Vivek Shanbhag (seen in the photo above) writes in Kannada. He has published five short story collections, three novels and two plays, and has edited two anthologies, one of them in English. Vivek’s stories have been translated into English and other Indian languages. His writing has appeared in Granta, Seminar, and Indian Literature. Many of his stories have been adapted for the stage, and one of them, ‘Nirvana’, has been made into a short film. He founded and edited the pioneering Kannada literary journal Desha Kaala for seven years. His critically acclaimed novel, Ghachar Ghochar is published by HarperCollins India in an English translation. An engineer by training, Vivek currently lives in Bangalore. A Feast for the Formless is excerpted from an upcoming cookbook by Shanbhag. ////////////////////// Kavya Murthy is based in Bangalore and trained in Sociology. She has spent time working in editorial roles for academic and literary journals, and as a coordinator at Sarai, New Delhi where she worked with artists and cultural professionals. She now writes when she can.
A Feast for the Formless
Vivek Shanbhag dips into a pool of childhood memories and brings alive the fasting and feasting that are inevitably part of many a ritualistic celebration, as he recreates the unfolding of a Janmashtami night, in a little town in Karnataka, several years ago.
(Translated from Kannada by Kavya Murthy)
In our little town of Karavali, Karnataka, Shreedhara Nayaka’s was a family of some significance. They lived in a large house — with a tiled roof and unplastered red brick walls — that had the appearance of gushing forth naturally from the green. There was a liveliness to this house, animated by the comings and goings of people: People who came by for business, festivities, a holiday, or even those who dropped in for no reason at all. With dozens of people in the house on any given day, it was always a festival of food at the Nayakas’.
Nayaka’s oldest son Raghava, was a forest contractor. Every now and then he’d drop off his elephant at the house — the creature whose work was hauling and logging wood in the forest— who would hang around peaceably in the company of her mahout.
We asked him how he did it. He told us she only listened to the hands that fed her, setting us off on an adventure to find bark and branches and leaves, even willing to sacrifice the snacks we had in our pockets to befriend her. We would go over to her expectantly – she’d take the food we offered, but with no signs of gratitude, and go back to her business.
Janmashtami was a festival celebrated with devout fervour and enthusiasm by the Nayakas. They would send out invitations to all the neighbouring houses, an invitation nobody declined.
The festival would muster the whole neighbourhood into action. On cue, everybody set about collecting the essential ingredient for the ritual: the tulasi-dala, an auspicious set of two basil leaves joint at the stem, required in heaps for the process of worship. Young boys scrounged around yards looking for these leaves.
The ritual puja, which involved its participating men-folk to fast the whole day, included the chanting of a thousand names for Krishna, each name accompanied by the offering of one tulasi-dala. This heap would then be adorned with flowers, followed by a special aarti. Dinner – a feast, really – was served only once all of this was accomplished. And whether it was due to hunger, a lack of sleep, the time of the night – or whether it was the season’s torrential downpour, that meal was always a luscious delight.
My father was invited to the festival as one of the men doing the puja. He had to arrive only later that evening, but excited as I was, I went ahead of time and joined all the children who had set up shop at the house. The elephant was there – we didn’t need any other means of entertainment.
All the women from the neighbourhood meanwhile, had assembled in the vast kitchen of the Nayakas’ house. Some were cutting vegetables, some grated coconuts, others fried ambodes in large iron skillets. The dessert for that night was rice kheer – the smell of freshly cut turmeric leaves that went into it wafted through the house. A large bowl of milk was set aside for the curdling of another favourite dish: mosaravalakki. With the feast being hours away, there was no hurry to the cooking — the kitchen was busy with laughter and the happy hubbub of chatter as women went about their work. The ceremony was to be staged in a large hallway in the house. Late in the evening, we popped in to check if anything had started, and content that we had missed nothing, ran back to our games and fun. It was a time when birthdays were not given the kind of indulgence they are now; and Lord Krishna’s was the one birthday we celebrated.
As the evening wore on, the men of the neighbourhood began to arrive. Bathed and ready in traditional attire, they thronged the hallway in a noisy hustle-bustle. “Twenty-five people and a thousand names for Krishna – that is a total of 25,000 basil leaves,” we calculated with exact pleasure.
One of the boys ran to us with the happy news that the mahout was making the elephant a meal. We rushed to the backyard to find him stirring a large vessel of rice on a camp-fire. Once it was cooked, he spread it out to cool on banana leaves to make bunches of rice-balls. The elephant raised its trunk and opened its mouth just as he finished rolling one ball of rice. Taking aim, the mahout would throw it right in. Watching this with envy, we insisted he let us have a go. The mahout made smaller rice-balls, easier for us to hold, and we threw it into the elephant’s hungry mouth. This little game of tossing rice-balls by the light of the camp-fire at twilight made me suspect that the elephant’s favourite food had to be rice.
