Saturday, December 26, 2009

Re visiting Shirdi

My first visit, almost 45 years ago, was on an impulse. It was memorable and significantly changed my notions about worship! The moment I stepped into the main hall, the whole congregation began to sing. It was as if they were just waiting for me to enter! After aarthi I moved with the other devotees towards the idol of Saibaba. No one shouted at me to move on and none pushed or pulled to speed me up. I rested my head, copying others, on the footprints carved out on marble. I felt very peaceful and very content.

In fact, the memory of my first visit is still fresh in my mind. I am happy with just that memory! I have this strong belief that Saibaba has taken care of me all along. I have made many visits since then and have always returned with a better clarity in my thoughts.

This visit was different in every way from my first, there were probably 10 times more number of people (3000!).
The whole area around the main shrine was enclosed and barricaded! Tara, Shubhadaji and I deposited our shoes and cell phones at the booth and entered a large hall. We joined the long queue, two in a row, zig-zagging the entire width of the hall. The queue moved in spurts! Seats were provided in each lane for us to rest.

Good idea as often the queue did not move and it was a long wait. The drawback; those who were behind usurped our space as we sat down! Not really right, but that is how we are! Also a few would step forward into the gaps created while we made a U-turn and gain a couple of feet. Progress of some sort, though selfish!

As we waited, we watched the TV monitors and saw the Idol being readied for the aarthi. Suddenly the queue moved, I cannot say my spirits soared, as we just entered another hall! I was pleasantly surprised to see a small outlet selling coffee, snacks and even ice cream! I heard someone say that it will take an other hour and realised that we would surely miss the aarthi. Other queues also merged into ours ahead of us slowing us down further!

The aarthi began and I was lucky to see the aarthi on a TV monitor. Shubhadaji joined in the aarthi, but her voice was soft and muted. There were many who could sing, but there were many more, like me, who stood in silence. While looking around, I discovered that if I craned my neck I could see the aarthi on two monitors and it somehow felt better! Really illogical, but there you are!

After the aarthi, I saw many turn around in a circle and gesture with their hands in many ways to show their bhakti. I am always humbled by such devotees who are able to express their devotion anywhere and with such sincerity!

In time, the queue moved and we were finally in the main hall, and there were more lanes and I chose the last one on the left. I knew that this would lead me to the side of the idol, wherein the icon of Saibaba's feet are located! As I came parallel to the idol, I was dismayed to see that the 'feet' were also barricaded. While I just walked out, I saw that many managed to reach the 'feet' across the glass cover and then touch their heads. I admired them for not giving up!

This visit I could hear the shouts of security guards urging devotees not to linger and move on. The flowers and other offerings were hurled at the idol by the pundits. Time and Motion study was at work to deal with ever expanding line of devotees!

Tara said she was impressed with all the gold that was artfully used! It created an illusion of a palace as we walk towards the idol. I also noticed on the way out that the shrine also had gold covered gopuram!

I had heard that Shirdi had developed beyond recognition and it is true.

But it still caters to those with a modest budget!

While we find many nice buildings all around, the shanties have not gone away completely.

As I walked around Shirdi I wondered if Saibaba would really have wanted it to develop this way. Would he be upset by the disparity or should I say the grandeur one sees in what was essentially a dilapidated masjid in his time?

Then I thought that he always loved his disciples and forgave them their many foibles. I also realise that it is wrong to think that his influence is limited only to Shirdi.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The way we drive!

Prasad (from Malacca) sent me an article as a primer to driving in Bengaluru! Supposedly by a Dutchman, very apt, it is a mixture of humor and desperation! However right, I still hate a phirangi ridiculing India and I needed to justify the mayhem and chaos on our roads! I could always blame the British or state vehemently 'we are Indians and that is how we are!'

