In Moscow’s historic Red Square, originally a marketplace that had witnessed executions by Russian imperialists as well as monumental speeches and parades, a history student or a communist pilgrim would be presented with the dilemma of what to visit first: the 16th century Saint Basil’s Cathedral or the 1930 Lenin’s Mausoleum. The former is an offering by Tsar Ivan the Terrible and one of the most popular cultural symbols of Russia, and the other is the tomb of a Russian revolutionary whose followers seized the Saint Basil’s Cathedral in a pogrom of state atheism and democratised it in 1928.
I did toss a coin during my Moscow visit a couple of years ago to make a choice but had no hesitation when I was faced with a similar situation during a flash trip to India last week. Given that we were left with just a day, the dilemma was whether to visit a few comrades from my activism days or pay obeisance at a little-known family temple where prayers were performed at a human pace. It didn’t seem to be a place of worship run with any business acumen nor was it a temple frequented by many faithful. Overgrown weeds, a velvety carpet of mosses mapping the dark floor and a couple of shabby furniture chewed in corners by age signalled little upkeep of the sacred place.
While wifey had a votive offering to make, I had some private business to finish with the resident deities there — about a dozen. A closure had been long due, according to my sister, who had warned about the erratic running of the godly affairs there. So, I waited in solemn silence beyond 8.45am when a scooter with a lanky little boy on the pillion pulled up. My excitement started to vroom right then.
“Sister Subhadra had mentioned your visit in a morning call,” said the young man who I rightly thought would be the boy’s father. What followed was like a well-rehearsed one-act play. While the father moved to attend to the little deities scattered around the slippery compound, the swarthy boy with naked upper body assumed the prime responsibilities. He plucked some flowers from the boughs trespassing over the temple perimeters, entered a soot-stained scullery, kind of wetted his face and feet to purify himself, filled a brass pitcher with libation and entered the sanctum sanctorum after bowing in obeisance on the steps.
The 11-year-old was as meticulous as a humanoid and as skillful as an experienced pandit or priest. I watched in awe as he performed each stage of his operation (read offering) with little hesitation, like a wide-bodied aircraft pilot or a Nasa astronaut. He had no operations manual to refer to, yet I was confident that he would not crash my flight of religiosity. He cleaned the idols, lit only a few lamps in a possible frugal or environment-conscious gesture and offered no blessed food to yours truly who bowed to the little saint as he came out with a tray of burning incense.
“I’m here to purify my soul,” I wanted to tell him, but ended up passing some tools with a request to get them blessed. He did some puja with the chant of a few verses and gave back the stuff, when I passed a 100-rupee note as dakshina or gift. We never locked our eyes, never smiled, and never talked. I slipped another 500-rupee note out of love on the tray, which he kept on the step for his dad to pick up.
Suddenly, memories of a little girl clad in cheap silk, who attempted to hard sell some jasmine flowers at India’s Chidambaram temple, overwhelmed me. She had taught me a few life lessons in a couple of minutes that she clinched from me with her oratory. For years to come, she was a shining star in my days of darkness. The few lines of philosophy she delivered hurriedly to make a living became the mantra that I remembered in every step forward.
Here’s another unassuming boy standing in front of me like a giant wise man. He towered over his father who sauntered around the compound attending to other menial work. I am not an accidental pilgrim. I have chosen to visit numerous places of worship — mosques, Muslim shrines, churches, temples of high and low stature, and Buddhist temples, including the Diskit monastery situated 3,144 metres above sea level on the banks of Shyok River in the Himalayas. I have been to monastic schools in Thailand and Malaysia and seen up-close cute Lilliputian armies of student monks. But this little-big priest from my hamlet has an aura as dark as his complexion. His stern looks reflect the gravitas of the responsibility he shoulders.
Taking care of the spirituality of devotees is no child’s play. And he does that well. The little hands that should hold story books, crayon sticks and Lego Blocks are delivering God’s blessings to one and all on a brass platter, and giving a new lesson in life to this random stranger. This boy has thinned the line between a child and an adult. His Zenic nature is in stark contrast to the digitised early childhood of millions of others. I did not see any gizmo in his hands; I am sure this little figure, half buried in an oversized Bermuda shorts, has a hotline with the Supreme Power.