Sunday, January 31, 2010

'All is Well', but you must learn to 'live' life

One of the phrases that movie goers in India will keep repeating for a long time to come is ‘All is well’. Those who have seen 3 Idiots will know what it means. Whenever you feel something is amiss or if you are tensed up about something, you put your hand over your heart and say ‘All is well’. The heart or mind listens to those comforting words and gradually the tension eases. So, everything is in the mind really. If you can control your mind, you can control life and be happy as well.

The messages 3 Idiots wishes to convey, as I mentioned earlier, are not new or something fantastic. Recently, I was listening to a motivational speaker called Avis, who runs a reputation management firm call Image Equity. Some of the things Avis said echoed exactly what Aamir and the others in 3 Idiots had to convey.

Work – career – family – health – self. That is usually the order of priority for a human being. Reverse that order and bring ‘self’ first and relegate ‘work’ to the end, is what Avis stressed at a meeting of the Public Relations Society if India, Chennai Chapter. “Flip your priorities. Start looking at life first. Success is getting what you want. When you start looking at your life first, you will become more productive, successful and prosperous. To deserve, you must also serve, and then life takes on a whole new meaning,” he said, pointing out the difference between ‘living’ and ‘earning a living’.

For all that, Avis did not make it to B-School. He barely scraped through college – to save his parents embarrassment, according to him. Recalling how he had ambitions of becoming the most visible entrepreneur and the richest, and about a “nice business plan” he had prepared, Avis said that his business was not moving the way he had wanted it to; he was obviously a man in a hurry.

It was in March 2004 that Avis got introduced to his “teacher” – not a person, but the grim reality of life. “I had a tobacco habit, was a daily drinker. That day was my daughter’s birthday and I was in front of the doctor (for diabetes). I threw away the packet of gutka concealed in the car (after a grim prognosis) in the garbage bin. That night I woke up in my air-conditioned room to a meeting with my teacher (life).”

Life’s reality started staring at Avis more and more. “What is it that keeps a poor woman on the other side of the car with no money to buy milk for her baby? It is a choice-less entry we make, and a choice-less exit. We didn’t choose our parents. We all come with our expiry date. The only thing is we don’t have a bar-code reader, and the only choice is to live intelligently and walk the tightrope. We live as if there were no tomorrow. We live in an instant gratification world,” he said.

Avis understood that human life was usually dominated by fear, anxiety, desire for financial success and material possession. He realized that a lot of people had the opportunity to correct this. And one of the things he recommends is to maintain silence at least for an hour a day.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

3 Idiots: Nice film, but not quite a Cheeni Kum, and certainly not a Sholay

As I have mentioned a couple of times in earlier blogs, I do not watch an awful lot of movies anymore, at least not as many Hindi movies as I used to in the past. One of the reasons has to do with the kind of movies that have been churned out in recent years, complete with violence and gore and blood, and scripts without muscle. Of course, I do watch the odd movie such as Cheeni Kum, which I found wonderfully engaging.

Inspired by all the talk about 3 Idiots grossing more than Rs 300 crore in 18 days of its release and with Aamir Khan back in focus again on prime time television, I decided to “go for it”. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a fabulous effort by the winning team of Rajkumar Hirani and Vidhu Vinod Chopra. The film was widely advertised as a sort of ‘mother of Bollywood comedies’, but frankly I did not find myself bursting into splits of laughter at regular intervals.

Some of the reviews and people who have seen the film have exclaimed in superlative terms about the acting skills of Aamir and co. Not one to go gaga all so easily, I found the acting adequate, not superlative or anything of that sort. Indeed, the film didn’t need that kind of acting prowess. With actors like Aamir and Boman Irani, even Parikshit Sahni (an old favourite of mine as was his elder brother Balraj… remember Balraj in Ek Phool Do Mali?), you do expect a certain level of performance. And they have not disappointed here.

