He’ll Live On For Me – Forever

At the back of my mind, I always feared this day. I knew I would have to face it someday. Yet, I didn’t see it coming. I wasn’t prepared, I guess one can never be prepared for this day.

It was the fateful evening of August 15, when my father suddenly left us forever. It’s exactly a month today. Still to conquer the shock and disbelief completely, it feels like he has just stepped out and will be back soon.

He was hale and hearty even two days back. He wasn’t ailing. The heart and BP related problems were under control and none of these had ever stopped him from leading a perfectly normal life. Physically, he was frail, which can also be attributed to his lean frame. Mentally, his strength was beyond compare.

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Pic 1: He loved traveling. This one’s at Agra.

He had just turned 80 and was anything but an 80-year old. His extraordinarily active nature had earned him the nickname of Dennis the Menace in the family. He would spend most part of his day in the garden, which he painstakingly created over several years. On a typical day, he could be seen tending to his plants in the garden, pruning the hedges, climbing ladders to fix the bamboo support for creepers, mounting the compound wall to tie up the wayward branches of a tree, and so on. His hyperactive nature would worry my mother and she would chide him like a little boy.

We would often discuss that his plants know his touch, they know his presence, and they bloom with happiness for him. His flowers, fruits, and vegetables must be missing his presence in the same way, if not more. His precious little manicured garden will never be the same anymore.

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Pic 2: His precious garden where he spent most of his time.
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Pic 3: Another section of the garden.
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Pic 4: The more I talk about his garden, the less it is. I will share more in future.

My father was a typical Bengali Babumoshai in his love for fish. His passion was not so much in eating as it was in going to the market to examine the fresh catches of the day, and also in scouting for the exotic varieties of freshwater fishes. The latter would reach exponential proportions whenever we would come home for holidays.

Another passion of his was politics and current affairs. He was extremely opinionated in matters of governance of the country. His antipathy towards a certain political party and a few selective political figures would find unique ways of expression. His introvert nature notwithstanding, he wouldn’t shy away from swearing and using cuss words, which was most of the times amusing but at times irritating too.

The year 2020 is bizarre for humankind. I had never thought this year would also bring about the biggest personal loss for me. My father’s case is a collateral damage of this pandemic year. A fatal fall leading to a cerebral hemorrhage sealed our fates forever. The limited medical facilities in Shillong, where they stay, left us helpless. Bangalore, with its advanced medical facilities would have been ideal. But we could do nothing. The pandemic made immediate interstate movement nearly impossible.

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Pic 5: He loved the sea. This one’s at Diu Fort when I captured him enjoying the view.

My father seamlessly transitioned into the Afterworld. That remains my greatest solace. He had it easy and did not suffer at all. He was blessed in that sense. Moreover, he passed away indulging in activities he enjoyed the most. He fell on a Tuesday, was fine on Wednesday – did his usual gardening, fish market visits, and swearing at the politicians while watching the evening news. Thursday he was admitted to the hospital, was fully conscious and doing fine. Friday, his condition suddenly deteriorated and he had to be operated. Saturday, he passed away.

I wasn’t there by his side when he breathed his last. Losing a parent is the most difficult thing to come to terms with. I thought I understood when it happened to others, but no I didn’t. Now that it happened to me, I know how it feels.

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Pic 6: Easily and effortlessly, he walked away from this world….

My life feels like it has fallen apart and as though I am caught up in a whirlwind. Everything feels meaningless. Tsunamis of powerful emotions hit me every now and then. Each time, I try to steer my thoughts towards the positive side of how this has happened. And what could have happened but didn’t. 

My father had a good life. I will celebrate his life rather than grieve his death. I owe it to him. I will always remain grateful that he touched my life in such powerful and beautiful ways. I have no regrets and I know that his love and blessings will remain with me for the rest of my life.

It will take me time to adjust to his physical absence. Whenever I’m reminded of him, I will use it as an opportunity to cherish his memories.

Rameshwaram – The Temple Town

It was somewhere towards the end of February. Covid-19 had already arrived in India and by then three cases were reported, all of which were from South India. Oblivious about the implications, we set out on a trip to the temple towns of Rameshwaram and Madurai. Dhanushkodi, which automatically is associated with Rameshwaram, was on our list too. This trip was for my parents.

The thought of having gallivanted all those places with my parents as Covid-19 lurked around the region gives me the chills today. Especially so, for my septuagenarian father with ailments like high BP, hypertension, heart disorders, chronic pulmonary disorders, and so on. My parents have always loved to travel. During his heydays, my father had taken us on quite a few family trips. That is highly commendable given his limited means with all the responsibilities he had at that time. All that was hardly enough to satiate his wanderlust. Now, they have the means but not the health – ironies of life. It’s my turn now and I try my best to travel with them at least once a year.

