Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Accidental Pilgrim

I am a Hindu by birth, a Brahmo by marriage, I feel close to Islam and connected to Christianity yet I have never been religious, I believe in God and that for me is enough. I have lit a candle at a church, offered a chaddar at a mosque, I tied threads in a dargah and I have rung a bell at a temple, most of my experiences have been due circumstances or my curiosity to see the place.

My first experience was when I went to Jharkhand with a group of friends; the trip in itself will need another long post which I will write later. We decided to do some trekking and found the hill on which a famous Jain Pareshnath temple was situated to be an ideal location. Right below the hill was a Digambar Jain monastery where we had to stop to attend to nature calls. We turned beetroot red with embarrassment at the sight of near total nudity of the senior male residents. We kept our eyes strictly focused on the way to the wash rooms which were incredibly dirty) and once done marched out with our eyes focused towards our toes. The hill was about a 1366 Meters climb, the first half was a gentle slope with nicely laid out steps while the second half was a steep climb on a dirt trail which was somewhat non existent due to recent landslides. We came across a gurgling post monsoon stream flowing down which we gingerly crossed by stepping carefully on the stones in between. By the time we had climbed three fourths of the hill, our bodies were screaming with exhaustion but we could not give up so we literally dragged each other and ourselves up the remaining portion of the hill and by the time we reached the steps of the Pareshnath temple, we felt as if we had conquered Mt Everest.

There was a sense of achievement and purpose to our climb once we entered the temple which was very peaceful and quiet. While doing the customary parikrama, I was astonished to discover the height we had climbed. The sight of the lazy Barakar river flowing below was a wonderful sight to behold. We did not have the luxury to remain at the top for long as dusk was near and the hill was not safe after dark. There were dacoits as well as wild animals from adjoining forests to contend with so we descended as fast as we could and by the time we reached the bottom, we resembled the walking dead.

My affinity to Jain pilgrim spots did not end with this stint. Recently on a family vacation, we went to Shravanabelagola with some vague expectation that Bahubali would be visible without much effort. However this was not the case, Bahubali was situated atop Vindhyagiri hill which is about 436 Meters high with about 500 steps to climb. At noon in mid summer this was not a feat for the faint hearted or the easy going vacationer. Being the stubborn one in the family I said I would climb by foot while others opted for the doli which was a cane chair carried by 4 people. The climb was easy enough though it had me panting in between and I had to stop to recover my breath. It’s always a nice feeling to look down to see how much one has climbed. There was a serene looking square pond visible below which is actually the 'belagola' or pond. There is a shrine midway (also known as Odegal Basadi) which has 3 large statues of Jain Tirthankaras carved in black stone.

After crossing this shrine there are a few more (steeper) steps leading to the Gomateshwara shrine which I climbed easily enough - thanks to the midway rest. Nothing had prepared me for the awe inspiring statue of Bahubali or Gomateshwara which stands at 58.8 Meters, mysterious, peaceful and casting no shadows around it. Humans were just a speck of existence at his feet. The pillars around the temple have many beautiful carvings which are worth seeing.

Rest of my family had a rather adventurous journey up and down the steps on a cane chair. The 4 men literally ran up and covered the 500 steps in 15 minutes or so one way while for the average human it takes about 45 minutes one way. By the end of it one either has a sore bum or sore feet but what’s a little soreness in front of such magnificence which is centuries old?

Monday, June 16, 2008

English: A Language that Unites while it Divides

India, a country with an ancient heritage and culture which is thousands of years old, a country which has many thousands of languages, in some way or another derived from Sanskrit and yet ironically we don’t have a language to unite our country.

Hindi has been announced as the language that will unite India. It is mandatory to learn Hindi in schools but we often come across instances where people from other the eastern or southern parts of India can barely understand it. If the region has a high infiltration of Bollywood films then there may be some hope but down south where the influences of Bollywood have been firmly kept away due to a strong south Indian film industry, chances of people knowing Hindi is almost remote.

