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Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Short Story: Question Hour

This month's prompt for the short story writing challenge was "Cut the strings." I thought and thought of different ideas (involving strings) to weave into a story - a veena vidwan, or a young adult cutting free from the apron strings of his mother, or a tennis player, or even an athlete suffering a hamstring injury! Somehow, nothing seemed quite right and waiting for the muse to show up, time sped by and suddenly, today, the 4th of October was the day to submit the story that I hadn't yet written.

Desperate, my mind cast about for ideas and seemingly out of nowhere, came the inspiration for this story. Wait...I can't actually say out of to the end of the story, and you'll realize - like I just did - where the inspiration came from 😇😇


An expectant hush settled over the crowd as Shivu Bhat walked into the temple. The minute he threw open the doors to the sanctum sanctorum, the temple bells pealed and the ceremonial drums struck up the traditional beat. After hours of waiting, hundreds of thirsty eyes feasted on the divine sight of the Goddess Renukamba. 

Decked in a bright red sari, adorned with ornaments of gold and precious stones, covered with layers of garlands of yellow and orange marigold flowers, She waited patiently to receive the worship, and fulfill the prayers of Her devotees.

Shivu, the young temple priest, got busy reciting the mantras and swinging the lamps as he performed the rituals. The devotees watched silently, muttering their own prayers and mentally beseeching the goddess to grant this or that wish.

Finally, it was time for the special rite that drew people from villages far and near. Question Hour with the Goddess. Anyone who wanted Renukamba’s guidance stood in front of Her and mentally asked if a particular course of action should be undertaken or not. It was believed that She would answer by causing one of the garlands draped across the idol, to fall. Her wish would cut the strings holding the garland, causing it to fall. If the garland dropped down on the left side, the answer was taken as a “no” and if it fell on the right, the answer was considered a “yes.”

Shivu had been performing this particular rite since the past few years as part of his priestly duties, although he didn’t really have a strong belief in it. An educated young man, he had initially been dubious, arguing with the senior priest saying, “How do you know it’s Renukamba speaking? If the garland had not been secured firmly on one side, it’s bound to fall from there. Or maybe the string is weak at one point and that’s where it snaps. ”

The senior priest had refused to be drawn into the argument, merely saying, “I don’t know all these things, Shivu. It’s the faith of the people, and Renukamba responds. So far, I have never heard anyone complaining that Her decision brought them trouble.”

After the senior priest had quit, the rite had become part of Shivu’s duties and he went about it like any other part of the worship. Today though, he was a little apprehensive. The young Aaryaa was going to be participating, wanting to know if she should take up the job offer she had received at an office in the nearby town. Over the past few months, Shivu and Aaryaa had grown into good friends and given time, the relationship was likely to flower into something deeper.

Shivu had already told Aaryaa that she should take the offer. But Aaryaa was not so sure, and wanted to ask Renukamba. It hurt Shivu to think that an otherwise intelligent girl would trust the supernatural over an educated human’s opinion. He’d tossed and turned in bed the previous night, hoping the answer would turn out to be a yes for Aaryaa’s sake, stubbornly ignoring the sadness that gripped him to think of life in her absence. How he wished he could hold her in his arms and transmit his confidence to her, and calm her fears!

Now, standing in front of Renukamba, scanning the crowd to locate Aaryaa, Shivu sighed. Momentarily distracted from his priestly duties, he wished he could gather up the courage to ask her how she felt about him.

By late evening, the festivities were over and the crowds were gone. Aaryaa hadn’t turned up to ask her question. Shivu was alone in the temple, putting things in order and clearing up. He looked towards Renukamba, and the few garlands that still hung across Her, and She seemed to be smiling at him.

On an impulse, Shivu went and stood in front of Renukamba, closed his eyes, put his palms together in prayer, and said, “Ma Renukamba, I have served you diligently and think of you as my Mother. You know what my feelings are about this question-and-answer thing. But now, I really don’t know what to do and am asking for Your help. Should I tell Aaryaa about how much I love her and how I want to spend the rest of my life with her?”