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Pic 1: East-end Gopuram at Ramanathaswamy Temple 

I was eight, when my father had taken us on a South India trip. We visited many places, including Madurai but Rameswaram hadn’t happened. My parents would always rue about it. Hence, taking them to Rameshwaram had been on my mind. The timing of our visit happened to be the weekend of Maha-Shivaratri. This was completely unintentional, something we realized after the flight and hotel reservations were done. Rameshwaram was expected to be overcrowded during that weekend. Nevertheless, we decided to go ahead. Not for once did the thought of Covid-19 bother us even though the existing cases weren’t very far away.

When traveling with parents, everything needs to be planned to a T. At the same time, we need to be flexible as plans may have to be changed on the fly. It’s a lot different than how I otherwise experience a place. Consequently, the trip was more curated than I would have otherwise liked. I sure do have to visit Rameshwaram once again.

Here’s a brief of the places we visited at Rameshwaram.

Ramanathaswamy Temple

The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and has one of the 12 Jyotirlingas in India. Mythologically, Rameshwaram and this temple is associated with the epic Ramayana. The sanctum has two Shiva Lingas – Ramalingam is made of sand, believed to have been built by Lord Rama and Vishwalingam, believed to have been brought by Hanuman from Kailash.

Architecturally, the unique aspect of this temple is its three strikingly long corridors. The first and innermost corridor is around the sanctum sanctorum. The second corridor has 108 Shiva Lingas and a statue of Ganapati. The third and outermost corridor is adorned by 1212 brightly coloured pillars set on an elevated platform and is said to be the longest pillared corridor in the world. The temple also has 22 holy tanks. One is supposed to take a ritualistic bath with water from each of the tanks before visiting Ramalingam. We didn’t do that though.

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Pic 2: North gate of the temple. The east-end Gopuram seen in the background.

The temple has four entry ways, in all the four directions – North, South, East, and West. Two Gopurams stand tall at the East and West gate. The North gate of the temple was just a little walk away from our hotel. We visited the temple twice. My mother accompanied us once. My father was content with seeing the temple from the outside afraid of being unable to manage himself in the crowd. Though the crowd was much lesser than we had anticipated.

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Pic 3: The colourful outer corridor with 1212 pillars. Mobile phones are not allowed inside and it’s not possible to click such pictures. However, when we entered for the first time nobody stopped us at the entryway and we had our phones with us. So, just a chance photograph.

Other than the colourful corridors, something else caught my attention inside the temple. It was a powerful message from Swami Vivekananda, who had visited this temple is 1897. The message is prominently displayed at the main entrance of the temple. Below is an excerpt, you can read the entire message here.

"It is in love that religion exists and not in ceremony, in the pure and sincere love in the heart. Unless a man is pure in body and mind, his coming into a temple and worshiping Shiva is useless. The prayers of those that are pure in mind and body will be answered by Shiva, and those that are impure and yet try to teach religion to others will fail in the end. External worship is only a symbol of internal worship; but internal worship and purity are the real things. Without them, external worship would be of no avail." ~ Swami Vivekananda
Agni Tirtham

Agni Tirtham is a beach located on the eastern side of Ramanathaswamy Temple. The norm is to dip in the waters of Agni Tirtham, followed by the ritualistic bath in the 22 holy tanks inside the temple, and then offer prayers to the deity. We did not quite intend to dip in the crowded Agni Tirtham and just paid a visit late in the evening. Consequently, I don’t have any pictures of Agni Tirtham.

Rama Tirtham and Lakshmana Tirtham

Rama Tirtham and Lakshmana Tirtham are water tanks with temples associated to each. These are water tanks where apparently Lord Rama and his brother Lakshmana had bathed.

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Pic 4: The water tank at Rama Tirtham

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Pic 5: The water tank at Lakshmana Tirtham

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Pic 6: The vibrant colourful pillars inside Lakshmana Tirtham temple.

Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandir & Floating Stones

A huge black stone statue of Lord Hanuman with five faces welcomed us in this temple. Our interest in this temple was because we were told it displays floating rocks. Rocks that are believed to be of the kind that were apparently used to build the Ram Setu towards Lanka. The rocks were quite a letdown as they were way smaller than we had visualized. I didn’t click any pictures here.

