RELIGION, COVID AND EVERYDAY: A TALE OF AN UPPER MIDDLE CLASS JAIN FAMILY

My father, Shantilal is a very religious man. His daily routine as well as the routines of the house are shaped by the religious practices. His routine starts with praying and reciting Niyams – counting the allowances of activities, food, clothes, spaces, etc he will be practicing in the day. He does it over quite a long in the sleepy dawn, with dozes in between. He is usually woken up by my mother, Sangeeta, if she is awake, or by alarms. After that he spends some time on his phone, usually playing loud WhatsApp video forwards.

One time when he was playing the video out loud in the living room, I asked him ‘why don’t you use the earphones, you have a very good earphones which you got with your new phone’. He had recently bought a Galaxy S8 lite, which he found to be good enough and cheap, compared to his friends and brother’ phone. He also realizes that he doesn’t use phone beyond calling, Whatsapp and facebook. His applications could be managed by any other cheaper phones also, but my brother had insisted that he had to either buy an expensive Iphone or a Samsung phone, which would match his status and fit in among his friends and brother.

After I had given a very brief tutorial on how-to pick-up call and how convenient Earphones were, he had started using them excessively. My mother had sighed in relief, cracking a funny comment, now I will be able to sleep in the morning peacefully, and we all giggled. After the scrolling through Whatsapp forwards, he would spend some time going through accounts of office, purchases and sales of goods, and tearing many paper into bits so as no one can read it or reads a religious book. Sometimes he would do Rai-Pratikaman – a religious practice where one recites religious texts sitting on a small foot by one and half feet carpet made of cotton, with a Charawla in hand –a small broom with wooden stick, on one end there are very soft thick cotton threads and on the other hand a carving on the wood, which would signify if it is to be used by man or woman. It is usually used to broom any insects or organisms around, which might not be visible, but it is said that whenever one stands up or bow down, one should broom it around briefly, to move the organisms away with soft cotton threads, so that you don’t kill them ‘accidently’ with ones hard body. Along with the two samgri, there is also a Mupati, a cotton mask for mouth so that one doesn’t spit or kill the organisms with a blow of air when ones speaks. Before starting the pratikaman, he would change his clothes and wear a white cotton dhoti and a piece of cloth to cover upper body.

During this time, he cannot touch any electrical appliances and neither use them by any means, so the fan and the lights of the room are off for the period. The pratikaman is also practiced in the evening, and in these times my mother and my brother would often give him company. They would practice in the living room, letting the kitchen light be on, so that they can read religious text from a book in the dim narrow beam of light. It would be often me who would be asked to switch on or switch off any lights as they themselves cannot touch it.

Before starting the morning pratikaman, he would often Sangeeta once or twice, if she wanted to join. She would usually prefer sleeping as to get enough rest to get with the daily chores.

Sometimes I would be awake all night with my work, so he would be the first one to come to my room to see if I am awake. He would many a times serve me, some warm milk and some dry fruits in the morning. When I wake up late, I would often find him exercising in the living room, and I would get my coffee and sit at the dining table in a way that I face him lying on the floor his leg spread wide apart and hands supporting his leaned-back body, stretching some parts of his body in rhythm with sudden violent exhalation and inhalation, like a pump. Once I cried out loud in cheerful tone – ‘Shantibhai, ajji stretch kayo, bharabar kayo’ – Shantibhai! Stretch more, do it properly’. With a surprise of me calling my father by his name, my family would giggle. He smiled and came up with a humorous taunt, ‘Master ji, Come and teach me then, even you would exercise that way’. I continued the dialogue and said to him, ‘I don’t need to, I am not as old as you yet.’

During this, my mother would often be busy with the daily chores, with brief breaks in between where she would sit on the sofa and check Whatsapp and Facebook. Whenever she would come across a spiritual or a ‘life-lesson’, she would recite it out loud to share it with everyone. Me and my brother, would burst out in sarcastic ‘WAH, Wah whatsapp Devi Wah!’.

In these times the daily house work had increased prolifically, because of the absence of any house help and extra measures been taken as instructed by many forwards on the Whatsapp. Everytime, whenever any person would step outside, they would have to take a bath as soon as you entered the house and wash all the clothes by themselves. It was often either of my brother, father or me who would go to buy daily needs. I remember once my mother had told me when she came along with me to the market, “I guess it’s been two and a half months since I came out of the house. It seems so different around here.” The difference would often be forgotten as she would remark on people ‘not taking proper precautions’. This remark soon became a part of in-between gossip sessions, where every member of the family would come with new story of how people are not taking care, and it would be discussed with such enthusiasm as if we were competing among us, who has the story of most irresponsible person.

