From choir to duet: Ramayan Paath in the times of coronavirus
They would always take the possibility of monsoon showers into account, as well as that of unexpected power cuts. But they hadn’t thought of this situation.
Every July, Kshetra Pal and his wife, Pushpa, hold Ramayan Paath, a continuous 24-hour reading of the complete Ramcharitmanas, at their home in Ghaziabad. For two consecutive days, their drawing room would be converted into a makeshift mandir. The sofas and the coffee table would be cleared, and the floor covered with mattresses topped with clean sheets. Friends, relatives and neighbours would fill up the space, and each would be given a copy of the epic from the couple’s vast collection. The hosts and guests would take turns to read the verses aloud with the emotion that best suited the passages being read.
But how were they to do this during the Covid-19 pandemic when any gathering was deemed life threatening? (The two — and many of their friends — are in their 70s, and thus at greater risk than most to the effects of coronavirus).
One option would have been to postpone the reading to a post-pandemic tomorrow — possibly next year — but “that was out of the question,” Pushpa said. “We have been doing this for decades.”
The couple insists that this two-day reading of the epic is the most important event of their annual calendar. Pushpa would especially look forward to the closing ceremony, when the marathon reading would end and all her friends (“Priya, Aranjana, Mrs Sachan, Mrs Mathu, Gita...”) would sing hymns set to the tunes of popular film songs.
The occasion would end with a lunch on the couple’s first floor balcony, for which a cook would make the standard fare of aloo subzi and poori. The holy prasad would include sooji halwa and panchamrit, a delicious concoction of milk, yoghurt, honey, holy basil leaves and water from the sacred Ganges.
After much deliberation, the couple decided to invite guests from one household at a time, “who would sit and read in the drawing room, at a safe distance.” And of course everyone would be in mask and there would be hand sanitisers placed beside the books.
But then Kshetra Pal developed cold feet. What if a guest was unknowingly infected with the virus? “I know what would have happened next... news channels would have targeted our flat as the super-spreader!” he said.
Finally, the couple went for the safest option. They both stayed awake for 20 hours straight and finished reading the epic, sitting face to face in the much smaller study room that is home to a small wooden temple.
“Our friends understood,” Pushpa said. Her husband added: “For us, this Ramayan Paath is also an opportunity to connect with all our friends, but in the end it is reading the Ramayan that matters the most... re-experiencing the life of Bhagwan Ram make us hopeful that we shall always survive the difficult times.”
Now the couple sits down again in the drawing room with their copies of the epic, to recreate their lockdown-era Ramayan Paath for a photo shoot on WhatsApp video, the mobile held by their granddaughter.