Gandhamadhana Parvatham Temple

This is a small temple situated atop a little hillock. We loved the quietude in this temple. The cool breeze and the view from the temple made it even better. It is believed that Lord Hanuman took off from here towards Lanka to fight the demon King Ravana and his army.

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Pic 7: View from the temple.

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Pic 8: At the terrace of the temple.

Pamban Bridge

We traveled to Rameswaram by road from Madurai and hence drove over Pamban Bridge or Annai Indira Gandhi Road Bridge. This bridge on Palk Strait connecting Rameswaram with mainland, is India’s first sea bridge. A little more than 2 Km., crossing it was a scenic experience. A rail bridge runs parallel to the Pamban Bridge, which has a functional double leaf bascule section midway to allow ships through. We had plans of coming back and spending time on the Pamban Bridge and rail bridge but that didn’t materialize.

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Pic 9: The rail bridge as seen from Pamban Bridge.

Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Memorial

This is a museum dedicated to former President of India, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, that showcases his life and work. It is a memorial built at his burial site and displays selected photos, paintings and miniature models of missiles and other artifacts. Dr. Kalam had passed away in Shillong on July 27, 2015. Seeing the name of our hometown didn’t fail to delight us though.

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Pic 10: Outside the Kalam Museum

Benaras – Mornings and Evenings

Mornings

It was still dark in the wee hours of that December morning as we stepped onto Daseshwamedh Ghat. The thought of sunrise over River Ganges was enough to get us out of bed and brave the cold at a temperature of 4-5 degrees centigrade. With teeth chattering and every exposed part of the skin going numb, we stood there looking around eagerly. A boat owner would come up asking if we wanted a boat ride like it had been happening every time we landed at the ghats.

And, soon someone approached, the requirement was discussed, the price negotiated, and we were rowing away into the darkness through the calm waters of River Ganges.

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Pic 1: The morning fog that ensured limited visibility.

So focused we were on sunrise, that we failed to anticipate the fog that could shroud everything on a cold winter morning. As darkness gave way to morning light, we found ourselves engulfed in a sphere of haze where we could see nothing more than each other’s face. Forget the Sun, we couldn’t even see the ghats from the boat. The cold seeped into our bones as we realized our folly and the fact that we had wasted Rs.1200 on the boat for no reason.

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Pic 2: When the fog started lifting and we could see the ghat through the haze.

We spent the other mornings walking the alleys and ghats, and visiting the Kashi Vishwanath temple. The latter I had to do twice, accompanying both my sisters on separate occasions. The less I say about the temple, the better it is. Not for my faith in the presiding deity of Lord Shiva, which I have enough, but the touts that seek out people like us, who have no patience or inclination to wait in the never-ending serpentine queues. The likes of us put up with them and their unreasonable demands only for a quick entry to the temple. Ironically, it’s people like us who encourage them and their unscrupulous activities – I plead guilty!

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Pic 3: The only time when the Sun made a brief appearance in the afternoon.

Evenings

Our daily evening ritual at Varanasi was simple – watch Ganga Aarti and then binge on the street food. The evening Ganga Aarti or ceremonial worship of River Ganga is a well-orchestrated activity that is a must see at Varanasi. An elaborate make-shift arrangement is made every single day, which is again dismantled after the show is over.

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Pic 4: Ganga Aarti with the tiered brass lamps.

A dedicated team from Gangotri Seva Samiti sets up seven elevated planks on which they sprinkle flower petals, mainly Marigold and Rose, making a gorgeous carpet out of them. Against each plank, they arrange several puja paraphernalia, including a layered brass lamp, flowers, incense sticks, conch shell, and so on. The team also manages the hundreds of devotees and tourists that gather every evening at Daseshwamedh Ghat – the place where the Aarti happens every evening.

We learn that the Aarti is performed by learned pundits of Vedas and Upanishads who are handpicked from institutes that impart Vedic Studies, like Benaras Hindu University (BHU).

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Pic 5: A moment during Ganga Aarti

The well-organized series of activities making for the Aarti left us stumped and we wondered how much of a practice might have gone into this. The Aarti began by blowing of conch shells and rhythmic chanting of holy mantras. Thereafter brass lamps, incense sticks, and other items were synchronously used one by one, as bhajans (hymns) played out in the background.

One can see the Aarti either by sitting on the stairs of the ghat, from the boats facing the ghat, or from the canopy of Ganga Sewa Nidhi office. We watched the Aarti from three different places on three different days. The first day was from a boat. The next day we decided to participate in Ganga Puja, which happens just before the start of the Aarti. We booked our slot by paying a fee at the Ganga Sewa Nidhi office. The Aarti Pundits conduct this Puja and it also guarantees a special seat right behind the Aarti platform.

