The little priest was not so little anymore. In fact he more or less towered over me. From a height of 6”2, he sternly regarded me for a few moments before briefly nodding his head. My presence had been acknowledged. I smiled weakly in return.
My first encounter with the little priest was about four years ago when I had to perform monthly rituals in the memory of my father. His father, the priest who usually helped me perform these rituals was of a soft spoken man who patiently guided me through the intricacies of the puja. He also didn’t mind the fact that my Sanskrit pronunciation was awful. The mantras which had to be chanted were complete tongue twisters that varied in pitch, speed, duration and to the untrained ear were total gibberish. He would utter a complicated shloka or mantra and then ask me to repeat after him. I would listen in quiet desperation and try in vain to form the words in my head. In response to his gentle prodding, I would hem and haw, stutter, pause and finally give him a mangled version of the original. He would then give me a kindly smile and move onto the next mantra. It was enough for him that my intentions were pure, what I uttered was not of much consequence.
One morning however called to and regretfully announced that he was busy elsewhere but that I was not to worry, his son was on his way.
“He is well versed in all our rituals; from birth to marriage to death” he assured me “I have trained him well so you have nothing to worry about.”
But I wasn’t worried. Over the course of a few months I had developed a dislike for these rituals. It was no fun to sit shirtless in front of a fire with the smoke stinging my eyes and the sweat running down my back as I muttered words I didn’t understand. Skeptical of the value of mechanically repeating mantras and tossing rice and ghee into the fire, I found the whole exercise a waste of time and money. My father was in my thoughts all the time; I didn’t need a ritual to affirm my respect for him. It didn’t matter who the priest was, I would be still be repeating the same mind numbing activities.
Thus when the bell rang, I went to the door without much enthusiasm. I had already resigned myself to another hour long session of playing parrot. Wearing an expression of indifference I opened the door and came face to face for the first time with the little priest. My eyes widened in surprise.
When the priest had said that he would be sending his son, I had automatically assumed that the son would be a replica of his father: soft looking, bearded, pigtailed, with a tummy around which smaller planets orbited. The priest’s tummy was a separate entity altogether. It ballooned out from under his chest, stretching taut over a vast curvature, struggling valiantly against gravity before resigning itself to fate with a sigh and curving gently into his waist. It always arrived before the priest, wobbling, jiggling and trembling with each step, parting the crowds like Moses parting the sea. I hadn’t however bargained for a stick thin twelve year old bespectacled kid who barely came up to my shoulder.
The little priest however seemed oblivious to my incredulous look. He stepped in with an air of confidence and bade my mother to bring the necessary items. My mother hurried into the kitchen immediately.
As we waited for my mother I studied him intently. His manner was nothing like a normal twelve year olds. He carried himself with immense dignity and had an enlightened air about him. What possessed this boy to conduct rituals and recite slokas instead of doing the things that normal twelve year olds do? Why did I feel hopelessly immature in front of him? He caught be staring at him.With an expression of grave intensity he returned my gaze without the slightest trepidation. I lowered my eyes immediately.
When all the items had been brought, we sat down on the floor and I waited for him to begin reciting. Instead he looked at me expectantly
“Come on, you can start now.”
“Don’t you know what you have to say?”
“How many times have you done this before?”
“Six! And you still don’t know how to begin??”
With a condescending expression he began to recite and I hesitantly repeated after him. I was squirming inside. It is one thing to be chided by someone elder to me and quite another to be accused of ignorance by someone half my age, especially on matters of faith and spirituality. Unlike his father, the little priest was not very forgiving about my poor pronunciation. Each time my tongue tied itself in knots; he would stop and glower at me. As we progressed through the ritual I became more and more conscious of myself, stuttering and stumbling over the simplest of mantras. I hated every moment of it.
