A Tenet of Hinduism that Bajrang Dal has No Right to Subvert

October 6, 2008 at 3:05 pm (Personal Essay, Santosh Ojha)


Baba, my mother’s father, was a frail, short person. He spent most of his life in a village in Bihar. He was a Sanskrit teacher in a school. He was also a purohit for weddings and upanayan-sanskar ceremonies. He lived most of his later years as a widower.


Baba was born at the turn of the 20th century. His father was a pandit of modest means who earned his livelihood by conducting pujas and ceremonies for his yajmaans in the nearby areas. The bubonic plague which swept parts of UP and Bihar in the early 1900s left Baba an orphan, barely 12 years old. Babas elder sister, who lost her husband in the plague, took him around nearby villages, introducing him to the yajmaans of her father and requesting them to continue the pandit-yajmaan relationship with Baba so that he could support the rest of the family in those difficult years.


Later, Baba’s love for learning took him to Kolkata where he studied Sanskrit. In those days, there were no Hindi translations available for Sanskrit works. Baba taught himself Bengali to read Bengali translations of Sanskrit texts. He completed successive courses in Sanskrit – Prathama, Madhyama and Shastri – leading to the master’s degree Sahityacharya.


Then Baba got married. He had five children – three sons (they went on to earn their graduations in Sanskrit) and two daughters. The eldest of all his children is mai, my mother. Baba took up a Sanskrit teacher’s job in a school nearby and continued to teach, perform pujas and read.


I used to visit Baba along with my parents every year during the summer holidays. My childhood memories of Baba are that of a serious man, living a spartan life without much interest in the world, except for spiritualism and ayurveda. He was always clad in a dhoti, a kurta and the sacred thread. And when the occasion demanded, Baba was the only person I have seen wearing a khadaoon.


His wore his trademark brown-framed spectacles with thick bifocal lenses on his nose, sometimes held together by a string. His austere room at the entrance of the house had nothing more than a khatia, a steel trunk, a shelf full of ayurvedic medicines and racks of books. A few special books were wrapped with red cotton cloth.


Baba would not only read his books many times over, he would also add his comments in the margins of the pages. Baba marked his multiple commentaries on different readings of a book by using different colored ball pens.


Now when I close my eyes and try to find Baba, I see him lying on his khatia, holding a book in his hands.


Baba was a renowned person in that region, a Sanskrit scholar of note. In the evenings, his friends would arrive and discuss various metaphysical matters with him till dawn. I was a child. I could not follow the discussions, but they all sounded very serious and erudite.


Sometimes, I would accompany Baba to the wedding ceremonies he used to preside over. He knew all the shlokas by heart


Baba’s colloquial Hindi was a curious mix of Sanskrit and Bhojpuri, leaning more towards the former.


I vividly remember an incident when someone had come to consult Baba regarding some ailment. Baba admonished the man for neglecting his health by saying, “Prakriti key niyam ke atikraman hoi, ta kasht na hoi?” (If you break the laws of nature, wouldn’t you suffer?) And then Baba handed his patient a few herbs with elaborate instructions on diet and lifestyle.


So, that was Baba for me – a highly learned scholar, a stern upholder of Brahminical traditions and values; a pandit, much respected by his peers.


In 1980, I paid a visit to Baba during a weekend. I was studying engineering at the Banaras Hindu University, just a few hours away from my nanihal. During that visit, I asked Baba whether it was possible for any singular characteristic to capture the essence of the multifaceted, multilayered and multidenominational Hindu system of faith. His immediate answer was – “Jo hinsa ko dooshit samajhta hai, woh Hindu hai.” (He who considers violence repugnant is a Hindu.) I had to go through a lot in my own life to realize much later why it took Baba a lifetime of reading, reflection and application to let a vast, ancient and profound body of religious knowledge lead  him to an espousal of non-violence in thoughts, words and deeds.


That was my last meeting with Baba.


– Santosh Ojha


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Hotel Shyamprakash: A Love Story

July 13, 2008 at 1:27 pm (Personal Essay, Santosh Ojha)


Once upon a time, not so long ago, Hotel Shyamprakash used to be a prominent sight on Infantry Road, right opposite the Indian Express building. Bangalore’s reckless real-estate restructuring  saw the hotel razed down to the ground. A monstrous multistoried building stands in its place now. What a pity!


