On the Road and in the Temple: Casual Encounters

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

A few signs of summer heat chasing away the cool air hesitantly made their appearance last week, but light rain and sporadic winds and gusts were quick to frighten them away and to refresh the atmosphere and bring back the winter cold that spurs folks into undertaking things that had better be done today than postponed for tomorrow. Rays of sunlight piercing through the cloudy sky last week had been most welcome; they enliven the environment, the trees and flowers, and boost the morale of people. Not that folks whine about rain and the greyish sky, these help keep us fit so that we spend much energy and feel less tired.

“July-August is a blessed period of religious festivals. The position of the moon in Hindu and Buddhist calendars, yaj ceremonies performed at several Arya Samaj centres, the chanting and recitation of mantras in Sanskrit after the ceremony conducted by pundits and punditas…”

Our compatriots are very good at predicting the future.

One fellow says, ‘Summer is going to be awful this year.’

Another one drags his feet back home after his late afternoon drink at the laboutik, and out of the blue announces, ‘Did you hear that: Covid-19 is back. The end of the world is near.’

All right, thanks for the news.
‘It is here to stay. Mind my words… you hear me?’

Why, someone else reminds you of another matter in case you have forgotten, ‘There have been no cyclones in Mauritius for the past ten years or so.’ And to make his point clearer, he adds: ‘It is unlikely that there will be any cyclone in the future.’

Why does Nature bestow favours on the island? Pray, tell us.

Simple answer: ‘Because we all pray a lot. And we, for instance, meet with other Reiki masters to perform rites to avert hostile winds barrelling towards us.’

He is a Tamilian with an advanced level in Reiki.

In fact, the winds which thoughtlessly head fiercely towards the island are not averted, they are diverted. They go on rampage in the neighbouring islands. It’s a good thing they are not aware of our diversion tricks. Nor are we going to have any tsunami or whatever.’

How does the young executive know?

‘She did some research into the topic.’

What about the slight quake off the coast of Blue Bay last year?

‘That’s nothing. It’s not going to happen again.’

How does she know?

‘Well, the tectonic plates are not moving anywhere in our area.’

Good news, then. Despite Blue Bay being struck nearer the coast this time.

‘Mauritius is safe. Covid-19 is under control because God looks after us. We all pray a lot.’ This pronouncement comes from a middle-aged Creole woman. Prayers matter a lot, everyone concedes. You would think the island is full of divine creatures, angels and all.

* * *

Standing in front of the closed gate of St Antoine church in Port-Louis at the southern end of the town, a sturdy Creole woman is looking dejected.. In our very Mauritian habit of spontaneous and quite natural social interaction, she pours out her story to me as I conveniently happen to be the only creature walking her way on Friday.

‘I don’t understand why the church is closed. I thought mass was going to be held now.’

Maybe it was held earlier.

‘How can they do it at 6 am? I mean there is no bus from Pointe aux Sables so early.’

She had walked all the way from Victoria bus station to attend the ceremony in honour of St Antoine.

‘Oh!’ I don’t know much about St Antoine. In fact, nothing except vague hearsay as to his healing powers.’

Perversely, the stuff a Middle-Ages historian wrote about the Gregorian calendar and the sanctification of a bunch of characters ranging from mediocre to highly dull ones among monks in Egypt and the region flashed across my mind.

A nurse assistant was next. It was her day off. She looked a bit tired; I sympathized. Yesterday, she said, she had asked her sister to put a candle in some place. I could not pick up everything she was saying. The sister could not do it, so she asked her brother. He declined, too.

‘You know it’s not very Christian, how can they not help?’
Maybe they are busy.
‘People have no time for others’, she laments.

She also planned to go to Immaculée church for a mass at noon.

‘It is for Virgin Mary, you know.’

That’s in St Georges Street, at the other end of the town. To me she looks in her thirties.

‘Your children are at school, I guess.’

‘Oh no!’ she answered. ‘My son is 30, and my daughter 20.’

She did not mind walking, as there was still some time left for the next mass. She has strong faith in her beliefs. A yearning for the transcendental comes naturally to people hailing from countries where other traditions existed before new faiths took over.

Pity she missed the mass at St Antoine. I could offer little comfort except walk a bit further alongside her to keep company.

‘It’s a beautiful sunny day, you’ll enjoy it on your way to the church.’

‘I am glad I met you’, she said before parting. Her face lit up into a smile.

* * *

The kovil nearby has been full of devotees, flowers, music, prayers and the elevating smell of incense sticks burning for the whole week.

July-August is a blessed period of religious festivals. The position of the moon in Hindu and Buddhist calendars, yaj ceremonies performed at several Arya Samaj centres, the chanting and recitation of mantras in Sanskrit after the ceremony conducted by pundits and punditas. A few guests from various walks of life made interesting speeches at the Arya Samaj mandir in Triolet. The Grand Bay Arya Samaj held the function three days earlier.

Conversations centred mostly on ceremonies held in various places. Quite a change from the puranic bhakti tradition of worshipping murthis, Vedic ceremonies without murthis to highly devotional ISKCON yaj in honour of Lord Krishna – morphing from Baby God to spiritual guide on the battlefield. The symbolism of murthis escapes some.

‘Philosophy without religion is mere speculation,’ an ISKCON pundit explained on one occasion before the final yaj on Saturday. Is that the secret for the survival of old civilisations?

A long line of devotees queued up in front of the temple, so it was going to be full inside.

A member suggested that we attend the sitar concert to be held in the hall nearby. Sitting on the steps of a small temple, we had a full view of the vast plain next to ISKCON. A soothing atmosphere of peace emanated from it as the place was about to be swathed in darkness. The temple lit up with lamps and garlands, and the air filled with music and chantings in Sanskrit.

Regular members greeted one another, some hopped in after puja at the shivala nearby. Some people, it seems, devote most of their spare time to attending ceremonies or doing pujas. These are opportunities for socialising too. Similarly, yoga groups organize prayer sessions occasionally.

ISKCON food with carefully chosen spices is most healthy, no doubt. With coffee and tea banned, Ayurvedic tea is served at every meal. Ayurvedic medicine, treatment for different impairments, skin ailments and all are the main topic of conversation.

Inside the brightly lit hall, Mr Santokee and his musicians blessed the audience with beautiful sitar music. Transcendental and divine.

Indeed, there is more to life than investing all our energies in figuring out ways to amass more, make ends meet, survive, follow the Kali Yug development of world affairs and sorting out puzzling crazy situations.

* Published in print edition on 21 August 2020

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