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Why Hindu rites make me recall theatre of absurd and Backet's Waiting for Godot

By Rajiv Shah
As I was student of English literature for five long years (1970-75), doing my BA (Hons) and MA course from Delhi University, I (quite like my classmates) never read anything about a term towards which I was to become fascinated in late 1970s -- theatre of the absurd – apparently because it was a French concept. Coined by critic Martin Esslin in his 1960 essay "Theatre of the Absurd", at that time I had only vaguely knew that it pertained to post-World War II plays written by European playwrights.
My curiosity for theatre of the absurd especially arose after I saw the Hindi adaptation of a French play by Samuel Backet, "Waiting for Godot" in a theatre in Mandi House, Delhi, where I used to see lots of plays. That was late 1970s. I was told it was one of the top plays which was considered part of the absurd genre. In this play, two characters wait for the arrival of someone named Godot, who represents the ethereal, the unknown, maybe a god. The Godot never arrives, even as the two engage in a variety of absurd, disconnected discussions.
I had almost forgotten about Godot and theatre of the absurd after I went to Moscow for my Patriot assignment (1986-93), but strangely was often reminded of it in Ahmedabad as and when I would be made to attend a Hindu religious rite, be it marriage or death. Till I reached Ahmedabad, I may have attended several marriage parties and funeral processions, but I don’t remember "participating" very closely in any of those rites.
In Delhi, when we entered our new house in Sukhdev Vihar, my parents organized a simple bhajan instead of organizing those rites in which a pandit would be central. During my marriage, which took place in Ahmedabad, those rites did take place, but I was least interested in any of them, so much so that my brother took my photograph showing I was yawning while I sat in the marriage pandal. My parents, both Gandhians, didn't much believe in those rites.
After returning from Moscow in 1993, these rites became more frequent and “necessary” to attend, because, I was told we should “live in society.” I am not sure which rite involves what, but all that you may possibly need would include supari (areca nuts), a few “sacred” leaves, dried out thin branches, small balls made out the wheat flour dough, rice, wheat, kanku, milk, curd, fruits, water (meant for pandit to sprinkle around you), a few utensils to keep all of them, etc., etc.
I myself performed one such pooja in Porbandar, where my paternal uncle, kaka, had died. He was married to Vinodiniben, my kaki, sister of Manuben, a Mahatma Gandhi niece. They had no issues, and my kaki's family members called me to Porbandar for performing the rites on the 13th day. To my utter embarrassment, the pandit (whose forefathers, he told me, were pujaris of the Gandhi  family) asked me why was getting involved in the rite. "After all, Gandhiji never believed in such rites", he asserted.
I replied to the pujari, rather sheepishly, guilty of violating the Mahatma dictum: “My relatives wanted me to do it, hence I decided to perform the rite. You see, I had no choice.” The pujari smiled, looked at me suspiciously through his old, round specs, and began the ceremony, which took place next to the sea shore.
Be that as it may, recently, following the death of the grand old lady, whom I have venerated for four decades, and about whom I have already written in another blog, I had to “sit and watch” the rite for the 13th day of the sad demise. It’s supposed to be called tervi. This ceremony, involving a pandit, I suppose, is held in order to make you feel “at ease” with with the world.
When I reached there, the ceremony had already begun. The son of the grand old lady was sitting on the floor in front of the pandit and he was doing all that the latter asked him to do. A janoi was put around him, which he was told to move from right to left after a particular mantra or “sacred” utterance, all in Sanskrit. One of the young ladies in the ceremony was asked to make dough out of wheat floor, and prepare exactly 47 round balls.
What are these balls meant for, to make puri? I asked this young lady, who sat by me while making those round balls. She smiled at my ignorance, but said, each ball is called a pind. A pind? What’s that. Knowing that I am a confirmed atheist, an elderly woman replied with a smile, “A pind is a pind. It has to be given to the maharaj, why do you want to know more?” I again inquired what is this pind meant for. This young lady finally told me: “Each one represents each of our ancestors. So we remember 47 of them.” Finally, these pinds were handed over to the pandit.
The pooja continued for nearly two hours, during which time the pandit would ask the young man to repeat a few of the mantras, which he would do without understanding any of it. I don’t know if the pandit knew the meaning of what all he was saying in Sanskrit by way of mantras, but, I recalled what a Sanskrit scholar with the ability to look at things a little objectively, as telling me, “90% pandits performing pooja don’t know the meaning of the shlokas they utter. All of them cram them up, and know which ones are meant for which rite, that’s all.”
The young man was asked to give the name of his ancestors – he told the pandit all the names he remembered, with his relatives helping him out for the rest. The pandit asked him to pay respects to each of them by bowing down to the pinds, which he had spread around. The numbers naturally didn’t tally, as it was impossible to remember those that precededed the third generation – so the tally of 47 was reached by the pandit naming the rest as “Ganga”, “Jamuna”, etc.
After the pooja was over, the pandit showed up his worldview. According to him, only males could sit in such pooja. If the son wasn’t there, then the son the paternal uncle is “allowed.” And if he also not there, then the son of maternal uncle would do. But it has to be a male, not a female. Then he said, there was a difference between the way a pooja was carried out in a Brahmin family and others’ families, pointing towards how the former was of a “higher” type.
The pandit, who thanked the family for which he performing pooja after he received a handsome “dakshina” (I never cared to know how much it was, but I found the pandit pretty pleased), further said, “There was a time when all members of all four varnas could preside over such a rite, whether Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra. Over time, others stopped wearing janoi, only Brahmins continued wearing it, hence having such a right.”
I thought, that was pretty casteist. But he seemed to correct himself promptly. He said, “Things have changed over the years. All are equals”, something for this he quoted Bhagwat Geeta, which he explained meant that ultimately all four varnas dissolve into one, “which shows that all are humans, are equals.” Great! Of course, I didn’t expect him to include in the four varnas the “outcastes” or “untouchables” -- those termed by Gandhiji as Harijans, a term strangely detested by Ambedkarites, who call them Dalits, a more widely prevalent word for “outcastes”.
All through I didn’t sound like a journalist, and therefore allowed him to say all that he wanted to without being questioned. The pandit began a short discussion of the problems the family faced. I think one of the family triggered the discussion, stating, of the problems, were few of the neighbours, who “unnecessarily” harassed them, one reason why the grand old lady too was so disturbed.
“I will suggest you a solution”, said the pandit, seeking a pen and a plain paper. He drew a lotus-type design, and said, “You put in the name of each of the neighours in each the lotus leave drawn. Round up the paper. Take a bottle filled with honey. Put this paper in the bottle. Do it on Tuesday, only Tuesday, no other day, this will be effective”, he insisted, adding, “Call me if this does not help, I will tell you what to do next.” Would it work? I inquired one in the family, and the reply was with a sceptical smile.
The pandit went away after directing the family to go to a cow and feed her with grass, and to a dog, feeding him with roti, and to the river to immerse the 47 dough balls, which three in the family promptly did. Thereafter a simply lunch was served, and the ceremony ended for the day. Thus ended this theatre of the absurd.

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