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Life Lessons



Only a woman can find the true meaning of life. In this thoughtful and illuminating collection of essays, author Hemalatha Gnanasekar recalls the most consequential experiences of her life as a woman in India.

These 16 thought-provoking essays are drawn directly from her own life, but their universal themes will inspire people of all backgrounds to find the deeper meaning in their lives as well.

A chance meeting with a former teacher helped her understand that wrinkles and weight gain are a natural part of life. A Hindu religious ceremony’s compelling feats of faith led her towards a greater relationship with God. And an encounter with vagabond gypsies helped her understand the true power of health over materialism.

These and other life-changing stories are beautifully presented in this collection of life lessons. Told through the unique perspective of a woman in a society that still struggles with its treatment of them, these essays are full of hope, optimism and humor. And while they may be read in a short amount of time… their lessons will last forever.



Sublime Feat

It was a very small gathering of devout people. It was unusually silent and the children watched the action avidly. The pujari (Priest) was performing abhishekam (bathing) to the goddess in the sanctum. First, he poured a bucketful of milk over the goddess, followed by a thick paste of sandalwood and a pot of water. Again, he took a bucketful of mixed fruits and offered it to the goddess. Finally, he rinsed everything off with water brought from the stream flowing near the temple.

The abhishekam complete, he began to embellish the goddess with a beautiful silk cloth and bedecked her with kumkum (red round mark on the forehead) and flowers. Then, he performed arathi (offering of light from camphor) in front of the goddess while the congregation chanted prayers, which sanctified the atmosphere. Some of the people there explained in hushed tones the power of the goddess to those who were not aware of it.

An old woman advised her granddaughter to pray to the goddess with folded palms, when all of a sudden, the child enquired aloud, “But where is the goddess?” The question put forth by the little girl induced laughter and the serious mood turned to a jovial and relaxed one.

This was the first time I had visited the temple and my mind was occupied with the very question that the child had candidly asked. All that was visible was three black stone pillars. The elaborate rituals were performed for them. And I waited eagerly for Grandma to clarify the little girl’s doubts. But Grandma only chided the girl for her outspokenness and threatened her saying that such questions would arouse the wrath of the goddess who would pierce her eyes with a long spear. Immediately, I closed my eyes and mumbled a prayer. I was rather impressed by the love and devotion the people bestowed on a mere black stone pillar revering it as a powerful goddess. It showed the intensity of faith people have in God!

The fear of God has been inculcated in me since childhood. I had also been taught that God is present in every speck of the universe and that He is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent! Though I believe in this concept of God, there is a slight variation in my conviction. I see God only in the people who come to rescue me or help me out in times of danger or distress. I trust they are sent by God. To some extent, I am of the opinion that God exists in the people around us. But to consider His presence in an inanimate thing such as a stone or tiny particle is beyond my comprehension.

I was thus reminded instantly of a man whom I had come across during my school days. When the assembly prayer was being sung, he would pass by the road carrying a bag in each hand. It was his time for shopping and his bags would be full of vegetables or provisions. After walking a few paces, he would put his bags down. Folding his palms together, he would look at the sky and mumble a prayer to the Sun God. Then, after humbly bowing down, he would continue walking. After a couple of minutes he would repeat the actions.

We had strict instructions to close our eyes while singing the school prayer. On days when there was no teacher spying nearby, out of curiosity, I would try and peek to count the number of times that man stopped to offer his prayers to the Sun God, until he disappeared from view. After seeing the vehement faith that the people bestowed on a mere black stone pillar, my opinion that he was insane changed altogether. Maybe this man revered his God to a great extent, and he saw Him in the form of the Sun!

Once, while I was on my way to my sister’s place, I saw a large crowd gathered on both sides of the road and our car could not proceed. One of the people told us that the road was closed to vehicles for another hour as a religious procession was to pass by in a short while. After parking our vehicle, we decided to join them. Had it been any political procession, I would have asked my hubby to take a different route, but since it was a religious one, I waited to see it. It had been a long time since I had witnessed such a religious procession.

During the summer vacations we would go to our grandfather’s village. Many temples were there and religious processions were quite a common affair. The god or goddess statue of different temples would be carried out in a procession on special carts meant to carry the statues of the gods. Generally, when the procession reached Grandpa’s house, it would halt for a considerable time, and we would offer flowers, coconuts and fruit to the pujari and a special puja would be performed for us. Then, as the bullock cart moved on, a small band would follow, playing the drums and singing bhajans (religious songs). This performance would be followed by a troop of men dancing along; some of them walked tall and wore horse masks and false horse feet. The procession was accompanied by bursting firecrackers.

Stages would be set-up near the temples for enactment of dramas, usually scenes from the epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Though I would understand nothing of the epics, we children would linger around the temple throughout the day, admiring the actors and actresses in their makeup. At midnight, when the drama began, people would squat on the vast stretch of sand and watch with keen interest.

After Grandpa passed away, our trips to the village stopped. Since then, I had missed the joys of participating in a religious congregation.

Now, looking around, I found the same kind of excitement in the air. People from far off places had come a long way to witness the procession, and they were thrilled to be there and waited with anticipation to see the procession pass by. Seeing the prevailing joyous mood, I became all the more curious about the kind of procession that was to pass by.

Suddenly, the crowd stilled and an aura of expectation filled the air as everyone’s attention was turned to the procession visible at the corner of the road. As the procession slowly moved closer, I was enthralled by the spectacular scene.

The first entry to emerge in the sequence was an auto rickshaw towed by a young boy of twelve. A small incision had been made on his back below the nape, and an iron hook had been inserted through the slit. A thick rope was tethered to the hook and was connected to the auto. Also, a sharp metal spear passed through his perforated tongue. He tugged the auto slowly, steadily and effortlessly. There was no hint of pain on his face and he was accompanied by his family members, who trotted beside him, chanting the name of their beloved goddess. They were followed by several other autos that were towed by different men, single-handedly. Some of the autos carried people too, and they were all hauled effortlessly, leaving the onlookers spellbound.

In a short while, we observed an even more horrific scene, the towing of lorries. Each lorry was pulled by three men with the help of thick ropes secured to hooks on the men’s backs. At the four corners of the open lorry, pillars were erected and a temporary ceiling--a framework of metal--was fabricated. On these metal rods were fixed a number of hooks from which metal chains dangled. These metal chains were fastened to the hooks embedded in the bodies of the men who hung vertically, horizontally and upside down from the framework of the metal bars. The relatives of these men were seated in some of these lorries and applauded to inspire them!

The sight of the hooks tearing into the flesh left one horrified. In one particular lorry, a man hung horizontally from the metal bars with his face downward; a cradle was bound to the hooks on his chest, and a few onlookers got their newborns blessed by placing them in the cradle. The sight sent a shiver through my body and moved me to tears.

This unique procession--human beings towing autos and lorries--continued for more than an hour, and we stood agape watching the sublime feats of these strong-willed men; we forgot the passing of time. Surely, some miraculous power must be sustaining them during this ordeal!

This deed, beyond doubt, was the culmination of love and reverence toward their goddess exhibited in the most weird form, and it left an indelible impression on our minds.

This stupendous act of piercing and slitting of their flesh to glorify their goddess shows the sublime heights that men transcend to be closer to God. Undoubtedly, an atheist viewing the spectacle would have second thoughts regarding the concept of God and would certainly change his mind!

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