The Lost World
My mother (ma) and father (baba) both hail from the same city - Varanasi (Benares), India. Both of them have been born and brought up in the holiest city of the Hindus. Although both their families belonged to East Bengal (Bangladesh), yet somehow they ended up migrating to Benares. In Hinduism, there is a belief that if you die in Benares, you attain Nirvana - the break from the endless cycle of birth and death. Both of them attended Benares Hindu University. Benares, the land of culture and education. Benares is also the dirtiest and most polluted of all Indian cities in my opinion. Considering the fact that most Indian cities are dirty and polluted as compared to the cities of the west, it takes some special kind of effort for a city and its residents to be christened the dirtiest city of India.
As a child, I was mortally afraid of examinations in the school. It is not that I was a bad student. I always did well in the examinations. However, the fear of failure to do well in the examinations used to make me transform into a zombie before and during the examinations. I used to follow rituals to please the Gods to help me. Yes, in those days I used to pray regularly and go to the temples. However, examination season also meant that the summer holiday season is not far off. Summer holidays for the first 12 or 13 years of my life were magic. The holidays meant a trip to Benares for a month, a chance to play with the dog of my maternal grandparents named "Light", and, finally, a chance to escape the discipline regimen of my ma. Unfortunately, my paternal grandparents died either before my birth or soon after my birth. Therefore, I understood the love of grandparents only through my maternal grandfather (dadu) and grandmother (dida).
My dadu was a religious man. He was also a social activist. He started out as an executive for Sarabhai Chemicals during his younger days and somehow transformed himself into a doctor by profession by the time he reached old age. The residence of my grandparents was big. It had a huge green door. As soon as the door opened, a courtyard followed. The dispensary of my dadu was in the ground floor (first floor for the Americans). The ground floor also had a large room which was clearly meant for welcoming the guests and having long discussions over issues facing the local community and the nation. This room had big portraits of the founding fathers of our nation on the walls - Gandhiji, Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, and Jagadish Chandra Bose. The furniture of the room was delightful. They were quite heavy and had intricately carved figurines on them. The room always gave me the sense that only issues of importance can be discussed there. In essence, it was the room for the grown ups. The ground floor also had another room along with a kitchen. My grandfather had rented out that room to a couple who were teachers in a school that he helped establish along with others.
The first floor had a huge open space along with four bed rooms and a kitchen. Dida used to cook delightful Bengali dishes in that kitchen. In those days, dadu and dida did not have cooking gas facility. The food was cooked on a stove fired by coal. Every day, I loved helping dida out in lighting her stove after her "Sandhya Arati" (prayer of the evening). I would collect all the trash paper and bring them to her. She used them to light a fire. This fire ignited the pieces of wood in the bottom layer of the stove. The fire from the wood used to provide the suitable temperature for burning the coal in the top layer of the stove. The smoke emanating from the stove, probably Carbon Monoxide mixed with Carbon Dioxide, used to burn my eyes. But I used to love it. It also had a peculiar smell that I can not really describe. Nowadays, I still see some poor people using that kind of stove in the slums of big cities in India. When the smoke from those stoves reach my eyes and stimulate my nose, I smile. Maybe, the smell and the tears from the smoke are subconsciously linked to the best part of my childhood.
The house of my dadu was located near a college. The college had a huge ground. We could scan the entire area from the roof and look at the lush green playground of the college. The roof served as a soccer field where my uncles and I used to play soccer with a soft ball made of rubber. The roof also served the dual purpose as the bed room for the whole family during the hot summer days. Every evening my uncles used to water the roof after sunset to cool it down. After an hour, one corner of the roof was covered with sheets, mattresses, cushions, and mosquito nets. I can never forget the feeling of carelessness and love that I had while sleeping on the roof guarded by the stars under the vast mysteries of the sky surrounded by my dadu, dida, and the rest of the Chakraborty family.
The most fun part of the trip to Benares was playing with "Light", the dog of my dadu and dida. The person closest to Light was my chor dadu (grandfather's younger brother). He stayed along with dadu, acted as the compounder of his dispensary. He also took care of Light. Light, most probably, had a mixed pedigree. He was named Light because he used to run very fast. Every morning my chor dadu would take Light away for a stroll in the playground of the college. I also used to go along with him. Light was a gentle but a very mischievous dog. He would be complicit in many stupid things that I and my cousins did.
