“Mukti Bhawan”

The name is not quite what it seems to mean. It is not a place that offers mukti but a place on the banks of the Ganga where people go to live and wait to die so that they can obtain mukti. We Hindus believe that Lord Siva whispers the Taraka mantra of Ram in the ears of those who die in Kashi, thus sending them on their way to Moksha.

Which Hindu will not be tempted by this easy road to Moksha? None of us can claim to have done the difficult sadhana of meditation or achieved the unattainable goal of detachment which alone will relieve our soul from future births. So we look for easier ways. Dying in Kashi and a few other towns in India like Kanchi or Thiruvaiyaru I think is one of the easiest ways. Therefore pious Hindus have made a beeline to Kashi , perhaps being unaware of these other towns, in the hope of dying there. Bengalis, being closer geographically, and more easily abandoned by their families for economic and superstitious reasons, have found themselves ferried to Kashi in their old age and left to die in one of the numerous dharamshalas. Those from the South find it much more difficult even to make the one mandatory pilgrimage to Kashi in their lifetime and hence few of them move there but those taking darshan of Vishvanath secretly harbor a hope that they might die there, if they are of an age to think about dying at all.

We all remember Pattamma from our extended family who moved to Kashi when she was middle-aged and began to live in the Kanchi Shankar Math. She had been widowed at an early age with no children and had briefly taken care of my father as a motherless boy of ten or so when his father had left him with Pattamma in the town of Kumbakonam. My grandfather would send bags of rice to see them through the year and Pattamma would fill the water drums in a local school as a service, filling and carrying brass kudams with water from the Cauvery, while my father would cook a pot of rice at home,  as instructed by her. He was at the time studying in a local school. She was an aunt by marriage I think and he lived with her for two years . It was not because she was abandoned or poor that she moved to Kashi, though poor she certainly was, but because there was something in her that drove her to live there and await her death. She was requested by family members to come back but she always refused. After a few years she was recognized as a permanent inmate of the Math and was even given her own room. Her daily routine consisted of waking up early in the morning and going down to the Ganga for her morning bath before visiting the temple and probably doing chores around the Math. Perhaps there were bhajans in the Math and elsewhere. We visited her whenever we went to Kashi and so did my father and all other relatives. She remembered everyone and bustled about cheerfully as  she asked after this one or that. I was amazed that she knew my name but I was not mature enough or knowing enough in those days to ask her the questions that I now wish I had. She died in her eighties in the Math where she must have lived for forty years or more and was no doubt cremated in the Harishchandra Ghat. The Math was in the Hanuman Ghat.

The title refers to a movie about a place that provides rooms for people to do what Pattamma did in a Math – live and die – but only for fifteen days. Either they died and checked out or they just checked out. But, taking into account that people do not die at will, Mishraji the owner, allows them to stay on by changing their names.

I am reminded of someone’s grandmother who was convinced that her time had come and travelled from Chennai to Kashi and rented a house to die in. However she was wrong and six months later she returned to Chennai, to die peacefully in her own home. Rich and surrounded by family as she was, I have no doubt she would have envied Pattamma had she known her.

Kerala, It Was

Most of our journey was through Kerala this time. It was hot, we drank water by the litre, but Kerala was lush with greenery. We left the heat behind and drank with our eyes the greenness of the landscape and the almost geometric regularity of the tea gardens that climbed the slopes of the hills with their dark and shiny leaves. The clouds floated in as evening fell and covered the mountains all night long until the sun rose in the morning and we mistook them for lingering fog.

I was woken up at dawn by the chirping of birds and not another sound could I hear. As I stood in the balcony of our room looking at the cloud-covered mountains in the distance and breathed in the freshness of  the early morning breeze, I wondered how it would feel to actually live in this place. Perhaps we could live here if there was nothing very important to be done, if we could give up most of the things in our life and be content with what was available and not what we wanted to have. Once it had been my fantasy to live on a tea estate but that, I could see, would have been a life of great luxury, to be enjoyed only by the lucky few. But who knows, that life might have palled too. For now it would suffice that I was here, looking at the cloud-covered mountains, across a vast valley of tea gardens and trees with beautiful purple flowers, surrounded by the forests kept carefully in check. Later I would hear that the wild elephants in the forests were not very mindful of the boundaries and held court at night keeping the fearful humans away.

To be present in the moment – that is a lesson yet to be learnt by many people nowadays, but that is the lesson nature teaches when we encounter her all too rarely. Perhaps at this age I know that it is necessary to live our lives instead of reading about other people’s lives. So I did not pack books or iPad, nor my Kindle (which would displease S. no doubt) but where else would I see a tea bush or a herd of elephants in the wild, or a nearly extinct deer, or the beautiful purple flowers whose name I never did find out? I am sure those younger than me would hold me in contempt for abandoning my electronic toys but we are quits, because I rather pity them for being unable to live in the moment and appreciate what is set out in front of them if only they had eyes for it.