- Attending shakha helped my personal life, family life and professional career as well as aided me to become a socially conscious member of American society.
I vividly remember the time in my childhood when at an age of 10-12 years, my friends and I used to play cricket after school, in the space around my building in the suburb of Mumbai called Mulund East. A bunch of us barefoot kids running around in the limited space with an old cricket bat, a rubber ball, and instead of wooden stumps, chalk-drawn stumps on the wall. At about 5:45 PM Mr. Sudhakar Kale, one of our neighbors who we affectionately called ‘kaka’ (Kale pronounced as Kaa-Ley, kaka is uncle), used to round us up and take us to a playground of the neighborhood school for something he called RSS (short form-Sangh) shakha (daily gathering of youth and adult RSS cadets.
RSS cadets are only males. Women have a parallel but separate organization also called Rashtriya Sevika Samiti (short form Samiti). The first stop, however, was in the slums along the way where in one of the shanty houses was stored the flagpole which was a 6-7 ft, half-inch diameter aluminum pipe, a wrought iron tripod for the pole, and the saffron-colored bifurcated silken Hindu flag in a silken bag. All the boys wanted to carry them, and so we used to argue as to who carried the items yesterday, and whose turn it was to do it today. Kaka taught us the proper protocol for conducting the gathering, with proper intonation of vocalizing the commands. After reciting some scriptures and verses describing our ancient culture and great heroes, performing yoga and sun salutations, we finally got to do the activity for which we had all come. GAMES.
The games were traditional Indian games, as well as many innovative games that could all be played without any equipment. The games inculcated physical strength, team building, leadership skills, as well as the principle of taking everybody together so that even the weakest person was not left behind and was everybody’s responsibility. The playing of the games cut across any barriers that may have been in the minds of kids from affluent households and slum dwellers. All the kids hollered patriotic slogans and played with great fervor. Some days even adults joined the games. The stratification of superior and inferior based on so many factors in the outside world was demolished or at least suspended during the games. Each of the boys learned to tell stories from the books we borrowed from kaka and sang patriotic songs. The Shakha lasted for exactly one hour and ended with the prayer to Mother India. The last slogan was Bharat Mata ki Jai – Victory to Mother India.
As a few months passed, we got familiarized to the routine and each boy got to lead conducting some of the games, leading the scripture recital, leading the ending prayer. After a year or so when the boy became familiar with the running of the shakha, a boy was selected to lead the whole shakha every day. That boy was called Mukhya shikshak (lead teacher). My memory as a Mukhya shikshak was a day when a few local dignitaries were visiting our shakha and socializing in small groups in the periphery of the playing kids. As the time for ending came, I give the command for everyone to form lines. All the dignitaries immediately stopped talking and promptly joined the different lines. I was amazed that the local dignitaries who were very influential and affluent people would listen the command given by a 13-year-old boy and promptly fell in line. Their discipline and shakha upbringing were manifest and the respect they showed to my role, etched in my brain that day.
My lifelong sense of responsibility and sense of duty was molded in those early teen age years. In the monsoon season, the attendance in open-air shakha fell, sometimes to zero, since the parents feared that we could catch a cold if we got wet playing in the rain, and the wet playground was unfit to play. However, the guiding principle was that the Shakha should go on every day come rain or sunshine. I seriously took this message to heart and regardless of weather, every day I would take the flag, the flagpole and tripod to the playground, hoist the flag under the shelter of a tiny overhang of the building roof, say the prayer, bring the flag down and return it to the place of storage. This sense of discipline and adherence to performing my duty inculcated during my formative years have helped me during my higher education as well as throughout my career as an adult.
Another lesson from that time was toughness towards minor discomfort. During storytelling, we were told the story of hero Karna when he was a student of Sage Parashuram. The old sage had taken a nap using Karna’s thigh as a pillow. At that time an insect started biting and digging into Karna’s thigh. But he did not move his leg to not to disturb the sleep of his guru. The guru woke up when his head got soaked with the blood from Karna’s thigh. At the ending prayers, we all stood in a position of attention with the greatest stillness. During the prayer, there were lots of mosquitoes on the playground that used to feast on our hands and legs, as we used to wear shorts and half sleeve shirts. But the protocol was not to move during the prayer. The boys used to discuss that if Karna did not move when the insect was boring a hole in his thigh, we should resist the urge to scratch the itch. After the prayer, we would break into frenzy of scratching.
