Friday, 30 March 2012

Death Shall Die II

Death Be Not Proud

Last Monday, we went to the ICU of a local hospital to see a relative suffering from cancer. He was under life-support system. The situation was grim. An oxygen mask was fixed covering his nose and mouth. He was breathing rather heavily. The eye-lids were fixed. The eyes were open and had a fixed stare. He was not blinking. And in the morning of Tuesday, we received the news that he was no more. We visited the grieving family that day.

The image of his blink-less eyes has been permanently fixed in my mind.

My mind travels down the cases where I was a witness to dying or dead persons. As a child I was told about the death of my baby-sister, my only sister. I was too young to remember the scene. In our place babies who die in infancy, are buried and not cremated like older persons who die. As such, my baby-sister was buried. I remember being told by my family-members that when the people who took her for burial came back, I ran after them with a threatening stick asking them why they had taken away my sister.

I was not present when my father and later, my mother died. Our custom does not permit keeping a dead body for long to become ‘stale’. Where a person dies at night, the body is cremated the same night. As such I did not have the chance to see the bodies of my father or mother. My father died suddenly soon after retirement from Govt. service. My mother lived till she was past eighty. I had last seen her about a fortnight before her death.

I was not present when my brother, just elder to me, died. I arrived soon after the death of my younger brother, saw his body and participated in his cremation. His elder son gave the mukhagni. I was not present when my father-in-law suddenly died of heart-failure. I had last seen my ailing and hospitilised mother-in-law about a week before her death. I had attended her cremation.

The father-in-law of my elder brother was suffering from cancer. He was operated upon at Vellore and after this, his condition seemed to improve. Later it deteriorated. When he knew what was going to come, he committed suicide by jumping before a train, leaving a suicide note.

As I had to move over different places on transfer, we had no chance to stay in the house which I had built, till after my retirement. The house has an extra self-contained room where I used to stay during my brief visits. One night, during one such visit, at about 10 P M, I was told that an old lady in my tenant’s family had just died. I went down to see her. She was in her nineties. She was sitting on her bed and just dropped down with a slight thud. The family decided to take the body to their native place for cremation. By the time a death certificate was obtained, all other arrangements were made and the body was taken, it was 2 A M. I could not sleep the whole night.

When I was working at Chaibasa, a small District Head Quarters town in Jharkhand, I had become almost a family-member of many of the householders including non-customers. I used to get invited to almost all festivals and birth-ceremonies. During my stay there, I received the news of the death of one of the customers of my Bank. I immediately rushed there and was with them till the cremation.

When a person is diagnosed with a terminal illness like cancer and knows that he/she has only a few more days, how would he be feeling? What would be the feeling of his family-members? The two sons of this relative of mine arrived soon after being told that the dreaded moment was approaching. How would they have felt? They realized the inevitability, tried to prepare their mother for the fast coming loss and tried to persuade their mother to ‘let him go’.

In a Hindi film that I had watched some years ago, the protagonist was suffering from cancer. Everybody, his family-members, relatives, friends and colleagues, would become somber when he would come near them but he would always be cheerful and joyous! Knowing that his days were numbered, he tried to make the most of those days and spread cheer everywhere. Is it possible in real life?

At the time of someone’s death, we become philosophical. During my student-days, I had read a poem which had a few lines like this: a snake had grabbed a frog and was trying to swallow it. The frog was struggling to escape from the snake’s jaws. Yet, when the frog saw a dragon fly flapping its wings above its head, it extended its tongue, caught the fly and gobbled it up!

How is one to be prepared to face death? Lalita Pawar, who used to perfectly play the role of oppressive mother-in-law Hindi films and who played the role of Manthara in Ramanand Sagar’s TV Serial Ramayan, was living all alone. Her neighbours noticed about her death full 3 days after she had died in her closed house.

I had read somewhere, “Talk happiness; the world is sad enough without your woes.”

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Ganesh Milk Phenomenon

The Need to Believe

The year was 1995. I was working at Chaibasa, a small District Head Quarters town in Bihar, now a part of Jharkhand. It was morning. I was returning from an official engagement at Ranchi. We stopped at a road-side tea-stall for the driver to have a tea-break. As I was wandering around to have a ‘leg-break’, my eyes caught the bold head-lines of a newspaper which another person was reading. The head-line screamed “GANESH DRINKINK MILK”. I picked up a newspaper from the tea-stall to have a glance at this attention-drawing news. It said that all over India, idols of Lord Ganesh were ‘drinking’ milk.

This had led to unprecedented rush at Ganesh temples all over India. It all started in Chandigarh. A person reportedly had a dream in which Lord Ganesh told him that ‘he would make his presence felt’. How this dream led to ‘milk-drinking idols’, remains a mystery. The news spread like wild fire; telephones buzzed; Hindus all over India and abroad were in the grip of the ‘miracle’. Sceptics visited temples to report the ‘hoax’ and returned amazed and humbled!

