On a Temple Run

I have already written two posts about our visit to Kerala. I continue with the account of our trip not necessarily in the chronological order of occurrence of events. After the boat trip and birding trip, we move on to the temple run. After all, can one return from a visit to the God’s own country without paying a visit to the Gods. The presence of a pair of pentagenarians in our touring party totally sealed the case in favor of the temples.

The first person we met as we started our spiritual odyssey was an exponent of the Advaita philosophy – our driver, who had mastered the art of saying ‘Neti Neti’ – “No No”.

“Do you know where we can get vegetarian food?”


“Is there some good sightseeing spot on the way to Guruvayur?”


“Can we visit Thrissur temple on our way back?”


He had this ability to say it with a flat tone, a dead pan expression and the calmness of a Zen Master. I was reminded about Ramakrishna’s parable of God in the mahout that talks about a boy who saw the God in an elephant running amuck and went and stood in front of the animal to receive its blessings ignoring the God in the elephant driver who was imploring him to move away from the path. As one may imagine, the elephant’s blessing proved to be quite disastrous for the boy. While the boy paid the price for his lack of reverence for the elephant driver, my father-in-law’s experience turned out to be the other way around. A quick call to the driver’s boss brought about a miracle akin to one of those performed by ancient day saints with the driver suddenly attaining enlightenment about places to find vegetarian food along the way and the Thrissur temple and other places of interest, like the proverbial Mountain of Mohammed, rising from their remote locations and moving towards more convenient locations along our route. I wondered if in the years that have passed since Sri Ramakrishna’s time God has moved up the value chain and has chosen to take abode in the driver’s boss. But the temples as such seemed to be still stuck in the time before Ramakrishna and continued to maintain only elephants rather than switching to mahouts and subsequently mahouts’ bosses.

We got to visit three temples in all – the main Krishna temple at Guruvayur, a nearby Shiva temple and the temple at Thrissur on our way back. My usual problems with temples are the huge crowds and long queues. My mother used to say undergoing this ordeal was a way of showing devotion to God. That day the lack of crowds denied me the opportunity to prove my religious credentials my mother’s way. However I got to prove the same in altogether a different way thanks to the rule in all Kerala temples that men can enter only in Dhotis and due to my inexperience in wrapping myself in the traditional Indian waist cloth. So I was faced with the daunting task of thinking about God while my entire attention was caught up in hanging on to my Dhoti or rather making my Dhoti hang on to me.

If I had to face the trial by waist clothe, my son had to face an altogether different test. In kind of a portent of the times to come, his worth was measured for the first time – on a weighing balance so that an equivalent amount of banana, jaggery or oil could be offered to the Gods. He wept and wailed to express his dissent, little knowing how in the years to come in every stage of life he would be measured again and again and again by different people on different scales.

Otherwise the religious leg of the journey was largely uneventful. Maybe I should add a passing note about the wonderful Keralite food we had on the first day and the horrible Andhra food on the second. If but had I the skill of Enid Blyton who with her writing skills could even make the infamous British food sound so exciting, what scope would have the wonderful Keralite cuisine afforded me! Or if but had I the devotion and poetic skills of the medieval saints who composed verses after verses on seeing the statues of the Gods. But I am but a fool who can only write about foolery.

Social Activist's Guide to Indian Politics - the Muffler

I don’t know how many have read this book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Since this is a Western book not suitable to the Indian ethos, I wondered how it would be if it were to be adapted to the Indian context say with a title like Social Activist’s Guide to Indian Politics. Here is my take on one of the passages from the book – related to the uses of the humble Bath Towel which in our Indian context transmutes into the Mighty Muffler.

Just about the most massively useful thing any interstellar Hitchhiker can carry. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you — daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course you can dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

Just about the most massively useful thing any Indian Social Activist can carry. Partly it has great practical value. You can clean your pants seat  when you rise after day long protest at Jantar Mantar; you can lie on it on the brilliant pavements around the India Gate, inhaling the polluted Delhi air; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which don’t shine redly or otherwise on the smog covered Indian skies; use it to sail a miniraft down the toxic Yamuna river; wet it for use in parliamentary debates; wrap it round your head to look like a farmer’s leader or avoid the gaze of the corrupt Indian Neta (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, whose existence like the unicorn is only notional as per official records, it assumes that if it has forgotten all its poll promises, the people and media have forgotten as well— daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your muffler to stop an auto rickshaw or the metro train, and of course you can wrap it around your neck to keep warm if it is still in one piece.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have "lost." What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with

More importantly, a muffler has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a common man (common man: non activist/politician) discovers that an activist has his muffler with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a Gandhi Cap, placards, Khadi suit, Jolna bag, Hawai Chappals, black arm bands, flags, wire cutters, mikes, brooms, garlands etc., etc. Furthermore, the common man will then happily lend the activist any of these or a dozen other items that the activist might accidentally have "lost." What the common man will think is that any man who can do Dharna for three days, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still knows where his muffler is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with

Hence a phrase which has passed into hitch hiking slang, as in "Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There's a frood who really knows where his towel is."

