Friday, September 11, 2015

Keeping Count...



The Kolli hill range is a beautiful place this time of the year.  As the car wound its way up 70 sharp hair pin bends, I smiled at my mother in appreciation. Great idea, mom! I knew I had been maneuvered into a temple trip where my parents would, once again, stand in front of an idol and lament my single status, but when the weather is this good and the greenery this rich, some things are bearable. Or was it?

When my mom broke no less then 9 coconuts and arranged the 18 half shells on a banana leaf, she avoided eye contact. When she asked me to pour ghee in to the shells and dip wicks in each one, my hand trembled a bit. I guessed what was coming. So, the idea is that all 18 wicks should be lit and burn strong for the ritual to progress to phase 2.

Sitting on the ground in the open courtyard of a temple, with nice strong gusts of wind blowing in every direction and trying to keep 18 wicks lit - this is the definition of torture. At first, people looked my way when I started going ow, ow, ow as each matchstick burned its way to my fingers yet the wicks remained stubbornly unlit. Then a kind soul took pity on me and lent me a spare candle. That worked, even though each burning wick had a life span of about 2 seconds. Mind benumbed, I kept going around and around until finally, for one brief moment all 18 miraculously remained lit. "Prostrate yourself in front of it", people screamed. No problem! I would have done it anyway, in sheer gratitude.

The whole number thing in Hindu religion is a quite amusing. Almost always, odd numbers rule while even numbers are shunted aside in disdain. "Go around the idol 1,3 or 9 times!", "Light up 3,5 or 7 incense sticks!"... It's kinda interesting and led me to think about my own age. 33. A nice multiple of 11. Didn't we all just love the 11 times table in primary school? Hands down, one of the easiest ones. It's also an odd number. So that, with those 9 coconuts and all the odd things, um, odd number things I've been made to do, I figure the heavens are ready to open up and simply shower me with all sorts of goodies. I've been rubbing my hands in glee and looking up in anticipation, but maybe some counting instrument up there is broken. Or as a street-wise Tamilian would say, it's 'repaired'.

That's another amusing thing. Usually, when a foreign language bleeds into the local one, the uneducated section of the population assimilates it easily just by picking it up contextually. Mistakes are rare and always get corrected in time. But even now, when something is broken, many Tamil people say, "Repair aaidichu" when they want to say something is broken. Somehow, somewhere, someone picked up this exact opposite meaning of the word and it spread, without being corrected. The history of language, the etymology of words- it's so very fascinating. For example, take the word 'eavesdrop'- technically, it's a location. It's where the water would drip onto the ground from the eaves of a roof. Perhaps someone stood there and listened in at a nearby window once? Who was it who first made the connection and how did it spread?

Within a span of a few hundred years, there are countless words that have remained the same, yet their meanings have morphed so much that a person from a distant past and one now could have a conversation with words they both know, yet still barely understand each other. It's staggering to think about what a tiny point in time we're occupying, with vast seas of change stretching out on either side. Does all this contemplation make me a wiser person? I don't know. But according to mom, those coconuts will take care of everything. How odd.


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