Friday, April 9, 2010


(This series of 3-4 collections of my reminiscences I had written some time back. I thought bringing it to Blogs will bring it more permanency than keeping them in the hard disk where they might get corrupted. Hope you will like them.)

Some Insights

I had my school education in a town in U.P. which had a sizeable Muslim population. A number of students in the school were Muslim. While going to the loo, a number of them picked up a clay ball or a small piece of soft stone with absorbent quality. Some of my classmates used to sneer at this practice. Later when I was in a district with significant Muslim population, the Mayor told me that clogging of public toilets was one of the problems they faced in their upkeep, primarily because of this reason. This practice has obviously come from the dry parched Arab countries. If you have come out of the dry summer heat of noon time in the northern part of the country where you had profuse perspiration, you will know the rationale behind it. In the loo the urine will have a dark yellowish colour. Now in the white apparel of the Arabs, the stain would be very visible. The chances of getting the stain is more with circumcision. Incidentally circumcision also has the same hygienic reason in a desert country.
The same is the explantion for the practice of wajoo which the Muslims do before namaz. The shape of the vessel used (which is called gadua) with long, narrow and curved outlet stem ensures that minimum water is used.
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It was only a few decades back that joint families existed, warts and all. In large houses there used to be a room well inside which was used by the new mothers. This was used by the number of daughters-in-law and daughters who came to parental home for delivery. It used to be occupied as such for major part of the year. In Hindi it was called sauri. Not many members were allowed in, only those who were really needed. Men were especially excluded. Also at least for six days mother and the new-born were untouchables. In retrospect I realise that it was the ancient version of a sterile ward. Excluding men who had to go out and could easily be the carriers of infection is also understandable.
One looked forward to all the sweets made of dry fruits and gum which were made for the new mother. A simple case of heavy protein supplementation for the mother to recoup the loss.
The reason behind isolating the lady having period and not allowing her to participate in the daily domestic chores in a joint family is only to give rest to the lady during that period. Although the poor ladies of yore hardly had any of these after she weaned away one child and became pregnant again. Remember Taj Biwi?
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During my school days, much was made of the foolish Indian farmer who instead of using cow dung as manure used it as fuel, especially slow fire for warmth during the winter, and in the kitchen for various purposes. Typical colonial mentality! The dried cowdung cake used a lot of agricultural waste which was utilised for good purpose. And nobody gives credit to the poor Indian farmer for the amount of wood, forest and bio-diversity saved by using this simple substitute for fuel wood.
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Ho Chi Minh had once started a movement in his country which he named ‘Eat well-cooked food and drink boiled water.’ With a typical Keralite food, the water you get is warm and has a lot of herbs in it. It is yellowish in colour. And Keralites have the lowest death rate in the country.
Marriages in my part of the country were performed mostly during summer. A custom of a typically agrarian society. Marriages were solemnised after the harvesting season was over: people had money and spare time. At the bride’s place there were two types of feasts; kachcha khana and pucca khana. The latter was for large gathering- it consisted of puri, kachaudi and boiled spicy vegetables which had been on the fire for some time. A very scientific way of saving the food from infection. The kachcha khana was for a limited number of people- people who had come in the marriage procession of the groom- a much smaller number. It was also called bhatwaan as rice and dal were served- the food was more homely and mainly cooked by ladies of the household..
And now medical scientists have discovered that fresh coriander leaves have a lot of disinfectant qualities- particularly effective against salmonella- the main cause of food poisoning all over the world. Remember that the grandmother used coriander leaves in all the curries including dal. Agreed that she thought that it was mainly for fragrance and garnishing. But were our ancestors aware of its medical qualities as well?
Another custom for which I haven’t been able to find a solid reason is bathing with warm water even during summer. This practice is prevalent in entire Goa and probably most part of the Konkan coastal region. I can think of only that it is used to soften the hard water. Another reason could be that in the coastal region this could be one of the ways to save you from arthritis. My osteo-arthritis flared up after spending my 2-year tenure in Mumbai, after that I had to go for a knee transplant.
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In the north, especially in eastern U.P. and Bihar, swings are tied on trees only during the rainy season: sawan ke jhoole pade. And swings at home are most prevalent in the coastal regions of the country. You need breeze to dry out your sweat during hot and humid climate of these areas and during the rainy season in northern India, and it is easier to be get it on a swing than to wave a hand fan.
I probably don’t have to explain the reason behind the immersion of Durga, Kali, Saraswati and Ganesh idols after 10 days. Thousands are spent on the idols. Well, where do you keep them after the festivities are over? The practice adopted is the simplest solution.
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Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. You don’t hear it anymore: children burn the midnight oil, especially during the exam time. Those days it was the best way to utilise to the maximum the light of the day for working. In my village where I used to go during summer vacations which included the beginning of the monsoons, the ploughmen started their work at dawn, and had a siesta during the hottest part of the day. So is the case with the labourers who do the earthwork on the road and the rural tanks both new and for desilting.
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Westerners use toilet paper (where are the environmentalists?), and look down upon the Indians who use water. However, Indians use left hand for it , whereas for all other functions, especially eating, they use right hand. An excellent way not to allow E-coli to pass into your food. That could be the reason why left-handedness was frowned upon earlier. You may not find any epic warrior or archer of Ancient India who was a lefty. You have started seeing lefties only now, probably due to western influence, and it is mostly fond in the upper bracket of the society. In the lower strata you hardly come across one.
