Pratik Kan­ji­lal


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The poor save up ev­ery­thing, even their ghosts. The lit­tle fam­ily of desert farm­ers de­scend­ing the steps to the holy lake of Pushkar has waited pa­tiently for a whole gen­er­a­tion of pa­tri­archs to die. With care­ful hus­bandry, they have ac­cu­mu­lated four brothers and cousins of sim­i­lar age, who had shared a sur­name. Now, two gen­er­a­tions have gath­ered to speed their spir­its to the other world. On the steps of the bathing ghat in the oa­sis sacred to Brahma, the dead are rep­re­sented by four walk­ing sticks and four lit­tle wicker bas­kets which con­tain goods for the hereafter. The walk­ing sticks are made of cheap wood lac­quered to look cheer­ful. The lac­quer is a bale­ful orange. The wicker has warp of green and weft of blue, and the bas­kets look very pick­nicky. The men clus­tered around them are ton­sured and dressed in their best clothes, the worn jeans and check shirts of much-washed colours which is the uni­form of ris­ing In­dia. In the wa­tery first light, it is a fam­ily of shad­ows.

The women hud­dle on the steps, hold­ing ba­bies and tol­er­at­ing chil­dren, all bare­foot on the cold stone flag­ging, hun­gry but sto­ical, for the fam­ily must fast un­til the rites are done. Fated to be ex­tras in the the­atre of life and death, the women have not dressed for the oc­ca­sion. Their clothes are old and grey with use, but their an­kles of­fer rich coun­ter­points, weighed down with chunky sil­ver an­klets as thick as a child’s wrist, the ac­cu­mu­lated sav­ings of sev­eral life­times of women.

They have kept the dead wait­ing but that is not a great sin, for time is in good sup­ply in the af­ter­life. And in this mar­ket-driven life, batch pro­cess­ing the last rites qual­i­fies for a bulk dis­count. An early-ris­ing Brah­min has taken the fam­ily un­der his fleshy wing af­ter some loud hag­gling with the ton­sured men­folk. One of them comes over to the hud­dled women and chil­dren and whis­pers to the old­est, a tall, thin, grey-haired woman. Re­luc­tantly, she reaches into her blouse and draws some ban­knotes out of her cleav­age. She

does not give them all to the young man, who could be her grand­son. She saves up one big note and tucks it back in her blouse. With In­dia on the move, th­ese are un­cer­tain times.

Cash warm­ing his heart, the Brah­min herds off the women down to the wa­ter. It is alive with small fish. Pond-scum gives it the colour of dull, un­pol­ished emer­ald. They squat by the wa­ter and wash their hands, re­luc­tant to wade into the freez­ing depths. The Brah­min cheers them on. ‘Bathing in Pushkar washes away all sins,’ he ex­horts, ‘and to bathe is to wash the ears. Please wash the ears.’ He wears a be­nign smile and white cot­ton py­ja­mas which could hold three of him. He is sleek with many scrub­bings and oil­ings. He keeps his hands joined res­o­lutely be­hind his back. But for money, he would not come in con­tact with such peo­ple. Two herons and a beady-eyed bit­tern watch him war­ily as he is­sues or­ders to his lit­tle flock.

Be­fore a drought dried up the Pushkar lake, a few small croc­o­diles had shared the wa­ter with the millions of de­vout bathers who visit ev­ery year. They were of sur­pris­ingly lim­ited size and prow­ess and lived on the fish which teem in the wa­ters. The hu­mans of­fered no com­pe­ti­tion, since Pushkar is strictly veg­e­tar­ian. Even the break­fast omelettes are made of lentil pow­der, not eggs.

Legend has it that be­fore the lake filled up again in the next mon­soon, the croc­o­diles were re­moved by the gov­ern­ment for the safety of bathers, though they had of­fered them no harm. This is not sur­pris­ing. In its new­found con­fi­dence, mod­ern In­dia fears many be­ings who of­fer no harm. A much older legend from the twen­ti­eth cen­tury holds that Pushkar used to teem with full-sized croc­o­diles, and that bathers whom they dragged away gave thanks to Brahma with their dy­ing breath, for the rep­tiles were in­stru­ments of grace which took them back to na­ture. Th­ese croc­o­diles were ap­par­ently herded off into the Ra­jasthan desert by the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment, be­fore In­dia be­came in­de­pen­dent. In a coun­try where gov­ern­ments cus­tom­ar­ily do not work, such faith in the agency of the state is per­plex­ing. In In­dian cin­ema, the po­lice al­ways ar­rive just be­fore the cred­its roll, and just af­ter the hero has thrashed the vil­lains silly. In Pushkar, too, one would

have ex­pected the gov­ern­ment to en­ter the pic­ture well af­ter the croc­o­diles had di­gested the juici­est pil­grim bathers, but colo­nial power was al­ways quick to quell dis­or­der.

