.  Each plate is spilling over with  a different, brightly coloured powder  – yellow, red, orange, purple, green, magenta… Standing just opposite is another identical curving row of brass plates on wicker bases.  Only, here each plate is piled high with a different Indian sweet. Orange jalebis, pale yellow barfis,  white pedas, golden yellow laddoos, brown athirasams,  cream coloured badushahs.  Further along the driveway is a row of large galvanized-iron troughs filled with coloured water – green, pink, yellow, orange, magenta, red,  matching the colours of the powders.  At the end of this row is a metal tub stacked with foot-long metal pichkaris  (squirts). Attendants in white uniform – baggy trousers and baggier shirts – stand behind the plates, ready to assist those wishing to sample any of the offerings.

To the left of  the curving driveway stretches a garden, and today it is full of multi-coloured people at play, the colours on their faces and clothes reflecting the powders  on the plates and the waters in the troughs on the driveway -yellow, red, purple, green, magenta….  Every now and again, one of the coloured people dashes to a plate or trough, scoops up a handful of powder or refills a  pichkari before running back to throw the powder or squirt the water on someone of their choice; creeping up from behind them or screaming wildly while charging at their prey. 

In the centre of the garden is a large fountain sitting in its own basin.  Today, this basin, too, is filled with coloured water.  The people on the far side of the lawns are filling their pichkaris from here.  But this basin is also the scene of rougher horseplay and, here, men are the players.  They suddenly swoop down on a victim, and to the accompaniment of screams from the victim and yowls from those standing witness, they dunk the unfortunate in the water with a loud chorus of “One, two, three…go”.  The victim lands in the water with a splash, while everybody around claps and laughs and jeers in friendly fashion.  By then,  someone in the gathering has identified the next victim who senses it quickly, and with screams of  “Noooooooo” runs for dear life, with the tormentor(s)  in hot pursuit. 

My mother, looking all messy in colours that are all over her clothes, face and hair is smilingly walking among her guests, greeting new arrivals or people whose presence she had missed noticing earlier. She is making sure that everybody is playing with colours, and that they are keeping their energy levels high on sweets and their bodies warm on hot chai.  Servants, in white but with some splotches of colour,  are scurrying around, making sure that the plates and troughs on the driveway are regularly replenished,  plying the revelers with steaming cups of fragrant chai from laden trays, and running back for refills. My father is welcoming every person entering the gates with a smiling namaste and an embrace.  He  graciously accepts the gesture of having his cheeks smeared with red colour (the most auspicious colour of all) and reciprocates in kind.  He waves them on into the garden,  urging them to enjoy themselves.  

To my baby eyes, the garden seems impossibly crowded that day.   I learn years later that there must have been at least several hundred people at any point of that morning in that front garden.    

It is the first Holi (festival of colours) since father’s transfer to this city – the headquarters – to take over as the chief of the railways in that zone of India.  And he is demonstrating his desire to cross all boundaries of status and rank, and extend the hand of brotherhood to railway employees at all levels, by keeping the party an open one.  Father, with his ever over-the-top extravagant hospitality.  Fond of throwing lavish parties. For colleagues, friends, acquaintances,  relatives, visitors.  Parties that always happened at home and not at the club (there were no fancy hotels in those days).  And all in the full knowledge that mother stood solidly behind him to execute his every wish.

I also learn – when I am older – that my mother had made all the colours at home that Holi, with the help of the servants. That was how it was in those days.  Most things were natural products, made at home by the women of the house.  So also with Holi colours.  Yellow from the turmeric root.  Red from the pomegranate flower.  Green from assorted leaves.  Orange from the marigold flower.  And so on…For days before the Holi party, mother had been busy organizing the colours. Getting the  sweets made.  Planning their presentation.  Sending out the invitations. All I was vaguely aware of was that I hardly ever saw her.  Something seemed to be going on all around me, but I had no understanding of it.  She hardly paused in her incessant work except to give me a vague hug or pat my head.  My father of course was probably in the office most of the time, returning home late.  I saw very little of him anyway.

I must have been a little over three years old and it was my first Holi.   It is also the very first major memory I have from my early childhood.  What defined that memory was not the trays and colours and sweets or the busyness of the house, but the way in which all of these came together in a moment of terror for me. 

I remember standing in the garden, concentrating on staying close to my mother as she circulated among her guests.  Suddenly I became aware that the whole crowd had fallen silent.  They were watching a group of men from among the guests walk swiftly across to where my father stood smiling and greeting some newly arrived visitors.  They picked him up from behind, without any warning, and carried him to the fountain.  There, yelling triumphantly in unison they threw him – the super boss – into the coloured water with a “One…two…and three…”. 

There was a stunned silence.  I remember clutching at my mother’s sari in terror.  I remember thinking in that minute that I would never see my father again.  I remember my mother standing stock still, silent. And probably tense;  I know now that she must have trusted him with all her heart to do the right thing.  Pulling himself out of the water and displaying no shock or surprise – or annoyance – , father smilingly climbed out assisted by multiple hands and cheering voices.  He waved and called out to his guests to continue playing.  I learnt later that his nonchalance made a huge impression on his new colleagues who spontaneously raised a chorus of “He’s a jolly good fellow…”. 

I remember Gopal, father’s general factotum for years and now the family cook, running across with a towel which he wrapped around father’s shoulders before  leading him into the house, mother following after a dignified interval.  I remember bursting into loud wails at that moment and running into the house after them crying, but being ignored.  Until Gopal was able to pick me up and comfort me.  Nobody else took notice of me.  I continued crying uncontrollably through that day, screaming with fear at the sight of everyone who had colour on their face.  The mixture of bright colours on people’s faces that made them look frightening and unrecognisable, and  seemed to give them licence to scream and chase each other with more colours.  What had happened to my father who became the scary-coloured-no-longer-familiar-figure who walked out of the fountain basin that morning. It was as if  it was a matter of time before something terrible would happen to me, too.    

Who were all these people?  And what was this gory play with colours all about?  Nobody in the house had said anything to me to prepare me for this.  So different from my style of parenting, where I would talk to my child constantly, and tell him what I was doing for him and what was going on around him, even when he was just a few days old.   

Gopal had been the only person who had spotted my terror.  Who took an interest in me.  Dear loving Gopal Singh Garhwal, the rough Pahadi domestic help turned gentleman’s gentleman, who had been with my father for several years and was now the most unmatched cook by general consensus.  Above all, someone loved and trust by all of us in the family.  That day, it was only Gopal whom I knew I could stay with and be comforted by, who would do what I wanted him to do for me, which was to hide me from what was going on all around.  Clinging to his neck, I remember insisting through the day that he stay with me and with me alone, and that both of us stay out of sight of the guests.    It must have been so difficult for Gopal to do this for me.  As the cook of mother’s ever-busy kitchen and, on that day, having to supervise several temporary cooks who had been hired to prepare the lunch for the invitees to the Holi celebrations, he did have to leave me from time to time.  His kindly eyes crinkling in sympathy and understanding, he would assure me that he was going to lock me in from the outside, and that nobody, just nobody, would dare to enter.   He kept his word and came back after each disappearance,  something I will never forget as a signal of trust.

That moment of lonely terror linked with Holi revellery was responsible for Holi being forever imprinted on my mind with a certain measure of ambivalence.  From a state of total fear, I tried slowly to find out more about why the people around me seemed to enjoy it so much.  For, if one has spent any length of time in northern India, one can never get away from the experience of, or at least feelings around, Holi.   

It is a festival where the “play”  goes by broad rules of consensus.  But the boundary between consenting play and coercion can easily get blurred.  Even on that Holi day I remember a truckload of Class Four (manual labourer category) railway employees arriving at our gates, and the men in the truck squirting indelible purple ink on the guests in the garden.  People were horrified and some women screamed while trying to avoid getting the ink in their eyes.  Suddenly the purple on people’s clothes and skin seemed to outdo all the other Holi colours.  I remember my father requesting his guests to step back, and engaging with the men – it turned out that they were drunk – in the truck.  I learnt later that he told them that while all railway brothers were welcome at his Holi party, this did not apply to drunk and rowdy elements who broke the rules of consensus.

The opportunity to truly enjoy the innocent fun of playing with colours came soon enough.  I was five going on six.  Due to my father’s recent transfer, we were in a new city in a different region,  the western part of the country.  Since we had moved in the middle of the school year and they were unable to decide on a suitable school for me in the new city, my parents decided that I should stay at home and resume my formal schooling only in the new academic year.  It was a wonderful six months, when I did a hundred different things – freelance teaching of my reluctant neighbour to prepare her for her first school admission which included slapping her regularly when she refused to sit down to her studies, writing and putting up plays with my new friends in the neighbourhood, reading, reading and reading, learning to play badminton and table tennis and taking swimming lessons, starting on classical music and dance classes three days a week.

When Holi came round, I was ready to play.  I already had friends, and a friendly “uncle” in the railway fraternity had decided to organize a Pied Piper-like procession of us through the officers’ homes in the sprawling railway colony that extended along the seafront.  With him at the head, we sang and skipped and shouted our way from one house to another, starting off with our own colours and pichkaris and replenishing our stocks of powder and coloured water from each house that we visited.  At most of the houses we were welcomed with smiles and sweets and hot drinks.  Colours were exchanged, the children of the house came out to play with us and several of them joined our traveling circus. But at some of our stops the hosts were reluctant to open their homes and have their clothes spoilt.  Here we sang and serenaded, pleaded and threatened, all in good jest, until the doors opened for us.  By the end of the day,  there were very few persons who determinedly kept us out.  It was fun and exhausting, and I was soaked to the skin and deeply coloured – it took days for the colour to wear off and I wore my blotchy skin proudly as a badge of honour – by the time I got home, happy and hoarse.

