Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Crow

The Crow

The little hamlet of Ambala surrounded by green hills on all sides has just one source of livelihood, Lake Ambala. It is situated near Ramtek, fifty kilometers from Nagpur where I live (in India). Lord Rama is said to have stayed at Ramtek during his fourteen years of exile. A temple stands there in his honour.

Ramtek is also the place where Sanskrit poet Kalidasa wrote the epic Megha Doot. A beautiful structure has been built there, in memory of the great poet. Ramtek has other tourist attractions as well. It is an important Buddhist site. It is also a heaven for the archeologically inclined. Centuries old monasteries have been unearthed in the hills along with stone-circles that served as burial grounds in Stone Age. Nearby Nagardhan was the capital of Vakataka dynasty that ruled considerable part of India between third to sixth century AD.

However, people from surrounding districts visit Ambala not for tourism, pilgrimage or archaeological reasons. They go there to bid a final adieu to their dead. It is believed that the departed soul will attain Moksha (freedom from the cycle of rebirths); if one’s mortal remains are immersed in the holy lake. Every day, hundreds of shraaddhas (rites) are performed at the lake. It is an important part of Hindu religion.

For centuries, the lake has been accumulating ashes and bones of the dead and hair of the living. Relatives of the dead have to get their head shaved before they can perform the shraaddha! As a result, the lake started resembling a cesspool and it became a worthy cause for the conservationists. Finally, about eight years ago, the administration decided to get the lake cleaned.

They floated tenders for the job. Contractors dredged the centuries old cocktail of ashes, bones and hair from the lake and dumped it on the shore. A year passed before it was removed and the shore cleaned again, because the tender had no provision for transporting the filth.

But meanwhile, birds in the region had feasted on the poisonous thing and they all died. This posed a serious problem not just for the conservationists but also for those who sought Moksha for their dead. The shraaddha is not complete until a crow consumes the offerings. This species of birds is attributed with special powers. They can carry the offerings into the next world to the dead, it is believed.

We know how voracious crows are. Yet, when it comes to shraadha offerings, a crow can be very finicky. It is said that a crow cannot touch the offering unless the departed soul is fully satisfied. I have witnessed this on several occasions when crows gathered around the offering but did not touch it until a close relative of the dead prayed and promised to do whatever the dead person would have wanted done.

So, the relatives of the dead had to go searching for crows, after they performed the shraaddha at Amabala. Ramtek, the nearest town is about ten kilometers away. There, a few crows could be found near the butcher's shop. I too had to do this when my father died. The crow had not touched the food until I had prayed and promised my dad that I will take good care of my mom.

I had to visit Ambala in October this year once again, for the tenth day rites for my mother. Mother was a very devout lady. She had shown exceptional control over her own death. While I was performing the rites, I heard a commotion. People had gathered outside and they were talking excitedly, gesturing towards roof of the shed under which the shraddha was going on.

Once again to Ramtek in search of a crow, I thought as I finished the rites and came out of the shed, carrying the crow’s offering in my hands. Someone from the crowd now gestured at me and pointed at the roof. I looked up. A jet-black crow was perched atop the shed! He seemed quite unaffected by the commotion going on. His attention was riveted on me or rather on the plate of food in my hands.

Something gave way inside me. Could it be possible that…? I put the food down and stepped back. In one deft movement the crow descended on the food. Within seconds he had finished everything. I watched in awe as the feathered courier to the land of souls flew away with the last morsel in his beak.

When I regained composure, I heard everyone around me say just one thing. They had seen a crow at Ambala for the first time in seven years.



A Trilogy of Coincidences

A Trilogy of Coincidences

(Call them coincidences, divine interventions, willpower or whatever. These are true events. )

I had married quite young. I had fallen in love much before that. We two had vowed to be together for life, at the tender age of eighteen. Since then, we had spent enough time living apart, I reckoned as soon as I got my first pay-check. It was just after I graduated and got my first job. There was no resistance from either of the families except my parents wanted me to wait for few more years. I did not agree.

I was just twenty-two when I tied the knot with my childhood sweetheart. I remember the hard time I had had while explaining to my boss that I needed a leave of absence for my own wedding and not for that of my older sibling. The duration of leave depended on that.

Anyway, I was in seventh heaven when I boarded the bus to my hometown from my workplace, three days before the event. I was painting some beautiful pictures in my mind with my eyes closed, when the bus came to a screeching stop. Jolted from my daydreams, I looked out of the window to see a horrible scene.

A truck laden with coal had overturned on the highway and there were several mutilated bodies lying around, some still writhing. Apart from the shock, I was very worried about the bad omen though I am not particularly superstitious. ‘Please God; please let my wedding be postponed. I don’t want to arrive for the wedding with this scene on my mind.’ I prayed hard.

