The Gods of Small Drinks
Pankaz K. Sharma
God in His infinite wisdom
Did not make me very wise-
So when my actions are stupid
They hardly take God by surprise
- Langston Hughes
It was on a warm September day in Delhi, when I was informed that Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu deity, had started drinking milk. Stuck in a limbo, and tormented by the indecision caused by my desire (prompted by the delusion of an imaginary romance) to stay back in Delhi, and the bouts of regret (for not moving to Hyderabad to join a much more reputed supervisor for higher studies) that punctured my euphoria periodically, this news did not elicit any reaction from me initially. But when a usually sober friend, running excitedly out of his lab, asked me at the top of his voice as to why I was not going to the Ganesha temple to witness the miracle in progress, I was convinced that the story was, after all, true.
Incidentally though, I met my teacher, Prof. V. M. Khanna, the next moment who, as usual, asked me what I was doing there, called me a bewakoof (idiot) for my indecisiveness, laughed at my idiotic decision to stay back and pursue higher studies in India (which, especially research studies in the sciences, was useless in his opinion) and then asked me to join him for a cup of coffee. The lure of a chat over a cup of coffee with him outweighed my desire to run to the temple and witness the miracle.
By the time the coffee session was over, and I was on my way, the miracle had already stopped. Though it is said that usually “Bhagwan ke ghar mein der hai andher nahi” (God sees the truth but waits – loosely translated, thanks to the title of a Leo Tolstoy story), the Lord decided to disfavour me and many others, and stopped his miracle. My poor friend, I later found out, did not have better luck himself either. By the time he could collect some milk and rush to the temple, the queue was so long that it was not possible for him, already having a chemical reaction running in the lab, to wait there and witness the miracle.
During my next visit home, my mother told me that she was bedridden with a severe bout of headache, due to which she could not go to the temple, and although she ran the next morning to the nearby temple with a fresh bowl of fresh milk, she could not make the Lord drink it. (Convinced of her piety and confused by his refusal, she did what many people under such situation usually do: she blamed her fate for making her sick the previous day).
This ‘miracle’ of Ganesha drinking milk could not have happened at a more suitable time, at least to the people of Delhi. Only a few weeks ago, faced with a flood caused by an overflowing Yamuna river, which could at any moment have submerged huge areas of Delhi, the then Chief Minister of Delhi announced on the television that his government did everything that was humanly possible to protect the people of Delhi against the imminent calamity, and everything was now in God’s hands. Panic ensued; prices of essential commodities sky-rocketed; people got busy pulling their furniture and other valuables from the ground floor to the higher floors; and everyone became fatalistic to a degree, resigned to their fate.
Personally, my introduction to gods and “miracles” had happened many years ago, in my childhood, under the able and absurd guidance of my mother. If a pair of newly domesticated (thus, still semi-wild) elephants running away stormed through the plot of land, on which our house stood, convinced my mother regarding the imaginary prosperity that this plot would bring us in the future, a fair damsel attired in white attire entering our house – certainly a product of my mother’s vivid imagination, but what she believed to be Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of wisdom – convinced her of the extraordinary academic accolades that my brother and I would have in life. It is altogether a different story that my brother and I would disappoint Goddess Saraswati and my mother – and not necessarily in that order – by turning out to be just mediocre and extraordinarily ordinary.
Destined though we might have been with such divine blessings, it was humans who nipped in bud the promises we held within just about 4 years. The leaders of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), who spearheaded the 1979-1985 agitation to flush out all the Bangladeshi infiltrators and illegal residents, in a flash of wisdom realised sometime in 1979 that the best way to achieve their objective was by boycotting classes and, thus, not only our school life came to a halt but also there appeared a remote possibility that we might not return to school in the near future. Maybe our happiness at this unexpected turn of events antagonized Goddess Saraswati because, though we had to return to our classes within a year or so, we never achieved anything even remotely extraordinary either in academics or in any other sphere of activity in life.
During that zero year, when we did not have go to school, our major activity was playing alley cricket and watching any movie for which tickets could be produced, dictated by the limited opportunity for popular entertainment in a town with two cinema theatres of the pre-TV days.
It was during one of those insignificant days of the summer of 1980, when one day was absolutely impossible to distinguish from another for us school-less kids, that I had my first experience of visiting a godman, or rather a fortune-teller. Goddess Xeetola (the word Xeetol in Assamese means, depending on the context, both cool and cold) was the deity that the Assamese people (and perhaps others too) worshipped, when someone suffered from chicken pox or the measles, the small pox being eradicated by then. About 3 kilometers from our home, there existed a semi-religious place called Xeetola Aair Than (Mother Xeetola’s Abode, literally translated). Evidently, Goddess Xeetola was manifest through someone, whom everyone addressed as Aai (Mother), and who could read one’s fate and predict the future, based simply on what one wanted to know. A lady in our neighbourhood, who was then at the threshold of 30 and still unmarried, decided to go to Aai to know her future, and her friend and I accompanied her. After waiting for an hour and a half in a room clouded by smoke of incense sticks, Aai finally appeared.