Adolescence

The next Holi that I played was when I was in my late adolescence.  In the India of my generation, those who were socially privileged – and particularly girls among them – had an extended adolescence due  their sheltered upbringing.    I was already in my early-20s – a young adult out of university – and doing a teaching job at a postgraduate professional college.  For the first time I was living on my own, in a city in yet another region of western India that was also a new cultural experience for me.  Yet, I was still an adolescent at heart, a time of life when  the atmosphere of romance so integral to Holi assumes paramount meaning.  Stoking this atmosphere was the event of the day.  A classical music concert of spring ragas on the Sarangi – a deceptively simple-looking folk stringed instrument that has been superbly adapted to north Indian classical performance – played by the one and only  Pandit Ram Narain.  The college where I was teaching had organized the concert in the open, on the lawns under the trees, in keeping with the spirit of spring and Holi.  

The programme began at around 10 in the morning.  The cool breeze wafted the poignant notes of the Sarangi past the blooming flowers all around us and wove them through the heavy-leaved trees that formed a canopy above. As the performer slid his bow over the strings to coax out note after note of the deliciously tender and sensuous ragas that he had chosen for the occasion, the  atmosphere in the gathering became charged with the sense of romance and abandon. We were a group of predominantly young people – students and young faculty – come out to celebrate Holi in large numbers. The convivial playing with colours began even during the intermission, interspersed with hot chai served in earthen cups.  By the time the concert resumed, everyone returning to their seats was in a state of collective intoxication with the simple fun of this beautiful festival of bonding and togetherness.  That day Pandit Ram Narain, an inspired performer at the best of times,  played like one possessed.  In a way that I have never before nor since heard him perform.  The concert went on for hours well beyond its original programme,  and like the musician the audience, too, lost track of time.  That Holi was one of the more memorable markers of my life as a young person.  

The present

All these years later, this spring, I began to feel a restless desire to play Holi again.  A lot of it had to do with being resident in northern India again –  the cultural homeland of Holi – after a gap of several decades.  In my growing-up years we had lived for much of the time in northern India, and it was easy to imperceptibly imbibe an understanding of Holi as a festival rich in overtones. 

At the most basic and popular level, it is a festival of playing with  colours, with  children everywhere enjoying it most for just this aspect.  Metaphorically, it is a replay of Krishna’s love-play with the hundreds of girls of Vrindavan who were in love with him.  Celebrated by the most sensuous poetry composed in the dialect of the region of Vrindavan – Braj – and set to classical spring-time ragas,  Holi comes alive to the young at heart through this medium.   Philosophically and spiritually, the key concepts here are “love” and “play”.  The Vaishanava belief is that the path to reaching god (personified as Krishna) and experiencing divine bliss,  is one of loving devotion (bhakti) to Krishna.   The manner of expressing this love is through chanting Krishna’s name – through music and dance – with a sense of joyous and total abandon.  In other words, a direct and unconditional communication and identification with the object of love, unconstrained  by ritual and dogma.

The social interpretation – practice – of the above concepts takes many forms.  It becomes an expression of erotic love between romantic partners, a desi Valentine’s Day.  Outside of romantic relationships, exchanging colours becomes symbolic of friendship, the renewing of relationships, the reaffirming of bonds.   Holi  also provides a space in the year where people can set aside their egos and enmities. To exchange colours with one’s enemies or with persons with whom one has stressful relationships, becomes symbolic of burying differences and grudges and starting afresh. A healing balm. A cohesive exchange.

With everyone in the community playing Holi and camouflaged in bright colours and, thereby, losing their individual identity so to say, Holi also plays the symbolic role of an equaliser. The lowering of social barriers in an otherwise acutely hierarchical and caste/class-divided society.  At least for this one day it opens up the possibility of  “absence of difference”.  On this day, neither caste nor class is supposed to count, and one is expected to greet all persons as friends and well wishers. 

The colours are not only drawn from natural sources, they also reflect the multiple colours of nature at their exhuberant spring-best – full-bodied trees, blooming flowers, the plumage of the birds readying themselves for their mating season… The poetry, called Hori and Chaiti and set to classical music, is replete with nature imagery. The festival also marks the end of the winter cold, the shedding of woollies and getting back into cool cottons. Feeling the delicious chill of coloured water on the body while being caressed by the spring sunshine. 

I now live in the countryside in an agrarian setting where nature is at its best in the spring. Trees bursting into new leaf, flowers in bloom everywhere, the grass green and soft underfoot, the mating season for birds bringing birdsong into the air, and butterflies everywhere.  It is impossible to get away from the sense of romance created by all this beautiful convergence of life forms.  

But I was unsure about giving wing to my restlessness.  What would be the ingredients of the atmosphere that I wished to recapture? I am not of an age when romantic love is at its bitter-sweet best.  Nor – unlike my mother –  am I of the generation (or mindset) prepared to labour over the making of natural colours from flowers and leaves.  The colours being sold in the market are abhorrent enough to put paid to any desire to “play” with them.  Positively dangerous,  synthetic and full of toxic chemicals, they are cause for the next day’s newspapers routinely reporting cases of blindness and allergic skin rashes following the play with Holi colours. Nor, indeed, could I think of any group of persons around me whom I would wish  to play Holi with.  Certainly, none of the ingredients of the earlier wonderful memories that I carried within me existed anymore. 

As my restlessness grew, I couldn’t help thinking of why is it that it is always hard to make a decision about whether or not to revisit pleasurable and happy memories from one’s past?  Memories of  books, films, people, places, occasions…In this case, festivals?  Pleasant memories whose fragrance brings with them bottled happiness(es)… As long as one only uncorks these bottles from time to time to lightly inhale their bouquet before re-corking them, adding little fictionalisations along the way to make them look just that little bit nicer, smell just that little bit better, one is fine.  It is when one actually tries to re-visit these mental bottles that things could become problematic.   There is the question of whether it is really possible to recreate the complexity of old memories in a new time, place and social context? What if  the whole exercise proves to be so disappointing that there is then the question of which memory to now instal as the prime one?  The original?  The revisited?  Is it even realistic to choose?  Or does the most recent concrete experience inexorably assert its prominence?

It was with such feelings of expectancy and vague disquiet that I persuaded my husband to travel with me to Vrindavan to witness the Holi celebration there.  Why Vrindavan?   For one,  Vrindavan was neutral ground.  I knew no one there.  And that is infinitely preferable, to being in a place and knowing people whom one may not want to “play”  with. For the same reason of anonymity, we  could simply decide to leave Vrindavan whenever we wanted to if it proved too disappointing.  What commended Vrindavan for a spontaneous trip was also that it is a bare four-hour drive from where I currently live,  with the attractive possibility of halting on our way back at the erstwhile royal principality of Deeg to see its ‘water palaces’, and at Bharatpur, one of India’s prominent bird sanctuaries, to glimpse migratory birds.    We had also received a letter from a young friend, south Indian by origin but born and brought up in the U.S. and now visiting grandparents in India, saying that she had never played  Holi and would dearly love to travel north to do so, so could she come visit us?  The quest for the Holi “experience” was becoming a shared one,  and the fact that a young person – the most appropriate participant in such a festival – might be part of the trip, lent it further legitimacy.  Above all, the most compelling reason for visiting Vrindavan was to be an observer.  I was curious to see what meanings Holi had for the place.  For, Vrindavan’s association with the festival of Holi is unique.  It is where Holi has its origins, so to say.   

Vrindavan

The present-day town of Vrindavan was once an extensive stretch of forest dominated by basil trees (vrinda=basil, van=forest, in Sanskrit), where Krishna is believed to have spent his childhood and youth, and where Krishna and Radha found their love for each other.   Interestingly, I found that in Vrindavan it is not Krishna who is privileged, but Radha.  The  power and intensity of Radha’s  love for Krishna typifies the path of divine ecstasy (bhakti).   Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the poet saint of Bengal who lived in the late 15th./early 16th. century and who was one of the poets who gave formal expression to the bhakti movement (reaching god through loving devotion)  in this region,  spoke of human beings as individuals (jivas) who are separated parts of the supreme godhead.  While they can never be equal to god, they can aspire to an inseparable union with god, driven by love.  Vaishnavism’s celebration of Krishna’s inseparable union with Radha is expressive of this philosophy.  As I was to discover,  Vrindavan  is a feminine city, where everyone – man or woman – sees himself/herself as Radha, loving Krishna and looking for ways to demonstrate that love.  It is a place where, for men, it is legitimate to be a “woman” in a man’s body.  Of all the places in India, it is probably Vrindavan alone whose sole raison d’etre for existence is love.

I went to Vrindavan to witness what I naively thought might be the “original’ spirit of Holi.  But I had not contended with the millions of people who, too, converged on that little town for the festival.  By the evening of the day we arrived,  the traffic had become impossible, roads were being barricaded, and  police were everywhere trying to control the surging crowds. Parking our car securely at our hotel – actually the Ashram of the Krishna Consciousness Society that also takes in guests – we decided to walk or use autorickshaws to get around. 

We were told that in Vrindavan, all the Holi action takes place in its hundreds of temples that dot the town.  Since everyone is  Radha come to play Holi with the divine Krishna, no one needs to worry about having to play with other people.  We were also warned to keep our room door securely closed at all times, and to sally forth without wearing prescription glasses or dark shades.  Apparently the thousands of monkeys in sight everywhere in the town do not think twice about entering human habitations with a view to explore them.  They also have an obsession with spectacles and collect them by the hundreds. The guest in the room next to us, on a ten day visit to Vrindavan from the Czech Republic, told us that he had already lost three pairs of glasses to the monkeys of Vrindavan which had simply sat on his shoulder and plucked them off his nose each time.  We sighted him a couple of times, blind as a bat, but enthusiastically leaving for yet another excursion into the town.  On both occasions he returned covered in colours and looking cheerful and satisfied. Carefully taking out his spectacles from the plastic bag he carried in one of his pockets, he clicked a picture of himself in Holi regalia before going in to shower off.      

