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Life as I'm learning it

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Location: Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, United States

"It little profits that an idle king, By this still hearth, among these barren crags, Match'd with an ag├Ęd wife, I mete and dole Unequal laws unto a savage race, That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me."

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Notes of a Nomad - III

[This is the third part of this four-part travelogue. Here are the links to parts one, two and four.]

Over lunch, we learnt two things: that the food wasn't as good as we expected it to be, and that the other teams (expletive, expletive, expletive) had all done some part of their journey by air. Some random talk made us get over the food, which was gulped down voraciously for one single reason: it was our lunch, and it was already four.

Congratulations were pouring in from all directions, and it made me wonder what I had done to merit them. Binay arrived just as we getting up (or getting over) from the table, and informed us that Konark - and not Puri - would be our destination, given the limited time we had at our disposal.

Our bias that the Sun was a secondary God made us issue veiled protests; but he was acting in our best interests; Puri, he said, had 108 temples (wow!) and we couldn't see everything in one evening. But suddenly, something came over him and he announced that we would head to Puri. His mother and sister, who were leaving to San Francisco in a week's time would join us too. It should have been 5 PM when we left the Binay household and headed to fulfill our tryst with Jagannatha, the Lord of the Universe.

The road from Bhubaneswar to Puri has something to offer to everyone. The endless fields, a blanket of green and the occassional water-body that would draw an "Ooh!" and an "Aah!" from a person who adores the beauty of nature. Or the dormant Dhauli, the place to which Ashoka - the once blood-thirsty emperor - led his army and slayed a nation beyond mercy, so much that to this day, no one knows who the slain king was or who led that sorry army. Or the Daya river, which even today seems to carry the horror and the sorrow of that age, when it turned red with the blood of the Kalinga warriors. Or Pipili, a small town lined with shops that sell appliques and nothing else. Or Sakhigopal, which according to Binay's mom, is the place where the Lord appeared as a witness to protect one of his devotees. Or countless inconsequential villages where nature is so brimming with life that one could jump off the car, rush into the fields amidst the mild drizzle, kiss the ground and shout "Vande Mataram!" (Salutation to you, Mother Earth!)

From even a good 7 - 8 kilometres away, we can spot the high-rise spire - the gopura - of Puri's main temple. Incidentally, Puri is on the sea; I was told that the beach - though incomparable with Chennai's Marina - is quite a good place for a stroll. We entered Puri by about 6:30 PM, and headed straight into a palatial bungalow. It was inhabited by the Superintendent of Police of the Puri district. He was Binay's uncle, and this man would engage and enthrall us for the next few hours.

Once into the house, our host made us feel at home, though this home should have been more than a 100 years old. Oh what history this house, inhabited by successive civil servants for more than a century, must have seen. We felt even more at ease when we learnt that Mr. Superintendent had graduated from the same college as we had - and they say the world is wide! After a brief stint at one of India's top engineering companies, he had made the shift to the Indian Police Services (IPS), which is second only to the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) in the pecking order.

Predictably, the discussion turned to the Services (short for Civil Services; once India's most respectable profession, it has fallen into bad times for many reasons: corruption, inadequate remuneration, economic liberalisation in India...) "So, why is there widespread corruption?" asked I, eager to get the insider's view. The reply covered more aspects that I would have imagined. He said that the system in India is such that it encourages corruption. Contrary to what is imagined, corruption starts at the ground level. It is small and hence acceptable. But this spreads to each layer above it, and no one at a higher level would take lesser money than a subordinate. Thus corruption increases on a geometric scale making those at the highest level world record holders!

But what I am giving you, he continued, is an excuse. The fact is that you cannot beat corruption in the system, because if it could have been defeated, it would already have been. People who have qualified for the top-notch services have come through by beating the best (which is true, because the UPSC exam is one of the toughest in the world). So, they can be innovative enough and further their own interests. Morality should come from within. The day you start taking money, your respect levels will come down. Even the man on the street will mock at you. But once you establish a reputation of being fair and clean, trust would follow.

He classified corruption into two categories: collusive and coercive. No one complains against collusive corruption - in fact, it is considered okay, because it helps get the work done. For example, a guy woule willingly pay a bribe in excess of Rs. 10,000 to register a land. Coercive corruption is the opposite - money is extracted from a person unwilling to part with it. For example, the selfsame person would crib about dishing out a hundred rupee note to the local police constable to lodge a complaint about his missing motorcycle. Though the money involved in the latter is minuscule compared to the former, the nature of the bribe and the taker change the perception of the giver. This is the reason why the police force should distance itself from corruption.