At the same time, having lived overseas and seen a more courteous behavior of drivers, I know that there is something amiss. For instance, just a few days ago, as I looked down from my balcony, I noticed that a lady driver slowed down to park, probably without signals, and the fellow behind her car kept leaning on the horn to show his annoyance. He kept at it till the lady parked her car and he could move on! In fact, he was at it even as he passed her! This is unacceptable behavior in any part of the civilized world. I was shocked even more when I realised that he looked to be a normal type of guy!

Yesterday was scary, as I turned into the main road under the railway bridge I was shocked out of my wits by a young father with his daughter on the rear seat coming down nonchalantly on the wrong side of the road! I still get goose pimples when I think of the risk this man takes obviously every day! Then there was this young cyclist who suddenly decided to move from right to left right in front of me and surely god was kind to us at that moment!

Then there was this scooter rider who cut in front of my car, a normal occurrence, but in this case he took a wider turn than I had anticipated and I had to really brake hard! The reason he was not able to turn sharply was that he had stored material between the seat and the handle and his turning was restricted because of this.

My first reaction was that there is no hope! I keep talking about my daily dose of shocks with Raghu. His trite comment was 'we have a genetic flaw!' It is not that he just picked up a fashionable word. When he speaks about 'genetic flaws' its implications are far more serious!

While I hope to write more about his assessment of us Indians, let me dwell on what the Dutchman said:

He has many things to say, but I begin with the truck, which I guess has caused maximum number of deaths and harm on the roads. (It could be that buses, transport and tourist, may lay equal claim on the deaths caused on the roads.)

"Night driving on Indian roads is like playing Russian roulette, because you do not know who amongst the drivers is loaded with liquor. a truck attempting a speed record. Our roads do not have shoulders, but occasional boulders. Do not blink your lights expecting reciprocation. his total cerebral functions add up to little more than a naught. Truck drivers are licensed to kill. Often you may encounter a single powerful beam of light about six feet above the ground, a truck approaching you with a single light on, usually the left one. It could be the right one, but never get too close to investigate. on the trunk roads. During the daytime, trucks are more visible, except that the drivers will never show any signal."

While it may appear that the truck driver, he definitely is one of them, is the villain of the piece, there are many more! I have yet to inspect the new trucks and buses, but I know that earlier ones were the shoddiest of vehicles that I had the misfortune to ride on. The steering was so hard, there was no way a truck driver would go on the (non-existent) shoulders of the narrow roads and if he did, would probably have caused more accidents! I consider that the manufacturers and those who make, inspect and approve such terrible roads as the other villains! (It is claimed that things have improved!)

The owners of the vehicles who would not maintain the vehicles, not even give the drivers a set of spare bulbs, are also in this category. Their argument would be the drivers steal, bulbs do not last and so on! How many times do we read that a speeding vehicle(!) rammed into a parked truck in the night as there were no lights and many were killed!

If you probe deeper, the owners would claim that there are other expenses. I remember that the drivers of commercial vehicles would carry cash to distribute along the way. Not that they were innocent victims, the trucks were usually overloaded. Obviously the brakes would not respond to the extra load and would fail and kill innocent pedestrians! I am not sure if there are any statistics on the number of deaths caused by burst tyres!

So it is clear that there are many more who are guilty than just the inebriated, uneducated truck drivers for the many for deaths on the road and we choose to turn a blind eye!

Here are the links to many stories on the way we drive!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A unique temple visit in Malleswaram!

(I took pictures around Bangalore to chronicle the changes I perceive and I lost them due to virus! As I again see warnings of viruses hovering around my computer; here is one about my visit to a temple, before I loose the pictures again!)

Jayaram had arranged a Pooja in memory of his mother at the Krishna temple and as I waited for the Mahamangalarthi I noticed that in this small community temple the area around temple is covered to accommodate more people. This is true of the many temples I have seen recently! I suppose it is due to the increasing population.

More deities are also installed to meet the need for different gods for different purposes. Luckily we are not short in this respect.

Then all the donors and the office bearers are acknowledged for their work.
Even the smallest donor is acknowledged. Not clear how and where this steel cage is used. But someone donated it and his name is there for us to see!