“Oh, Mr. Temple Priest, asking our own private questions to Ma Renukamba, are we?” A sweet voice, followed by a mocking laugh, broke into his reverie.

Shivu turned to find Aaryaa smiling playfully. Blushing, he averted his eyes and moved away, wondering when she had entered.

“Why didn’t you come for your answer?” he asked.

“I thought about your advice and decided you were right. There’s no harm in giving the job a try.”

As Aaryaa continued looking at Renukamba, there was a sudden movement. With awe in her voice, she said, “A garland just fell on the right side. Whatever the question you just asked, the answer is a yes. Or wait…was that an answer to my saying I will take the job?”

Shivu stood transfixed. For a while, he didn’t know what to say or do. Then, slowly, he turned and walked to stand in front of Aaryaa. Looking deep into her eyes, he said, “There’s something I want to tell you….”

“I know…..and I feel the same….”

“But….how could you know what it is? I haven’t said anything yet…”

“You were asking your question loudly to Renukamba, Mr. Temple Priest! That’s how I know.”

“Oh, Renukamba…. ….Aaryaa, are you sure? Do you really feel that way? And …and…what about your job? And...your parents…what will they say?”

“Don’t you think you’re burdening Renukamba with too many questions?” Aaryaa teased.

Had anyone looked into the sanctum sanctorum then, it would have seemed like Renukamba was smiling with the satisfaction of a mother who’s found the perfect match for her child……

Friday, 22 September 2017

Unleashing the Goddess Within

A friend sent me a set of pictures on the theme of Modern Goddesses. The pictures are created by Penguin India (I assumed from the logo, and later confirmed it from their Facebook page). I sent it to another friend and we swapped thoughts on how we felt some of them were based on a shaky premise. One thing led to another, and so, Tilottama and I thought we’d come up with our own version of captions for each of the Goddesses in the picture series. This post is what we came up with. 

The intent is not to deride what Penguin did; rather it is to go a little deeper into the essence of these Powerful Women/Goddesses. Read our captions carefully, and you'll find the facet to which they connect.

We’ve kept the basic image the same and are acknowledging that they are the creation of Penguin India; the new wordings are our own.

Praying that Devi Mata bless and protect us all ….and specifically protect me and my friend from charges of plagiarism and perhaps, even, “Sanghism”!😉



या देवी सर्वभुतेषु शक्तिरूपेण संस्थिता । 
नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमो नमः
To that Devi Who in All Beings is Abiding in the Form of Power,
Salutations to HerSalutations to HerSalutations to HerSalutations again and again.

- Tilottama and Anusuya

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Crisis and Character

Crisis can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere. You can never anticipate it and that’s the reason why your reaction to it is an instinctive one. Some people think that crisis can serve to build character and maybe it’s true, but that happens much, much later, after the crisis has passed, and only if one is inclined to learn by introspection and insight. At the moment when catastrophe strikes, you can only exhibit the character ingrained in you. 

Seen someone panicking when things go wrong? That person is likely to be of an anxious temperament. The people who stay calm when disaster strikes? They’ve probably spent a lifetime cultivating that composure. And while it is true that moments of crisis can cause one to find unknown reserves of strength, it is extremely rare for ordinary people to be moved to superhuman efforts to save more than their own skin. 

Imagine you were in a remote place out in the wilderness.

You get bitten by a venomous snake and need immediate treatment to survive - Crisis 1

An ambulance comes to evacuate you to a medical center. Your ambulance meets with an accident - Crisis 2

One nursing assistant dies; another is badly injured and the Medical Officer, who was supposed to take of you, is caught in the wreckage and himself in need of medical aid - Crisis 3

What would you do?

We may have different responses to this, based on the kind of character we’ve cultivated throughout our life.

But for someone who’s been educated and trained in the Indian Army under the motto of “Service Before Self” and attached to a unit (Rashtriya Rifles) that is driven by the spirit of “Dridhta Aur Virta” (Determination and Courage), the answer to that question would be a no-brainer. Despite probably realizing that his course of action would leave no chance of a happy ending.

