Saturday, September 13, 2014

Solitary Reaper

It is two 'o clock at night and I am not sleepy. Perhaps because in the last one year, I have hardly slept before dawn. I have been reading, I have been writing, I have been working hard, sometimes all through the night. And after a hard night, sleep does not take long to come by. Tonight I do not want to write, or read though. I want to talk to someone, a friend may be. But all my friends have their own lives to run, their own loneliness to battle, their own problems to solve, besides who wants to talk to a sad woman in the dead of the night?

But why should I be lonely -- or sad? I have two lovely children sleeping right next to me, their faces glowing in the faint yellow light. I also have a husband -- perhaps the best I could ever have -- who loves me and supports me in all I do and want to do. I have a handful of friends too who are supposedly just a phone call away, and then I have a wonderful family. And yet I am alone.

The life of a woman is almost always lonely. On the face of it she is always busy running the house, raising the children, supporting the husband, but within she is often an island standing alone in the middle of the ocean waiting for someone to lose his way and find her. But with so much technology at every one's fingertips, hardly anyone ever looses way or finds the island, those who do, have to eventually return. And so the island waits, sometimes all her life.

It is strange though, at least for me for I have always enjoyed being alone. Having lived in a house full of people, I would look forward to the peace and quiet of an empty house, when I could do what I liked and be who I wanted. I enjoyed my time alone, even though for just a few hours. The solitude would made me feel powerful, in control of myself and my surroundings. The same solitude that now makes me cringe, especially on nights such as this. When I have no one but my tired old laptop for company. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Ghost that changed shapes and A Tortoise that came home

I first saw it in the stories of my husband’s boyhood: when he told me about fishing in the rivulet with his bare hands and when he described the tough climb of the adjoining hills; when he told me about the ghost that changed shapes, and the tortoise that came home. There were also times when my imagination failed me: how could I, a girl born and bred in cities, imagine wild elephants walking into paddy fields, or a pair of dead twins appearing on the river bank? Does the place even exist or is he making it up? I would often wonder.
I got my answer soon after, when I first reached there on a cold winter night, as a bride. With only the headlights of our cars illuminating the dark serpent of a road slithering between hills and forests, the hour long drive from the station seemed endless and eerie. All I could make out in the faint light of the car were the neat little cottages and the smell of the trees, apart from the deep darkness of the night. The bright rays of the sun next morning finally showed me what I had only imagined until now: lush green hills and fluorescent green fields, huge trees and thin rivulets, and among them a neat little township – my husband’s home. The only sound I heard was the sound of birds and the only noise was the noise of the train that chugged along the horizon every few hours. The days passed quickly: there was another wedding in the family, guests to be looked after and a huge feast -- our reception -- to be organised. Soon it was time to leave. 

I went back only ten months later, for my first ever Durga Puja as a Bengali Bou. During the holiday we -- my husband and I -- spent our mornings listening to the chorus of the birds of the large jamun tree in the front yard and the afternoon lazing on the cool grey floor at home. In the evenings we strolled to the marketplace – a complex of barely ten shops – and had our fill of the local junk food: fat jalebis, spicy chops and tangy puchkas. Some days we walked to the other parts of the colony where he showed me his old house (which had once been flooded), his primary school (where he earned many a scar), and the large field (which, during pre cable TV days, was duly transformed into an open air theatre every Sunday evening).

When we were bored (its not easy for city dwellers to live the laidback life of a township), we drove to a quaint railway station called Rakha Mines, a few miles away from home, beyond a small barrage on Suvarnarekha. Set among paddy fields and hutments, with only a ticket window and a tin roof, the tiny station is actually an important stop for most passing trains. On our way back from the station we stopped by at the puja pandal outside the colony where the locals dressed in their festive best, would be going about their puja business: shopping at the stalls and thronging the only ‘hotel’ in the area.

The ten days there passed slowly and quietly, very much like that in the stories I had heard.

In the years that followed father-in-law retired from the service and settled in town. We continued going home but the point of going back to Jadugoda, even for old times sake, never arose. Was it the fear of discovering that the place -- and its people -- had moved on, or that it was no longer home, or was it just detachment, I cannot say. And so, even though only twenty kilometers away, Jadugoda became more and more distant every passing year, until last year when I persuaded husband to take us there for the sake of our daughters: they ought to see the place they hear so many stories about.

We finally reached Jadugoda on a pleasant Sunday morning after a gap of ten years. The long drive had made us hungry and we went straight to the sweet shop. I had expected to feast on fresh breakfast of singhara and ghugni, but the shop that once fed us smoking hot jalebis and chops had nothing other than stale sweets and warm cola to offer. We bought the children some chips from the stall next door and walked around. Most shops were shut and the few that were open were in a state of disarray. The people who kept these shops had also changed. And nobody, other than the old tailor's son, seemed to recognise husband and his brother. The other parts of the colony looked similar: buildings had not been painted, fields had not been cleared, the road had potholes and the footpath had weeds. The place was not even a faint shadow of its former self.

I had expected this image to overrule all other images of the place in my head. But this morning when I read about the Supreme Court's order of shutting the Jadugoda mines – the company that feeds the colony—the first image that came to my mind was not of the impersonal, unimpressive township that I had seen last year, but the magical land that I had witnessed on the dark December night, twelve years ago.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Broken By The Bow

The original write up on Dhanushkodi, an edited version of which was published in The Week on the 6th Sept.

