by A. K Ramanujan
translated from Kannada
by Narayan Hegde
"A.K. Ramanujan taught in the University of Chicago's South Asian Studies department for many years. Narayan Hegde is a professor of Comparative Literature, State University of New York, Old Westbury,
New York." -- c. j. s. wallia]
Annayya couldn't help but marvel at the American anthropologist."Look at this Fergusson," he thought, "he has not only read Manu, our ancient law-giver, but knows all about our ritual pollutions. Here I am, a Brahmin myself, yet I don't know a thing about such things."
You want self-knowledge? You should come to America. Just as the Mahatma had to go to jail and sit behind bars to write his autobiography. Or as Nehru had to go to England to discover India. Things are clear only when looked at from a distance.
"Oily exudations, semen, blood, the fatty substance of the brain, urine, faeces, the mucus of the nose, ear wax, phlegm, tears, the rheum of the eyes, and sweat are the twelve impurities of human bodies."
-- (Manu 5.135)
He counted. Though he had been living in Chicago for years, he still counted in Kannada. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven ... eleven ... eleven.... At first, he could count only eleven body-wastes. When he counted again, he could count twelve. Yes, exactly twelve. Of these twelve, he already knew about spittle, urine and faeces. He had been told as a child not to spit, to clean himself after a bowel movement and after urinating. Whenever his aunt went to the outhouse, she took with her a handful of clay. She cleaned herself with a pinch of clay. As long as she lived, there used to be a clay pit in the backyard.
In the southern regions of the country, wind instruments like the nagaswara were considered unclean because they came in contact with the player's spittle. And so, only Untouchables could touch or play them. Thus, the vina, the stringed instrument, was for the Brahmins; and the rest, the wind instruments, were for the low castes.
Silverware is cleaner than earthenware; silk is purer than cotton. The reason was that they are not easily tainted by the twelve kinds of body-wastes. Silk, which is the bodily secretion of the silkworm, is nonetheless pure for human beings. Think of that!
What a lot of things these Americans know! Whether it means wearing out the steps of libraries or sitting at the feet of saucy pundits or blowing the dust off old palm-leaf manuscripts, they spare no effort in collecting their materials and distilling the essence of scholarship. Annayya found all this amazing. Simply amazing!
If you want to learn things about India, you should come to places like Philadelphia, Berkeley, Chicago. Where in India do we have such dedication to learning? Even Swami Vivekananda came to Chicago, didn't he? And it is here that he made his first speech on our religion.
"Of the three kinds of bodily functions that bring impurity, the first one is menstruation. Parturition/childbirth causes a higher degree of impurity. The highest and the most severe impurity is, of course, on account of death. Even the slightest contact with death will bring some impurity. Even if the smoke from a cremation fire touches a Brahmin, he has to take a bath and purify himself. No one, except the lowest caste holeya, can wear the clothes removed from the dead body."-- (Manu 10.39)
"The cow being the most sacred of all the animals, only the people of the lowest of the castes eat the flesh of the cows cadaver. For this very reason, the crow and the scavenger kite are considered the lowest among birds. The relationship between death and Untouchability is sometimes very subtle. In Bengal, for instance, there are two subcastes of the people in the oil profession: those who only sell oil are of a higher caste, whereas those who actually work the oilpress are of a lower caste. The reason is that the latter destroy life by crushing the oil-seeds and therefore are contaminated by death." - - (Hutton 1946:77-78)
He had known none of this.
Not that he hadn't read a lot. Many a pair of sandals had he worn out walking every day to and from the university library in Mysore.The five or six library clerks there were all known to him. Especially Shetty, who had sat with him in the economics class. He had faded the previous year, and he had taken the library job. Whenever Annayya went to the library, Shetty would hand him the whole bunch of keys to the stacks so that Annayya could open any book-case and look for whatever book he wanted.
The bunch of keys was heavy because of the many keys in it. There were iron keys which, with much handling, had become smooth and shiny. Ensconced amidst them were tiny, bright, brass keys. Brass keys for brass locks. Male keys for female locks. Female keys for male locks. Big keys for the big locks. Small keys for the small locks. And there were also a few small keys for big locks and some big keys for small locks. So many combinations like the varieties of marriage which Manu talks about in his book. Some locks were simply too big for their cupboards and so they were left unlocked. Others were nearly impossible to unlock. You would have to break open the cupboard if you wanted to get at the one book that beckoned you tantalizingly. Who knew what social-science-related nude pictures that one book contained!
