Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Those Hard Days, That One Rupee And A Sweet Tail

In my last post ‘A Temple and the Umbilical Chord’ I have very briefly referred to my primary education in my village-school. Our village is about 15 KMs from Cuttack, which was the capital of Odisha from 1936 (when Orissa - as it was spelt till 2011- was separated from Province of 'Bihar & Orissa' on the basis of language) to 1949. I started my education in the village-school. At that time the lowest Class was called Shishu Shreni (equivalent to Nursery). The next was Class I. Usually, when a child was first admitted to the school, the parents used to present a coconut and a few coins to the teacher. The first lesson started with learning to practise drawing 3 big zeros, representing the Trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswar. After a brief puja, the teacher would draw the 3 big zeros on a slate and holding the pupil’s hand, would make the pupil draw again and again over the zeros till the pupil would be able to draw the zeros independently. After this, learning of the alphabets, one by one –or, most of the times, two by two- would start in the same process. The modern management concept of ‘hand-holding’ must have come from this.

In the beginning, the writing instrument would be khadi,  a chalk-like long but thin piece made of the same material as that of a slate, probably a little less hard. Pupils would practice learning and writing letters of the alphabet and then numbers by writing these on a slate by using a khadi. Later, perhaps in Class I, pupils would start writing with pencil on paper and then with ink-pen. We would buy ink-tablets and put these into water in an ink-pot to make ink. Writing was by dipping the nib of an open pen into the ink frequently. There would be smudges all over the paper as well as on the thumb and the fore finger with which the pen would be held. Along with a bag containing a few books each student used to carry his/her ink-pot to the school. There was only one teacher to teach all the students of all the classes. Of course, the total number of students in the school was not large. Any mistake would invite caning and other corporal punishments. Since I was a good student, I escaped this.

My first teacher was a wise and old soul. He retired perhaps when I was in Class II. A new and younger teacher joined. We were required to get by heart mathematical Tables. These Tables were written as below:
12   15
4     5
3     3
meaning 3x 4=12 and 3x5=15 etc. in the present form. The columns were separated by vertical lines drawn from top to bottom after writing each column.

meaning 12x10=120 in the present form.

In addition, the product, 120 here in this example, was to be converted to Rupees and Annas. One Rupee had 16 Annas and one Anna had 4 Paise. Here, 120 was to be converted as 7 Rupees and 8 Annas. This was to be written as 7 followed by the symbol for 8 Annas. This was to be written above 120. The tables were read starting from below, like, twelve tens (are) hundred twenty (which is equal to) 7 rupees and 8 annas. We had to get by heart such Tables up to 25.

The school-timing was from 10 A M to 4 P M. One thing I remember about the days of my first teacher was that the school had no clock, nor the teacher had a wrist-watch. I do not remember how the starting time of the school was determined. However the closing time was determined by an aeroplane. In the afternoon we used to hear the sound of its flying overhead and that was taken as the closing time of the school! I passed out from this school (Class III) in 1956. The nearest school having Class IV and above was more than 3 miles away (about 5 KMs). (The metric system of measuring distances by Metres and weights by Grams was yet to be adopted in India. The switchover came in 1957. Along with this, came the new monetary system of Rupees and Paise – first called Naye Paise –NP.) My elder brothers were studying in that school. They used to walk to that school. I was considered too frail to be able to walk 10 KMs (to and fro) daily. So I studied the lessons of Class IV at home, helped by an elder cousin-brother who, after passing High School Examination, was a teacher in that school. He was teaching in Classes up to VII.

          My recent photo against the background of my village-school           
When the next Academic Year started in July, I joined Class V in that school. For admitting me to Class V, the school conducted a special short Test for me to find whether I had really learnt the lessons of Class IV. My first walk to that school was memorable. The road was laid by spreading moram (red-coloured gravels) on the top. Wearing chappals or any other foot-wear was not in vogue. We had to walk bare foot. So when I returned from my first day at this school, both my feet were full of blisters. I could not walk. I had to absent myself from school till the blisters were cured. Then I learned walking on the extreme sides of the road where a little grass had grown, to avoid having blisters. After some days, I became habituated to walk on such roads without hurting my feet. The road in the village was of normal earth and no one had problem in walking on it. No one of the village, except those who traveled daily to Cuttack, the nearest city, to work in Offices, used any foot-wear.

