End, that is not

Probably, my last evening at the village, where I conducted my PhD fieldwork… I think I will associate the parting with balmy breeze and evening colors giving in to the glimmering canopy of February night.

Last visit to the field brings a motley of feelings. As the very first word of this writing suggests, there is always a slight uncertainty with calling it as the last. What if when you go back to the university, your committee feels that you missed on something and need to make another trip to collect that data?! That’s why during the entire trip, I kept visiting my checklist of data gaps, and constantly sought to make it full-proof. There were quite some moments when I debated whether I ought to meet and interview certain respondents again (and again, and again). Soon, I found a decisive test. If I could not think of even one question that mattered to my present body of data and thesis structure, it was probably only an over-cautious impulse and ought to be left off. Some might think here- should not that be a strategy always? But no, it has not been like that before. Rather, when I started my fieldwork last summer, it was somewhat reverse. It takes only a little time in the field, to realize that to really make a sense of things that go on there, one needs to empty oneself of preconceived notions about it. Emptying does not necessarily mean forgetting. In fact, it becomes quite curious to keep some log of what had you thought earlier, and how your conceptualization evolved during research based on the observations. So, in the first phase of my fieldwork, I took many interviews and became part of many live events without any rigid agenda. Qualitative social research offers this luxury where, often, you come to know which question should be asked, when you listen to people answering it first. Phenomenon reveals itself right in front of your eyes, even before you know to look for it… if and only if, you are receptive enough for it.

The end is different. The above strategies still stand, and that’s why there is anxiety. Am I closing myself to what is happening? But I cannot go on forever, can I? After all, the project has to end and the PhD has to be completed as being hinted quite broadly from all quarters… At this juncture, I remind myself that while social phenomenon will go on, a study only focuses on a part of it, a part bound in time and space. It is like I am spooling back the threads of my inquiry, which I had spread far and wide all this time, with the intention to closely inspect and analyze what have they gathered. The end, here, is aware of the fact that the things will go on and what I learn will be within the limitations of my study. In concludes knowing that it is not complete, but still is confident that the ‘part’ is also of importance. After all, the continuity is made by parts and I have seen at least one of those for myself!

Much like the other, what we fondly call as, ‘field insights’ (basically raw data with its preliminary analysis), this thought on the end too came to me before I asked for it. Maybe that’s the reason, why at that moment when the sun set on my ‘field’, I had more hope than melancholy even in the fading dusk lights…

Deal in Delhi

I landed in the city on a dusty, stuffy morning about less than a month ago. It was in that brief window of time, between cutting a deal with a porter and warding off aggressive cab brokers, I wondered about what do we have between us, ‘we’ here being Delhi and I.  The question hung there for a moment and then stepped aside, to make way for few logistic urgencies that queued up for attention. I think, it had lurked in my mind for quite a while now, and just came to forefront, as I was returning after a long absence of some months.

Sometime back, I had written quite a fond post on Berlin. I guess, Mumbai and Pune too feature now and then in my thoughts, those being home. Delhi, on the other hand, has remained somewhat enigma. I came here solely in the pursuit of a PhD programme.  I cannot say, after all these years, that it has particularly endeared itself to me. More often than not, it makes me feel rather alien.  Yet, I can surely count its virtues, however few they might be, along with its vices. But my perplexity about this city is not so much about passing a verdict on its character actually. What vexes me instead is why I am always drawn back towards it, in spite of being occasionally fed up.  I am usually little melancholic on the eaves of my departure for Delhi, with the thought that I am once again being cast far away from friends, family and such indulgence…

Yet, as train pulls on to that horrid Hazarat Nizamuddin station, I am always in a kind of ‘geared’ state of mind.  So all the sadness gone, I wear a distinct look of ‘now that here we are, we have scores to settle, haven’t we, darling?’. I have started to ponder if that is the real attraction.  Delhi is not the city that makes me follow its trails, mesmerized and smitten.  It is also not a place that invites me for a retreat in its cocoon. On the other hand, it is also not like a constant war front. The throes of passion would hardly help here.  Taking on this city, with a blood and anger on your mind is a sure-shot way to martyrdom.  Being in Delhi makes me feel at being at a ‘table'; not a coffee table for leisure; not a casino table for a bet; but it is indeed a table where you are to sit across your counterpart and negotiate. It is different courage to sit through the talks, weigh different options of trade-off and hopefully reach a compromised solution at end of the day. So that’s what we are, Delhi and I, at constant negotiation.