In most schools down south, children are allowed to carry books and consult each other during the Hindi exam while the person 'on watch' kindly looks the other way, which of course is not the case for other subject exams. If you are a tourist in Tamil Nadu then there is an unwritten rule - don’t speak Hindi!

It’s even more ironic that our country shuns a language which is indeed 'ours' and universally accepts English which is a leftover of the British Raj. Everybody in urban areas and some of the emancipated rural areas can speak a smattering of English or they are trying their best to learn. Even Indian bureaucracy uses English as it crosses all vernacular barriers. If we observe our daily conversations at home and work, it is comprised of almost 50% English and 50% vernacular.

On the other side while in a way English unites our country, it divides our classes - perhaps more in the urban context. People with better diction and vocabulary are regarded highly 'educated' and 'cultured' while regional accents are frowned upon. When people use a wrong word inadvertently, we are quick to judge and snigger within ourselves - "Oh probably he or she was not educated in an English medium school!" At a workplace one's capability to write and converse in English has a distinct advantage.

So much is our love for English that we look down on the use of our own languages and have now stopped learning it altogether except for what schools force upon us as mandatory learning till class 10.

We are probably victims of our colonial past but it may be interesting to observe that highly advanced first world countries like Japan and Germany have progressed using their own languages while ancient India being the inventors and significant contributors to science, medicine, mathematics and astronomy use a borrowed language to progress.

We have benefited from our colonial past too, the wide knowledge of English in our country helps it to be the back office to the world and provide IT services to many countries so I guess we may love it or hate it but we definitely cannot do without it.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Au Revoir Tooth Fairy

Bidding farewell to tooth fairies in my thirties is probably a little late in the day as I should have done that when I was 10 or eleven as that is the time by when one looses all one's milk teeth.

My one particular canine was rather reluctant to part with me so it stayed on refusing to budge as the years went by. In the process the suppressed canine protested and violently pushed up my fourth incisor on the right hand side, leaving me with one crooked tooth, a flawed smile and a general bad feeling about my appearance. The dentist gave me a wire brace in my teens which suppressed the crooked tooth for a while but it reared its ugly head (or is it face?) once my mouth outgrew the brace. The dentist maintained a stoic silence in front of a desperate teen, who had to flash pretty smiles at men but could not. He asked me to accept my crooked smile and said that it adds character to my smile! D'uh. The guys definitely didn't think so - no one said I have a pretty smile so far and that more than thirty years.

Well the tooth prevailed and remained and it didn't really create any major problems once I 'accepted' my smile. Somewhere in my late twenties my solitary baby tooth started to make its presence felt, it ached, it chipped and it ached some more and then it disappeared. Of course I wasn't going back to philosophical dentists anymore so I just popped a pill instead.

Slowly and steadily the milk tooth kept depleting, my smile in my photographs started to take on a Draculean air (Dracula Like based upon the word Herculean). The milk tooth now resembled a small fang ready to dip into an unsuspecting neck - it was a nicely chipped triangle hanging from my gums and to make things more sinister, it started to blacken. My aversion to Dentists kept me away - Dracula beckoned.

The other day while brushing my teeth with my contact lenses on I happened to catch sight of my right profile and I nearly shrieked out loud with horror. All my long held affection for my solitary reminder of childhood vanished and I fixed myself an appointment with the Dentist (after 15 years), I marched in bravely and just said - this little black one has to go. A prick of anesthesia and a yank was all it took and it was over in five minutes. The Dentist knowledgably informed me that it was my milk tooth and a new tooth may... just may grow in its place. If that happens, my crooked incisor may just straighten up. Definitely a life changing incident - a perfect smile without spending thousands! If not, then a ceramic replacement would do just as well - one has to compromise I guess.

So technically speaking I am entitled to my last tooth fairy visit, the remains of my milk canine which will be placed under my pillow and I hope she will leave me a nice present....