Shyamprakash had that charming feature which once was a hallmark of Bangalore – an open-air restaurant where you could drive in and have a snack, sitting either in your car or in the restaurant.


The hotel also offered an inexpensive lodging facility (a rarity in today’s Bangalore) right in the heart of town. The company which hired me as a management trainee had its head office on Cunningham Road. So it made sense to stay at Shyamprakash, which was just a stone’s throw away.


I was on a month’s project in Bangalore as part of my training program. Although  hot idli-vada with delicious sambhar for breakfast was a big draw in itself, Shyamprakash’s  prime attraction for me was its spacious open-air restaurant. Much more than the  food, the Kannada and Hindi film songs played by a live band there, made my dinner time something to look forward to.


I would reach the restaurant every evening around eight and spend hours drinking beer and nibbling food. The live band was a veritable crowd puller. The lead singers – a young man and a lovely lady whose voice bore a very close resemblance to Asha Bhosle’s – were remarkably good. Together they would sing some great Kishore-Asha duets of the 70s.


The band entertained requests from patrons. The steward would pass written requests to the stage through a waiter. No guarantee though that the band would oblige. Requests could come in too late down the queue. Or, the band might not even have the song in their repertoire.


While I was keen to request for some of my favorite Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle songs, I don’t know why I would feel shy to do so. One day I summoned up enough courage and passed on a request to the stage. The song I wanted to hear was a classic Asha Bhosle solo, one of my favorites. It goes like Baag mein kali khile, bagiya mehki… It has a Malayalam version ( Saagara) too which featured in Ramu Kariat’s Chemmeen, one of the finest films to come out of Kerala.This relatively obscure gem was composed by one of the true geniuses of Indian music industry – Salil Choudhary.


An hour elapsed and there was still no sign of the song. I had nearly given up. As I was about to leave, a little disappointed at my failed maiden request, I heard a familiar tune – the opening strains of Baag mein… I looked back at the stage. Lo and behold! The Asha Bhosle of Shyamprakash was on stage with her lyrics- notebook in hand, getting ready to sing the song. I was thrilled to bits!


The next evening, I landed earlier than usual, and occupied my favorite table. Emboldened by my previous evening’s success with the request, I asked for the same song again. The crowd had not yet built up. My request was met with in the next 15 minutes. Evening after evening, the same routine followed.


One day, I was preoccupied with some thoughts and forgot to ask for my daily fix. And yet the familiar strains of Baag mein… started wafting. My presence among the diners was enough of a prompt for the singer to croon that number. No request was needed!


I later questioned the waiter who served my table on how the singer could figure out the person behind that routine request. He explained that after the third consecutive day of the same request, the singer had asked the waiter who this request came from. The waiter pointed out to her the mystery man!


My work in Bangalore got over after a few weeks. I relocated to another city  for a few months only to return to Bangalore for good. This time around, I took a paying guest accommodation. One evening, on an impulse, I decided to visit the hotel with a friend. Was the band still playing there? Were the Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar of  Shyamprakash still around?


I reached the hotel and it was great to hear the familiar voice singing as we entered the restaurant. No sooner had we settled down, I asked for the request slip and placed the old request again. Soon enough, Baag mein … filled out the restaurant, sounding as good as ever!


And then something happened during the break! The familiar waiter came to me and requested me to follow him outside the restaurant. I was wondering what was going on! I was led to a corner where the band members were taking a break. There they were, the Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar of Shyamprakash!


“Hi! My name is Krishna and this is Sabrina,” said  the Kishore Kumar of Shyamprakash.

“Hi,” I mumbled.

“So, you are the one who had only one song to request?” asked Sabrina.

“Yes,” I said, thoroughly perplexed.What were these guys up to?


Krishna took out an envelope from his jacket pocket. “May I know your name, Sir?” he asked.


He neatly wrote my name on the envelope and gently handed it over to me saying “Mr. Ojha, Sabrina and I are getting married next Sunday. We would be delighted if you could come.”


“Are you surprised?” Sabrina asked softly.


“As a matter of fact, I am!” I replied.


Krishna shyly explained, “When you used to visit Shyamprakash earlier, my friendship with Sabrina was blossoming into something special. But we’re not sure about the nature of the evolving relationship. It was your daily request for a particular song that lent both expression  and direction to our feelings. We discovered the emotional depth of that impossibly romantic song together!”


