Dushyant’s father loved saffron and everything associated with the colour for as long as he could remember in his fourteen-year-old life.
The walls of their modest house were painted saffron, the curtains also donned the same colour. His father’s wardrobe only comprised saffron and its variations- the colour suited the attire of the chief priest of the predominant temple of their small town. Over time, his mother had started wearing only saffron-coloured sarees. She never tired of telling the tale of the day of his birth, when the newborn Dushyant was left uncladded for two hours in December’s biting cold till a saffron wrap was found.
“I want my son to be a courageous lion,” Pandit Deendayal had proclaimed to the amusement of all and chagrin of his mother. “Not for him any other colour.”
Dushyant had seen his thirty-five-year-old father’s penchant for saffron grow with time.
That morning, after taking a bath and donning his school uniform, he touched the feet of his father as usual.
“Jeeto Raho,” the priest patted his son. Clad in a saffron robe, he had the home temple bell on one hand and a puja thali filled with flowers on the other. He looked at the spic and span blue and khaki uniform of his son in an appraising manner.
“Beta, there was a talk about the school changing the colours of its uniform soon. Have they decided yet?”
Unlike most of his friends, Dushyant studied in a nearby Vidya Mandir school, run by a pan-India ideology centric organisation that prided itself in imparting moral values and Indian ethos to children. Panditji himself was affiliated with the same organisation since his childhood.
Dushyant asked with a grin, “You are anticipating that our uniform to be of saffron colour, isn’t it?”
“About time,” he replied. “I always wondered why this anomaly with the uniforms when the building has bright saffron coloured walls.”
“Won’t the world appear dull with the same colour everywhere?” his son asked. “It is the different shades and shapes which makes the earth a vibrant planet.”
“The earth looks colourful only from a distance. The differences are all too apparent when you examine them closely. When everyone is adorned with the same hue, there will be peace and calm with no scope for disputes,” he proclaimed in a self-important manner.
“We were taught in lessons that white colour symbolises peace and calm,” Dushyant said innocently.
“Aren’t you getting late? Go to your school,” Panditji said, irritated.
He stared at his son’s retreating figure. What neo-fangled ideas were schools putting into the heads of children nowadays!
Later, Panditji had a generous breakfast. He was a creature of set habits. As usual, he had got up at 5 AM to perform one hour of Surya Namaskar and Yoga. Then he took a bath and did the puja at home before sitting down for breakfast with his wife. Breakfast was the heaviest meal of the day- a full stomach always made for a great start to the day, as he loved to repeat.
Without wasting a minute after the meal, Pandit Deendayal set foot for the temple. With his hands full of temple keys and the puja samagrahi, he walked the five kilometres from his home with a proud, erect gait. Not a crease was to be seen on his kesar kurta–pyjama. The sandalwood tilak on his forehead put the bright rays of the sun to shame.
Generations of Deendayal’s family had served the largest temple of the city- the sanctum sanctorium dedicated to Lord Ram. Pandit Deendayal was also one of the temple’s trustees, even though his mind was not interested in money matters.
He reached the temple sharp at 8:30 AM, where the junior priests of the temple- Anil, Lakhan and Satpal- respectfully greeted him. The bright saffron coloured walls made the structure stand out from a mile.
Pandit Deendayal handed the puja samagrahi to Anil, took out the longest key from the bundle and opened the lock at the gate. The massive temple gates opened with a loud creaking sound. The mandir was now open for the day.
“Do grease these gates today,” Panditji said to Anil, his favourite. “The sound is unbearable.”
The temple gave the illusion of a grand palace. Columns of marble shone on either side of the gates. The pristine courtyard dotted with white and black marble path led to the main section on the ground floor. Innumerable Hindu deities smiled from the columns of the yard.
Panditji ascended the four marble steps and opened the door to the main chamber of the temple. Colossal figurines of Ram, Sita and Lakshman smiled benevolently at him. The smaller murti of Hanuman bent in reverence to the left of Ram. He handed over the keys for the priests’ chambers and the kitchen on the first floor to Lakhan. Panditji and Anil will meanwhile bathe the revered deities- the best part of the day for the chief priest- and adorn them for the long day ahead. Devotees would folk the temple from 9 AM onwards.