Armed with a list of what we were told at the Ashram were the most important and interesting temples, we began our roller-coaster ride along the bumpy narrow winding inner lanes of the town in our rickety autorickshaw.  The idea was to time our visit to each temple to coincide with one of their Aartis (lamp offerings) during which, our driver told us,  Holi would be played with Krishna and we could join in. 

As we chose to linger on at each halt to savour the architecture of the temples and explore their surroundings, we found ourselves not bothering too much about keeping to our time-table.  It was like being in a cultural time machine that took us back several centuries.  Almost all these temples were built in the 16th. century, following the revival of Vrindavan as a centre for Krishna worship inspired by the teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.  Nothing, just nothing seemed to have changed in these five hundred years.  Most of the temples and their neighbourhoods were far away from the surging crowds that had come to Vrindavan.  Neighbourhoods of ancient crumbling stone and brick houses, inhabited by people whose dress and deportment looked almost medieval.   Missing the Aartis was probably a good thing, because at many of the temples we found ourselves to be the only visitors. In quiet courtyards with paving stones missing and whole trees growing out of walls, and silent high-domed shrines.  The exteriors and interiors were frozen in time, medieval and archaic, and no attempt had been made to dress them up.  Only the gods – Krishna and Radha – were brilliantly arrayed in their shringar (adornment).  In every one of the temples we saw faded sign boards requesting donations for restoration; but, clearly, nothing had come in as yet.

The officiating priests in the temples, too, could have belonged to medieval picture books.  I couldn’t help reminiscing about old style Bollywood films of the 1950s and 1960s,  where the rich hero from “the city” arrives at the quaint little town and is totally charmed by the simple and child-like people he meets there – the humble temple priest stringing flower garlands for the deity, the ayurvedic doctor pounding away at his herbal medicines.  Invariably, one of these worthy gentlemen has a pretty and shy daughter with whom our hero promptly falls in love.  After the song and dance routine of boy and girl, he returns to his life in the city, promising to be back to marry his girl.  Invariably, the shy daughter gets left behind, pregnant and forgotten, shamed forever in the eyes of her community.    A lot of city folk of my generation no doubt got some of their stereotypes about Indian temple towns and northern India’s small towns in general from these movies.  Well, in some of the off-the-beaten-track temples that we visited, we actually did encounter the proverbial pretty and shy daughter  of the priest sweeping out the temple precincts of flowers and colours after each Aarti, and helping her father prepare for the next Aarti!   Completing the atmosphere in some of the more active temples, we found religious discourses or  bhajan sessions (devotional songs sung to the accompaniment of simple stringed and percussion instruments) in progress,  in the presence of the resplendent deities.  Attentive audiences filled these halls, looking like they had collectively walked out of a map of India. 

When we stopped for a cup of sweet milky chai outside the gates of the Rang Ji temple before getting back on to our autorickshaw, we heard so many languages being spoken around us it felt like being in a non-sectarian India.   Everywhere we saw extremely spartanly dressed ordinary people who looked happy to be there, and certainly in no hurry to get to the next place wherever that might be.  It made us want to slow down, too, in our progress through the day.  It was indeed amazing that we hardly encountered any “big city” folk during our time there, except in and around the marketplace, the more recently built temples in that location and, of course, our Ashram.  In the “modern” areas of Vrindavan   there were all the  accoutrements  of a touristy pilgrim town – with a couple of massive engineering and management colleges thrown in – none of it too pretty.   Massive crowds of people in all manner of vehicles – the crowds that we had encountered on our first day around the traffic jams – were apparently surging towards another “religious tourist” site called Goverdhan, a few kilometres away. This pilgrim spot, we were told, was for those looking to fulfil prescriptions of religious ritual.  

In Vrindavan, each of the ancient temples reflects the architectural design of the region of its patron/ religious sponsors.  Chaitanya’s followers even in his own lifetime were active in many regions of the country such as Bengal, Bihar, Assam, and Orissa, and were also propagating the Vaishnava philosophy across what are today Jharkhand, Manipur, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and all these regions looked to represent themselves in Vrindavan through their temples.  The Govind Dev Ji Temple (also 16th. century) , for example, is different from any typical temple in India in both its exterior and interior design.  Built in deep red sandstone by the Rajput princes of Amber (later Jaipur), in a combination of Rajput and Mughal architectural styles, its gigantic hall with its shrine of  Krishna and Radha at the far end  felt more like the prayer hall of a mosque than a typical Hindu shrine.  Similarly, standing in the courtyard of the Rang Ji Temple and facing the large square temple tank filled with sparkling clean water, the whole complex surrounded by stone walls painted in the red and white stripes so typical of temples in  Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, evoked a different atmosphere altogether.  Clearly some temples  – such as these two – seemed better-endowed and better-maintained.  We also encountered many more visitors there.  

On every wall in the town of Vrindavan you will see the logo “Shree” (one of the names of Krishna) followed by “Radhey”.  The latter word is invariably in letters double in size of those in the word “Shree”.   And in the temples,  the chant of “Radhey Radhey” rents the air as the Aarti (offering of lit lamps) is offered to the gods, with music playing and temple bells ringing in the background.  In the narrow winding streets of Vrindavan, too, the greeting exchanged between friends and strangers is “Radhey Radhey”.  From finding it strange to hear this everywhere, and awkward to respond in kind, I found myself intoning it as greeting and farewell by the time I left, so infectious was the spirit. 

When we came out of the Govind Dev Ji Temple , we took a few moments to sit on the stone steps to slip on our footwear and take in the scene around us.  Searching in our pockets for small change to pay the young boy who had sat guarding our shoes,  we jokingly asked him what if we were unable to find the required change?  Would he let us leave without payment?  Smiling sweetly he said,  “It doesn’t matter if you don’t pay me money.  If you say to me ‘Radhey Radhey’ it will fill my heart, and that will be sufficient payment”.  I thought it was a  deeply touching  response from one so young. 

Walking around the streets and in the temples, I did not see any rowdyism anywhere, although we had been warned at the Ashram by a friendly gentleman from Bombay who is now a resident at the Ashram,  to stay indoors over Holi or leave the town, as things got very drunken and rowdy.  We chose to stay on for the planned two days, and left unscathed.   But he may well have been telling the truth, for much has changed, and I am willing to believe that this includes even Vrindavan. 

As of now, at least, toxic colours are not permitted to be sold in the town.  The colours sold on the streets and in the shops are in just a few shades and are all natural in origin.  Since they are in demand in such huge quantities, they are not made from flowers but consist of naturally coloured stone that is finely powdered and sold in bags.  In the temples, multiple colours are available, and the coloured water is warm and fragrant, for here, the colours are made from flowers offered the day before to Krishna and Radha.  

Our last temple halt while at Vrindavan was for the evening Aarti as the sun was going down behind the nearly five hundred year old Banke Behari Temple.  Unlike most of the other temples that we visited that were tucked away in unobtrusive little corners of the town, or the busy but still serene Govind Dev Ji and Rang Ji temples, the Banke Behari Temple rises out of the centre of an ancient busy market.  The whole atmosphere – the huge temple itself visible from a distance, the crowds milling around the entrance, the dense labyrinthian market lanes criss-crossing all around it –  conveys the impression of a surging, heaving humanity.  It looked daunting enough from a distance.  Our autorickshaw driver urged us to walk faster lest we miss the last Aarti for the day; he was already very annoyed with us for dawdling through the afternoon and casually missing the Aarti at every other temple.  “You said you wanted to play Holi,”  he barked, “don’t blame me if you miss it here also”.  Panting our way up the steep lane, we promised him we’d  pay him more than the agreed amount to make up for our truancy.  But at that moment  it was impossible to walk faster, as there was just too much going on in the narrow-as-a-string lane we were on.     

The entry into the temple itself was a preview of the mayhem that awaited us inside. It was here that we encountered the “big city” folk who had eluded us earlier. In fact, the place was quite full of them.  We were clearly in a tourist destination. The temple seemed to be performing the function of  providing  a snapshot experience of Holi for the visiting tourist.  If someone is not looking to explore Vrindavan for its quaint ancient character, the logical stop would be here.   

In the main hall that was packed to capacity with batches of people leaving and new batches entering, people were self-consciously chanting “Radhey Radhey”, arms up in the air while moving their bodies awkwardly…To imagined Bollywood numbers?   On the podium, flanking  the gods’ images, stood three young male assistants clad in yellow robes and wielding the largest brass pichkaris – nearly three feet long – that I have ever seen.  Two of them were spraying warm coloured water onto the crowd,  while the third was sending out dry red coloured powder into the air. 

It was slippery underfoot, the air was a red haze, the temple bells were clanging frenziedly, and everything seemed to be spinning out of control.  I tried to peer through the haze but could not see much ahead of me.  Only moving bodies.  But my gaze was arrested by the sight of a fourth person also dressed in flowing robes – much older and probably a priest – standing on the podium.  He seemed to be in a frenzy as he rapidly and repeatedly hurled open a heavy silk curtain to reveal the gods – Radha and Krishna – and then pulled it shut equally forcefully to block off their view.   By now we had given up trying to figure out what was happening and were more than happy to gingerly make our way to the exit. 

Once out of the temple, we took refuge at the cart of a buttermilk seller outside the temple gates who had been kind enough to let us hurriedly leave our footwear below his  cart before rushing into the temple.  He now refused – in his gracious Braj dialect – to accept money for that service.  So we spent what turned out to be an entertaining half hour in his charming company, chatting with him about his business and what he thought about life in Vrindavan, and answering his questions about us.  By the end of two glasses of buttermilk each we had almost become buddies, and he was inviting us to his home for a meal!  We declined the invitation but happily consented to have our third glass of delicious creamy buttermilk laced with home-ground bhang (a locally grown plant-based narcotic that is customarily consumed while playing Holi)! 

