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 Category:  Biographical Non-Fiction
  Posted: April 30, 2020      Views: 75

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A career banker seeking to find redemption in words as against numbers.

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Finding roots in the Writing
"Links in a chain" by Praveen J.

Hindu mythology has it that the Goddess Ganga descended to earth, in the form of the mighty Ganges river, in order to wash away the sins of humanity. Those who inexplicably prefer geology to mythology, argue that this river originates in the melting ice of the Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas. Either way, the fact remains that Ganges has deep religious-spiritual significance in the Indian psyche. As the river meanders towards the Bay of Bengal, traversing more than 2600 kilometers, it irrigates fields and hearts alike. Many of the cities along its banks are now established seats of pilgrimage, each with its own fascinating history. One town in particular holds a special place in my heart. It is Haridwar in the hilly state of Uttrakhand.

Haridwar in Hindi, quite literally means the Gateway to the Lord. It was named as such because after descending from the mountains, this is the first town in the river's journey through the plains. It was here that the Beatles flirted with Transcendental Meditation in 1968 under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. My parents took me to Haridwar when I was eight years old. Pretty as the city is, my principal memories of it are olfactory rather than visual. Being a temple city, it is wildly fragrant with roses and marigold during the day and sandalwood from the incense sticks, in the evenings. The evening prayers resound through the city to the accompaniment of tingling bells and booming conch shells.

Haridwar is also famous for being the base of genealogical record keeping, mostly for North Indian Hindu families. This tradition dates back nearly 250 years. Hindus from all over North India visit Haridwar, for a dip in the holy river and to register the developments in the family, mostly births, deaths and marriages. Of these, death of a family member is statistically the biggest reason to make the trip. For the visitor, it also facilitates periodic cleansing of one's sins, which is highly desirable should one want to be reborn in a family of means. Hinduism prescribes intricate rituals for the proper deliverance of the soul of those departed and these rites are best performed by professionals. The professionals are the priests, or as we call them, Purohits. They belong to the Brahmin caste, the upper most caste in the societal hierarchy. Somewhere along the way, some enterprising Brahmin must have decided that apart from performing the sacred rituals, maintaining family records could be a profitable business extension. Perhaps that is how it all began.  

Finding your family genealogist for the first time, is a comical treasure hunt in itself. It takes querying a random dozen Purohits on the banks of the river, with a combination of one's family name, caste and location of ancestral village to triangulate your specific Purohit. For these Purohits, tracking Hindu lineages, without any technology, is a family occupation. Our Purohit turns out to be one Pancham Mishra. His family and ours will forever be entwined.

The Purohits maintain hundreds of account books, on average one for every year. Each contains many thousand handwritten records of signatures and messages from one's ancestors. The records are kept in a patrilineal sequence. Whoever is visiting, inscribes on the latest account book provided. The Purohit then updates it with cross-referenced links to the family tree, for future visitors and generations.

I visited Haridwar again, last year, this time with my teenage son. A lot had changed in the intervening forty years but we found our Purohit with relative ease. We had googled him beforehand, paid the fees and made an appointment on his website to see him. The person who met us at the train station was a young man of 26. He was our new Purohit, having taken over from the family business from his father. He led us through narrow aromatic lanes, up a labyrinth of staircases to a brightly lit room, stacked with innumerable bound volumes of records. This was the room that held my family's written history. We sat on brightly coloured cushions on the carpeted floor as he pulled out a few volumes. Within minutes, he managed to locate the scrawl left by the eight year old me. I had written my name in English and proudly added that I am student of Grade 4 at St. Joseph's school. Above it, my father had written a eulogy for his deceased mother. My son took a picture of these scribblings on his phone and gave me an affectionate nudge. A finger length below my scribble, someone completely unrelated to our family, had registered the death of his grandfather, the very same day.

Since this recordkeeping is analogue, finding the right account book is, seemingly a matter of hit and trial unless one knows the exact years of all ancestral visits. It took us more than a few hours to identify the notations of my grandfather and great-grandfather. It was mesmerizing to see their handwriting. My great-grandfather had written a full paragraph in March 1919. We have no photographs of my great grandfather, so this piece of writing humanized him in a surreal way. I could not read it because it was written in Urdu language but our young Purohit generously translated for us. Through his words, my great grandfather mourned the loss of both his parents. They died during the plague outbreak of 1918. He could not bring their ashes any sooner because he was serving as a soldier with the British Forces deployed in Afghanistan.

To see the handwritten notes of our oldest ancestor on record, we were told to return the following day. Our young Purohit had to solicit the help of his father to locate those books. Those account books were preserved carefully at another location to prevent damage from moisture. 

The next day, in a similar setting but in a different part of town we beheld the scrawl of our oldest forefather, from eleven generations ago. The edges of the yellowing pages were disintegrating on touch and most of the pages had been held together by scotch tape. He had travelled in July 1826 from a small village in the Sind province of present day Pakistan with the ashes of his older brother. It had taken him 8 days to make the journey in a horse drawn carriage. 

It felt like I had opened a time capsule and unearthed evidence that comprehensively refuted the randomness of my existence. These written logs proved I belonged. I belonged to a long line of men who held unwavering faith in the Ganges river. Their blood coursed through my veins and those of my son, linking the past to the future. I hope my son will bring my remains here, upon my passing, so I may meet my forebears in the spirit world.

Writing writing prompt entry

Writing Prompt
Write a story or essay with the topic of "writing". Can be instructional or a character in the story can be a writer. Creative approaches welcomed.

Author Notes
The picture is a true representation of the Purohits and their serpentine account books.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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