Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Holy Connection

‘Aah … aah … aah..aah’… In another place at another time, one might interpret these primal sounds as mortal groans of pain. Not the avian tourists in Sangam. They know it’s a cue to food. Legs kick, wings flap, feathers ruffle, their tiny beaks open in anticipation of ‘gathiya’, the small pieces of salty chewables made of flour. There’s no time for eating. The breakfast that begins just after the first chants of Gayatri Mantra, turns into a day long feast ending with the boatman hanging up his clothes to dry.

The etiquette demands agility. It is first caught, first served. And there are more beaks than chewables. Those who miss it, put up an air of non-chalance, pretending grapes are sour. But their wings and legs remain taut, to take-off the moment their eyes spot a gesture of benevolence on the boats. In the next round of serving the have’s and the have-not’s fight again. Some for an extra piece. Others for the first bite.

Welcome to Allahabad. Where doodhwalas and mithaiwalas vie for supremacy with topless priests in dhoti, brandishing the sacred thread on their shoulders in an older-than-time tradition. The brahmins rule the land of Sangam while the mithaiwalas and dudhwalas maintain law and order. While Sanskrit slokas invoke the Gods, heavenly sweets and pure doodh help appease their appetite. No wonder Allahabad is brimming with yummiest curds, smallest samosas and the best of ‘desi ghee’. Besides pleasing its heavenly target audience it also balms the scars left by unfulfilled wishes.

Allahabad is the official launching pad for the heavens. Though outnumbered by Benaras’ temples, Allahabad stands tall with Hinduism’s [or Hinduttwa, to be politically correct] two most sacred rivers meeting here. It is the land where the world’s largest cultural and religious potpourri takes place every twelve years – the Maha Kumbh. Millions from across the world of various colour and creed empowered and guided by faith, travel hundreds of miles and endure days of inconvenience for a single dip in the Holy Communion. And if you are heaven bound, you deserve the very purest. Be it the soul that’s cleansed by the Sangam to the ghee that’s served over steaming rice.

Besides the brahmins, the doodhwalas, and the mithaiwalas, Allahabad is populated by a god-fearing and dreamy middle class that comes from every walks of the society. Be it a business man, a government official, a college teacher, the ticket collector in the sleepy Allahabad City railway station, a housewife or a college student – everyone is bound by the immense power of Sangam and Bollywood.

The businessman prays for a global contract and takes a dip. The government official prays for his transfer to Delhi, the seat of political power, and takes a dip. The college teacher prays for his Ph.D. application in JNU and takes a dip. The ticket collector prays for good son-in-law and takes a dip. The housewife prays for her husband’s promotion and takes a dip. The college student prays for a Bollywood break and takes a dip.

According to the myth, Sangam grants wishes only from the pure-souls. The devotees believe this and pray a price. ‘I will give up watching porn movies’ … ‘I will never greed for gold’ … ‘I would never look into student’s bra-straps’ … ‘I will never drink alcohol’ … ‘I will never steal from dad’s purse’. Everyone makes a desperate attempt to clean the soul. But thoughts keep lurking … only to rise again. Just like age. You can never hide it.

Yes, age is catching up with Allahabad. Unlike breathing mortals, an aging city gets a facelift. A free Botox treatment paid for by the resident citizens. Thereafter modern constructions start peeping their heads from the 17th century walls, threatening to change the city’s nostalgic skyline. It’s a desperate attempt to appear at par with its dreams -- the future metropolis. Allahabad knows it would never be a Delhi, or a Mumbai, even a Hyderabad for that matter. But that doesn’t stop it from praying for the miracle.

A group of modern pragmatic people comes over at the helm of affairs and says ‘God helps those who help themselves’. They build modern parks, gymnasiums, and five start hotels; open retail malls and multiplexes and adds a swagger to their walk – they are the harbinger of modernity to a city older than history. They make a lot of money and travel to Delhi every weekend for a haircut or a business deal. Instead of paying taxes to the government, they pay the Omnipresent Lord the biggest bribe – a temple, with an electronic donation box and recorded mantra for special occasion when thousands of devotees must be handled in multiple prayer sessions.

A rickshaw ride across Allahabad is like watching a NatGeo episode in slow motion. Mosques, Victorian blinds, pre-independence doors, mid-50’s patterns, early 90’s floral grills, dotted with samples of life from a small town slowly giving way to the glass and steel erections shining in the sunlight. What you consider eyesore is just a matter of perspective.

Lakhan, the rickshaw-puller has been doing his job for 25 years. His father pulled a horse cart. But that was more overheads than income. So when his father died, he sold the horse and bought a rickshaw. He has no overheads but his family. And he does more trips of the city than any other does. Tourists love him for his innocent face. And locals trust him as the most decent guy ever to pedal for a fee.

Lakhan knows his way through the city and history. Its ancient lanes and the modern roads. He’ll tell you how Jagat Seth converted his black money into white with the new multiplex in Civil Lines. Or how Akbar had a dream of the fort that has weathered many storms and houses the military today. Or when Amitabh Bachhan walked the streets of Allahabad with the urns of his mother, his hands folded in a namaskar. Lakhan might tell you a thing or two about the Bachhan household gossip, but he prefers to keep it for his Allahabadi brothers. He doesn’t want the tourists to carry back the juicy gossip of the first family of Bollywood that they are privy to as local neighbours.

Similarly, they won’t let you see through its garbage. The roads are spotless. The multitude of pan stains, cigarette butts and torn plastics that characterize the Indian roads are curiously missing. Even the smallest of hotels would give the Five Stars a tough competition in cleanliness. Ditto for the roadside samosa vendor. It seems the whole city is up in arms to keep it clean. Impurity must never soil the gateway to heaven!

There is an inherent conviction in the holy connection of the city. A complete avoidance of disbelief. Everything is done with God as the witness; success and failure left to the Karmic house of thinking.

So a six-month course in 3D modelling is aptly named ‘Sangam Maya’, and the local cable channel named ‘Prayag’; the Kirana shop is ‘Gangotri Stores’ and beside it stands the ‘Ganga-Yamuna Mistanna Bhandhar’. Even a gun-seller calls himself ‘Prayag Gun Stores’. An intelligent copywriter once tagged a packaged drinking water named Sangam as ‘where thirst meets water’. It sells like hot cakes during the Maha Kumbh; 1 rupee for 200 ml in plastic packs.

You might choose not to wet your feet and might refuse to offer snacks to your forefathers. But Sangam will get you. It will turn your atheist heart into a believer. If not in the myriad faces of religious rituals, then at least in the oneness of the faithful spirit.

1 comment:

sugar-free-pickles said...

Never knew so much about Allahbad. Neither had any good perception, for that matter... Prior to this beautifully written piece, Allahbad was just a huge dirty city of UP for me... But 'The Holy Connection' has definitely made me to connect and visit Allahbad very soon!

Nicely written :)

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