The market looked too alluring – and by far more interesting than the temple – to miss out on, so we wandered for a bit down lanes that were tightly packed with shops on either side selling all manner of simple things – snacks and sweets, curd and buttermilk, flowers and joss sticks, watches and trinkets, wooden toys, and what have you.  Here, as everywhere in Vrindavan, ordinary residents, saffron-clad monks and mendicants, and obvious visitors like us rubbed shoulders. I was hoping I’d feel nice and stoned, but nothing happened!  And then for the first time, I saw the yellow-robed “beggars”.  They were not asking for anything, nor did they try to win sympathy.  Sitting on the road cross-legged with backs upright and eyes closed or looking straight ahead, neat little squares of cloth spread out before them, they were impressive in their dignity and silence.  They were lining both sides of the already narrow streets, and with  the odd bicycle and  motorbike also trying their luck at navigating their way through, we made slow progress.   

Seeing a lot of activity outside one establishment – in fact a lot of going in and coming out, including the sound of  fast-paced singing and drums – I stopped to see what was going on. It was some kind of religious establishment –a tiny temple – and some intense looking men in wild hair and beards, orange robes, and sonorous voices were lost in their singing, while some of their equally intense-looking companions were beating out mesmerising rhythms on drums.  What was totally incongruous was the sight of some “big city” males in the watching crowd, trying to drive themselves into a trance while maniacally dancing Bollywood-style to the music.    

I realised that it was time to leave, in more ways than one. Time to let my childhood and youthful memories of Holi rest in their original happy space.  Time to move out of  Vrindavan, carrying with me only the memories of those of its still-beautiful original – albeit crumbling – spaces that seem to have been mercifully ignored by modernising  India.

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Anyone who knows my mother knows her to be a true-blue “Tam-Brahm” (a Brahmin from Tamil Nadu in South India, a Hindu community that has zealously guarded its bloodline down the centuries).  Hers was among the oldest and wealthiest landowning families of what was then known as the Madras Presidency of British India.  It was also one of the most extremely-conservative-in-matters-of-marriage families.  Given that my mother is now in her nineties, to speak of her as having had a “Muslim uncle”, must sound preposterous to most ears.  But she did have one.

Minnan Nooruddin Saheb.  Addressed by all as Minnan Saibu.  Known fondly to friends and his adopted familiy as Minnan.   My mother’s uncle.  Not through blood.  Not through marriage. But through a magical chemistry of shared intellectual interests, an expansive friendship, and a love that ran thicker than blood… Crossing all boundaries of religion and community… in the inclusive and cosmopolitan spirit that once characterized life among both high-brow and simple people inIndia. 

My mother cannot remember how and when Minnan Saibu came into her family to become one of its most loved members.  He was a part of her family from ever since she can remember.  And he gave fulsomely of his love to her as a child, and called her his favourite niece. So much so, that talking about him brings tears to her eyes even today. 

Minnan became a part of my mother’s family through his acquaintance with her much-adored and much-older brother Anna (the respectful Tamil title for elder brother).   He seemed to have worked as some kind of official at the Madras High Court, which  might be where he may have first made his acquaintance with Anna  who himself began his career as a criminal lawyer in Madras.   

When Anna was just 20 and fresh out of law school at the end of a brilliant and precocious academic career, he found his professional dreams shattered by his father’s almost-total financial ruin.  My maternal grandfather was an aristocratic,  high-flying, over-spending zamindar (big absentee landlord), who got crushed between his extravagant life-style – that he generously extended to anyone who managed to get close to him -, his near-excessive philanthropic disposition which favoured educational projects to which he made huge endowments,  and an unbelievably naïve trust in the sob stories peddled by unscrupulous persons who helped to defraud him of most of his wealth.  

Having to suddenly shoulder the full responsibility of his family – consisting of father, mother and five little sisters – at the time of his life when he ought to have been focusing on his own career ambitions, Anna took the major  decision to move out of Madras city to the princely state of Pudukkottah.  It was a bitter retreat from his  metropolitan moorings where, as a member of a charmed circle of economically secure and ambitious young men he had aspired to throw himself unilaterally into building his legal career under the wing of luminaries.  It was also a way to hedge his bets, since Pudukkottah besides offering a reasonable cost of living – as compared with Madras – also promised alternative fast-track opportunities for a proud young man in a hurry to establish himself in independent practice as a criminal lawyer. 

Pudukkottah,  south of Madras city and close to Trichnopoly – as Thiruchirapalli was then called – was one of the five princely states in the Tamil region of the then Madras Presidency, under the paramountcy of the British.  Like many of India’s princely states in the pre-independence period, it was ruled by an enlightened and socially progressive Maharajah who munificently supported education with special enabling provisions for girls.  He also saw to it that the state offered a congenial environment for the flowering of a wide diversity of talents from both within India and abroad; and many educated professionals were invited to accept land grants as an inducement to settle there.  Both foreigners and Indians came to Pudukkottah. Dutch and Danish priests, who set up  schools and mission centres.  Japanese dentists, who became so reputed that they had whole playgrounds in the city named after them.  Chinese shoemakers, who offered high quality customized footware.  Rajasthani  Ayurvedic practitioners, who not only manufactured and dispensed their own medicines  but also gave Hindi lessons in their spare time to the children of  progressive local families who saw Hindi as the future language of free India  (my mother thus learnt Hindi from an early age). Skilled practitioners of natural medicine (called naturopathy) and yoga who published health education material on diet, exercise and preventive health for the public, and who also organized community-based talks and programmes on wellness.  Movie stars who went on to dominate the Tamil silver screen for decades.  Classical musicians. And, of course,  lawyers who dignified the red brick buildings of the state’s courts.  A lot of people came to Pudukkottah in search of professional opportunities and a peaceful and good life, undisturbed by  the unrest generated by the independence struggle in British India. 

As a lawyer, Anna  had to make frequent professional trips to the Madras Presidency High Court. Family celebrations among the extended family – of which there was an unending calendar – also required frequent trips to the Presidency capital.  He and Minnan used these occasions to keep in touch.   Minnan’s equally strong personal networks among the sizeable Muslim population resident in the Pudukkottah state  – the region had come under Muslim rule  during the late medieval period – and his frequent professional visits to the active Pudukkottah courts, provided further occasions for strengthening the friendship.  

Although it was a shared passion for the Law that brought them together initially, their  interests went much beyond that, bridging the divides of age, religion, caste and class.  Minnan Saibu was much older than Anna.  He might have been an ordinary Court official and not an eminent legal eagle – perhaps by chance of circumstance, and certainly not because he lacked the intellectual wherewithall -,  but he was highly educated, and unusually self-taught in fields that went way beyond his professional calling or, what we would today stereotype in India as a ‘minority community’ worldview.  An engaging speaker and conversationalist in English and Tamil,  and a serious scholar of Arabic and Sanskrit, Minnan was as well versed in the Koran and classical Islamic texts as in Hindu, and Western Christian and secular philosophies.  In Anna  – himself a philosopher, Sanskritist and classical scholar –  he found a deep resonance for his own engagement with life’s larger questions. 

Together, they became a nucleus of a salon-like community of like-minded individuals in the liberal intellectual and relatively open social environment of Pudukkottah.  The group included Hindus, Muslims, Christians of many hues, and theosophists.  All that was required as a condition of association  was openness of thought, and an abiding respect for world views other than one’s own.  Anna was the youngest member of the group, and the most enthusiastic.  The cosmopolitan companionship and intellectual exchange of the salon became his major comfort for the loss of his  metropolitan moorings  and influential social networks.  His home became the permanent venue for the meetings and discussions.   And my mother – then a little schoolgoing girl, and his favourite baby sister – was allowed to stay in the room as an observer, and listen in on the discussions held by the group. 

Visiting each other’s homes and  celebrating each other’s religious festivals – done without any affectation – were only the most obvious expressions of the group’s pluralistic vision.  In this manner, their families were also able to socialize – at least minimally – with each other. On a more serious level, the members of the group studied and discussed  each others’ religions, ethics, philosophies, cultures and histories, and found enough  in common to celebrate their many differences. 

It was probably inevitable that the group consisted only of men. Those were times when women were still cloistered in the home;  my grandmother, for example, was educated at home by her parents, and barely stepped out of her home even as a married woman.  Few women went to school, and even fewer went beyond to get  university degrees.  Those who  trained to become professionals in mixed gender settings were miniscule in number; school teaching in girls-only schools was considered the only genteel occupation for university educated women.  It was probably a corollary of this that the ideas that flowed fast and furiously within the salon did touch the womenfolk in the families in some ways – mothers and wives very fleetingly, unmarried sisters and daughters a little more –, but did not significantly penetrate into the innermost recesses of their lives  (my mother was perhaps unique in that she was allowed to be present at the meetings, and the ideas were at least allowed to wash over her).  This must have had its own contradictions even for the men engaging in these intellectual exercises.

Houses themselves were recessed in those days, probably as an architectural tool to filter out  intrusive social – and ideological – influences from the outside world.   Houses among the upper castes in southern India were designed as a series of  rooms (called halls) that stretched from the front door to the back door giving out to the rear garden beyond.  Smaller rooms branched off on either side into more private spaces (e.g. bedrooms for adults, rooms for visiting relatives) or utility spaces like storage rooms.  Separating every few halls were open-to-the-sky courtyards that consolidated that section of the house.  Visitors, tradespeople and servants were defined by which of these halls and courtyards they were permitted entry into. 

