“Mama, Please give our usual weekly quota of ‘Pottukadalai-Chakkarai’ (roasted gram and jaggery powder) packet for the prasad” — I asked Kittu Iyer, the petty provisions shop owner in the Agraharam. It was 7:55 AM. We normally started our weekly prayer session at the Ram temple at end of street at 8 AM. Ganesan was coming running with the temple key bunch in hand that he collected from the 3rd house from Kittu Iyer’s shop.
Kittu Iyer’s provision shop did not have any looks of a typical shop. It was simply the larger “Thinnai” (elevated platform) at front of his house, which had been covered at 2 sides with a makeshift bamboo screen. His shop contained bare minimum stocks of essential provisions like rice, maida, dhals, edible oils, salt, spices, jaggery, match boxes, kerosene, cheap toffees, oil cakes and the like.
Gundu Sir had made an arrangement a few months back that every Sunday, Kittu Iyer must issue some 200 grams of pottukadalai with powdered jaggery to us village children, to be used as a ‘bait’ (in holy terms called prasad) to be distributed at the temple for the children for participating in the Weekly Prayer session.
Gundu Sir was the trusty of the local elementary school and was also the third standard teacher. He was a short and very plump brahmin (that’s why the name gundu sir) with a round face, chubby cheeks, laughing eyes, a tuft of half-grey hair at head and a streak of vibhuthi (sacred ash) at his forehead. He was a joyful teacher, very dynamic and talkative, friendly with children and was very particular that children were brought up with devotion to God right from young age.
In the elementary school, he had made sure that children were taught to memorize and sing a few sanskrit and tamil prayer songs, Bharathiar songs, Thiruppavai, Thiruvempavai songs and so on. At least the first half an hour daily in the school was spent by children singing prayers together and it was mandatory.
Not willing to allow us to forget God and live in peace on Sundays, Gundu Sir came up with the idea of forming “Weekly Prayer Club’ in the Agraharam. He made sure that all ‘basically obedient’, God fearing and teacher fearing boys and girls were enrolled as mandatory members of the club. His idea was that children should take initiative to come to the temple every Sunday and sing bhajans and chant hymns together on their own initiative, without supervision from elders. And his bait for it was the ‘Pottukkadalai – Jaggery’ combo.
The village temple located at the end of agraharam was rather dilapidated. It was a tiny Vishnu temple, with Lord Lakshmi Narayana with his consort Lakshmi on his lap sitting as Moolavar (Prime deity), and Lord Rama, Lakshmana and Sita along with Hanuman in Panchaloka Vigraha as Utsava moorthy (movable Deity for festivities). The deities wore dirty clothes and looked rather impoverished, with nothing like a garland or jewels to decorate them. A few cockroaches running up and down the deity was a common sight. Most villagers were having just a hand-to-mouth existence those days and where would they find money to take care of their Gods? The temple could not even afford to have a full time priest. We had a part time priest who would visit in a hurry in the evening once in two days in his old Raleigh Bicycle, remove the dirty clothes decorating the images, pour a hasty pot of water over the main deity to bath, put the clothes back, loudly chant a few holy hymns in the process as if playing a tape recorder hidden in his throat, and retreat in a hurry.
Perhaps the lord in the temple had been cursed by some angry Rishi that they shall live in eternal poverty! Since no valuable items or gold ornaments were in the temple, there was no serious issue of any security threat. Hence the temple keys were kept casually in the custody of one of the residents of the village. Thus children of my age (I was about 11 years old then) were easily given the keys to open the temple’s outer gate and then the main door just in front of sanctum sanctorum so as to conduct our Sunday prayer sessions.
“No. I can’t give your prasadam hereafter. Go and ask Gundu sir to settle the pending account. He has not paid for this for the past 4 weeks” said Kittu Iyer in a stern voice.
I was in a fix. What to do? It was already eight. Our usual gang of 5-6 boys and 7-9 girls for the session had arrived at the temple gate. Seeing me standing there at Kittu Iter’s shop, a few of them came running to find out what was happening.
“It looks there won’t be pottukadalai today…” I said. “Any way, shall we go and start?”
None of the children seem to be enthusiastic to my suggestion. Vasu, after inquiring why, said, “Let us declare holiday today and let us do it next week if prasadam is made available”.
“Oh, no. Gundu Sir, would not like us doing so…” said the tall and lean girl Rama Thilakam. She never really liked her unique name. So, we used call her her Sakthi. “If it is really so, then Gundu Sir is duty bound to pay Kittu Iyer and ensure uninterrupted supply of our holy prasadam” said Ganesan, the senior most of all. We all knew pretty well that Ganesan, who was least endowed with any singing skills, whose memory of hymns was rather too poor, came to the weekly sessions only for the sake of eating the prasad.
Seeing the reluctance of all, I decided to go to Gundu Sir’s house that was just next to the temple to report the matter. But Rukmini, Gundu Sir’s sixth daughter and our club member said her father was out of station. What to do now? One or two boys were trying to slip away when all these fruitless talking was going on.
At that moment, Ramnath came to Kittu Iyer’s shop to buy a Lifebuoy soap. Seeing us children engaged in animated talks, he was curious to know the issue. Ramnath was about 25 years old, fair and fat, the son of Sevittu (Deaf) Krishna Iyer whose house was just opposite to the shop. He studied up to SSLC in the town school and went to Chennai in search of job. He used to come to the village a couple of times every year. Kittu Iyer explained to Ramnath the ‘evolution’ of the weekly prayer club and how such a dynamic spiritual movement was facing crisis now for want of the essential matter – the pottukadalai prasadam, caused by the careless Gundu Sir who failed to pay for the supplies.