I used to secure the first position in the Class in my village-school. The number of students in Class V of the High School was much larger. I stood 4th in the Annual Examination. The top 3 positions were occupied by three students who belonged to that locality and who were already studying there when I joined Class V there. I felt very sad. However in the Annual Examination of Class VI, I secured the First Position and maintained it till Class XI. At that time, High School was up to Class XI. At the end of Class XI, students were required to appear at an examination conducted by the Board of Secondary Examination. The Centre for this Exam was a school other than the students’ own. My Board Exam Centre was a school in Cuttack. When I went to appear at the Board Exam, my eldest brother, who was working at Cuttack, purchased a pair of hawai slippers for me. That was the first time that I had foot-wear. I used to walk to school during my first one year in the High School. The river Kathajodi, a branch of the Mahanadi, the longest river of Odisha, flows near our village. The river would be half dry in about 8 out of 12 months in a year. During rainy season, we used to cross the river in the boats which plied when the river would be in spate. When there would be no flood, people used to cross the river on foot. I also used to do that. From April till the school closed for Summer Holidays in mid-May, there would be morning Classes. We used to return from school in the mid-day. At that time, the sands of the river-bed would be very hot. As I said, we had no foot-wear. So, before having to walk on the hot sand, we used to uproot two bushes from the river-side. We used to put one bush over the hot sand, place one foot on it, put the other bush a little ahead and place the other foot on the second bush. Alternating like this, we used to walk on the sand on the river-bed. I went through this ordeal of having to walk on hot sand, bare feet for one year.

When I went to Class VI, I became a paying guest at the residence of one of my teachers whose house was near the school. From Class VII till Class XI, I stayed in the school-hostel. Since I was a good student and used always to top the Class, I received special help from my teachers. I never took private tuition like many of my Class fellows. For each subject, I had two long note books. I used to write the answers to the relevant questions on the subject in one note book and give it to the subject teacher. He would take it home, correct it and give it back to me the next day, when I would give him the second note book with my next set of answers. I can never forget this help of my school teachers. In fact, they were my mentors.

The school where I studied from Class V to Class XI was originally an M E School, having Classes from IV to VII. (At that time schools with Classes up to VII were called Middle English School – a legacy of the British days - and those with Classes from VIII to XI were called High English Schools. (These were not English-medium schools; English language was one of subjects taught there.) Around that time, the word ‘English’ was omitted and the schools became simply ‘Middle School’ and ‘High School’. The school where I studied was originally an M E School. I clearly remember an incident of those school-days. Prof. Ratnakar Pati, a retired Professor of Ravenshaw College, Cuttack and belonging to that area, painstakingly upgraded it to a High School. He was the President of the Managing Committee and in that capacity he used to visit the school and interact with the students. During one such visit, he came to our Class. I was in Class VI or VII. He asked us a question and then said “Raise your hands.” I was one of the few students who raised their hands. Another student answered correctly before the question could come to me. Then he said, “Spell the word ‘raise’.” Now only two hands were up. The first student spelt the word incorrectly. Then Prof Pati looked at me and I spelt it correctly. He became very happy, took out a one-rupee note from his pocket and gave it to me as a reward. (The year was 1958 or 1959. Then one rupee had substantial value!)

At the end of Class VII, I was selected to appear at the Scholarship Examination at Cuttack. In it I secured one of the Top Positions and got the Scholarship for the next 4 years, i.e., up to Class XI.
 I shall end with another situation I passed through during my first year in the College. I passed the High School Certificate Examination with good marks with which I secured a seat in Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, the premier College (established in 1863) of the State. I was also allotted a seat in the hostel. However, the family finances did not permit bearing the hostel fees. A person known to our family was working as a peon in the College. He was allotted a small room as accommodation. I stayed with him. He managed to get the key to one of the class rooms of the College. I kept my meager belongings and books in his room. For my studying, I used to open the Class Room in the mornings, evenings and holidays and used to study there. A few peons had joined for cooking their food and I was their paying guest.

