There’s a new thing I can add if I were to creatively enhance my otherwise boring CV. I can claim to be an expert on religious reporting. You may sneer but after having attended the Ardh Kumbh in Haridwar, the Kumbh in Ujjain and now writing this column from the Mahakumbh in Allahabad, I think I can safely claim an expertise in this bit of important and specialised form of reporting that is much in demand on television. I won’t even mention the number of Holis, Diwalis and Durga Pujas I’ve reported on that add to my insight on the way religion plays a part in our lives. But I guess it took the mother of all rituals, the once-in-12-years-only Kumbh to teach me what this is really about.
It’s not about the Pilot Babas, the Bullet Babas, the Computer Baba or the Naga naked sadhus. I know that’s all we TV wallahs keep focussing on when we descend on the Kumbh from New Delhi to New York. It’s not even about all the foreigners who speak perfect sanskrit shlokas. They do grab eyeballs, and I remember when I first went to Ujjain, I spent painful hours going from one akhara to another, hearing religious leaders speak about what the Kumbh means to them. Not being too religious, my eyes would glaze over very quickly and then they’d all start sounding the same — and that’s when we’d hunt for the weird and wonderful, like the sadhus who have their right hand raised for the past 100 years.
But when you’re a religious reporter and you’ve reported on the odd sadhus for years, when you realise that all that the Computer Baba does is to claim that his brain works faster than a computer, but can’t actually prove that to you by toying around with his now dodgy laptop, you are forced to look a little beyond just what the lens loves to see.
And so for the first time I tried to really understand what those astounding figures meant. The 83lakh visitors over just two days, the 40,000 loos that are built overnight, the 50 odd square kilometre tent city which accommodates these enormous numbers that come like tsunami waves on specific days like Makar Sankranti, and the 100-bed hospital that has all kinds of specialists to look after them. “What do 83lakh people together look like?” a colleague asked and I guess for the first time, I realised what a big deal it is. Remember what the government said about Walmart? That it will be only in cities with more than a million people and there are, according to the Census 2011, only 53 cities that qualify but guess what, for the 55 days that the Kumbh Mela is on, it can have more than its share of Walmarts.
And so, while staring at the mobile ATM which had sadhus and regular people lined up, many of them staying in these tents for the entire two months instead of just parachuting down for a holy dip, I realised that the real story was how it all seemed to work without any major hiccups. How is it that we struggled so much to put together the Commonwealth Games of 2010, and then ended up with a whole department full of scams and disrepute internationally, but we could pull off the Kumbh Mela to the amazement of people all over the world? If you scan international news reports, all you’ll see is a tone of awe and wonder which doesn’t really match the tone of coverage during the Games.
One factor behind this miracle of management during the Kumbh may actually lie in a study done by scientists from several British Universities and the University of Allahabad on the impact of the Mela on the pilgrims. In the study done between 2010-2011, scientists found that “the experience of being part of a tightly-knit group of Hindu pilgrims, and the sense of support one gets from one’s fellow pilgrims, enhances one’s sense of being part of the community more generally”. Which basically means that people behave more considerately, they followed rules and discipline because they know it’s all part of their pilgrimage. Dr Narayanan Srinivasan, one of the authors of the study, told me that even if the management of crowds was duplicated in other places like the railway station, it wouldn’t work so well because the people there would be missing the Mela feel-good.
Maybe so, but I still think that our other bureaucrats, all other policemen from all parts of the country, need to spend some time at the Kumbh to get some of their basics right. After all, if you’ve handled a crore people for a day’s work, nothing will seem that tough to you anymore.
Postscript: I know I said that this Kumbh was different and not about sadhus, but let me just tell you about one I bumped into today. The young, suave fluent-in-English holy man was driving a Pajero out of an akhara just as we were walking in. Seeing our cameras, he stopped to chat and I asked whether many other sadhus had such fancy SUVs. ‘You see, there was a time when women only wore sarees to come see us and now you come in jeans. So if you can do that with changing times, why can’t we drive these?’ How can you argue with such logic?
Sunetra Choudhury is an anchor/reporter for NDTV and is the author of the election travelogue Braking News. On Twitter: @sunetrac