The office bearers communicate in style!
I also see that there is renovation, additions and so on.
I guess this idol was covered to protect it from the construction dust!

As I absorbed all these changes I had this feeling of regret that the beauty of the place was lost in all these additions! I missed the tranquility I used to feel years ago. A pity!
Then I heard the Nadaswara and turned and I saw this man sitting in one corner and playing the most beautiful music. I had a feeling that I knew this person.

I felt happy to see that the man was not forgotten as the priests went to him and offered him the Theeratha and Prasad! I was told that the artist plays at the temple every day he is in town and has been doing it for years!
So there is still beauty (of sorts) in our temples!
Then Sunanda and Jayanthi walked up to speak to him. I joined them out of curiosity and understood why he was so familiar. Shri Ramdasappa has been playing at the Weddings and Munji of our families for many many years. More amazing was that he remembered my late uncle for his encouragement and his company 'Chamundi Construction' so well!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Choosing a car by concensus! It is an arranged marriage!

Around the time we finally bought our car I saw an eye catching article; orgies, bungee jumping and New cars, in Bangkokpost. We have nothing in comman except we enjoyed "seven and a half years of bliss in the back of taxis and on sky trains and this would have continued" if we had not decided to buy a new car, he in Bangkok and we in Bangalore for very different reasons! It is not so easy to get taxis here and sky train is many years away!

Our choices are also different as there are not many roads here in Bangalore wherein owners of the powerful macho cars can show off! Big cars invariably muscle in the narrow corridors of the congested Bangalore traffic. While they arouse some envy, it is tinged with derision as these big cars are invariably surrounded and outpaced by the lowly autos. One benefit of being big is that these cars are not as battered as the other cars for some reason! I remember that Somwang, our driver in Thailand was wary of Benz cars and would yield to them! His explanation was that these cars either belong to 'Official' or 'The mafia' and it is 'danger' to tangle with them! A sensible approach!

I noticed that in Bangalore the compacts, weaving in and out of the knotted traffic are the winners! These small cars, mostly feminine, seem to beguile you into yielding them space! So it is obvious that the compact should be our choice for ease of driving and parking. Not really! Common sense does not always prevail! It is more akin to an arranged match for an Indian boy! It is not love but other considerations that count!

For instance, Tara was insistent that the car have a large boot space! When asked 'why' she said it was for me, to be exact, my golf clubs! Very considerate of her! So compacts were out! She wanted a 'black' car, a surprise as I thought lighter colors like the beige would be her choice. She said 'no way! that is neither here nor there'! I suppose I was thinking of all the match making ads, 'Wheatish' seemed to be the one most popular! Anyway, once we were set on the basics, we sought advice as we were totally confused with the variety of choices available!

While the advice was very sincere, I became more confused. It was similar to a marriage proposal in a joint family wherein grandmother downwards every one has a say! Some showed surprise and wondered why we wanted to buy a car! It was like 'Do you think really you are eligible to be married'! The advisers had only our interest in their minds and did not want us get into the 'rat race' of driving in Bangalore.

Most were firm that Diesel was not the car for us as we would not be using car every day. So a diesel car was out! There were conflicting opinions about an automatic drive for the car, one I was used to for the last so many years. I was keen to get back to my Indian days and took shelter in budget constraints and chose a manual shift. Possibly the money I saved may go away in repairs of the clutch and gear box! The thought of buying a used car was not even open for discussion! Do not take the risk was the advice!

Then the question of who would drive the car was in some ways tough! The reasons why I should not drive were spelt out. All sound arguments and very true: 'There were too many drivers who are crazy, selfish. Road rage is high! Added to that are the two wheelers, cyclists and pedestrians who have their own rules or no rules'. The compromise was that I would drive in the day and hire a driver for the nights! It is lucky that we have this facility of hiring drivers for short periods!

