lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Man in charge

I suppose a feminist would have bristled. I might have too, if I didn't know the etymology of the word. The usage was not pejorative at all. It was in fact a very delicate way of asking if we were all married, and if our husbands were alive and kicking.

Let me back up a little and fill you in. We'd driven down to Annavaram from Vizag. It's a lovely drive and a lovely temple. There wasn't much of a crowd, even though it was a festival day. We bought tickets for a speedy darshan, because we had other places to go.

The queue moved at a brisk pace, and we arrived in front of the idol. I asked a temple servitor if I could have a few flowers from the altar. They could be dried and propagated the next season, and it would be a nice way to remember the visit.

I suppose we sisters would stand out in any crowd. We certainly caught the eye of the officiating priest; as we were being urged to move and make way for the rest of the devotees, he beckoned us. The silky folds of a curtain hid the idol from the worshippers, it was time for the deity to be offered a meal and apparently this is a private matter. As the huge platters were being brought in, the priest asked us, I suppose on second thoughts, the question.

Did we have yajamaanis?

I don't blame him. Among the four of us, only the other hausfrau looked like she had one. Oh, we were all dripping diamonds (but of course), but she and the schoolmarm wore enough gold to satisfy any bourgeois standards, apart from the je ne sais quoi that made us stand out. But the schoolmarm looked stylish. And the realtor looked like what she was, prosperous NRI doing India, and she could have a yajamaani or perhaps not, she was wearing a salwar suit after all. The second hausfrau, moi, must have given the poor man some trouble categorising. I could have been a journalist, businesswoman, call girl or a flower child.

As we recited our husbands' names and their descent from the sages and Manu, I couldn't help wondering how this business of proxy worship came into being. For even the yajamaani is a worshipper by proxy. He designates offices and commissions the ritual. He doesn't actually perform it himself, though the credit goes to him.

If we think about it, the taming of fire is the biggest moment in the history of humans. From shrinking and running away from a forest fire or a lightning struck tree, we harnessed fire, learnt to feed it, keep it going; and that was the first step in our evolving from puny bands following game and migration patterns of game animals to settling down in a place and finding safety in the fire and the fact that wild animals feared it. We feared it too, but we learnt to use it.

Learning to make fire, and making fire quickly by way of flint, would then become prized, and matter when women chose mates. As we learnt to feed the fire and nurse the embers and keep the hearth going, fire took on more importance, simply for the possibilities it offered. It meant safety, and perhaps letting a fire go out became a crime and a sin. Fire became the way we communicated with our gods too. Sacrifices and offerings to our gods and prayers to the gods became complicated later, requiring intermediaries.

There's a difference between home fires and ritual fires, and this was so till even a century or so ago. Remember Jungle Book, how Mowgli gets the Red Flower, learns to feed it? Now, home fires mean cooking gas and central heating and perhaps a lamp or a joss stick lit in adherence to tradition or because you promised your mother you will do it. We take fire too lightly. We don't have to think about it, it is harnessed and available. But it wasn't always so. Let's not even bring matches and lighters into the discussion, okay?

By the time the Vedas came to be codified, a householder had a home fire that he kept going, but that wasn't the ritual fire of sacrifices and worship. Hence, the word yajamaani.

Yajamaani: or as my Suryaraayaandhram would have it, yajamaanyudu. It means he who is performing a yajna, a ritual; he who assigned hotas and Ritviks; householder and the head of the household.

My BrowNyam has a different definition. It says that a yajamaani is a master, a dhaNi. It goes on to define yajamaanudu as a lord, good man or master, an owner, or proprietor, a husband; an employer of priests at a sacrifice; the person who institutes its performance, and pays the expense.

The Resident Atheist says that a priest once told him that by saying 'mama' and repeating after him, one was actually granting power of attorney to the priest to negotiate with the gods.

So, the priest asked us and we told him. He recited the mantra pushpam and I suppose the deity had been informed that so and so, wife of so and so, descended from so and so, had offered prayers. As we moved out of the sanctum, the servitor I asked for flowers gave me some, and mumbled that we had had a darshan that would have cost five hundred, and he arranged it. I bit back a response that sprang to mind, 'nobody asked you sir, she said' and tipped him.

I was relating this to a friend the other day. He is an American, so I tried to explain the word yajamaani and ended my rambling by saying that he would be a tender of the hearth fire, if we chose to ignore the Vedic definitions and went further back in time.

"Ah, a man to light your fire," he chuckled. I blinked. "That too," I agreed, adding that the priest almost certainly wasn't asking us about that.



Anonymous Ash said...

Your definition is a stretch, Lali. But a good post. What flowers did you collect? Marigolds? or the garden mums?

6:47 pm  
Blogger Rimi said...

Ash, it was Marigolds, if memory serves me right. Wasn't it, Lali? Just doing a little ego-stroking memory check :D

But a prostiture or a flower girl, Lali? the mind kicks it's feet and dies of shock.

8:12 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Ash- I know it is a stretch, thank you, and if otherwise why am I larking, may I ask? I got both, and am looking forward to a bright season of arguments with the Mali, tee hee.

Rimi- Tut, tut. Call girls boast of a higher status and phone numbers, darling child; and clearly you are too young if you confuse flower child with flower girl. Career options after all, love, so don't go expiring of shock, I say.

10:53 pm  
Blogger Rimi said...

No darling, you mistake my point entirely. I meant, to have taken one look at the apparantly-stern Missus Em and have though of ladies who provide a hard boiled egg? That IS a bit of a shock indeed.

(Flower child. Sorry. My mistake only)

4:14 pm  
Anonymous Rajesh said...

@Rimi- You are saying she looks like a cook?

Oi Lali, isn't there a feminine version of the word? In sanskrit, I mean.

4:25 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rimi- How about 'Lady Bouncer' for a career option then?

Rajesh- There isn't. In Telugu it would be yajamaanuraalu.

5:53 pm  

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