When he was in Mysore, much of what he read had to do with Western subjects, and they were almost always in English. If he read anything at all in Kannada, rare as it was, it would probably be a translation of Anna Karenina or a book on Shakespeare by Murthy Rao, or ethnographic studies done by scholars who, were trained overseas, in America. But, now, he himself was in America.
"The knowledge of Brahman austerities, fire, holy food, earth, restraint of the internal organs, water, smearing with cow dung, the wind, sacred rites, the sun and time are the purifiers of corporeal beings." - - (Manu 5: 105)
To learn about these things, Annayya, himself the son of Annayya Shrotry, after crossing ten thousand miles and many waters, lands and climes, had to come to this cold, stinking Chicago. How did these white men learn all our dark secrets? Who whispered the sacred chants into their ears? Take, for instance, Max Mueller of Germany who had mastered Sanskrit so well that he came to be known among Indian pundits as "Moksha Mula Bhatta." He, in turn, taught the Vedas to the Indians themselves!
When he lived in India, Annayya was obsessed with things American, English or European. Once here in America, he began reading more and more about India, began talking more and more about India to anyone who would listen. Made the Americans drink his coffee; drank their beer with them. Talked about palmistry and held the hands of white women while pretending to read their palms.
Annayya pursued anthropology like a lecher pursuing the object of his desire- -with no fear, no shame, as they say in Sanskrit. He became obsessed with the desire to know everything about his Indian tradition; read any anthropological book on the subject which he could lay his hands on. On the second floor of the Chicago library were stacks and stacks of those books which had to be reached by climbing the ladders and holding on to the wooden railings. Library call number PK 32 1. The East had at last found itself a niche in the West.
"Why do your women wear that red dot on their forehead?" the white girls he befriended at the International House would ask him. He had to read and search in order to satisfy their curiosity. He read the Gita. In Mysore, he had made his father angry by refusing to read it. Here he drank beer and whisky, ate beef, used toilet paper instead of washing himself with water, lapped up the Playboy magazines with their pictures of naked breasts, thighs, and some navels as big as rupee coins. But in the midst of all that, he found time to read. He read about the Hindu tradition when he should have been reading economics; he found time to prepare a list of books published by the Ramakrishna Mission while working on mathematics and statistics. "This is where you come to, America, if you want to learn about Hindu civilization," he thought to himself. He found himself saying to fellow-Indians, "Do you know that our library in Chicago gets even Kannada newspapers, even Prajavani?" He had found the key, the American key, to open the many closed doors of Hindu civilization. He had found the entire bunch of keys.
That day, while browsing in the Chicago stacks, he chanced upon a new book, a thick one with a blue hardcover. Written on the spine in golden letters was the title: Hinduism: Custom and Ritual. Author, Steven Fergusson. Published, quite recently. The information gathered in it was all fresh. Dozens of rituals and ceremonies: ceremony for a woman's first pregnancy; ceremonies for naming a child, for cutting the child's hair for the first time, for feeding the child solid food for the first time; for wearing the sacred thread; the marriage vows taken while walking the seven steps; the partaking of fruit and almond milk by the newly-weds on their wedding night. (He remembered someone making a lewd joke: "Do you know what the chap is going to do on his wedding night? He is going to ply his bride with cardamoms and almonds, and he himself will drink almond milk in preparation for you know what!") The Sanskrit chant on love-making which the husband recites to the wife. The ritual celebrating a man's sixtieth birthday. Rituals for propitiation, for giving charity; purification rituals, obsequial rituals, and so on. Everything was explained in great detail in this book.
Page 163. A detailed description of the cremation rites among Brahmins, with IIlustrations. What amazing information this Fergusson chap had given! There was a quotation from Manu on every page. The formulae for offering sacrifices to the ancestors; which ancestral line can be considered your own and which not. The impurity that comes from death does not affect a sanyasi and a baby that hasn't started teething yet. If a baby dies after teething, the impurity resulting from it remains for one day; if it is from the death of a child who has had his first haircutting ceremony, the impurity is for three days. The ritual concerning a death anniversary involves seven generations: the son, the grandson, and his son who perform the death anniversary; the father, the grandfather, and the great-grandfather for whom the anniversary is performed. Three generations above, three generations below, yourself in the middle. The book was crammed with such details. It even had a table that listed the number of days to show how different castes are affected by death-related impurities. Moreover, if a patrilineal relative dies in a distant land, you are not subject to the impurity as long as you have not heard the news of the death. But the impurity begins as soon as you have heard the news. You have to then calculate the number of days of impurity accordingly and at the end take the bath of purification. The more Annayya read on through the book, the more fascinated he became.