The examples are several. The city comes with its own stringencies. Public transport is not only expensive but also could be extorting and shady. House-hunts often cause lot of distress due to the city’s peculiar way of constructing window-less rooms. Many residential areas are heavily controlled by oily estate brokers. Food options are often at two extreme ends with roadside eateries and pricey gourmet cafés and restau/ bars. Late-night travel for a woman alone, without her own vehicle could be, well… hazardous. There are number of ways by which one tackles these constraints. As mentioned before, one can confront it with certain hotheadedness, and head for calvary. Secondly, one can just meekly accept everything and feel miserable or exploited in return. Mind you, all of us have done both of these now and then… but mostly we (as in expats in the city) try surviving by being at the table. It usually fares better to hold one’s ground; be alert and patient; not get disheartened too much by a setback and concentrate on the next move; find crevices in the armour of the city to find tiny niches of peace to get by. Constant negotiation, in short. And yes, there are then moments of reasonably good deals, when you cradle a hot kulhad of almond-flavored milk on a bone-chilling December night; when you smell wafts of Alstonia blossoms on warm September evenings; when you choose to spend an evening by stopping at the local cinema hall, get yourself a ticket, watch a movie alone and then dine somewhere, only with your thoughts on the movie.

Perhaps, this answers my previous riddle.  Being in this frame of mind is definitely heady… After all, you don’t get to dally with that thrill in the confines and comforts of home ground. This is why I am back. I am not hoping for a life-long stay here. But while Delhi lasts for me, it is interesting enough to be at its table and deal with it. 

The window seat

As the youngest in family, I have enjoyed certain undisputed privileges over quite a few years and the most exercised of those all would be- always catching the window seat whenever we travelled.  In fact, when I think of it, I guess, I must have spent most of my time in bygone days at the window… of all sorts.  When we travelled, I would claim it.  At home… I was never an athletic child, so instead of playing with rest of the kids in the block, I would sit at our bedroom’s window for hours watching the solitary coconut tree before it swaying along afternoon breeze. In a classroom, I would prefer the seat near window so that my gaze could easily stray outside, if I found the particular lecture uninteresting.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Maybe, I could not have articulated it that time, but now I think that I always looked at the window as a frame, like a made-up stencil that we were advised to use when practising still life paintings at Art class in school. When you hold a simple hand-cut square or a rectangle of paper against your central vision, it helps you focus on your object of interest placed in a room.  Looking out of a window is, perhaps, like holding that frame and seeing a piece of life outside, albeit it is rarely still and inanimate. If looking out of moving train window, this piece develops into a film more than an image.

And so, I like my windows clean-cut, unhindered and without much adornments which could mar the continuity of that small picture. In spite of the intricate and fine craftsmanship of Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal, it would not be my choice to have to peep out of tiny jharokhas. It might be even because of my inherent bias… weren’t these structures were created so that royal women could check the scenery without necessarily having to compromise their purdah? That was hinted by our tour-guide at the time. Irrespective of usual dubiety of claims made by these guides, I ended up considering this one seriously because the traditional norms of women’s modesty in Indian society can run gnarled and deep through our social fabric. But for all its proclaimed mystic, mon chéri, that is definitely not my style; at least, not more than occasionally.  Yes, sometimes a tiny view out of a petite opening could be interesting, as the one through a mosaic…. Consider a net of sky through close-nit canopy of a huge tree, and you would get my point.  But when the focus of your vision is to be dictated by someone’s else’s idea of what you should see, it becomes a restriction.

Anyway, let’s cast the gendered aspects aside for a while and yet now I wonder how every window has two sides.  So the observer at the window can become an object her/ himself from anyone outside and that sounds interesting in itself.  Maybe at these times the window outlines the portrait of a person at the window.* How would the portrait affect thus ensnared spectator?  Well, it depends of the context of the window and perspectives of spectators on both the sides.