Contrary to my expectation, Aai was a man with feminine gait and mannerisms, who spoke with a soft, feminine voice. Aai predicted that my neighbor’s Saturn was in a bad house, and that it would remain so for the next year and a half, after which everything should be fine. She was advised to eat only vegetarian, boiled food, and wear only white clothes on Saturdays. She was also advised to fast on the Mondays and visit the Shiva temple. (For some reason, however, the suggested remedies did not seem to work, or perhaps Saturn was offended for something else later; the woman in question never got married.)
The two major themes that fascinated (and concerned much of the discussion in) my family, friends, and relations were gods and ghosts. Mangaldai, where we lived, was a 150-year old administrative town, and yet most people living there had strong village connections. Due to the strong religious background and augmented by the pride of being the priests whom the Ahom kings of Assam invited from West Bengal to Assam almost 200 years ago, my family was diehard followers of Shakti. Animal sacrifice was an integral part of the religious festivities, but the act itself varied from place to place. While in most places the animal to be sacrificed was held by people in place, the sacrificial animal (read: goat) in Thioi Kata Boli (Sacrifice without using any restraints) near Sipajhar was given some food, kept free and then was suddenly beheaded. Why Maa Kali, the fearsome Hindu goddess, in that particular place wanted the animal to be sacrificed that way was never made clear to me. Any such questions always met with my mother’s stock response, which involved the goddess standing on my neck (due to such arrogance and blasphemy), causing my tongue to protrude out of my mouth by a length, which in metric measurements equalled to three and a quarter meters. Only once did I dare ask her why the goddess always insisted on this particular length and never for another. Needless to say, this question did not result in anything pleasant for my memory; however, this time mother did not wait for the goddess to take action, but handled the matter herself and also carried out the punishment.
The presence of gods and spirits was everywhere. If one’s eyes turned red after playing in the ground, it was not due to any allergy, but because one must have offended the resident god in the nearby temple. If someone died in a car accident, it was because a black, feminine figure atop a silk cotton tree had waved at that person the previous night, inviting him to come closer. And above all these, there were many experts on black magic, available on hire, to cast a spell and harm others; as far as we were concerned, it was always us whom the neighbours envied and tried various tricks of black magic to harm with, or so did my mother claim. In her vivid imagination, fantasy often replaced, or at least merged with, reality; a number of untimely deaths in short intervals in her ancestral village were foretold to her by a Dainee, the ferocious spirit at the top of the command chain of spirits, with whom she came face to face on a summer afternoon – the Dainee sitting atop a bunch of bamboo culms - on the way to the village pond.
The remedies for such black magic and other attempts were varied: if in one such case, simple offerings at the Kali temple of the perennially high Sanyasi (ascetic), who by his own admission could smoke a hundred chillums (clay smoke pipe) of ganja; for another, it could have been the visit to a powerful and famous black magician. Different poojas (Hindu form of ritualistic offerings to the God) to pacify various gods were a norm at the household. If Lord Shiva was to be worshipped to overcome the possibility of any physical harm (it was a plain affair, phool pooja, worshipping with flowers), Maa Kali was to be worshipped for overall well-being and to gain strength; animal sacrifice was a must.
Among the family members of all my friends, Das was unique. He was not only a staunch devotee of Lord Shiva, but also used to routinely claim that any place where Lord Shiva was worshipped would always be protected from natural disasters, especially earthquakes. After a devastating earthquake in Uttarkashi in 1991, one of us asked him how this could happen, which absolutely disproved his hypothesis; with closed eyes, he was lost in thought for a long time, and then responded in a voice heavy with emotions, - “They definitely sinned; people there must have sinned.”
If Hindu Gods drank liquids to demonstrate their power to the world, an Indian ‘showed’ the power of his invention to entire India, if not to the World, the following year. Ramar Pillai, a semi-literate person from Tamilnadu, India, drew a lot of attention and media coverage in 1996 by claiming that he could produce petrol (gasoline) from a trademark secret combination of herbs, using a technique he himself developed and closely guarded. The news of his achievement spread like wildfire; the gullible swallowed the bait hook, line, and sinker. His “herbal petrol” caused such a flight of fancy that state and central governments jumped into the wagon in offering him assistance and funding. Finally though, his game collapsed, when it was proved that he used to hide petrol in the hollow handle of his spoons, which he used to ‘cook’ his herbal petrol.
Ganesha drinking milk:
Yamuna Floods, September 1995: http://delhi.gov.in/wps/wcm/connect/DOIT_DM/dm/home/vulnerabilities/hazards/floods;
Pankaz K. Sharma (firstname.lastname@example.org) was born and raised in the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam in the North-East India. He is a science worker and currently resides at Guwahati, Assam. He is not an adherent of any particular political or religious ideology.
Apr 11, 2017
Pankaz K. Sharma may be contacted at email@example.com
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