My friend S was browsing on her smartphone when she opened the door for me.
‘Ah, found it! The complete route map to Shabarimala! I will plan the itinerary tomorrow Oh, there is so much to do!’ She was bristling with excitement and rubbed her hands together in anticipation. ‘Finally managed to put those patriarchal MCPs in place and got our right to visit Shabarimala! Congrats to you too!’ she added.
‘Uh?’ Before I could get a word in edgewise, she went off again.
‘I have to shop for some trekking gear, cargo pants and other stuff. Apparently, it is some pretty wild forest and the trek would be great fun,’ she stopped and looked at me speculatively. ‘Would you like to……Naaah, I guess not! It would be a mixed crowd of young people…. (???!!! But then, when youth icons can be pushing 50, she must surely be considered ‘young’, even if she is closer to my age!)….and we would be partying en route, you know,’ she winked. I decided to ignore that. Not difficult, considering our PM had ignored another wink from another ‘youth’ not long back.
‘But there are rigorous vrats to observe if you want to make the trip to Sabarimala,’ I ventured.
‘Says who? We are just trekking to Shabarimala. Not making a pilgrimage. Moreover, no one can dictate terms to us,’ she replied defiantly.
I sighed. It was clear that she had no clue about Sabarimala, the Deity or anything connected with it.’
‘So you have decided to visit Ayyappa!’ I said.
‘Ayyappa? Who is that?’ she asked with a frown. ‘I said I am visiting Shabarimala, not some Ayyappa or Ayyo-ppa!’ she guffawed at her own joke.
‘But if you visit Sabarimala….’
‘I don’t have time to visit anyone this time. Just Shabarimala. Only, I am wondering why our patriarchal society has barred women from visiting Shabari’s temple. Wasn’t she a woman too? Bah!’
I finally understood her reason for pronouncing Sabarimala as Shabarimala!!
‘But…but…’ I sputtered.
‘Oh, I know all about how Shabari offered the half-eaten ber to Rama when he was on vanvas, so that he only got the sweet ones. Such a waste on a misogynist icon of the foolish masses of this country! I am curious to see the woman who deified that man and has a temple in her name! It is because of women like her’… (she gave me an accusing look) ‘…..that we have to fight for every little thing at the highest court,’ she sounded disgusted.
I cleared my throat. ‘But S dear, I’m afraid that if you visit Sabarimala, you will necessarily meet Ayyappa! He lives there!’
‘Oh, another male chauvinist! I’m sure he is the reason why women have not been allowed to go to Shabarimala, even to visit Shabari!’ she sputtered in rage.
I tried to don a deadpan face. ‘Oh, but he is such a great warrior prince! He had even ridden a tigress when he was a young lad. Such a handsome prince he was!’
‘Oh, is that so? That is so interesting! Maybe I will make some time to visit this Ayyappa! But tell me about his riding the tigress – it sounds so romantic and exciting!’
‘He was sent by his mother to bring tiger’s milk to cure her stomach-ache. The young boy did better and brought home the whole tigress, who not only came with him willingly but also allowed him to ride her!’
‘Oh, I knew it! A mama’s boy, who must have grown up into a male chauvinist, victimizing women!’ she snorted.
‘Not so. You see, he was adopted and the queen was afraid that her own son would not inherit the throne if Manikanthan (Manikandan) remained alive and plotted against him, by faking the stomach-ache. She had thought that he would be killed by the wild animals in the forest, but when he came back, not with one but a whole streak of tigers, she lost her nerve and her minister confessed to the plot.’
‘Wait, wait! Now, who is this Manikanthan?’
‘It was the name given by the king of Pandala, who had adopted the divine child he had brought home from the forest, as the child had a small bell tied around his neck.’
‘Ah! Now that is a sweet name! I will call him Mani. I am sure he must have been very handsome as well as brave,’ she continued.
‘He was. He was expert at martial arts in addition to other princely accomplishments.’
‘Then who is Ayyappa?’ she was confused.
‘Oh, that! When the queen and others understood that He was no ordinary child, they were contrite. But Manikandan had decided to go back to the forest to meditate. He promised his father and others that He would remain on Sabarimala till Kaliyuga ended and bestow His grace upon His devotees. His devotees affectionately called Him Ayyappa,’ I said.
At this point, I thought I should show S the picture of Ayyappa and found one on Google for her. Her eyes fairly popped out at the sight of the Deity, who sat there with love and grace pouring forth from His eyes. ‘Here, you can refer to this link if you want to know more about Him.’
‘Why he is as handsome as Ram!’ she exclaimed.
‘Ram?’ I gasped. ‘You mean Ram of Ramayana, that misogynist for whose proposed temple, intolerant and fanatical Hindus are clamouring?’
There was a sudden change in her tone. A faraway look came into her eyes. ‘Do you know, in our village, we have Ram Lila every year and the role of Ram always goes to some member of our extended family,’ her voice was soft, almost inaudible.
‘But I thought you were saying the other day that Ravan is the actual hero….’
‘Haven’t you heard of haathi ke daant**?’ she suddenly grinned with a girlish charm. Ah, this was like my old friend! I heaved a sigh of relief. Maybe I can talk to her now, I thought.
‘About Ayyappa…’ I began.
‘You mean Mani? Well, I will say hi to him from you!’ she blew a kiss in my direction. ‘Come let me drop you home. I will pick up the shorts and other stuff for our trip on my way back,’ she said, almost shooing me away from her house. I was shocked at the sudden change in her.
‘And, oh, did I tell you that we are filing a petition in the SC to abolish dress codes at temples in the south? Imagine sweating away in a sari or suit in those stuffy, crowded temples! The most suitable attire for such places is a short skirt or short shorts! We have a meeting on that issue tomorrow. Sheesh! What a bore, running to the SC for every basic right!’
My eyes had rolled into my head. I had to hastily pull them back before they disappeared completely.
‘And then run along and buy a long evening gown for the New Year Eve dance, because that is the dress code at the posh hotel, right?’
Maybe I had not spoken aloud and was just was thinking this in my head because she tossed her hair and went to the driver’s side without responding. Or had I?
‘Will I ever figure out her haathi ke daant?’ I wondered as I got into the car.
**Haathi ke daant khane ke aur dikhane ke aur is a Hindi proverb. Loosely translated, it means: the elephant has a set of teeth to show off and another set to chew with.
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