This summer my search for articles for Iris, led me to many unsaid aspects of life.
Have you heard of the name Ahilya? Those of you who are aware of Hindu mythology and stories of Ramayana will recall that Ahilya was the beautiful wife of sage Gautama. She was transformed into a stone by a curse of Gautama because of the debauchery of Indra the king of gods. Ahilya was freed from her stone form when Rama touched her with his foot.
I had heard this story as a child from my grandma and she used to narrate to me the story with so much religious fervor that at the very moment in the narration when Rama set his foot into the Gautama ashram , I used to clap and jump with joy.
However, that was childhood. Growing up, I hardly gave the story a thought, and I am sure even if I would have given it a thought it would mostly be cynical questioning the intention of all these men who could transform a woman into stone and human being alternatively at their own pleasure, just because they had the power to do so.
However, Ahilya the name came back to me in the flash of a moment in a strange way.
There is a Devi temple around 56kms away from Bhubaneswar towards Berhampore (south Odisha), called Ugratara. The temple is an ancient one and one has to go a few kilometers away from NH-43 in order to reach the shrine.
One afternoon we just decided to drive to the temple for the sake of a long drive. The heat in Odisha exceeds forty degree scale and humidity added to it makes life unbearable. Sitting in air conditioned cars and going for long drives are no great adventures or achievement in such a context. Anyway, we reached the temple around 4.00-4.30 pm with the extremity of the heat waiting to greet us the moment we stepped out of the car.
Bare-footed I ran across from the car to one of the shady corridors of the temple. I was angry about the selection of the time and the place for this drive and was muttering something against the travel in anger, when a lady came and stood before me with a large cane basket of red hibiscus flowers (supposedly a favourite of Devi) and some bilva leaves with her betel-nut stained teeth opening into a large smile. She was short, dark in complexion, with tattered saree, a large Kumkum on the forehead and a dab of rubbed-off kajal in the eyes. Irritated with the intrusion and the heat, I said “na! na! darkar nahin, ja tume” (not needed, you go from here). She must be in her early forties, not for a second perturbed by my angry resistance to her red hibiscus. She said affectionately, “na ma, mun phoola bikuni tate, tume nua asicha ta, seyithi lagi gote phoola neyiki jaa maa pakhaku, sabu dukha sunibe siye tora.” (transl: no daughter, i don’t mean to sell you flowers, you have come to this temple for the first time, take one flower to the goddess, she will listen to all your prayers) .
My cynical self refused to give-in and I said, “mausi jadi maa sabu dukha sunante tebe tume phoola biku nathanta” (aunty if the goddess listened to everyone’s prayers, you wouldn’t be selling here flowers). I knew these are tactics in almost all Indian temples to get you to buy stuff. She broke into an easy laughter and said,
“arre, arre, Ahilya mausi phoola bikiba payin phoola bikeni …tu eyi phoola ne aau jaa maa ku deyi debu. ” (Ahilya doesn’t sell flowers for the sake of selling, take these flowers for free and give them to the deity) and she pushed a long garland of flowers into my hand. That’s how the name Ahilya struck me — I liked her name and the way she pronounced the name as Ahalaya in colloquial Odiya.
Being in a hurry and because of the heat I thrust the garland into my mother’s hand, impatiently went to the shrine and came back from within the temple after a brief sojourn. I sat by the shady courtyard watching the mango grooves gently swaying by the early evening warm breeze. The lady came back to me after some time and inquired whether I had presented the garland to the deity, and I absent-mindedly responded with a ‘yes’ (she gave a look of satisfaction). She didn’t seem to be affected or perturbed by the heat. I thought that the heat is their natural habitat, so what big deal. I handed a 10 rs note to her in lieu of her flowers. She kept the money in a knot of her saree pallu and sat there in front of me gazing my face. I was not very surprised because in rural Odisha if you have an urbane dress-up (jeans and tee types) you are quiet often stared at. I got a little uncomfortable with her gaze because her eyes seemed to have a lot of admiration as well. It was a strange look — she looked at me with immense compassion as if she had a great treasure and I was the poorer seeker asking for some money or some benediction from her and her deity. I decided to start a conversation with her.
I asked her about her family and where they stayed. She said she stays in a village a kilometer and a half from this temple and comes early morning, sweeps the temple premises, collects flowers, makes garlands, and sells them. Very proudly she announced to me, that the priest himself requested her to make these garlands because they are so loved by the deity that she fulfills the wishes of the devotees who buy them. I asked her how much she makes in a day from this business, and she happily said “jiye jaha dela mun niye…mula bhava karena” (transl: whoever gives me whatever I accept, I don’t bargain), Rs. 40-60 rupees and sometimes on festivals Rs. 100 per day for the bigger garlands. With a smile she added that she has two sons, and a husband who is suffering from Tuberculosis and might die. I was surprised! How can someone die in the 21st century from TB? ?
I informed her that the medicines for TB are free and available in all local hospitals. She nonchalantly said that they had to buy those medicines and that food itself was so expensive what will she feed a TB patient, because TB needs a lot of food. She informed me that the deity is very kind and takes care of her husband and her children and never lets them go hungry for a day. Whatever she earns in a day suffices to help her buy ration for that day. She also added as an information that very big ministers, devotees, and business men come from the city and buy her garlands. “They become richer, get their daughters/sons married, or their political issues solved when they buy my garlands, and it is so satisfying to see them happy” . She kept the conversation on for a very long time, talking to me as if she knew me for a very long time. I requested her to allow me to take a few pictures of her and she very happily willed and posed for the camera with her flower basket.
It was getting late and the time to leave was at hand. My family had finished saying their prayers, their wishes, and their demands to the deity. Ahilya walked with us to our car and bid us farewell saying, “Ma toh sabu iccha pura karantu…eyi ahilya mausi ku bhulibuni” (transl: may the mother fulfill all your wishes…don’t forget this aunt of yours). I was surprised by her warmth and her nonchalant innocence — why do we with all the available resources, riches and power lack that basic humane-ness? On retrospect I feel sad and guilty — am doing nothing extraordinary or humane. I too am selling a story like many others in this profession, for Iris. You may call it selfishness or cowardice.
We drove away from the temple, but I’ll never forget the charm, the smile and demeanor of Ahilya in my life….