Rameswaram, a small island off the Gulf of Mannar, is popular for its connection with the Ramayana. Legend has it that Rama, on his way back from Lanka, had stopped over at the island to offer prayers to lord Shiva and to atone for his sin of killing Ravana. One of the most revered pilgrimages in the country, and one of the four dhams, it is home to numerous temples, most significant of them being the Ramanathaswamy temple. The temple is believed to have been built around two shivlingas – one, that Sita had created and the other, which Hanuman had brought in. Also famous for its twenty-two tirthas (wells) and unusually long corridors – one of them being the longest in the world – the temple is equally important for shaivaites and vaishanites.

I arrive at the Rameshwaram railway station at four in the morning by the Chennai Express. Having made no hotel reservations, I pin my hope on the railway retiring room, which I have been trying to book unsuccessfully ever since I bought the ticket two months ago. With firm faith in the Indian Railways, I approach the stationmaster requesting for a room, only to be told that all the rooms are taken. Having nowhere to go at four in the morning, I seek refuge with my co passengers, an elderly Brahmin couple from Jodhpur, who I had befriended in the train and, in the process, I share a room with strangers for the first time in my life.

To avoid the early morning crowd at the temple, we leave the lodge almost immediately after checking in. Inside the temple we find the thousand-pillar corridor and the compound mostly to ourselves. After admiring the brightly coloured pillars and the never-ending corridor, we make our way to the sanctum sanctorum and realise why the corridors and compound were deserted: hundreds, if not thousands, of people have already queued up outside the main temple, awaiting their audience with the lord. The morning darshan at the temple is particularly significant for it is the only time when you can see the sphatik lingam that Adi Shankracharya had gifted to the temple. It takes us more than an hour and a half to reach the sanctum sanctorum but the little time we get with the lord, makes up for the wait.

Content with the darshan, my companions now want to bathe in the twenty-two tirtha’s that run along the periphery of the compound. According to popular belief, only when you bathe from the water of each of the twenty-two tanks, do you obtain the complete benefit of the pilgrimage. Although a non-believer of practices like these, I accompany them for the tirthas , it somehow gives me the feeling of taking my parents around. The priest who is facilitating the process, mistakes me to be their orderly, even orders me around a few times, perhaps because I have offered to carry their belongings. He also finds it amusing that I am taking notes instead of praying for atonement. The rituals observed, we finally leave the temple compound, more than two hours after we had entered it.

At six thirty in the morning, hundreds bathe in the sea outside the temple -- infants, children, elderly, women, wheel chair bound -- all for the salvation of their ancestor's souls. Most men have shaven their heads; women meanwhile make small shivlingas out of sand, offer flowers and kumkum to the linga and offer food to crows that hover around the place. Looking at the sea of humanity praying for the peace of their ancestors, I wonder how many of them would have paid similar respect to their elders had they been alive. 

My reason for travelling two thousand seven hundred kilometres away from home however was neither religion nor atonement, it was a tiny shoal called Dhanushkodi, the only land border between India and Srilanka. Once a flourishing town, all that remains of Dhanushkodi today is sand and water. And that little strip of land, jutting into the sea, forming the gateway to the Adam’s bridge, had brought me to the tip of the country on a hot summer morning.

The only way to travel to Dhanushkodi is by special jeeps, which, with the addition of a little part onto one of their wheels, transform into 4*4 vehicles (it is impossible to drive on the sand in a normal vehicle). We hire the services of a man call Dharmam and his rickety jeep, and drive on an impossibly straight road, with the Indian Ocean on one side and the Bay of Bengal on another. The picturesque drive with the waters glimmering in the suns’s rays, the stone boundaries erected for the safety of the road, the sound of the ocean – and the old jeep – is an experience that I thought could not be outdone. Until I reached land’s end that is. At around ten in the morning we are the only people there – apart from the driver and the women who man the refreshment and trinket stalls. 

It is ironical that devastation should be so beautiful. The piece of land where I stand now can pass off as any exotic location in the Indian Ocean: clean, white sand, bright blue sky, sparkling water and untouched by humanity. The ruins only add to the enchanting feel of the place: the remains of a church, with its alter and windows intact but the ceiling missing; a wall and a half of the hospital; a tall column of arches of the railway station; and a few neatly arranged rocks that denote what once was a railway track. The site makes for a perfect picture.

My not knowing Tamil, at this point, becomes a handicap, but with the little information available in English, and a broken conversation with Dharmam, I find out more about the ghost town: Dhaushkodi, which literally translates into bow's end (named after Rama's bow, which supposedly broke the bridge on the sea), was once a busy town with schools, temples, a post office, a railway station, a railway hospital, a church, customs offices and all possible amenities. But everything changed on the night of 23rd Dec 1964, when a massive cyclonic storm hit the coastal settlement and huge tidal waves engulfed the entire town, and a passenger train with more than a hundred people on board. Since then, the town has been declared unfit for habitation. Even today, fifty years later, the only sign of life here are the red crabs and the green weeds. The few people who work here, return much before the sun sets.

Although I have always known about the place – and its story – listening to it now, standing at the spot, makes me uneasy. As I drive back, I think about the contrast between the twin towns, just thirty kilometers apart, they seem to belong to different worlds: one – a bustling temple town, brimming with life; the other – a barren land, with only the ghosts of the past for company. I had come to Dhanushkodi looking for peace and calm, but I now want to escape to the chaos of Rameshwaram.