“Ah! It is really a brain wave of Gundu Sir to have charted this program to inculcate bhakti to young children in our street! As an old student of Gundu Sir, I am duty bound to ensure that this great initiative does not come to a grinding halt. Let me pay for the prasadam this week…” With his chest up, he fished out thirty paise from his pocket and paid to Kittu Iyer as his contribution. There was jubilation among the children. For the first time in our lives, we saw a Karna, the likes of whom we had heard only in Mahabharata!
We ran to the temple, placed the pack of pottukadalai in front of the deity, lit the wick lamps and started our session with the customary Pillayar song “Lambodhara Laghumigaraa…”. Our repertoire was extremely limited and we went through the session with our known 6-8 bhajans, 4-5 Thiruppavais, 1-2 Thiruvachagam, 3-4 little sanskrit slokas on Saraswathi, Rama, Anjaneya and the like.
Arun was a little boy, about 8 years old, the grandson of Nadu (Centre house) Gopala Iyer of our village, who actually studied in Kumbakonam (a town 15 km away from our village) but visited his grandparents practically every week end. He was always a ‘visiting dignitary’ to our club. He loved singing bhajans at top of his voice. This song on Lord Muruga – “Vel Muruga, Maal Maruga, Ananda Nadanam aadi vaa–vaa...” was his ever favorite song. Somehow, all of us were charmed by his enthusiasm to sing that song and we made sure that whenever he was present in the session, he was given the privilege of being the lead singer of that song as the last song. To match his high pitched voice, all of us would sing/shout at the top of our pitches for two reasons– one: there was really a pep and vigor in that song and two, it was the last song so that we can wind up and consume our much awaited Pottukdalai jaggary!
Once singing was over, one of us would take the lead to show Karpura Aarathi to the deity, with another boy ringing the hand bell. The leader would take a spoonful of holy water, sprinkle it around the now-opened packet of pottukdalai, pray with folded hands and closed eyes requesting the lord to taste it so as to make it a prasad. The leader would now distribute the prasad to all the children who vie with one another to get it first. The leader was always given the privilege of keeping 1.5 times the normal share, that too, the last remnant in the packet which would contain maximum amount of jaggary powder at the bottom!
That day, Eli (Rat) Nararayanan known for his fumbling hands was the distributor. He spilled quite some pottukadalai on the floor while distributing, getting the wrath of the children. All the children fled the scene the instant they got the share. Normally, it was my duty to lock the doors and Ganesan, being the senior most (13 years old) had been instructed by Gundu Sir to ensure that the locks had been done properly. It was his duty to shake the doors and pull the locks to assure that locking was perfect.
While I was ready for closing the doors, Ganesan was doing prostrations in the floor. “Come on, Ganesa, it is time to lock” I said. He raised up his head from his lying posture and said, “I have some special prayers to make; that’s why these extra prostrations. You just go around and take a couple of pradakshinams and I will be ready to depart…” he said.
I obliged and walked swiftly along the praharam twice and came back. Ganesan was still doing his prostrations, but surprisingly he had changed positions. The normal practice in doing prostrations is just in the place where you stand and keep lying down and pushing up at the same spot. But as I watched curiously, Ganesan’s was moving himself like a lizard here and there! At last, I noticed what was going on. He was prostrating, extending his tongue and then picking up the pottukadalais strewn on the floor by the tip of his tongue and munching them!
I clapped my hands and laughed “Ah! What a devotion, what a prayer!” Ganesan reluctantly got up with a sheepish smile and said, “You see! These are pieces of prasadam! One should never waste prasadam – it is holy!”
AFTER SOME THREE MONTHS…
I had missed two consecutive sessions of weekly prayers. on one weekend, I was sick. On the subsequent Sunday, my eldest sister’s marriage took place at my house. Ganesan was bitterly criticizing the ‘authorities’ when I met him. “You see! Gundu Sir has washed his hands off now from paying for the prasad. It seems he wants other parents too to pay. He told my father “I am having a huge family to feed; How can I keep on paying week after week? You too should contribute”. My father replied to him: “You have seven children and I have eight”. The problem with my father was that he drove me to the temple on both the weeks saying, “Go and participate. it is good for your future. Can’t you pray without prasadam? Shameless fellow!”
Next Sunday, when I went to Kittu Iyer’s shop, he spread both his hands wide and said, “Go go! No prasadam. For having served the God, what I got was one and a half rupees of unrecoverable loans”. Already the children strength in front of the temple gate was hardly 8. What to do now?
“Let me try at my home. Keep waiting; I will be back in a moment”. I took a sprint to my house. Having known my father’s stinginess in and out, I knew I won’t get a single paisa. But I had an idea. I went straight to the kitchen.
“Amma, can you give me a packet of Pottukadalai and jaggery for distribution for our weekly prayer session?”
My mother said, “Your father will never approve of it. Do one thing. You know we had a large drum full of laddus and their broken boondhis left over for eating and distribution to relatives after your sister’s marriage. All the laddus have been consumed by you children. But some 3-4 handfuls of broken boondhis are very much there. It is time to dispose them. If we don’t consume them in the next 2-3 days they will get bad and unfit to eat. Take it and distribute them to the children after the session. But remember — it is not meant to be offered as prasad to the lord, because it is not fresh.”
For the first time, we ended the session without offering ‘formal naivedya‘ to the lord. But the sweet boondhi was the most sought after stuff by all children! Lowly pottukadalai was no match for the high-end sweet boondhi soaked in sugar! Despite being 1 week old, the boondhi was tasting heavenly! The quantity distributed was much more than the usual pack of Pottukkadalai and the attendance was low. Hence all the children had their field day!
And incidentally that was our last session of Weekly Prayer Club too.