When I was at Bastar for 2 years, I was told that hill abujhmarias, a primitive tribe living in the hills who are opening up to civilization only now did not wash after defecating. And probably the first thing that our extension officers taught them was to clean their b***** after the act. I understood the reason much later when I had already moved out of Bastar. Being a dry hilly area, they had very few sources of water, small natural ponds and pools being the main source. And they did not want to pollute that water.
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India must be having the largest number of vegans in the world. Europeans are mostly non-vegetarian. So are the tribals of India, and natives of Africa and South America who live in or very near the forests. In a cold European country with snow and ice for many months, there is no alternative to eating flesh. And the fertile river valleys of India are so full of edible greens. They say that Air India survives because they only know what true Indian vegetarianism is. Hats off to Gujaratis! And see how Bengal criss-crossed by rivers and dotted with village ponds have Brahmins eating fish. Tell it to Namboodiris, Aiyars and Ayangars! God’s own country is lush green. And they have a large number of meat-eating population which means in this case fish–eating. You are enchanted even when your plane is losing height to land. And they have plenty of root crop also (tapioca).
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“Nilambuj shyamal komalangam, sitasamaropit vambhagam” and “gore nand, jasoda gori, tum kat syam sarir”. Two most important deities of Hindus Ram and Krishna are depicted as dark-skinned. Krishna is even called Ghanshyam: dark as black cloud. And I am not aware of any Siva stuti which mentions him as light-skinned. Both Sita and Radha are light-skinned. Were the most important deities of Hindu religion shown as dark-skinned so that they are more acceptable to the Dravidians? My guess is yes.
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Yagyopavit used be one of the important rites in the life cycle of a man of high caste in India. One of the photographs that Jawaharlal Nehru included in his autobiography was of the occasion of his yagyopavit. I think this was a crossover from the stage when you switch to wearing clothes than remaining nude. Lifting the sacred thread at the time of going to the loo is symbolic of removing clothes when you go for the act of little finger or more (compare it to the Muslim habit of carrying an absorbent stone to the urinal- both have hygienic reason behind them).
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There is no English equivalent for the Hindi word ‘jootha’. Hindu hygiene generally demands that you should avoid drinking or eating out of the vessel which has been touched by the mouth or lips of somebody else. South Indians go to the further extreme of drinking without touching the vessel containing the liquid. And for eating, to the extent possible use disposable banana leaves. Have you seen the typical metal coffee cup (now mainly steel) which has edges which curve outside? You drink coffee by tilting your slightly upwards. You can see English westerns where those adventurers and the heroes drank out of the same bottle without even wiping the neck. Muslims have the tradition of eating out of the same plate. You might have looked cynically at this practice, but can you say the same after AIDS has been discovered?
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For a normal man (or woman) who is slightly overweight, who likes his food, has a sweet tooth, and isn’t in the habit of regular exercises, although he does walk for miles and hours when on trips or tours, age knocks on his door gently. First at the age of forty, your doctor tells you that you suffer from hypertension. You start taking some mild drug for it. And start doing some sort of exercise. At forty five you start having backache and the doctor tells you some exercises which strengthen the back and abdominal muscles so that your spine has to take lesser load. Same for reducing weight which he says is the root cause of all the evil. At fifty you have hit your shin against your bed and you find that the wound is not healing on its own as it used to do earlier. You again go to the doctor and he asks you to go for some blood test, and you are diagnosed with what they fondly call adult onset diabetes (Type II). You have to regulate your diet and possibly take some oral medicine. The gastronomic delights are gone for ever. Reduce weight. Well, life goes on. At the age of 58 or 59 you suddenly discover that while waking your knees pain a little bit. You don’t care. Go to hell, how many medicines you keep on adding to your daily diet? I forgot, in the meantime you started taking a regular dose of some vitamin and beta carotene. Well, you can’t hide away form your bodily degeneration. The knee pain worsens, and the doctor first says it is wear and tear, but later say that it is osteo-arthritis. If you are bold and adventurous you go for a knee surgery. And then the doctor advised you to do some exercises to strengthen your thigh muscles so that your knees take less load. And advise you that if you use a walking stick, it will save your good knee for some time. And I will not mention the unmentionable fact of falling testosterone level. And at the ripe old age of 60, wisdom dawns on you. Regular exercise, strengthening back muscles, strengthening thigh muscles, regulated diet, no excesses. Why did somebody not tell you these things in your formative years? When probably you could have taken steps to see that these things never happened. And didn’t our father and grandfather started using the walking stick at forty?
Let us admit, man was not supposed to live beyond the age of 60 at the max. It is the modern medicine which is keeping us alive beyond that age, but at a cost, and at a much reduced level of activity. Good old days we had four ashrams in life, brahmacharya, grihastha, vanprastha and sanyas. The third stage meant that you lived like a hermit even while living in the joint family. And if you are unlucky to go beyond the age of 75, God help you. You were supposed to leave the domestic bliss, and live in the forests and wait fo the day when the yamadoots appear to take you away.
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Are you aware of Sharda Act? That your daughter cannot be married before the age of 18? Well bring it to the typical Indian rural context. The daughter is married as soon as she attains puberty. That could be 15-16. She might be married even at an earlier age, and then there is gauna which is distressingly being called second marriage. It is when after a few years she finally goes to her father-in-law’s place. In the lonely environs of the village when men are working in the fields, and where the womenfolk have to go to the sugarcane or arhar fields to ease themselves, the problem of keeping the chastity of the unmarried daughter secure is a real problem for the parents. And especially when the (unbroken) hymen is embedded so deeply in the minds of the Indian male.

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