I knew it was impossible to postpone the wedding. All the preparations had been done. Hall booked, invitations sent, some guests already arrived. The families wouldn’t agree to postpone the wedding now, just because I saw an accident. Especially so since it was me who had thrown a tantrum to get married so early, against the wishes of my parents. When I reached home I didn’t talk about it to anyone and spent the night wide-awake. The spectacle of coal-blackened writhing bodies refused to move out of frame.

In the morning, news came in. A distant uncle had passed away. No wedding could take place in the family for at least a month for religious reasons. My parents were worried when they broke this news to me. They feared that I would rebel and insist on marrying the next day as scheduled. They were puzzled to see me relieved to hear about the postponement.

I didn’t know if it would be right to thank God for answering my prayers in this way, with death of that distant uncle!


After the month long wait, I finally got married in June 1982 and spent a few months in heaven. I was still there in heaven when my wife announced her pregnancy. My parents were overjoyed with this development, since it would be their first grandchild. My elder brother had been married for seven years by then but my sister-in-law had failed to conceive so far.

My only grudge was that I had to leave my wife at my parents’ place because there were no good medical facilities where I worked. A civil engineer has to work at some really odd places! I was forced to live in solitude again.

Next month I got a message from my parents that the gynecologist had suspected some problem. An X-ray was advised and done at the public hospital. But there was nothing to worry, according to my parents, because the X-ray had come out normal. Ultrasound was a rarity then, in our medium sized town.

And then much before the expected date, on September 1st 1983, I got a telegram from my father. “Congrats! You have become a father. Come soon.” I caught the first bus to my hometown and proceeded straight to the maternity hospital. When I arrived there, I found my wife alone in her bed. No sign of baby! I feared the worst.

Imagine my joy when I was told that my wife had delivered twin daughters and both of them were alive and well. The gynecologist had suspected this in the early stages of pregnancy. But a mix up of X-rays at the public hospital had prompted her to change her diagnosis. And so, when my wife had walked in for a routine check-up in her eighth month, the doctors were worried to hear the twice fast heartbeats from a supposedly single fetus. They had decided to do an emergency cesarean.

I worried about the other woman whose X-ray showed she was carrying twins, but would deliver only one baby!


Both the babies being prematurely born (for no fault of theirs) were in neonatal care in another hospital. When I reached there, the doctor in-charge refused to let me in. “No relatives allowed. Only parents!” said he with a stern face. I had to prove that I was the father, not a young uncle of the twins, before I was allowed to have the first look at my daughters.

At the 1200 grams each they weighed, they looked more like kittens without fur than babies. But I decided their names in that moment. Sai and Jui, I would call them. My joy knew no bounds, until I met my parents back home.

It was a full family meeting. All my uncles, aunts, sisters and the brother were there with their spouses. “Look here son. God works in mysterious ways. Your elder brother has no child and you have two! It must be God’s wish that you should give one of your twin daughters to your elder brother.” My father said. Everybody agreed, except me that is.

It was true that there was no hope for my brother to have a child of his own. All medical tests had proved that my bhabhi (sister-in-law) was incapable of conceiving. I was too young to take up fatherhood of two daughters, they all argued. But I desperately wanted to hold on to this double blessing God had bestowed upon me.

The pressure was tremendous. Finally, just to ward off the pressure, I said my piece; “I will part with one of the twins if my brother does not have a child of his own within one year from today.” They all agreed. When I told my wife about the commitment, she cursed me no end.

From then on, every time I looked at the twins, I was gripped with fear of parting with one of them on their first birthday. Which one? I shivered to think. The twins took turns in keeping us awake for whole nights. One started crying when the other stopped. True, it was hard to take care of two little ones for the young couple that we were, but it was much harder to even think of giving one away.

Jui was the weaker one. At three months, she was hospitalized for a full month for some infection. We were not sure if we would still have both of them by their first birthday. When finally Jui was discharged from the hospital, my wife said to me, "I don't want to lose Jui. She needs me more. If it comes to it, let your brother have Sai. She is healthy." I choked on my reply. I just prayed hard for a miracle.

It was when my daughters were four months old, that we got the news. My bhabhi was pregnant! “It’s unlikely that the pregnancy will last. Don’t forget your promise!” my father cautioned me. I prayed harder.

On 31st August 1984, exactly one day before my twins’ first birthday, bhabhi delivered a baby girl. “Let’s see if the baby survives. It’s hard to tell in such cases" my father still had his doubts.

This year in 2005, we jointly celebrated the birthdays. Twenty-second of my twin daughters and twenty-first of my niece.