“Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu is yet to come, and will come when the time is right, that is when the world is full of sinners and sins,” a mother told her children during story time.
“The only way to protect yourself is hygiene — of thought, word and deed,” she said.
Fables were a part of my bedtime all through my childhood. In fact, if bedtime stories were a criterion, my childhood extended right until my marriage, because my mother had to tell me a story almost every single night — sometimes, also in the afternoon when my siblings too would crowd around.
She was a fabulous storyteller. With no physical gestures or histrionics, just her words and voice modulations could paint the most vivid moving pictures that would put to shame the hi-tech audio visual formats and special effects we have today with all their mindboggling paraphernalia.
Many of the conversations had, over the decades, buried themselves in the mists of my childhood.
The lock-in, the isolation and slowing down of life, the abundance of time that facilitated rummaging through old photographs and nostalgic conversations to remembering long-lost relatives had gently nudged these memories awake.
Raising new questions, answering some old ones, and awakening every day with another burst of admiration for a woman who considered herself a moderately educated mother and housewife — no one extraordinary. Not an activist or philosopher. Just someone entrusted with the responsibility of raising children to be fit for the world — deserving of being born as human beings.
Almost all our bedtime stories were fables — with a powerful, followable ‘moral’ that popped up at various points in our life. Especially those based on karma — as you sow, be sure to reap a bumper harvest. Stories came from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, popular fables she had heard as a child, and many, we strongly suspect, created and customised in her head especially for us.
At the end of the story would be a statement of moral that should have been learnt from the story that we had to repeat. We often pretended to have fallen asleep to avoid the chore. But in a few minutes were miraculously awake pestering her for another story — sometimes specifying which one we wanted, sometimes letting her choose.
In fact, it was wrong to presume these bedtime stories helped us fall asleep. Because far from putting us to sleep, they kept us wide awake (till the last sentence with the ‘moral’) visualising the events that unfolded in brilliant colours. Many a time, instead of us, it was an exhausted mom who drifted into sleep, preceded by a lengthening drawl of incomprehensible words as she continued to narrate.
And we, cruel children, would shake her awake to continue the story, reminding her exactly where her words turned into gentle snores. (Perhaps, in our lives when our work and family have forced us to slog inhumanly long hours, it was our karmic comeuppance for depriving a loving mother of the much needed sleep)
Dasavataram – the 10 forms of Lord Vishnu was a favourite, one avatar at a time. When the movie of that name was released as a night show for Shivaratri to help people stay awake, we were taken to the show. This was a rarity in my no-movie family where movies were considered, by and large, a major corrupting force that played havoc with young minds. And for all the divine intent, we kids kept nodding off in the theatre, every now and then shaken awake by our adults pointing out the interesting fare on screen.
And then began our daily pesky demand for the Dasavataram story, especially the last Kalki avataram — whose magic we probably stood a chance of witnessing and experiencing firsthand — since, as far as living memory went, we had missed out on the other nine avatars.
“Oh Kalki – that is the tenth avataram. It is yet to come,” mom said.
“But when will it come? We need to know what it will be like so we can recognise the avataram. Will they be blue like Rama and Krishna?”
Our questions piled on and on. One rainy night, the power had been switched off or had tripped all over the city because of the stormy weather. My brothers had got into a typical boy’s fight and my mom had to intervene.
Bored, we sat in the verandah, and pleaded with mom to tell us about Kalki. Somehow, we were wary of having an avatar somewhere around and not being able to identify him or ask him for boons. Or keep from doing wrong in his earthly presence.
“How will we know who Kalki is or when he will come if you don’t tell us?” we pleaded.
“Kalki will come when the time is right. That is when the world is full of sinners and sins, when goodness and virtue are undermined by evil and cruelty.
“When children forsake parents, when across the world, rulers and leaders, bosses and teachers, landlords and masters are like Kamsa or Ravana taking charge of people’s lives, when greedy people grab what they are not entitled to, when the poor and weak, small children, old and infirm are exploited and ill-treated,” she began enthusiastically.