One of the highlights is, of course, Aamir not only playing the part of an engineering student (Rancho) effortlessly but also looking very much a student despite his crossing 40. Boman Irani scores with his gait, his slouch, his purse of lips and his lisping. Sharman Joshi as Raju Rastogi is just about all right, while Madhavan, as Farhan Qureshi could have done much better. His breaking into frequent bursts of laughter is irritating.

In all of this, Kareena Kapoor has hardly to do anything, except during that bizarre child-delivery scene where she, from her self-imposed exile elsewhere, implodes her sister to keep “pushing” and Aamir to do the right things, even if it means sucking the baby out, head first, with the help of a vacuum cleaner. Ever heard of such a thing before? And then Aamir dipping his head repeatedly inside the bed sheet to nudge the baby into proper position to get the vacuum cleaner started was actually sickening. Well, it’s a Hindi movie after all!

Coming back to Kareena, I sometimes wonder why actors as well paid as she is should essay such inconsequential roles. If it is to provide the oomph factor, she hasn’t been successful. She just passes off as a pretty young thing. That extra something that keeps your eyes riveted on a woman and makes you want her to keep appearing on every frame is just not there. Did I say I am looking forward to watching Ishqiya?

The 3 Idiots storyline is fine… at least there are a few pertinent messages. But the messages are not about things we do not know or haven’t heard before. Don’t all of us know that children in schools in India are a taxed lot? Don’t we know that they are often forced (by parents) into taking subjects they are not happy with? Don’t we know that many of them are afraid to open their mind and talk about what they actually like doing, petrified of fathers or mothers who are intent on driving them to work as slaves? What the film urges youngsters to do is to be bold and pursue what they want in life, like Farhan in the film pursues his love of photography.

I absolutely loved the name of the protagonist – Rancchoddas Shyamaldas Chanchad – and that of the professor as well – Viru Sahastrabudhhe. Wow! And also the name Phunsukh Wandu, who is what Rancho is really, as it turns out in the end.

Would I watch the movie again? No. Maybe months later at home on a DVD, or I wouldn’t care. With Cheeni Kum, the feeling was different – I had wanted to watch it all over again… and again. And with Sholay… well, I could watch it everyday. That’s what we call a classic, isn't it?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

How a GM in a school ordered the killing of stray dogs... 28 or 12, are we turning barbaric?

It’s lovely to take a break and unwind. I took one earlier this week and am the better for it, although looking after my octogenarian mother during travel kept me on my toes all the time. More later about my visit to God’s Own Country, to my hometown and the village where my mother grew up and played.

I was aghast to receive an email from Rajashree Khalap from Mumbai stating that 28 dogs (according to a report she had received) were brutally killed in a school in Chennai’s outskirts. The St John’s International School have earned a black mark and the authorities would have had a lot of answering to do if it was not for the fact that those killed were helpless stray dogs. Apparently, it was the general manager of the school who gave orders for the dogs to be killed. Why he chose that as the option instead of calling Blue Cross or some other NGO or even seeking the help of animal lovers is something that beats me as well as all those who have been sending emails back and forth on the subject.

Madhu Goyal, who I presume is based in Mumbai, in one of the emails wonders how the man could sleep at night after committing the horrific act. Others called for the filing of an FIR and the institution of criminal charges or prosecuting the general manager. I do not know whether these have been done. A Times of India report that appeared more than a week after the event mentioned about 12 dogs being killed, a substantial number nonetheless. I confirmed the incident with Dr Chinny Krishna of the Blue Cross here and he, too, was aghast and called for severe punishment.

Strangely, the general manager apologized to the Animal Welfare Board for his savage act, saying the street dogs were a threat to the schoolchildren. He said that it had happened out of his “ignorance and lack of knowledge”. My good God! Would you kill man or animal out of ignorance or lack of knowledge? In his apology email, the general manager, begging for mercy and pardon and advise and guidance, assures the Animal Welfare Board secretary that nothing of the kind would ever happen again. So, was he planning more such savagery if things had not surfaced?