WHATSAPP INSTRUCTIONS: From many suggestions made over Whatsapp, we had started washing the vegetable and fruit with soda or salt in hot water. Many ingredients were avoided, like coriander, as it would be very time consuming to clean and wash it before keeping it in the fridge, also it would not last long after washing, it had to be used soon. All the new vegetables, edibles, deliveries were kept in a ‘Quarantine area’ – a small nook beside TV unit, near to the main door. The used plastic bags were kept in balcony for at least 3 days, as instructed on Whatsapp. The things which didn’t had yet passes the test were referred to as ‘non-quarantined’ and ones which could be use were called ‘quarantined’.

The absence of the house help had hit hard on our family, as we were used to many  house helpers and we live in a big lavish 4 BHK. In the early days, there was a very brutal separation made on the allowances of people in the household. Many society rules were designed to keep some people out of the society. The rule meant for safety for all, was made on the separation on the basis of type of job one performs. It would be often a situation of worry, for everyone, if anyone thinks of calling a house helper at home, with an assumption that they stay in denser place and hence they would be much more prone to the virus. New rules of my society forwarded through Whatsapp read as so –

“Hello JEERAWALI RESIDENCY MEMBERS, HAVE A HEALTHY & SAFE TIME…

We all are aware of the current Corona Epidemic.

To Fight these virus our committee have decided to implement the following with immediate effect.

 1. All members, guests, maids, Kamwali, and service providers must sanitize their hands with Sanitizer available at the reception area. (Every time).

 2. Delivery boys from Amazon, swiggy and all simmilar service providers will be restricted till reception area. Who ever have ordered have to go down to the reception area for collecting their parcel. Do Sanitize your hands well before and after receiving your parcel from delivery boy.

 3. Members, or their relatives and guests who have come recently from abroad must inform respective authority about their travel history and must take appropriate action and prevention as directed to them. 

Above decision is solely for the safety and well being of our members and your support is inevitable.

Remember Prevention is better than Cure.”

After a month or so without house help, we started looking for different ways in which the helpers can come under some precautions. It seemed like how a body could be purified to be allowed to enter the house. One of such suggestions was to make them bath as soon as they came. One was to provide them a shelter in a building garage, and provide them with everything they need and not let them out of the society. which was proposed to a helper, which he rejected straight away, ‘how can I be apart from my family when you cannot’. The bizarre solutions seemed like orchestrating a rat trap, and anxiously waiting for a rat to be trapped.

All of us have also accustomed to specific diets shaped by the religious and each health conditions. Since me and my mother were the only people who knew cooking, it was mostly us spending time in the kitchen together. Often, we would discuss our intimate matters while working, she would tell about the time when she used to feel so lonely in such a big house, which would often make her anxious resulting in breakdowns. But now she felt much better as being surrounded by all the members of the family. Although, there were a brief dispute between the family which would trigger her anxiety again.

We used to also make fun of our father whenever we spotted him from the kitchen door, lying on the sofa, with his phone on the stomach and earphones on, which he had recently learn to use, attending call all through the day, as it was the only means of carrying out business. Sangeeta would call me and say, ‘look at you father now that he has accustomed to the earphones, he never removes them, he sleeps many a times with them listening to pravachan’. Many a times when he used to come to help in the kitchen, he would plug earphones in and listen to Modi’s speech, some pravachan or attending a call. As he is very bad at multi-tasking, he would often take a lot of time to complete the chores. Sometimes Sangeeta would jump in and say ‘let it be, I will do it myself, or else you would be awake all night.’

‘Shanti bhai, kitchen me acho, thodo kaam kayo yaar, ko sota ayo’ – Shantibhai come and work in the kitchen yaar, why are you sleeping, I said it loudly in a sarcastic tone but maintaining a humour so that it doesn’t hit him much. My mother would come to his defence, ‘He is working, or else how will we buy what we eat.’ Many a times, my brother would come with a blast of anger onto me, whenever I would say something like this, ‘You think only you are working in this house na, we are living at your mercy it seems.’ It would either stir up in a much-heated argument, or would be blown away with some jokes or ignorance.

The diet of my father and brother was not to be compromised when the office worked had resumed. The load of which was to be taken by Sangeeta completely, the part of chores which were done by brother and father, came on to Sangeeta. There two rounds of tiffin made every day, wrapped in double cloth bags, so as to avoid direct touching of tiffin by anyone else. The tiffin was delivered to office by a delivery person, who would only be instructed to touch the bag only from outside, so that the inner bag can be directly be removed at the office. The preparation of tiffin was the most stressful time of the day. In the heat, making rotis was the most difficult part of the day for my mother, I had started helping her only till the time college had started.