Scientists explained that it was the effect of surface tension, capillary action, viscosity and siphon. One scientist at Kolkata demonstrated that not only an upright Ganesh idol but an upside down icon, a flower vase and even a telephone receiver could attract milk. For this, it was said, certain conditions must be fulfilled: the shape of the part ‘sucking’ milk should be a soft curve similar to a crescent; the edge should go up and come down slightly; the surface should be wet and the milk should be in constant contact with the surface of the lower and tapering part.

One newspaper carried a photograph of a plastic jug ‘drinking’ milk along side an idol of Ganesh!

It was shown that the phenomenon was no miracle. Was it a hoax played by some, which became a delusion for others? In all the cases, the priests and devotees were informed over phone. Milk, a liquid, and not laddoos, Ganesh’s favourite, was chosen. Lord Ganesh was chosen, his trunk being of the suitable shape.

Why were so many people taken in by the delusion? Some rationalists attributed this to ignorance and sense of insecurity. One anthropologist explained the phenomenon as a manifestation of liminality. Liminality is a psychological, neurological or metaphysical subjective state, conscious or unconscious of being on the ‘threshold’ of, or between, two different existential planes. Liminal periods are the marginal neither-here-nor-there phases when established rules and phases are temporarily inverted.

The Ganesh milk phenomenon revealed some very deep-rooted psychological needs like the need to believe. This is why despite some serious attempts at distancing from the wide-spread rumour and objectivity, many got carried away. Nobody thought of measuring and comparing the milk that ‘disappeared’ and that which flowed down.

One scientist said, “As a scientist, I see miracles all around me : a grain of sand, a flower….. I believe in the principle of negative capability. Negative capability allows the uncertainty at all times. An important principle of science is never to be dogmatic and realize that the schism between scientific and moral laws has to exist. I always feel that individuals have a melancholy look on their faces. That Thursday, though, I saw a brightness, an elation, in everyone. I liked it. I think the hoax is worthwhile.”

It will be long before human society rejects all phenomena which have no scientific explanation. When in 1969 the first man who landed on the moon took off the spacecraft , the scientist who made that possible, knelt and prayed to God looking ‘heavenwards’!

Based on my entry in a competition held by a newspaper published from Kolkata.
Retrieved from my personal archive

Friday, 23 March 2012

The Stone Apple

The bael or bilva tree in my garden is now laden with luscious round-sized fruits with delicious core inside. (See photo below). This tree is more than 25 years old, slightly younger than my house.

I came across a piece on bael tree, by Vithal C Nadkarni in The Economic Times which I found interesting. Here it is, in a paraphrased, slightly-edited and chiseled form, and with some additional matter.

In mid-March, the thorny bael tree is bereft of leaves but is laden with large globular fruits. The British call it stone apple. There is the macabre local name ‘Sirphal’ (Sir-head, phal-fruit), which ostensibly comes from the resemblance of the hard shell to the skull that encases soft tissues inside.

Tradition likens the bael’s trifoliate leaves to Shivji’s trishul that the three-eyed God holds in his right hand.

The worship of Shiva is deemed to be incomplete without bael leaves. The connection between bael leaf and the ritual worship of Shiva is so potent that great merit is believed to accrue even to one who accidentally drops the leaves on Shiva-linga.

The Shiva Lilamrita tells the story of the hunter Suswara who spent the night one Mahashivaratri, atop a bael tree. Sleepless due to hunger and thirst, he kept thinking of his wife and family, continually and absent-mindedly plucking the leaves and dropping them to the ground. There was a Shiva-linga below the tree and the leaves fell on it. Eventually, when Suswara dies, he is taken straight to heaven, all because the virtue that had accrued to him as had virtually worshiped Lord Shiva by offering bael leaves, albeit unknowingly

Years ago, I had read somewhere about a mythological person, Ajamila, with not a very good nature who had named his son as Narayan. He committed many sins during his life-time. At the time of his lonely death, he called his son who was not around. He called out several times, "Narayan, Narayan, Narayan". Then he died. He was awarded heaven as he had uttered 'Narayan', another name of Lord Vishnu.

Along with the bael plant, I had planted a sapling of wood apple, whose fruits look like a concise edition of the bael fruit. An wood apple is of the size of, and looks like, cricket ball. Like the bael fruit, it has a hard exterior and, when ripe, a soft core but with a deliciously sour taste. It is used to make a mouth-watering chatni. Unfortunately, the wood apple plant died due to want of care which the tenants did not give it. I am looking for a sapling of it to add to my mini-orchard.