Of course, street dogs are a problem. I have a nephew who is scared to return home late night after his office hours because there are street dogs on the prowl. I have heard stories from many others, including one from a senior journalist who has no sympathy for street dogs because he and others he knew were attacked. In the first place, street dogs do not survive in an area if they are not fed. So, the best option is to prevent people from feeding them. Killing is certainly not the answer. We have to learn to be more humane towards all living beings. Calls can be made to organisations or shelters like the Blue Cross if you have a problem.

In this instance, I heard later that the general manager had hired a gang to do the job. Obviously they must have been paid for it. How were the dogs killed? I have no confirmed information. In any case, since it happened on the school premises, it is all the more condemnable. It is quite possible that children studying in the school were exposed to the killings. Can you imagine the impact it could have had on innocent minds? Parents in the know would shudder to send their children to an school like this. For the simple reason that an authority in the school, no less than the general manager, is not able to understand what ‘killing’ really is. So, where is the safety for anybody really? Schools are places you would expect to find principals, heads and teachers with kind hearts. And here!

The animals have died and gone, the number is irrelevant. Some escaped. Those that did are likely to hate humankind and could turn savage when confronted. The general manager’s ‘solution’ has only aggravated the problem. And all for “lack of knowledge” and “ignorance”! It’s indeed hard to believe. With road rage and all kinds of killings and murders in cities today, the more pertinent questions is: Are we turning barbaric? Perhaps yes. And to think we are living in the 21st century!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

As Calcuttans mourn Jyoti Basu's death, the City of Joy shows the way

The death of Jyoti Basu and the crowds in Kolkata that thronged to pay their last respects to a man who many now regard as a statesman and father figure in Indian politics triggered quite a few thoughts in my mind. Basu’s death did not lead to a whimper of protest or holding of black flags or any show of negative emotion as such. Compare that with the happenings in Bangalore and the rest of Karnataka after the death of film stars Raajkumar and Vishnuvardhan. Three policemen were beaten to death as a result of public outrage, if I remember right, when frenzied crowds went on the rampage in Bangalore when Raajkumar died. Nothing of the kind happened in Kolkata, or Calcutta as I prefer to call the City of Joy.

When Indira Gandhi was assassinated and MGR died, Chennai, then Madras, was witness to hooliganism. I was then working in a factory in Tondiarpet and found it very difficult to get back home on both occasions, hitchhiking my way almost. So, why the difference in emotional outpouring, between what we have seen happen in the south and what has just been displayed in Calcutta? I can think of no better answer than ‘culture’ – the culture of a people. By this, I do not mean the cultural or literary heritage or richness. Certainly not. Each city and state has its own cultural and literary richness and diversity and we must respect it for that. What I mean is personal culture such as discipline, ethics, respect for others etc…

Calcutta has always been a special city for me, and not simply because I grew up there. Not because I am in awe of the Bengali Bhadrolok. Not because of the great variety of street food available at economical prices (where else would you still get an egg or mutton roll for less than Rs 10?) or the delicious masala chai served in a bhaand (clay cup) at street corners. Not really for all that as much as the respect Bengalis or Calcuttans show towards elders, women and children. For many at the lower strata being delighted with a two-rupee coin (where are the notes of yesteryear?) given to them, even a one-rupee coin. In Chennai, the old security guard who really does nothing, not even smile at you, is not happy with a five-rupee coin you give him as he saunters up to your car window. I admire Calcuttans for being happy with what they have, for enjoying the small pleasures of life, for living life the way they want, as laidback and casual as it may be. For respecting other people’s lives. And they showed that in plenty when they collectively mourned the passing away of a giant among them, a colossus no doubt, who perhaps made a bigger mark as a statesman in his last few years than he did when he was chief minister of the state for a record 23 years.

There is no doubt Basu contributed a great deal while in government. Without him, small and marginal farmers would perhaps never have got to own land and the panchayats would never have become, as they are meant to be, active institutions or a very important part of the decision-making process as they have in West Bengal.

