Gained in Translation: Some necessary superstitions
We can say without doubt that our modernity has not saved as much greenery as has the superstition of our elders. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)
My sister and her husband live in north Karnataka and they have delegated to me, the task of managing their apartment in Bangalore. Recently, a young man from Odisha had considered renting it. Both he and his wife were pleased that this fourth-floor apartment was well-lit and ventilated, and they loved the peace it afforded, away from the traffic. They were also enthused by the government land next door that had a lot of trees in it. “I like the house a lot. But I cannot commit to taking it without consulting my father first,” he said, a little hesitant. “Very well,” I agreed.
His father, a slightly built, sharp-eyed, reticent gentleman of about 75, rejected the house. I was not too affected by the reaction but my curiosity was piqued by the older man’s no to a house that his son and daughter-in-law had liked so much. So, I asked the young man about it. The answer he gave me was rather peculiar.
“When you look out of the windows, you see all those trees, don’t you? My father didn’t like that. He says, ‘a man should never get the feeling that he is higher than the trees.’ He says getting used to such a sight increases our arrogance. He is of an earlier time… has many superstitious ideas. Please don’t take it the wrong way,” the young man said contritely. His father’s thoughts had me stunned for a moment. But I composed myself and said, “There’s truth in what your father says. I can sympathise with his views”.
If an event in the present stirs us so much, it only means that it is tied closely to an old memory. After the incident, thoughts of my father engulfed my mind. He too had vehemently held onto many superstitious beliefs, despite my protestations. Take the story of the pomegranate tree in our backyard.
Our town is in Bellary district. Extremely hot, it is a place overwrought with poverty. In this, my father had an arduous wish to save our garden. It held a large neem tree, a jasmine tree, a firecracker flower, curry-leaves, and chaff-flower plants. Along with these, there was a lush pomegranate tree. This tree demanded a lot of water.
Arranging water for the home wasn’t exactly easy. We had to collect water from the tap of some faraway house and carry it home in pots and fill our tank. We had to descend into a deep pit to collect the water and walk home under the blazing sun with the pots on our shoulders. The water-supply lasted for just an hour every time, and it is only when the benevolent gaze of the house-owner fell on us did our home get any water. While my sister and I didn’t mind managing the water-supply for the house, we were not keen on carrying water for the plants in the yard. “Why do we even need a garden?” we argued.
Also, we didn’t mind carrying water for the other plants as much as the pomegranate tree. The reason was that we never managed to eat a single fruit of this opulent tree. There were over 400 monkeys in the neem tree in the yard and they ate everything without sparing us the taste of a single fruit. It was impossible to chase them away and save the fruits. We insisted that our father have it chopped down as soon as possible and plant some other useful plant in its place.
But our father wouldn’t agree to cut this tree down. Monkeys are manifestations of Lord Hanuman, he said. He feared that angering them would anger Hanuman who in turn would curse us. He also argued that it was the duty of the townspeople to look after the monkeys in the town. It was his unshakeable belief that the monkeys had an equal right over the trees in the town — and the flowers and fruits they bore. We, the children, cried foul that he seemed to care more about the well-being of some monkeys than our distress in carrying heavy pots of dirty water in the heat. ‘If it’s that much of a trouble for you, I’ll carry the water for that tree myself,’ he would say in response to our grumbling. His persistence always won. Thus, all of our childhood, we carried water for a tree that did not bestow upon us a single fruit, and the pomegranate tree lived on.
I must mention a scene in the Mahabharata that links these two incidents. Of the 12 years that the Pandavas spent in exile, they spent a good amount of time at the Dwaitavana forest. They had several brahmins, servants, and guests accompanying them, and to feed all of them, the Pandavas hunted. It led to the dwindling number of animals. One night, Yudhishtira had a dream in which a small deer appeared and said to him, “Our numbers are depleting because of your rampant hunting. Please go to another forest and let us live”. Yudhishtira accorded much significance to this dream, and the next morning, he gathered his entourage and set off for Kamyakavana forest. After that, he ensured that they did not stay on in any forest for too long. The details of the dream that have been narrated as an extremely minor incident are capable of showcasing the profundity of his stature. On the other hand, the instance of Krishna and Arjuna’s roguery where they display their impassioned grandeur and burn down the huge Khandava forest – with all its birds, beasts, snakes and the indigenous people living in it – and build in its place the modern Indraprastha city, has been glorified as a great episode. But, I feel that Yudhishtira’s superstition is a lot more valuable than the latter’s rational ‘gallantry’.
I think we can say without doubt that our modernity has not saved as much greenery as has the superstition of our elders. Giving a wide berth to greenery as a grove belonging to this goddess, a thicket belonging to that snake, or the woods belonging to some ghost or the other, folklore is replete with forest-saving superstitions. Now, forget a forest, even saving a tree on the street is a daunting task.
First published by The Indian Express