Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What in the name of God?

10:30 AM
Mumbai

I rode pillion with my sister Sneha who wore a sturdy helmet and a scarf modelled as a hijab underneath it to shield the lower half of her face from flying insects and the harsh wind. I sat behind enjoying the the light drizzle and soaking in the view. It was a Friday, Aug 11, 2012. The day of the ‘Dahi Handi’ this year as per the Hindu calendar. Read more about the ‘Dahi Handi’ or Govinda as it is also referred to, here.

Image source: Stutzfamily.com
It was the festival of Janmastami - the birthday of Lord Krishna, the revered Hindu deity. The previous day, Mother and I had spent time together preparing traditional sweets and snacks. Using rice flour, she had etched a beautiful rangoli outside our house and as all of us had joined in in the puja that morning, a very serene feeling had overcome me, one that reminded me of my childhood days. It had been seven years since I had been in the city during the ‘Dahi Handi’, two years since I had witnessed such festivity because I had been in Mumbai during the Lord Ganesha pujas in 2010, but more about that later. All around us, incredible hand painted, colourful ‘Handis’ - clay pots filled with butter, ghee and yoghurt among other items were being tied to poles of outrageous heights, or being raised by cranes ornately decorated with orange marigold flower garlands from start to end. In some cases, both sides of the rope holding the clay pot had gifts tied to them as well. Shirt boxes, cloth pieces, packets of money to be won. Huge posters and banners were put up all around, political parties boasting of prize money to be given away to the group which would succeed in building a human pyramid tall enough to reach the pot and break it. Along our route, prize money ranged from Rs. 1,00,000 to Rs 33,00,000 but I had also heard that in certain areas of the city, they were as high as Rs. 10,000,000, maybe even higher. Multiple political parties also announced various ranges of prize money at the same ‘Handi’ location - the higher the prize money, the higher their clout, the higher their probability of obtaining votes in the upcoming elections.

Truckloads of enthusiastic participants, mostly teenage boys with a handful of middle-aged men and some children thrown in drove by, each truck characterised by the huge poster it donned at the back - typically to promote a political party and more specifically by the colour of the T-Shirts worn by the men in the back of the truck. Each T-Shirt also promoted the political party at the back of the shirt. Each time the truck pulled up at a traffic light, the men would cheer and leer, catcalls and yell outs were in plenty mostly directed at female motorists. Crowds mingled about, video cameras and cell phones being used extensively to film the proceedings.

Flash-forward
6:30 PM

Vashi, Navi Mumbai

Image source: Indiatoday.Indiatoday.in
I met my husband on his way back from work. Walking back from the temple, the two of us thought we would spend some time, have dinner together before I stayed at Mom’s for a week. We had assumed that, like it used to happen back in those days, the festivities would have ended by 4:00 PM and the roads would be relatively peaceful. Imagine our surprise and consternation when the roads were jam packed not with vehicles but with people! Crowds that milled about and mobs that had gathered to watch the Handi participants have a go at winning the prize, held the roads and traffic to ransom. Prior slow moving traffic had come to a complete stand-still. Commuters in public transport craned their necks to get a better view of the show. The scene unfolding before us was very similar to the crowds you would encounter at a beach or at a rally.

Political leaders and the like gave speeches in Marathi on raised podiums and huge stages that had been erected for this very cause. Tall water sprinklers were on in full force giving an effect of the rains, considering that the monsoon had been elusive so far. Scores of men with un-shaven beards and scraggly hair danced underneath the fake rain, some of them sporting toddlers on their shoulders. Cartons of beer and beer bottles lay around. A group of boys took swigs alternately from a bottle, chewing on chicken meat on the side, while an elderly couple shook their heads and walked by in disbelief. I was sure some found it abhorring as meat was considered taboo on auspicious days. A 20-something guy wearing a monster mask ran around scaring people for fun. Up on the dias, the presenter introduced group after group as they built a pyramid and the kid on top waved to the rooting crowd. The group would then disembark and the next-in-line team would carry on the show. It was nearing 7 PM and the ‘contest’ had not even begun. We walked from location to location, but at all the three that we visited, we saw the same reel being spun. Elsewhere, Bollywood celebrities entertained the masses as they gyrated to item numbers. I wondered why the ‘contest’ times had been shifted from late afternoons to dusk, but I found the answer in my question. After all, wasn’t the show being put on for the people? It being a working day, most working class folks would only have time to attend the merriment at the end of the day and what fun is it to build 60 feet pyramids with only a handful watching?

