Monday, February 15, 2010

The Inheritance of Loss

The temple of Devi Sri Mookambika at Kollur in southern Karnataka is quite well-known in this part of the country.

People who visit here, also try to visit the hill-adobe of the Goddess at a place called Kudachadri, high and deep inside the forest, the road itself motorable only by 4-wheel drive jeeps and drivers experienced to drive through it. At the top, the jeep drivers wait for an hour and a half, to allow those who are interested to, to trek a few kms further on foot to the point called Sarvajna Peedam (The Seat of all Knowledge), which is where the sage Shankaracharya, whose name is associated with the legend of taking the Goddess from her hill-adobe down to the banks of the Sowparnika river, is supposed to have meditated.

A further few km up ahead is a place called Chitramala, literally 'picturesque hill', which is rumoured to be a place to go to if you wish to leave civilization behind. But the drivers advice you against it, partly because the terrain is too risky, and because it will take too long a time that they were not willing to wait for your return. Whatever it might be to you, it was for them also a matter of time and money, though I am sure for each of them, who had to scale those treacherous hair-pins many times every day, the Goddess was as important as to the best of pilgrims. There are no atheists in fox-holes.

I have for long been drawn to the temple, the river, the hill adobe, and the seat of knowledge. More than once my travels, aimless though they were, have culminated here: the restlessness that might not have been satiated anywhere else would finally be quenched, and I would return back to routine, content.

Each time, as I stood at the top of the Sarvajna Peedam, at the culmination of many a long journey, I have felt a sense of complete tranquility, of belonging, of having belonged for long. Each time, I would want to come prepared to go to Chitramala, but desist, not sure I was ready to take the final stretch, yet. At the Peedam, there is a small idol of the sage, inside a small temple-like room made of blocks of stone.

The first of couple of times I had been up there, the Peedam, though not a deserted place, was largely part of the landscape. Travelers there, only a few of them pilgrims in the strict sense of the word, would silently sit and savour the moment - try to take as much of it into them as they could. I remember having sat inside the stone structure, barely a feet from the idol of the sage, my shoes off, and feeling a profound respect fill inside me. I might have plucked a wild flower or two and left it there.

When I went there a year and half ago, for the first time with family and hence in a slightly mellowed mood, I could notice the early signs of change. There were enterprising young men perched at regular intervals along the trekking trail, selling refreshments to the travelers, who were now beginning to form into a crowd, with a more pilgrim-like way to it. At the top, someone had cleaned the idol of the sage and there were flowers strewn around like there had been a proper puja. People had already begun observing a respectable distance around the structure.

I went there again this weekend.

There was a priest conducting full-fledged rituals, people queuing up to have them performed. The idol looked all neat and polished, almost happy. I stood there wondering what to do, feeling like one might, when, having come to visit an old friend from afar, finds that man a millionaire now with people fawning over him.

Just then a boy of 10 or 12, dressed in a priest-like red and white dhoti, came over to where I was standing, ten feet away from the structure, which had started resembling a temple by now.

He told me that the ground on which I was standing was sacred, and authoritatively asked me to remove my footwear.

I remained on the spot for a while, realizing I did not belong here anymore.

After a while I removed the shoes, stood in the queue obediently, and when I got to front, completely ignored the priest (to his surprise), spent a few moments gazing at the decorated idol, took a little of the saffron kept in a dish nearby, said a silent good-bye in my heart, and started back.

I doubt if I will ever visit Chitramala now.

With apologies to Kiran Desai, for having used the title of her novel.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Googling on Manjeswar

I tried google maps on Manjeswar last night, and boy, was I amazed!

There is this small trail that I had seen branching off from the main-road, not far from my quarters. So unbecoming to the adventurer in me, I had not ventured down that path even once in my one month here so far. I had tried to do some exploring during the first week, but after having driven off a cliff, the road suddenly having ended into an open gorge while I was still cruising at 60, had more or less decided not to go on any more wild goose chases.

That might have been a mistake.

There is a river running through the village (brother who came down from Delhi last week helped me with that: the old part of town is more appropriately called a village, I have since decided), a shallow stretch of water meandering in between wide sand-banks, typical of a river in its final stages before joining the sea. In retrospect, I wonder how it could never have occurred to me that I should have a look down the road that led in the direction where the river might join the sea.

In Google maps' satellite imagery I saw that the narrow river that I had known was actually only one of three or four, that formed a common delta before leading onto the Arabian sea. Due to the peculiar course of the rivers joining with each other and the sea, the land was carved into a broken chain of islands arranged in a gigantic C shape, the open ends barely 50 feet from one another across the water, but separated by at least 15km if one was traveling by land.

