Kumbh is it?
I went to the Kumbh Mela
as a journalist, thirsting for the extraordinary and the impossible. The
spectacle of huge numbers, ganja-crazed trishul-waving Naga Babas and a river of
thrilling filth. What a superb opportunity for purple prose! What a moment to
demonstrate my metropolitan bafflement at a hot-eyed fervid throng. What
picturesque Orientalism I might conjure up with my oh-so-potent art. I might
write of the ``capering clowns of karmic comedy'', or of ``dreadlocked hot-rodders
riding a moksha-highway''. I might write of the Irrational Subaltern, the
Lunatic Other, the Bizarre Alternative or the Intoxicated Multitude.
But instead of excitement
and stupefaction, I found my grandmother sitting on the banks of the Sangam.
There she sat, an old woman who looked just like my dead ˛f40ˇdidima, with her
paan supari spread out in her lap, the familiar smell of dhoop wafting out from
her sari, surrounded by the cosy smells of my family pujas. I heard the quiet
bells of everyday workaday piety. How she used to whisper ``Durga Durga'' as I
left for school in the mornings. The bamboo quills that she doled out
parsimoniously during Saraswati Puja.
In a million strong crowd, I
found little households carrying out their own customary rituals. I saw the
remembered practices of faith that are handed down in every family. Amidst the
differences, there were many unifying memories of my playful and merry religion.
I was almost shocked at our shared inheritance of custom and belief: batasha and
agarbatti, payesam and three blades of grass. And I saw them played out on a
banana leaf sitting cross-legged on a clammy dusty riverbank, opposite my
grandmother. The Irrational Other? The Great Indian Freak Show? But this was
granny, whimsical prayer-chanting granny with her small boxes of this and that
and her never-ending stories. ``No, no,'' I wanted to scream at the cameras,
``please don't convert my granny into a freak! Please don't transform these tiny
silent beliefs into a demeaning spectacle of the bizarre with a price tag, for a
I saw no clichetically
frenzied mob. Instead I saw serious patriarchs and gentle aunts, grave with
intimations of mortality. This was no frightening stampeding crowd. Instead, I
saw the dignity of the pilgrim in his unsmiling communion with the afterlife and
in the struggles to overcome personal tragedy. I saw faces that were
introspective, mature with the acceptance of death. ``˛f40ˇAkeli ayee hai,
bachchi,'' a woman offered me marigolds, ``˛f40ˇphool lekar jaa.''
Srivats Goswami, of the Gambhira ashram, asked: ``What is the press
doing to the Kumbh? Is the Kumbh a spectacle? Is it a circus of loudspeakers and
flashing cameras? The Kumbh is a place of meditation, of courtesy and of
affection. The Kumbh is where you realise that The Impossible is not external to
you, it exists side by side with the smallest domestic tasks. Cheek by jowl with
our everyday lives, just next to our daily being, churns the vast secret galaxy.
You need not seek out the high mountains and deep forests. Just press your hand
against the invisible glass, and feel The Impossible, sitting right by you.''
And there among the Kumbh
families, I too felt the closeness of the Extraordinary. Not in the grotesque
images of ``abnormal'' sadhus, but because I saw how easily a magnificent river
and an auspicious sun can be bound up in my grandmother's very normal pallu. I
wept that a colonial education has taught me to view the quiet depths of my own
family as nothing but ``colourful oddities''.
(The writer works for
Outlook magazine and has authored the novel The Gin Drinkers.)