Friday, December 28, 2012

The Roopnarayan Temple at Dive Agar

Sunrise and Sunset at Dive Agar beach: The first rays of the sun give an ever so slight golden tinge to the white coats of the oxen. The ox teams are headed to the southern end of the beach to load up with sand. The sunset does not need description. On a beach with few people and no noisy distractions, you have no choice but to give the sight your full attention.

The beaches of Konkan Maharashtra are, for the most part, spectacularly pristine even to this day.  They stretch– almost uninterrupted– for several hundred kilometres of coastline which is dotted with hundreds of little fishing villages. If you are intimidated by (or tired of) the high decibel fame Goa’s beaches, the understated beauty of Dive Agar’s nearly six kilometre beach is just the place for you.

The waves of the Arabian Sea break gently on the sands of Dive Agar beach. It was everything that I had looked forward to- no crowds and no pesky hawkers. Just beautiful. But the surprise package was a place that is mentioned only in passing- the Roopnarayan Temple. The finely sculpted statue of the temple’s presiding deity, Vishnu, is an aesthetic delight.

Statue of Vishnu in the Roopnarayan            
Temple: The Dashavatars are not difficult    
to recognise. At the bottom, right, is the       
figure of Hanuman kneeling at Ram's feet.    
Parashuram is on the left, axe over his           
shoulder. Kalki is the small figure at Para-    
shuram's feet. The other avatars just as      
easily recognizable.                                           
A flex board inside the temple provides some information about the statue. It is made of black marble and believed to have been sculpted sometime between the 9th and the 12th century CE (Konkan was ruled by the Shilaharas about this time). The statue was found in a nearby forest and installed in small enclosure before being shifted to the present temple. We are also informed that the Portuguese had tried to take the statue away (we do not know when this happened), but the locals put up a stiff fight and foiled their plans. The statue suffered some damage during the struggle, but it is hard to tell where. 

There is something about the statue that makes it hard to turn your gaze away. Vishnu is standing and, unlike in most representations, His consort, Lakshmi, is not shown. It is the face that first catches one’s attention. The eyes are somewhat closely set, benevolent and watchful. The nose is sharp. The lips are slightly parted with just a hint of a smile.  

The four arms are in perfect proportion and are holding a conch, chakra, mace and lotus. The headgear is elaborate; the ornaments around the neck and torso are shown in minute detail. The figure is lifelike, yet more than human. It is obvious that the statue was a labour of love for the sculptor.

The Dashavatar-  the ten reincarnations of Vishnu- are beautifully carved in an arch behind Vishnu. From the first, Matsya ( Fish), to the tenth, Kalki, every one of the avatars is  recognizable. It is almost as if the stories told by your grandmother have come alive. You are in the presence of the Lord, in all His forms and glory.

Roopnarayan Temple, Dive Agar: The top of the dome takes  
on a golden hue in the early morning sunlight. The temple is  
a fairly recent structure though there is no sign to tell us when 
it was built. The idol was earlier placed in the the small, domed 
enclosure  (back left). The path to the seashore is to the left     
and the Arabian Sea- just behind the trees.                                   
The Roopnarayan Temple is located just a hundred metres from the beach and is on the path that leads to the seashore. Yet, except for a hurried prayer from a few of the many who are on their way to the beach, it does not attract visitors.

But Lord Vishnu understands. He pervades the world of beings. He is always there and everywhere- watching, protecting and preserving that which is needed.  

Dive Agar: Dive Agar is a charming little fishing village and the muted roar of the sea is a constant accompaniment to life here.  Just 170 kms south of Mumbai (nearly the same distance from Pune), it is an ideal getaway for stressed out city folk.  The accommodation and food available in Dive Agar are mostly basic and homely, which actually enhances the place’s USP. (It is hard to imagine anything better than a clutter-free weekend).  

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Is Cleanliness really next to Godliness?

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness”-Gandhi.