Panditji wiped the sweat off his brow. The peak afternoon sun did not deter the devotees who, as usual, thronged the temple in droves.
The idols had been bathed, morning Aarti done, and prasad prepared. Panditji himself distributed the prasad till noon. He knew most of the local visitors by name. The tourists, on the other hand, were difficult to identify, even if easy to recognise.
“Take care from here on,” he whispered to Anil. “I will now come for the evening Aarti.”
Anil, used to the routine of Panditji, nodded.
Pandit Deendayal ascended upstairs for a light but leisurely lunch that the others would have prepared for him. He relished the Poori-Sabzi prepared today and would have lied down for his customary afternoon nap. But today, he had to go to an important meeting of the Parishad.
Pandit Deendayal’s relationship with the Parishad ran deep, deeper than the bond to his family.
Deendayal was indoctrinated to the Parishad at the age of eleven. His father was a member of the Parishad, and so was his grandfather before that. The Parishad had its branches spread pan-India, having its own chain of schools, higher educational institutions, hospitals and NGOs. It propagated Indian values, culture, clothes and living style. Essentially, it stood for an Indian way of living.
Saffron was the official colour of the Parishad, and it exhorted its members to embrace the colour. The Parishad’s own flag was in saffron colour, different from that of the country.
“Saffron embodies bravery and courage, which is what Indian culture stands for. The more you see, wear and adopt saffron, the braver you will become.” This mantra was echoed by everyone in the Parishad’s echelons and was ingrained into inductees from a young age.
Like the other tenets of the Parishad, Pandit Deendayal had embraced this mantra whole-heartedly. He was one of the Parishad’s most loved and respected members. The value that he placed on being an office-bearer of the town’s Sakha was just a notch below that of the Chief Temple priest’s position.
Over the last two to three years, the Parishad had spread its wings, attracting many young people and gradually acquiring cult status. The affinity of the country’s ruling party had not an insignificant role to play in this.
There was going to be an important announcement from the Parishad’s central leadership team today. A diktat had been issued to all the members to attend the meeting. Panditji, keen to be on time, left for the forum straight after lunch.
Panditji was in deep thought during his brisk two-kilometre walk to the Sakha. The afternoon sweat on his clothes didn’t bother him. The morning’s conversation with Dushyant played on his mind.
‘Time to induct Dushyant in the Sakha,’ he thought. ‘He is old enough.’
He hurried his pace when the bright saffron walls of the Sakha’s four-storey building came into view. The karmachari at the gate bowed reverently to Panditji. Panditji nodded absently and proceeded towards the Amphitheatre on the ground floor.
He glanced at his watch upon finding the auditorium more than two-thirds occupied. Scanning the room, he could spot an empty chair somewhere in the centre of the middle rows. He heard the excited whispers as he took the seat and could not recall the last time when the Sakha’s meeting had generated so much anticipation.
“How are you, Deendayalji?” The voice from the adjoining seat queried.
“I am fine, Hardayalji. So much crowd. Your views on what the meeting is going to be about?”
“I have heard that they are going to announce some major changes,” Pandit Hardayal said in a conspirational tone.
The Parishad’s general secretary speech was to be live-streamed for members and workers all over the country.
A gigantic screen covered the entire front wall of the room. Four holographic screens were placed on either side of the back and middle rows. There had been many important meetings in the Parishad, but Panditji could not recall this kind of preparation for any congregation in recent times.
All the seats were occupied by now. There was a steady stream of people standing at the back and queuing up in the middle alley.
The screen came to life at 2.30 PM, and the genial face of the General Secretary smiled at the crowd.
“Dear Friends, Colleagues, Members and countless foot soldiers,” the elderly man began, “today is going to be a saffron-letter day in the history of our organisation. I use saffron, instead of red, in my sentence purposely. For the 100 years history of our Parishad, generations of people have worked tirelessly to instil Indian ethos in the country. We have spread our roots far and wide and are fortunate to have aligned many citizens to our way of thinking.”
He took a pause. The crowd felt his eyes bore on them.
“However, there are still large swathes in the country, especially in the cities, that swear by Western living standards. Be it in their clothes, cuisine or education, their lifestyle is not in consonance with the tradition and heritage of this great country. So far, we have been patient with our fellow countrymen, which has been construed as our weakness. No more from now.”