Ruminating over windows on this sleepless night eventually takes me to another girl who stood at a window. I read Totochan: the little girl at the window sometime in college and my heart went to that little girl who would, in her first school, be always at the window talking to the birds, or calling out to passing by musical band troupes.  This memoir by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, proceeds when Totochan is expelled out of her school for this and other innocent misdeeds. She then is received into Tomoi, a progressive and untraditional elementary school in Tokyo run by an educator Sosaku Kobayashi and soon finds the joys of learning, making friends and above all, of being accepted as she is. At the concluding note, she observes how Tomoi helped her overcome the insecurity of her five-year old self who found herself always at the window because she could not relate to the stringent classroom in which she was placed. The window, thus was a way to escape, even if momentarily. Totochan found her Tomoi, the world where she could be home. But in case, that does not come one’s way easily, I hope, there is always a door through which one could step out in the search for it.

Note:

* My Bollywood-freak mind reminds me here of Sharmila Tagore in a train window being serenaded by Rajesh Khanna as Mere sapano ki rani kab aayegi tu!! ;)

Listeners of reverie

I suddenly realized today that I talk a lot.

One would wonder why this should have such an epiphanic tone, after decades of several subtle (and occasionally even not-so-subtle) hints from number of my friends and well-wishers. But what specifically astonished me today is not the quantity of things that I have talked about with people in tangible conversations but rather the quantity that I have indulged in imaginary conversations. As far as I can remember, I have always been talking with various people in my mind.  It is not exactly having imaginary friends, for many of these people are my confidant(e)s even in, should I say, real life.  I am also not referring to those day-dreams when I go on supposing what I would or would not say or what I would or would not do.  This is talking with someone who you think would be an appropriate confidant to listen, to discuss and to debate your thoughts.  The dialogue could be with anyone, a friend, a colleague, a love, a teacher, a muse, a mentor.  

It reminds me of a character that is often employed in ancient Sanskrit dramas- a Vidushak.  In contemporary parlance, the term means a clown or a jester. However, in these plays, Vidushak often surpasses his conventional responsibility of an entertainer to the royal court and dons the role of sympathetic but wise friend to the hero- the king who in turn, can count on his apolitical Vidushak Mitra to provide an ear and at times a counsel.  1879_Manet_Im_Wintergarten_anagoria (2) These long verbal exchanges in my mind actually run like such entries where I am the hero who needs Vidushaka’s audience and opinion, at least to sort out what exactly goes on in my own mind.  So what if I was never the king to afford a constant consort at my disposal?  In the chambers of reverie, one can always conjure one’s Vidushak and just sit by her/ him talking and thinking things over.  

Some of my vidushaks are my close allies even in real life. In these cases it is easier to rewind, replay the mind conversation and take it forward thence, when you meet them.  But not always, such camaraderie is possible in tangible reality.  And I do have some unfortunate events on my account where I indeed surprised a few by my unexpected familiarity and by continuing the hearty talks that I shared with them in my mind. Except for these minor downfalls, I think holding conversations in my imagination has served me alright.  As I said at the start, I do talk a lot, and definitely much more in my mind than outside it.  If I have to take all those conversations on the material forum, I would probably bore mere mortals around me to death. Mind vidushaks have no such qualms!

On a parting thought, I do feel fortunate to have so many Vidushak Mitra of my own over all these years. It is overwhelming that I could find people (some of whom could be no more than acquaintances in outside world), to share and discuss our innermost thoughts, even if in my mind. I would not make anyone my mind Vidushak, if I do not really trust them or respect their insights, right?  So the fact that I could talk with so many people over different occasions in my imagination would make me feel pretty favoured.  I can only hope that I too have played the Vidushak Mitra, a listener to somebody else’s reverie. That would complete the circle, would not it?

