July 05, 2020
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Chennai Diary

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Chennai Diary
Chennai Diary
Moonstruck Buddha

“Why do Sri Lankans celebrate Poya, the night of the full moon, with a holiday every month?” asks my granddaughter. It’s a family celebration. One branch of the family has come from Sri Lanka. We are staring at the full moon from the terraced parterre in the swimming pool area of the Park Hotel in Chennai. The moon hangs down from the clear sky like a ripe melon waiting to be plucked. Its reflection looks like undulating orange slices on the pool’s aquamarine surface.

“Because we are an island people, who love to celebrate our island life,” explains one of the guests.

“No,” says another. “It’s to remember the words of the Buddha who attained Nirvana on Buddha Purnima, which marks his birth, atonement and death. He said, ‘Thou shalt not kill. Thou shall respect all creatures of the earth as one.’”

“Maybe it’s just to remind us of how vast the universe is and how small we are when we stand here looking at the moon,” I explain in my best granny mode.

Gullying It Out

Once a year I marshal the various members of our family and organise an elaborate evening based on a theme. This time it’s on Gully Boy, a movie my granddaughter had taken me to watch. Due to the anti-Hindi stance of my street-fighting days, I have been reluctant to watch any of the grand Bolly­wood sagas. But Gully Boy is subtitled in English. I have bec­ome an instant convert. I can rock with the best of the gang.

The DJ is belting out the Mumbaiya beat for us sedate Chennai-ites, telling us “Yah, Southies, Northies, Northern-Easties, your time is Now! Now, Eepon! Eepon! Namma time wandutah!” Nevermind that I don’t speak Tamil either.

With chef Ashutosh we have created an amazing spread of Indian street food. Do we mention that we have scoured the gullies of Mumbai and Calcutta to come up with tiny dosais dubbed ‘Tacos’ and filled them with a spicy mixture? Fish fingers and prawn fries courtesy Colombo leap out of the pan. The desserts are worth the candle. One of them is a layered Aamras baked custard, as golden as the moon above us. The other looks like miniature mille-feuilles, the thousand-flaked French pastry. But this one is filled and layered with thick creamy rabdi and veiled with a filmy chador of icing like the ladies in Hira Mandi. Here I am channeling Kalank rather than Gully Boy. Do we add there is rose-petal kulfi also? More salaams in the direction of Hira Mandi, the atelier Rose in Kalank.

Illustration by Manjul
Turning the Soil

One day after the dinner of rose petals and moonlight, the last of our Sri Lankan guests is about to leave. It’s Easter Sunday. She receives a phone call. The first of a series of bomb blasts has just torn through Colombo, the capital. Soon the terror has spread to the suburbs. Once again, innocents were massacred on a peaceful Sunday morning while celebrating the resurrection and glory of Christ. One of the ima­ges posted online is a broken statue of Mary in her blue veil. Her hands are outstretched in a universal embrace of love.

For some time now, I have believed that the peaceful resolution of what has happened at Ayodhya begins with Sri Lanka. It has been subjected to repeated cycles of violence and destruction. Yet, the earth itself has allowed the emerald island to nurture its wounds and cover the land with beauty. Sita sat under an Ashoka tree at Nuwara Eliya. It is one of the sacred groves and gardens that attract visitors.

In a searing moment, when Sita is reunited with Ram, he asks her to prove her chastity in full view of the conquering army. She answers: “I am born of Janaka, but in sooth I am born of the earth; thou knowest not my true self.” (from the work of Ananda Coomaraswamy and Sister Nivedita)

Garden of the Elements

Instead of fighting over monuments, let the people of Ayodhya create a sacred grove of trees at the centre of the disputed site. Let there be Ashoka trees, and banyans, peepul, badam, tamarind and fig trees, so birds and animals may shelter there. Instead of the stamp of any one religion, let there be manifold gardens. And a stepped water reservoir to mark the glory of the Hindu architect at Hampi, the deep-carved stepwells of the Jains, the Buddhist gardens from Lumbini, the undulating channels and fountains of Persia, the land where the system of underground water conduits or qanats was invented, and, finally, the planned terraced flower gardens of the English that included all these aspects. That would a tribute to the feminine spirit, not just of Sita, but of the spirits of the earth, water, sky, sun and moon.

(Geeta Doctor, Journalist, poet, writer, reviewer)
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