Naik Vijaya Kumar S. was awarded the Sena Medal (Gallantry) posthumously.

Take a look at the citation in this picture. Notice that “beyond the call of duty”? Let's imprint that on our minds. Every time we find a petty thought cropping up in our mind, telling us, “But that’s not my job,” let us remember that there are so many people helping make life easier for us without our even being aware of it. Let us allow this realization to guide our actions so that if and when some crisis strikes, we’re ready with the character required to face it.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Spirit of Sacrifice

She sank into the seat with a sigh, leaning her head back and closing her eyes, seeking respite from the exhaustion of the past few days, as she waited for the bus to leave. After what seemed like ages it was finally Friday evening, and time to go home. Time to revel in her mother’s cooking and sisters’ excited patter and the complete “at-home” feeling that only someone who lives in a hostel during the week, can truly appreciate.

The rocking movement of the bus must have lulled her into a light doze, for she was startled awake a little later when someone standing in the aisle suddenly lurched into her. Looking up, she found it was an elderly woman who was finding it difficult to stay balanced as the bus driver blustered through the sharp turns of road.

The young girl was very tired and reluctant to spend the rest of her 30-minute journey standing. Yet, something within pushed her to stand up and offer her seat to the senior citizen. By the time she reached home, the girl was even more tired in body, but felt a tiny glow deep within, that perked up her spirits.

Later that night, she narrated this incident to her older sister, and in conclusion said, “I was feeling so tired myself and yet, I made a sacrifice for the sake of that old lady.” As she basked in the glory of her selfless action, the older sister told her something. A bit of advice that she found deflating at first, but, which, in hindsight, turned out to be one of the most valuable lamp posts, guiding her throughout life.

Even today, I remember my older sister telling me:

“If, doing something to help someone else gives you a sense of superiority because you’ve made a sacrifice, it is better you don’t make that sacrifice for it will lead you to become egoistic and that kind of an ego is the worst thing you can possibly have.”

In her own way, my sister had cautioned me against falling into the trap of what is one form of “saatvik ego” – the feeling of pride and superiority one gets from being good or doing good. After having used that advice since the past few years as a lifeline to try and stay humble, today I’m able to fully appreciate the wisdom of her words.

The realization has also dawned that whatever one does must flow naturally, as the very nature of one’s being, not as an effortful action done by keeping a probable future outcome as the goal to be achieved. 

I was reminded of this message yet again today evening. I walked into the garden outside our home and found two Brahmakamalams in full bloom. Emerging on graceful stems from the succulent leaves of the plant in a small pot placed in the corner of the compound wall, the blooms stood resplendent and beguiling with their faint fragrance.

Unconcerned by whether someone saw them or not, they dangled silently. Unfazed by the hectic activity of people and vehicles moving on the adjoining road. Simply being what nature had intended them to be. And, by their very presence, giving bliss and peace to anyone who happened to look at them. 

Friday, 1 September 2017

One Challenge Too Many

“Amma, I’m going to take the Blue Whale Challenge!”

I step out of the kitchen and search my son’s face for the emotion that accompanies this announcement. He’s at that stage where he says things for the sole purpose of getting a rise out of me. But I know his tricks and it’s a battle of wits between us, so I’ve developed my own intelligence-gathering mechanisms. A glint in the eyes is a dead giveaway, as is the impish laugh tugging at the corners of the mouth, waiting to find relief in the guffaw that ensues when I take the bait.

So, I respond to his statement with a mere smiling, “Hmmn…why do you want to do it?”

Deprived of prey, and yet, still trying to turn the exchange into a joke on me, pat comes the reply, “I mean, not all of it…just the part about waking up at 4.20 am.”

Now, it’s my turn to score. “Why do you need the Blue Whale Challenge for that? You could always come up with your own thing – maybe call it the ‘Brahmi Muhurtam’ Challenge, even!”

