When gods lived on Walls, Alcoves and our Hearts….religious practices in Simla of Sixties
We are getting our home constructed, at last, at Palampur. We bought a semi-constructed house so the floor plan is that of the earlier owner. There is no Puja room, but that is not my lament as I have grown up in a house where the gods, in the form of pictures, used to live on the walls as the floor area, was for us, the mortlas or the children of the lesser god! Even when the pictures of gods had to be hung on the wall in glass frames by nails, they would have to vie for the star space with the pictures of the ancestors. What a beauty it was to have power to arrange and rearrange the pictures as per our desire. As various pictures of gods adorned our walls, we, the kids, had a feeling that they were keeping a strict vigi on us…making it difficult for me to steal anything in the small house. Where was the need to have a camera installed in the house when the gods would do this work. It was like moral policing, all the time in action, to moralize us. I could feel the eyes of the gods in those pictures following me everywhere. Sometimes when I wanted to read some romantic novel, in the guise of a book, hidden behind a newspaper cover, I could see the gods looking at me scornfully. When I would apply a little of Afgan Snow cream on my face when Amma was not home, they would ogle at me. What to say, even eating the layer of cream on the milk would be noticed by them. I had no freedom, whatsoever, in their benign presence. And their tribe would go on increasing as on every Diwali one more picture would be added to the wall. It was very recently that my hypothesis of gods keeping an eye on us, was proved by an American woman scholar. I knew it so well even when I was ignorant about scholars researching on such topics.
We would have an incense lit up in the evening which my sister and I take turns everyday to take before all the gods…I don’t know what my sister asked for but I always asked for forgiveness for indulging in many things which the gods had been witness to during the day! After placating the gods we would take that incense to a small wooden box which was our Puja box. This Puja Box would be sitting comfortably in an alcove in the wall and above it Amma would put all the much needed documents like the electricity bill, ration card and our school report cards. I could not take gods lightly as they could make or mar my position in the class if I offended them in any way. Here would be brass figures of gods and goddesses –Ganesha, Durga, Vishnu ect. Purchased from the bartan bhandar at the famous shop near the stairs to the Baljees. It had a brass stand for putting the incense stick, finally. By all this time the incense would have deposited dry, grey ash which I would put on the forehead of all the members of the family, as being the youngest it was my privilege. And lo we had taken the blessings of so many gods in just one go.
Once in a month, all those brass figures of gods would be taken out, put on a clean big brass rimmed plate and we would take turns to shine them using the ash from the angeethi. I would make them shine to the best of my capacity as it was my way of seeking forgiveness for my acts of offence.
I was in a reverie when our Architect asked, once again, whether or not we need a Puja Room? I Thought hard, “was there a need for one?” and reflecting on my childhood contemplated, “were we any less religious than others who had big Pooja rooms?” My architect tried to put sense in my dumb little grey head, “but as you both are old, you need a Puja room to sit and indulge in Pooja-path.” Some logic, he sure, did have, but how does sitting for long hours in a Puja room would make me a better human being, except perhaps giving me painful knees? I thought of my Lower Bazaar neighbourhood where so many people from diverse backgrounds, religious practices coexisted amicably. I went to Arya Smaj Mandir on every Sunday to attend Havan, ran to the Radha Krishna temple in the Gunj to participate in Kirtan; even if prassa was the motivating factor, and while there read all the Radhe-Radhe and Hare Krishna names adorning the walls of the temple. Tuesdays were for the Kali Maa temple though the prasad remained an added factor for our weekly visits. Not only this, went to Gurudwara as and when we went to the Cart road, and to the utter surprise of my acquaintances, we played in the Masjid, Saudagaran di Masjid, in the Middle Bazaar as one of my friends Neera Khanna lived there. We played, while surreptitiously watching the Azaan being recited at the prescribed time. A quick peep inside the Christ Church on the zRidge and dittting on the las benches there was a part of our game. We were such believers in all-dharmas that there was no need to have a Puja room even if we had the space for that. What to say of kids even Pandit Ganga Sagar, after daily puja of his Shaligram, would come out of his tiny home in the alley next to ours, to have a gupp-shuppp with his neighbours across, the Hatos. There was no apprehension of desecration of his dharma. We had abundant love in our big hearts for everyone in that small universe of our neighbourhood where human values and compassion for all reigned supreme, along with, of course the gods in framed pictures hanging on the walls in a line, viewing for space with our ancestors, and keeping a strict vigil on the erring kids, much to the relief of our overburdened mothers.!!