Before the  pandemic Shantilal had suggested to put an AC in the kitchen, which seemed absurd at start, but came to great use in the pandemic, when we started spending hours in the kitchen. One day I had gone to kitchen, after taking a break from lecture to fill up my bottle, my mother was making Rotis, she said to me ‘it’s so good that we put the AC, otherwise in the May summer it is a dreadful to be in kitchen. Although the Rotis don’t seem to fluff fully, but I guess it’s fine’

During my lectures in the morning, I would be served with milk, raab and morning snacks by Shantilal, or Manan. Whenever Manan came with food to me, he would often mimic a servant of king, bowing down and with a bowl of food he would enter my room, offer it to me and would wait there bowing down, till I said ‘Takliya’, and he would go out bowing down and walking backwards, so as to not face his back to his King.

I had made my table, by all the things I could find at my house. The table which was already in my room a small table made in a corner, as if it was put in left out space after putting the bed. While sitting on the table only thing you could see was two walls in front and in the side. When my house was been renovated, I had asked to take out the bed out of my house, and had somehow requested my family to keep some of the discarded objects, using which I made a new table by the window, beside some plants. We even tried to bring a sofa in my room from the hall, so that Sangeeta could come and sit in the room in the afternoon or take afternoon naps. Soon we had to remove the Sofa out as it was taking a lot of place in the room. The other reason to bring the Sofa out was, if someone had to sit on the sofa, Shantilal would have to get up from his spot, where he used to often lay down, conducting his daily business.

The room of my grandmother was used as a pooja room, as we had sent her to Deolali, where she owns an apartment, where the cases were very few so she would be safer there. The society, in which she lived over there was a society dominated by Jains, Kutchis and Gujuratis. Which was less populated in the beginning of the pandemic, but as the time went by, and there was no hope that things would get better soon, the society was populated by the families who could spend time without earnings, as they had enough to go through months. Many a times, Shantilal had suggested that even we should move, but I had been keen on not going as I don’t feel very comfortable over there, and it would be quite lonely there. And since my college was going on, I had a good excuse to make that there is an internet problem over there. Manan had opted to be home too, as he was working in the office on everyday basis. My mother said she wouldn’t go if we both are at home, and Shantilal had not much choice but to stay home with his family.

The pooja room (grandma’s room) was composed by pushing the bed to a side, leaving only some space as to enter the washroom. The other side, by the window, was used to do pooja. An idol was brought to home from the temple in front of the society, it was a Dhattu Pratima, on which the daily religious practice can be conducted, without having to do a pratishta, which is often done on idols in jain temples. It is a religious process, after which Pratima can be worshiped with milk, Chandan and flowers. The pooja was a daily niyam of my Father, and even my brother had started practicing it daily, but because of the pandemic the daily practice was broken till the idol was brought to our home.

The idol was placed on a stack of stools and some furniture which I had convinced my family to not throw away during renovation. The stack was carefully made so that it doesn’t fall, and when placed the idol, it would be near to chest level. It was placed on a bronze plate. Behind it, a piece of cardboard with a decorative old cloth was tied on the top most stool. Upon all of this was kept an cuboid shaped glass, a part of old furniture, open from three sides, so that it would cover the idol from either side and the top.

With an addition of religious worship to the schedule, the morning routines became more and more hectic, and at the same time more relieving as they now used to spend time praying and hoping for things to get better. It also added to the daily chores, as there was a certain purity to be maintained when you had idol at your place. The milk and water with which the idol was worshipped couldn’t be thrown in the sewage, it had to be thrown in the mud or on an open surface where it could evaporate. The clothes which were used to cleanse the idols need to washed daily and the water for the same was to be not thrown in the sewage. There were many additions to Shantilal’s and Sangeeta’s schedule. Shantilal would go and get flowers from the society garden. After a few days it was instructed to watchman to collect the flowers and keep it ready. After taking a bath and getting dressed in his ornamented white dhoti and khes, Shantilal would sit in a window opening, where he scrubbed the chandan and kesar on stones with some water, to make a thick paste out of it. My mother would carefully keep some of the raw milk in a cup, which was collected from a dabba near watchmen, where the doodhwala would deliver the packet. The packet was washed with soap before it was open. Many other preparations were made to complete the ritual, along with which, Sangeeta had to prepare the breakfast. Although it was very hard to fulfil the requirements of the practice, entire family got accustomed to it sooner. As they couldn’t let go the ritual, even if someone wanted to as it was considered a sacred practice for the well-being of all.