Scene: The street near my home at 8am                                                                                                                             

It was the morning that followed the end of the Ganesh Festival. The high decibel revelry had lasted till late night. Generous devotees and savvy vendors had worked hard to ensure that no one in the huge crowd of revellers went hungry or thirsty. Now, the streets were littered with paper trays, plastic cups, and partly eaten food. Foraging strays and flies had begun their feast. The sun was  up and the sickly smell of spoilt food had set in. The sanitation staff had just arrived and, accustomed as they were to dirt and grime in their jobs, even they looked shellshocked.

It was a disgusting sight; and that was putting it very mildly.

Somehow, civic consciousness and public celebration of faith seem to be mutually exclusive. Some months ago I travelled with my family from New Delhi to Amristar. We were booked  in an airconditioned coach and   looked forward to a comfortable, uneventful  journey. We were quickly proved wrong.

To begin with, our coach was dirty. Again, that was putting it mildly. Debris from the preceding journey still littered the floor. The rubbish bins kept near the wash basins at both ends of the coach were overflowing. The magazine pouches in front of the seats were stuffed with empty snack packets, soft drink cartons, paper trays and aluminium foils. As if this was not enough, a pair of well fed rats scurried around nibbling at the discards lying on the floor.

Also travelling in our coach was a  group of  pilgrims returning home after a trip to Gujarat. By all accounts they were a well-to-do lot and worldly wise. Thus, what followed came as a disappointment.  As soon as the train pulled out of New Delhi station, they got down to giving a remarkable display of the famed Indian hospitality and the very Indian disregard of civic sense. The group treated everyone in the coach to fruit juice, rosogollas, hot kachoris, kulfis, fresh fruit and assorted savouries. One item was followed by the next without a pause or giving an opportunity to refuse. (It also completely demoralised the in-train catering staff which retreated to the pantry car and remained there till the journey ended .)

This went on for the better part of the journey. Very soon, more plastic cups, paper trays and partly eaten foodstuff were being added to the mess that on the floor. It was a distinctly unappetising sight. One thought came to my mind: couldn’t our hosts have ensured that the leftovers and waste were collected in plastic bags disposed off at one of the stops? Surely, they could not have failed to notice the condition of our coach. As they were the ones who were serving, the least they could have done was to make sure that the mess did not get worse.

The Golden Temple complex in Amritsar is run by an army of dedicated volunteers who consider it a sacred duty to work there. The kar sevaks- as the volunteers are called- look after the footwear of the visitors, keep the premises clean, keep the pond steps dry, serve water, work in the kitchens, serve langar, wash the dishes. In short, any work that is needed is willingly performed by a kar sevak.

Sadly, this sense of duty does not extend beyond the compound walls of the Golden Temple. The streets outside the Golden Temple complex are chaotic and dirty. Amritsar’s street food has a passionate global following and the crowds that throng the narrow roads in the evenings must be seen to be believed. It is great for commerce. It is also a public hygiene disaster. Cannot the Golden Temple authorities use their considerable influence and resources to bring about a change for the better?

A few days later, we reached Chandigarh in time for Hanuman Jayanti. Well-to-do worshippers of Lord Ram’s Supreme Devotee made and distributed Prasad in large quantities. The minor necessity of providing waste containers seemed to have escaped their attention and the neighbourhood looked every bit as dirty as the New Delhi-Amritsar Express a few days earlier.

The saddest fact is that we regard such incidents as an unavoidable collateral effect of doing a “community good”. We, who have no qualms about invoking Gandhi’s name to claim the high moral ground, seem to have forgotten that Gandhi led by example in matters of cleanliness and hygiene.

The law can't do much as it is a problem of societal attitudes.It is not acceptable to tip your household rubbish outside your home. It is not acceptable that the organizers of public functions leave the debris to cleared by someone else later. Let us- individually and collectively- say no to litter. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Complete Shopping Experience

Daddy just could not ignore the bold-front page advertisement

Enjoy your Holiday with a complete shopping experience- YOUR SHOPPEE Welcomes you.(Picture of laughing clown doing cartwheels)

YOUR SHOPPEE has Everything for Everyone (Picture of Happy Family with loaded shopping carts)

Potato Chips, Pasta, Noodles, Socks, Soft Drinks, Lipsticks, Crockery…and more at unbelievable prices ! Great Savings assured. (Pictures of the aforementioned goods)…

Assured gift with every purchase (Picture of a gift wrapped package)

We are holding down the price line  for your sake… (Picture of a woman with hands folded in a humble Namaste)

Daddy’s interest was aroused as he continued to read. He found what he was looking for (in much smaller letters):
Parking available.