In Anna’s house,  in keeping with convention as framed by caste, class and gender,  the outermost spaces were the public areas.  These were the first set of covered verandahs overlooking the front garden, and the large reception hall that served as Anna’s home office where he also entertained visitors and friends.  The most private and caste-exclusive spaces were at the far end of this series of enclosures, grouped around the last courtyard.  This courtyard was surrounded by verandahs, from which doors opened into a few bedrooms,  the family’s dining hall, the puja (worship) room,  the bathing rooms that also had niches for stocking firewood for heating the bathwater and, above all, the kitchen.  Generally the preserve of the women of the house, here it was caste alone that defined entry.   

Of all of Anna’s friends and non-family associates, Minnan was the one that came closest to the rest of the family; he alone enjoyed entry into the family’s most  private space.  But even he respectfully stopped short of the  kitchen and the puja room.  Sitting at the doorway to the puja room, he would pay his respects to Anna’s mother and  chat with her, and give her the Tamil and Sanskrit books on philosophy and religion that he took to bringing for her.  With him she discussed the happenings in the world and the day’s news carried by the newspapers for he, above all others, symbolized for her the outside world. 

In the courtyard adjoining this complex,  he would play with my mother, demand that she show him her school work, introduce her to new books and guide her in her general reading, and generally show a keen interest in her intellectual development.   These moments were what forged the closest bond between them.  My mother was fierce about going ahead with her studies,  and not be married off early like her older sisters.  He, in turn, loved her passion for learning and became her self-adopted guardian angel to see to it that her dreams were not thwarted by orthodox social convention.  It was also he who made it possible for her to enjoy the childhood pleasures that no one else in her family was willing to put themselves out for.  He alone among non-family members was allowed to take her out to the market, where  he treated her to bought foods like cakes and ice cream,  foods forbidden from being brought into the house by her mother because they were made by strangers who could be using materials of uncertain origin and hygiene.  He also took her to visiting circuses and fairs – to which he also brought his two young daughters when possible –  where, often perched on his shoulders, she got to eat candy floss and suck on toffees,  and take rides on the feris wheel and merry-go-round.   The magic of those rare occasions are, to this day, the source of her happiest childhood memories.

Special as those outings were for her, my mother remembers that for her brother his special moments with Minnan were when the two friends sat down – long after the other visitors had left – to share the evening meal  served by my grandmother, with my mother in tow.  The conversation would then turn to people and matters  more personal.  My mother  remembers her brother joking – half-seriously – to grandmother, early in this friendship, that surely caste pollution rules could not be allowed to apply to Minnan! 

In the tradition of mothers of those days, my grandmother would eat only after all her children had eaten and guests had been served.  Equally, in the old tradition, a Brahmin adult man or woman would not eat food that had already been shared by a person of lower caste (persons professing other faiths automatically lost caste, or were deemed to be of low caste).   And indeed, my grandmother soon stopped observing these  rules in relation to Minnan.  

But in turn she would joke – again half-seriously, and never within Anna’s earshot – that she feared that all of this social mixing might result in her young and only son converting to Islam or Christianity!  And there were certainly some reasons for this fear on the part of an educated but orthodox woman of my grandmother’s times!  Anna occasionally attended Sunday mass in the local church with his Christian friends, or offered namaz at the city’s mosque along with Minnan when he was visiting…And all of this without giving up his own daily dedicated time – after his ritual purifying bath – for his own prayers and pujas.  Minnan, too, in the same spirit attended church and visited temples.  At the latter, he  respectfully – and unselfconsciously – held himself back at the level of the outer prakara (courtyard) as behoved a non-Hindu.  He did not regard it as an inequity that convention forbade him from going into the Hindu temple’s ‘sanctum sanctorum’,  and nor did he rant against it.  He simply accepted it as part of the difference.  He never saw it necessary, either, to give up or be apologetic about his traditional ‘Muslim’ looks – the coloured lungi (sarong), white tunic, skull cap and long beard – wearing them without affectation whether in the courts, on the street, in a mosque or in a temple or church.  As a devout Muslim he offered namaz a few times a day.  What is interesting is that he also recited the Gayatri mantra 108 times everyday. 

I was to learn much later from my mother that his belief in the Gayatri mantra was unshakeable; for him it was symbolic of the essential unity of all religions.  As a child, all I knew was that it was he who taught the mantra to me.  It is, in fact, the only real memory I have of him. This was also the last time I ever saw him.  I was 10 years old at the time. He was already a very old man, bent of back and with a wheeze in his chest. But because I was conscious even then of how intensely my mother felt about him, I remember that last meeting with Minnan Saibu very well.   

It was school holidays, and we were visiting Madras as part of our annual family trip to Pudukkotah.  My mother had heard that a close relative in the city was very sick and in hospital, so we were visiting him.  As a family friend, Minnan too had come to the hospital.  He had probably also heard that my mother was in town that day and that there might be an opportunity to meet her at the hospital.  He had been waiting for us, and was the first to greet us as we walked down the long corridor towards the private ward, his dim eyes beaming fondness for my mother, and positively lighting up when he saw me. 

Anticipating my discomfiture at being in the midst of the mournful-looking crowd around the patient’s bed he asked my mother to go on, and took me aside into a waiting room.  He was eager to renew his  acquaintance with his favourite niece’s daughter.  He told me that he had heard that I was a good scholar – as my mother had been – and that he was proud that I was living up to my mother’s reputation.  In his strange-to-my-ears “Muslim- accented” Tamil, he chatted with me about school, my hobbies, and the books that I was reading currently… 

Then suddenly, from out of the blue, he asked me if I knew how to recite the Gayatri mantra!   Already feeling weighed down by all this attention, I was only too glad to say “no” in the hope of closing the conversation, and making a getaway from this old man whose head swayed from side to side, and who peered at me with intense eyes as he spoke…“It is a prayer for enlightenment and freedom from ignorance…. We all need to be free in our minds,  irrespective of who we are…”   And then, equally suddenly, “Would you like to learn it?”    

Without waiting for my answer, he began explaining the mantra to me, speaking with great earnestness as if to restrain me from fleeing.    “It is so simple a prayer,” he stressed, “you can recite it anywhere, at any time…  Recite it with understanding, , my child.  It will take you far on the road of life. It is a great part of your heritage as a Hindu.”  And there, in that hospital waiting room, he proceeded to teach me how to intone the Gayatri, and went on to explain each syllable of the mantra to me.  It was a strange experience.

When someone came in with a message from my mother that I should go join her at the sick relative’s bedside,  he patted me to go off.  I left him sitting there looking thoughtful; he seemed to be searching in his tunic pockets for something.  I can’t remember if I was relieved to break away from this intense old man from my mother’s past, who was talking to me about unlikely things in this very unlikely place.  It certainly was a strange place for an instruction that, I was to learn later, was taught only to boys on the occasion of the sacred thread ceremony.  By the time my mother was ready to leave the hospital, Minnan had prepared what turned out to be his last gift to me.  On a sheet of fullscape paper he had written out the Gayatri mantra in bold black Sanskrit script, followed by the meanings  in English.  Although it was not something that I  realized at the time, it was a significant gift.  A gift of  wisdom and love. From a Muslim uncle.  To his favourite Hindu niece’s child.   

Minnan died sometime soon after.  He was very old.  It was an uneventful death and did not make it to the newspapers.  But for my mother, something of her childhood died in her that day.  She tells me – these days she often reminisces about the people whom she loved, who have since passed on – that she had a ritual bath when she heard the news (this is the traditional gesture of mourning soon upon hearing that a close relative has died),  wept in private, and quietly hugged her memories close.  

As for me, all these decades later, I still have that sheet of paper – long since coming apart along the folds and repaired with cellotape – among my childhood memorabilia.

In the last several weeks – with the Indian media gushing out the sordid details of yet another round of cynical manipulation of the Indian Muslim community by political parties for petty electoral gains, using the bogey of religious insult  around Salman Rushdie’s participation in the 2012 Jaipur Literature Festival – I have thought of Minnan Saibu a lot…The kind of person he was…  The kind of world which he and Anna and others of their ilk tried to create…A world in which my mother grew up, and which I had the privilege to glimpse…And I find myself hard put to find even a shade of that world in today’s strident India.

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“One day, as the Buddha sat in deep thought about the world and ways of instilling goodness in human beings, he was approached by one of his disciples.

The disciple said humbly, “Oh teacher! You are so concerned about the rest of the world! Why don’t you also look into the welfare and needs of your own disciples?”

 The Buddha: “Tell me, how can I help you?”

Disciple: “Master! My attire is worn out beyond the limits of decency. Could I get a new one, please?”

The Buddha looked at him closely and found that the robe did, indeed, appear to be in bad condition and needing of replacement. He asked the store-keeper to give the disciple a new robe. The disciple thanked the Buddha and retired to his own room. A little while later, the Buddha visited his disciple and asked him if his new clothes were comfortable and whether there was anything else that he needed.

Disciple: “Thank you, Master. The new robe is indeed very comfortable. I need nothing more.”

The Buddha: “Having got a new one, what did you do with your old robe?”

Disciple: “I have begun using it as my bedspread.”

The Buddha: “I hope, then, that you have disposed of your old bedspread?”

Disciple: ” No, no, Master. I am now using my old bedspread as my window curtain.”

The Buddha: ” And what about your old curtain?”

Disciple: “That is being used to handle hot utensils in the kitchen.”

The Buddha: “Oh, I see. Could you tell me what they did with the old cloths they were already using in kitchen?”

Disciple: “Those are being used to mop the floor.”

The Buddha:” Then… the old rug that was being used to mop the floor…?”

Disciple: “Master, since the rug was already tattered, we could not find any better use for it but as a source of wicks for the oil lamp which is right now lighting up your study ….”

The Buddha smiled in contentment and walked out of the disciple’s room.