However, my memories of Basu and his government are more about how we all lived in the 1970s and early 1980s without adequate electricity – long hours of power cuts were common in those days when I was a student. My memories are also of how one industry house after another left Calcutta because of the power cuts and labour unrest (rallies, hartals and lockouts were common then, and perhaps still are). With powerhouses such as the Goenkas and Bangurs, a lot could have been achieved, but that was not to be. So, the Tata Nano disaster in Nandigram did not really surprise me.

For all his statesmanship and unbroken record of governance, Basu was unable to break the shackles of agitating labour, arrest the flight of capital or get industry houses to stay. A major failure that will forever cloud his CV. By the time he realized that communist policies too have to suitably adapt to changing times, it was a little too late. The bus had already left the stand and West Bengal had lost out not one, but several golden chances of retaining the status of leadership state, and Calcutta the status of India’s premier city. Remember that Calcutta was once the capital of India, and for all that is said about Madras being the first city of modern India, it was around Calcutta that the romance of the Raj is wound.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Wake Up Sid scores with an honest portrayal of love

Work being as it is, I hardly get a chance to enjoy a movie in a theatre. Thanks to a generous relative, we were presented a DVD player and even then, it took more than two weeks to get it connected to the TV (I am so bad at these things). So, finally, when the DVD player was up and working, I chose to watch a movie after dinner past midnight. The relative was so generous that he ensured we had something to watch and, so, he had sent taped versions of some very popular films. One of them was Wake Up, Sid. And that was how I got to watch the film last night.

Being mostly from the old stock, born as I was in the early part of the heady Sixties, a decade that is hard to beat, I am often given to scoffing at the films of today – poor script, hardly any storyline or a predictable one at that, violence and gore, where are the real heroines, etc. Many films of the old days – and I am not talking about Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt’s films – had interesting plots and lovely songs with adequate doses of humour thrown in. So, I tend not to expect too much while watching any Hindi film nowadays.

Wake Up Sid, too, has hardly any strong storyline. It is a well-made film, with a simple, easy-to-understand script. Sid, the boy who really never grows up to be a man, meets Aysha at a college campus while clicking pictures of her. Rather unusually, she warms up to him almost instantly and they get talking. She is the new girl in the city of Mumbai (Bombay still sounds so much better) and he is the prefect first friend. He helps her settle down in rented premises, whitewashes and paints it to make it feel like home, and finds he’s happy doing all that. Sid does not want to get into his dad’s business; all he’s good at is whiling away his time and on occasions taking pictures. Eventually, when, after a showdown with his dad, he chooses to leave home, he has a refuge ready – Aysha’s place.

No, they don’t sleep on the same bed. Remember, he’s still a boy… and she thinks so, too. But now, she’s found work in a newspaper office. And, so, Sid looks after Aysha’s home. Life is not easy for him though. He messes up her place, can’t boil an egg, and prefers to starve the first day till she comes and rustles up something for him to eat. As he tries to please her, he learns. But somehow ends up ruffling her feathers every time.

Days pass and dad and son patch up. Sid is ready to leave for his own home. Aysha can’t bear to see him leave; she’d already become possessive about him, not able to tolerate his going out with a female colleague. Sid never really does grow up to be a man, enough to kindle the kind of feelings Aysha once tells her neighbour that she doesn’t have for him. But things have suddenly changed. And doing the trick is plain water. All that Sid does is squirt water all over Aysha and there she is, pursing her lips in that typical sensuous way, wary of his ‘manly’ presence. He himself can’t quite understand why she is behaving differently, but there you are – for Aysha, Sid is now husband material and the love of her dreams.

The ending is just as it should be – a tear-jerking hug and the words the audience want to hear. There’s no violence, no great song or dance routine. No great story either. The film’s success has to do with some good acting by both Ranbir Kapoor and Konkona Sen, and an effective and honest portrayal of the most powerful emotion on earth called love. May there be more films of this kind.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Give way to the common man, and provide better facilities and management please. Sabarimala deserves better. Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa...