“And do what after that?”

“Oh, I’ll help you with suggestions. Let’s say, tasks like – 

  • Complete 108 Gayatri japams every day, 
  • Do trikaala sandhyaavandanam without fail every day, 
  • Learn the Bhagavad Geeta by heart, 
  • Watch the programs on TTD’s Sri Venkateshwara Bhakti Channel for 2 hours, 
  • Listen to Velukudi Krishnan’s upanyaasams, 
  • Read the Ramayana and Mahabharata………” 

He’s quiet, and I wonder why there’s none of the usual “No way” response. Perhaps, he’s learned too well from me not to take the bait? 😉

“And what will be the last task at the end?”

“Maybe you can go somewhere,” I say unthinkingly. Immediately, I pray, that in keeping with the spirit of the topic, he won’t come up with a quip like, “Yeah, somewhere like Vaikuntha.”

Quickly, I continue, “Maybe you can go to the Lord Ranganathar temple at Srirangam and post a selfie from outside near the gopuram?”

“Oh no….I can’t do that!”


“Because 50 days from now, I’ll be having my exams…how can I go to Srirangam in the middle of that?”

He doesn’t know it, but inside, I’m smiling. I thought he would refuse doing it saying those tasks are too boring or difficult but the reason he comes up with says he may not be averse to doing at least a teeny-weeny part out of some of them. Not bad at all for someone at the volatile age of 15, I think. Or, knowing the guy, maybe he knows an answer like this that leads me to such a conclusion will make me happy, and he’s playing me. 😐

Whatever the answer to that, I’m hopeful of one thing – that the communication channel we have going between us will preclude the need for him to take recourse to such horrendous ‘challenges’.

But then, I remember something he told me just one day before this discussion. A couple of guys he knows have actually downloaded the game out of curiosity and been doing the initial few tasks. When it came to the self-harming ones, they decided to quit and delete the app. On doing that, one of them received a few calls from the ‘curator’ of the game, asking why he quit. The boy has reportedly told that chap that he will file a police complaint and then, the calls have stopped.

I ask my son if these guys who tried the game, are in some kind of bad situation or depressed. He says no, they were just experimenting, because they were curious to see what the hullaballoo is all about.

And this is where I’m annoyed at the way the press chose to sensationalize the whole issue, without paying heed to the guidelines they’re supposed to follow when reporting about suicides and mental health issues. Tanmoy Goswami explains the nitty gritty of it beautifully in this post on The Health Collective and I strongly recommend you read what he’s written here.

I’m pretty sure many of you have received and forwarded the message that circulated on WhatsApp as a warning against the Blue Whale Challenge. However, as we all know, it’s not enough to merely point out a problem; it’s equally, if not more, important to provide a possible solution or at least an alternative.

Which is why, now, I propose a challenge for you, the ones reading this blog post. An online counseling platform, YourDOST has come up with a Yellow Dolphin Challenge to help our youngsters take control of their lives. Are you up to the challenge of making the news of this positive alternative go viral, at least in your circle of family and friends and colleagues? Just click this link 
to share on social media.
 And, may I also add, don’t be content with being a mere armchair do-gooder. Whenever you find the topic coming up in real-world face-to-face conversation, make sure you tell everyone about the Yellow Dolphin Challenge, then too! Even if the topic doesn't come up, go ahead and tell people about this.

Just as I was writing this post, I clicked on a friend’s ‘status’ on WhatsApp and found this image. It resonated with me because of the conversation with my son. 

For those of you who don’t get Tamil, “Vel” refers to the spear associated with Lord Karthikeya, also known as “Saravana” because He is believed to have been born amongst the reeds. 

Kudos to whoever came up with this idea of a “Blue Vel” challenge! Whether people take to it or not, it serves, at the very least, as a reminder, that when all else fails, He, the Supreme Lord, is always there to give us strength and succour!!

