AN AFTERNOON IN PORBANDAR, where Mahatma Gandhi was born.
We wandered through the open gateway of a walled compound across the road from the temple. The internal surfaces of the boundary walls were decorated with colourfully painted murals depicting deities and scenes from the Hindu scriptures. Models of very human-looking figures with faces of monkeys perched at intervals along the walls above the murals. The walls enclosed some buildings, long sheds.
The central, and most important-looking, of these buildings was painted white and provided with glassless windows. Through one of the windows, we could see flames flickering. We realised that we had walked into a crematorium compound. An official came up to us and confirmed our suspicions. Then, as if inviting us to dinner or for a drink in a pub, he asked us whether we would like to watch a cremation. Only in India can an offer like that be made so casually, because as Jon and Rumer Godden wrote in their book Two under the Indian Sun: “We knew, without being told, that in India death was as casual as life, part of every day.” We declined the invitation.
In the street outside the crematorium, we met a group of young boys, who were keen to chat with us. They told us that they went to local schools, and that they were learning English. However, they preferred speaking in Gujarati. They were knowledgeable about the latest Indian films. As for the controversial film Padmaavati, which we saw in Bombay, they felt the same as we did about it. Even though they told us that they were all of Rajput descent, the boys did not feel that the Rajputs in the film were portrayed insultingly as some critics have said. However, they did feel that the leader of the Muslim army was portrayed unkindly.
Each of these friendly youngsters had bicycles, which did not look cheap. And, they possessed up-to-date mobile telephones. They would not let us go until we had watched a lengthy video of a local Gujarati popular singer on one of their ‘phones. The video was not so interesting, but it made a pleasant contrast to our unexpected visit to the crematorium. Before we left them, they wanted to be certain that we understood that they all agreed about one thing, and that was people should not: “live for money”, but they should: “think about God”. These thoughtful boys were only fourteen years old.