Allahabad: the Symbolic City
It was a short one, yet my visit to Allahabad yesterday [28-06-2010] was like a trip to a small story-teller's town. It was my maiden visit to the town and hence, even before I landed there, I had to make a mental picture of what I was going to see there. It was in my range of expectations that the place would be like any other ancient town in the process of urban renewal with trees cut and roads widened, with smaller buildings giving way to high-rise apartments, with a few glass and steel structures flaunting their wealth and modernity, with traffic congestions assuming a maddening proportion even at midday, with jhoogies and jhopris thriving under political assurances, with religious people there, like in any other pilgrimage town, showing their shrewd selves and pestering nature.... But surprisingly my guess was not all that accurate, rather not at all, for the green ambience of the town impressed me a lot, for its historical aura was more than evident in its old institutional buildings; for the religious fervour promised a great spiritual illumination in me, and needless to say, I had landed in the town not for quenching my wanderlust but to live up to one of my religious duties that suddenly devolved upon me.
I had been there to consign the symbolic remains salvaged from the funeral pyre of my maternal aunt [my mother's brother's wife] and the stuff must have weighed less than ten grams. Even I could not see the stuff, for it was received in a small injection bottle and I had no interest in examining that before proceeding ahead with what I was religiously expected to do. My love for the river was dictating something different: even that small stuff was not something I should have allowed myself to dump into the river; in no way I should be responsible to make the Ganges carry anything other than the life-giving water. But then I was left with no option--as usual, I had to do something that would strictly not flow from within, but would allow me to live, nay co-exist with others and to respect the so-called tradition. This was something religious; the person who dies needs to be given a pride of place in the heaven and this is what has been prescribed to help the soul achieve that. The dying lady had expressed her wish in the public and entrusted the task to me and me alone and, by choosing not to do that, I would have made myself an object of ridicule before the entire clan that assembled in the village to perform the last rites.
I still wonder it: why should religion ask the progeny to help the dying souls to reach heaven just by doing something so symbolic and so perfunctory? God gives human beings a cool 50-100 years life on this earth to do what they desire, and is it not sufficiently long a time for any individual to do good things in this life so that the soul in the person gets an advance ticket to heaven reserved? I had not long seen the lady [my maternal aunt] even once in the last decade, not even got a message as to her terminal illness, and now I would be doing something against my wish to send her to heaven?
The priest, or the panda as they call those who are in the profession of taking the visitors through the religious processes, received me well ordering his grandson to take me to an A/C room in the upstairs whereas other religious-seekers were, as I observed them, just sitting in the waiting room consulting their ledgers as to who all among their ancestors could make it up to Allahabad to finish the funeral work of their near and dear ones. Upstairs I was treated well with a cup of tea and introduced at least two generations of women in the family. Yes, they were the women in an orthodox family taught for their entire life how to avoid men folk for their own safety! It was a joint family and I could realise from their talk that they would not do anything, either jointly or severally, to dilute their tradition. The lady who met me, repeatedly said that people were not usually allowed upstairs where the priest's joint family lived with three generations of family members consisting of old grandmother, middle-aged daughters-in-law, grown-up sons and daughters...and their pets consisting of three generations of peacocks and pea-hens and their chicks. Oh yes, I was shown a one-year old peacock that was suffering from paralysis and the family was spending generously to restore the bird's health! A veterinarian used to visit the bird almost daily and according to him his patient was responding to his treatment. The grown-up grandson who was a weight-lifter and his mother severally underscored the significance of a peahen laying eggs and having her chicks in the house which, according to the prevailing belief, was an event of great luck and good omen! The middle-aged women who came to serve us tea had many things to share, say about her joint family, about the strongest and the most handsome of her children, about her daughter whom I had no chance to see, about the power failure which was frequent in the town, and I felt as if she was a relative of mine whom I met after several years and who had been planning for months what all to say when she would actually meet me! The young man who escorted us to the river ghat was himself a businessman dealing in electronic and consumer durables and he had been winning shields for the past few years in the sports of pigeon-flying. The last but not the least, I found everybody in the family endowed with good physique and glowing skin…and beauty that defied age except the poor peacock that was afflicted with paralysis.
