It was only six in the morning but the heat in Chennai was already oppressive. I was in a city bus headed to Perambur, where my grandmother lives. The journey was about forty minutes, yet there wasn’t a dull moment. When the bus started from the terminus in Koyambedu, an alighting old man was almost crushed by the crowd rushing in to grab seats. Many had staked their claim by hurling their bags or newspapers from the outside onto seats through the open windows.
Tempers were frayed: the old man, still unable to get off the bus, was quarreling with the teenager he had collided against. The fight threatened to escalate, but the two were blocking the entrance and a cessation of hostilities was in everyone's interest. Besides, nobody had the time.
I was lucky to get a seat; it was at the very back of the bus. Minutes later, two flower-vendors got in. Both were dressed plainly and their features were so similar, they could have been sisters. They carried capacious, sturdy-looking baskets. In pink and green polythene bags they carried the flowers they planned to sell for the day. One of them glared at me and said boldly, with a sense of entitlement, “Get up!” I obliged willingly. Later she made sure her sister – who was quieter, more soft-spoken – was seated next to her. The two began counting the money they had. The less assertive one said the numbers weren't adding up correctly, but her companion silenced her with a detailed, authoritative explanation. I wondered about their routine: how early they started their day, the markets they had to go to for bulk purchases, and how they chose the place to set up shop for the day. And they were selling perishable commodities -- how long would the flowers last? What prices would they set? So much to think about!
Just then a crowd boarded from the rear – all men except for a very frail old lady. She stood next to me. She was less than five feet tall. Her gray hair was thinning and she had a pony-tail that was no more than a centimeter long. When the conductor asked for her fare, she took offense: “Why do you ask me first? There are so many around you and yet you have to ask me! That’s because you think I am a vagrant woman of the streets, a beggar! You think I won’t pay for the ticket – that’s what it is.” In indignation, she searched her small pouch and took out a five rupee note. The conductor replied angrily that he was just doing his job.
The lady kept talking to herself in a low tone. I wasn’t able to hear clearly but the few words that I did catch suggested she was having a tough time, that nobody cared for her in this world, no one was willing to feed her a meal. Her hands were shriveled and dry – they had a peculiar, gray-white complexion, as if all life had been sucked out of them; and the same could be said about her face. She wore a checked red sari and a green blouse with a gold border. The dress was faded, but it added a hint of elegance to her bearing.
Laissez-faire in matters of the spirit
A little later, the old woman was at the window seat, next to the two flower-vendors. She continued mumbling incoherently as she looked out. Then she did something remarkable. If the bus passed by a temple, she would join her palms, close her eyes and pray. Nothing unusual in that. But if the bus passed by a mosque – and there were at least two on that route – she would pull the end of her sari over her head and cup her hands as if she was kneeling and praying to Allah. It was genuine and it was striking. Once the mosque or temple had passed, she would continue her recitation of complaints, oblivious to everything around her.
She had switched faiths so easily, so unselfconsciously! I was touched. It was a glimpse of faith at a very personal level; the comparison may not be apt, but the old lady's spontaneity contrasted sharply with the canniness and deliberation that goes with the political appeasement of religious groups in India.
A week later, in Kumbakonam, I was at the famous Guru Kovil – a temple dedicated to the planet Jupiter. I was lighting candles for the deity when I noticed four Muslim women next to me – they too were lighting candles.
The women showed no discomfort; they went freely around the temple, went to the main worship area, and prayed exactly as I did. Like the old lady in the bus, they saw no contradiction: faith was a personal thing and they could choose as they pleased. They were exhibiting “laissez faire in matters of the spirit”, to borrow a phrase M.G. Vassanji uses in his book A Place Within.
The picture above is of the four women enjoying a cup of tea outside the temple, after the morning’s worship. And let me make clear that I do not mean to infer anything broader about Tamilnadu or India based on what I have described in this post -- that would be too simplistic.