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Random thoughts on Independence Day

On 14th August 2017, at the stroke of midnight, while the world slept, I awoke … not to freedom, but to being captive to the sounds of construction activity in the plot behind my house. Preparations were on in full swing for the morrow’s important program – the inauguration of an eatery to be run in the name of the daughter of the man who gave us the famous ‘freedom at midnight’ speech. 

This morning I got up at night, 4 o’clock in the morning (like the same guy’s great-grandson once hilariously said) to find that the din of the construction activity had miraculously stopped. Perhaps the contractor in-charge decided that the Indira Canteen was as ready as could be. Or maybe the downpour by the whimsical rain gods had forced them to take cover. 

A few hours later, as I walked to college, a neighbor told me the inauguration was to happen tomorrow – on the 16th of August. Someone else says that there are rumors Rahul Gandhi will be coming to grace the occasion. Whether that really happens is yet to be seen but all the common man is bothered about right now is to see if the Canteen lives up to its promise of wholesome, tasty food with breakfast at Rs 5 and lunch at Rs 10. Freedom from hunger and freedom from high price of food is what matters the most.

Listening to the Hon. Prime Minister’s address to the nation on TV, it sounded to me like this time, he stepped up the pace of his speech. Maybe when you have so much to convey, and so little time to do it in, and so much more yet to be accomplished, you tend to talk faster so that you manage to cover it all.

At college, as we stood silently at attention while the management office-bearers hoisted the flag, I couldn’t help but notice the sound of the ‘Suprabhatam’ (made immortal by M S Subbulakshmi) playing in the background. No, it wasn’t someone’s cell-phone ringtone. Rather, the sound emanated from the small Ganesha temple on-campus that is fitted with a sound system that plays the Suprabhatam on loop in the mornings. No one had noticed to switch it off or lower the volume today and so it was that the exuberant tones of the National Anthem mingled with the strains of the prayer to Lord Venkateshwara, proclaiming Him as the Saviour of us all. Given the state of our social media debates today regarding singing the National Anthem and the National Song, that sentiment is probably going to be strong in many of our minds.

A cloudy sky and inclement weather tends to make people want to get on faster with things. The school band stepped up its pace and march, the NCC parade put up far fewer formations on display and people quickly headed into the auditorium for the cultural program to follow. 

During the NCC parade, I observed a woman filming the entire event from the first floor. She didn’t appear to be one of the college staff. I caught myself wondering what she would do with it later…and in general, thinking about what people do with these videos they create. Do they put it up on social media? What will be the significance of it for people removed from the incident? Later, as I walked out of the college, I got something of an answer. I noticed this same woman and a much older woman posing with the leader of the NCC unit and judging from their interaction, they were likely to be his mother and grandmother respectively. So much for my mental acrobatics – it taught me there is often more to things than what meets our eyes.

A little while after reaching home, my son came home from his school flag-hoisting ceremony. His march past performance had gone on well, and he’d done justice to his speech about Independence Day – in Sanskrit. Some time later, I got a message from his Sanskrit teacher saying the speech was really good and everyone liked it. Quite a memorable way to celebrate your last Independence Day in school.

From being held in your mother’s arms as she attended flag-hoisting to being on your way out of school yourself, that's 15 Independence Days !

And even as I finished writing this blog, I chanced on this picture of Indians in flood-hit Assam celebrating Independence Day and it quite brought tears to my eyes. When a land is loved so much, there is nothing that can stop Her from progressing !!

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Gada - The Club

The prompt for this month's short story was "The Club" and we were given a word limit of 750 words. I toyed with different ideas for the story - I thought of things that the word "club" bring to mind - a hobby class, a group of friends with a common interest, an event set in a bar and even an out-of-work writer starting a club to write life stories for people who're down and out. Nothing seemed to click, although the last of those ideas is something I definitely want to consider more seriously some other time. 