Mirage

I watched Crouching tiger hidden dragon very late… sometime last year.  When it had released, back in 2000, I was not so much into the movies.  Moreover, few glimpses that I had of it focussed on its gravity-defying action that seemed too far-fetched and I spurned it off hastily.   But as the decade rolled on, I happened to watch director Ang Lee‘s other films, first Brokeback Mountain and then Sense and Sensibility, both of which I loved.* Therefore, after all these years, when I saw Crouching tiger hidden dragon being aired on a TV channel, I thought that at least for Lee, it deserved a chance.

When I finished, my first thought was of how misleading those glimpses had been.  It is not so exotic, after all.  In spite of those action scenes (which I had started rather liking by the end… especially the fight in bamboo forest), the characters seemed too familiar.  Each of its protagonists was bound in some way.  To reiterate the entire plot here with all its nuances would be impossible, that is without surpassing the limitations of a blog post. But perhaps it would suffice to rapidly sketch some of the pictures.

In its most mundane form, the story could be said to narrate a contention for certain powerful and sacrosanct sword- Green Destiny. Main antagonist is a deviant warrior called Fox, who has previously killed an old Wudang master.  Fox is a woman and hence was denied the teaching of Wudang martial art by him. Bitter and callous Fox now wants to steal Green Destiny as her extended revenge. The sword belongs to Li Mu Bai, the most accomplished wudang swordsman, who now wishes to retire for a quieter life. His associate is Shu Lien who is also a skilled warrior in the sect.  A confusion breaks out when Fox with her unknown masked protégé manages to steal Green Destiny. This masked warrior is later revealed to be Jen, an aristocratic debutante who is to be married into an equally blue-blooded family that boasts of both wealth and connections.  With her innate skill and ability to self-instruct, Jen has now exceeded her own master Fox in Wudang martial art. A flashback presents us Jen’s spontaneous love affair with a bandit of deserts Lo, a rebel who would never be accepted in society, much less by Jen’s family.

Sometimes we tend to forget this in our fast-paced, relatively easier modern lifestyles… that how for years, for centuries, our lives have been commanded by our niche, our status in the world and the expectations adhering to it.  Sometimes, it is defined by our body, sometimes by our birth and sometimes by our circumstances and sometimes even by the virtues.  There is Fox who behind her grudge and revenge harbours the hurt of being cheated because of her sex.  There are Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien who have accepted the traditions of their sect and followed the norms that are required of their positions in it and yet they perceive how that acceptance has robbed them of more intimate relation with each other.  And finally there is Jen.  Throughout the film, you tend to think, “Oh you foolish girl… why have you been wandering? Making so many mistakes, and hurting so many people, just by choosing the wrong side?” until the end when she chooses to jump from Mount Wudang making it all clear.  Her quest to find the freedom to be the best swordsman and warrior is rendered tragic and strewn by betrayals and deaths.  She may have run away from the forced marriage that her social standing required to go through, but even her love for Lo is going to bind her in another way.

An anthropologist Irawati Karve once noted, in her treatise on an ancient Indian epic:

 In the Mahabharata the question “Who am I?” is bound up with the question, “What is my place?” Thus the answer to the question of a man’s duty too is dependent on the place he holds.

This place, and in turn, the duties  are defined by whether you are of a particular gender, caste, community, a mother, a brother, a son, a daughter, a warrior, an academic, a blue-collar worker… the list could be endless.  Every condition, every norm constrains you, sometimes for your bad but sometime also for your good.  Maybe, the changing times do provide more flexibility out of these expectations of what is proper and what is not.  Technology, information, globalization facilitate us to be someone that we want to be, rather than someone we have to be.  At times, it may also empower us to be a number of things that just being one. It remains to be seen though, whether the we will ever be able to avoid the very thing that all the human civilizations seem to do… in their haste to bring the structure and order to the overall system, leave out those who don’t fit in.  Crouching tiger and hidden dragon only reminds us of it.

End note:

*Former was a finely crafted love story and admiring it was no difficult.  In case of the latter though, I was little doubtful at first.  Sense and Sensibility was not exactly my most favourite novel by Jane Austen and the prospects of watching Hugh Grant (whom I find utterly annoying) play Edward Ferrars who is one of the important characters seemed bleak.  Yet, Lees’s master treatment enlivens the Austen’s signature romance. Plus, performances by Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman are strong enough to disregard minor irritation caused by Grant. Overall, I was delighted!