I had to force myself not to get on the motorcycle and go over to the edge of the water then and there. I remember how a friend and I had once been sitting idly watching it rain outside our balcony at the medical college hostel one midnight, when just like that we felt like going to a water theme park near Kochi, that was supposedly the largest in Asia. I don't remember who originated the idea but we dug up some moth-eaten rain clothes (that did a very fine job of keeping us wet even after the rain had stopped many hours later) and started off in our two motorcycles to reach Kochi at around 6.30 in the morning, checked in to the cheapest hotel we could find, caught 2 hrs of sleep before going to the park. It is another story that we were both of us so NOT amused at being asked to step into a shallow pool of water smelling of urine, vomit and alcohol, with a bunch of school kids, and asked to imagine that we were having fun, all for Rs 350. Its just that when you have rode all night braving a thunderstorm and made it across 250km, your benchmark for what counts as adventure is slightly higher. I think theme parks are considered funny because, having paid for the entry ticket, people would better start imagining that they are having a good time!

The night passes, and early today morning I got on Old trusty and went down the narrow lane. It took me past the sand-mining banks and the fishing harbour, to end against a lane of boulders cutting across the road and continuing into the sea. Leaving the bike there and having climbed over the obstacles I found myself in a stretch of sand-bank, the edge of the 'C' that I had seen yesterday, the Arabian sea to my right, the combined pool of the four rivers on my left.

An infinite stretch of water: the rivers tranquil; the ocean, turbulent.

A little out into the sea, isolated boulders could be seen propping out of the surface, part of the chain of rocks. At one or two of the highest points, someone had put up a couple of green flags, signaling that, like me, the local Muslim fishermen also thought this place had the hand of God upon it.

The other shore appeared even more thinly inhabited, with no signs of commercial activity. It would be wonderful to swim across the channel to the other side, and may be set up a fire and spend the night there.

I just couldn't help wishing I had chanced upon this place while going down an unknown road, rather than having a satellite tell me what was practically on my own backyard!

Folks, try google maps around where you live. Who knows what we might find!

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Ghost of the Christmas Past

Many years ago, I read an abridged version of the 19th century classic by Charles Dickens, ‘A Christmas Carol’. Put simply, it is the story of the miraculous transformation of the elderly miser Ebenezer Scrooge into a kind philanthropist over the night of Christmas eve. Mr.Scrooge, is visited in his sleep by three ‘ghosts’, the ghosts of the Christmas Past, Present and Future, that showed him the life he was missing on account of his avarice, and what lay in store for him in the future if he did not change his ways.

The literary maestro that he is, Dickens’ description of each ghost is calculated to arouse in the reader’s, as well as Mr.Scrooge’s mind, the right mixture of fear and confusion and dreadfulness, and at the end, hope.

The Ghost of the Christmas Past is described as having a face that might have belonged to a man or a woman, to an old person or a child. It is dressed in flowing white robes, and has a cap that she never wears. It shows him scenes from his childhood and early adult years, his tender side that he had forgotten long ago.

Last week, I saw a face just like that.

It was one of the crowded days at the OP. Even as I am attending to a patient, I do try to be generally aware of the presence of people around me, a wandering casual eye that would constantly be on the look out for anything that didn’t fit into a pattern: something that might suggest a person in need of immediate attention. I hate it when someone collapses while waiting for their turn after having come to the hospital from afar.

I had a nagging feeling then, that morning in the OP. A couple of times I stopped what I was doing and looked around, yet could not see anything out of the ordinary, amongst the largely burqa-clad crowd. Yet the feeling remained, and so I suddenly turned round, just in time to see an emaciated hand hastily bring down the veil over a face, that could have been young or old, or for that matter could even have been male or female. A look of almost unbearable suffering, of fear, of shame. In the infinitesimal moment that our eyes met, I knew: the haunted eyes of the HIV-AIDS patient, especially in a young woman, is hard to miss even for someone having only the most rudimentary acquaintance with human suffering.

Hastily she covered the face, retreated into the security of her robes, and slipped away into the crowd. Perhaps she had memories of other times, of being chased out of other places.

After an hour or so, when the crowd at the OP had begun to thin out, I could make out the familiar outline at the back of the queue. I called out to her, and the others moved to either side to give way as she hesitantly came up to the front.
With some difficulty, I cleared some space around the table, pushing the others out of the consultation room. She visibly relaxed, and for the first time, began to laugh and talk normally like the 28 years old that the OP ticket said was her age.

She might’ve been 70, but for the laughter.

Just so there was no doubt left, she told me her HIV status, like a responsible patient, and proceeded to describe a plethora of symptoms, suggestive of a worsening immune status. I asked about the duration of the disease.

She had been of ART (Anti Retro-Viral Therapy) for TEN YEARS.

She got it from her husband, who was then undetected (or so it was claimed), when she was married to him AT THE AGE OF SEVENTEEN.

Two children, both not infected, thanks to availability of costly medicines through a centrally funded project. She lived with her husband, and they got along by rolling beedis.

Talk to me about equal opportunity and percentage stats in govt employment, the IITs and the IAS. I’ll tell you what it means to have never had a chance.

A cold rage.