Manan had taken the task of decorating the Idol (aangi) after the pooja was done. He would often do that singing a bhajan, and playing it on youtube. He was often admired by Shantilal and Sangeeta for with enthusiasm he sang during the ritual. He had started decorating it with flowers in the beginning. Soon golden warakh (a very thin foil made of silver or gold) was procured from somewhere, which was used to ornament the idol. After a couple of days, Sangeeta had got an idea to make a small paghadi (turban) out of cloth. She borrowed some old piece of think paper from me, and following instructions from a youtube tutorial, she delicately made a small paghadi which would fit on the idols head perfectly. Later she started making small clothes for the idol. Her old learnings and practice of cloth stitching helped her do the task magnificently. An electric stitching machine which was bought about a year ago was now being used almost on the daily bases. The machine was not opened and along with Sangeeta, we discovered with many new functions which the machine can perform. She would spend a lot of hours in selecting clothes, looking for different combinations of clothes, and paghadi, different patterns which can be made with them. She would often come to me for some suggestions on matches, I enjoyed looking at how she stitched, and sooner even I developed an interest in stitching. Sometimes I would give her company in making the cloths, and sometimes she would teach me how to stitch a bag, a side bag, a kurta etc.

As the times went by, she started going for shopping of the gems, clothes, biding, laces, motis, and many more things which she would discover at the shop. I would sometimes give her company as many a times she felt suffocating in the mask and company of someone would give her relief.

It was around this time that my family had found a young boy from Darjeeling, Barun, but we used to even call him Varun sometimes, who agreed to help us in our daily works and was ready to stay with us in the house. He was asked to stay in the office for the first few days, as to see if any symptoms showed up. He came to house in a couple of days, and managed most of the daily chores along with my mother. He was not accustomed to Gujurati food, which was often sweet, and preferred to eat rice mostly for his meals. He preferred his food to be spicy and hot. His presence in house also gave me an excuse to cook onion, garlic and potatoes (Kandamur), which was often prohibited, as there was an idol of god at home, and I was the only one who ate kandamur We soon became food companions, I would prepare spicy dal or kadhi, sometimes noodles, which he really liked and would glow with a smile when I told him that I will be preparing noodles.  

There were members from the society which would give company to the religious rituals. One of which became a regular. To let someone come for pooja at home was a decision made by all of us through a long discussion. All of us were quite confused, as no one was allowed at home, even the delivery person was not allowed to enter the society. Shantilal then came up with a solution favouring the religious sentiments, and hoping that things done for good won’t bring family any bad luck, somehow spending time so close, with someone ‘outside the house’ didn’t seemed to tense anyone. The Aunty soon became a close friend to the family. She would often convince me to take part in the rituals, but I would find my way out with excuses like, the lecture is on right now, tomorrow seems perfect to start, as I have woken up late today and lectures will start soon, and so on. After long days of negotiations, I had agreed to come a just pray for two minutes, so that she would be happy and I wouldn’t have to go through tiring ways to run from pleases by her.

In the early days, morning had become a point of burst outs for everyone to let out the irritation of the pandemic. For one it was that people don’t come on time for pooja, some couldn’t make to the time decided, as there were new chores to be done, for some it had become restrictions, as they had to reach the time of pooja, and couldn’t enjoy morning breakfast and everyone had to hurry up as the guest who would come for pooja shouldn’t be made to wait for long. Whenever these, conditions didn’t come to common understanding, or if everyone didn’t make equal compromises, or someone burst before they were supposed to, the house became a huge circus of chaotic abuses, where all the old times were recalled in acquisitions on other. I would often sit on the dining table sipping my coffee, where the act of exercise of my father was replaced by a chaotic natak. It soon ended in some outbreaks, some understandings and compromises, saved up like a gem for later disputes.

After couple of months, I had to vacate my room and shift to my Grandma’s room. They needed an open space for worship, and the beds in the other room were an obstruction. The idol cannot be placed in the living room, as the dining room faced the living room, and eating food in front of the idol was prohibited. The only space which was left, was my room. My table which I had made with old furniture was reconfigured in the grandma’s room. The plants were shifted too, where now they got plenty of sunlight and open air. Even I got more privacy, as one of the windows faced an empty façade of the neighbourhood building. Where I would often spend my late nights talking to my friends.

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