Sitting between two stacks, he went on reading the book. All the four aspects of the funeral ritual were explained in it. All these years, Annayya had not really seen death. Once or twice, he had seen the people of the washerman's caste, a few streets from his own, carry in a procession the dead body of a relative all decked up. That was the closest he had ever come to witnessing a death. When his uncle died, Annayya was away in Bombay. When he left for America, his father was suffering form a mild form of diabetes. But the doctor had assured him it was not life-threatening as long as his father was careful with his diet. His father had suffered a stroke a year-and-a-half ago. It had left his hands and the left side of his face paralyzed. Still, he was alright, according to the letters his mother routinely wrote in a shaky hand once every two weeks. In her letters, she would keep reminding him that every Saturday he should massage himself with oil before his bath or else he would suffer from excessive heat. In cold countries you have to be careful about body heat. Would he like her to send him some soap-nut for his oil baths?
When a Brahmin is nearing his death, he is lifted up from the bed and is placed on a layer of sacred grass spread on the floor, his feet toward the South. The bed or the cot prevents the dying person's body from remaining in contact with the elemental earth and the sky. The grass, however, is part of the elements, having drawn its sap from the earth. It is dear to the fire. The South is the direction of Yama, the God of Death; it is also the direction of the ancestral world.
Next, the Vedic chants are uttered in the dying person's ear. And panchagavya--a sacred mixture made from cow's milk, curds, ghee, urine and dung--is poured into his mouth. A dead human being is unclean. But the urine and dung of a living cow are purifying. Think of that!
Then there were the ten different items: sesame seed, a cow, a piece of land, ghee, gold, silver, salt cloth, grains and sugar. These ten have to be given away as charity. When a man dies, all his sons have to take baths. The eldest son has to wear his sacred thread reversed as a sign of the inauspicious time. The dead body is washed and sacred ashes are smeared on it. Hymns invoking the Earth Goddess are sung.
Facing the page, on glossy paper, there was a photograph. The front veranda of a house in the style of houses you would see in Mysore. The wall in the background had a window with an iron grill. On the floor of the veranda lay a corpse that had been prepared for the funeral.
The dead man is God. His body is Lord Vishnu himself. If it is that of a woman, then it is Goddess Lakshmi. You circumambulate it just as you would a god and you offer worship to it.
Then Agni, the sacred fire, is lit and in it ghee is poured as libation. The dead body gets connected to the fire with a single thread of cotton. The big toes of the corpse are tied together and the body is then covered with a new white cloth.
There was a photograph of this also in the book. There was that same Mysore-style house. But in this photograph there were a few Brahmins, with stripes of sacred ash on their foreheads and arms. The Brahmins even looked vaguely familiar. But then, from this distance, all ash-covered Brahmins of Mysore would look alike.
Four men carry the dead body on their shoulders. After tying the corpse to the bier, the corpse's face turned away from the house, the funeral procession starts.
The corpse is then taken to the cremation grounds for cremation. Once there, it is placed, head toward the South, on a pile made out of firewood. The toes are untied. The white cloth covering the body is removed and is given away to the low-caste caretaker of the cremation grounds. The son and other relatives put grains of rice soaked in water into the mouth of the corpse and close the mouth with a gold coin. Excepting a piece of cloth or a banana leaf over the crotch, the corpse is now naked as a newborn baby.
Where would they get a gold coin? These days who has got so much gold? Would fourteen-carat gold do? Do the scriptures approve it? he wondered.
The eldest son, then, carries on his shoulder an earthen pitcher filled with water. A hole is made on the side of the pitcher. Carrying it on his shoulder, the son trickles the water around the corpse three times. Afterwards, he throws the pitcher over his back, breaking it.
There was a photograph of the cremation too. Looking at it, Annayya became a little uneasy because it looked somewhat familiar to him. The photograph was taken with a good camera. The pile of wood built for the cremation: the corpse, and a middle-aged man, the front of his head shaved in a crescent, on his shoulder a pitcher with water spouting from it; trees at a distance, and people.
Wait a minute! The face of the middle-aged man was known to him! It was the face of his cousin, Sundararaya. He had a photographic studio in Hunsur. How did this picture come to be here in this book? How did this man come to be here?
On the next page, it was a photograph of a blazing cremation fire. At the bottom of the photograph were printed the hymns addressed to Agni, the God of Fire.