I was reminded of the time I bought my first car, I had limited funds and so my choice was also limited! It was truly an arranged marriage, very traditional, as I did not even see the car as I lived in Pune and the car was bought in Bangalore by Jayaram, my brother in law! It worked for me and I used the car faithfully for the next 20 years! Amazingly we sold it for a small profit when we moved to Bangkok!

Times are very different now! They bring demo cars home and let you test drive. I was against this 'Bride showing' system as an young idealist but I suppose it is ok for cars. One of the consultants, that is how they are known, even showed me how to park the car in our narrow portico. A pity that he did not notice a flower pot and damaged the car. I almost bought the car feeling guilty about it.
I suppose I enjoyed the special attention I was given by the car dealers. We also had the experience of cancelling our booking; the color Tara wanted was sold out after we had booked the car! The dealer was not sure when it would be available again and could not hold the 'bride' price we had negotiated and fixed! (Bride price is part of the Thai tradition, esp when a farang marries a Thai girl). Importantly the advance we had paid was returned to us promptly!
Finally we chose a small sedan, petrol and manual shift model and with boot which could hold two sets of golf clubs, and probably three! Our friend Lakshmi who stayed with me through this selection process was pleased as we finally chose a Hyundai Verna. It was his choice for us from the start!
BTW we pay for lifetime registration of the cars and the car is depreciated by 20% on the day you drive it home! So it is no more an assest but a write off! I am not sure whether the new car will last as long as my old one! It was already ten years old when I bought it and I used it for another twenty years!

( Our car getting a traditional blessing! Tata also cut the tape!)

As I began reviewing this blog, a person writing in TOI opined that driving a car in Bangalore was akin to meditation and was spiritual! I liked the piece and do not mind that he just took away the title of my next blog and echoed many of my thoughts!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Vedanta Retreat in Rishikesh: What did I learn?

It is very easy to answer Tara on 'what I learned!' In fact, it will be a sweet revenge! Normally it is Tara who attends such talks. On her return from the lecture, while I could guess her reply, I would ask: 'How was it?' She would go ecstatic on how good the speaker was, how fluent, relevant and so on and then would just give me this 'look', a look which implied that you missed an opportunity to become spiritual! I would then ask her, hoping to appease her 'Give me a gist!'. She would say 'It was very good, but I cannot explain it you! You have to be there in person and listen!' The tone would also imply 'you will never go!' I believe I surprised myself and her by coming to this retreat!

It really is not easy to talk about Vedanta and what it means to me. Neema always cautioned us that Vedanta gives us 'no capsule' which would make things clear in a flash! Surya would tell us that 'there is no checklist' you can tick off and assume 'you are now aware!'

As I listened to Neema I felt privileged to have been a part of this retreat and felt enriched by the company of my fellow participants. I also felt grateful and thankful for all the good things that has happened in our lives! Neema would remind us that we are all connected and that so many people have contributed to our lives. Even the fact that we congregated there at Rishikesh was the result of so many working towards it and that we were indeed dependent.

The last few years have been very significant and positive for us and we feel blessed! The arrival of grandchildren have kept us busy and fulfilled! We reconnected with Neema and Surya as Tara arranged a series of talks at our place! I still had a choice to take a walk on Sukhumvit, but Rikhi as direct as he can be, urged me to attend. 'Your Guru has come to you, better attend the lectures!’ It is also the time I was encouraged by Seema to learn swimming! And my young golfing friends made it a point to include me in their group. They even took me on a golfing retreat! All this made my post retirement days easier to deal with!

While I have many things to dwell upon and be thankful, being at the ashram I could appreciate the many seekers who devoted their lives to learn the mysteries and the meaning of creation and the creator while I have just made a beginning.

While I spoke of the many positive aspects of our life, we are also faced with challenges and in fact we all have faced grief in our lives. Neema had recently lost her father, very suddenly and unexpected. I even wondered whether she would postpone the retreat, but she did not! Her teachings began with how she missed her father, who had also planned to be present at the retreat and how much she owed to him. The expression of her deep grief touched our hearts and sharing her grief healed me of my own grief at the loss of our dear ones, some very recent.

I recall on the last morning of our retreat, I walked towards the river 'Gangajee' to bid my farewell. The sky was clear and I could see the stars and river and also hear her constant murmur which was such a comfort to us. Then suddenly the mist rose and soon the river was covered and I said to myself 'The Mystery continues!'

I think I will just reply Raghu who commented in my blog in jest 'Was there Vedanta?' by quoting his earlier comments: 'Dear Nidhi, Thanks for a good report. You seem to have had a good trip. I am sure Manduka Upanishad etc apart, the scene and environs would have invigorated you. Peace with the environment is the essence of the effort. Great. Raghu'

While you can actually hear Neema speak through a series of Videos, these pictures show how animated she gets as she speaks of Vedanta.

I imagine it will be quite a while before I qualify myself to be a hermit! Even this pseudo hut, made of concrete, was out of my reach as it was located right across the flowing river.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Vedanta Retreat in Rishikesh: About us mostly in pictures!

As she read my blogs on Rishikesh, Tara the teacher, would say 'Very Nice' and then ask when are you going to write about what you learnt? In the meanwhile Prakash wanted me to introduce the participants mentioned or seen in my blogs! In fact, we could have been there incognito or had taken different avatars, but in reality we were all there as seekers!

Prakash is right in a way and here are few pictures, many borrowed, which will help me in introducing them all to you! It will also give me some more time before I try to tell Tara and you about 'what I learnt'!

Morakot is a freelance journalist to 'The Nation', an English language newspaper in Bangkok. She is also an editor of movies, runs a bed and breakfast place in Chiangmai and owns an organic farm. She and Varsha used to attend 'Balvihar classes' years ago to learn chanting of Sanskrit slokas from Tara.

(I like this picture. The colors of her dress are the colors preferred by monks!)

Morakot was not a full participant as she did not attend the classes but came along with Toom to experience the atmosphere and try out some fancy Ayurveda massage!
Morakot in conversation with Dineshjee, a close family friend of Neema's, a Philanthropist and also a veteran with the ways of the Ashram!

Ashutosh, Neema's uncle, an Industrialist, also a good sportsman and a sport! Recently a proud grand parent!

Vanessa just made it to the retreat after a long flight to Delhi. I could not resist the temptation of adding this picture of her making up some lost sleep on the train!
I liked the way she spoke English and her reactions to the teachings on the last day of our retreat.

I met Arun a little over an year ago, but it is as if we have known him and his wife Geeta for a long time! He is a graduate (FTII, Pune) in Film making and is an independent producer of documentary films. His latest is a series of shorts posted on YouTube, featuring Neema!

Geeta is with the UN and I know she works very hard! A very sincere student!

David and Sharon are a surprise package. They heard about the retreat and took a chance. They are from the USA and Sharon is from Israel originally. They have taken a break from working to learn about India and experience it as well! They have a very positive approach and have learnt to cope!

Yours truly! While I took pictures, many posted are from the albums of Arun, Surya, David and Toom!

Toom our Yoga teacher!

Our very beloved young Gurus, Neema and Surya!
My favorite dish Upama but I did not take this picture!

Eating in a clean atmosphere was a special treat. None of us had an upset stomach! The food was very tasty, safe and vegetarian.

Our contribution in keeping the place clean and healthy.

Mr. Subramanyam and his admirers. He managed the kitchen with authority and elan!

We took a walk one evening, it became dark and the canal appeared magical.

Our destination was this special place, where we had to wait! But the wait was worth the while as the food was amazingly tasty. Especially the jalebis, we just hogged them.

It was also a treat by Neema and Surya for the participants and the administrators of the ashram.

We just did not only eat! We also heard bhajans after our dinner!
Below are a few pictures I chose to keep as a record. These are just a few of the many excellent pictures the group had taken during their stay at Rishikesh.

Surya claimed that they were one of the best tailors for Indian dresses and we agreed after seeing the results later on.