Ah−ah−ah−ow−ow−ow−oo!

In our junior college days, a friend and I had devised a make-belief game which involved long discussions on- “If we were to present a particular book or play for the stage, who could play who”. It was purely an extension of our shared obsession for fiction.  We were fresh in the city college and with the newfound sense of freedom also came crisp new library cards in our pockets. Thus, we took a headlong plunge together into the tempting pool of ‘extracurricular reading’.*  So, assigning different characters of a book to different people from our class soon became our favourite  pastime.  Naturally, it was a secret activity, as the allocation of roles often reflected not only our understanding of the original characters but also our impressions of the chosen crew and declaring the latter would not have been very wise! Our exchanges were such as:

“If you want to play Elizabeth Bennett, we will have to make him Darcy, as he is the only guy in our class taller than you.”

“Please! Him a Darcy??? Never. He looks more like Wickham. But his friend can go as Bingley, he looks like an handsome but easily impressionable idiot!”

“Well, we may think she is little snobbish but we have to accept that she is the only girl in our class who is both good looking and stylish enough to be Marguerite”

“He has such a mousy thin face and he always looks pensive.  We lucked out… the Best Oliver Twist ever!”

It makes me rather sheepish now to realize that all of us were hardly sixteen at that time!  Nevertheless we had quite a fun as casting directors for our imaginary production house.  

Shaw‘s Pygmalion was one of our most ambitious and beloved projects.  For most people, rather than Pygamalion, its more romantic film adaptation My Fair Lady (an old classic starring Audrey Hepburn) rings the bell.  Those who are acquainted with Marathi theatre and literature would definitely know about “Ti fularani”, an adaptation by PuLa.  Well, the major difference between Pygmalion and its aforementioned versions is that the former has a realistic tone.  Basically it is a story where a knowledgeable but cynical professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins takes a bet with his friend that he will train a poor and uncouth flower girl from the streets to be posed as an enviable socialite in the most elite circles of London. This flower girl is the heroine of the drama, Eliza Doolittle. The greatest challenge of this mission is making Eliza speak the courteous sophisticated tongue of a Lady.  When Higgins start working on her, Eliza’s speech and vocabulary obviously reflects her working-class lifestyle.  Any strong emotion incites in her, an ear-splitting exclamation of “Ah−ah−ah−ow−ow−ow−oo!”.  But Eliza soon turns out to be an intelligent learner who imbibes not only her phonetics but also the charms that will sail her smoothly among the crème de la crème.  However, as Higgin’s mother ruefully predicts, this awful project of his propels Eliza away from her own roots, without making any real provisions for her establishment in the class where she is to be flaunted.   Ironically, as Eliza ‘comes to life’ more refined, she starts caring too deeply for her ‘creator’.#  Higgins, on the other hand,  keeps training Eliza in his usual mocking, patronizing way, while being more and more accustomed and dependent to her presence around him. In such a scenario leads to an inevitable showdown when Eliza wins the bet for Higgins by successfully carrying herself as a duchess at a ball.  At the end of this evening Higgins and Colonel Pickering celebrate the successful end of what they thought as a laborious project, without any acknowledgement or regard towards Eliza and her role in it. This treatment and subsequent row with Higgins make Eliza leave his place and take a refuge with his mother.  With different parts played by different characters, mainly Eliza’s father Mr Doolittle, Mrs Higgins, Colonel Pickering and Freddy, Eliza’s future prospects are decided in the end.  Although the felicity between them remains as before, Eliza and Higgins do not end up romantically fated with each other and this is the major point of departure that My Fair Lady and Ti Fulrani take, where this possibility is strongly hinted.  It might be because I read Pygmalion first, but I always find its ending far preferable to those of its more famous adaptations. Somehow, it leaves Eliza with more dignity, even in the less fortunate of conditions. Shaw is breathtakingly unconventional in the epilogue and throughout the play does not leave a single opportunity to comment on the British class system and on women’s independence, which makes it such a fantastic read. 

