Monday, May 4, 2009

The Secret Language.

It was a dusky evening with the clouds maintaining a persistent cover, seeming almost stubborn in their endeavor. They must have had a tiff with the Sun again and hence a sulky atmosphere prevailed all over the city. There had been a few showers early in the morning, but most of the time there was a pearly haze engulfing the place, as if my ruminations had taken on a worldly form. The showers had worried me, though they were scant. After several months, our family of four had finally been able to take time off to go out on a trip. We were to leave that afternoon, by a train, to a temple of Lord Ganesh near the Karnataka-Maharashtra border. I remember very well, our last visit to the ancient temple, almost a ruin. It lay nestled near a serene beach and had a Harrapan air about it. Back then, around twenty of us, on a North India tour, had arrived at the place comfortably by a private bus. The guide appointed by the travel agency had been a Kannadiga as well; I guess that was the “touch” the expensive company boasted of. When I had first seen the place, apart from experiencing the feeling of being transported in time, I felt a distinct overwhelming joy like that of a discoverer who unearths the existence of a heretofore unheard-of civilization but nevertheless brimming with untold stories and legends. It was untouched except by Nature who had outdone herself for the Sky to see and marvel at, with a million starry eyes. The two hours I had spent there performing puja had been one of the most unforgettable moments of my life, and as the rest of my family prayed for God to heal the world, the tumbling forest around me seemed to fold its leafy hands in a solemn silence and do its least: listen. Sometimes, that is a miraculous medicine for a tortured soul. It was time to go to this beautiful place again, and patch up portions of my soul that had been freshly torn up, since my last visit there, for reasons I never really seemed to understand. But in reality, almost everything that could possibly happen to detrimentally affect our visit was certainly happening already. Miraculous medicines are hard to come by.

My aunt, an ardent devotee, heard of our plans in the last minute, and wished to come along. Having braved the rain, the unwilling and the unreasonable auto drivers who conveniently demanded a double fee for transporting luggage, we were still faced with the problem of tickets. It had been my father who had rationalized that tickets could be bought on the way. But now, in the overcrowded, congested train- which was all the stuffier due to the weather- that seemed like a remote possibility. We managed to salvage an extra seat for my aunt between a fat lady whose face never left the window, and a little girl whose legs had caught a swing-to-and-fro virus. But it was a seat.

It was almost past sunset when the TT arrived. After a not-so-cursory glance at our tickets, he began enquiring after my aunt’s ticket in rapid Hindi. Everyone was blank. It was a different issue that my mum who was about the only one with any decent Hindi in our party was in the bathroom at that instant.

“Ticket dijiye” [Give me your ticket, please]

A befuddled aunt looked at my father. He had, of course, understood the TT’s words, but being poor at the language in which they had been uttered, he tried to explain the situation, in “broken-doken” Hindi as my sister aptly termed. The result: utter confusion and slightly indignant, raised voices traveling out of the window to the sky which had cleared as if all was now harmonious between the Sky and the Clouds- as if they perfectly understood each other, mocking the scene below. I silently wondered whether there was any language that helped clear issues without a word being spoken. An abrupt quiet jerked me back into the train, the TT as scribbling into his pad, and the issue seemed resolved. I learnt later that my extremely exasperated father had raised his hands in submission, and one of them had an extra hundred rupee note in them. It worked better than any explanation.

As the night’s wheel turned, slower than the train’s perhaps, the train halted at an intermediate station. My aunt needed to get down to buy a packet of biscuits, a bottle of water and other little ends. My offer to go along was immediately accepted and we found ourselves on a near deserted station. There was but one shop, a pittance of a thing it was, and it sold nothing. But a gleam of light betrayed a distant medical store. We were halfway through the murky blackness that swallowed the station between the petty shop and the med store, when it happened. A drunken man, with a life’s worth of stubble on his chin in a dirty lungi and an even filthier vest materialized out of the darkness and started bellowing at us. He brandished a blunt knife, not that the lack of sharpness diminished the weapon’s menace. The language he used seemed like fast Marathi with infusions of mutilated Hindi and I did not understand. But the message was clear. Frozen, I realized my aunt screamed as the man snatched her purse away and vanished into the darkness. A shaken aunt held me firmly on the way back, and once there, unscathed, I realized how close a brush it had been and shuddered as everyone else fussed around us. It’d take a while for me to recover from this nasty incident, but I still noticed, the stars were out and were smiling just as secretively as ever.