Daddy made the decision-as he always did- for the family. They were going to enjoy the day at YOUR SHOPPEE. The idea had an appealing rationale. Last night, they were thinking of a picnic outside the city which meant spending cash on fuel, food, and entertainment. The long drive would also tire him out. On the other hand, for a possibly lesser amount, a few hours at the hypermarket would still ensure quality togetherness for the family. He could pay with the meal coupons and credit card. There was also  the promise of an afternoon snooze and follwoed by  the IPL matches on TV. 

The proposal-decision, actually-was presented to the Family. 

Daddy’s Pet nodded enthusiastically. To her, Daddy was always right, even if Mother thought otherwise.
Mother’s Darling frowned. To him, shopping sucked if you are not buying sports stuff or computer games.
Mother arched a brow and pursed her lips. There must be a motive somewhere, but she couldn’t quite place it.

Daddy tried to placate Mother. We can buy the groceries today.
Mother was sceptical. We are well stocked for a nuclear winter. There is still  stuff from last year’s sale.

But Daddy was nothing if not persuasive. He would not be deprived of his afternoon me-time. Soon all objections were demolished and after a final check for money, credit cards and meal coupons the Family was on its way. They were dressed in their holiday best- Daddy’s Pet in her favourite pink, Mother’s Darling sulked along in his rebellious rags, Mother in cargoes and  a souvenir T-shirt from Hawaii and Daddy in checked Bermudas with a souvenir T-shirt from the Niagara Falls.

As they turned into the YOUR SHOPPEE lane, they saw cars parked on either side of the road. Obviously, dozens of other families had made similar plans and had also read Parking Available in the ad. Just as he was losing hope, Daddy spotted a vacant space and guided the car into it. Mother pointed to the No-Parking sign next to the car. Daddy pointed to the other cars parked there.

The stalemate was broken by a blue uniform who appeared at the window and assured them that YOUR SHOPPEE had taken “special permission” and that it was perfectly alright to park there. Matter resolved, the Family got out of the car and dived into the Store for a morning of shopping bliss.

They shopped, buying some of this and getting a lot of that for free.

Mother bought three carpets for the price of one. The helpful attendant told her that they were part of a special lot that was manufactured and imported for them. The carpets was just what she wanted for the new home they would be moving into after two years. The attendant agreed that it was a shame that these designs would not be available then. She also bought a crockery set to go with the carpets.

Daddy stocked up on potato chips and soft drinks to last the IPL season. He thought it was a fantastic bargain.  Mother’s Darling wanted a cricket bat; so he chose a tennis racquet. The bat came free with the racquet. Mummy was pleased: her son was learning fast. Daddy’s Pet had decided what she wanted to take to school for the week. She loaded the cart with noodles and pasta. Daddy beamed at his ever practical daughter.

It went on like this.

Eventually, they decided that they had had enough and it was time to head home. They wheeled their carts to join the long queue at the check-out counter.

It was a long wait. The euphoria was fading quickly and the children became restless. At last their turn came. Daddy paid with the meal coupons and credit card. There was a further delay while Daddy decided on which of the six credit cards he wanted to use. But that, too, was over and the cashier gave them their bill and a gift voucher which they had  to  redeem at the gift counter.

They got a packet of salt for the voucher. The clerk at the counter explained that their delighted customers often overlooked this essential purchase. So YOUR SHOPPEE had decided to gift a packet of salt with every purchase. Daddy looked askance at Mummy. Mummy looked away. The clerk beamed.

They lugged their purchases to the car. It was Daddy’s Pet who pointed out to the vacant space where their car had been. Scrawled on the road in chalk was the name and phone number of the police station the car had been towed to. The blue uniform was nowhere in sight.

