Tuesday, 17 January 2017

About God and Faith

photo courtesy. hindumantrasandfacts.blogspot.com

Based on a true incident fictionalised for creative purposes.

“Your aunt is worried about her niece not getting married yet. She wants to offer prayers for her at a special temple, few hours away. I am going with her, want to come?” Shika’s mum asked.

While in between jobs, Shika was visiting her parents in India. Temples were not really her thing and she was not exactly devout. However, she decided to make a day trip of it.

So the next day, a car was arranged to pick up them around 7, hoping to get a headstart on the 3 hour journey.

As the car made way through the busy roads, Shika looked out of the window taking in the city life. Students with their headphones plugged in, waiting eagerly at the bus stop. As the car circled the massive public park, sweaty elderly residents were walking along the ringside, getting their early morning exercise before the rush hour traffic kicked in. 

Shops with their shutters half open were preparing for potential footfall. There was movement everywhere. Despite being early morning, the sun was hitting hard already. Soon there will be mad rush for every inch of space on the roads, Shika thought, as office goers will clog the roads in their cars and two wheelers.

As the car curved along the roads moving alongside trucks and buses packed with people, Shika couldn’t help but feel relieved. The best part of being on holiday was, you did not have to be anywhere. No school runs, as she watched a mum talking away to her child sitting behind her with a book in hand. To her, this was India, this vibrating, pulsating beat. People were so busy getting ahead and just surviving that they did not stop for anyone or anything else. Was that a good sign, she wasn’t sure.

As the car moved away from the city and entered the highway, the traffic eased out a bit, the buildings too seemed a bit spaced out. Shika could relax as she no longer jostled against her mother-in-law as the car overtook other vehicles. It felt better as the car 
picked up speed and raced along the highway.

Shika felt herself dozing off and when she woke up, it looked so different out of the window. They were fewer buildings, amid huge patches of land with trees lining up the roadside. There were vehicles on the road, but hardly any people. Soon enough, the car moved along a small road and spotting a man walking by, her aunt rolled down the window as the car slowed down beside him.

“Which way to the Neyveli town?”

“Keep going straight and as the road forks out, take the left” he said.

They kept on going. Clearly, they did not know how to get to the temple and in the absence of any signage, their only hope was seeking a passersby.

They managed to get into the town. The town’s main street was packed with people going about their lives. People instantly recognised them as out-of-towners and came up to us, liberal with their time in explaining directions.

These people probably are used to it, guiding visitors to the temple all the time, Shika thought.   As they drove on, Shika was looking out for a dome or a structure of some kind to indicate a temple. But they found themselves driving past rows of houses, into a quiet residential road instead.

“Look out for a flag on top of the ground floor flat,” the last person to give them directions, had said.

It sounded odd but by this point they just wanted to get to the place. Spotting the flag, they got out of the car.

They walked into what looked like an apartment and as they opened the gate, a gentleman wearing a checked shirt and orange dhoti, his forehead smeared with kumkum and ash beckoned them in.

They walked into a dark entrance that lead to a brightly lit shrine. The floodlights were directly aimed at a small bronze idol seated on a bronze throne, surrounded by mirrors from all sides and huge posters of the goddess.

“Please come in. Do you have an appointment?” The bewildered look on our faces said it all but he persisted.

“Did you call ahead of your journey?” We shook our heads.

 “Ah, I see. Please come in. You see, we always advise devotees to call ahead before they come. We are a family that looks after the shrine and often are open only a few days in a month. People like you who have travelled from far, often have a wasted journey if we are closed. But it looks like you are lucky.”

He asked us to sit down on the carpet laid on the floor.

“Would like me to tell you about the deity?” 

He then launched into a story about how the deity had been in the family for 200 years. The deity apparently appeared in the dream of an ancestor and asked him to look for her idol. After days of searching, the ancestor managed to find the tiny 6 inch idol and the family has been worshipping the deity for generations.

The deity which was a child like form of the goddess was called “Bala”. He brought the goddess to life as he started talking about the various characteristics of the deity. The shrine was her home and she decided who came there. Everyone is allowed into a temple but only a few are allowed into a home, he said.  Today, it was not luck, but her wishes that determined that we could see her. Also, the child goddess had a fondness for chocolates and biscuits and preferred them as offerings instead of the traditional offering of flowers and fruits. My aunt opened up a bag and took out the chocolates. Clearly, she had been briefed about the unusual request.

The deity had the supreme ability to fulfil all that her devotees asked for - Health, glory, children, peace of mind.  In return, the devotee was not expected to follow any ritual, make any donation or promises to the god. This goddess did not believe in “deals”. All that the devotee had to do was believe in her and once the desire was fulfilled, make a journey again to thank her. That was the only condition.

That’s impressive, thought Shika. After seeing temples adorned in gold and the notes offered as donations, this goddess sounded appealing. Shika found, she found herself warming up to the goddess already.

As she looked around, there were pictures lining up the walls of special events celebrated at the shrine. There were also numerous pictures of renowned celebrities in the arts seeking blessings and performing at the shrine. In a corner there was a shelf which had prayer books, beads, small objects that were supposed to help devotees with their troubles.

With soft music playing in the background, the smell of incense filling up the air and the priest’s engaging voice taking them what was clearly an oft repeated story, it was clear how privileged we were about being there. In that aura of spiritual tranquillity, it felt as though this goddess indeed had the power to grant any devotee’s desire.

Shika looked around at her aunt who was listening in rapt attention. As he finished yet another story extolling the virtues of the goddess, he gave her a pictures of the goddess and some red coloured powder kumkum. He asked her to place picture under the person’s pillow and apply the powder to the head. "The desires would be fulfilled," he said with conviction.

After sitting for a couple more minutes, they stood up and made way to the door. The aunt was profusely thanking the priest. As they stepped out, they felt a strange calm. The heat seemed to have lost its bite, the air smelled fresher and the strain of the journey alleviated.
They just stood there in silence, each in their own thoughts when the aunt said, “I think this will work for Priya.”

Priya was Shika's youngest cousin, a high achiever absorbed in her career. She had been married to a colleague for years and the family was looking forward to their baby.  But Shika always got the impression that everyone apart from the couple was interested in the idea.

The real purpose for the 3-hour journey just sunk in.
“Do you honestly think she will keep the picture under her pillow and apply that kumkum even she is not keen on babies,” Shika asked.

“Why not?” her aunt said.

I had my doubts.

But in that deliciously, calming atmosphere, anything seemed possible.

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