Hence a phrase which has passed into activist slogans, as in "You want good governance and honest politics? Vote for a man who really knows where his muffler is."

Of Cows and Guns

I had prepared hard and cracked the entrance exam to the county’s most prestigious management institution. All that lay between me and every Indian’s dream was an essay and an interview. I gingerly turned over the paper to look at the topic – ‘Gun Control’. Damn! Why are all this people so obsessed with America and Americanism? Couldn’t they have chosen a topic more suitable to Indian ethos? Say our dear old domestic cow! As I sat blank thinking about guns and cows, the Dana Lyons song refrain began to play in my head.

We will fight for bovine freedom
And hold our large heads high
We will run free with the buffalo, or die
Cows with guns

Yeah! That must be it. Cows with guns! An uprising against a popularly elected government. An assault on democracy. How can the great American nation protect its lofty ideals? By banning guns? But wait! Ban guns? What are we talking about? Aren’t guns one of greatest gifts of science to mankind? If not guns, then ban the damn cows. That’s it. Ban the cows. Hasn’t our own Indian government done it? These Americans have so much to learn from us and we think we need to learn from them. Hasn’t it always been the case? We invent something and some damn white skinned clown or the other pops up and puts his label on it and makes it his own.

Take this song Cows with Guns itself for instance. These Americans act as if it is an original concept they have cooked up in their beef grills. But the truth is that our mythology talked of armed bovines centuries back. The entire armies of Vishwamitra were supposedly decimated by the divine cow Kamadhenu during his siege of Vashista’s ashram. These Americans must have come to India, read through our mythologies, stolen our ideas and then added some of their own bovine excreta on top of it to make up this song.

I know what you are thinking. How am I equating the Indian beef ban to American cow ban? Isn’t it just the opposite? Let me tell you – it isn’t. Isn't death the only thing that separates cow from beef? Our Indian philosophy says death cannot change who you really are. So why should it change the holy cow? In practical terms, our nation’s father has the answer. For this is exactly what the whole philosophy of Ahimsa is all about. If we do not go killing the cows, then the cows won’t come killing us. So we all live happily ever after. That is the essence of Non Violence. This idea itself was borrowed from the animal kingdom. A bird to be precise – the ostrich. This wise bird as soon as it sees hunters, goes and buries its head in the sand. The logic being that if it is not able to see the hunters, the hunters won't be able to see it. Gandhiji probably encountered a few ostriches during his stay in South Africa and learnt this profound philosophy by observing them. Now the inheritors of the great nation founded by him have extended this philosophy to the matter of cows and guns.

Now you may ask, why all this non-violence thingy? Why not just do preemptive strikes on all the bovine camps in the famed cow belt and bring the cattle class to its knees? Well there is a small problem – these beasts play a very important role in protecting the country’s traffic ecosystem. They are in fact the sole reasons we have so few accidents on Indian roads despite such dismal adherence to traffic rules. They play the role of natural traffic regulators, placing themselves at strategic spots on the road at great personal risk to themselves to slow the mad rush of traffic. So we need to tread sensitively to ensure this fragile balance is maintained.

One might think why we are wasting time discussing this trivial issue of bovines and firearms. The point is that this actually represents a broader question of religion versus science that has challenged societies from the time of birth of civilizations. The beef stands for religion and gun for science. What kind of society do we want to build? That will decide which we want to ban and which we want to promote.

I quickly scribbled out all my arguments and came out of the hall, a smug expression on my face, proud of my unique logic. I was sure all the other candidates would have written some mundane cliched facts, regurgitating whatever they had mugged up from newspapers and coaching guides. The B-School would be proud to have an original thinker like me.

Since then the wait has been on. It is three years and still I haven’t got a call. Who knows? Someday I may get a call. Or maybe I am just a victim of a McDonald and Burger King conspiracy to suppress original voices and take over the world.

For whom the bell tolls

A book of faces