Shanni Side Up

Through the week, traffic in Delhi stops for the gods. You can see them being sold at red lights in their Paris Plaster avatars. A hot favourite among red light vendors is the face of the Sun god. Surya comes down to the windows of waiting cars and earnestly says ‘Buy me’. But not many are kicked about spending money on the hot Sun. He’s up there shining for free anyway, so why pay and take him home.

But Saturdays are different. That’s when Saturn comes down to the traffic stops. Shanni Dev comes soaked in a pool of oil and soot. Few want to upset him when he comes calling. Small change is plopped into Shanni’s steel bowl without the usual prayers and genuflections.

It’s the cold, dark and unpredictable power of Saturn that pulls at the purse strings. Unlike the known virtues of the Sun, Saturn’s virulence is mysterious, inventive and varied.

A year ago, a trip to a Shanni temple in Lucknow opened up Saturn’s secret chambers for me. The temple sits on the banks of the river Gomti. It’s located at a place where the river slithers against the temple steps like a molting snake. Such is the look, feel and stink of the industrial froth that lines the steps. I asked Shanni’s attendant why we couldn’t keep our temples clean.

“Can you keep your stomach free of muck?” He asked me point blank. “That muck that you keep inside your stomach is a necessary evil, so it is with this outside muck?”

Come to think of it, Shanni isn’t really that bad. He’s just the guy given the most difficult job. The job of humbling people.You can’t really blame him for trying to make his job interesting. What seem like the cruelest of perversities to ordinary people are in fact Saturn’s tools of instruction.


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