_________________________

The Buddha’s approach to conservation may sound extreme to the present ‘buy-use-discard-buy’ generation living in an era of rapid innovation and even more frenetic consumerism. But this approach of using things to the last thread, so to say, rings a bell with me, as I am sure it does with many of my generation in India, wedged as we were into the tail-end of a pre-industrial culture during our childhood and growing up years. Needless to say, it was one of my friends of my generation who sent me this story.

Reading it brought back to me that my earliest and most vivid childhood memories of recycling and conservation was watching my mother. We didn’t use words like “recycling” and “conservation” then. It was simply everyday behaviour. And through ordinary practice, it got communicated across the generational divide.

My mother never wasted anything. Nor did she hoard things that were not useful to her. From time to time she gave away a lot of things to known and unknown people. Relatives, families of her domestic staff, institutions and causes that worked in the name of the poor and needy, such as jumble sales, earthquake or flood relief efforts etc. The things she gave away were always in good shape, the kind of stuff that could be immediately put to use, the kind of stuff that she would readily use for herself. One of her mottos was, when you give things away let them be from the best that you have; if you cannot bear to do that, it is better not to give at all.

Which meant that whatever became old or torn was not given away but stood around forever in our house, asking to be dealt with. Every loft and cupboard in the house had at least one or more bundles of what she dramatically labelled “RAGS” in bold letters… Stuff for recycling. Discarded pillow cases became dusters. Old towels became floor mops. The sturdy hems of discarded sari petticoats or cast-off window curtains, became string for tying up bundles of stuff (anything that needed to be bundled would be first neatly wrapped in a discarded sari length and then tied with these adapted “strings”). My father’s torn dhotis (white sarongs worn by men) were cut into squares and folded away neatly to serve as polishing cloths for silver and brass objets d’art, and to shine glassware to a high gloss. And the tornest bits of torn material became use-once-and-dispose rags for cleaning the oil lamps in the puja (worship) room, or mop up accidentally spilt anything in the house, or keep the floor or table tops clean when we lit the hundreds of earthenware oil lamps at Diwali to decorate the house… Leftover scraps from material bought for making dresses, shirts, curtains would be transformed into tote bags for vegetable and grocery shopping, shoe bags, inside-liners for cushions and pillows … The list of uses that she found for ‘waste’ was endless.

I realize now that it had nothing to do with being rich or poor, or the ability or inability to afford to buy new things. We were an affluent family, and lacked for nothing. What my mother was doing was to practice a traditional approach to resources whether natural or man-made… To stretch their lives by careful use… To put them through multiple lives.

The winds of change began to creep in when I was into my late teens. Plastic had become big time in India and a lot of affluent urban middle class folks began to start feeling defensive? ashamed? about looking “traditional”… called “behenji-ish” if you were in the north and “mami-ish” if you lived in the south…It started with discarding the habit of wearing saris and keeping hair long and braided, and extended to discarding the ubiquitous use of stainless steel tableware and so on, to discarding old styles of recycling and the products associated with them like cloth carry bags, stainless steel mobile water containers (koojas in Tamil) meant for long train journeys, stainless steel mobile food containers called “tiffin carriers”. And so on.

How liberating, when one was abroad, to set forth on shopping trips without carrying one’s own cloth bags. And how treasured the sturdy plastic bags that one brought back home bulging with purchases. People returned from foreign trips with huge stacks of plastic shopping bags…you could see them tumbling out of ladies’ suitcases when customs officials looking for dutiable goods found plastic bags instead. Eating in restaurants or off the street, and drinking whatever water was available without checking the source, became the preferred option to carrying one’s own food and water.

It had to come back to us from the West. By the time the environmental consciousness of the 1970s matured into the alternative individual life styles in the 1990s, educated Europeans could be seen walking to the market carrying their own cloth bags. And the first generation of those bags were pretty ordinary looking too…none of the frills and embroidery and other embellishments so lovingly put into cloth bags that fell out of every cupboard of an Indian household! 

I, of course, was charmed by this turn of events. I realize today how much of my mother’s practices I still hold on to. Things I never gave up even when they had become very unfashionable in metropolitan India of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, at home, I get dubbed “kabaadiwala” – waste collector – by my husband for my pains! But I persist. Imagine my delight when my young son – now in his mid 20s – who left home when he was 16 to go abroad for higher education told me that he continues with many conservation practices he had seen me and my mother follow! I am going to send him the Buddha story. And I hope that you, dear reader, enjoy it too.

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THE DESPATCH RIDER

Sreedharan Nair was a “despatch rider”.  He rode a gleaming black motorbike that made an awesome sound that you could hear from miles away, as he raced across the city’s streets doing his important official job. The sound of his bullet engine (which is what his motorbike was also called) and sight of his black streaking figure was enough for everybody to come rushing out to their windows.  And people who were on the street gazed in awe as traffic policemen in khakis and puttees that wound up their calves, stood at attention and saluted as he roared by.  In those days of hardly any motorbikes on the roads – certainly none which shone so bright, boomed so deep, or had such a purposeful-looking rider in the seat -, the despatch rider was one of the most exotic figures in sight.

It was also the days …the decade following Indian independence…when the government – the sarkar – was everything.  So, every time the despatch rider took to the road, it was a signal that a vital national matter was being attended to.  You see, the despatch rider’s job was to carry urgent and confidential files to senior bureaucrats outside of office hours for their perusal and signatures, and deliver them back to the office, where people stood by to forward those files for action with immediate effect.

Despatch rider Sreedharan Nair came to our house often.  It was usually on a Sunday or public holidays, but sometimes it was also late in the evening often close on the heels of my father returning home from the office.  Father was a workaholic, and either worked round the clock at the office, or thought about his work even when he was at home.  He invariably came home late every evening, after we children had eaten our dinner, and it would happen often that the despatch rider would arrive soon after father had entered the house, with some files for him to look at.  Perhaps father’s workaholism kept the despatch rider and others in father’s office, too, working virtually round the clock.  On the rare occasions when he returned home before dark, father probably left enough work for his multiple secretaries to continue with.   After all, India was a young nation in the making, and the challenges were endless, and the excitement of public service heady.

Of course, such ramifications of my father’s work  never occurred to me then.  It just seemed natural to us children, that grown ups should be working all the time.  Also, in this way, they at least kept out of our way, and we could play, or put up plays, or do what we wanted pretty much most of the time.  Houses were large,  and gardens rambling, and grown ups led their own lives away from us in much the same way as we led ours in our separate world.  Linking the two sets of lives were the troops of house servants who went about their work, also seemingly round the clock, except when they disappeared in the mid-afternoons into their – what used to be called – “quarters” which were attached to the house but discreetly out of sight and sound.  They interfered with us children only when it came to calling us for meals (and telling us that mother had left instructions that we should eat this or that, usually things we didn’t like, like green peas), or escorting us to school and back.  Or they responded when we asked for help like making snack for us, or opening an over-tight lid of a bottle of jam, or when father and mother were away on late evening social engagements and the servants played chaperones, sometimes telling us stories and keeping us up when it was their job to make sure that we went to sleep.  We were always conscious that they were around, hovering invisibly, ready to appear at a single call.

When things like a train derailment happened -.and these almost always happened at night; I could never understand why that was so – the despatch rider would be zooming between office and our home several times through the night. My father would be up on the phone all night… or getting ready to leave for the site of the accident…The lights in the part of the house where the grown-ups lived would be blazing…the cook would be making multiple cups of coffee, mother would be buzzing around packing a suitcase for father’s inspection tour to the site…

The ”Ariyalur Disaster” (either the train was called the Ariyalur Express or the accident took place near the town of Ariyalur, I can’t remember which) was one accident that made a huge impact on me. Nobody actually explained anything to us about what had happened.  None of the grown ups thought it necessary that we know what sort of work they did for a living; and on  nights such as the Ariyalur Disaster, nobody seemed to think that we children might wake up in all the disturbance and want to know what was happening; we were expected to keep out of sight and out of the way.  But I gathered from the endless discussions between my parents and people who came to visit following the disaster, and the number of times that father disappeared “on line” (which is what railway officials going away on tour was called, so different from what it is to be “online” these days!),  that thousands of people had died.

When we woke up in the morning after such nights, the house would wear its calm everyday look, with not a hint of what had happened the night before.  Our routines were never disturbed, and with the help of the servants we would get ready for school, eat breakfast and be off.  We understood at such times that we were not supposed to ask for father or mother. Their lives spinned pretty much in their own orbits…except when they announced some plans that included us.  Like a vacation (rare).  Or a trip south for a family wedding (often).  Or, when they decided to get angry with one of us (very often)…

Back to the despatch rider.  Oh, by the way.  The despatch rider’s counterpart when  father was “on line” – traveling across the length and breadth of the country or focusing on some specific region, administering the railways which were under his charge – were the “dak boxes” (when “on line”,  father traveled in his own special “saloon”, a railway carriage that was like a complete home: with two bedrooms, living room, office, kitchen and staff accommodation).

Dak” was the name for bulky files: sheets of typed paper with little notes scribbled in pen along the margins, and placed between cardboard flaps wrapped around with broad red cloth-lined strips which were held together by white nadas (thick string) tied into bows.  The foolscape sheets had little slips of paper pinned to them, that stuck out from the top and sides (precursors of our post-its).  I remember getting my hands pricked on occasions when I had tried to act like a smart eager beaver or curry favour, by  offering to  take out files for father when I was with him “on line”.  I also remember being scolded by the peons for handling these office pins; Govind, father’s senior-most peon would show me his one white eye and remind me that when he was dusting father’s desk in the office, a pin on the desk had jumped up and struck his eye, causing permanent blindness.  To this day I have a fear of those pins, particularly in their rusty avatar.  And Govind’s sad white eye comes up before me whenever I have an eye problem, so unforgettable was the impact that his disability had on me, with both my parents also feeling awful for what had happened to him.

