A sea of humanity, a cauldron of cultures, the cacophony of prayers and the eternal run for the Unseen, together they form the Kumbh Mela, the country’s largest religious congregation at Allahabad’s Sangam every 12 years. Lakhs of pilgrims visit the mela to find salvation and wish for immortality. The unending search for the elixir of life might end in despair, but it is the journey and the acquaintances that enrich life. This is the reason why author Samaresh Bose wants to “dive in the Kumbh — ocean of a lakh of hearts”.
In Search of the Pitcher of Nectar is Bose’s narration of his journey to the Kumbh Mela. Translated from the author’s Bengali travelogue Amrita Kumbher Sandhane, the book is a portrait of an India that is unknown to a large section of the citizens, especially the city-dwellers, and mirrors the diversity in cultures, languages, thoughts and lifestyles.
Bose’s quest is for seeing people and understanding the diversity within themselves. So, when a friend asks him why he wants to go to the Kumbh, he replies, “Just to see.” And he discovers a thousand colours behind the plebeian façade, a Balaram (Lord Krishna’s elder brother in Hindu mythology) whose thirst for life overshadows his disability, a didima (grandmother) from an obscure Bengal village whose harshness hides her motherly compassion, a friend in 13-year-old Brajabala and a helpless father in apparently impudent Panchugopal.
Bose’s Kumbh revelations begin on the train that is packed to the rafters with pilgrims from all parts of the country. He is taken aback by the conviction of a tuberculosis patient to reach the congregation and left speechless when the ailing man’s lifeless body leaves the train to embark on the eternal journey. He is
fascinated by the disabled Balaram’s humility, and his ability to accept humiliation with a smiling face and sing in deep devotion to life, “The dust of the road turned into gold/Now I will draw patterns with tears/I won’t let you go.”
The pieties of the thousands — rich and poor, young and old, men and women — surprise Bose, who tries to fathom the ways of human nature. As he nears the venue of the mela with an open mind and a heart devoid of contention, he discovers more wonders. When Shyama, the coquettish Hindi-speaking woman, teases the author for his polished urbanity, he sees sadness in her smiling eyes. The young wife of an old and infirm kuleen (upper caste Hindu) is not quite adept at concealing her loneliness from the world, not even from lame Balaram.
Bose is left perplexed when blind Surdas counter-questions, “Are you on the right path?” Everyone at Kumbh is in search of the ‘right path’ and a glimpse of the Almighty. In this milieu, a father searches for his daughter, a wife awaits the return of his husband, a devotee discovers Goddess Kali’s blessings in the ‘bitter nectar’ of the neem tree, an ageing mother prays for her son who abandoned her, a fallen woman and thief seeks health for her ailing husband, a Shivpiyani wants immortality for her fatherless son, and a Rukmini sings and dances for her lost Krishna (Rukmini is the first wife of Lord Krishna in Hindu mythology).
What begins as a travelogue turns into philosophy of life as Bose describes each character meticulously and looks deep inside hearts in search of the pitcher of nectar. Even amid the diversity, he discovers a similar trait that binds lakhs of people — the never-ending search. This search is not for the unknown but for the being that hides inside oneself. “No man is a single entity. There always lives another being in him,” Bose writes. His search too is to discover the diversity within himself.
The essence of Bose’s philosophy and the depth of his words have been aptly captured in the translated version by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee. In fact, the translation is a fitting tribute to the Sahitya Akademi award winning Bengali author.
As Bose discovers humanity, his journey, and so is others’, ends with a tragedy when hundreds are killed, maimed and crushed under frenzied feet at the mela venue. As devotees leave the Kumbh, they ask themselves the same question as they had while coming to the pilgrimage. Their search will never end.
Book: In Search of the Pitcher of Nectar; Author: Samaresh Bose, translated by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee; Publisher: Niyogi Books; Pages: 287; Price: Rs 450