As we walked on towards the restaurant, I noticed lads on both sides of the sidewalk, some in a drunken stupor, whistle and cast disgusting looks on the ladies walking by. I had to agree with my husband’s statement that ‘Too much commercialization of functions and rituals gives such people a licence to be rowdy, to be cheap’. We watched for a while, standing in the crowd to try and understand what exactly everyone was looking at because for the past one hour we had not seen any change in status. Hordes of people continued to dance as if they were in an intoxicated torpor and others continued to watch. There are small scale handis, celebrated in colonies and co-operative housing societies that bring families and friends together. I have been to some and I have friends who participate in some. Those are rather peaceful ones built to promote togetherness. And then there are these, serving a whole different purpose. I am no party pooper, I am not a very devout person either, but why use a religious excuse to justify such behaviour? Anyway, we decided to move on to the restaurant. In the midst of all this, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat saddened because Lord Sri Krishna and his devotees were nowhere to be seen.


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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Karma or a stroke of luck?

This post has been published by me as a part of the Blog-a-Ton 30; the thirtieth edition of the online marathon of Bloggers; where we decide and we write. To be part of the next edition, visit and start following Blog-a-Ton.
A sunset walk along the beach; Juhu.
A sunset walk along the beach
He walked along the beach, barefoot against the setting sun, his limping silhouette casting deep long shadows across the sand. The rusty metal chair kept slipping down his shoulder but he would catch it in the nick of time. The small faded once-white-now-brown cloth bag balanced precariously on his head bulged from all directions, threatening to spill open at every step he took. His aged eyes scanned the crowds mingling around, searching for the perfect target, old or young, educated or not, urban or rural, no preference. Zoning in on a few such likely candidates in his immediate vicinity, he gently lowered the metal chair struggling to open it with his free hand while his other hand held on to the container on his head. In the hot humid climate of Juhu, the back of his shirt stuck to his body and beads of sweat lined his brows. A receding hairline, salt and pepper hair and a thin moustache put him in the early fifties. Having set the chair, he proceeded to lower the basket on his head. Setting it down on the rough brown sand, he untied the frayed ends of the make-shift cloth basket which contained the tools of his trade. Loosely sifting sand with his callussed fingers until wet mud came through, he then arranged on the firm wet patch the belongings of the basket. Four tiny oil containers, a sponge, a pumice stone, a few used dirty towels, a bottle of water, moisturizing lotions. Early fifties and still striving to make ends meet. Being a masseur was all he knew. The only way he could bring home bread for his family of five.

In the distance, enthusiastic tiny tots jumped and skipped in the water, shrieking with delight as they splashed water on each other. Now as he lathered a heavyset man’s back with fragrant oil, his hands and habit took over and his mind was free to roam as he desired. However, lately, all he could think about was paying his little girl’s school related expenses. The government had recently passed a dictate mandating that education be a right for every child. His daughter’s excitement had known no bounds when he and his wife had announced their decision of getting her enrolled in school. She was 12, but this was the first time she would be experiencing school, the school that she had only heard of. Even though tuitions were free, he still had to foot the bills for her uniform, books, stationery and school trip/fund related expenses. He wondered how he would be able to provide for the extra expenditure considering that his clientele hadn’t changed much over the years. His two girls were still attending school and his eldest, his son was working part-time to help him financially. His loyal clients would always come back, but he needed new customers too. With inflation reaching new heights every year, prices of everyday commodities like vegetables and oil, rice and wheat were also rising in leaps and bounds. Half of what he earned had to be paid as a bribe, a weekly hafta - to the local policemen so they would let him work in peace. At the end of the day, he would have no savings.

Aye! This is what I pay you Rs. 35 for? Bloody illiterate!!! Why don’t you go back to Bihar you moron?” The irate voice of his customer jolted him out of his reverie. The seemingly educated man in his thirties, lying supine, started thrashing his hands around trying to get up and his knee-jerk reaction spilled the oil container placed carefully at his side. He let loose a string of expletives. Local Biharis, UPs and the Maharashtrians were constantly at loggerheads and neither side would let go of an opportunity to deride the others. Thankfully the attitude was limited to uneducated folks and not the mass.