In time I was called near the patriarch of the family, who had the volumes of records with the help of which he was supposed to say the particulars of my ancestors that had paid visits to Allahabad for religious purposes. I felt curious, so much so that I was even prepared to pay a hefty fee [one thousand and one rupees] for the service but the old man failed to search any such reference about my ancestors. I narrowed the search criterion down to a recent event: Some five years ago somebody from our relations had come to this town but then his particulars were also missing in his ledgers. Misgivings bothered me: It is rampant in our area that people falsely declare to have visited the town for the religious purposes but in actual effect they just appear after a few days, with their shaven heads just to encourage people accepting the credibility of their claims. I could have treated the claim of my relative, whose recent visit I chose as my search criterion, as a false one and retrospectively revised my opinion about him, but could not do that, for he is eminently reputed otherwise and it was he who gave me the address and phone number of this particular panda that I contacted on reaching Allahabad. Had my relative falsely claimed about his visit to the religious town, he would not have got the visiting card of that panda to hand it down to me.
So, I concluded: I belong to a family whose ancestors had no record of being religious!
Continued then the religious formalities that included getting the head shaved and offering food to the departed souls of three generations of ancestors, both from my father's side and from my mother's. There was also a share for the miscellaneous souls who could not be remembered at the moment! The priest did a good job by meticulously reciting all the prescribed hymns of that ceremony with proper pause and rhymes…or that was what I believed. Sometimes in the middle of the rites, he made me recite the lines which were absolutely necessary for the person offering that shradh to recite and I followed him to the best I could. I didn't understand them, but then if I could read Eliot's poems or Hemmingway's prose without grasping the contents, I could as well recite the lines that the priest dictated. Honestly, I was cogitating about how to face people with my head that was shaved, and that too, without sending them to shocks! My confidence was only half of the solution but what about other's preparedness to accept a weird-looking fellow like me with a hairless head? Something funny struck me too: now my readers would come closer to me--there would be none between my readers and my head that generated texts for their consumption. Nevertheless I would be at the receiving end with a head that would expose my entire grey hair and I would have to wait for a month to have enough of them to dye.
There was another interesting thing in the agenda that I was looking forward to. From the bank of Yamuna where the shradh was performed we were supposed to go to the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna by a boat. But as luck would have it, there was no boat on that day. Reason: there was a strike of the boatmen protesting against the internecine bloodshed. Yes, there was a murder of a boatman and the vendetta would not stop for years even if the boat service was expected to restore the next day! I tried to convince myself: if I could not find a single ancestor of mine in the registers of the panda, how could I find the pleasure of a boat ride? Didn't I reach there for performing something seriously religious and not in pursuit of pleasure?
We reached sangam, the confluence by taking the land route. I took ablutions, dipping my head as many times as there were children in my family to be wished well and while taking that I was also thinking of my bathroom and the shampoo bottle. Oh no, I was having a shaven head and there was no need of shampoo now! Whether I liked the bath, I perhaps need no more words to say this! My brother carried a canister full of water from the Ganges and I know people there in my place would be happy to get something authentic--aha! the water of the confluence.
While I was about to return, my guide reminded me that there was something important still left to be done. And it was godaan, a gift of cow to a Brahmin which is a sure sort recipe to bring oodles of dharma, the good deed. Honestly I was scared. A cow would cost not less than fifteen to twenty thousand rupees and I was not prepared for spending that amount. Probably my guide understood my hesitation and volunteered, "It's going to cost only eleven rupees, sir.' Eleven rupees for a cow? So cheap? Oh no, it was only symbolic. I understood it; everything was symbolic here: the confluence with its third river--the river of Saraswati--flowing subterranean; the rites that catapults the souls to the heaven; the house of great men of the nation converted into memorials that I failed to visit in all my two attempts finding it closed; the students' hostels divided on the basis of communities--a Muslim Hostel and a Hindu Hostel; the university that produces surprising number of IAS officers who are capable of unlearning in a jiffy what they learn spending years in the University…and even the Lord Hanuman who has gone to sleep in this laid-back city of symbols and harmony.
And I did not want to leg behind. The four guava plants of the famous Allahabadi provenance that I took from this place to my village would proclaim the symbol of a place with every fruit that would adorn its branches!
It was a day's visit to this wonderful city of symbols, and not a sojourn for an eternity. And how could I ever crack the meaning of all I saw there? Yes, I have been invited to come there again, for the Kumb Mela which was only round the corner, say falling in 2012!
A. N. Nanda