Saturday, June 17, 2006

Grab in the name of God
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghThere is an old peepal tree outside the boundary wall of our neighbourís house facing my ancestral home in Delhi. Nobody took notice of this poor tree except dogs who lifted one of their hind legs to leave its scent on the trunk. That was not a nice thing to do to a tree known in Latin as ficus religiose because Buddha attained nirvana under the shade of one of its species in Bodh Gaya.

So a fellow who could not find a job and was too proud to beg decided to put an end to the indignity the peepal had to suffer from the pi-dogs. He daubed the trunk of the tree with bright vermillion paint and made a small platform of bricks underneath it. On the platform, he placed a calendar print of a pantheon of gods and goddesses and lit agarbattis (joss-sticks) on its bole.

Morning and evening he tinkled a tray bell and chanted words which no one but he could understand. Soon his presence was noticed by passersby. They stopped to look at the new shrine: cyclists got off their bicycles to bow to it and some placed a few coins in the metal plate the pujari had placed on the brick platform for their convenience. In the evening, there was enough to provide him two square meals a day.

You can see new shrines of this kind going up on public land in all towns and cities of India. Since they are dedicated to God, neither the police nor the municipal authorities dare to demolish them.

This kind of grab in the name of God is not limited to any one community. Along the Sher Shah Suri Marg, I used to pull up by non-descript graves covered with dust. Two attracted my attention because of their inordinate length. I was told they were of naugazee peer (nine-yard-long holyman). Bawdy anecdotes of this holy man abounded.

Today they have become mazaars, under the management of some Waqf Board which appoints caretakers (mujaavar) and collect revenue by way of offerings made by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. An example which hits the eye is Peer Khaki Shahís mazaar close to the Mughal Gardens at Pinjore. Ten years ago, there was only the grave under a dome; today it encloses over an acre of land enclosing the grave of peer sahibís wife, quarters for the mujaavar, fruit and vegetables stalls. It is doing good business in the name of departed soul.

The worst instance of grab in Godís name that I know of has taken place in Kasauli which has been my summer abode for more than 80 years. Since it is a cantonment, opportunities for grabbing real estate are limited. But some locals had the ingenuity of exploiting what was available. Three unmarked graves were taken over by individuals none of whom is Muslim, given a fresh paint of green, lamps lit on the head, flowers strewn in the chaddar covering the grave and gossip spread that an offering made as mannat was sure to be fulfilled. So three enterprising men, who donít know the direction in which the Kaaba is, add to their incomes by robbing the dead.

A grosser case of land grab in which the Ministry of Defence, then under George Fernandes, and the Himachal Government were partners, was the destruction of Kasauliís two most valued possessions ó its highest mountain peak, popularly known as Monkey Point and its base, a grove of cypress trees surrounding a small column, said to be the grave of two English girls who killed themselves trying to climb the hill on horseback. It was known as Ladies Grave. They were the two most sought after picnic spots for residents and visitors. Monkey Point was wrongly named because I never saw a monkey there: there was nothing for them to eat.

On the contrary, on two occasions I saw a pair of leopards which eat monkeys as they do dogs sunning themselves on a rarely frequented footpath. And at times mouse-deer and wild cats. On a cliff facing the west vultures had their nests. The mountain was known to the villagers as Karad Deota. Once a year they paid homage to it with some ritual.

Many summer days on my evening walks, I rested for a while in a shed in Ladies Grave. It was a shoddy affair with a tin roof and bare white walls. Visitors drew hearts pierced by arrows and put names of lovers round them. Farmers used it to recover strength after covering long distances laden with vegetables to sell in the bazaar.

At least once every vacation, I climbed up Monkey Point also known to the Whites as Tappís Nose because one of their tribe had a long snout which from a distance looked like his nose.

The view from the top was spectacular. One could see the plains of Haryana and Punjab with the Sutlej river like a silver serpent gliding through them. There was nothing on the peak except some rocks piled into a heap to make it look like a nipple on the bosom of a giantess.

Fernandes sanctioned the setting up of an Indian Air Force Colony embracing Ladies Grave. Hundreds of pine trees were cut down. Barricades were put up to bar access to locals and visitors: their favourite haunt was put out of their bounds. The cypress grave and the tomb were uprooted to erect quarters and a mess for officers ó an unsightly building as you can see anywhere. A small temple built at the base for worship.

A film company was allowed to put it on the peak to shoot a sequence. It was enlarged, a pujari installed, the footpath leading up to it made pucca. A myth was spread that Hanumanji had put his foot on the spot on his way back carrying the sanjeevani tree to Ram and Lakshman. Now hordes of women come carrying platters loaded with offerings for Hanuman temple atop Monkey Point. The fabricated myth brings more tourists and money. So the mountain once cherished by lovers of nature has been desecrated in the name of one of Godís dieties who had nothing whatsoever to do with it till 20 years ago. He is just a money-spinner.

Over the Moon

Manmohan Singh: We are sending Indians to the moon next year.

Bush: Wow: How many?

Manmohan Singh: We are planning to send 100 people. The break-up is as: 25 OBCs, 25 SC, 20 ST, five handicapped, five sportspersons, five Kashmiri migrants, nine politicians, five terrorist affected, one astronaut, if possible...provided he gets a place to sit!!!

(Contributed by Tarlok Singh, New Delhi)