“But how will we know who Kalki is? Who will we approach? There are no kings now (so we thought) so where will he be? Will it be a rishi or a giant?”
“Don’t worry when it happens we will know,” she continued. There was conviction and foreboding in her voice.
“But for now we don’t. It could be a man or woman, or even an animal or bird, like a huge dinosaur, or could be a huge army of many people. It could be a thing or maybe something completely unknown – like a huge moving mountain or fog. It may be part human and part animal like Narasimha, or a blend or many things, together as one being, or separate.
“But you will know, everyone will, because it will affect everyone — the good and the bad. It will come completely aware of Chitragupta’s celestial and detailed accounts of our good deeds and bad and then rewards and punishments owing to us will surely follow,” she said.
Chitragupta is believed by Hindus to maintain and regularly update the divine databank of all our doings.
She herself firmly believed in the lessons of karma she taught us. Often she would attribute a bad phase or misfortune to some old event or an unexpected good fortune to a good deed she could remember.
“When he comes, there will be a huge war that involves everyone. No one will be spared. The rich and poor, strong and weak, rulers and ruled will get mingled. Climates will change. Hot places will see winters, and cold places experience heat like they never have. There will be droughts, famines, earthquakes and floods. Money will no longer be able to buy what or who you desire.
“The rich in their castles will no longer be any safer and more secure than the poor on the streets. Those you love may not be there for you in your time of need just as you abandoned those who needed you.
“Masters who treated their workers like slaves will realise that without them, they will cease to be the big shots. They have to clean their own shit and sweep their yards. Cook their own food — if there is any, and wash up too,” she warned.
“So will all bad be vanquished and the world becomes a Ram Rajya overnight?” we asked.
“We do not know about overnight or how much things will change. But battles are bound to be long and leave many scars. Not all may be pretty.
“So Kalki could be there for a long time. Or come and go many times. Or in many places.
“What is sure is that the world will see an amrit manthan — a big churning. The oceans of milk and the sewers will all undergo churning. This churning will throw up the good and the bad — the gems, the poison. And will reveal the devas and asuras — the good and evil forces.
“It will all be a matter of perspective — subjective. What is poison to one may be a gem to another.
“But the churning will happen everywhere — in your home, in your neighbourhood, your city, the country, the workplace and the job. In your body, your mind, your friendships, your relationships, your health, your work, your values,” she said.
“Animals driven out will reclaim their place, roaming and hunting freely. People who trapped them in zoos and cages for entertainment and profit will be driven into cages and woods to live like animals. With no one to share their joys and sorrows they will laugh and weep in their lonely worlds.
“Every good and bad you do will be repaid then. You may not see this happening to everyone — but then you don’t know everything, Kalki will. And your sense of fairness and justice will be of no consequence. Your life will no longer be in your hands. Even those who love you will not be able to help you, just as you will not be able to help those you love from the consequences of their deeds,” she said.
“But unless we know who Kalki is or when he will come, how can we protect ourselves?” we persisted.
“That knowledge won’t help you. The only way to protect yourself is hygiene — of thought, word and deed. To be good in all you think, do and say, whether or not anyone is watching — because god always is.”
Her voice had turned solemn (or so I imagined. Or recall). We kids looked at one another — there was fear in our eyes. I certainly felt a chill down my spine. I promised myself (I didn’t actually keep it once the moment was over) that I would be good always. I had no idea how I was going to erase my earlier evil deeds.
Today, as I sit watching the empty playground from my balcony that was once full of children, waiting for my grocery to be delivered by a youngster donning gloves and masks, a time when everyone irrespective of caste and beliefs is an untouchable, I am deep in thought.
Even today, if I close my eyes, I can recall every modulation of her voice and every sound of that evening — the rain, the howling wind, the thunder, claps of lightning, the swish of wet leaves and our collective gasps.
Could Kalki be corona, spelt with a ‘K’? Has my mother’s prophesy made on a stormy night more than 50 years ago come to pass? Unfortunately, she is no longer here to answer our questions, or help us wade through these times, and will it pass or be a slow end of the work of Kalyug, after settling all scores? Only time and ‘Korona’ can tell.