 On the basis of my results in the H S C Examination I got a scholarship but the lengthy procedure for getting it meant that I received the amount only about 9 months after joining the College. With the scholarship money and an interest-free loan-scholarship from Government (The condition was that if after education, one took up teaching as a profession, 10% of the total loan-amount would be waived for each completed year of service.), my family could put me in a hostel of the College from my second year onwards. The general rooms of the hostels were meant to accommodate 4 students each but in view of the good marks secured by me in the Examinations every year, I was allotted one of the few single rooms of the hostel.          

       Postage Stamp issued on Ravenshaw College, Cuttack, in 1978


My future wife was a student of the same College and 3 years junior to me. She got admitted to the College when I was in the Final Year of the Degree Course. That was my last year in that College, from where I went to the University for Post-Graduate Course. After our marriage, once when she was in an expansive mood, the wife confided with me that during her first year in the College, a thought passed her mind that her future husband must be studying in the same College. What a self-fulfilling thought! We did not know each other then, but must have seen each other during that year, without noticing or having an inkling of what God and fate were brewing for us! 

Thursday, 7 March 2013

A Temple and the Umbilical Chord

I had been supporting the construction of a temple dedicated to the deity of my ancestral village. Swept by the current trend and due to demands of my working life, I had moved from my village to an urban area. I had constructed a house in the State Capital Bhubaneswar, almost 30 years ago. Due to call of work, I had moved all over India and had never got the opportunity of living in this house. After my retirement in 2009, the wife and I moved into this house. At this time, I felt the pull of my village where I had spent my childhood and had my primary education. The village-deity was housed in a small structure of about 6 feet with a dome at the top. Soon after my retirement, the villagers felt that it was time for construction of a bigger temple. A 25 feet temple was planned and my fellow villagers sought my support. This was the time I was experiencing the pull towards my idyllic village and I was only too willing to join.

The construction took about 3 years and the beautiful temple was consecrated in a 5-day ceremony from the 17th to 21st February, 2013. The Ratna Muda (sealing of the top of the structure) ceremony had been conducted about a year ago and the villagers had chosen me to be the Karta (principal performer of a puja) in it. In the final consecration ceremony also, I was chosen to be the Karta. So, for 5 days, I discarded my Western clothes and donned a two piece dhoti. On the first two days, it was white dhotis. It was preliminary puja on the first day. Puja was conducted on the idol to be installed. Then the idol was placed in a horizontal position and first, my wife (as kartri) and I as karta  put paddy over it amidst chanting of mantras. Then others put paddy over it as the chanting of mantras continued. The idol was fully covered with paddy.

The principal activity on the second day was panitola (ceremonial bringing of water from a river about 3 Kilo Metres from the temple to the Yajnasthala), walking the distance bare feet. One hundred and eight specially chosen ladies, attired in yellow-and-red coloured sarees, carried water in kalasas (earthen pots). I was at the head of this procession and carried the main kalasa.

The procession was a colourful one. We were preceded by drummers and musicians. The priests walked in front of me. A large number of other ladies, men and youngster (girls and boys) were at the tail end of the procession. The number of people in the procession exceeded 1000! Fire-works accompanied the procession. The serpentine procession meandered through the village. The onward journey, during which I carried the empty kalasa with a mango-twig and a green coconut on top, was easy.

After we reached the river, there was ceremonial puja near the water. The priests and I sat on the river-bed at the centre. All the Kalasas also were placed there. We were surrounded by a thick ring formed by the 108 ladies wearing identical yellow sarees with red border and small red flower-designs on the body. This ring in ‘uniform’ was surrounded by another layer of women and men in ‘civil’ dress. The whole thing appeared like a sight fit for gods to see!

