Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Proof of Identity

It’s teal. From Westside. And never free from controversy.

The security guard at the Departure gate for the old Bangalore airport, is at first glance, a man in duty and in a uniform. But when you push the trolley close and shuffle the e-tickets towards him, you sense a pause. You realise he isn’t looking at your flight details or even on that not so flattering photograph from back when you were in University. Yes, your identity still matters to him. But the part of it that he has connected with is perhaps not one that he was prepared for at 4:50 in the morning. His eyes are darting back and forth and lingering on your cuffs and your collar.
You blush and then see it coming as he smiles uncertainly, “Yeh Gayatri Mantra hai aapke kurte pe? Main Allahabad ka hoon. Chalo achchha hai, savere savere.”

Gayatri Mantra, for the uninitiated, is a verse that is best recited at the crack of dawn. It’s the tattoo that Esha Deol’s flaunting in the photograph above.

It used to be a part of my school prayers in Lucknow and almost like an anthem that we chanted on the verge of our duties everyday as citizens in grey and white. Every morning as we closed our eyes and joined our hands and stood at an arm’s length from each other in long silent queues. That was 1998.

Ten years later, in another queue, here was the mantra, with me once again. In a language that we both understood. Dawning on our consciousness as the night melted away.

Now, Bangalore was business. And exponentially foreign, since you realise that you don’t just miss your mother tongue Bengali here, but the national tongue of Hindi as well.

So when you are back in Delhi wearing the same kurta and strutting down Khan Market on your way to the Gopal Mandir, you tell yourself that you’re surely dressed for the occasion. Everyone on the way to the temple can read it. Surely the masses share your sentiments. You’ve gotten used to the red vermillion the priest smears on your forehead. And the holy water and the sweets. You’re hoping somehow that the money you’ll offer would get you extra brownie points because this is, at the end of the day, Khan Market, Mecca for the status conscious. But once again, as the priest sways and chants and devotees ring the bell on the way to the shrine for the Goddess, you realise it’s not the crumpled twenty in your palms that’s caught the priest’s eye.

“Kya aap yeh kurta pehen ke soti hain?”

Exclamation marks and indignation were exploding between my ears and I went for less is more.


“Yeh kya likha hai pata hai aapko, kurte pe?”

“Haan. Gayatri Mantra.”

The priest falls silent. You watch him negotiate the information. He hadn’t expected me to come up with an answer.

“Kuchh log pehen ke sote hain, khaate hain. Ashudhh kar dete hain.”

I take my time folding the twenty. His eyes watch me fold it into four and slip it into the collection box.

“Haan”, I continue, “Shayad chahte hain ki mantra unke saath rahe”.

The priest sits up and pulls his legs in. No vermillion. No holy water. No sweets.

“Mantra saath mein rakhna ho to kaagaz pe likhke bag mein daal lijiye. Aise pehen ke ghoomenge kya?”

I don’t really know why I bit back my comments. Some part of me muttered that he’s just doing his job. Or rather, his job now also comprises of deciding who deserves God’s blessings.

When I left the temple and slipped into my shoes, my defiance took over. I went over to the liquor shop and asked for a beer. Foster’s. A split second later, I realised that almost ten pairs of eyes were on me. My hair was unkempt, my kurta screaming “Hari Om”, and in my hands, a brown paper bag carrying a huge Delmonte tomato ketchup. Of course, in my excitement of finally tasting the beer of my choice and mentally travelling back to the city which had shown some respect for my couture preferences, I ended up telling the shopowner, “Bhaiya, ek Foster’s dena. 330 ml.”

The look on his face? Priceless.

“Are you sure you don’t mean Surf Excel, sweetheart?”

No he didn’t really say that. He just said “Budweisser le lo.”

I felt insulted.

You know what, it’s faded. I think it’s had a good spin in the washing machine.

And I don’t know why but I feel I won’t be wearing it for quite some time now.


  1. You talkin' to me? Travis Bickle's blatant one liner epigram could perhaps sum up this entire melange of conversation that Om shanti couldn't. Aaah what a Waste!

  2. Makes me want to travel across India again!