Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The God in Small Things

I went for a walk to the waterfront today. Ever since, I moved to New Jersey, the waterfront has been a high-point of my summer life. The delightful discovery of its existence right behind my apartment complex was a moment of serendipity. The waterfront is a cosy little park, hidden behind a giant industrial storage area. The 'water' it faces is a narrow causeway that is used to ferry ships across to the various ports that dot this region of Jersey. It is a quiet place, with a small deck, some recreational facilities and a walking path alongside the reeds that mark the shores of the waterway. An evening walk at the water-front is the best way to get my spirits soaring and my friends..... smirking.

"So, did you visit your nala recently?"
"It's not a nala, it is a waterway"
"Are you considering cross-channel swimming?[smirk, smirk]"

The modest nature of its existence, its limited clientele and my exuberance over something this modest is the main cause of mirth amongst the blimps I consider as friends. My humble waterfront is no Atlantic City boardwalk after all.

Robin Bhai is my dear 'internet' friend and fellow music lover. He and I have spent many delightful keystrokes debating over our musical proclivities. We usually arrive at a somewhat amicable agreement on most points... except one.

"Jaidev is far superior to Laxmikant Pyarelal (LP), Robin Bhai""
How? Jaidev has the music for barely 50 films to his credit, LP have 500."
"But the 400 of those films have pedestrian music"
"Yet they have 100 worthwhile ones. That is still more than Jaidev’s entire output""
Where is 'Allah Tero Naam' or 'Bansuriya Man Har le Gayi' in that count?"
"How many times can you admire a single dazzling goldfish in your little pond? The larger lake throbbing with marine life is likely to give more pleasure.
"Not if 90% those fishes are a dull grey in colour"
"One needs to appreciate the sheer effort required to build an edifice of 4000 songs"
"I can acknowledge it but I only appreciate genius"
“But there is a genius in numbers”
Alt-Ctrl-Del [
That was Robin Bhai btw]

My visit to the Valley of Flowers was my first real brush with spiritual India. The Himalayas are home to sadhus and babas of various hues. Little shrines dot the mountains and devoted men of God look after these shrines with an asceticism that seems to flow into anyone who spends time at those heights. I had a pleasant encounter with a twinkly- eyed baba who looks after a small hanuman shrine at the entrance to the valley. He invited us to his tent for a visit. I spent a rewarding hour sitting around the fire, sipping sweet hot tea and listening to fascinating tales of the mysticism of the mountains. As we left, I made a modest offering at his altar and my gesture was met with heartfelt wishes for my well-being. I came away feeling richer.

Two days later I am down in Haridwar, just in time to catch the famous aarti on the banks of the Ganga. Chaos, crowds, confusion. Someone pulls at my hand. "Pooja karni hai madam", another man jostles with him "aap log mere saath aaiye madam". A third man, a fourth, a fifth.... 'Madam!’… ‘Sir!’... 'Hello’... I want to scream.

Jostling with the crowds I find a footing on the banks of the river just as the aarti starts. A spectacular moment unfolds before my eyes. The fire in the lamps held aloft by the priests light up the dark waters of the river in a celestial glow. With the aarti over, I put my sentiments and some money into a little pooja contraption ready to offer it to the river. I reverentially hand it to the pandit who has finally won the battle to our clientele.

'Sirf itne rupaiye madam?". [Is that all mam?]

As I let my contraption with the little diya float down the river, the only thing that throbs in my mind - How will we get out of this chaos?

The aarti on the Ganga at Haridwar is a much sought after experience. The five minutes during which it is performed are undoubtedly magical and uplifting. However, those five minutes of a higher experience come packaged with fifty five minutes of strife, chaos and frustration. The effect is all but diluted. In direct contrast, the little shrine up in the mountains does not provide any spectacle, only quiet reflection. Yet, the serenity and sense of purity surrounding the place strengthens its impact. The experience lingers till long after.

The tussle is between the established and the obscure, the grandiose and the unassuming. The established side of the line packs any well known entity(place, monument, art, idea etc.) that has built a reputation based upon the testimony of a huge section of the population. The ‘obscure’ comprises of little known entities that offer limited but potent enjoyment. The famous, is usually famous because there is some larger than life element associated with it. The reputation of the 'established' is in essence its aura. For e.g visitors to Taj Mahal are of three kinds - first that admire the Taj, second who admire the fact that they visited the Taj and the third who don't care. The famous usually attracts all these kinds of people. And that is what proves counter-productive for them.

