We had just completed the Upanayanam (sacred thread) ceremony for our younger son, Anish of 13 years. The next day, we were making the preparations for the Gayatri homam, which involved chanting of the Gayatri mantra 1008 times, while offering wood sticks into the homam fire. As this was expected to generate smoke, we took all the necessary precautions. The priest suggested we open the door and windows, and keep a giant fan (rakshasa fan, as he termed it!) by the window to ‘guide’ the smoke outwards.
Along with Anish, his enthusiastic grandfathers, my elder son Ashish and I were dressed in traditional somanams (silk dhotis), and were liberally adorned with vibhuti on the chest, forehead and arms. The ladies of the house were busy preparing sumptuous fare for the occasion.
Satisfied with the preparations, the priest lit up the homam fire, using ghee and dry coconut shells to start the fire. After he chanted mantras for some time, Anish started the Gayatri, while offering the sticks into the fire. Soon the heady mix of ghee, shells and dry sticks caused the room to be filled with smoke, the helpless fan vainly trying to blow it all out of the window. Soon, all of us were diving for anything at hand to protect our teary eyes.
Presently there appeared on the doorway the silhouette of a person, rubbing the eyes vigorously. Through the smoke, he appeared to me to be our good family friend Dilip, who I thought must have been on his way home, and must have decided to step in for a steaming cup of Madras coffee. Without moving from my seat, I extended an informal welcome to him, and called out in an exaggerated drawl “Aao Dilip, Aao!”
Let me pause here to explain to anyone mystified by my seemingly bizarre behavior the rationale behind my shout out. This was a take from the Bollywood cult classic Sholay. The location in the movie was the dacoit chief Gabbar Singh’s den; his 3 henchmen had just returned in ignominy, after being outwitted by the 2 heroes. The camera captures a long shot of the men in the background, heads bent, fear palpable on their faces. The menacing music is accompanied by the appearance of the chief’s staccato boots in the foreground, with the bullet magazine belt menacingly clicking against the boulders, as we hear the chilling words - etched in the consciousness of every son of the soil worth his salt - “Hmm…Kitne aadmi the?”
Unfortunately, the person at the doorstep was not dear Dilip; he was the City Fire Inspector, who had come inside the house fearing the worst. Let’s for a moment, try to get into the mind of the unsuspecting Inspector. There’s thick smoke coming out of the door and windows. From the doorway, peering inside, he sees the room covered in smoke, rising from a burning fire pit, fed regularly by sticks thrown into it by people seated around the pyre, bare-chested, ash smeared all over their bodies. Through the smoke, he sees the ladies in another room (kitchen), ornately decked in strange costumes (9-yard sarees), and churning boiling liquid (payasam) in a huge cauldron, surely conjuring up a magic potion! Rather than douse the fire, the men are egging the poor lad who is struggling to keep his eyes open to throw sticks in it, and are gleefully watching the fire growing in intensity by the second. To top it all, the only sound coming through the thick fumes is unintelligible mumbo-jumbo!
The Fire Inspector squeezed his smoke-filled eyes and muttered exasperatedly, “Is there anyone here who can speak English!?”
When I went up to the door to meet him, I could see that the smoke had attracted the attention of not just the Fire Inspector; there were a couple of police cars stationed on the road, with the officers looking apprehensively at the foggy phenomenon. I had to use all the powers of persuasion at my command to let them know that pyromania - an obsessive desire to set fire to things - did not run in the family, that we were merely performing a religious function, as ordained by tradition. “As long as you don’t burn down the house”, he said, his tone betraying that’s exactly what we were up to! They were only slightly assuaged when the priest, flowing beard, ashes and all, set out to explain in vivid detail the significance of the ceremony. The priest had still not finished with his explanation, as they hastily got into their cars and drove away!