Some Lessons from Baba 3: What I have Learnt

June 29, 2008

What I have learnt:

Sometime in 1980 when I had just joined my engineering college I paid a visit to him over a weekend. I was studying at Varanasi which is just a few hours away from my nanihal. Those days Baba was very seriously into Bhagwan Rajneesh’ books. (Rajneesh was yet to call himself Osho then.) I made a flippant remark, typical of a teenager I then was, on Baba’s declining reading tastes. “You are reading Rajneesh,” I said in an mocking tone! Baba was initially angry, and then he controlled himself and told me that if only the world was wise enough to delink Rajneesh the man and Rajneesh the philosopher, we could all benefit from his writings. He said, “The world thinks that they know what Rajneesh stands for going merely by the scandalous newspapers reports on him. Why do not people read a book or two and see for themselves what Rajneesh actually writes about?” Quite a daring statement to come from someone who was so steeped in Sanskrit scriptures. He read some parts of the book he was reading to prove to me how sensible Rajneesh was.


I then asked him if it was possible to know the future. He was contemptuous of claims of people who claimed to tell the future. He said that while it may be possible to talk about the past, it is impossible to tell the future. Past leaves some vibrations behind and there are some who are sensitive enough to read the vibrations to figure out what happened earlier. But future, he said, no way! And this from a pandit who spent a lifetime casting horoscopes!


In the same visit, I discussed with him some of my basic doubts on Hindu religion. I still remember his answer to my question on what is a Hindu. I was mentally prepared for a lengthy chat on the religion and its intricacies. But his quick and simple answer took me aback. His pithy answer was, “Jo hinsa ko dooshit samajhta hai, woh Hindu hai.” He who considers violence impure (or wrong) is a Hindu. The brevity and the startling simplicity of this definition of a Hindu has stayed with me nearly three decades now. Baba’s distillation of years of reading, introspection and meditation.


I have stayed away from temples and pujas and have been an avid non-vegeterian as well. While me being a non-vegetarian was not an issue with my my mother, it would trouble her no end that I would refuse to accompany her to temples. Baba had come to Jamshedpur to participate in my sister’s wedding, his only trip to Jamshedpur. She complained to him regarding this and asked him to counsel me. I was hovering around and was bracing myself for a harangue from this venerable pandit regarding the virtues of visiting a temple.


Baba turned towards me and asked me, “Do you love and respect your mother?”

“Of course I love and respect my mother.” I murmured. There it comes, the long speech, I wearily thought to myself. 

Baba turned towards mai. “See, Santosh says he loves you and respects you. Do you agree?”

“Yes”, said mai, anticipating Baba’s wise words to now get me to the right path.

What Baba said next surprised both of us. “Ai Kamala (mai‘s name). If your son loves you and respects you, he need not necessarily visit the temple. Is it not enough that your son reveres you? Love and respect is a form of worship and all Gods are served if the mother is worshipped.


That was my last meeting with Baba.


Some Lessons from Baba 2: What I have seen

June 29, 2008

I used to visit Baba along with my family every year in the summer holidays when I was a kid. My memories of him from those days was of a rather serious man, given to lots of reading and specializing in matters spiritual and philosophical. He had a spartan lifestyle, with not too many interests but for reading and ayurveda. Always clad in a dhoti and a sacred thread; a kurta as well when the occassion demanded it. He is the only person I have ever seen in real life wearing “khadaoon“. Now, when I visualize baba, I see him prone on his khatia, clasping a book, and reading away for hours. Vedanta, spiritual literature and sometimes ayurveda were his topics of interest. His wore his trademark brown-framed spectacles with thick bifocal lenses on his nose, sometime held together by a string in case the spectacle-arm broke away. His room which was at the entrance to the house was a simple affair; a khatia, a steel trunk, a shelf full of ayurvedic herbs and medicines and racks and racks of books. Some books wrapped in lengths of red cotton cloth, while the others piled up on the racks in a way where only Baba could recognize the books and where they were kept. Common to all books was the layer of dust which would emanate from the fields nearby.


Baba would not only read the books many times, he would also make his own annotations and commentary on the margins of the pages. His way of differentiating his multiple commentaries on different readings of the books was by using different coloured ball-point pens. So it was pretty common to find margins covered with his steady handwriting in blue, red and green. Sometimes in pencil too. I am pretty sure that if these notes from each book were compiled this could form a great treatise on the book!


Baba, I was told, was a renowned person across the region, a Sanskrit scholar of note. In the evenings his friends would arrive and they would discuss till dusk various spiritual and philosophical matters. I was a kid thise days I could not follow the discussions except that it all sounded very serious and erudite.


Sometimes I would accompany Baba to the wedding ceremonies he used to preside over. I remember that he knew all the shlokas by heart.He rarely needed to dip into the text he would hold in his hands except when he needed to catch his breath in the middle of a long shloka! Pandits have this itch to prove their superiority over others of their ilk by finding some fault in their pronounciation of the shloka (there is a certain rigour to vedic pronounciations) or their adherence to the sequence of rituals. God forbid if someone tried to question Baba. Baba would give the mischief-making pandit a withering look, complete the shloka he was reciting, pause and break into long chastising speech in fluent Sanskrit (which I could not follow a bit) and eventually convince the other what a silly, uneducated pandit he was, thoroughly incapable of doing his job! That would end any further questioning.


There was a custom in the villages in our community during the weddings when the baraat arrived at the bride’s place. The baraatis would sit in a large pandal on mattresses spread on the ground. The bride’s family and guests would sit across the pandal, the two sides facing each other. Then would begin the test of knowledge. Someone from the bride’s side would fire a question and the groom’s side was required to answer the question. A bit like gunshots fired in the air in most parts of North India. In our community the guns would be replaced by words in the Brahaminical tradition. The question could be on any topic, but was always a serious one designed to assess the intellectual level of the baraatis. (My father tells of a baraat he had attended where the question was asked in English by some upstart from the bride’s family and my father was the only one among the groom’s side who understood and spoke English. He carried the day for groom’s side!). I remember a baraat I had accompanied my Baba to. No sooner had the baraatis settled down a person from the other side stood up and asked a long-winded and involved question on Sanatan Dharma. There was a hush of silence among the baraatis till Baba arose and spoke in Sanskrit for maybe half-an-hour on the intricacies of the Sanatan Dharma quoting from memory from various scriptures. No further question followed!


Baba’s colloquial Hindi, though, was a curious mix of Sanskrit and Bhojpuri, leaning more towards the former! I remember an incident when someone had come to consult Baba for some ailments he was suffering. Baba admonished him for neglecting his health by saying, “Prakriti key niyam ke atikraman hoi, ta kasht na hoi?” (If you break the nature’s laws then you will have to suffer). And then he handed his guest the necessary herbs and a strict instruction on dietary and life-style discipline.


So that was Baba for me, a highly knowledgeable scholar, a stern upholder of Brahminical traditions and values, a pandit much respected (and feared) by his peers. Just the right example of a strict upholder of Hindu religion. I would start seeing him in a slightly different light when I grew up a bit more!


To be concluded…

Some Lessons from Baba 1: What I have Heard

June 29, 2008

Baba, my mother’s father, was a frail, short person.He resided in his village most of his life, scarcely moving out to visit his offsprings spread across Bihar. He was a Sanskrit teacher in a school near his village . He was also an officiating priest (purohit) for marriages and upanayan-sanskar ceremonies of his yajmaans. He lived most of his later years as a widower, nani, his wife having expired many years earlier. Baba died of old age some 25 years ago.


What I have heard:

Baba was born at the turn of the twentieth century. His father was a pandit of modest means who earned his livelihood by conducting pujas and ceremonies for his yajmaans in the nearby areas. The bubonic plague which swept parts of UP and Bihar in the early 1900’s left Baba orphan. He was just 10 or 12 years old. Tales are told in the family about how Baba’s elder sister, who was probably widowed herself in the plague, took him around the villages introducing him to the yajmaans of their father and requesting for the pandit-yajmaan relationship to be continued now with Baba “succeeding” his deceased father. This enabled the remainder of the family to be supported in those difficult years.


However, Baba’s love for study took him to Kolkata to study Sanskrit. Apparently, those days, there were no Hindi texts for Sanskrit works. Bengali translations were available and Baba taught himself Bengali. He completed successive degrees, Prathama, Madhyama, Shastri, leading on to the final one, Sahityacharya. An acharya in Sahitya, Baba studied Sanskrit Literature. This degree is an equivalent of M.A. I am told.


Overtime Baba married, had five children, 3 sons (all went on to graduate in Sanskrit) and two daughters. The eldest of all his offsprings is mai, my mother. He went on to get some more yajmaans in addition to what he “inherited” from his father. One of his yajamaans who was some kind of a landlord in Bettiah, a few hundred kilometers away from Baba’s village, wanted Baba to join him there, but he would not leave his village. He took up a Sanskrit teacher’s job in a school nearby and continued to teach, do pujas and of course, read. There is an interesting story told about this same yajmaan who was a extremely distraught once as someone worker in his estate had died due to an accident. When Baba heard of this, he went to meet the yajmaan who told him how guilty he felt about this death. At this point, the story goes, Baba impulsively took the landlord’s hands in his and gripped it firmly. Baba said, “Do not worry anymore, I hereby take all your guilt.” And that immediately eased the tension the yajmaan was having.



A Night on Bourbon Street

June 28, 2008

An abridged version of this article appeared in Deccan Herald, Bangalore, in February 2008



So you thought New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005? It still remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in the US! It is often referred to as the “most unique city in America”. New Orleans is in the state of Louisiana and is perhaps one of the oldest cities in the US. The beauty of New Orleans springs from the multi-cultural heritage of the city, the food, the language, the music- Jazz, of course, the joie de vivre of the place; so infectious! The French founded the city (called it La Nouvelle-Orléans), then the Spanish occupied it, the French took it back again and then Napoleon sold it to the Americans! Quite a mix, and that is what gave rise to the unique (sub) culture of New Orleans!


Bourbon Street:

The French founded the city around what is now called the French Quarters. The world-famous Bourbon Street, which is off Canal Street, is bang in the middle of the French Quarters! The street, perpendicular to the Canal Street, can roughly be divided into three sections: the Upper Bourbon Street houses many bars and restaurants, strip joints and a lot of souvenir shops. The mid-section has many of the popular bars. The last third of the street, which I had no inclination to visit, is popular among the gay community. One of my colleagues, of British origins narrated how he stumbled into a bar in this section of Bourbon Street and found it “rather dodgy” as he quaintly put it!


What I did see was a hyper-active Bourbon Street; crowded, noisy and very, very vibrant!


Of Hand Grenades and Hurricanes:

Where else would you find “Hand Grenades “, “Hurricanes” and “Huge Ass Beers” floating around in the street! The French quarter does not have what in the US is called “Open Container Law”. What this means is that patrons can walk around carrying cups (plastic only, mind you) of their favourite tipple and walk up-and-down the street. And that is what the patrons do, walk up-and-down, down-and-up carrying their drink, many of them smoking impossibly huge cigars! “Hand Grenade” is a secret recipe of a local company owning four bars on Bourbon Street. The drink comes in tall grenade-shaped containers, bilious green in colour, and has a melon-flavoured concoction! “Hurricane” is a rum based drink, extremely sweet and very, very potent! The recipe for this is creditted to Pat O’Brien (the bar bearing his name is a prominent landmark on Bourbon Street still) and dates back to the 1940’s. And the beers! If you were not carrying “Hand Grenades” or the “Hurricanes” then you should be guzzling draught beer off a tall, tall cup! ”Huge Ass Beers” as these are called. Does not matter if you are drunk or purporting to be drunk, anything goes. No one cares, no one minds! It is not out of place (actually very much in place to find someone drunk and sprawled on the road! There was this lady, mid- 30’s maybe, spread-eagled across the pavement and the Street with her T-shirt threatening to crawl upwards beyond limits of modesty! Her equally drunk partner was valiantly trying to shake her into consciousness. People just walked ahead, none throwing even a second glance! Not that one can partake alcohol only on the street, there are many, many bars lining the street, some of which are virtually heritage sites thanks to the great jazz musicians who have played in these bars sometime in their careers! We tried hard to enter some of these, but after a few futile attempts, we decided to pick-up some “Huge Ass Beers” and walk up-and-down, down-and-up!


Music and All That Jazz:

Jazz was made in New Orleans. New Orleans airport is perhaps is the only airport I know of which is named after a musician: Louis Armstrong, the cult jazz musician. The music tradition is perhaps due to the mix of the cultural influences. The Europeans, the Blacks and the Americans. Decades of inter-mingling spawned Jazz music. And Jazz lovers from all over the world flock to listen their kind of music here. And aspiring Jazz Musicians too come from all over to play in the bars and restaurants here! Unfortunately for us, the evening we spent on Bourbon Street, the jazz lovers of the world were out there is droves to relish their form of music! So we had to settle into a place which perhaps was not the best example of New Orleans music traditions but had a lovely atmosphere and some reasonably good music. “Steamboat Willie” entertained us through the evening while we downed cups after cups of draught beer.


The Beads of Bourbon Street:

As far as city quirks go, this one takes the cake! The narrow street is lined with quaint two-storey buildings, all of them with balconies. The balconies were originally made for the residents (and their guests) to take in the sights of the street after a sumptuous meal and hear the strains of jazz music wafting through from various bars and restaurants. As we were walking up-and-down we saw curious little hordes of women (and men) on the street looking up towards the men (and women) thronging the balconies. Ever so often the balcony-astride man (sometimes women too) would throw down shiny bead necklaces on (probably) specific persons (invariably women) down below and there was a scramble to grab the necklace. We could see women with piles of bead necklaces of various shiny colours adorning their necks or wrapped around their wrists. Someone in our group who was in-the-know explained to us that this bead throwing was an old tradition linked to the annual Mardi Gras festival of New Orleans. On a normal work day (night, really) this was a kind of a game whose rules stated that the women below would get to keep the bead necklace thrown at them. But, but, if the necklace were to land around their necks without getting intercepted beforehand then the woman “target” would have to “flash”! Flashing being rolling up her T a few inches more than modesty dictated!


Fortified and emboldened by copious quantities of beer we have had, we hung around the crowd hoping for a sharpshooter on the balcony to snare a dame. Tough luck! Or maybe the flashing story is just apocryphal!!

The Tastes of Childhood: Part One

June 22, 2008

Among the childhood memories which stay with you, there are some which perhaps are universal among all Indian kids, especially those of my era. The raw bite of the unripened mangoes. The burst of sugarcane juice in your mouth as you would bite into a stick after impatiently removing the outer hard skin of the sugar-cane stick. The sour bite of an amla as your teeth sank into this berry. The explosion of icy coolness in your parched mouth as you bit hard and deep into an ice-lolly. The joy of these little life-savers, some had with parental permission, but most of them furtively, when no one was watching!


Can anyone forget the taste of the first bers of the season? The onset of winter would bring the new crop of bers. We could hardly wait for the bers to ripen and would start plucking them off their bushes, raw! No rawness which cannot be cured with a pinch of salt. Bers were banned for some reason till after Basant Panchami. But we would classify bers into two categories: the smaller marble shaped reddish-yellow ones and their light green colored elongated cousins. The former we could have before Basant Panchami while the latter was reserved for consumption only after it was offered first to Ma Saraswati on the Basant Panchami day. The red ones had a slightly khatta-meetha taste; the burnt red coloured ones had a shriveled skin and were sweeter than their healthier looking brethren. The area around our house had a number of ber bushes and many a winter morning and afternoon was spent plucking bers. A prick or two from the thorns of the ber tree were hardly a deterrent to this. And, enterprising as we were, the ber story does not get over with the consumption of the outer pulp; we would extract further mileage from this humble fruit by breaking open the seed with stones and partaking of the soft kernel inside the seed!


Talking about fruits, remember digging into the small juicy mangoes, the biju aam? No sooner these were brought home by Pitaji, the kids would wash them under the tap and proceed to suck out the juicy pulp from within. As one progressed through a whole bunch of these juicy delights, one’s jaws would ache at the effort as one would continue to suck the mangoes, eyes focused in concentration, cheeks sucked deep within the mouth with the effort. A generous quantity of the juice would dribble down from the mouth making irregular shaped streams all along the lower face, around the chin and finally dripping down to the floor if you were not prompt enough to swiftly break this flow with your fingers and suck the juice off your fingers.


The chooran-wallahs, God bless them, were always available just outside the school-gate with their magical concoctions. Especially at the break times. Even now I remember the tangy mix of which there were two varieties, one the dry powdery one while the other the pasty one. The five paise worth of chooran was licked off the newspaper scrap it was dispensed in. As the amount of chooran diminished on the newspaper, one would nearly lick the newsprint off the paper to maximize the extraction of the powder! If one was feeling rich, one could even splurge another five paise for an ice lolly. This was dipped into the chooran powder which was then sucked off its icy substrate. No amount of admonishment from the school teachers and parents could prevent us from enjoying chooran, the birthright of all school children. A cousin of the chooran, sold by the same chooran-Walla was the amaawat, also called aam-papad. An array of these rectangular pieces were displayed on a thaali, and the aforementioned magical five paise coin could get you one of these tasty chewees which would slowly dissolve into your mouth as you munched on them. The occasional piece of the amaawat would get stuck between the teeth and would act as a slow-release mood-enhancing drug as you plodded though the classes. The pleasure of the taste, right in the classroom, with no risk at all of getting caught!


Chewing gum was not a popular thing among the school-kids of that era, maybe there were no good chewing gums available. There was one green-wrapped “NP” branded chewing gum which left a terrible aftertaste, besides being too leathery for chewing comfort. Chiclets with its circus-clown model came in much later and was considered by us as rather elitist. The days of bubble gum were far, far way.


Bhutta has been an all-time favourite of all. The aroma of a bhutta roasting on embers on a road-side cart was enough to get the salivary glands working feverishly. You could barely wait for the vendor to complete the roasting, hold it with the relatively cooler stalk, apply a generous amount of salt with an overused, grubby looking piece of lemon, wrap it up in the light-green leafy covering and hand it to you in exchange for a twenty-five paise. You would dig your teeth instantly into the bhutta savouring the taste. No elegant removal of the seeds with the side of your thumb- that was a silly adult like behaviour- but just a non-stop munch as you sat around or walked around holding the bhutta. Only when most of the bhutta was done with, you would examine the bhutta closely to discover some uneaten corners, some half-bitten seeds, some over cooked or uncooked portions and thus maximize the joy of the bhutta. Only when it was nibbled clean was it reluctantly thrown away.


Horlicks was a favourite comfort food during my growing-up days. Not the Horlicks dissolved in a cup of milk but a spoonful of the heavenly powder tossed into the mouth when no one was watching! The sweet, milky, well, Horlicks-y taste would pervade the senses bringing you to a heightened enough state of ecstasy for you to return to the drudgery of your homework. The problem on cost-of-paving-a-road-around-a-rectangular-field was a song as you unsuccessfully tried to dislodge the stuff stuck to your palate with multiple flicks and contortions of your tongue. While the stickiness was uncomfortable, it was more than compensated by the slow release of the taste as the solution to the problem was worked out. Eventually, your tongue would tire and give up and then the brahmastra was employed. You would release the sticky goo from your palate with the help of your forefinger! Never mind the ink-stains on the finger or the soiled finger nails. This would be slowly licked off the finger tip Can anyone ever forget the delightful flavour of the paste slowly dissolving on the tip of your tongue?


Even now, for no specific reason, and at some very incongruous moment, the taste comes back to you, often with an alarming urgency. Like, while on transit at Frankfurt airport on my way back home from USA after a week’s trip, I had this sudden insane desire to eat bers! No one could have ever guessed what was going on in my mind, but I suddenly felt terribly embarrassed. I thought only pregnant women have such freaky thoughts at equally freaky times!