Hundreds and thousands of devotees visit the holy shrine of Sabarimala every year. They not only come from all over India but also from various parts of the world. A couple of weeks ago, I was at the Chennai airport to receive my wife. At the international terminal, I was surprised to see scores of Ayyappa devotees, clothed in black, arrive by the Air Lanka flight from Sri Lanka.

Today, I was watching the Makara Jyoti on television, as I have been doing in recent years. I always wonder how exactly when the temple opens in the evening after puja, the light shines on the Ponnambala Medu or Kantamala where, according to legend, Ayyapa spent his last years before merging with Sastha or the lord.

How is it that despite the surge of crowds, television cameras only show devotees, most of them made of people from the Devaswom or temple management team, standing close to the sanctum (they do not carry irumudi kettus or wear black) with lots of elbow space and no jostling whatsoever? Today, for instance, right outside the sanctum was a devotee clad in all white, hands folded in prayer, who spent almost half an hour there without any policeman or temple staff pushing or shoving him. There were many others like him there outside the sanctum with all the space in the world. The question I ask is: why give these people special treatment when the common man or woman has to literally shove their way through gaps, to beat the surge of people all around before having a glimpse of the deity, if you are lucky, that is. And those who have the clout or are in positions of power or are part of the temple management in some way get to stand and gaze at the idol for as long as they want. Isn’t that totally unfair? Can’t the common man or woman have justice even at the doors of Lord Ayyappa?

And quite strangely, I noticed that television cameras, whether they be from Asianet, Manorama, Surya or good old Doordarshan do not pan so much on policemen pushing devotees away as much as on areas that are quite peaceful. Of course, the policeman’s job at Sabarimala is not enviable – controlling crowds anywhere is no easy task and at Sabarimala more so, when there are lakhs of people bent upon having darshan. And people can not to be faulted, too, for after all that is what they come for, all the way from homes far away.

Some newspapers reported a couple of days ago of vehicles to Pamba being halted several kilometers away because the flow of pilgrims at Sabarimala was too much to handle. Imagine the plight of all those who were stranded thus. Can’t adequate arrangements be made at Pamba and at Sannidhanam to ensure that large numbers of pilgrims can be accommodated, no matter how thick the flow? Why should vehicles be halted for hours together and devotees be caught unawares and made to suffer to make up for administrative inadequacies? Surely, the Devaswom is financially very well off and can afford necessary expansion (not at the cost of chopping trees and reducing forest cover though). With the peak pilgrim season happening only in the months of November-December, Devaswom authorities have ample time to set things right. And they’ve had all these years.

I have been visiting Sabarimala since 1984, although not every year. There are many more buildings now, more toilets and rooms, but not enough. There are still people who urinate in bushes and at tree stumps or defecate a distance away. Why does nobody stop them? Doesn’t a healthy environment matter here? What is done to dispose of the tones of garbage, waste food, plastics etc? Is it all done hygienically? Are the Pamba waters cleared of waste discharge and cleansed, as they ought to be? Are newspapers or magazines reporting about all this?

And we talk about climate change and global warming. Everybody has to be a responsible citizen, even if you are a member of the Travancore Devaswom Board or the Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam. With responsibility comes duty; with duty comes planning and devising strategies to shape things according to a system. Sadly, people in responsible positions more often than not appear ignorant of the basics. It’s only when a disaster happens that people wake up.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sadly, Madras Canine Club's dog show reeks of commerce; not this for me again

For long, I have wanted to attend a proper dog show, where you can see the various breeds on display. With the Madras Canine Club organising a dog show today at the university grounds in Chetpet, I made it a point to go. It wasn’t easy in the first place. The morning was taken up by the usual visit to the temple and the afternoon by a visit to an old colleague’s home. She had invited me for lunch; in her email she tempted me by saying she was a good cook. She didn’t disappoint though. There was chapatti and potato and salad and pulav topped with cashew. Followed by semiya payasam with cashew. It was nice talking about old times. We had all (25 of us) met for the first time in May 1985 when we joined United India Insurance Company Limited as direct recruit officers. I was one of the youngest in the batch and so was she. By some coincidence we happen to stay close by but have hardly met over the years in regular fashion. Our batch is planning a grand get-together in May this year, to mark 25 years of the batch. Our meeting today was to discuss how to go about once the venue was decided. At the moment, it looks like Yercaud but there are some who want to go to Munnar. Well, the lunch was heavy. A siesta would have been ideal, especially being a Sunday, which is my off day. But determined not to miss the dog show, I gave the siesta a miss.