We were also pleasantly surprised to find that a photographer had clicked our pictures while we conducted the Puja. His purpose was to sell the pictures to us, which he successfully did so at Rs. 20 per picture. We were delighted.

The food we binged on every evening consisted of a wide variety of snacks, from samosas to chats to pakoras and all kinds of stuff, deep fried in oil. Unhealthy, but who cares. We hardly ever do this in our city of Bangalore, rather there isn’t any scope to do so with the almost non-existent roadside food in the city. And, not to forget the sweetmeats – the pedas, the gulab jamuns, and of course the one and only Malaiyo.

My mouth waters as I remember these lip smacking food items and to think that I am a non-foodie….

The ‘Daugts’

In Fond Memory of my Beloved Uncle

“My daugts! Having fun, huh!”

Those doting words full of love and affection still ring in my ears loud and clear, even though it’s been close to a decade now.

I grew up in a joint family where the concept of family is not just limited to parents and siblings. Besides parents, my family constituted my aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins – a total of 17 people. Uncles here are my father’s brothers and aunts, their wives. We lived together under one roof sharing common bathrooms, toilets and a common kitchen.

Subsequently, as we grew up the family progressively became smaller due to various reasons. Contributing events include an uncle being transferred to another city and moving out with his family; another uncle moving out to a different house with his wife after he got married; grandparents passing away.

Most of these events however happened after I had completed school and had stepped into college. As a result I have experienced the adventure and fun of being in a large family for a significant part of my life. Life is all ironies given that I live all alone now – not something I had even remotely anticipated.

And, with my generation of the family moving out and settling with jobs in other parts of the country, there are just four people living in our house in Shillong – my parents, an uncle and an aunt. The rest of us are reduced to being just occasional visitors.

A direct consequence of living together has been the bond that we cousins share – the five girls of the family are like own sisters rather than cousins. Circumstances in the past few years have brought in a little distance between us as we don’t get to catch up often. However, in our heart of hearts our love for each other remains the same.

The best memories of our cousins together are those that we have spent in Kolkata. My uncle had retired from his job and settled down with his family – my aunt and two cousins – in an apartment in the South of Kolkata. At the same time, I had also moved to Kolkata with a job and lived with my sister in the North of Kolkata. The youngest cousin was doing her MBA from an institute in Kolkata and she stayed with us too.

So, three of us stayed in the North and two of them stayed in the South.  Notwithstanding the 23 Km. between us, the five of us would spend a considerable amount of time together. Much of that was spent in my uncle’s house. Living at two ends of the metropolis hardly bothered us. The five of us together meant the world to us. We would cancel our meetings with friends and other engagements to just be together because being together used to be the greatest fun of all.

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 This is the only picture I have of us with a nephew, me missing in the frame though as I was clicking. Those were pre-digital days and tonnes of printed pictures are safely stored back home.

Those years were fantastic and definitely belong to the bucket where I store the best days of my life. It was all about mindless conversations and incessant laughter; about making fun of the idiosyncrasies of other family members, giving them names; and endless repetitions of the same gossips running late into the nights. The five of us would cuddle together in one big bed and spend the night together even if that meant being uncomfortably sandwiched with each other.

Our laughter was contagious and my uncle would sporadically make his appearance saying the same thing in various ways.

“My daughts…enjoying huh!”

Daughts is what he would lovingly call us, meaning daughters. And we would laugh even more seeing him peeping into the room every now and then.

One of the cousins loved cooking and we were her guinea pigs whether we liked it or not. On the days of her experiments, my uncle would be seen making several trips to the local market to get all the special ingredients.

Often, we would go on long drives in the car that belonged to one of us much to the amusement of Kuddus, our driver, who enjoyed just as much, though he had no choice whatsoever.

Then there were festivals, especially Durga Pujas. The Durga Pujas that we spent together were the best! No other Durga Puja before or after that has been the same. Dressing up and pandal hopping all over Kolkata ignoring the profuse sweating in the tropical humid weather or walking the muddy lanes when it rained. Then coming back to the apartment and enjoying the gala celebrations of song and dance all night long from the privacy of our very own balcony.  My uncle’s flat was the only one that would always fall within the closed enclosure of the apartment Durga Puja Pandal, much to the envy of all the neighbours.

Those days are clearly some of the best days of my life!

My uncle passed away nearly a decade back and ever since the daughts haven’t been the same anymore.

(And, I realized that in the absence of digital pictures, I don’t have a single picture of my uncle.)