The great-grand­chil­dren of the colo­nials have re­turned to Pushkar. They come from all over, from Oporto to Osaka. They teem in the an­cient build­ings that line the edge of the wa­ter, and swarm up to the strictly veg­e­tar­ian rooftop restau­rants which are ev­ery­where. But it is too early for them to be afoot. They were busy last night, on Shivra­tri, the night sacred to Shiva, try­ing the pa­tience of the lo­cals by danc­ing in the streets to the rhythms of Kr­ishna con­scious­ness in hon­our of a god of a rather dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­ment. The myr­iad cows of Pushkar, all holy, had watched them im­pas­sively.

The sun has topped the hills be­hind which lies the Sufi city of Ajmer, where the Mughal em­peror Je­hangir signed a doc­u­ment grant­ing trad­ing rights to a Bri­tish emis­sary, and un­wit­tingly signed away his em­pire and his coun­try. The first light strikes the wa­ter low, turn­ing it into a sheet of metal.

Pushkar is com­ing to life. Two Euro­pean tourists are walk­ing down the steps to­wards the wa­ter. Loud cries ring out from all over: ‘No san­dals! No san­dals in 60 feet!’ With due re­spect to the gods, you are to ap­proach the wa­ter bare­foot. As in Canossa, so in Pushkar. As with snow in the higher lat­i­tudes, so with wa­ter in the sub­trop­ics. The Euro­peans, a griz­zled old cam­paigner on the hip­pie trail and a rather vi­va­cious girl in a flow­ing batik skirt, sit down on the steps to take off their hik­ing boots. They are over­taken by two refugees from a board­room clad in terry cot­ton shirts with white col­lar and cuffs. They wear thick gold chains around their necks. The pro­files of huge Chi­nese mo­bile phones bulge from their trouser pock­ets. They are bare­foot, hav­ing left their ex­pen­sively nar­row shoes in their car. They may have driven down from Jaipur and are in a hurry to drive back. Quickly, they strip down to their shorts and wade into a tank at the edge of the lake, made by some long-for­got­ten Ra­jput for bathers who do not trust the depths. They know what’s what and do not need the min­is­tra­tions of a priest.

But there is one in at­ten­dance any­way, a skinny, swollen-headed man bald in front and with strag­gly, grey locks at the back. In the cities, such men lurk in parks at the crack of dawn, on the look­out for huffy and puffy men and women to lure into yoga lessons. Here, in Pushkar, they pur­sue the vis­i­bly rich and guilt-trip them into elab­o­rate pro­pi­ti­a­tions. The priest cir­cles the tank like a hawk and dives for his prey, barely mak­ing a splash. ‘This is how you bathe,’ he in­structs, com­ing up for air. ‘Ev­ery atom of your body must be un­der­wa­ter, or it doesn’t count.’ He dog-pad­dles to the steps of the ghat, grips a ny­lon rope which is set into an iron ring and hauls him­self ashore hand over hand. He perches on the steps in his shorts, drip­ping wa­ter. ‘Hold this rope and dive in fear­lessly - come, let me help you.’ First Board­room Refugee de­clines po­litely. The priest turns his at­ten­tion to his com­pan­ion: ‘What about you? It’s the new moon, most pro­pi­tious for giv­ing wa­ter to your an­ces­tors.’

‘My an­ces­tors are swim­ming in it,’ says Sec­ond Board­room Refugee rudely, sluic­ing wa­ter into his armpits with his hands. He is portly. His hands are podgy and don’t hold wa­ter.

‘How un­usual! I must in­form you that in this mat­ter, even too much is not enough. An­ces­tors are al­ways hun­gry and thirsty, and who would care for them but their de­scen­dants? Who else re­mem­bers them? Per­fect strangers, you think? And it only takes a hun­dred ru­pees to set right what­ever you ne­glected to do for them when they, most un­for­tu­nately, died. This is Pushkar, where all hu­man er­rors can be rec­ti­fied.’

Board­room Refugee Num­ber Two is an over­weight man, but he is shock­ingly fast. Just walk­ing down the long flight of steps to the wa­ter had set him pant­ing but now, he is out of the wa­ter in a flash, his fin­gers curled like talons, reach­ing for the priest’s throat. The priest whirls and flees around the tank. He must put holy wa­ter be­tween the beast and him­self. ‘Lu­natic!’ he mut­ters ner­vously. The spot to which he has fled is near the fam­ily, clus­tered around a sac­ri­fi­cial fire, their heads bent in mum­bled prayer. The chil­dren look war­ily at him, side­long, silent and wide-eyed. Chil­dren ev­ery­where al­ways know the real lu­natic in their midst.