The truth was I hated it because it forced me to face the fact that I knew nothing about the ritual and had never bothered to learn more. When his father was by my side I would start sincerely but my mind would begin to wander in a few minutes. There were even times when I fell silent and let him go on alone. Because his father had never chided me I had never felt inadequate. His son though made up for all the lost opportunity.
The ritual wasn’t the only thing I knew nothing about. I was vastly ignorant of most of what was expected of me as a Brahmin. I hardly wore my thread because it was uncomfortable and itchy, often slipping down my shoulder and pinning my arm to my side, especially when I was wearing formals. I have a morbid fear of dhotis and have never learnt to tie one by myself, always afraid that it would unravel and cascade down, revealing my naked legs and more to the world. I had never learnt my Abhivadai – my lineage which had to be recited to an elder or a priest as I bent down from my waist with my palms behind my ears. Each time I was asked to recite it, I would bend down, place my palms behind my ears and scowl until my grandmother or uncle recited it for me.
I know what you are asking yourself by now. Why doesn’t he just learn it all instead of complaining about it? Is it that hard?
For me it boils down to a question of faith. Try as I might, I have no belief in the rituals I am expected to perform. To wear a thread and sincerely perform every ritual and adhere to every requirement of tradition requires you to switch off your own questioning mind and conform to a preconceived notion of what the path to enlightenment is. I do not like to conform; I am not just a Brahmin, I am an individual, I am me. Why should I conform to someone else’s ideas?
Don’t get me wrong. I do not sneer at those who have faith. In fact I envy them because life is so much simpler for them. To have great belief relieves you of the torture of doubt. I would give anything to believe that the rituals I perform are significant.
I have an interesting relationship with my thread. During the times I do wear it; it gives me a sense of identity and tells me my place in the universe. It also fills me with a sense of history. I am a Vadagalai Iyengar, a ‘Tam Brahm’, a descendant of a priestly class – a bunch of people generally acknowledged to be highly educated, intelligent, cultured and very good at mathematics. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally indulge in intellectual snobbery. The thread is my personal key to the world of Rajagopalan, Balasubramanian, Mythili, maami, aacharam, filter coffee, curd rice, kutcheris, The Hindu, veshti, B.Tech, IIT, USA, MS and PhD. It is rather common for proud parents to talk of their children in the US – referring to Texas and Seattle with a certain nonchalant familiarity, as if they were talking about Mylapore and Ranganathan Street. This is my world. I am proud to be a Tam Brahm.
However it ends there. For all the pride that I derive out of being a Tam Brahm, I don’t for a moment enjoy the rituals. The significance attributed to the thread seems patently ridiculous and the heavy emphasis on the correct protocol is tiresome. Why must I sit for hours in front of a fire with the fan switched off and the smoke stinging my eyes? I do not like my love and respect for my parents to be measured by how well I repeat after the priest. Why am I simply doing what others think is the proper thing to do?
When I met the little priest this time to perform a Sudharshana Homam – a puja to bring good luck and prosperity, he had practically doubled in height. He had a man’s face and physique. His manner had become even graver. He made me feel flippant and immature in comparison. Luckily this puja did not require my verbal participation. All I had to do was sit and listen as six other priests recited with vim and vigor. As they chanted I found myself wondering what it would be like to be a priest. Could I resign myself to a life of smoke and fire and ghee and rice? Could I wear nothing but a dhoti all the time? Could I convince myself that what I uttered indeed had tremendous power? Would I feel more enlightened or would I be just another man going through the motions for a salary?
At the end of the puja the house was filled with smoke. We had lunch in silence, our eyes watering as we sat on the floor and ate off a banana leaf. The little priest had lunch with us and then left. I was glad to see him go.
Later as I went to visit a neighbor she told me that she had kept her doors open so that the smoke from our house could drift in.
“The smoke has great cleansing power you know? It drives away all evil spirits in the house. And the chanting creates a special vibration that is so good for the mind and soul! “ she exclaimed enthusiastically.
I smiled at her, wishing for a moment that I could believe too.