If the despatch rider carried individual files or small bunches of files, the dak boxes carried files by the score.  Painted a gleaming black – just like the despatch rider’s motorbike – the dak boxes, secured by locks affixed with a wax seal,  came to my father in batches.  They traveled on trains that were meant to connect to the train to which his saloon was attached.   Several of these boxes would be loaded into his moving office in the saloon at whichever was the earliest station where he could be found.   The dak boxes brought my father files from his office at the headquarters.  His paper work never stopped, even when he was on the move doing other official duties.  Every file in every box was attended to immediately, however late in the day it arrived, and would be sealed and ready for offloading at the next big railway junction.  Sometimes on those long “on line” journeys,  if I happened to be his sole family companion, I would peep into the saloon office and there he would be, sitting at his curved desk, wearing his thick black rimmed reading glasses and reading his files while simultaneously dictating to his saloon secretary who took furious notes in shorthand in an attempt to keep up with his scorching pace.  The secretary, too. had to work round the clock (in his office cabin at the rear of the saloon), since father worked all the time anyway.  After all, the government’s task of administering the country could not be allowed to pause at all.  This meant that every time a haul of dak boxes arrived, a corresponding haul of completed boxes – files already perused, accompanied by fresh, copiously typed notes or letters etc. – was returned,  put on the next available train that would take them back to the headquarters in the shortest possible time.  Father’s pace of work meant that every station master of every station along the route that he was taking had to stand by in readiness to make sure that the chain of work – symbolized by the heavy dak boxes – was never broken.

While the dak boxes and father’s never-ending work cycle were something that we children could witness up close on the rare occasions when we traveled with him on the saloon,  they did not really interest us.  What caught our fancy was the despatch rider, and every visit by him to our home was for us an occasion to savour.  Since his visits were usually on holidays or late evening hours, we would hear him even when he was some  distance away, and take up position at one of the windows lining the verandah fronting the road, leaning out dangerously and craning our necks to watch him glitter to a stop outside the house. He would whip his right leg smartly off the bike, ease off his helmet, smoothen his hair, and click his leather shoes up the stairs to the door.  In a flurry of competition we would dash to open the door for him even before he rang the bell, stumbling over the servant whose job it was to receive visitors.   And each time we would look up at his face to be rewarded with his slow friendly smile.  To him we may have been  the super boss’ kids –  he never spoke to us when father was within earshot – but for us he was our hero.  Even though we adored him we, too, remained decorously silent when father was around. But the admiration in our eyes, our shining pleasure in seeing him, was on full display for him and he always responded with warmth and affection in his smiling liquid brown eyes.

He was always nattily dressed in tight black trousers held up by a flashy broad black belt, white shirt, and sharply pointed black leather shoes that had a raised heel.  To my young eyes he seemed incredibly stylish…particularly after father’s office clothes of baggy cotton trousers, bush shirts, and what were called “pathan sandals” in the summer, and suits and formal office shoes in the winter.  I later on learnt that father’s shoes were all branded wares from England, or custom-made by his favourite Chinese shoemaker, and that all his clothes were of the best quality and impeccably tailored, but I was too little to understand all of that then.  Sobriety and understatement in my own home only added to the glitter that over-statement held to my eyes.

The drama at the door would continue as Sreedharan pulled himself up to his full height, clicked his heels and marched in, saluted my father and respectfully handed over the files he was carrying.  I remember hearing my mother say that Sreedharan had spent a few years in the army before joining the railways, which endowed him with a stamp of reliability, efficiency and smartness – essential virtues for a despatch rider who carried important documents.  While father read the contents and  signed the papers, Sreedharan would remain standing at attention, face impassive.  But he would give us his admirers –  making signs to him from behind a curtain – a secret smile from beneath his handle-bar moustache when he thought it was okay to do so.  Then he would salute, turn around smartly and leave.  We would wait impatiently for father to also leave the room before rushing to the windows again to take up position to watch Sreedharan start his bike and once again streak away with his precious cargo.  Whenever he felt that he was not being watched by an elder, Sreedharan would flash us a wave as he turned the bike in one swooping arc and raced away giving out his mighty roar.

It was when we ran into him sometimes, idling near his bike in the parking bay of father’s office, that Sreedharan would laugh and joke with us in his heavily accented Malayalam-Tamil drawl, swoop us up into the air and swing us around – like a true pal.

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Post-script:

It must seem indulgent to evoke in today’s India the nostalgia for a simple and charming world that is forever lost.  To someone of today’s generation – like my young son for whom I write this story – the tale of a despatch rider who evoked admiration and awe, and a workaholic government officer for whom public service was a sacred duty, might even sound unreal.

For, everything has changed.

It is not just the physical fact that despatch riders conveying files on motorbikes have become an anachronism in a world of internet and email.  Or that “being online” is another world  altogether from being “on line”!

It is not just that Bombay has become so overgrown and congested that even swanky cars – leave alone motorbikes! –  do not cut any ice on the smog-filled roads. Or, that Cuffe Parade with its genteel quiet seaside promenade and empty-of-traffic-straight-as-an-arrow-road that led to Churchgate – the scene of this story – is unrecognizably overrun by skyscrapers, sedans, slums, and false snob value;

What has really changed is that the almost equal admiration and awe that ordinary public servants like Sreedharan Nair and top ranking public servants like father  could evoke – in the eyes of adults and children, people in high places and people on the street, alike – for their dignified and transparent dedication to their work, no longer holds;

What has really changed is that the charm and genuineness of a despatcher’s ride on a motorbike while on ‘national duty’, has not been replaced by anything with the power to evoke a similar sentiment or excitement.  The blinking red light on every vehicle that ferries every little bureaucrat or politician around the city succeeds in evoking only public disdain and disgust, if anything at all;

What has really changed is that today it is not the speedy execution of decisions in the public interest that is the hallmark of the government’s functioning, but deliberate delays in and obfuscation of public issues; where, every time a file needs to move from one government desk to another, palms must be greased in sufficient measure for the money to travel all the way up from the peon (or despatch rider) at the door to the bureaucrat at the top;

What has really changed is that the ordinary person in India no longer counts for anything, and is repeatedly trampled underfoot by bossism at every level.  Which is why Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement received such unbelievably spontaneous support from hundreds of thousands of ordinary people from across the country, demanding strong means – of which the Lokpal Bill has now become a single tangible symbol –  that can ensure that public servants at all levels do the work for which they are paid, that decisions in the public interest are taken speedily, and that those violating the public good  are punished publicly.

Perhaps it sounds too simple to say this.  But it was possible in those days for  an honest and dedicated bureaucrat to set the tone at the top, and it did trickle all the way down to an honourable and proud despatch rider at the bottom.

 

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Every autorickshaw driver in Chennai knows where the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM) is. Once you agree to the shamelessly overpitched fare, the auto-man will take you there in the shortest possible time; he knows that once he drops you off, he will immediately be able to pick up another passenger. The KYM is the only busy destination in an otherwise quiet street.

The walk from the gate to where the steps climb up to the reception hall is barely a few yards, but there is a perceptible feeling of having entered a world of calm and silence that is also at least a couple of degrees cooler than the street. Tiny lotus ponds glitter within lush mounds of soft grass, and a crazy-paved path bordered by verdant foliage leads off to a tranquil little shrine to Patanjali, the Giver of Yoga to the World that nestles in a small and dense grove of trees. In the reception hall and beyond, administrators and visitors/clients look seriously engaged, and consultant therapists (who examine new patients) and teachers (whom the consultants refer patients to for individualized therapy sessions) perform briskly and quietly.

The KYM commemorates the greatest yoga guru – Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) – that India has produced in recent times. In whatever way yoga is taught and practised today, in whichever part of the world, it owes its foundations to Krishnamacharya. As Fernando Pages Ruiz puts it, “You may never have heard of him, but Tirumalai Krishnamacharya influenced or perhaps even invented your yoga… Whether you practice the dynamic series of Pattabhi Jois, the refined alignments of B.K.S. Iyengar, the classical postures of Indra Devi, or the customized vinyasa of Viniyoga, your practice stems from one source: a five-foot, two-inch Brahmin born more than one hundred years ago in a small South Indian village.” (“The legacy of Krishnamacharya”, http://www.yogajournal.com)

The story of Krishnamacharya’s life – long, scholarly, intensely dedicated, innovative – makes for fascinating reading, as I discovered from a biography written by his grandson Kaustubh Desikachar. For me, my encounter in the KYM library with the life history of a man who introduced me to yoga over 40 years ago, was very very special.

The modern, professional-looking and bustling Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram set up in his memory is a far cry from the spartan house in Gopalapuram (in Chennai) where I first encountered Krishnamacharya, and yoga. I was a young teenager on my summer vacation after my first year out of high school, when I was appointed by my father to accompany my invalid mother, who had suffered successive accidents that had rendered her virtually immobile and almost always in pain, to Chennai. There, Krishnamacharya, whom my father knew through a common friend, was going to use yoga to help her heal. For a young teen to be asked to spend her annual vacation in a city with no friends, and with nothing to do but to escort an infirm parent to some old healer every day, was not the most attractive deal. But my authoritarian father was not one to be questioned, and I resigned myself to my fate.

Every day, once in the morning and again in the early evening, my mother and I would take a taxi from our hotel to Krishnamacharya’s home for an hour’s instruction. He always appeared remote, wrapped in some self-sufficient world that did not require communication with visitors beyond classroom instruction. His was not a severe face; indeed it was a handsome sharp-featured one, with large luminous eyes and an enigmatic smile that lit up his features, although the reason for its existence did not seem to be to enhance social interaction. I don’t remember him ever make small talk, or even show the slightest interest in us beyond addressing my mother’s ailments. But he gave us his undivided and intense attention while teaching, and taught my mother with great gentleness.