In Benares, my ma could not discipline me. In India, most parents rely on corporal punishment to discipline their kids. My ma was no exception. She used to believe steadfastly in the motto - "spare the rod, spoil the child". However, in Benares, she could never hit me. Every time I did something that would infuriate her, I used to run away to my dida and hide behind her saree. My dadu used to scold her for lifting her hand to beat me. I was impressed by the power of my grandparents to put a restraint on my ma. Protected by my grandparents in this fashion, I used to gain courage to do acts that I normally never did when I am alone with my ma. My ma used to glare at me from a distance. However, this glare was accompanied with a smile on her face and joy in her eyes. I have never figured out how a person can express love and anger with the eyes simultaneously. This skill set is probably confined to women like my ma. I also never did figure out why she would be happy looking at me while being angry at my childish acts.
Every Tuesday, my dadu would get up early in the morning, take his bath. He will wake me up subsequently and tell me to take my bath. Dadu was a meticulous man when it came to dressing up. In fact, I never saw him wearing a trouser or a shirt without a crease. Dadu and I would wait for a rickshaw. Many times if the rickshaw driver knew my dadu, he would not charge any money for the ride. I always used to wonder why do men who obviously need money refuse to take money from my dadu. One day didu explained the mystery to me. She told me that people who do not take money from him had been his patients at least once in their lifetime. Most of the time they are not able to pay his fees or the cost of medicine during their visits. This is their way of repaying him for his services. My dadu never insulted them by trying to shove cash in their hands.
The rickshaw ride would take us to the "Sankat Mochan" temple from Bhelupura. This temple is dedicated to Lord Hanuman - trusted friend of Lord Rama and his wife Goddess Sita. It seems many years ago, Tulsi Das, who translated the Hindu epic Ramayana from Sanskrit to Hindi, saw the appearance of Lord Hanuman under the tree in that temple. As a child, one of my favourite Gods was Lord Hanuman. Lord Hanuman is a monkey and that is obviously an unfair advantage to shore up his ratings among children. He is also known as "Bajarang Bali". Whenever I used to get into fights in school, I used to shout "Jai Bajarang Bali, tor de dushman ki nali" before getting down to business with my opponent. Sankat Mochan temple had a nice garden filled up with trees. Thousands of Langurs and monkeys used to be present in the area surrounding the temple. It is a heavenly feeling to feed the simians and watch their mischievous eyes following you for more hand outs.
Sankat Mochan temple sells lovely prasad (offerings) for the devotees. The sweetmeats that are used for prasad are called "pedas". I used to love eating those pedas. Dadu would buy one packet of peda for the family and another packet only for me every Tuesday.
There are hawkers outside the temple who sell eveything under the sky. Phantom - "the ghost who walks", created by Lee Falk, and distributed by Indrajal Comics in India was my favourite superhero in my childhood. He wears two rings. These two rings leave indelible marks on whoever/whatever is touched or punched. The "Good Mark" (worn on the left hand, "closer to the heart") consists of 4 overlapping P-shapes (or swords?) forming a cross in a circle and designates the bearer as being a friend under the protection of The Phantom. Conversely, the Mark of the Skull, a death's head, is usually left by a blow from the Phantom's strong right arm and indicates a warning or a sign that the victim has battled The Phantom, unsuccessfully of course. I was obsessed with those rings. Every time I visited Sankat Mochan temple I would buy eight to ten brass rings with cheap stones in them. I would wear them in as many fingers on my hands and try to punch everything in sight while emulating my superhero. The rings would be changed after every visit to the temple. My dadu got so disturbed by my obsession with The Phantom and his rings that he eventually ordered a custom silver ring encrusted with a semi-precious stone for me .
The bomb blast that killed 20 people and injured many in the Sankat Mochan temple two days ago brought back all the memories. They seemed to be rushing out after I heard the news and I had to put them down in writing. I am 30 years old now. I became an atheist at the age of 18 years. I decided to convert to an agnostic at the age of 25 years. I no longer enjoy going to the temples and believing in the rituals. Light died in the 80s. My ma lied to me initially about him. She told me that he has fled. I came to know the truth when I grew up. The house in Benares has been sold off. My dadu died in 1990. Dida lives alone with my chor dadu in a small apartment in Benares. I visit her whenever I go to India. All my uncles and aunts have moved away from Benares for the sake of their jobs. The second generation of our family - me, my sister, and my cousins, are spread all over India and the world. We have become part of the Indian diaspora from a single family. Benares has become more crowded and more filthy. My baba claims that somewhere down the line the city has even lost her soul. I had long ago lost my world but never realized it till the bomb blasts shook me up. May be, this perversion was the last nail into the coffin of my relationship with the land of my birth and origin. Memories refuse to die but I know that the world has moved on and I can not live in the past. This is a tribute to the love of my family in the sands of time.
Dadu, I hope you are doing fine up there. Make sure that you keep looking after your favorite grandson. The world has become a terrible place. Your beloved temple has been desecrated by the violence perpetrated by a bunch of twisted psychopaths.