The name Sirphal reminds me of Sitaphal (custard apple). When Ram, Sita and Laxman were living in the forest during their vanavas, living off fruits, it is believed that Ram discovered this delicious fruit which he presented it to Sita and named it after her. Then Sita discovered another sweet fruit, presented it to Ram and promptly named it Ramphal!

Talking of phals, do not forget Sriphal (cocoanut), named after Shree (Goddess Laxmi). I do not know how it was named after the Goddess of Wealth. Did it come out along with Laxmiji during the mythological churning of the ocean by the Gods and demons?

There is one thing common in both Sirphal and Sriphal. Both are hard outside and soft inside. So is the wood apple. Some bosses are like this: a tough exterior and a kind heart inside.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Love's Quirk

It was buried under heaps of memory spanning a period of 40 years.

The wife and I were on a visit to Daughter I living with her family in the U S of A. The son-in-law had arranged on the occasion, a get-together with his good number of cousins, a few of his NRI friends and their families living there. We were engrossed in small talk which included nostalgic memories back home in India.

While traversing down memory-lane, one lady and I discovered that we were batch-mates in the University! :)))))))

While talking about our University days, she suddenly asked me, “Do you remember the episode about (Here I shall not use real names to protect their identity.) Shyam Narayan ?”

Me: “Singhdeo? Shyam Narayan Singhdeo?”

She: “Yes.”

Me: “And Ghoornima Mishra?”

She: “Ah, Their love-story became a talk of the town. They became a legend.”

Ghoornima was tremendously beautiful (in our the then prevailing parlance, ‘prachanda sundari’): he was not bad-looking either. No one knew the real thing. No one bothered to find out and verify facts. Nobody knew whether what we heard about them were facts or mere conjectures but every one believed what was in the air.

They were both students of Applied Economics. Both were brilliant students. Both studied hard. Many times they were spotted studying together in the library. Every body wondered as who between them would get the First Class First position and as such would win the University Gold Medal in the subject.

It was the month of July. The exam started. There were six Papers. The exam was held each alternate day. The sittings were from 8 AM to 12 noon. The University Campus had a large number of trees among whom a good number was Krishna Chuda (Flame of the Forest) which bore brilliant red-hued flowers. At the time of our exam, these trees were in full bloom. Their tops were aflame and resplendent.

At last the D Day arrived. The exam started with Paper I. After a break of one day Paper II came and was over. After a break, the day of Paper III came.

And then it happened.

There was no sign of Shyam Narayan. He missed the Paper. He was not in the hostel. He was not in the library. He was not in the round- about near the water-tank in the University campus where we occasionally used to hang out in the afternoons. He was not in the canteen, He was nowhere - nowhere. He had simply vanished into thin air!

Rumour-mills started spinning. Gossips took wings. The grape vines spread them. The belief was that Shyam Narayan had abandoned the exam to allow Ghoornima to be the Topper.

But then why did he disappear? He could have left out one question: he could have written a fully or partially wrong answer if he wanted her to get the Gold Medal.

Why, why did he disappear?

After that, nobody has seen Shyam Narayan.

Later we heard the unconfirmed news that she had married an Army Officer.

For more that 40 years, I (and many of our batch-mates) have been hoping and wishing that someday, somewhere, on some occasion, I shall run into Shyam Narayan.

I am reminded of the stories floating around the mysterious disappearance of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. There is no universally-accepted evidence of his death. Years ago, I read that a bearded monk looking like Netaji was seen somewhere near the foot of the Himalayas.

Did Shyam Narayan become a Sanyasi? Or – I shudder to think.- did he leave the world?

A deep sigh escaped from the lady and me simultaneously.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Changing People And Changing Things


I was a revolutionary when i was young and my prayer to God was, "Lord, give me the energy to change the world."

As i approached middle age and recalled that half of my life was gone without changing a single soul, i changed my prayer to "Lord, give me the strength to change all those who come in contact with me - just my family and friends- and i shall be content."

Now that i am an old man and my days are numbered, my prayer is, "Lord, give me the grace to change myself."

If i would have prayed for this right at the start, i would not have wasted my life.

Sufi Sayzadi



God, grant me the serenity to accept,
The things i cannot change;
The courage to change things i can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

A man remained a bachelor. All his friends and acquaintances kept asking him why he was not marrying. He kept quiet.

At last he became old and was about to die. His friends became sad. His closest friend could no longer suppress his curiosity. He asked him, "At least now you can tell me why you did not marry." In a low voice, the man replied,"Since you are my best friend, I can now confide in you. I was looking for the perfect woman."

The friend then asked, "You did not find one?"

He hesitated for a moment and replied," Only recently I found her," and continued, "but she also had been looking for a perfect man to marry." Then the man breathed his last.