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How a Sufi’s tomb inside an Air Force Station turned a beacon of hope after a series of fatal air crashes
It was the early 1980s, still initial days for me at an Air Force Station on the western sector. One chilly afternoon, an endless stream of villagers — women in their colourful winter clothes, children clinging on the back of bicycles and the elderly with grandchildren acting as crutches — trooped into the camp.
They left their bicycles, tongas and bullock carts outside the camp, and patiently waited for security checks. They had come to pray at the mazar of Peer Baba inside the station.
The third Thursday of every month was Peer Baba ka din. It was intriguing to see the authorities letting the villagers not only inside the outer domestic area but also miles inside the high-security technical area, as the tomb was almost in the middle of the airbase. Probably, it was part of the land acquired for the base and from the beginning, the villagers were allowed to pray.
Air Force policemen and Defence Security Corps personnel had a tough time screening the monthly congregation. I wondered why the authorities were taking such a high risk, especially when insurgency was at its peak in Punjab.
Ways of worship
One such evening, I, along with a friend, decided to visit the tomb. The little shrine was crowded and some were praying with folded hands, others prostrating, and some others circumambulating it holding chadars, burning incense sticks, coconuts and flowers. There was no prescribed order as the devotees belonged to different religions and followed their own practices of worship. But pray they all did, for the blessings of the holy Sufi.
A few months later, a series of fatal air crashes rocked the base, a couple of them within a fortnight. Inquiries were ordered and preventive measures taken. A special station puja at the tomb was announced and the personnel, except those on essential duties, were asked to participate. From the Air Officer Commanding to non-combatants, all gathered.
Officers and airmen in uniform assembled in columns, as if in a parade, and stood in pin-drop silence. The Air Force has no religious preachers. So tradesmen of different faiths who knew a bit about the rituals donned the robes of pandit, Imam, Granthi and pastor.
The tomb was adjacent to a taxi track and a fighter aircraft was towed to the site. The stand-in priests recited prayers in turns, and the front wheel of the flying machine crushed a few lemons on the tarmac to conclude the ceremony. For soldiers, faith is an extension of their professionalism and work is worship. Prayers do not substitute or replace it, but just act as a supplement. The purpose of including a variety of religious practices was not for displaying exaggerated secularism or feigned parity; rather, it marked another occasion of teamwork, when a bit of contribution from everyone, invocations in this case, could add to greater results.
And, it worked! For the next two years, till I moved out, there was no flying accident at the base. It could be the result of either divine help or hard work; most likely, a combination of both, as the saying goes “God helps those who help themselves”.
Who was Peer Baba? A local miracle man who lived around the base long ago? A Sufi who preached brotherhood?
Or was the Baba just a concept of inclusiveness, flexibility and liberalism, which certainly outlives narrow allegiances? And the tomb, with its universal appeal, just a symbol to disseminate positivity, optimism and confidence in times of uncertainty?
A palace pond had these big reptiles, and when one terrified a child, the father just shooed it away
In grandeur, it was no match to the majestic palaces up north. But it was still called a palace, though the structure looked no more than a crude fort.
Kizhakke Kovilakam in Kottakkal, a small town in Malappuram district of Kerala, was the palace of my father, who belonged to the Zamorin family, erstwhile rulers of Kozhikode. He was a teacher in the Rajah’s High School, Kottakkal.
The buildings constructed in a haphazard way in the middle are hemmed in by thick earthen walls. The compound has huge doors made of heavy timber on three sides. The main entrance has two such doors.
The palace is a complex of many buildings interconnected without much of a plan. Anyway, in my memory, it was an intricate mix of dark corridors, quadrangles and atria. Believe me, when I was four or five, it was an adventure to navigate through those catacombs even at noon, leave alone night.
Abundance of water
The palace has two private ponds, part of a large public pond walled and roof-tiled. One is for the women and the other for the men of the royal family. We could take bath in privacy, without the sun or rain spoiling the show, and go for a swim too. After school, we used to go with bathing oil, soap and towel and spend quite a long time playing in the water.
This pond is separated from the main pool by robust laterite walls and these walls have small arches which allow the passage of water to and from the main pond. During our aquatic games, we used to go and stand under those arches.
My father used to take me for bath, and we were used to crocodiles in the pond. At that point of time, it had never struck me as odd. And there were large bats roosting on the branches of a large tropical tree in front of a Devi temple inside the palace enclave.
Now in retrospect, I am amazed at the whole thing.
Have you ever heard of domesticated crocodiles? They were not small species. Sometimes, they used to come out of the water and sun themselves on the open steps. Some of them were as long as 12 to 15 feet, nose to tail. They lay, their toothy mouth open, languishing in the sun, eyes closed with a translucent film. They were langorous. Maybe, they took time to wake up from slumber; then they jumped into the water with a big splash and dove deep down, to surface again after a long time. There was not even a single case of anybody getting hurt by them.
One evening, my father and I were a little late than usual and the bathing area was dark. We had a hurricane lamp, but its fickle light only made it scarier, casting long shadows and making the water look dark and foreboding.
I was neck-deep in water after father finished soaping me. He was applying soap himself, and now I had to wash myself, get out of the water and dry myself with a small towel.
I was scanning the surface of the water and suddenly saw a crocodile slowly sailing down. I could see only its protruding eyes above the water level, some 20 feet away. “Crocodile,” I cried and jumped out to the stone steps. My father didn’t bat an eyelid. He started throwing water with his cupped hands and bingo, the crocodile stopped moving and stayed there, watching us with its yellow eyes, as if waiting for us to finish bath so that it could go home.