Their shopping experience was complete.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Desi Traveller-Wagah

A visit to Amritsar is incomplete without a late afternoon dash to the Indo-Pak border at Wagah to witness the ceremonial lowering of flags and closing of the gates at sunset by troopers of India’s Border Security Force and their opposites, the Pakistani Rangers.  The drill lasts less than thirty minutes during which it is patriotism at its competitive loudest.

The event draws sizable crowds on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. The hoi- polloi (and those not blessed with the genes that confer the ability to pull strings in the subcontinent) have to sit on specially constructed viewing galleries about forty metres from the gates. The galleries fill up quickly and one must reach the venue well in advance to grab a vantage position. (It is also necessary to factor in the time one needs to walk/ sprint the last kilometre or so from the point after which vehicles are not allowed). The blessed ones- on both sides, of course- can drive up to a parking area which is very close to the gates and from where it is a short walk  to their seats.

The ceremony is a huge draw on both sides of the border. Men and women
sit separately on the Pakistani side.
The ceremony begins with colourfully dressed troopers on both sides marching to the gates. The pace and long strides are meant convey an aggressive don’t- mess-with-us message to the other side. They goose-step before coming to a halt.  The heels are kicked so high off the ground that it is a small wonder that no soldier has kicked himself in the face or –worse- the face of his opposite if he got too close.( As no incidents have been reported, it must be assumed that due precautions have been taken.) Then, amid full-throated roars of “Vande  Mataram”  and “ Bharat Mata ki Jai”  (“Pakistan Zindabad”  across the gates) from the crowds, the soldiers growl, glower and gesticulate at each other in a perfectly synchronized , grandstanding display of aggression.(This is supposed to be toned down version of what it was till a few years ago.).  Then the flags are taken down and the gates slammed shut as loudly as possible.

End of ceremony.

Guns at the ready, two commandos stare unblinkingly at each other as the
drill progresses and the flags are lowered. After the ceremony has ended,
the crowds disperse quickly. Those who wish can linger near the gates for
photographs. On the Pakistani side, the guards allowed the public to come
upto the gate and peek into India. On the other hand, the guards on
our side kept people at a discreet distance. The biggest regret was the
westerly sun which ruined a lot of photo ops. 
Statutory Warning: Travelling to Amritsar and not going to Wagah is looked upon the same way as not visiting the Taj  Mahal in Agra. Your near and dear would need an alibi that can pass an inquisition; else be prepared for your sanity to be called to question. Or patriotism. Or both. 

As far as spectacles go, it is an impressive display that attracts  large crowds every day. However, that day, I overheard a remark made by a foreigner to his companion, “It’s impressive, but what’s the point in all this?”. This got me thinking differently.

On my way to Wagah, at some distance from Amritsar, I passed a sign that said, “Lahore 42 km”.  Thus, I am assuming that the distance between Amritsar and Lahore must be between 55 and 60 km. To put it in perspective, it is about the distance  between Pune and Lonavla, less than distance between Delhi and Panipat, Bangalore and Tumkur, Chennai  and Arakkonam,… I can go on, but I am sure that I have made my point.

Does it have to be so difficult to travel between Amritsar and Lahore that one must settle for an afternoon at Wagah?  I find the following itinerary for a short trip far more appealing:

 Morning: Amritsar-Golden Temple(with Langar) and Jallianwala Bagh,
Afternoon: Lahore- A half-day of  sightseeing,   Lahore’s famed street food early evening, head back to Amritsar, have kulfi near the Golden Temple and off to bed by 1000pm.

A longer trip should offer even more enchanting promises.

I think there are enough years left in me to see this happen. Anyone care to join me?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Waiting for the School Bus

My morning walk takes me past a street junction where a half-dozen cars stop for a few minutes at a No-Parking sign at the same time every day. This not unusual in the city I live in -where it is perfectly acceptable to ignore traffic signs. But what struck me as odd was that it was the same set of cars that appeared there at the same time every morning; and also why they should stop there when there was enough parking space a few metres down the street. It was only 6.45 am and the scramble for parking would begin only a couple of hours later.

I got my answer one day.