Within a couple of days of starting her instruction, he seemed to notice my presence, and commanded me to take my place on another mat. I complied wordlessly; his voice did not give me a choice. For the next two months, every morning and evening, he taught me yoga with the same attentiveness that he showed my mother, even though teaching me was not part of the original understanding with him. He also taught me how to assist my mother in performing her asanas. He demanded the slowest of breathing and movement, and his hawk eyes never left me for a minute, making sure that every movement was executed absolutely correctly. I learnt to be terrified of him, as he was as ferociously strict with me as he was gentle with my mother. But I could also sense his restrained pleasure in seeing me respond easily to the instruction, young as I was and unhampered by ailments; and the perfection that he expected from every movement, and his unrelenting supervision, motivated me to try harder to come up to his expectations. By the end of our time with him, he had even taught me the Sirasasana (head stand).

At the end of the two months, our relationship with Krishnamacharya terminated as abruptly as it had begun. My mother had improved vastly. And I had discovered that I had a naturally supple body. We went back to our lives in Bombay and in due course, I stopped doing my yoga practice and forgot all about the old man who looked, lived and behaved like an ascetic, and who had introduced me to what was potentially a whole new world, a significance that I did not grasp at the time. My father – the family’s yoga enthusiast – continued to do his asanas (for which, mercifully, he attended a yoga institute closeby); but he would do what looked to me ghastly tricks – called kriyas – at home, like swallowing yards of cotton tape and pulling them out of his mouth. I sometimes watched from afar with morbid fascination. I did not want to be part of that obsession. It was also comforting to go back to being the couch potato that I was naturally inclined towards.

In modernizing metropolitan India of the time, yoga had not yet come of age in the popular consciousness, and it was generally seen as a traditional, ‘old people’s’ thing. For me, Krishnamacharya…my father…exemplified this. Sadly, as with most other things in India, it was the discovery of yoga by the West and its triumphant return to India from the global stage, borne aloft on the shoulders of B.K.S. Iyengar, that prompted Iyengar’s countrymen to pay attention to this ‘new’ form of ‘exercise’ and, indeed, way of life.

When I awakened to the benefits of regular exercise, my first instinct was – like my peers – to take to popular fitness regimens…aerobics, gym, jogging, karate… It was some time – and quite a few injuries later, born of over-enthusiasm and lax supervision – before my early influences caught up with me. I enrolled myself in my father’s yoga institute on Bombay’s Marine Drive. I had declared myself a beginner on the enrolment form. But the ease with which I was able to learn astonished even the teachers. I had underestimated the strength of the foundations that Krishnamacharya had laid. I particularly found his teaching of how to synchronise my breathing with my asanas, the stress on the sequencing of asanas, and the importance of being conscious of the correct structural alignment in every asana, coming back to me.

On professional trips abroad, I would meet people who raved about a man called B.K.S. Iyengar, and sometimes these trips coincided with Iyengar’s visits to these cities, and I would hear about hundreds of people attending a Master class by the visiting yogi. My curiosity about Iyengar was aroused, but I was still unaware that I too was part of this yoga web… albeit as an insignificant and unworthy strand. It was a chance visit to the Iyengar Institute in Pune (near Mumbai) which brought the memories of the old teacher rushing back.

I was in Pune with my family on holiday, and we happened to drive past a signboard on a gate announcing the B.K.S. Iyengar School of Yoga. On impulse, I hopped off telling my family that I would meet them back at the hotel. It was an intriguing looking campus, with complex yoga postures sculpted along the walls of the compound. I had never been in quite such a place. It looked a bit weird. I saw some lights on the first level, and my excitement mounted as I took the curving flight of stairs going up. I couldn’t believe that I had actually found the ‘source’ of the global phenomenon that was Iyengar! All those people in all those distant foreign countries waiting for him to turn up for a Master class… And here he was, in my own home, so to say…

At the top of the stairs I stopped short in total astonishment. On the wall to my left was a larger than life black and white portrait of Krishnamacharya, hands folded in namaskar, his luminous face and enigmatic smile exactly as I remembered it. I hesitated for a moment, staring at it …after all these years… what was the old man doing here? I raced across the hall to the lone person sitting behind one of the many empty counters.

“Excuse me”. He looked up with the blank clerical face that you see behind every counter in every office.

“The office is closed. Come back later”. And he went back to whatever he was doing.

“I need to know…Who is the man in that photograph?”

No reply.

“Who is he? And what is his connection with this place?”

He looked momentarily startled by the urgency in my voice (and probably as much by my question). But his clerical instinct bounced back. “I told you, no? Office is closed. Come back in the evening”.

I stood my ground and repeated my question twice more before he could bring himself to answer what he clearly thought was a lunatic woman.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because I know him.”

He looked at me unbelievingly.

“Please tell me… why is he here? “ I was almost pleading for a reply.

“He is our guru’s guru”, was all he said.

I felt faint as I turned to leave. Here I was, full of admiration for B.K.S. Iyengar. And of course, for all the right reasons. But, we had actually shared the same guru! How much more unworthy could I have gotten? That, in all those intervening years I had not recognized the value of the instruction that I had received, or the person who had taught me, dismissing him as a crochety old man who had been a friend of my father’s?

All these memories came flooding back as I picked up Krishnamacharya’s biography – with his familiar face on the jacket – in the library of the KYM (Desikachar, Kausthub. The Yoga of the Yogi : The Legacy of T Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, 2005). I knew that I would be buying a copy before I left the place. But I couldn’t wait until I got back home. Sinking into one of the chairs right there, I began to read.

Krishnamacharya was a driven man from a very early age. First it was the intense desire to master the Indian classical disciplines. For this he travelled out of his village in Karnataka and across the country to wherever – Benaras, Calcutta, Patna – he could find the best teachers. And with his strong foundation in Sanskrit acquired in childhood, he shone wherever he went. Along the way, he mastered the six systems of Indian philosophy and Ayurveda, and obtained degrees in philology, logic, divinity and music. His next search was for the quintessential guru with whose guidance he could deepen his knowledge of yoga. Trekking all the way to the Himalayas on a tenuous lead that there lived a hermit in a cave who had mastered the science, he finally found his destination on the shores of Lake Mansarovar in Tibet at the base of Mount Kailash – the proverbial cave, and a bearded, wise and accomplished giant of a man who lived in it with his family, in total isolation. Krishnamacharya spent the next seven years there as a fiercely dedicated student, absorbing all that his teacher could teach him, which included over 3000 asanas, pranayama, meditation and the therapeutic properties of yoga.

When his guru deemed Krishnamacharya fit to leave, he asked for only two promises in lieu of gurudakshina (student fees). That he would henceforth dedicate his life to teaching yoga. And that he would marry and lead the life of a householder, and thus teach a yoga that benefited the widest cross section of people (rather than become a renunciate). With a clear mission to his life, and his promise to his guru ringing in his ears, Krishnamacharya returned – on foot again – to Benaras and thence to Mysore state, a princely kingdom. He was welcomed back as a homecoming vidwan (savant) and offered illustrious professional positions at several places across the country. And in Mysore, honorific titles were conferred on him.

But Krishnamacharya declined all lucrative and prestigious employment opportunities, and association with the wealthy and powerful. Instead, he chose to tirelessly seek out opportunities to teach yoga to ordinary people, and popularize it through lectures, demonstrations and publications. The challenge of reviving interest in a forgotten science that nobody was willing to pay to learn, rapidly brought him to a state of acute poverty, until he found a patron in the Maharaja of Mysore who founded a ‘school of yoga’ within the palace, that was open to everybody. The Maharaja also enthusiastically supported Krishanacharya’s travels for the purpose of lectures and demonstrations. Backed by economic security, Krishnamacharya was able to work on his teaching style, innovating and developing techniques that resulted in the teaching of an energetic and dynamic form of yoga to an ever-widening audience of youthful students, as well as a personalised and therapeutic form adapted to individuals with physical limitations. A deeply spiritual man himself and immersed in Hindu philosophy, he nevertheless totally respected his students’ independence and right to choose their own worldview.

With Independence and the abolition of the princely states, the Mysore Court’s patronage for the teaching of yoga ceased to exist. The yoga school was shut down by the new state government of Karnataka and Krishnamacharya was once again pushed to the edge of poverty. He moved to Chennai in search of more teaching opportunities with which to support himself. Here his teaching style developed further in the direction of a one-on-one approach, treating each student as a unique individual. He placed an increased emphasis on healing the sick, and drew from his diverse and vast store of knowledge, carrying it forward through application and innovation. In Chennai, he soon became well known for his therapeutic style of yoga instruction.

Considering his unparalleled contribution to laying the foundations of yoga as we understand it today, Krishnamacharya’s life was one of relative obscurity. It is through his students that he has come to be known across the world. Among his earliest disciples in Mysore who went on to become world-renowned practitioners and teachers who have made yoga the global phenomenon that it is today, were B.K.S. Iyengar (his own brother-in-law) and the late Pattabhi Jois. Each of them took Krishnamacharya’s dynamic teaching style of those early years in Mysore, and adapted and developed it in ways that suited their own genius. Today, the Iyengar Yoga and the Mysore Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga schools, respectively, are internationally renowned, and have thriving and growing bodies of practitioners both in India and across the world.

Two other students who were carriers of the ‘light of yoga’ to the world at large were the late Indra Devi (his first European and woman student in Mysore) who spread the message of yoga in China, Europe, the U.S. and Latin America, and his son T.K.V. Desikachar, his best known disciple of his later years in Chennai, who has immortalized him through the KYM in Chennai.

The hallmark of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM) in Chennai, today,  is the customized, therapeutic Viniyoga style of teaching that Krishnamacharya developed and refined towards the end of his life. The KYM runs regular yoga classes as well, to which young people from across the city flock. And its yoga teacher training courses generate a large number of well trained teachers, who go out and set up classes across the city. In my time in Chennai, I encountered yoga being taught everywhere, and routinely practised by young and old.

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