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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Equal for a day: Apna Haath Jagannath

The Rath Yatra in Puri

ill adolescence made us self-conscious about our lives on the street, my brother and I would wait every monsoon for the Rath Yatra. Never having managed to get ourselves selected for tug of war sports routines in school because of our slight build, this was our only chance at pulling a rope without the fear of being dragged to the other side. In our small town in Bengal, it was a day to look forward to: apart from the obvious pulling of the chariot and the jostling and inconsequential flirting, there were bananas and a sour fruit and peanuts to buy and then throw into the chariot. And lining the streets were people buying and selling jalebi, khurma, wooden toys and earthenware.

It says something about the remarkable exclusionist powers of childhood curiosity that I never felt the urge to discover what the gods in the chariot looked like. I distinctly remember the first time I learnt about Jagannath — a classmate had fallen off a swing in the playground and had fractured her hands. When she joined school with her hands in casts, our Hindi teacher, Mr. Ansari, never one for subtlety, called out her name and said, "Apna haath Jagannath". Most of us in class five did not understand what that meant. Adulthood would bring Marxism to us, a theory of labour that was symbolised by what one could do with one's hands. But until then, I would often sit at the dining table, sandwiched between my parents, and wonder how Jagannath, Balram and Subhadra ate dinner.

Now, it is not only the monsoons that remind me of Rath Yatra. The poems of Jayanta Mahapatra draw the chariot to where his readers live. Here is his description of the day from Door of Paper: Essays & Memoirs:

On this holy day, the Lord Jagannath mounts his famous forty-five-foot high wooden chariot, and along with his elder brother, Balabhadra, and their sister, Subhadra, make their symbolic tour of the universe, the three heavy chariots pulled clumsily with long thick ropes by sweating, hysterical devotees on the one-and-a-half-mile journey. Thus, every year, when the monsoon sets, the Lord of the universe performs his tour of the world to study the state of mankind.

oded in this festival is token egalitarianism, this before the age of political correctness: the king becoming sweeper for a day, the blur between socio-economic classes in the crowd of devotees, and the temporary erasure of untouchability. But this is not what I carry from the festival. For me, the festival is a celebration of hands. This might sound oxymoronic, especially since Jagannath, the lord of the world, has no hands (or even feet or ears). But in everything that I have come to associate with the festival — the pulling of the rope, the sweeping with the broom, the selling of wooden artefacts and pottery, all these are functions of the hands. And then there is what Mahapatra calls the "grotesque dawn of wilderness wood": 'The sacred deity of Jagannath at Puri is fashioned from the wood of a neem tree chosen from the dense Orissa jungles every twelve years, human hands carving the "misshapen and limbless" Jagannath (Relationship).

Reading Mahapatra's descriptions of his many visits to Puri and the 'Great Temple' (Dawn at Puri), my thoughts came to be attested by his repeated invocation of human hands. In his poem, Deaths in Orissa, "as the priest walks away/into the tattered shadows./Arms crossed in front of them, only/the women keep standing ...". The most remarkable affirmation comes in the poem titled Sunday:

A hand of God
from the shapeliness
of the arm
where the flesh
had long bled out.

In the same collection (Land, Authors Press), there is a poem, Over the Wall, where the darkness doesn't allow you to see anything except "the god ... you weren't able to banish from yourself", where you hold the darkness "in your arms, as though/it were a child". And in An Abandoned Temple, Orissa, there is this question after the visit to the temple:

When your heart comes crawling on all fours,
what use is there covering your mouth
with your innocent handfuls of life?

It is remarkable, this invocation of the hand in poems about the temple in Puri, and after my metaphor espionage, I am filled with the urge to ask the poet whether this was intentional at all. Here it is again, in a poem titled The Faith:

In these indistinguishable mornings
like pale-yellow hospital linen,
a legless cripple
clutters up the wide temple street,
the quiet early light crouched in his palms.

In his essay, An Orissa Journal: July to November, the sight of the gods have an immediate effect on his hands: "Ten feet away, three gods, dark, dark and strange, limbless, grotesque — and I am here. ... I can feel my fingers curl into my palms". But all around the gods are other hands as well: "I notice a man press forward against a pretty young bride, then clumsily crumple one heavy round breast with his hand .... A hippie couple ... hand-in-hand ..."

I return from Mahapatra to Facebook, this other universe of hands, the digital, where one shows affection and disgust, liking and 'unliking', all with one's hands, there, where we pull chariots all day, this world where un-touchability is seemingly erased with every 'click' on the keyboard, where apna haath is Jagannath.

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