Sabrina added with a smile, “The song that has bound Krishna and me together links back to you. You are special to us! Please do come and bless our union this Sunday.


I could not, unfortunately, attend their wedding reception. I hope Sabrina and Krishna are happy in whatever they are doing, wherever they are.


– Santosh Ojha.

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Raiding the Memory Box

June 15, 2008 at 9:05 pm (Dominic Alapat, Personal Essay)



Four boys run across the street to Sterling theatre in white uniforms. It is afternoon and it is raining. The boys have no umbrellas and they are wet. They have come after school to watch a film. It is difficult to find corollaries for some experiences in life. The first morning of summer vacation smells different. One notices more things as though one had suddenly woken up. The birds chirp as dawn slowly breaks, one breathes in the freshness in the air, one notices the yellow flowers. The memory box keeps streaming pages; precious images, snatches of conversation start playing.


So much of one’s environment adds to one’s life. For me, the city is an endless source of sustenance. Artistically, I find it fascinating beyond words. Yet, so much of it lies in the unknown. Dark, looming buildings against the sea. The hundreds of windows staring empty, with whatever life you can invest in them. The traffic on the roads moving endlessly, the horns; a mad, recognisable music plays. So much emotion is invested in certain scenes. A long empty road at night. Travelling by in a taxi in the rains, the trees by the roadside, the flashing of the headlights on the road, the droplets of water hitting the tar. Or the two and three storeyed buildings of Central Bombay seen from the top of a double-decker bus. Women in nighties standing in the balconies. Their faces with expressions you cannot tell.


The past is constantly with us. It has a life of its own. Glimpses of scene, of sound can lead to emotion of the most sublime and nourishing kind. Sometimes the light or words uttered in a certain way can set the movie rolling. The past hangs circling with a scene or a phrase keeps playing. Faces connect with voices, the time of the day is clear, and the place builds up street by street, building by building, window by window. A certain smell wafts on your tongue and here a market opens with its vegetable sellers, colour and fruit setting off a riot of moods and words.


The book of days and nights is always open. We read from it everyday. Certain moments stand more familiar, marking some kind of permanent residence on the psyche. They lure us in a way as though they still had their stories to complete. These memories yield to great feeling, one’s earliest sights, sounds, happiness, fear. They seem to be telling us something about ourselves. Desire, love, it is all stored there. A machine humming in the universe. The wisdom it offers is the source of our greatest joys, our transcendental experiences, the life of the soul. Its rapture keeps us ticking.


A scene intervenes. A boy stands outside his house looking at his window. It is night. It is time for him to go to sleep. He looks at the pattern the bulb makes on the window glass. Something like a rocket or a tower. He looks at the sky above. He notices the moon, the stars, the calm and vast sky. He is on his way to sleep, but is in raptures. He is thinking of earlier days. When he was smaller, probably not yet able to speak. A garden appears to him in his mind. Inside, a coloured fountain plays. The light changes from orange to blue to gold. Droplets of water fall on his face. His mind is singing a song. A story is passing through him.  

The memory box is everyone’s constant companion. Life’s richness is stored there. In fact, it is sustenance itself. It is our only semblance to a form, a map begun somewhere without us. It is drenched in tears and rain. It is our communion of commonalities, lending its lessons of surprise and awe, wonder and comprehension. It is water from which we drink daily.


– Dominic Alapat.        


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My HMT Kohinoor

May 15, 2008 at 12:04 pm (Personal Essay, Santosh Ojha)


My mother, mai, had this curious habit of saving coins. Coins of any denomination would be collected and stashed away in her old tin box, which was kept on the overhead shelf in her puja room. Once in a while, the trunk would be brought down, dusted, and a fresh lot of coins would be placed inside.

In those days, we had one paisa coins, the tiny, round copper ones graduating over time to squares of aluminum alloy. The copper ones were called tickli, perhaps due to their resemblance to bindi, which in Bhojpuri is called tikuli. Then there were the flower-shaped two paise coins and the hexagonal three paise ones. The five paise coins were square-shaped with rounded corners. The ten paise coins were also flower-shaped, like the two paise ones, but were larger in size. The one rupee coin came much later.

