Patna: My 85-year-old mother, Manorama Devi, is a devout woman. She has read Tulsi Das’s Ramcharitamanas at least a hundred times. But, on August 5, Amma, as I call her, showed nothing but indifference towards the bhoomi pujan ceremony that was conducted for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya.
When I drew Amma’s attention to the fact that the television channels were broadcasting live the ritual being performed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the presence of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, all she said was, “I have no interest in politicians. Let me be at peace in my room.”
Her reaction took me by surprise. For I know no one more devout than her. Amma makes sure that a ghee ka diya (earthen lamp lit using ghee instead of oil) burns constantly in the puja room in our ancestral home at Daraili Mathia in Bihar’s Siwan district, where she lives. She has lovingly nurtured a tulsi plant in our courtyard for as long as I can remember, with a red pennant – the symbol of Hanuman – fluttering on a bamboo pole next to it. In good health and in illness, keeping the diya burning is her biggest concern.
Amma was staying with me in Patna at the time of the bhoomi pujan in Ayodhya. My brother had brought her from the village so that we could get her treated for the excruciating pain she had been experiencing in her left limb for a while. By August 5, the pain had subsided, and she had started feeling relatively better.
Being a journalist, I was busy watching the mega event on television, but she wanted me by her side. Anxious about the diya in our puja room in the village, she wanted me to take her back home as soon as she was fully recovered. “I can’t leave the diya unattended,” she said.
I know Amma misses the village and the warmth of our neighbours – the family of Raja Ansari, a barber by profession. His son and daughter-in-law help my mother with the household chores, be it cleaning or cooking food. Raja waters the tulsi plant and buys the Hanuman flag that is changed on every seventh day during the month of saavan. My mother loves Raja’s grandchildren, plying them with homemade sweets and giving them clothes on occasions. Raja’s daughter-in-law massages my mother’s limbs when she is in pain. They miss her greatly when she comes to Patna.
I have memories of Raja’s father, whom we used to call Dulai chacha, giving us haircuts when we were children. His mother helped raise us. She would assist my mother in the performance of the Chhath puja, too.
Dulai chacha used to make colourful tazias to observe Muharram and my father would bear the cost of the glazed papers that were used to decorate the tazia and the firecrackers we all burst close to “tazia baba”. Dulai chacha would start by placing the tazia at our door and then take it to other houses. He would buy firecrackers for Diwali and Chhath puja for all of us.
My father, who was a government school teacher, died in 1977. Dulai chacha and his wife also passed. While I left my village for the city after passing my matriculation examinations in 1976, Raja and his family continued to live alongside my mother, deepening a bond that has sustained over generations.
My nana (maternal grandfather) – he died before I was born – was a saintly figure, according to Amma. He was always seen with a rosary of tulsi beads in his hand, which he would count while chanting “Sita-Ram, Sita-Ram”. My dada (paternal grandfather) – a clerk at a sugar factory in Rampur formerly owned by the British – was the opposite of him in temperament. He would eat mutton and fish which was duly supplied by Dulai chacha.
My mother was more inclined towards the religious preoccupations of her father. After the premature death of our father, when we children were young, and that of our paternal grandfather, who probably never got over the death of his son, Amma became more religious. She went on pilgrimages to Ayodhya, Varanasi, Haridwar and Mathura several times.
She fervently prayed to Kali and Durga to help me get a government job, the one signifier of a settled life. She was not happy when I became a journalist in my 20s (in the 1980s). Always on the move, I ended up having the very opposite of the settled life she had wanted for me.
I am now in my 60s, but Amma still prays for me to get a sarkari job! In fact, on August 5, when she was feeling much better, she prayed to goddess Kali of the temple in the Patna University campus that she would sacrifice a goat if I got a sarkari job. I had once taken her to that temple on the campus where I had studied as a college student.
I joke with her, saying, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Nitish Kumar don’t like what I write. They won’t let me have a sarkari job, for they are the sarkar!”
Amma does not have much to say about Modi, but she has been full of praise for Nitish Kumar on earlier occasions, such as when a road was built in front of our house (around 2009) and we got electricity (in 2017).
But the moment she hears that the CM does not like what I write, she says, “Goddess Durga will never pardon Nitish. He will go to hell. You are the gift of Goddess Durga to me. The goddess will protect you”.
In Amma’s universe of faith, godmen seen to be close to power have no place. I remember she used to visit a hermit called Mauniya Baba who got a Ram and Shiva temple built in Chakri village, barely a kilometre away from our village. Mauniya Baba, who was immersed in his faith and had little to do with the material world, used to wear saffron. He died last year.
Hence, Amma, with her unclouded vision, has complete disdain for politicians donning saffron and so-called saints who may look like Mauniya Baba but are neck-deep in politics. “Why should they wear saffron? It is a divine colour. Only saints devoted to the gods should wear it,” she says in a tone that brooks no argument.
As far as I am concerned, Amma has the final word on Ram.
Nalin Verma is a senior journalist and co-author of Gopalganj to Raisina – My Political Journey, an autobiography of Lalu Prasad Yadav. He has also written The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar.