Our Man In Bombay

Prem Panicker



The Call Of Your Roots

July 1997


Four am, and I was out of bed.

Clad in a crisp, white dhoti (the traditional Kerala costume, consisting of a long white piece of cloth worn in what, if we were talking women's fashion here, would be termed wraparound), a white towel slung around my bare torso, I walked in the pre-dawn haze to the nearby temple tank.

The bath was a ritual three dips, the intention being to purify self and clothes alike. Then, dripping wet, I walked back to my ancestral home.

Sprinkling some water on three large granite stones placed together in one corner of the outer courtyard to form an ersatz oven, I lit a fire and proceeded to cook rice in a large brass vessel, using for fuel only the leaves of the coconut palm.

Transferring the cooked rice to a fresh-cut plantain leaf, I took it over to a little earthen mound erected in one corner of the courtyard. Having first ceremoniously sprinkled water over it in a purification ritual, I then knelt down, breathed a silent prayer to the Gods and began the prescribed rites.

It is a long, involved ceremony. A small slice of green coconut leaf is installed in the centre of the earthen mound to represent the object of my worship. It is first bathed in oil, water and the juice of hibiscus leaves, which I have hand-picked and squeezed in my palms to get the essence. A single string drawn from my dhoti is then wrapped around it -- an act that symbolises dressing the figure. The ceremonial lamp is then lit, and aarti (worshipping with fire) and incense offered to the figure.

Then follows a sequential offering of water dripped on the image through fingers first dipped in mustard seeds, then in freshly ground turmeric paste, then in a particular type of flower prescribed for the ritual, then all three together.

Next, I roll a rice ball and, with heartfelt prayers, place it before the little image on the mound. Water is ceremoniously dripped on that ball of rice, again using the three ingredients in prescribed sequence.

Ritual over and done with, I then prostrate before the mound… walk backwards three steps, sprinkling water ahead of me… and then clap my hands three times…

I then wait anxiously. If the crows, just up with the dawn and exchanging their good morning caws, swoop down to peck at the offering, then I go off in a happy, uplifted frame of mind to change out of my wet clothes and take my first sip of tea of the morning.

If, however, the crows are tardy, then I feel a weight where my heart is.

Through the day, I wander around my ancestral home feeling moody, morose, ill at ease…. Till the next day dawns and it is time for me to do it all over again.

I did this for 16 days at a stretch -- the only difference being that, while on the first 15 days I performed the ritual in the courtyard of my home in Calicut, on the 16th day I, along with the members of my family, drove down to Thirunavaya, a temple situated at a confluence of rivers sacred to Hindus and performed the ritual on its banks. I then waded deep into the middle, dipped myself underwater the prescribed three times and, on the third dip, threw over my left shoulder a container full of ashes.

I was performing these rituals, as prescribed, for the peace of a departed soul very dear to me -- my father.

It was he who, in the form of that slice of green coconut palm leaf, was enshrined for the duration on the mound. It was his image that I ritually bathed, dressed, prayed to and offered rice cooked by my own hands. His ashes that, on day 16, I immersed at Thirunavaya.

On days when the crows swooped down on the offered rice even before I could really move away from the ceremonial mound, I believed that my father's soul, looking down on me, was pleased. And when the crows proved tardy, I brooded, relieved the previous 24 hours in my mind, wondered if I had said, thought or done something to have caused him hurt, or whether I had made some mistake in the actual ritual. Had I offered water in the correct sequence? Or had I forgotten the aarti? Or…

I was never at peace till the next dawn, when I performed the ceremony all over again.. and the crows swooped down…

The temple sculptor picks up a likely looking stone, turns it round in his hands, places his chisel on it and gives it a light preliminary tap with his hammer.

The editor calls you over and says, I want you to write a column for such and such a section.

Two vastly different acts, yet the result, peculiarly enough, is identical. As with the sculptor, so with the editor -- what they do, with their chisel or the demand for a column, is elevate, deify... whether it is a stone or a reporter.

They, the sculptor and the editor, confer omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence on something that, a moment ago, was very ordinary indeed.

The result? The idol sits there, where it has been installed, and looks impassively on as first dozens, then hundreds, then hundreds of thousands of human beings flock to pay obeisance, to bring before it their woes and their griefs and their needs and desires…

The reporter-turned-columnist-by-editorial-fiat sits at his computer and preaches, pontificates, prescribes solutions for the ills of the world. And dozens, hundreds and, perhaps, even hundreds of thousands, of readers come to look on him as THE authority.

The man who knows.

Well, guess what? We -- or at least, this particular columnist -- doesn't know from zilch!


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