City Faith – Lockdown Epic Reading, Ghaziabad
From choir to duet.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
They would always take the possibility of unexpected monsoon showers into account, as well as that of unexpected power cuts. But they hadn’t thought of this situation.
Every year in July, Keshetra Pal and his wife, Pushpa, hold the sacred Ramayan Paath, the continuous 24-hour reading of the complete Ramcharitmanas, in their home in Ghaziabad. For two consecutive days their drawing room would be converted into a makeshift mandir. The sofas and the coffee table would be removed, the floor would be covered with mattresses topped with beautiful clean sheets. Friends, relatives and neighbours would fill up the space, and each would be given a copy of the epic from the couple’s vast collection. In turn, hosts and guests would read aloud the verses in singalong voices, and these voices would pulsate with the emotion suiting best the passage being read.
But how to do this in the times of coronavirus pandemic, when gathering of friends has becoming life threatening? The couple and many of their friends, it has to be said, are in their 70s.
One option would have been to postpone the Paath to a post-pandemic tomorrow, possibly next year — but “that was out of the question,” says Pushpa. “We have been doing this for decades… we couldn’t not do it.”
The couple insists that this two-day reading of the epic is the most important event of their annual calendar. Pushpa would especially look forward to the closing ceremony, when the marathon reading would end and that all her women friends (“Priya, Aranjana, Mrs Sachan, Mrs Mathu, Gita…”) would be singing bhajans set to the tunes of popular film songs.
The occasion would climax with a lunch, for which a halwai would cook aloo subzi and poori right on the couple’s first floor balcony. The holy prasad would include sooji halwa and panchamrit, a delicious concoction of five ingredients—milk, yoghurt, honey, tulsi leaves and Ganga’s water.
After much deliberation, the couple decided to invite guests from one household at a time, “who would sit and read in the drawing room, with us staying at a safe distance.” And of course everyone would be in mask and there would be hand sanitisers placed beside the books.
But then Kshetra Pal developed cold feet. What if a guest is unknowingly infected with the virus, and spreads it to others? “I know what would have happened next… news channels would have targeted our flat as the super-spreader!” he says, quiet seriously.
Finally, the couple went for the safest option.
They both stayed awake for 20 hours straight and finished reading the epic between themselves, sitting face to face in the much smaller study that is presided over by a small wooden temple.
“Our friends understood,” says Pushpa. Her husband adds: “For us, this Ramayan Paath is also an opportunity to connect with all our friends, but in the end it is reading the Ramayan that matters the most… re-experiencing the life of Bhagwan Ram make us hopeful that we shall always survive the difficult times.”
Now the couple sits down again in the drawing room with their copies of the epic, to recreate their lockdown-era Ramayan Paath for a photo shoot on WhatsApp video, the mobile being held by their granddaughter.