I had half-wanted to take my camera along but the batteries were not charged. Not that I mind now. For, as I trooped out of the show, I was left wondering whether we need such events at all. Yes, the dogs were all lovely, or actually made to look lovely. While some owners (breeders and trainers really) kept brushing the dog’s coat endlessly, there were others talking about applying lotion to make the coat glisten. All the dogs I saw – there were more than a hundred – were panting for breath. The sun was warm and it was quite hot out on the ground. I saw ice cubes being rubbed on a Labrador, some pieces being stuffed into its mouth. Many dogs were confined to what looked like cages. Many others were restless, a few barking, not knowing what was happening.

I had expected to see families and children, but was quite surprised to see breeders, trainers, staff and assistants all over the place. The whole air reeked of commerce. A small trophy or award would catapult the animal into the big league and then the rate for the puppies in its litter (or fathered by it) would perhaps double. There were Great Danes, many of them, a couple of St Bernards, Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Dobermans, an Irish Setter, a Cocker Spaniel, a Spitz… The dogs were all well looked after but it was clear they were not relishing the experience at all, confused, scared and unable to bear the heat and crowds. Not only were they waiting for the event for hours, once led in they had to stand erect, display their teeth and gums, go round on a trot and stand to attention again – quite a regimen. The two judges had their hands full – both of them were wearing ties and I was wondering how they were managing despite the heat.

Well, there is no better time for a dog show in Chennai than in January when the temperature is the lowest in the year. Even so, the dogs were all finding it difficult. Perhaps there has to be a faster way of judging so that the animals are put to the least difficulty. During another recent dog show a dog had died due to dehydration and exhaustion.

The other thing that struck me was the commercial aspect of the whole drama. The event was literally taken over by breeders and trainers for most of whom the animals are only a moneymaking machine. I have no doubt that most of the dogs on display were from the kennels, not from homes as I had thought they would be. There were stalls selling all kinds of things for dogs - from Pedigree food to bedsheets and quilts. It was almost like a 'home-life' exhibition at the Kamaraj Memorial grounds, complete with a food stall.

At the Well Dog Show hosted by the Blue Cross last year where only Indian Dogs were exhibited there was hardly any breeder. Almost everybody had come with families and grandparents and uncles and aunts and friends. All the dogs, I'm sure, belonged to homes, and that is what dog shows should be all about. The air there did not smell of commercialism as it did today, and there were no stalls hawking stuff and announcements being made on the loudspeaker enthusing the crowd to buy them. Also, at the Blue Cross do, puppies were offered for adoption and many went home with a puppy, delighted. Not only that, there were children, passionate about animals, who were advising the new owners how to take good care of pets. It was all great fun. Today, that sort of innocence and fun was missing, and missing badly.

As I exited, I noticed a few people gathered around a typical breeder (many of them looked like spot boys, cameramen or stuntmen you see on film sets). He had a Labrador placed atop a basket. I asked him whether it was for sale. Rs 4,500, he said. I then asked him what was inside the basket. There was a Daschund for Rs 3,000, he said gruffly. I opened the lid to see. The poor, half-starved puppy was seated on newspaper wet with its own urine. The breeder then quickly tried to remove the paper and replace it with a dry one. Here were two suffering pups that were being hawked like commodities, and for prices that were definitely much more than what they were worth. Not surprisingly, there seemed to be no takers. But the troubling aspect was how breeding dogs had become so commercial. I shuddered to think how long those pups would have to suffer till they found good homes. Or would their luck tie them to one breeder after another till they were used to breed another round of pups?

