In July of 1966, when I was 15 years old, I tagged along with my father on a business trip. He was traveling to Bahram Ghat, a sleepy outpost with a population of no more than a thousand situated on the banks of the Ghaghra river, to purchase pine for his timber business. I accompanied him because I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to experience the river. While I knew I would enjoy the day trip, I didn’t realize that it would have such a lasting impact on me.
At 2 o’clock in the morning, our driver, Anwar, my father, and I got in India’s all weather Ambassador car and started our 85 mile journey. While we were only 3 people, in true Punjabi tradition, we were carrying food as if we were going to feed the entire Sikh regiment. We reached Bahram Ghat around 8 am and went to the house of Munshi Ji (traditional term for someone who is in charge of business in small towns), who was going to take my dad around. I was directed to Munshi Ji’s wife and told to stay with her for a few hours until someone comes to take me to the river.
I turned to Munshi Ji’s wife and said “Namaste Aunty.” To my recollection she had an almond complexion, was no more than 5 foot tall, and was wearing a traditional cotton sari called dhoti. She immediately replied “No Aunty – Amma Amma” and explained that everyone, even the priest, calls her Amma (an informal tag for “mother”). I smiled and responded “Pranam (greetings) Amma.” She smiled and directed me to sit on the cot on the front porch and she went inside.
Sitting on the cot, my gaze fell upon a Tulsi plant (Holy Basil) on the front porch not far from where I was sitting. After half an hour or so, she came out holding a thaali (large round plate, usually in brass or silver). The plate contained items used in Hindu prayers such as small earthen lamp, small bell, incense, etc. She stopped in front of tulsi and performed aarti - a form of worship with a lit lamp and burning incense. Afterwards, she closed her eyes and stood in front of the tulsi plant with folded hands in what appeared to be a state of trance.
After finishing her prayer, she went inside and brought me out a millet roti with a healthy portion of gur (sugar cane juice cake) and piping hot tea in a brass glass. When she sat down next to me on the cot, I asked her what she says in her prayers. She said something to the effect of ‘’I feel that I can talk to the God in tulsi. I admire the tulsi. When tulsi is planted and worshipped, with its gunas (virtues) it brings peace, health, and purity to that house. I pray to have gunas that would enable me to feed everyone who knocks on my door. I pray to I have the strength to love and respect the washer-man, the priest, the shoemaker, and every big and small person. In the end I close my eyes and listen to tulsi with love; she speaks to my heart.” I asked her why she only prayed for these virtues, and not for any riches or material wealth. With a large smile she said “Once I get the boon of one guna, the rest may follow. As far as material riches, there are too many people ahead of me in line.” She then said that for such wealth, she would need to go to a bigger temple to pray for a more powerful God, and she was very happy with her little God in tulsi. Now when I think about this conversation, it is heart-warming to remember that a village woman of limited means was not asking anything for herself except gift of virtues which she could use to serve people. It was a prayer of pure service, and for no personal gain. Since childhood, I have often seen and heard prayers from people of different faiths seeking blessings in the form of wealth or success in business, even if they do not need more material riches. Some people view religion as a market place where the highest bidder in the form of gifts to Gods expects better returns on his investments. Amma’s actions, on the other hand, were simple and unassuming.
Amma and I sat for a bit longer chatting and eating. Her dark bottomless eyes were at times appeared fearsome and at times full of karuna (loving compassion). Her laugh was like a commentary on human spiritual folly. I remember a local priest passing by and calling her cynical non-believer who was going to hell. I found out later that a good number of people due to her sharp tongue and unorthodox outspoken nature, used to dismiss her as crazy. I could not believe the depth of her “crazy” wisdom when she laughed and retorted that the priest has gotten too much incense smoke in his head therefore he does not know that this is heaven - it is just a lot hotter and has mosquitos.
At around 10:30 am, two and a half hours after my arrival, the driver came to pick me up. Before I left, I touched Amma’s feet, and on my way up she grabbed my hands and held them tightly. She looked into my eyes and said “Beta, Apni Kahani Khud Likhna” (Son, write your own story). In the past, I have not paid much attention to her parting remark, but now as I reflect on my encounter with Amma, I have thought deeper about this. My life has been a combination of hard work, good fortune and friends, and unexpected turns, the biggest catastrophe of which has been my lung cancer diagnosis. Unfortunately, we are not total masters of our destiny or writers of our stories. Unwanted and unsought events come as twist in life’s story. A good writer has no choice but to deal with the twist and give it a new face. The writer has to work a new vision out of the darkness of pain and suffering brought by an unwanted event. This vision does not come without acceptance of the current reality, changing the perspective of the seer. It allows an individual to understand that he/she does not have to be his/her own oppressor by getting attached to the suffering. Acceptance opens the path of peaceful journey filled with abundant grace. My interpretation of what Amma said is exactly that. Forge your path forward, accept the unexpected, and don’t give up. Whatever comes your way, adjust and act on the new script (path) joyfully.
The driver dropped me at the banks of river Ghaghra. The river was gushing with water freshly received from monsoons, which it was boasting by splashing it way beyond its banks. The high waves appeared to be trying to reach the scorching sun to cool it down a bit, but each attempt was being foiled by the possessive Earth. My chance encounter with Amma had already put me on another level, as if I was on a shimmering golden cloud. Seeing the dark, raging Ghaghra and touching its waters allowed me to experience a soothing thunder in that same cloud.
Due to my chance encounter with Amma, the Ghaghra I saw is alive and well in my memory. I remember her voice laden with rustic sweetness as if each and every word was first immersed in the waters provided by Gods before letting them part from her lips. She has left me with a story which has more wisdom than the pages. I hope to pass some of that wisdom through my story. It is said that sometimes a story has more wisdom than its author. I certainly hope that my story turns out to be one like that. While thinking about it, an old Indian song comes to my lips:
Apni Kahani Chor Ja, Kuch To Nishanee Chor Jaa
Kaun Kahe Is Or, Tu Phir Aye Na Aye, Mausam Beeta Jaye
(O passerby, leave some good story of your behind, leave some good sign that you were here,
You as well as no one knows whether you will pass these valleys again, the season is passing)