" OAgni! Do not consume this man's body. Do not burn this man's skin. Only consign him to the world of his ancestors. O Agni, you were born in the sacrificial fire built by this householder. Now, let him be bom again through you."
Annayya stopped in the middle of the hymn and turned the pages back to look again at cousin Sundararaya's face. He had no spectacles on. Instead of his usual cropped grey hair fully covering the head, the front half of the head was tonsured into a crescent just for this ritual occasion. Even the hair on his chest had been shaved off. He wore a special Melukote dhoti below his bulging navel. But why was he here in this book?
Annayya turned to the foreword. It said that this Fergusson chap had been in Mysore during 1966-68, on a Ford Foundation fellowship. It also said that, in Mysore, Mr Sundararaya and his family had helped him a great deal in collecting material for the book. That is how the photographs of the Mysore houses came to be in the book. Once again, he flipped through the photographs.
The window with the iron grill--it was the window of his neighbour Gopi's house, and the one next to it was the vacant house that belonged to Champak-tree Gangamma. Those were houses on his own street. And that veranda was the veranda of his own house. The corpse could be his father's. The face was not clearly visible. It was a paralysed face, like a face he might see under running water. The body was covered in white. The Brahmins looked very familiar.
The author had acknowledged his gratitude to Sundararaya, his cousin: he had taken the author to the homes of his relatives for ritual occasions such as a wedding, a thread-wearing, a first pregnancy and a funeral. He had helped him take photographs of the rituals, interview the people, and tape-record the sacred hymn. He had arranged for Fergusson to be invited to their feasts. And so, the author, this outcaste foreigner, was very grateful to Sundararaya.
Now it was becoming clear. Annayya's father had died. Cousin Sundararaya had performed the funeral rites, because the son was abroad, in a foreign land. Mother must have asked people not to inform him of his father's death. He is all alone in a distant land; the poor boy should not be troubled with the bad news. Let him come back after finishing his studies. We can tell him then. Bad news can wait. Probably all this was done on the advice of this Sundaru, as always. If Sundaru had asked her to jump, Mother would have even jumped into a well. Three months after Annayya came to the States, two years ago, Mother had written to him that Father couldn't write any more letters because his arms had been paralysed. Who knows what those orthodox people have done now to his widowed mother! They might even have had her head shaven in the name of tradition. Widows of his caste cannot wear long hair. He became furious, thinking about Sundararaya. The scoundrel! The low-caste chandala! He looked at the picture of the cremation again. The window with the iron grill. The corpse. Sundararaya's head shaved in a crescent. His navel. He read the captions under the pictures again.
He turned the pages backwards and forwards. In his agitation, the book fell flop on the library floor. The pages got folded. He picked up the book and nervously straightened the pages. The silence there until now had been broken by the roaring sound of a waterfall, a toilet being flushed in the American lavatory down the corridor. As the flushing subsided, everthing was calm again.
He turned the pages. In the chapter on simantha, the ceremony for a pregnant woman, decked up like Princess Sita in the epic, wearing a crown on her head, his cousin's daughter Damayanti sat awkwardly among many married matrons. It was her first pregnancy and the bulge around her waist showed that the pregnancy was quite advanced. Her father, Sundararaya, must have arranged the ceremony conveniently to coincide with the American's visit so that he could take photographs of the ceremony. He must have scouted around to show the American a cremation as well. And he got it, conveniently, in his own uncle's house. 'How much did the Fergusson chap pay him?' wondered Annayya.
He looked for his mother's face among the women in the picture, but didn't find it. Instead, he found there others whom he knew: Champak-tree Gangamma and Embroidery Lachchamma. The faces were familiar, the bulb noses were familiar: the ear ornaments, the nose studs, the vermilion mark on the foreheads as wide as a penny, were all familiar.
Hurriedly, he turned to the index page. Looked under V: Veddas, Vedas, Vestments. Then under W: Weber, Westermarck, West Coast ... at last he found Widowhood. There was an entire chapter on Widowhood. Naturally. In that chapter, facing page 233, was a fine photograph of a Hindu widow, her head clean-shaven according to the Shaivite custom, explained the caption. Acknowledgements: Sundararao Studio, Hunsur. Could this be his own mother in the photograph? A very familiar face, but quite unrecognizable because of the shaven head and the edge of the saree drawn over the face. Though it was a black and white photograph, he knew at once the saree was red. A faded one. The kind of saree only widows wear.
Sundararaya survived that day, only because he lived 10,000 miles away, across the whole Pacific Ocean, in a street behind the Cheluvamba Agrahara in Hunsur.