The return journey was a difficult job. We had to trudge the village road bare-foot, carrying the water-loaded kalasa. Mine was larger and so heavier. And the requirement was that no water should spill on the way. To add to my pleasing burden, we had to halt at about 5 places, where ladies of the locality did puja and arati for the main kalasa which I was carrying. Before arati, one of the ladies would wash my feet with turmeric-water. During this process, I had to stand erect and almost motionless. At one of such ceremonies a lady put a tumble of green coconut water to my mouth and I sipped it with great relief. It was later explained to me that since I was carrying the main kalasa, I represented the deity and hence my feet were to be ceremonially washed. (However, I felt embarrassed.)

Towards the end, I felt tired and started worrying whether I would be able to make it to the temple. Throughout the return journey, a young man walked close to me to avert any possible mishap. I planned to hand over the kalasa to him in case of need. But with the blessings of the deity, I completed the journey. At the end, I was fully exhausted but felt very happy.   

The kalasas were placed near the Yagnasthala. In the evening, the yajnakunda where homa (holy fire) was to be conducted was ceremonially lighted. On the third day, ceremonial worship of the sun and then of a cow and other rituals were conducted. On the fourth day, the ceremonial worship of the sun and a cow was repeated. This cow was later gifted to the chief priest.

Then the idol was brought to snana mandap (bathing place) and turmeric paste, sandal wood paste, ghee were applied on it. After that the idol was bathed with milk and finally, with water. As usual, my wife (as the Kartri) and I as karta started the process which was completed by the other devotees. After more puja,  the idol ceremonially ‘slept’ on the yajna mandap and evening arati was conducted.

On the final day, after worship of the sun, the process of jibanyasa (breathing life into the idol) was conducted and the spirit of the deity was instilled in the idol. After more puja, the deity was taken around the entire village in a decorated vehicle improvised as a rath (chariot) along with beating of drums and playing of music. The priests, I and a few other devotees sat at the feet of the deity. Others followed on foot.  The vehicle stopped at a few places where the residents worshipped the deity. Then the deity was taken into the sanctum sanctorum of the temple amidst chanting of mantras, playing of devotional music and beating of drums. Purnahuti (final offering) marked the completion of the process of consecration of the temple.

With the entry of the deity, the structure became a temple.

In all the 5 evenings, bhajans, kirtans and other devotional programmes were conducted. In one evening, Arabinda Muduli, the leading devotional singer of Odisha performed. In another evening, Swami Krishna Premanand Saraswati Maharajji of Chinmaya Mission conducted a Prabachan (spiritual discourse).

The 5-day programme was an humbling and uplifting experience for me. From mundane life, I felt transported to a different world. The memory of that exalted feeling has been permanently etched in my mind. The wife was all along by my side as sahadharmini.

My parents, uncles and aunts are no more. My brothers and I have moved away to cities. No one from my extended family any longer lives in my village. Our ancestral house has been let out to a neighbour on a nominal rent, to take care of its maintenance . Our visits to the village are scarce. This temple will provide me an attachment and attraction and raison detre for me to visit the village where I came into this world.

During these 5 days, I stayed in our ancestral house (which was earlier my home) in the village; I became a guest in our own house! The tenant's family took good care of me. By a coincidence, the room in which I was put up was the same room where I was born! I visualised myself as a baby. Nostalgic memories of my early life filled my mind. Throughout, I felt the presence of my mother by my side.

One day, I visited the village school (since upgraded) where I first learnt the alphabets on a slate with a 'khadi'. I talked to the students and teachers sharing memories of the past. I was taken back to a scene where I found myself as a tiny tot going to the school with a bag hung from the shoulders, containing a couple of books, a note book, a rather long ink-pen with an open nib  and an ink-pot in hand! I can't forget my first teacher (an old and wise soul) and the other teachers of my time there. I took a photo of mine against the background of the school, established in 1932. I passed out from this school (Class III) in 1956.

My mind is filled with emotions and feelings which I fail to find words to describe.

I feel the pull of the umbilical chord.