Thursday, September 10, 2009
She had moved into the house when her children were in elementary school.
Then considered on the outskirts of town, the big attraction was a neighborhood children's park and zoo that was coming up, a several centuries old ancient temple on a hill that was a bit further away, and a closer situated Ganesha temple , situated in what was euphemistically called a lake. There were lots of trees around, mango, tamarind and the like, and traffic then being minimal and sometimes even nonexistent, her children basically treated their colony as a huge playground.
She enjoyed plays and cultural lecture programs, and wasn't a big admirer of what are today called Bollywood movies. She was also a fitness enthusiast, something a bit unusual for women in those days. And so some of the empty spaces in the colony were informally converted to tennis and badminton courts, and weekends saw neighbors and friends enjoying several games, always followed by a wonderful tea afterwards, which everyone took turns making.
She would make a daily trip to the temple on the hill, once her husband and children had left for the day. Almost 110 steps, each big enough for an elephant to lie down. They said it was made that way so the king could ride up to the top on an elephant.
She made many friends among the young and old who climbed along with her, and on weekends her children accompanied her, running the whole thing at a stretch, and then waiting for her, panting, somewhere above, as the fellow running the sugarcane juice stall there, looked on indulgently. She often took interest in repairs and stuff being done, as well as preservation of trees on the slopes, which were slowly being subject to human encroachment, thanks to a burgeoning population. Anyone , man or woman, always felt free to approach her with their problem, whether it was to do with education, health, or even a complaint against some one, and she never refused help.
When her children were in their 20's the family moved to Mumbai, where her husband was posted, and although she couldn't visit the temple now, she did keep in touch with her friends from there.
Retirements and a return to her old house soon happened, and along with it, a recognition of her love for the temple on the hill. The government appointed her as one of the trustee of the temple, the only lady to have graced such a position to this day.
Although on the wrong side of 60, she had continued her daily visits to the Hill Temple and Lake Temple on her return, but she now did that with a renewed sense of faith, duty and responsibility. Along with the usual duties of presiding over the counting and accounting of temple offerings, planning various religious and cultural events for the devotees, she also turned her attention to encroachment by hawkers on the hill Temple steps, and the installation of strong side bars for the the benefit of the several senior citizens, well into their nineties, who continued to visit . Tree plantation was taken up on her initiative to counter the encroachment as well as maintain the ecological balance of the hill, and she would be there, at 11 am on a sunny day, walking around with the horticulture person, with an umbrella to protect her from a hot mid-day sun, nodding at some new planted trees, bending to observe some new growth, and slowly traipsing across the rocky terrain to return to the huge steps, which would take her back home.
The children with their children now, occasionally went with her when they came to visit. There were lots of people involved in small jobs there, like managing the footwear left by the devotees at the entrance, and distribution of the prasad (blessed food) packets at another window. Indian Gods are worshipped in bare washed feet, and so there was another person who saw to the functioning and maintenance of the feet washing place. She was a stickler for God's house being very clean, and there was a dedicated band of old employees who were in charge.
There were also some folks who thought all this was a bit much. A lady trustee at that. And what did she mean by walking around and checking out stuff. There were several other trustees and none , bar one, did that. And then there was a fine undefined hierarchy amongst the people at the temple. Priests were supreme. They were your interface with the Deity. Like a proxy server.
One day, on her daily visit, she was about to return and was proceeding to the footwear place to collect her's, when she saw what appeared to be a new young trainee priest cockily walking back from the inner temple sanctum; he was carrying something , then he suddenly turned , and spit something on to one side.
She stopped. And turned back. Went up to the guy. Asked him to go get a pail of water , disinfectant and broom from the maintenance section. He went. Watched by several other staff on various duties who had seen everything. They wondered what would happen. Priests were, well, holy. You didn't tangle with them. Regardless of who you were.
He returned. With someone else carrying the bucket and disinfectant, and broom. She took it from him. Splashed some water around , then the disinfectant , and was about to use the broom herself, when everyone realized what was happening.
"Ma'am , please, I will ask the staff to clean this ," and the priest looked up to find someone.
She handed him the bucket and the broom, and asked him to do it himself.
You could cut the silence with a knife.
"We have no business putting up notices and warnings around the temple if we cannot set the example ourselves. You spat. If someone has seen you spitting, which was totally wrong, they would think they too could carry on behaving the same way. I want you to show them that rules are for everyone, and all of us are responsible for following rules and keeping the place clean. "
And the young man bent down and swept the place clean. A small episode, but a telling one, that indicates how an entire set of employees can be motivated if they see their boss doing something like this.
She continued as a trustee for the appointed period, although her ability to ask inconvenient questions during awarding civil work contracts to folks who she thought were bad performers earned her the wrath of some colleagues. All males. Messages went up and down the necessary places, and her inconvenient honesty saw her being replaced by a more pliant person.
She is no more.
But her daughter was told the above story when she recently visited the Hill temple on a visit to her maternal house, with her own daughter. Old white haired seniors, leaning on sticks, a smart young man , who actually started out doing an evening job, managing the footwear , when in school, and the chief clerk in the office, who was retired, but was so attached to the temple , he came everyday to help anyway. The old lady who filled the water. The gardener who watered the plants.
And the young trainee fellow, now a senior assistant to the chief priest. All the oldsters spoke very highly of him. He learned his lesson well. And was himself very strict with the new trainees and their behaviour.
They recognized her as her mother's daughter. And came and spent a wonderful half hour recounting how things were earlier in her mother's time.
She wished them all, and stopped by at the entrance to have a last look at the inner sanctum, before descending down the steps . There was a puja in progress. Someone came out , to pour some water from the puja containing old flowers, at the roots of an old tree on the premises. He looked up as he straightened.
A flickr of doubt and recognition. He nodded. Folded his hands in a Namaste. She did too.
They wished each other. And it was time for her to go.
She looked up and took a deep breath. Folks had learned .
Her mother would have been so pleased. ...