Hmm, after all this prevue, perhaps now I can safely disclose that I wished to play Eliza Doolittle and had single-handedly picked out someone who were to play Higgins!  Let’s call this guy You-know-him. This casting had a very special reason and purpose behind it! As I said before, there were two factors that mattered in our casting decisions.  In this case however, rather than the attributes of the characters as well as those of crew, enacting one particular scene mattered. I was dying, longing, pining to enact this scene with You-know-him! That scene features in the IVth Act, when Higgins and Eliza return home after a successful ball, and he totally disregards Eliza in his jubilations.  In a while, Higgins is looking for his slippers, which enraged Eliza hurls at him with all her might!  And this is what I wanted to inflict on You-know-him. I wanted to smack a heavy pair of slippers (possibly with soles layered with spikes) right on his face…. aargh… because he always… bloody always used to sign in the attendance sheet, a way beyond the space designated for him which resulted in disfiguring my signature. We had successive roll numbers and shared a common surname. If I could fit my nine-lettered family name in a box of 2.5*1.5 cm box, why on earth could not he?? Everyone who knows about this finds it ludicrous that I wanted to hit him with slippers for this.  But honestly, what right he had to mar my signature by his?  He really deserved my, well, my psychologically violent vengeance!! Ah−ah−ah−ow−ow−ow−oo!!!

Notes:

* From which we resurfaced only after flunking physics and maths (and perhaps even chemistry… ouch!) in the mid-term exam.

# Ironically, because Pygmalion borrows its title from a Greek myth of a sculptor named Pygmalion who falls in love with the perfect sculpture of a woman he created, and not the other way round.

An unexpected essence

Till recent years, our mother used to follow this particular Vrat for Lakshmi- a Hindu goddess of prosperity.  Following a vrat usually involves performing worshipping rites to the given deity.  Worshipper observes a fast (with different degrees of stringency, as per one’s choice), while sweet-meals are offered to the deity (which in our case, later landed on my plate!) along with fresh blossoms.  Most such occasions also involve reading out a particular Katha (narrative that is associated with it).  So this particular Lakshmi Vrat too had its own story!  As a kid, I enjoyed it far more than any other such stories that we heard all throughout the year on different religious or festive events.  It was a little different than the others of its genre.  You know how these stories go… Pious worshippers are rewarded while those who are unbelievers are struck with a mighty divine blow *… This tale as well, start on a beaten route as follows:

“Once upon a time, there ruled a king named Bhadrashrava.  Bhadrashrava’s wife Suratchandrika bore him their only daughter Shyamabala. The little Royal Family would have lived happily ever after with their abundance of power and riches, but as always in these tales of old women, destiny intervened.  The almighty goddess of wealth and prosperity, Lakshmi decided that she should perhaps take abode with the king.  Alas, you would think, why should she choose a place which was already boasting of her grace.  Why not bless some poor household?  Well, apparently Lakshmi had a greater design in her mind.  She thought if I reside with a poor man, he may use me only to fulfil his own desires, but if I may choose the king, who is rather like a parent of his subjects, he will further his riches towards the well-being of others.  So she takes a form of an old woman and goes to the queen Suratchandrika and bids for her help.  But the queen has become vain and arrogant due to her fortune.  She disdains the old destitute and turns her away.  On her way back, Lakshmi encounters Shyamabala who asks after the old woman.  Shyamabala not only placates disguised goddess but also gains her approval with her kindness shown towards those less fortunate.  Pleased goddess then tells her how to perform the Lakshmi vrat to earn the prosperity and felicity, which she follows… And so, the tides turn slowly but gradually for both Suratchandrika and Shyamabala.  Mother and her husband, the king loose their kingdom, riches and health.  On the other hand, Shyamabala gets married to a rich, handsome and loving prince of another kingdom and acquires both happiness and wealth.  Now wretched herself, Suratchandrika seeks her daughter’s help.  Kind Shyamabala answers and sends an urn full of precious stones and gold to her parents.  However, due to the continued disgrace of the Goddess Lakshmi, it is turned into the coal cinders.  In another attempt, now Bhadrashrava goes to Shyamabala and recounts their misery to her.  On learning which, she tells her father about the the significance of Lakshmi vrat.  Consequently both former king and queen perform the vrat and regain all that was lost and more! Praise be to the omniscient and powerful Goddess Lakshmi!!”

