Upanayanam …

Whether cultural capital exists or not, and does it merit any value in today’s modern life is indeed debatable. But even if it is just a placebo it does have a great impact on the young mind coping with the physical and emotional changes as part of ‘adolescence’.

Upanayanam is a traditional ceremony that can be regarded as a ‘rite of passage’ ritual meant also for young brahmin boys as they pursue their education and ‘grow up’ to assume larger responsibilities in society as well as family.

It has paled much in its significance now and quite often is just a mandatory precursor to the marriage ceremony – a mere doff to what was integral to the ways of life for our ancestors.

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As a boy I was fascinated by the poonal as it is popularly known in Tamil. I knew of a Tamil brahmin boy a few years elder to me who had gone through the Upanayanam ceremony at an early age and was regarded to be a role model by all our elders including my parents.

Ram (come to think of it even the name was so very apt) was a studious and quiet boy who was very obedient and intelligent. We all did follow the basic canons of our culture – being vegetarian, complete abstinence from the traditional vices of smoking, drinking and sexual relations, regularly visiting Temples and obeying the dictum of our Elders. But a lot of this was inherent to our social milieu and did not require any special efforts.

Ram went far beyond the ordinary routine. He was genuinely interested in our heritage and deep into reading and meditation. He practiced Sandhya Vandanam everyday and seemed to understand the significance of the chants. He seemed to be a sorted personality to me and destined to achieve great things in life.

He planned to achieve what was holy grail for all young science students – secure an admission to one of the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) colleges and pursue his PhD. Something went wrong with his Board exam results and he did not do well in his pet subject – Maths. It came as a shock for all who knew him and even he seemed to be deeply hurt on being thwarted from chasing his dreams.

He went through the revaluation process though it was common knowledge that the process was of not much help. In those days, I believe it meant that they just re-checked the ‘totaling’ of your marks and did not re-check the answer paper afresh. He had a torrid time while he waited for the outcome – sadly it was negative once again. He retained his cool composure and decided to move on in life.

Ram decided not to pursue an Engineering degree, rather he chose to do his B.Sc. in Statistics. And he decided to move away from pursuing further studies in pure science and chose to apply for the IIMs (Indian Institute of Management) instead. His talent and application was rewarded as he made it to IIM – Ahmedabad and successfully completed his PGDM in Finance.

He joined an MNC Bank and was posted to Singapore. He worked in the privileged area of investment banking and the routine was quite arduous but mentally very stimulating and deeply satisfying. He used to visit Pune during his annual leave and we could see that little had changed in him since his teenage days.

He never learnt to drive a two-wheeler or a car, TV. was too boring for him, he was not much given to being online and chatting as well. His passion remained for his reading and he knew things that one had never even heard about. I once asked him on whether he regretted his XIIth exam results that had caused such a dramatic change to his plans and the death of his childhood dream of being a scientist.

He gave me a wry smile and said that it didn’t matter – it was destiny and pre-ordained. And even his current work was a science in itself and intelligent application of knowledge in the world of finance. He has held on to his religious mores and indeed it would helped him to come to terms with an undeserved failure so early in life. It also ensured that the comeback was equally dramatic and successful.

Ram was not much given to socializing and there was never an aspect of him that was hypocritical and trying to accommodate social norms. He knew his likes and dislikes and made no bones about it. He continued to be a deeply devout person and reading up philosophy was his pet passion.

I just remembered him when I heard a recent debate on how certain rituals like Upanayanam were discriminatory and representative of ‘cultural capital’ legacy of a corrupt system. While its best not to question beliefs, in the modern-day world we never shy away from debating what we scarcely understand.

And so once again,I make my submission, ‘rite of passage’ rituals serve the purpose of anchoring a person while he undergoes critical changes. It seems to be so very petty to debase a tool that holds such deep significance or meaning in the mind of a young boy groping his way into our world.

By: Bernd Geh Collection: Photographer's Choice Courtesy: Getty Images
By: Bernd Geh
Collection: Photographer’s Choice
Courtesy: Getty Images
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