Completely immersed in our capers with the elephant, we didn’t notice that the men had begun their worship. 25 bare-chested men sat adjacent to one another in a large circle. A bespectacled man named Jagannatha led the proceedings in a dignified tone of voice with a book of mantras in his left hand, and the men followed in chorus, throwing one tulasi-dala for each name into a pile in the middle. It was dramatic, all sound and gesture. With each passing moment, the heap of leaves grew in size.
Some of us were beset with pangs of greed and hunger. We went into the kitchen hoping for relief, only to be told that we would be given nothing to eat until the rituals were through. A few kindly women tried to find a loophole in this – perhaps we could be allowed to eat those snacks that weren’t part of ritual offerings. But piqued that nobody had asked her for views on this matter, an obdurate old lady called Bayakka cut in: “Don’t teach these creatures short-cuts to tradition at such a young age!” she reprimanded the other women. “They can last on an empty stomach a few hours longer”.
We returned to the drone of hypnotic chanting. The names grew more complex as the evening faded into night; the men were diligent, intonating each with precision. Some of us fell asleep. Some of us woke up to titter to the sound of one of our names – Ananta, Achyuta. “How much have we completed?” asked Shreedhara Nayaka, to be told “621”. That was more than half done– reassured, we waited.
A little past midnight, the chanting was complete. Not all the tulasi-dala were used and the pile was redecorated with flowers. The officiating priest closed the proceedings with the last set of prayers. Children staggered awake to the sound of a billowing conch shell and gongs. It was time for the feast at last. The hallway was packed with people and redolent with food that women brought out to serve.
Just then, Shreedhara Nayaka’s voice brought everybody to a halt. “Stop it, stop it, nobody breaks their fast just yet!” he called out, standing by the puja room. He was flustered, walking out with the small statue of Krishna in his hands for everybody to see. “We finished the rituals without the idol in its place at all! What were we offering our leaves to?” he said, anxiously.
As everybody wondered what had happened, the news spread quickly around the room: Earlier that evening, Shreedhara Nayaka had cleaned the idol of Krishna, putting it aside in preparation for the puja. When the purohit had later asked for the idol, Nayaka sent his youngest son to fetch it. The boy had returned only with a copper plate full of flowers: no statue. The absence of the most important feature of the puja went unnoticed by all present. It appeared the whole evening was spent in the service of an absent Krishna.
“We’ll have to perform the entire ritual again”, Shreedhara Nayaka mumbled to no one in particular. Those who heard him, half-faint with hunger, looked aghast. With whiffs of freshly made food floating through the hallway, the idea of a repeat performance was distressing. No matter how quickly they could get through it again, it would take many hours.
It was a sensitive moment of religious significance, made worse by how famished we all were. Vittala Bhatta, the purohit, decided to take charge. “Shreedhara, once we put the tulasi-dala in its place, our task is done. We can’t reuse the same leaves, and it’s really too late to set about collecting a whole fresh batch. It’s enough that we performed the whole ritual with all our devotion. It’s God’s responsibility now to receive our grace,” he said, dropping the ball deftly in God’s court.
Nobody disagreed. But it seemed impossible to look away from the elephant in the room. No statue of Krishna on Krishna Janmashtami – this was a real challenge. Vittala Bhatta seemed to understand that something had to be done at once. He got up and walked over to Shreedhara Nayaka, and took the little statue from his hands. Sitting on his knees before the heap of leaves and flowers, he restored the tiny Krishna to his rightful place.“Come on everybody – it is time to pay obeisance again,” he called out, sounding rather official.
Everyone fell into line in a rush, and then into outstretched genuflection as the moment demanded. And in seconds people were back in their places, quite ready to eat.
Bayakka, the old lady, apparently softened by hunger but penitent, was found whispering: “Accept our topsy-turvy offerings, dear God,” her words mostly ignored.
All further commentary on the illusory ways of Krishna were swallowed up as one tasty dish followed another. With God’s volition, it seemed as though that night’s feast was, if possible, more delicious than we had ever known it.
Heading home after dinner that night, I decided to go see the elephant again. I was hopeful that she would listen to me now – I had fed her rice-balls earlier. The mahout was nowhere in sight, perhaps out having dinner. I walked up to the elephant, and standing quite close, said, “Ghera-ghera!”. She didn’t respond, and stood there as ever, quite aloof, and quite still.
 A savoury snack. A mixture of dals and pulses is soaked, spiced, and ground together in small balls the size of pakodas, and later deep fried.
 Flattened or beaten rice is soaked in spiced or salted curd, with a tadka to taste (usually with cashew nuts, curry leaves and mustard). Not unlike a poha made with dahi.