Transmitting Traditions-informally

Transmitting Traditions-informally
Ajji vandane-a tribute to the actual "Argumentative Indian"




My grandma was an argumentative woman (she used the correct kannada word for it "Nyaya-adoodu" i.e. playing at debate), she passed on this characteristic to my dad, who, I've realised belatedly, must have passed it on to me too.

She had third grade schooling, but not third rate schooling, especially from sources outside the four walls of the mud brick schoolhouse in a small town in South India. Other than real life, that great teacher, her other source was the local "kirtankaar" Dyavappaia & his performances of bhajans, kirtans, pravachanas, & marathon oral serializations of the Mahabharata & Ramayana. The stories were & are a typical feature of traditional India, and would be performed by the "kirtankaar" for a crowd of devotees, & other audience, and would go on for months on end.

How do I know all this? Obviously the first reason is because she told me, and the second reason is because she became for us, a "kirtankaar", and brought it all to life, for me & my siblings/cousins when we were growing children, between the ages of about 4 and 16.

When grandma, or ajji as we called her, was around, the routine was set. We would come back from school, throw away our heavy school bags, eat quickly & directly head out to play.

Back at sundown, we knew exactly what to do. One of us would rush into her little room, with its own intriguing smells of haldi, elaichi, amrutanjan balm; all emanating from a small table & a few old trunks & suitcases beside her bed. We then stand there, nudging each other, & whispering, till we either shook her awake, or she heard us.

She would then wake up from her afternoon nap, and the journey would begin.




Her stories would always start with "So , what kind of story would you like to hear ? Saamaajik, or Pouranik ?"

Knowing that the Saamaajik ones were simple "realistic" stories, with ordinary people doing ordinary things, being nice in an ordinary way, we'd all chorus together "Pouranik, ajji! You know that!". We wanted tall tales with glorious deeds, valiant heroes, baad villians, & lots of mayhem, magic & maaya thrown in.

"Hmm…let me see…do you want something from Mahabharata? from Ramayana? or from other Puranas?"

By the time we were 10 or 11 years old, we had already had the benefit of more than one detailed rendition of the Ramayana & Mahabharata.

She used to spend about six months a year with us, living a few thousand miles away in the north, spending the remaining back at "home" taking care of business too important to tell us kids. We overheard words like "40 acres", "moneylender! I'll teach him!", "co-operative bank", "You guys! Can't get anything right! Ok I'll be there soon" etc, but didn't think much of it.

Each time she came, story time would start afresh, a new world of exciting possibilities. Before moving on to other "trivial" stories, We'd get her to start the Mahabharata right from the beginning. "One day, vyaasa rishi called Ganapati…."

It's not that we forgot the basic story, but every time we "did" the Mahabharata, we'd be assured of getting one more fresh story, one more fresh way of looking at something in the story. She could skilfully take us thru the loops of stories embedded inside the main thread, and sometimes even more stories embedded inside the secondary ones.

"But ajji, why was this guy born as a daitya"?

And we would sit back, assured that we'd have a fully fleshed story of the daitya's past life, full with how he got powerful, got drunk with his power, and full of this "garva" or pride would transgress his dharma, earning the curse of his present birth as daitya. Reflecting back now, I'm amazed as to how I've ended up reducing the power of the stories to such a basic plotline, whereas the stories were full of life with real characters we could identify with. Therein, I guess, lies the difference between narrating a story, & a third person describing this narration!

The Mahabharata narration would easily span 2 months, give or take a few weeks. And she would still be saying, "You know what? Dyavappaiya had another story to explain this, if only your poor grandma could remember!" Sometimes the elusive story would occur to her as we were skipping & trotting along with her to the local "Hanuman mandir", a small shrine carved out of a stone block, & placed under a tree. The walk to this tree would be about half an hour, and would be a highlight every shanivaar (saturday). "Let's go meet "hanumappa!", she'd say, and we'd join up, knowing that we'd get extra access to the "prasada" sweets, away from mother's watchful eyes.


Her generation was perhaps the last of the "mainstream" India that was still not indoctrinated in western values, the way every succeeding generation is increasingly getting. Her knowledge of English was close to zero, and her worldview was a healthy sceptism of all those western ideas we brought home, & tried to pass of as the "gospel truths" we'd been told they were, by teachers.

Our communication was entirely in the mother tongue (kannada in this case), so I had a taste of the real "home state" at home, primarily due to parents literally forcing kannada as the primary means of communication at home. Hated them for it then, love them fr it now. It made me a true "tri-lingual plus", being able to immerse in the worlds & contexts of kannada, hindi, & of course, the "glamour boy" of all languages, English.

She would argue at length with dad (& us sometimes) about our dogmatic fixations about "scientific proof", by using ideas of "pramana" & "tarka" for her defence against our "scientists have said" line. Memorably, some of the arguments would end at a stalemate, a sort of "ok so the earth is held by this "gravity", why does gravity exist ? Why not call it one type of Maaya? I think you guys just make up nice English words just to fool an old woman like me! I'm sure it is all Sri Vishnu's maaya. Prove to me I'm wrong."

From today's perspective of 20-20 hindsight, I'd say that grandma gave me something invaluable, a living example of a person who was a product of Indian traditional Culture. She was realistic when realism demanded, and spiritual at the core. In the sense that she'd start her day with regular shlokas, live the day immersed deep in action, and after a hard day's work or play, she'd know to retreat into "herself" and do her "devara bhajane" & "pooja punaskaara" before going to sleep.

When at her "spiritual rituals", she'd be living at a totally different plane from where life's demands forced her to live the rest of the time. As a kid, even you could sense the happiness, the "santosha", the calmness about her as she emerged back into the "real world". I've read in papers by today's western scholars that this is what is called a "time out of time" experience, a key feature of traditional societies (including in our Vedic rituals), which kept its members organically connected with life and the infinite cosmic mysteries, and which is increasingly being marginalized & ignored in the headlong heedless towards "modern progress"….where some "hobby time" is occasionally spent in indulging in the idle speculation that most of us would like to call "philosophy".


What do I owe her?

A difficult question to answer, since there is such a lot. But on reflection, is it no more than anyone owes to their traditions & culture. After all , these are not some abstract theories or ideas that get learnt as a subject in school. The real traditions are always transmitted by parents, grandparents & other elders in the family, when one is growing up. It is indeed a pity that in the rapidly urbanizing & westernizing mileu, where the "nuclear" family is the norm, and it is a practical imposition to have to put up with visiting relatives, even parents, and that too even for a short while. We are slowly losing organic connectiions with culture & family traditions. That is , unless we make some efforts to make sure that our children do get the "varada hasta" (blessing hand??) of our parents & elders, in more real ways than occasional meetings, & via telephones & photo albums.

Meanwhile, there is no way I can "thank" my parents, most definitely my mother, who had to put up with the more daunting "mother-in-law" incarnation of grandma everytime she visited, & stayed with us. "This is my house! I don't have to tell anyone how long I'll stay, or when I'm coming next.." They don't expect my thanks either. They were only "doing their duty" & mom took all the hot/cold "wars" with grandma in stride, & saying "no" would have been the last thing on her mind.

Of course, the incarnation we grandchildren saw was that of the quintessential, loving, ajji.

Ajji, vandane!

{and some more stories ? Please…!}


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