Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Jungle Bells and Hoppy Christmas


It’s that time of the year again, the later half of December. Across most of India, the weather’s rather pleasant – even Bombay is reasonably tolerable as against being oppressively hot. In many of our work places, “Head Offices”, variously located across Europe and North America have come to a grinding halt – practically every second or third email pings back with an OOO auto-reply. Many here too have plans of long weekend getaways secured by appending a couple of days off from work to the Christmas weekend.

English movie cable television channels are awash with red and white ‘ho ho hos’, and as if to replicate said TV channels, 5 Star Hotels and Malls across the city sport illumination of the “Christmas lights” variety, have in their lobbies grotesque artificial fir trees festooned with baubles, often smattered with fluffed up cotton wool in an attempt to give it the appearance of snow.

Hmmm, nice. But why though? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Christmas. I wouldn’t touch those foaming at the mouth, Happy-Holidays-NOT-Merry-Christmas-opinionated, Letter-to-a-Christian-Nation thumping, rabidly evangelical atheists with a barge pole. But I cannot help wonder, who are all those hotels and malls pitching Christmas at? Do Christians in India throng to hotels and malls every December instead of celebrating with their families in the traditional way? And even if they do, is the Christian population of the country, at a little over 2%, a sizeable enough market to attract which all these hotels and malls deck themselves up so? Or are they angling for foreigners – tourists from Europe and North America who want to expend their holidays in ‘Incredible India’? May be they are – but I have not really noticed a visible increase in the number of foreign tourists at these hotels and malls around Christmas. And even if we assume that there indeed is a surge in the number of European and North American tourists around this time, do they really want to see fake Christmas trees and snow standing awkwardly in the midst of throngs of guests and shoppers milling around minding their own business? (On a very recent occasion when we were out for dinner, HRH was the only person in the otherwise busy hotel lobby who was paying any attention to the Christmas decorations.)

That Diwali is celebrated with great zeal – hotels, malls, shops and bazaars, all getting into celebratory frenzies – should come as no surprise. Other religious minorities in the country – Muslims, Sikhs, and even Buddhists are probably far more numerous than Christians; and as aggregates are a bigger target market – and yet we don’t see hotels, malls and shops decorated for Eid, Nanak Jayanti or Buddha Pournima! Even such minority groups as the Jains and Parsis, who can pack a financial punch way above their numbers, do not seem to have the privilege of having their main holiday celebrated by the temples of consumerism. That honour is reserved only for Christmas.

And that is precisely why these Christmas decorations irk me so – they have nothing to do with religion, they are far far removed from the Gandhian secular ideal of sarv-dharm-samabhav. I suspect they are hooked to Christmas because of its “life-style” associations. I fear that Christmas, by now, is intricately meshed with the Global Cosmopolitan Consumerist milieu, which wannabes across the developing world aspire for with acute longing. And I don’t think this near blind longing is a good thing for the developing world, I don’t think it is a good thing for Christmas either to be reduced and trivialised as a symbol of western consumerism.

And for this reason, I don’t quite like that Christmas tree, standing in that hotel lobby.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Jamboo-phalani, जम्बूफलानि


जम्बूफलानि पक्वानि
पतंति विमले जले
तानि मत्स्या न खादंति
जालगोलक शंकया!

3 poor brahmins from a village outside Ujjaini were on the way to the court of Emperor Vikramaditya seeking alms. On the way they passed by a picturesque stretch along the river bank where a tall Jāmbool tree stood laden with ripe fruit. They refreshed themselves with sweet fruit and cool water and sat down to rest in the shade of the large tree. Some fruit laden branches of the tree stretched over the water and from time to time, ripe fruit would fall into the clear water. They watched for a while and noticed that every time a jāmbool would fall in the water, several river fish would swim closer to the fruit and then dart away without eating!
Intrigued, the 3 brahmins described the peculiar occurrence –

जम्बूफलानि पक्वानि - ripened jāmbool fruit,
पतंति विमले जले - fall into the clear waters,
तानि मत्स्या न खादंति - them (the fruit), fish wouldn't eat,
जलमध्ये डुबुग डुबुग || ー'plonk', 'plonk', (they sounded) in the water!

They knew not why the fish never ate the delicious fruit. Puzzled they, went on with their journey to Ujjaini. As they queued up outside the Imperial shrine for alms from the Emperor, they noticed a court official talking to each alms seeker and handing them a coin. When the 3 brahmins approached the official he asked them what they sought. Ashamed to say they were seeking alms, the three said they had a verse to recite to the Emperor.
The official asked them to recite the verse, and the three recited:

जम्बूफलानि पक्वानि
पतंति विमले जले
तानि मत्स्या न खादंति
जलमध्ये डुबुग डुबुग ||

"Very nice, but the last phrase sounds crude!" said the official, "can't you refine it before you recite it for Emperor"? Looking sheepish, the 3 brahmins told the official what they saw by the river bank and how they did not know why the fish never ate the fruit. "Alright", said the official, "when you go to the Emperor, recite these 3 lines and at the end add this phrase - जालगोलक शंकया!

The 3 brahmins did as they were told. On hearing the verse, the Emperor smiled. He gave the brahmins a gold coin each as a gift and said, "O learned ones, the verse you just recited is very nice, but there is something different about the last line. Tell me did you really compose the complete verse?"

The 3 brahmins were again abashed, "O Mighty One, that court official over there, he changed the last phrase of our verse!" they said. The Emperor laughed and beckoned official who approached smiling. "Few can finesse a verse the way you can Kālidāsa!", said the Emperor.

जालगोलक शंकया! - (because they) suspected (the fruit) to be the round-weights of a net!

The tale, most probably is apocryphal; but by attributing the above lines to none other than Kālidāsa, (Sanskrit composer - known for such great works as Meghadootam, Shākuntala, and Kumāra Sambhava), they become difficult to forget!!

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