Finally, I tried some lateral thinking to come up with other contexts where the word "club" is used and almost at once, the Mace or Gada - the favoured weapon of Hanuman came to mind. Then followed a Wikipedia search to confirm that contextually, the mace is indeed a type of club so that my story would fit the writing prompt. Satisfied with what I found, I sat down to write and the result that flowed is this short story. Happy reading ! As usual, comments and feedback are most welcome 😄

Ravi ambled along the pathway that led up to the door of his new house. He still couldn’t bring himself to think of it as ‘home.’ Home meant a place where he had stayed with his parents. But Ma and Baba were no more – they had been killed in a horrible road accident. Chachu, Baba’s younger brother, had brought Ravi to this house to be cared for by Dadi.

Old she may be, his grandmother, but Dadi had a sharp eye. Which is why Ravi pulled down the sleeves of his shirt to cover the bruise that was building on his left upper arm. That big bully in class had cornered Ravi in the playground, grabbing him, trying to have some cheap fun at the new kid’s expense. Thank God the school was closed for the next week, so he wouldn’t have to face the brute very soon, thought Ravi.

“Oh, you’re home, Ravi? How was school today?”

“Yes, was…okay….Seema Ma’am gave me a ‘star’ for my drawing of a kite.”

“Wah! That’s great, Ravi! Your Baba used to draw very well, too.”

“Where’s Chachu?”

“He must be at the akhada, where else?”

Ravi dropped his school bag in a corner of the room, changed out of his uniform and ran from the house, calling out to Dadi, “I’m going to see Chachu and I’ll come back with him.”

The akhada was the local gymnasium where the wrestlers trained. Chachu was one of the most respected wrestlers around town and was now training a new batch of students. Ravi entered the akhada and watched all the activities with wide-eyed wonder. 

The young men first prostrated in front of an idol of Lord Hanuman, who wielded a club in his hand, called ‘Gada’ in Hindi. He was considered the champion god of all wrestlers, worshipped for His strength and wisdom. Later, the trainees went through their exercise and wrestling routine, sparring with each other under the watchful eyes of Chachu.

“Did you finish your homework, Ravi?” called out Chachu.

“No, I’ll do it later. Chachu, why do your students do some exercises with the Gada?”

“It helps to strengthen the muscles of the back and chest, Ravi, and also makes the arms more flexible.” Chachu winked and said, “Some of them also think Hanumanji’s strength flows into them when they practice with the Gada.”

“Will you please teach me to wrestle, Chachu?”

“Hey, you’re still too young, Ravi. Now is the time you must be studying, not wrestling.”

“But I too want to be strong like Hanumanji and fight bad people,” whispered Ravi, unconsciously fingering his left arm.

Chachu noticed the gesture and frowned, as he caught a glimpse of the bruise before Ravi tugged his sleeve down.

“Okay, Ravi, let’s do this…I have a small Gada. When I was your age, I pestered my father to teach me wrestling and he kept on refusing. Your Baba bought this Gada to cheer me up and I played with it for many years until I started wrestling. You can use it …come, I’ll teach you now.”

A little later, Chachu left Ravi to practise his moves but not before warning him, “Remember, Ravi….the Gada is only for your exercise. You must never use it on any person, alright?”

From that day onwards, Ravi spent a few hours every day at the akhada, exercising with his Gada. Being a smart boy, he also tried some of the other simple wrestling moves he’d seen the students perform.

The day school reopened, Ravi waved goodbye to Chachu and Dadi and walked slowly under the weight of his bag. Around late afternoon, one of the wrestling students burst into the akhada, yelling for Chachu to hurry to the school playground. A strange scene met their eyes when they reached there.

A heavily built boy with a menacing look was advancing on Ravi who was bent over his bag in a prayerful stance. “Look out, Ravi,” screamed Chachu when he saw the boy begin moving his arm to throw a punch. With a deft movement, Ravi stepped to his left even as he nimbly struck out his right foot, tripping the big boy and sending him careening down. Dazed, the bully slowly picked himself up and walked away, red-faced.

As they walked home together, Chachu threw a questioning glance at the bulge in Ravi’s bag. Ravi smiled at his uncle. “Your students are right, Chachu. Hanumanji’s strength does flow through those who practise with the Gada.”