Late afternoon the next day, we reached the temple by a local bus. Since our last visit, a lot had changed. The muddy road that was as under-developed as ever was lined with several make-do shops, florists, self proclaimed tourist guides, tramp children trying to steal from visitors and a wide collection of beggars. The beautiful temple was sitting patiently, unchanged, in its nestling place as if unperturbed by all that had occurred, and continued to occur. If ever, it looked slightly tired, as if centuries of reasoning had fallen on deaf ears, and it no longer wished to try. On our way in, a number of beggars-who were grandly ignored by my aunt - and an organized shouting reached us. My mother, with her passable Hindi, gleaned that the government had proposed a demolition of the temple and the surrounding forest to build another temple in its place, with of course, the addition of the inevitable resorts and hotels that spread like a deadly fungi on damp ground, from a florist. She was zealous about the issue and my mum was only too happy to share her thoughts about capitalist mentalities of organizations that worked under the cover of social development and ended up contributing nothing more but another billionaire to the society. There was chanting in Marathi, Hindi, English and some other languages I did not recognize. A cloud passed over the Sun as we watched a Punjabi man donate thousands to save the temple.

A while later, we were done with the puja, and my younger sister was busy munching a piece of coconut on one of the temple steps when all of a sudden, a monkey appeared out of nowhere to lay claim to the snack. A man followed closely and tried to explain to my terrified sibling in Marathi that the monkey meant no harm. It took her a surprisingly short while to understand as much and befriend the monkey, despite her not knowing what exactly the man as saying. Soon, the monkey-girl duo sat side by side, munching in unison. My aunt arrived soon, disentangling herself from a horde of beggars, and with one look at the scene, rolled around with laughter, highly amused. It was then that a harsh wind suddenly blew, and knocked off the man’s shawl which had been his only protection from the elements, save his pitifully thin lungi and vest. The wind brought with it a disclosure- the man had no arms. But even shocking was how the nifty monkey forsook its piece of coconut immediately and rewrapped the shawl over the man’s shoulders, cleverly. Smiling at our expressions, the man turned to leave. The clouds thundered just as I watched my aunt hand him some money when she had denied all the beggars on the way to the temple and out, and we left in search of a bus.

The bus, on its way back to the station was swimming in a fog just as my mind was, in thoughts. Maybe there are languages that transcend man-made barriers, with long forgotten scripts or maybe even non-existent. A raised hand with a hundred rupee note had spoken the Language of Money, and had resolved the ticket conflict. The blunt knife at the station, had initiated a conversation in the Language of Fear. I wondered if that was all, if only such languages existed that promoted vice and if all was lost when a sudden thunder refreshed my memory. It was the Language of Friendship that had brought the monkey and my sister together, until the Language of Love silently spoken by the monkey-man made the ape return to its master, and its duty.

As the lightening struck, the Sun shedding light on all things, mortal, immortal, and momentary for a fraction of a second, a startling revelation gripped my eyes. A human chain of supporters were facing the storm, even as the khaki uniforms with proud stars that spoke firmly and loudly in Language of Power and Authority held them back. The Language of Power was being drowned by the soaked Marathi speaking people holding hands with Kannadigas and with people who spoke in several other languages I did not yet know of, as they whispered in the Language of Faith.

So, it’s true that there are languages with no words, no script and yet, spoke louder and clearer than any others. The Sun shone out, finally, from behind the Clouds. It was as if they understood each other perfectly again, but this time I had been let in on their secret. The rays of the Sun reached out like God’s hands caressing my face, they spoke in a mixture of languages –of compassion, cruelty, kindness, temptation, fear and love- “The Language of Life”. I reached home with a soul stitched back seamlessly, armed with a new weapon against the misgivings of daily life, the knowledge of the Secret language whose grammar is “understanding”. It is often punctuated with silence and translated by actions, which is truly beyond all barriers, linguistic or otherwise. They make the world a smaller place.

And so, I finally understood.


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