“Time has come to deploy coercion in greater measure to establish the supremacy of our motherland’s values. The first leg of this mission would be called Mission Saffron. People coming to Parishad affiliated temples, clinics, hospitals, and schools should only wear saffron shades. Be it saree, salwar, shirt or pyjama, everything must be saffron. The bangles on the wrists and bindi on the forehead of the ladies must be of the same colour. You all need to enforce this strictly in areas around you, without exception.”
Pandit Deendayal felt the goosebumps on his skin even as the General Secretary continued.
“If you are doctors, turn back the patients not wearing this colour. Schools should not admit students not donning the saffron attire. Devotees should be allowed to pay their obeisance to deities only if they are clad in kesariya clothes. Saffron should be the dominant colour in our homes.”
“As this diktat is enforced in our 100000+ network of affiliated institutions, Saffron, which stands for bravery and courage, will gradually become a way of life. This would be the first step towards the universal adoption of our religion’s values. Mission Saffron begins from this very moment, and all of you have an important role to play in its success. Pamphlets comprising enforcement guidelines and your responsibilities will be distributed. Do your duty towards the Parishad and our nation. Hum honge kamiyaab.”
The face vanished from the screen.
There was pin-drop silence for a moment. Then everyone started to talk with everyone else with excitement.
Pandit Deendayal stood up with an air of a man who had got the dessert of his choice after long. He had a cursory glance at the pamphlet and made a dash for the temple, wanting to reach as soon as possible.
The main temple would play a crucial role in the success of Mission Saffron in the city. The instructions for his disciples and the directives to be in place for devotees played on his mind. He would not tolerate any deviation from the guidelines, even it meant the temple being shorn of any visitors on a particular day.
He pulled the temple gates with impatience and climbed the stairs two at a time, knowing that his acolytes would be inside the smaller chamber during these non-peak hours. Panditji knocked twice at the door and went in without waiting for a response.
There were shuffles of feet as the three disciples got up from the floor and straightened their clothes.
“Is everything alright, Panditji?” Anil asked. He couldn’t recall the last time that the veteran had come to their chamber.
“The saffron surge has begun,” Panditji replied. “From now on, only people wearing kesariya clothes are to be allowed entry inside the temple. Even the bangles and flowers offered to the deities for prayers must be saffron-coloured. Leave instructions to the effect outside the gate. And you all are not to wear clothes of any other colour. Lakhan, you have a penchant for wearing white sometimes; you would not be allowed inside the temple on the day you wear your white robe.
“By when would this come into effect?” Anil asked humbly.
“Now. Devotees would need to come in Saffron for the evening Aarti.”
“Perhaps we should write the instructions in a saffron-coloured board using a kesariya chalk,” Lakhan said in a sarcastic tone.
“If we have one here, then yes. If not, use the existing one to write instructions, and purchase a new one to be used from tomorrow,” Panditji replied solemnly.
“Won’t it be harsh for the devotees to be turned back today?” Anil asked. “Perhaps we can inform all today and enforce this from tomorrow.”
“It might be harsh, yes. But rules need to be harshly enforced for people to make them a habit. From day one, people should know that we mean business about these guidelines. It’s not that this mandate is only for the temple, so people would be becoming aware of this in their homes even as we speak.” Panditji was determined.
Serpentine queues of devotees stretched for kilometres outside the temple gate that evening, while the temple premises were empty except for the priests.
“What kind of crazy order is this?” a person in the crowd fumed. “I have never heard of colour discrimination.”
“They should have given us some time,” another person lamented. “You can’t pass some arbitrary order in the afternoon and expect people to adhere to it by the same evening.”
“I have no money left to buy saffron clothes this month. Will wait for my next month’s wages before coming to the temple,” a dejected visitor said.
The tintinnabulation of the temple’s bells could be heard outside and silenced the devotees. They could not imagine not having a darshan for long and were ready to don saffron to meet their God in the future.
“It has been four days since I went to school,” Dushyant complained to his father. “Ma tells me that the town has run out of saffron-coloured clothes, and there is a ten-day stitching backlog at the local tailor’s shop.”
“I gave one of my old kesariya robes to your Ma last night. She will stitch your new uniform today, and you will go to school from tomorrow.” Panditji tried to pacify him.