Oh! Oh saab, please. Wait for a minute saab. Will give you 10 minutes extra, free saab” pleaded the poor man, quickly trying to collect the flowing oil, trying in vain to get the man to stay. He could not afford to lose another client.

Saala bihaari!” continued the middle-aged man.
I am not a Bihari saab, why do you keep saying that?
UP waala then, what difference does it make? You villagers don’t have any work in your state, so you keep coming here to make Mumbai dirty, why don’t you just do this in your own state!”.
I was born here saab. My father too. We’ve always belonged to Maharashtra, chalo na saab, now spit out your anger saab. I’ll do a free massage for you, you will be relaxed in 10 minutes, no anger no tension saab. Then you bring your friends too saab
Hmmpph, cheap tricks. Do you know who I am? Do you? Saala, you wouldn’t be answering me back if you knew. I am the DIG’s brother, you thief!” said the client, buttoning his shirt and striding away leaving the poor masseur to his oils.
Saab, saab, my money saab? I massaged you for 25 minutes saab. It was almost time saab. Atleast pay me half the price, 15 rupees” he cried out as he limped after the retreating client, but to no avail.

The elderly man limped back slowly to his place, silently weeping on his fate. Minutes ticked away, then an hour too. Evening joggers were finishing their daily rounds and heading back. Groups of elderly ladies finished their evening chats and started dispersing. The shades of orange were now becoming a deep red, soon the sun would fade into the darkness leaving him stranded again with meagre savings and no way out.

Suddenly there was a loud commotion near the water. People started screaming, adults started pulling children away. A few seconds apart, the teeming mob of people at the waterfront had reduced to a handful of intrigued onlookers. No one dared venture in the water to save the drowning man. His head bobbed up and down with the waves and he was ingesting salty water, coughing incessantly. The masseur looked around, there were no policemen in sight, no dogs either, no young determined lads looking to save a life. Making a split second decision, he waded into the waters, swimming into the deep. Panting every few seconds, he second guessed his move. He was no longer as fit as before, no longer young. Yet, he swam, relying on the receding waves to take him close. Clutching the drowning man by the collar, he slowly swam back. The handful of people had now grown in numbers, people crowding to watch the rescue attempt. Video cameras and cell phones were out in plenty, recording the entire event, some cheering him on, some applauding.

The masseur slowly tugged the man onto solid ground, flipping him onto his back wanting to pump water out of his stomach. But his own mind did a double flip as he realized with a start that the man who had just been rescued was the irate client who had cheated him out of his meagre 15 rupees, the man who was now looking up at him through apologetic eyes, as if asking for forgiveness. As the crowd parted, the masseur looked up with tears in his eyes to find the local constable standing by, eyes lowered to the ground, shameful of the act of having stood by and done nothing. He had simply been a witness to the entire incident. In a sudden move of gratitude and loyalty to his job and the DIG obviously, he offered to waive the weekly hafta leading the masseur to fall to his knees, crying tears of joy, taking the Lord’s name and thanking the constable profusely.

The masseur now slowly limped back to the chair that he used for seated massages and flopped down on it. He felt at peace, thankful that something good had come out of the rescue attempt that he had gotten into. He cursed himself for double guessing the noble attempt and attributed his good luck to God and Fate, resolving never to second guess his decisions again. As the sun set on the horizon, he walked back home, a smile on his lips and peace in his heart.
The fellow Blog-a-Tonics who took part in this Blog-a-Ton and links to their respective posts can be checked here. To be part of the next edition, visit and start following Blog-a-Ton. I am thankful to Gayathri, who introduced Blog-a-Ton to me, and I debuted in the 30th edition.
Credits
Image - Shades of Orange by Harsha Chittar
Courtesy - Curious Dino Photography via www.blogaton.in
Note: This post is an attempt to document some of the hardships faced by local masseurs on Mumbai beaches, facing problems providing for their meagre routine in the midst of bigger problems like corruption, political ire and poverty even as they trudge along day after day striving to make ends meet.
I would love to hear your views!
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