I was late that morning and as I reached the place, a yellow coloured bus drew up. The doors of all the cars opened together with almost military precision, and out stepped smartly dressed school students to board the bus which would take them to their school. The students, who belonged to different ages, were sitting in their respective cars, perhaps chatting with their parents( or playing with their mobile phones) as they waited for the bus. I did not notice any interaction amongst the children and the parents preferred to keep to themselves. When the bus arrived, they would leave one cocoon to enter another and spend the rest of the day with their preferred mates. The cars would drive off as soon as the bus left.

This seemingly mundane ritual took me back about forty years as I recalled my waits for the school bus.

We were a group of six or seven boys studying in different classes who boarded our bus from the same stop. The age difference between the oldest amongst us and the youngest was about six years. We walked to our bus stop. Except for the youngest who was accompanied by a parent -who left after dropping him off-we were unescorted. We shared an easy, informal relationship that was carried to school and back to our homes.

We would chat during those few minutes of waiting and everyone participated. On those cold winter mornings we would throw cricket or hockey balls into one another’s hands to drive away the numbness. There were also days when the bus stop became the venue for a cooperative and frenzied effort at completing our homework.
I  also remember the time when I had to undergo minor surgery to remove painful corns from my feet. I limped badly for several days after the procedure. Abraham John, who was four years my senior, would leave his home early so that he could fetch and walk me to the bus stop- carrying my bag and offering his shoulder for support. The memory is still vivid in my mind and will remain so till the end.

That was then and this is now. It is not fair to make a comparison, much less a value judgement. Today’s children have to cope with a different set of pressures which can be intolerably intense. But I wonder if, by keeping them in their cars, the parents were not denying them an opportunity to socialize informally. A few minutes of small talk at a bus stop is not likely to lead to an enduring friendship(Would it have mattered if it did?). Yet, in an important and intangible way, the interaction would have improved their confidence and capability to handle non-peer relationships.

Much of interpersonal interactions these days are formal and confined to peer groups-classes, tutorials, coaching for games and so on. There is the constant pressure to perform and to belong. Our anxiety to provide the best for our children often blinds us to the wisdom that most of life’s best lessons are learnt outside the classroom, without our realizing it, and in the unlikeliest situations.

But I must end it here. As I said earlier, I do not want to be seen as too critical or judgemental. If I continue, I may become  exactly that.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Let Cricket Be..

Let the Media, Sponsors and Fans stay out of sight,
God said let Cricket be and all was right!
(No apologies, but heartfelt gratitude to Alexander Pope for the inspiration)

It must be  a distraction and a tough going  for a team to have one billion non-playing captains, all of whom are experts in technique, strategy and tactics. To make matters easy for my “boys”, I have decided to relinquish my share of the responsibilities. By my  doing so, they will have one less person to please. Reflecting further, I felt  that by just stepping down, I would continue to burden them with the baggage of my opinions and expectations. Thus, I have made up my mind to exit completely.

It has been a joyous and satisfying journey. From the time I skipped classes for a game to arriving late and groggy for work (I fumed that the spineless BCCI could not accomplish something as simple as setting matches to convenient Indian times regardless of where they were being played), I can proudly say that my commitment never flagged.

All conversations emanated from or led to cricket. Cricket was the purpose of my existence as well as an excuse for not doing something (It is match day, yaar, can’t make it!). It was the reason why I could ignore unwelcome guests, got the inverter installed in my home and the 52inch LCD screen on the wall. In short, the game meant everything to me.

It was great while it lasted.

I now embark on what someone described as “a pursuit of life”. (Yes, that someone was Steve Waugh, a cricketer. Who else could have come up with something as profound?). But it is with more than a tinge of regret that I will not hold my breath for that Special Feat by the God of Cricket or fret over the value attached to His Abode by a stingy insurer.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Let's Have Some Humor, Please

We are living in a terrible world and doomsday is just around the corner; or so we are led to believe by television, newspapers, the internet and all other oracles of wisdom. Nothing seems to going to right for humanity- Greece, the Euro crisis, Wall Street, US debt, climate change, rogue states, etc. Closer home we have inflation, falling stock markets, the Lokpal Bill, 2G and scams of every kind and size. The list is ever growing; you only have to add your pet angst to it.

