On my recent summer trip to India, I spent an extraordinary amount of time with pundits of many different stripes. I flew to Calcutta to interview a fashion pundit, laughed at the endless audacious repartees from one of the world’s most respected textile pundits in Delhi, gabbed with an articulate and feisty pundit of education and women’s empowerment in Chennai and marveled at the humility of a newspaper pundit over a cold coffee at the Amethyst Café in Chennai.

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Again and again, when I was at home, I marveled at the punditry of my own father as I sat next to him in our living room and talked to him about the meaning of life, living and death. During this stay, on more than one occasion, I recoiled from the heat of the hands-on workshops on tea-making from my father’s Man Friday, the Guru of the Paper Dosa, Vinayagam, who now thinks of himself also as India’s chai pundit. Pundit Vinayagam fits the last definition for “pundit” in the Merriam Webster’s.

 

pun•dit noun
1: pandit
2: a learned man : teacher
3: a person who gives opinions in an authoritative manner usually
through the mass media : critic

Like P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves who frequently displays mastery over a vast range of subjects–from philosophy to poetry, science, history, psychology, geography, politics, and literature—my father’s valet also waxes eloquent on the subject of one-way streets in Chennai (now that it has been torn asunder following plans for the metro), sari shops, concert artistes, matters of housekeeping, details of plumbing, dosa textures, international baggage allowances, tailors, cooks, bank timings, broadband connections and wedding halls.

Note that Vinayagam’s sundry punditry does not mean that he may, for any reason, be referred to as “Pandit Vinayagam” just because one of the entries for “pundit” is also “pandit,” with the word referring to a wise or learned man. Thank the lord, Vinayagam’s streetsmarts simply cannot equate to erudition or scholarship. For example, the term “pandit” is often used as an honorary title for a scholar in a field and it was how Indians used to refer to Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru, the erstwhile prime minister of India. The word “pundit” itself originates from the Sanskrit pandita meaning “learned.” It becomes obvious why the term “pandit” must be used sparingly.

While traveling through South India last month, I ran into many practicing priests or “pundits” inside ancient temples. I wasn’t sure if they were Hindu scholars learned in Sanskrit, Hindu philosophy and religion. But one thing I had little doubt about. Those priests were in the business of keeping an eye on our wallets to know how well we were positioned to tip them before they parted with the deity’s blessings.

In most of the temples, we found we could have a special audience with the deity in the sanctum sanctorum within minutes, provided we paid a special fee for extra-special treatment. We discovered that most of India’s conmen are to be found in its most sacred places. By a deserted portion of the seventh century Sanishwaran temple in Tirunallar in Pondicherry distict, a gentleman appeared from nowhere and appointed himself as planetary agent between our family and a dour priest in a black dhoti who, incidentally, also appeared from ether. Soon the two of them pressed us for 200 rupees per person so that we’d be rid forever of our “shani” or “misfortune.” Even before we were ready to think about whether or not we wanted to continue to live with our shani, the sorry priest in black began chanting Sanskrit verses to drive away the evil forces churning our lives. Then Saturn’s agent pressed a black cloth into our hands and told us to donate it to the glum, bare-chested priest after repeating the mantra that was being recited by the man. Then the agent issued another warning.

“Madam, when he finishes, you must give away the cloth to him and walk away from him. Don’t ever turn back to look at him, alright? Never ever do that. Because he is taking away all the misfortune from you and embracing it as his own, don’t you see?” I wondered for a minute whether the emaciated priest with a saturnine face looked thus because he had absorbed everyone’s shani. I suspected, even as I realized I was being conned, that this was also the best possible confidence trick in the galaxy. What better way than to tell me that I must never set eyes on the con artist again, especially if I wanted my stars to align?

The San Francisco Bay Area also has pundits whose bands of holy ash belie their stash.

One in particular has been known to recite a constellation of the same mantras for birth, death, housewarming, marriage and everything in between. He has been known to invoke Goddess Lakshmi with eyes partially shut while taking in the flushed granite and marble in the homes in which he was pretending to be a priest.

The story goes that he informed his client, just as he was packing up his bags, that his charges were a hundred dollars higher than what he had quoted on the phone before arriving at the lavish place that, unfortunately, was also located at a greater distance from his home than Google Maps had originally envisioned. Upon receiving his check, the priest fished out the keys to his swanky car and sped off with the day’s loot, leaving the house owners incensed at being gypped in the name of religion.

I will close my piece with one plea to the Webster’s committee: please consider including a fourth entry for the word. It must be stated that “pundit” may sometimes mean “bandit,” especially in the context of some Hindu priests around the world who have been caught practicing daylight robbery in the guise of propitiating the gods on our behalf.

Kalpana Mohan writes from Saratoga (this one’s from Chennai). To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.org and http://saritorial.com.

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