Whenever I would ask mai about her habit of saving the coins, she would say the collection was meant for my future wife; mehraroo is the word in Bhojpuri. “Tohar mehraroo key sab dey deb ham.” Or, she would buy a golden necklace or an expensive Banarasi sari for my future wife. The notion of a mehraroo was bewildering to me at that age. And if mai were angry with me for some reason while I  had asked her about the coins, she would say that she was saving the coins for herself  as she feared once married,  my  future wife  and I would give her neither food to eat nor new clothes to wear!  


By the month end, whenever our family fund ran dry,  mai would dip into her reserves to buy household essentials. My father’s ( pitaji)  salary as a college lecturer was scarcely enough to meet the routine needs of the family. An illness in the family or a wedding in the extended family was enough to upset the monthly expense budget.

 Expenditure anxiety  gripped our  family was when it was decided that i would be  sent to a college in Nagpur for my 11th and 12th Standard classes. The weeks before the departure were spent in a flurry of shopping. A new steel trunk of my own to carry my clothes, some new clothes, toiletries, footwear, a table-lamp and some stationery items. Long-lasting snacks were prepared so that I could feed myself some home made stuff in a distant land.”God knows what kind of food you will get in your hostel mess!” was her  refrain.

I did have this nagging feeling at the back of my mind about the financial stress my movement to Nagpur would cause the family, but I chose to ignore it in the overall excitement of a new life away from home. As the day of departure approached, I would sometimes notice mai weeping silently. The pain of separation from me was difficult for her to bear. I would try to maintain a brave front.

The day of parting arrived. I was to board the train to Nagpur in the evening. In the morning, mai called me aside and handed me a small packet in an envelope. “This is for you,” she said. And then she went into the kitchen. I impatiently ripped open the packet and saw inside a gleaming  Kohinoor brand of wristwatch from HMT. It was my first watch! I never had a watch of my own. During examinations, in senior classes in the school, I would borrow my father’s watch. 

Like all HMT watches, Kohinoor is a basic mechanical device with a metal strap. It has a white-dial with ‘radium’, the hour marks glowing in the dark.

I felt a bit guilty over my parents having to spend their paltry financial resources in buying me a  watch. Soon enough, I discovered that mai had emptied her coin collection, built over many years,  to get me this watch. 

It was my turn to cry!

Cut to three decades later. Nowadays, I do not wear watches. There are far too many things around you to tell you the time: the mobile phone, the display at the bottom  of the laptop, the office clock and the iPod. The only time I wear a watch is on a flight, when neither the laptop nor the mobile phone is on.  

Last week, when I was leaving home to board a flight, I picked up the watch I usually wear on flights. The watch was dead, the cell was used up. Rummaging through my collection of watches, I realized none of them had been attended to in the last few years. The cells were all dead.

The only watch I could use was my good old HMT Kohinoor, which though apparently dead, sprung to life the moment I wound it!  

This watch may be the chunkiest I own, but for me, it is the crown jewel of my worldly possessions.

 – Santosh Ojha


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What Raj Thackeray May Not Know About Chhath Puja

May 8, 2008 at 9:12 pm (Personal Essay, Santosh Ojha)

My 78 year old mother (Mai) to her offspring) lives in Jamshedpur. She has nothing to do with politics. Mai and Raj Thackeray do not know each other. There is hardly any chance of them bumping into each other.


But if they were to ever meet, the depth of devotion that Mai personify might have had some impact on Raj Thackeray. Or, on his acolytes in Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. They might realize that an attack on people performing chhath puja is an attack on the civilizational core of timeless and borderless India.


I have seen Mai performing chhath puja for as long as I can remember. Much to our ( me and my siblings) relief, Mai gave in to our persistent attempts six years ago. For long, she refused to give up performing chhath puja, despite her indifferent health.


Chhath Puja demands a lot out of you. Only a true believer can go through this test of endurance.


Chhath festival is observed only by married women. During this festival, they pray to the divine for the wellbeing of their husbands and children. It comes six days after Diwali. The word chhatht is derived from shashthi, the sixth day. Some say chhath is the combination of two words – chhah means six and hath denotes hathayoga.