I finally decided I would not go for such a dog show again. And I am happy that I didn’t take my camera along.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Poor she was, but rich in spirit. I'll miss her at the Ayyappan Temple

I have been a regular visitor to the Ayyappan Temple in KK Nagar for years now – since 1988, when the temple was so very different. The main deity then was a small idol; there was a photograph of Lord Ayyappa as well. In the sprawling campus, the temple then, if you could call it that, was just a small room towards the left corner at the rear.

Two unique features mark the Ayyappan vigraham here. A wax model of Lord Ayyappa was made in Tiruttani and, later, after its approval by the then thanthri, Kanipayoor Krishnan Namboodiri, the model was brought to the temple premises where it was then cast in panchaloka. In the temple, Lord Ayyappa faces west, according to the ashtamangalam prashnam, which revealed that the vigraham should face only in that direction. This is unusual as most Ayyappan vigrahams normally face east. The Ayyappan vigraham here is said to reflect roudra roobam (anger). And to calm that anger, a shrine dedicated to Vigneshwara was built to Ayyappan’s left, and Bhagawati, to the right, both facing east.

The KK Nagar Sastha Sangam was founded in 1977. It was with a framed picture of Lord Ayyappa, a portable padinettampadi structure and two vilakkus that members of the Sangham began conducting bhajans in Ashok Nagar, KK Nagar and MGR Nagar during weekends. According to R.K. Baratan, founder-president of the Sangham, C. Govindan Nair, former chief town planner, was the inspiration behind the temple. Eventually, eight grounds were purchased on a token payment of Rs 600 and an undertaking was given to pay the balance in installments over a period of six years. Construction of the temple then began, with sthapati Gomati Shankar from Shengottai and architect Kanipayoor Krishnan Namboodiri in charge.

A remarkable feature is that the temple organises annadhanam (poor-feeding) for more than 100 people on a daily basis. And the people who benefit are the poor and needy. I have seen old and infirm men and women eagerly waiting for 9am everyday to troop into the temple premises and get the handful of food. Over the years, I have seen the same faces…. some new but most of them the old and faithful. But there used to be one old woman with white patches on her face and hands who would refuse to enter the temple for food. She would often pick up fights with the others in line and one fine day the temple authorities apparently told her not to come again, and that was last time she ever did. She kept up her dignity till the very end. She would only stand outside, mornings and evenings, and wait until the temple closed for the day, accepting whatever money devotees gave her.

Every time I visited the temple, I would put a coin or two into her hands and she’d bless me, taking the name of Lord Ayyappa. Sometimes, I would see her walking back home (I am sure she had one) carrying her half-torn dirty pack of stuff. The last two or three times I went to the temple I noticed her absence. It was quite obvious because every time I came out after praying I would look out for her and there she’d be, and I’d walk up to her and give her some loose change. When I didn’t see her a few times, I thought she had taken ill and forgot all about it. Last week, it was my mother-in-law who mentioned about her having passed away. My mother-in-law would also, like me, give money to the old woman and noticed her absence. When she asked the flower seller outside the temple, she gave her the news. The poor old woman had died in front of the temple a few days earlier. What a glorious death!

My thoughts then went back and forth over the times she would receive what I gave her and bless me. There were even times she would ask me to drive home carefully. I went to the temple yesterday and today and kept looking at the spot she’d be usually standing. I know that every time I go there I will miss her.

There are some relationships you can never quite describe. She was not a friend, a sister, a mother or just any other old woman. Although she would stretch out her hands to devotees as they came outside, she was no beggar. She had a dignity all her own and was quite proud of it. Like mine, she must have touched many people’s hearts. She may not even have gone to school but she did have lofty thoughts. Perhaps Lord Ayyappa could not bear to see her suffer any longer and took her away. I’m sure her next life, if there is indeed one, will be happy and joyful. A life in which she would not be turned away from a temple, church or mosque but would be always welcomed with open arms. May your soul rest in peace, ma. I miss you.