The profusion of humanity at the doorstep of such entities dulls their aura. When so many people jostle for a share of the pie, everyone gets only a minuscule nibble. Little known places on the other hand hide only a slice of life, but to the traveler that seeks them, they generously hand over the entire slice. These places offer a sense of exclusivity, ownership and discovery. The experience is unadulterated and satiating.

I often wonder, if the sense of discovery of a modest entity is so rewarding, imagine the exhilaration of the explorer who discovers a grand edifice. How would Hiram Bingham have felt when he discovered the grand Machu Picchu or what was Neil Armstrong's state of mind when he set foot on the moon. (We all do know how Archimedes felt in his moment of Eureka in the bath tub). The first sip of the nectar that the cosmos offers to those who discover its secrets must have nirvanic potency. Yet, this effect starts ebbing with each subsequent sip and for long established wonders; it is nothing but stale wine.

For many who derive pleasure from reading, art, traveling or discussing ideas, evaluation is an enjoyable exercise. Take for instance the Desert Island concept. The process of choosing a set of artists whose work you would like to be marooned with provides an interesting insight into your own proclivities. What will sustain you for longer? A set of ten works all rated 5/10, or only one that is rated 9/10? Which artist do you rate higher? The one who creates a large body of work with more indifferent and some excellent output or the one who creates a smaller body of work mainly with excellent output?. Will you give credit to an artist for being prolific or will you take credit away for indiscriminate prolificacy?

Over the years I have discovered I belong to the tribe that gravitates towards the unassuming. I will gladly choose the one 9/10 work and devour it to it's minutest nuance. The artists I revere are the ones have a smaller but individualistic repertoire. The places I frequent are far from the maddening crowd. At the end of the day, a rose in the garden is magnificent in its preening glory yet it has to be shared with the world , the small wild-flower that pops it’s head from the undergrowth, is all but mine. There is a certain romance in obscurity, the romance of discovery. The world might run after the rose, but the nectar in my life comes from these tiny wild flowers.

My God - he lives in small things.


  1. Its a pleasure to read your blog !
    Do you mind if I add the link to your blog on mine ?

  2. @ rolly : Not at all. It is my pleasure :)

  3. Dear Ritu,
    Finally I rediscovered your admirable site!!!
    It is a miracle how much my opinion agrees with whatever you write,almost uncanny.
    If you have a chance to come to Japan,I would show you MY version of famous sites/sights:
    secret ponds,mossy buddhas...just follow a road nobody walks!
    I remember always having loved small things,maybe because I am shortsighted,also because I like the exclusive feeling of having somebody/something almost for myself alone instead of having to share it with half the world.
    Unfortunately there are some spots(here in Japan) that lost their attraction since they have become world heritage,exactly for the same reason...This is your friend Kiri of course.Dunno about profiles:)

  4. Hi Ritu,

    Read couple of your features and liked your style of putting them.

    And yes, your response to my question to Shekhar Kapur on Mythology and History--think you put it convincingly well. No, I didn't mind your interjection. It was a part of the discussion.

  5. Thanks for dropping by Geeta. You have a very interesting blog yourself. I hope you put up more travel pictures.

  6. I really enjoyed reading about your experience in Hardwar, which I experienced way, way back, when I was about 9 or 10 years old. The memories that stand out are of the arati and the elephant, Narmada, which lived in the house across from where we were staying!

    However, I really identified with your analogy of the wild flower as opposed to the roses. I have dozens of flowers in my yard, which are admired by one and all, whose names I know, but the one that I treasure is the one small, pink flower in my backyard, which looked like a weed and almost got tossed, but stayed when I saw the pretty pink flowers on it. I am hoping it comes back next year, because I am still trying to identify it. But yes, it was my own personal treasure. Keep writing, I like your style.

  7. I came back to your kalapna article after a long time and then went throught abobe and other blogs by you. Very touched I am.You have been absent for a while.