Later, my father told me that this crocodile roosted in that area and came by nightfall to feed its litter or stand guard to its eggs. That was my first close encounter with the crocodiles of the royal pond.
Off to a zoo
Now after 60 years, the palace has been partitioned into smaller dwellings and many have sold off their properties.
The pond too has gone bad with decades of silting. The crocodiles were fished out and sent to the Thrissur zoo for their safety.
Now when I go to the pond, it has a pall of gloom. No children, no crocodiles and no flying foxes — that tree was long gone. Time in its passage takes away your childhood, the things which fascinated you during childhood and even that childish wonder too. And you are left with only the memories. I always felt that time is an irresistible, incessant, relentless thing which just moves on whatever happens.
Like an anaconda that slowly and steadily swallows its prey three or four times its size, time slowly and steadily takes its toll.
ILLUSTRATION: SREEJITH R. KUMAR
I am cooking in the kitchen. It’s a beautiful day outside, a bird chirping in the distance and children happily making their way to school. “Girija,” a voice bellows. The bird almost falls from its branch. I shake from my reverie and immediately know that the idiot box has been switched on. The scream is followed by a screeching background score. It is the same old tale of an evil mother-in-law plotting with her daughter to kill the innocent doe-eyed daughter-in-law.
“We have to finish off that low-life once and for all,” she screams. The daughter replies, “Yes mother. You are right. I can’t stand her righteous stupidity any more.”
Such murders are normal in Indian television serials. The premise is that the dumb policemen won’t suspect anything. So the characters spend their time plotting ways to tick off people from their hate list.
“Where have you been,” the mother-in-law hisses. “I have been to temple, athai.” Enter the most clichéd character of the daughter-in-law, an innocent girl who wears a plain simple sari as against the finest silk of the older woman.
“Go in and make a dosa for me. Can’t you see how hungry I am?” Then the mother and daughter resume their stupid planning. “How dare they do that to that poor gal,” a voice shouts in pain from our dining room. Our maid has stopped her work and is busy watching TV. “Those two won’t simply leave her alone,” she says.
Advertisements begin. Finally, the serial is back on air. The plot thickens (actually loosens) with the plan being executed.
Everyone seems to be glued to the screen watching serials one after the other. What about the lives of those who watch them and those who make their living producing them, not knowing that they are, in fact, dictating the lives of millions of people, unaware that their silly, unmindful scenes are setting bad examples.
This is not entertainment; it’s slavery and addiction. Switch off that machine and see the beauty of life. Watch the sunset, listen to birdsong, see the twilight slowly fading into night, sit down and talk with your loved ones, have dinner sharing stories and experiences, read books and talk about various topics, listen to nature and marvel at its myriad beauty, call friends and catch up on their lives, create a work of art, redecorate your home, go out for a walk. The choice is ours.
Unobtrusive, silent, disciplined parenting made the birds stand out; but in the end, the nest was empty
Last month, I saw them.
I was sitting in the deck, overlooking a pond right opposite the backyard of my son’s house in Minneapolis, Minnesota State, U.S., sipping a cup of coffee and enjoying the weather in its phase of transition to summer.
They were gliding along in one straight line, in the cool, crystal waters of the pond, the father at the head of the procession (it must be the father, because of its size), followed by five cute goslings and lastly the mother. That was the first time I saw them. Did they migrate from somewhere or had I missed seeing them before? They couldn’t have migrated because the goslings were too young to fly.
Minnesota State, famous for its lakes and ponds, is known as the “land of 10,000 lakes”. During the migratory seasons of spring and fall, gaggles of geese blanket the waterbodies. It is a spectacular sight at dawn, the huge birds flying to the pond, 25 to 30 of them in the V formation, make a perfect landing, frolic around in the waters, chill out on the lawns and at dusk, take off in the same fashion. I wonder if they have any group allegiance.
This particular family of geese seemed to have made this pond their permanent residence, at least for rearing their young ones. The migratory season has not yet started, and the pond was for their exclusive use. The family of seven was always there whenever I looked through our large kitchen window. The green lawns on all four sides of the pond and the wild growth of shrubs fringing the shoreline provided a perennial supply of food — leaves, seeds, berries and insects — for the birds.
Their discipline was amazing. The father would be the first to climb up the banks or glide into the waters, followed by the goslings, one behind the other, and the mother at the end. When the goslings were tiny specks on the waters, the parents would wait for them all to form the line, do a quick check, and then proceed. They would select one bank of the pond each day for grazing, have a siesta burying their heads into the feathers, and when one of them woke up, all would immediately wiggle out of their slumber.
Two days ago, I noticed the young ones had grown up and were almost the size of their parents, but the ceremonial procession in and out of the pond continued. There was never any obvious danger for the young ones in the pond, as they were having the sole rights to its enjoyment and occupation, except for a white crane in a meditative mood in a far end of the pond’s shores.
Furthermore, the little ones had outgrown the period of vulnerability, but the security blanket still was in place.
Such a close-knit family. They don’t fight or meddle with one another. They don’t even play around in the waters. Simply glide along in one straight line from shore to shore in an almost saintly way of disciplined life.
When will the young ones be relieved of the parental supervision? Do they have a cut-off period? When will they seek their own partners and start a life of their own? Will they fly off one day, leaving their parents to go through an empty nest syndrome?
I finished writing this, looked out of the windows and alas, they were not there. The whole family had left. Just like that. As though they read my thoughts. The pond’s waters glistened in the afternoon sun as I felt a sudden melancholy.