If this story was like any other, it would have got over at this point. But it does not, and it is all that makes it ‘special’ for a delighted ten-year old.  It has a short passage further which is:

“After learning of her parent’s revival of well-being, happy Shyamabala goes to meet them.  But Suratchandrika still harbours a grudge that her daughter gave her urn of coal cinders and on the other, told her father about the opportune vrat… ungrateful girl!  Thus, she is unkind towards her daughter. When Shyamabala is to leave, instead of a customary gift for her daughter and her husband, Suratchandrika gives her an urn full of rock salt!!  Shyamabala graciously accepts the urn and comes back to her new home. As the dinner bell rings, her husband enquires impishly about what has she brought for him from her parent’s.  Calm and serene, Shyamabala replies that she has brought ‘the essence of the kingdom’ with her and asks him to wait till she presents it.  She then serves him a plate full of different delicacies for dinner, but all without a grain of salt! He obviously finds it bland and unappetizing, whereupon she helps him with a pinch of salt that she has brought.  Naturally, it instantly enhances the taste of entire meal.  Therefore, amused and pleased with the ‘essence of the kingdom’, both husband and wife continue their meal with further joviality.”

See? This entire epilogue has no whatsoever reference to the goddess or the vrat.  In fact, one would rather wryly wonder that even a person with questionable merit such as Suratchandrika is eligible for the grace of goddess, if she just performs a particular ritual.  Secondly, insecure mothers who place their vanity before the well-being of their daughters is a complexity that Indian lore rarely tackles.  I do not know if giving salt to someone has any symbolic significance of either hidden blessing or misgiving, in Hindu or in general Indian culture. But the way Shyamabala conveys it both as a valued condiment as well as a metaphor (by calling it the essence of the kingdom) is rather impressive.  In one stroke, a regular kind-hearted and endearing side-character (the heroine is Goddess Lakshmi!), takes over as the wise one. Like all such stories, this one too is written by a faceless, ageless, genderless Anonymous. Maybe it was not even a single person who constructed this entire plot. But whoever added this epilogue must have understood that the general  readership for it was largely formed by married, traditional Indian women of bygone days.  And who else could appreciate the gravity of a situation where a girl comes back to her in-laws and husband from her parent’s house, almost empty-handed or worse, with an urn full of salt? Lastly, mind you, Shyamabala and her husband are not mentioned as to spend their lives happily ever after but they, as we are told, just continue their meal with good humour.  Their exchange somehow puts them on par as two sensible individuals sharing married life rather than portraying the usual picture of Indian submissive wife, devoted to her revered husband.  Over all, I think that this last salty epilogue not only added flavour to Shyamabala and her husband’s dinner, but also formed ‘the essence’ of otherwise a common tale of piety…

Hmm, if only I would concentrate on the intended morale of the story and earn the blessings of prosperity, rather than taking apart salt grains!

Note:

* Especially in relatively recent religious stuff that eulogize particular deity.  It partly serves as a handbook to concerned rituals and partly entertains with few stories or anecdotes on the glories and significance of that deity. Well, I am no expert on Hindu mythology but I have read my little share of it… No, I was not a young religious zealot.  It is just that all school vacations did reach a point when you found yourself in serious dearth of storybooks.  ‘A good public library with a decent collection for young readers’ was a fictional notion, at least in our town.  Once you read, reread and reread all the books of your own closet; exhaust those of your friends; secretively raid your elder sibling’s ‘what-do-you-understand-of-that?’ collection of fiction, there is still more than half the vacation staring at you.  What would you do then?  You become the ‘scavenger reader’… you dissect daily newspaper to imagine hidden stories in the classified section (‘Change of name’ was my favourite but obituaries and matrimonial sections are equally illuminating).  You scan strange contents of oily, translucent, dated newspaper pages that come covering assortments of street food.   And you also dig into those tiny cabinets in kitchen that store above-mentioned texts along with essence sticks and pack of cotton wicks for earthen lamps.  So here you find your getaway to such vrat stories.