“Why this intolerance, Baba? You want to wear saffron all your life, that is your choice. Why impose your preference on others? Look at what is happening in our peaceful town.”
The local government was enforcing Mission Saffron in the town with a vengeance. Hospitals and schools were not admitting non-saffron clad people. Vegetable vendors and the large electronic shops alike were not selling their wares to patrons wearing any other colour. Private establishments had temporarily closed shutters until their employees procured saffron clothes. Cloth traders had run out of their stock of saffron within two days of the diktat, and there was no visibility on the arrival of fresh stock owing to excess demand.
The small town was simmering with unrest.
“Any change entails disruption at the outset. Things will settle down in another fifteen days or so,” Panditji shrugged.
“What do you mean by settle down, Baba? The entire town, the state and perhaps the country will be wearing Saffron. Instead of a vibrant space, this country will become monochrome. Then what?” Dushyant queried.
“People will become courageous and virtuous,” Panditji replied after a pause.
“By wearing saffron??? The colour may symbolise valour, but if everything were to depend on colour alone, all militaries of the world would have saffron tinged uniforms. You are imposing the means without having a clue about the end.”
“Don’t argue with me, young man. Go and study.” Panditji attempted to change the subject.
“I want to, but can’t go to school because of my clothes.”
“Go and play with your friends, then. I am anyway going to the temple.”
Panditji set foot for his morning sojourn. The stream of devotees, though steady, had thinned down considerably. He was finding it somewhat of a chore to perform the Aartis without the crowd.
The saffron-clad acolytes bowed respectfully when Pandit Deendayal reached the temple. The building’s edifice appeared a gaudy symbol of the town’s happenings with the gates, the floor, staircase, et al., coated with saffron.
“Panditji,” Anil said hesitantly when the two of them were alone inside the main chamber.
“The Krishna temple at the neighbouring town has painted the idols in saffron. Do we do the same here?”
“What?? No!!!” Panditji looked at his revered idols. Since his childhood, he had been worshipping the blue murals and could not imagine them in any other colour.
“But Mission Saffron…,” Anil started to say when Panditji interrupted.
“Mission Saffron is for mortals, not for Gods. No one will touch the idols,” he decreed.
The shrill ringtone of Panditji’s mobile phone interrupted further discussion. His wife had called during the temple hours for the first time in many years.
She was hysterical. “Please come home,” she implored. “Dushyant was playing with the boys, and some Parishad members in a car asked them to go home since they weren’t wearing saffron. They beat up the boys when they protested. Our son is badly injured.”
The phone fell from Panditji’s hands. He kept the half-full Puja thali at the feet of his idols and turned his back to them.
“What is the matter, Panditji?” Anil had never seen him so anxious.
“Take care of the temple. I may not be able to come today.”
Pandit Deendayal ran the five kilometres to his home, praying fervently to God for his son.
‘I will offer 101 coconuts to Lord Ram once Dushyant heals,’ he made a silent vow.
He pushed aside the thought of coconuts not being saffron in colour out of his mind.
Panting and sweating, Panditji reached his house. He could not recall the last instance when so many visitors stood outside his abode. He could hear his heartbeats as he stepped inside.
Though there were many more people inside his house, yet a deafening silence greeted his arrival. Some people started at him without a word; others averted their eyes.
A group of ladies surrounded his wife. Wearing a simple saffron saree, she sat silently on the floor with her head bowed.
As Panditji approached her, she looked up at her husband with a blank gaze.
Dushyant slept on the floor beside her, lifeless. The left side of his forehead had a dark red gash. A saffron robe of his father covered the rest of his body; some patches of blood had seeped in through the robe.
“He died on my arms five minutes back,” Panditji’s wife said. “He asked me whether he would be able to have a funeral without saffron clothes. I didn’t know the answer.”
Pandit Deendayal slumped to the ground. A thick, solitary tear ran down his cheek.
The apple of his eye was sacrificed at the altar of a mission. Sacrifices are noble as long as others make them. The sacrifice of one’s own is too bitter to swallow.
Mission Saffron was now an out-of-control Frankenstein Monster. The rapid spreading saffron fire had started to engulf the city, and no one, including the Parishad leaders, knew how to douse the flames. Pandit Deendayal closed his eyes and could see the beginning of the end.
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