Their sleek priest in over­size py­ja­mas drones on, eyes shut to keep out his lu­natic peer. What he re­cites is not ex­actly San­skrit, but you would have to know San­skrit to know that, and his clients know ab­so­lutely noth­ing other than the mys­ter­ies of rais­ing mus­tard and goats in the bar­ren, in­hos­pitable desert. But no, even they know. Every­one knows, of course, and that is why we all grudge pay­ing the fam­ily priest.

‘Just a hun­dred ru­pees and they wouldn’t be thirsty for a whole year,’ shouts the priest across the wa­ter. He is both fright­ened and en­raged. ‘It’s up to you. Your sin, your re­demp­tion. Your money.’ Some of the lat­est abuse in the ver­nac­u­lar floats back across the wa­ter, hush­ing the holy morn­ing. Who would have thought a man in a shirt with a white col­lar and cuffs would know such lan­guage? Vi­o­lence is banned in Pushkar, and a low chant of protest rises from pri­ests and pub­lic ev­ery­where. Who could have known that there were such mul­ti­tudes afoot, bare­foot, at this hour?

In vic­to­ri­ous joy, the lu­natic priest wraps a worn sheet around him­self and wrig­gles en­er­get­i­cally, en­cour­ag­ing his sod­den shorts to drop to the ground un­der cover of the sheet. ‘That’s all I told them,’ he shouts tri­umphantly. ‘A year’s wa­ter. It’s my duty to tell those that don’t know th­ese things. I’m a priest.’ A much older col­league hob­bles down the stairs and touches him re­prov­ingly on the shoul­der. ‘I’m a priest, I’m sup­posed to tell peo­ple what’s good for them,’ the swollen-headed priest re­peats, spread­ing his arms dra­mat­i­cally and look­ing around for pub­lic sup­port, clad in a sheet. ‘That’s what I am. That’s what I did.’ He brushes off the re­strain­ing hand on his shoul­der and starts washing his shorts fe­ro­ciously. He wrings them into a tight cylin­der, which he jabs into the wa­ter and draws out re­peat­edly, like a spear-fisher. The fish pru­dently with­draw from his side of the tank.

The gen­tle­men in board­room gear are also be­ing pru­dent. The first one has calmed down the sec­ond, who now quickly snags a pass­ing priest of the new breed. He is clad in a drip-dry shirt and trousers like or­di­nary peo­ple, his pro­fes­sion ad­ver­tised only by the ver­mil­ion and turmeric mark on his fore­head. They cut a deal for a five-minute cer­e­mony worth ten ru­pees. It is an in­sur­ance policy, taken out against more ex­pen­sive and ag­gres­sive


Cut out from the ac­tion, the hun­dred ru­pee priest takes one last frus­trated stab at the green wa­ter with his wrung-out shorts. He spreads them out to dry on the stone step, now bak­ing un­der the ris­ing sun. He lopes over to the in­ter­lop­ing priest, who is care­fully putting a ver­mil­ion mark on the fore­head of his cus­tomer with a lit­tle brass stick. ‘Hey, you owe me five ru­pees,’ he says, ‘be­cause I was here first.’

A bull has come down the steps in search of prayer of­fer­ings, which make good eat­ing. He gives the hun­dred-ru­pee priest a vig­or­ous shove in pass­ing, but the man barely no­tices. ‘Five ru­pees!’ he de­mands, stag­ger­ing. ‘Half and half.’ The ten-ru­pee priest care­fully parks his brass stick in its lit­tle bowl of ver­mil­ion, cov­ers it with a hi­bis­cus flower which he uses for the lid, and turns away, strid­ing up the steps to spend his ten ru­pees on some break­fast. The hun­dred-ru­pee priest runs af­ter him. ‘Hey, five ru­pees. Or you buy me a five-ru­pee cup of masala tea right now, and no tricks.’ The ten-ru­pee priest does not bother to re­ply.

The board­room types have bathed and bal­anced the books of their sins. Now safe from im­por­tu­nate pri­ests, they are climb­ing back into their street clothes and check­ing trouser pock­ets for car keys and phones. The holy lake is wind­ing down for the long, hot af­ter­noon. The bull has gone straight to the cer­e­monies of the fam­ily of the poor. Four dead will of­fer good pick­ings, he knows.

Wa­ter, fire, in­cense, mantra. The dead have al­most been seen off. The bull will clean up the ba­nana leaves, flow­ers and sweets of the cer­e­mony. It only re­mains to lay out the balls of sac­ri­fi­cial rice. If the birds take them, it is a good sign. It means that the dead have been re­ceived back into the womb of na­ture. It is not as dra­matic as croc­o­diles drag­ging away the liv­ing, but what can you do? We are all mad about se­cu­rity th­ese days. It is tak­ing the magic out of our lives.

The cer­e­mony over, the fam­ily gath­ers up their things and trudges up the

steps, leav­ing only the goods for the dead un­der the watch­ful eye of the Brah­min. They will soon find their way back to the shop which had sold them, to await the fu­ture dead.

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