My friend Abdul often spoke of his visits to Palani, the abode of Murugan,
the Tamil deity symbolizing simple living and high thinking. Still, it
never occurred to me that he was a devotee of the lord of the hills.
I put it down to his great love of nature and travel, his concern for the
ecology of the hills, constantly under threat from mindless development.
I was more than a bit surprised, therefore, when one day last month, he
expressed his disappointment at his inability to place his wedding
invitation card at the lord's feet at the Palani temple. "Somehow, I
couldn't get the card ready in time. I, however, promised to bring my wife
on my next visit, provided, of course, that I could persuade her to visit
a Hindu temple," he told me, to my growing surprise.
Abdul had always been fascinated by the mythology of Subrahmanya, he
explained. There was nothing unusual about his interest either. Back in
his hometown, there is much intermingling between the two communities, who
not only respect each other, but also participate in each other's
festivals to an extent. During the annual temple chariot festival, the
honour of being the first to pull the car is by tradition reserved for the
head of the Muslim community.
It was his wife Salma's turn to spring a surprise, soon after the wedding,
just when Abdul was about to broach the subject of the promised temple
visit to her, knowing that she was a devout Muslim who prayed five times a
day. "I have a confession to make," she said, "My father has vowed that he
will take me to the Tiruchendur Murugan temple after my wedding, even if
you won't consent to go there with us. Do you think, you could accompany
me just this once?'
Abdul was thrilled. He was quite convinced that it was Providence that had
brought him and Salma together. And to think that he had been so reluctant
to get married, that too through the old-fashioned route of arranged
Abdul reminded me of an old conversation we had had on my own religious
beliefs or lack of them. I had told him I was no great temple-goer, though
I sometimes enjoyed visiting old, not so wealthy temples that attracted
few devotees. Listening to my wife sing a couple of songs before the
sanctum on those occasions had been an elevating experience, I had told
him, maybe because of the spirit of surrender in which these offerings
were made, embellished as they were by the superb acoustics that
invariably featured these temples. I had described how moved I had been by
the tears that ran down the cheeks of a priest as he listened to her
rendering of 'Varadarajam upasmahe', a song in praise of the daily object
of his puja.
Abdul told his new bride how lucky he thought he had been to marry someone
with such a wonderful, eclectic outlook as hers. "But I also expressed my
one regret in my happiest hour," he told me, "I told her how much I
regretted not being able to listen to her sing at a temple."
Salma's reply stunned him: "Oh, I have learnt Carnatic music. I haven't
sung for years, but I'd love to take lessons again, practise hard, and
sing for you one day at the Tiruchendur temple," she assured him.
At the Tiruchendur temple, Abdul who performed an archanai as he had done
many times before, sidestepped the priest's usual question as he always
did, by saying, "Please do it in Swami's (the lord's) name." But this
time, the priest insisted on full disclosure of the names of the
beneficiaries of the archanai! "Abdul and Salma," my friend said and then
added their parents' names as well, fearful that the priest might take
umbrage. Nothing of the sort happened, and the priest listened with a
straight face. And after doing the puja, he blessed the couple: "May you
both come back here next year with a baby in hand."