Monday, October 13, 2014

The old Gods haven't fled

A sliver of Thiruvananthapuram's skyline on an overcast evening
This was posted on Kafila a few days ago.

On a morning not long ago, chaya cup in hand, I was getting my regular Kafila fix, when I paused mid-click. What caught my eye was a headline with ‘Gods, Own and Country’ in it. Now that combination of words could only mean one thing — a piece on Kerala. It helped though that right below the headline was a picture of a Kathakali artist in sthree vesham or female makeup.
So I dived right into the essay on Thiruvananthapuram by Professor Mohan Rao. The first couple of lines had me grinning with delight for he wrote of his “four wonderful days” in the city, one that’s been my home for much of the past three decades. 
I was so pleased by this that I skimmed the next few lines. Only to be stopped in my tracks, almost spilling some scalding chaya on myself in the process, by the Professor’s declaration that “… Ganesha is not a deity widely worshipped in Kerala.” 
Now I’m no expert in Hinduism, but I do know that my extended, and very Malayali, family used to perform a ‘Ganapathy homam’ on a number of specific occasions; before moving into a new house, for instance. And this has been going on for decades. I also remember that both my grandmothers had an image of Ganapathy in their personal pooja spaces. Just to make sure that I hadn’t got my wires crossed, I checked with a couple of Malayali Hindu friends who confirmed that Ganapathy and Ganapathy homams were an integral part of their families’ religious landscape too. 
In fact, virtually every temple I’ve been to across Kerala has invariably had a Ganapathy shrine within. Why, the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple — arguably Thiruvananthapuram’s most well known place of worship — is home to the ‘Agrashala Ganapathy’. And around the corner from the Padmanabhaswamy temple is the ‘Pazhavangadi Maha Ganapathy Temple’. I believe it has been around for a couple of hundred years; since 1795 at the least. And for as long as I can remember, it is to Pazhavangadi Ganapathy that many Hindu denizens of the city, and from elsewhere, have turned to to smooth over obstacles or entreat a shot or two of good fortune.   
So why, I wondered, did the Professor believe that Ganesha is not “widely worshipped” in Kerala. And then it struck me — perhaps I had been misled all these years into believing that ‘Ganapathy’ is one of Ganesha’s several names!
At this point I decided that nourishment was required to fortify me to read the rest of the essay. Before I placed my order though, I took a few moments to toast the Professor for one of his inferences. He was on to something when he wrote: “Along the roads are posters of Ganesha, surrounded by saffron flags... Thus is the Shiva Sena announcing its presence in Kerala.”
In Thiruvananthapuram, over the past decade or so, Ganesha Chaturthi has evolved from a relatively low-key festival into a big, public celebration, with large Ganesha idols in temporary, road-side shrines and a procession to immerse the idols in the sea after 10 days of festivities. And yes, the Shiv Sena is possibly a major backer of this transformation. But is this cause for concern? I suspect not. For the Ganesha you encounter in Thiruvananthapuram is still a benevolent, lovable avatar. 
As I munched on some nibbles from Hotel Kavitha, my neighbourhood eatery, I learnt that the Professor had been struck by “the large number of vegetarian restaurants” in Thiruvananthapuram. So much so that he actually concluded: “While the local restaurants serving beef curry and appams also exist, they are clearly in a minority.” So astounding was this assessment about the sorry state of non-vegetarian cuisine in the city that I almost choked on my chicken kotthu parotta.
Yes, there are lots of vegetarian restaurants in the city. And yes, we enjoy the dosas and iddlis, puttu and kadala, chappathi and gobi 'manjoori' they dish out. But we love biryani, beef roast, fish curry, chilly chicken, chicken fry, shwarma and all those other delicious dishes that involve animals that were once alive, just as much.
Once again, I found myself wondering why! Why hadn’t the Professor spotted the scores of restaurants in Thiruvananthapuram, at various price points, that cater to our need for meat. In fact, if he’d ventured on to the city’s streets after sundown, he would have found it tough to dodge the ‘thattukadas’ that own the night with some of the best non-vegetarian cuisine in the city.
And for all the ‘arya’ named veggie restaurants that the Professor spotted, he appears to have missed the ones with ‘arul’, ‘saravana’ or ‘udupi’ worked into their names. This isn’t the “North Indian-Hinduisation of India” he believes it to be. It’s just clever restaurateurs trying to leverage the power of strong restaurant brands like Tamil Nadu’s Saravana Bhavan and Thiruvananthapuram’s own Ariya Nivas, which has been around for decades.
By now I found myself wondering whether the Professor had actually visited the city I live in. I know that residents often tend to overlook the familiar and that it is the visitor or outsider who notices things we take for granted. Yet, what was illuminating about the Professor’s essay was that he seemed to zero-in on some things, but was oblivious of other things that are equally, if not more, visible.
Let’s say I, like the Professor, had returned to Thiruvananthapuram after 30 years. What I’d probably notice is that so many men, let’s say ‘84 per cent’, seem to have eschewed mundus for trousers and jeans. But not the Professor, who was more struck that The proportion of Mallu men without moustaches seems to have reached an unprecedented two per cent.”
Similarly, I’d notice the diversity of the clothes that women in the city now wear — more salwars, churidars, skirts and jeans. The Professor, though, declares: “Strikingly almost all Hindu women now wear bindis — hardly anyone did earlier — and a shockingly high proportion wear sindoors …” I don’t know about sindoor, but I did wonder how the Professor concluded that “all Hindu women” in the city wear bindis. I, for one, know many who don’t, just as I know many Christian women who do.
I empathise with the Professor’s discomfort at having to remove his footwear to enter the Sree Chitra Art Gallery and the Kuthira Malika Palace Museum (which he mistakenly calls the “museum of the Sri Chitra Thirunal Palace”). I couldn’t share his distress at this practice though, since I believe the ban on footwear in both institutions is about protecting their rather fragile, old floors. And we should try to take care of our heritage, shouldn’t we?  
As I worked my way towards the end of the Professor’s essay, I remembered the paragraph I’d skimmed over at the beginning. So I returned to the lead to read about the “thick lush greenness everywhere” that the Professor saw from his seventh-floor hotel room. Something I won’t quibble with — Thiruvananthapuram is certainly greener than many other Indian cities, with fewer high rises marking its skyline.
But then, the good Professor gave me another jolt, declaring there are Hardly any high rises, an occasional mosque, temple or church rising above the green.” This is a bit of a stretch. From my seventh floor apartment it’s not “an occasional mosque, temple or church rising above the green” I see, but regular lines of apartment towers and commercial buildings sprouting out of the green to the north, south and west. And yes, the eastern reaches of the city are relatively greener, but even there I spot more concrete fingers breaking through the green every few months.  
The Professor’s next observation, though, was a sucker-punch. “But not that many apartment blocks,” he wrote, “Unlike Bangalore, the ones that have come up are not named Malibu Towers or Sacramento, but Revi Apartments.” While he is right that Thiruvananthapuram has fewer apartment complexes than Bangalore, not all of them are named like the ‘Revi Apartments’ he encountered. On one stretch of road I know rather well are a ‘Melody’, ‘Symphony’, ‘Alpine Heights’ and ‘Marigold’. And elsewhere in the city you’ll find a ‘Wimbledon’, ‘Carlton’, ‘Tivoli’, ‘Swiss Town’, ‘Kingswood’ and ‘Mayfair’. The Professor is spot-on about one thing though — there’s no Malibu Towers or Sacramento in Thiruvananthapuram. Yet.
And no, the old Gods haven’t fled. They’ve just retreated to the shadows to allow the new demi-Gods their time to Trend or be Liked.

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