Saeed Mirza interprets the political history of India and the world through personal stories
An excerpt from film-maker Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s new book of personal histories, ‘Memory In The Age of Amnesia’.
I was shooting a documentary on the exquisite tenth-century Hindu and Jain temples at Ellora, in Maharashtra. Most of the shooting was complete and I decided to set up my last shot, a panoramic view, so that the viewer would be able to understand the scale of what had been achieved so many centuries ago. But I would have to wait for the hordes of visitors to depart so that I could capture a calmer, more sedate feel.
As my crew and I waited, I started to get impatient because the sun was setting and soon it would be dark. Finally, the crowds departed. I quickly placed two members of the production crew in strategic spots to control the entry of stragglers and, with just a few minutes before darkness descended, I asked the cameraman to “start rolling”. Just as he was about to take the shot, he raised his head and looked at me.
“What’s happened?” I asked angrily.
He pointed to one of the temples. I turned to look and saw a strange sight. It was group of about ten people who had walked to the base of a temple. They placed a small bundle on the steps of it and began to pray with bowed heads.
I walked up hurriedly to request them to finish their prayers as quickly as possible. By the way they were dressed, I gathered they were villagers from the northwest of the country. Who the hell were they?
There were two elderly men in dhoti-kurta and turbans, and two elderly women in saris. The rest of the group comprised two young men in trousers and shirts who wore turbans too, and four young children, three boys and a girl. I was surprised by the complete concentration on their faces. Their eyes were shut and they were deep in prayer.
How do I speed up their prayers, I wondered. And what was in that bundle that they had placed on the steps?
After a while, the members of the group began to open their eyes and one of the elderly men noticed me. He smiled. I, not knowing what else to do, smiled too.
“Where are you from?” I asked him.
“We are from a village…near Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan.” They had come such a long way to visit this temple, at least 1,500 kilometres.
“What brings you here?” I asked. “Rajasthan is so far away.”
“We come to pray at this temple every two years.”
“Every two years?”
The man nodded. The other elderly man now joined in the conversation.
“We take a week off from work. Three days to get here by bus and train. Then we spend a day here and then go back home by bus and train.”
“Do you visit all the temples or just this one?”
One of the young men answered, “Just this one…it is very close to our hearts.”
“Our forefathers built this one. We are artisans from Rajasthan and our forefathers came all the way here to build this temple. Other artisans from other parts of the country came to build the other temples.”
I stood there stunned by what I had heard. Could this be true? “How do you know your forefathers built this temple?”
“We have been artisans for many, many generations. We might be illiterate, but we pass on our history from one generation to the next by telling them the stories of our past.” I looked at the man for a moment, then turned my gaze to the women and children. The women hurriedly covered their faces and the children smiled. I smiled at them too. “What’s in that bundle?” I asked
The first elderly man opened the cloth bundle to reveal several types of chisels, hammers and cutters. There were a few wooden wedges too. “These are our implements. We bring them with us and we ask God to bless them so that we can do good work just as our ancestors did.”
I quietly nodded, not knowing what to say, and headed back to my team.
“The sun has set,” said my production manager. “There will be enough light for just two more minutes to take the shot if those people leave.”
“We will take the shot tomorrow,” I replied.
Now my crew of around fifteen people was surprised. They slowly began packing up the equipment. I turned my gaze back to those people at the temple. They had settled down on the ground in front of it and were eating their dinner. I watched them for a while, and then soon it turned dark.
A Tale of Reaching Out
A few years ago, I was driving on a dusty road in the Gulbarga district of Karnataka when I noticed some graves under a huge, shady tree in a vast empty field. The image was surreal because the tree seemed to be flourishing in a parched landscape. It was as though its only function was to protect the graves from the blazing heat. I turned my gaze away, and noticed that a little further up was a stalled truck which was being repaired by a Sikh driver and cleaner.
The image of the tree and the graves returned to me. As we neared the truck, I asked my chauffeur-cum-man Friday Ayub to stop the car and reverse. My wife Jennifer, sitting at the back of the car, was surprised.
“Why are you reversing?” she asked.
“Those graves looked so incredibly lonely. So, I am going to pay them a visit.”
Jennifer and I alighted when we were abreast of the tree. Ayub, not to be left behind, got out too, and the three of us walked up to the graves.
I looked at the graves solemnly for a while and then up at the tree. In this desolate landscape, the graves seemed to be in the perfect shady spot. Who were the people buried here? The graves did not look very ancient. Were they members of a family? Who did this empty and dusty field belong to? Were they descendants of the people in the graves? Since the graves looked somewhat abandoned, I also wondered if there was a caretaker to look after them.
As these thoughts crossed my mind, I noticed that the truck driver and cleaner had also joined us and were standing next to the graves in silence. We stood for some moments longer, and as Jennifer, Ayub and I turned to leave, the Sikh driver pointed to the graves, and asked, “Are these people your relatives?”
I smiled and shook my head.
The cleaner looked confused. “Then why did you stop here…sir?”
“I don’t know. The graves looked so lonely so I decided to pay my respects to the dead…I don’t know what else to say.” The driver smiled. “You did the right thing. We didn’t know what you were doing so we joined you too.” I smiled too.
The driver added, “When you do things like this you feel peace in your heart.”