So why did quite his plum job and join the Services? The reason wasn't that of a cinematic altruist. A career in the Services was rewarding in more ways than just one. The pecuniary benefits might not match those of the new-gen jobs, but the scale of operations and the power one can wield added to the difference one can bring about tilted his reasoning to the Services. Plus, he said, Orissa is a backward state and hence the role of such people assumed more significance. The discussion continued on similar lines for more than an hour, and some other topics which came up were time-bound promotions and the NDTV-induced controversy that IITians and other engineers should not take to the Services (only a super-intelligent mediaperson like Mr. Rajdeep Sardesai can create a ruckus out of a non-issue).

And then we embarked on the last mile of our journey - our tryst with Lord Jagannatha was about to commence. The temple complex is quite huge. Outside the chariots used for the rath yatra - one of the most important festivals in the Hindu calendar - were being dismantled. Each year new chariiots are constructed for the rath yatra. The temple houses many sannidhis - smaller shrines - dedicated to different deities of the Hindu pantheon. Each has a legend associated with it; for example, the sthala vriksha - the sacred tree - is said to have a direct link with Heaven and that anything one wished while touching this tree would be communicated immediately.

a view of the gopura by day

The sanctum sanctorum houses three deities - Balabhadra (or Balarama), Subhadra and Jagannatha (Krishna). Their form is made of wood, which is quite rare but not unique (the form of Lord Anantha Padhmanabha Swamy of Thiruvananthapuram is made of wood). There are legends aplenty about how the shrine came into being and why the Lord chose this as His abode. One line is that the Lord was worshipped in some remote part of Orissa and that a cunning Brahmin discovered this and clandestinely brought the Lord to Puri. Another is that the king Indradyumna, after a dream, ordered that a temple be established here. Vishwakarma, the divine architect, appeared as an old man and offered to fashion the deities if he was left to himself for 21 days. This was accepted to, but after 14 days, the King learned that no sound came from inside the locked sanctum. In a fit, he ordered the door be broken open, and found to his dismay the half-completed forms of the deities and the architect gone. To this day, the forms are half-completed.

the main deities... Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannatha (with Sudarshan chakra)

To a Southie like me, this seemed an unconventional form. I'm more used to seeing Vishnu in His reclining posture (like in Srirangam) or His standing posture (like in Tirupati), sporting thiruman on His forehead. But this was a learning trip for me, one full of discovery and here I was trying to discover the Protector, our Universal Father. Another striking difference I found was the absence of a queue system. Even the not-so-crowded temples down south have a queue system and you are herded away from the Lord's presence after a short time (which tends to about 5 seconds in Tirupati). Puri was a revelation in that way too. We should have spent almost 45 minutes in His presence, and a good 15 minutes of that in the inner sanctum!

Jagannath, and his brother and sister, are treated like normal human beings in this temple. Hence there is no strict waking-up or going-to-bed time. Our host, who doubled up as a guide, informed us that the day began with the brushing of the Lord's teeth and then a mirror would be shown to Him and He would be asked to see if His dents were proper. (Incidentally, there is a belief that the form of Lord Jagannath contains some of the dental remains of the Buddha; some opine that it might contain the unburnt heart of Krishna.) When we were in the inner sanctum, the Lord was being prepared to be put to sleep, and so chandan was applied on His form. A priest was shouting something as if to inform, "Oh Lord, we are applying chandan on Your divine form..." Ah, what a magical experience!

After paying respects to other deities, most notably Goddess Lakshmi, the divine consort, and partaking of some prasad, and dinner at a local restaurant, we made our way back to Bhubaneswar. This was a day to behold. A million thanks are due to Binay, his mother and sister. In Fish, the author suggests that the best way to help someone is to make their day. Mr. Saumyendra Priyadarsi, of the Indian Police Services, alumnus of CEG, Superintendent of Police of Puri and a very affable man had done just that. The guards at the company gate weren't as affable when we entered the campus. But that was understandable. It was 12 AM. Another day had begun.

[To be concluded...]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you mentioned on coercive corruption is often called Speed Money, in which we have to pay a cut, even to make a normal routine job quickly, which is prevalent at lower levels like RTO or a Taluka office.

Of course, this can happen without the collision among the various hierarchies within a given level.

8/30/2005 07:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Preethi said...

Fantastic description, especially of the journey to Puri - I could picture Ashoka's army killing a thousand enemy warriors turning the river to red. way to go.

9/04/2005 08:21:00 PM  

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