Whatever happened to that wonderful therapeutic called humour? I don’t mean the stand up comic type which is in vogue today; rather, the sly poke in the ribs that reminds us that, even if all is not well with the world, we are doing fine and having a good laugh about it.

Welcome to the little world of Don Camillo.

In the context of its time, post world war two Europe was just as insecure and dangerous as the world is today.  While the common folk grappled with economic hardship, their political leadership was preoccupied with ideological realignments or preventing them. As a farcical consequence, depending on your leanings, all problems owed their roots to communism or opposition to it. Black couldn’t get blacker and white, whiter.

The absurdity of the situation was too much for an Italian, Giovanni Guareschi. He reacted by creating two characters, a priest named Don Camillo and his communist adversary, Peppone, in a village in the Po river valley in Northern Italy. The battle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie was truly joined and the several comic confrontation between the two reflected the pointlessness of the  discourse of the time.

Guareschi was born “… in Parma near the Po River; people born in this area have heads as hard as pig iron…My parents had decided that I should become a naval engineer and so I ended up studying law and thus, in a short time, I became famous as a signboard artist and caricaturist.” 

As if this was not enough, life had a lot more in store for him.

He wrote, “For reasons entirely beyond my control, the war broke out…Since I did not want to work for the Germans; I was sent to … various concentration camps… I had to do everything to stay alive and succeeded almost completely by dedicating myself to a precise programme which is summarized in my slogan 'I will not die even they kill me'. (It is not easy to remain alive when one is reduced to sack of bones of which the total weight is one hundred pounds, and this includes lice, bedbugs, fleas, hunger, and melancholy.)”.

One must read the Don Camillo stories to appreciate the delicious farce of the battles between faith and ideology. Both Don Camillo and Peppone are  rigid in their beliefs and do not hesitate to use their fists to make their points. But “… one man beats the other over the head, but fairly - that is, without hatred - and that in the end the two enemies find they agree about the essentials.”

Christ is Don Camillo’s conscience keper and the two often converse and argue. But His control over the priest’s temper is tenuous. In one story the Lord restrains Don Camillo saying that “…your hands were made for blessing, not for striking.” In response, Don Camillo made the rather fine point that the Lord said nothing about the use of  feet and proceeded to give his adversary a powerful kick in the behind.

But the Lord is even-handed in his dispensations. When Don Camillo refused to  baptise Peppone’s infant son (I'm thinking of the reputation of Paradise, Don Camillo claimed.), Christ was annoyed.

'The reputation of Paradise is my business,' He shouted angrily. 'What matters to me is
that a man should be a decent fellow and I care less than nothing whether his name be Lenin or Button.

Though they would not admit to it, both men needed each other. In one story, the communists petition the Bishop to transfer Don Camillo from the village because of his “his provocative and dictatorial poses.” Peppone misses him almost immediately on Don Camillo’s departure and loses no time in leading another group to the same Bishop with a demand to get him back and threatened that “…until our regular parish priest returns to us, not a soul will enter the church."

Giovanni Guareschi is unapologetic about his characters. “If there is a priest anywhere who
feels offended by my treatment of Don Camillo, he is welcome to break the biggest candle
available over my head. And if there is a Communist who feels offended by Peppone, he is
welcome to break a hammer and sickle on my back. But if there is anyone who is offended by the conversations of Christ, I can't help it; for the one who speaks in this story is not Christ, but my Christ - that is, the voice of my conscience.”

For reasons beyond our control, the world has got to where it is now. We take our experts-politicians, stock brokers, bankers and the like- far too seriously. In the general atmosphere of gloom, they appear to be only ones with carefree smiles on their faces. And why not, if they are being paid handsomely just to remind us, day in and day out, of our miserable condition?

The time is just right to shut our ears to the din and stop taking ourselves seriously. Don Camillo and Peppone can teach us how. Along the way, we might also realize  the foolishness of taking extreme positions.

 And laugh about it, too.

(The Don Camillo stories are freely available on the internet)