 Days before the festival, Mai would start  preparation on a feverish pitch,


There were daura (basket) and soop (sieve) to be bought. Copious amount of fruits to be collected. Bunches of small yellow bananas (ghawadh of bananas, as the bunch is called) is a must.  So are sticks of sugar cane and coconuts. Also essential is thekua.  Mai would make mounds of thekua out of freshly ground atta (wheat flour) drenched in ghee (clarified butter).


Red paper stickers would adorn the doorway to the family puja room, the hub of all activities.


On Day One (kharna) when you wake up, you don’t even brush your teeth. You don’t eat anything. You can’t even drink water. You go without any food or drink until it is evening.  In the evening, you cook yourself a very simple meal. No easy way out for the dinner.You just has to cook it yourself.


I still remember Mai coughing away over the smoky chulha on the day of the
kharna as she tries to stoke the chulha in the puja room, cooking her humble repast
of puri and  and rasiyao (kheer made with gur). The only married people are allowed in a chhath kitchen. During my childhood, this condition barred all of us except Pitaji (Dad) to help Mai in the kitchen.


Day Two also goes without food and water. In the evening of Day Two, you walk up to a river or a pond and pray (offer arghya) to the setting sun. Nothing to eat and drink in the entire day. Unlike Day One, on Day Two you can’t have any food or drink even after the sunset.


On this day, all the puja samaan and prasad are piled onto the daura. We (family, friends and neighbors) would make a procession to the river nearby. The lead-walker, the cynosure of all eyes, would carry the daura on his head. Lead- walker’s was a much coveted position. This used to up for grabs, every year, leading to a stiff competition.

Mai would walk sprightly, just a little behind the daura-bearer. Despite so many hours of work and fasting, the spring in her steps never would ever be amiss.


We, the kids, would walk with either sugar-cane sticks or the banana bunches in our hands.


I still feel a lump into my throat remembering Mai’s soulful rendition of the
chhath song: 
Kaanchahin baansa key bahangiya, bahangi lachakat jai.
Poochha na Suraja Ram ke kanhariya, daura ghaatey pahunchay
…” Not only Mai, all the women in the procession would lend their voice in creating a mood of joyous fervor.


Another popular chhath number –  I may be getting the words mixed up a bit here –  used to go  like: “ Khetwa key aari, aari…”


At the ghat, the congregation would split into groups and occupy demarcated patches of the sand-bed. The patch boundaries were marked out by the flotsam which we would collect on the river bank.


Mai, knee-deep in the water with Pitaji by her side, would offer the arghya to the setting sun.  She would move the multi-decker soops, clasped by her both hands, drawing circles in the air.  


While returning home after the rituals, on my weary feet, I often used to wonder how come Mai would never betray any sign of exhaustion?  


You get up pre-dawn on Day Three and walk back to the same body of water and offer arghya to the rising sun.


One major concern for all the kids was how to get up early so as to be not left behind. Despite the promises made by the elders, we’re never sure if they would keep their word and wake us up in time. We would just lie down on the beds, telling ourselves not to fall asleep at all, lest we miss the morning arghya! It is another matter that invariably we used to pass out soon after hitting the bed! But thanks to the unfailing internal bio-alarm we never had to miss out the morning procession.


The daura, sugar-cane sticks, bananas etc would be all ready and the singing would start much before dawn, on our way to the ghat for the morning arghya.


On reaching the ghat, occasionally we had minor skirmishes among the children. The disputes were all about the boundaries of family territories on the sand, earmarked the day before.


For me, bursting patakha was the highlight of Day Three. We used to go agog planning how to save our Diwali crackers for this final moment of flourish.  


Images of shooting rockets against the dark pre-dawn sky and the wonky trajectories of zameen-chakkas on the sand are still fresh on my mind.


After the morning arghya, the fasting for Mai would end with Pitaji giving her a
glass of fruit juice. And then they would trudge back home.


Once at home, Mai used to divide the prasad into different thali. Kids would then carry them to the neighbors. Our neighbors were nearly all non-Biharis but they would eagerly await the prasad.


Piety is a defining feature of the community spirit in India. Chhath festival celebrates the family. What’s more, it shows how little we need to be happy if we can include everybody around in a festival, any festival.


Above all else, Chhath Puja, to me, will always remain my personal festival about Mai and all other women who embody the spirit of giving.


– Santosh Ojha.

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