Being a Woman
We move at a fast pace in our daily lives, juggling various roles and always in a rush to reach somewhere or meet someone. In the midst of all these duties and responsibilities, there are some instances when we get a chance to take a step back and cast a glance at the path we’ve trodden to reach where we are, and the people who have travelled with us, some still accompanying us on our journey and others who have bid adieu. One such occasion when I slow down the pace of my life, is the annual puja at my father’s family temple, set in the tiny village of Chennankary in Alleppey,Kerala. The small temple dedicated to the Devi is set in a shady clearing adjoining the ancestral home. It’s literally like moving into another world since Chennankary is accessible only by boat. There’s no question of stepping in, making your presence felt and rushing back to work or wherever you are in a hurry to get to. In fact the word ‘hurry’ is alien to the people of Chennankary. The rituals of the puja start in the morning and culminate at noon. All the family members assemble at a pre-ordained dock near Alleppey and travel together by boat. Our family is quite huge with people in all corners of the globe. Each year, all those who can, make it a point to attend. Usually there’re around 30 to 40 family members who come every year. I’ve noticed a certain lightness of heart and spirit in every person who comes to attend the puja. It’s like all of us are taking a break from our daily routines, shedding the personas we’ve carefully cultivated over the years and trying to grasp fleeting moments from our pasts. The boat invariably gets delayed although the booking would have been done days before. But I’ve yet to see anybody get worked up over this. We use the opportunity to unwind and catch up with each other’s exploits. The kids run free, away from the restrictions of concrete jungles and taking complete advantage of parents who are lost in nostalgia. At last the boat is sighted, slowly chugging in, and there’s a general scramble for children, handbags and other paraphernalia, and not necessarily in that order! The vessel is a small one that just about manages to hold all of us. The journey to our ancestral home takes around three-quarters of an hour. The male cousins and kids prefer to be outside the cabin which is taken over by the ladies, of all ages, ranging from the tiniest baby to my elderly aunt who is the matriarch right now. A few old uncles find themselves stuck with us and hardly a peep is heard out of them throughout the journey. The poor souls are not given a chance as the ladies completely monopolise the conversation. The topics are wide and varied ranging from the recipe for Brinjal Avial to critiques of Kathakali performances, to the reasons for hair loss; all this punctuated at regular intervals by gales of laughter. I’ve got aunts who are brilliant raconteurs and their wry wit is so hilarious that it keeps us in splits. If the cousins or I happen to reprimand our children, the aunts firmly put us in our places by recounting with great relish how much naughtier we were and the shenanigans we got up to. The only defence we have against this is to hide behind sheepish grins. The scenery outside is some of the most beautiful in Kerala but there’s so much happening inside that I hardly notice any of it. We navigate our way through narrow waterways and reach our destination right in time for breakfast. The aunts and uncles staying there arrange a simple yet delicious spread. It’s at this juncture that I lose complete contact with my children. This happens to all my cousins. We turn into children again while our kids find their cousins and gang up with them. They know it’s pointless to look to their parents for any kind of guidance or directions because we are too busy catching up with the rest of the family. Our children actually enjoy this freedom from our tyranny and I don’t find any complaints. As parents we are also aware that somebody is always looking out for the safety and comfort of the children. Whichever adult happens to be near them keeps an eye on them. Our small temple is situated just a few steps from the main house, in a clearing enclosed by huge towering trees and trailing creepers. Sunlight pours in from above and creates a cosy tranquil atmosphere. There’s one particular tree, which has become an abode for bats and they hang motionless like tattered prayer flags. Since we have many elderly members, a small number of chairs are placed under an awning to one side so that they can take a breather in between the lengthy ceremonies. Though meant for the older generation, I find that it’s more of my generation who settle down comfortably on them ! It’s either the chairs or the platform around the majestic banyan tree that find people sitting and catching up on each others lives.
Over the years we have suffered many bereavements and many loved ones have left us, including my father. I feel their presence in that clearing, in the caress of the breeze, in the warmth of the sunlight and in the memories that we all share when we are together. A laugh here, a toss of the head there, a familiar stance, all brings them back to me. Whatever else might happen in my life, I know that for those couple of hours my father is right there beside me, sending his blessings my way. Our deity is the Devi or goddess, and a most benevolent one at that. There’s a pervading sense of goodness, of divinity and well-being around the temple. When the sound of the conch being blown combines with the hum of murmured prayers, and the faint rustling of the wind among the leaves, the vibrations resonate in my heart and lighten the spirit. The final moments sees a flurry of activity mainly because the kids have to be brought from whichever corner they have escaped to. Kids are such an integral part of the occasion because they add that much-needed touch of reality. Once, a cousin’s 5-year-old daughter was found to be lost in prayers, muttering feverishly under her breath. All of us were quite amazed at her devotion at such a young age. It was only later that a cousin’s wife standing next to the tot informed us that the lil one was reciting the words of the latest film song! After the customary sadya (feast) and a family meeting (both of which I can write reams about) we start back.
The return journey is quieter, due to physical tiredness and also the sense that our brief sojourn into another world is over. The conversations are quieter but the laughter is as spirited as ever. One of my favourite activities is to sit back and lazily watch the tapestry of life unfolding on the riverbanks, while the conversation flows all around me cocooning me in its warmth and familiarity. There’re no prolonged goodbyes even though we might not meet some of them for a long time. Everything that had to be said and shared has already been done and tarrying would only delay everybody. We take leave of each other with smiles since we know that we would surely meet again, in our Devi’s presence, secure in the bond that binds us together.