I always remembered the attention and respect to the uniform. Most of the kids who came to shakha were from extremely poor families. Due to rough and tumble games and overall rough usage, the uniform would often get torn. But the discipline was never to wear a tattered uniform. The boys learned to sew so that they could repair the tears by themselves without waiting for their mothers, before coming to shakha.
An issue on which Hindus are often maligned is caste-based discrimination. This discrimination is illegal in India and has decreased in major parts of the country. My view on this topic is based on what I experienced as a child. In the months before the Ganpati puja festival, the local Sanghachalak (regional president) of our area, used to invite boys of shakhas in my town to his house, where he used to teach us how to memorize and recite a scripture called Ganpati Atharvashirsha. Every day he would make us repeat the complicated Sanskrit scripture again and again patiently correcting us till we achieved the clarity of pronunciation and intonation identical to him, who was a very orthodox brahmin with secular as well as religious education. He was a wealthy real estate developer by profession.
As I have described previously most of the shakha attending boys were from the very low socioeconomic class, living in the slums, and spoke crude language. But after his training of two to three months, all of us learned to recite the scripture like Sanskrit scholars. During the Ganpati puja, our group of 8 to 10 boys (those who persisted through the rigorous training) were invited to the houses of all the local RSS functionaries, most or all in those days in my area were Brahmins, every evening where we sat cross-legged in their living room in front of the Ganpati alter and recited the scripture. After recitation, the hosts used to give us a glass of milk with fruits and other holy offerings., as well as a dakshina (traditional token fee to the priest) of ₹1.25.
Afterward, they also touched our feet to express reverence. We used to get excited by thinking of cricket equipment we could buy from pooling our money. As I grew older, I realized the significance of the so-called high caste brahmin family heads bowing in front of the kids from so-called lower castes and social-economic strata, because at that moment we were performing the actions of brahmins priests. Our Karma (action) elevated us, then and there- not in the next life or even distant future. That phenomenon caused a greatest impact on my psyche more than any stories by social reformers or lectures of great orators.
The RSS uniform pants in my youth were unusual-looking khaki shorts which derisively called khaki knickers. People used to make fun of RSS workers and their khaki knickers which on the other hand was held in great reverence by us and as an object of pride. I am sure that at an age when teenage boys are very sensitive to their appearance, a shakha attending boy who had the fortitude to wear that khaki knicker despite teasing by other boys and snickering from neighborhood girls, that boy in future can withstand any peer pressure and firmly take a principled yet unpopular stand in his life.
On some days neighborhood boys whose parents disapproved of our RSS as well as and the boys who did not like the discipline in the shakha would sit on the parapet around the playground and make rude comments. Kale kaka told us to ignore them although I had an urge and capability to thrash them. However, when the games used to start, those boys wanted to come and join the games. We used to tell them that they could play the games only if they attend the whole shakha. Over time many relented and grew up to be dedicated cadres.
Our teacher Sudhakar Kale was my neighbor, living on the same floor of my building. Whenever somebody in the building had a leaky faucet, broken toilet flush, or other minor repairs, they would either borrow his tools or request him to help and repair. He immediately helped without expecting or getting any compensation, not even a cup of tea. However, the biggest impact on me was when someone died in the building, he was the person who made arrangements for the funeral. In India we do not have formal funeral homes and the family must take care of the ritual for the deceased person’s body with the help of the seniors in the family who hopefully knew the process. However, the family members are usually rendered helpless by grief, and other relatives may be traveling from far. Kale kaka would be the first person to arrive and essentially organize this extremely sensitive ritual and support the grieving family. Although as a child I must have not realized its significance, my remembrance as an adult, indicates that it must have impacted my mind at that time. Unfortunately, this special person passed away from lung cancer at a relatively early age.
I remember a day when I was visiting Kale kaka’s home to pick up a copy of a book. We heard strains of a patriotic song coming from the neighboring building. One of the boys in that building was singing in his house a patriotic song at the top of his voice. Usually, he used to sing bawdy Bollywood songs, but attending shakha changed his repertoire to include patriotic songs. Kaka just smiled. I was beside myself laughing.
Besides important life lessons, I also learned skills like how to cross the railway tracks picking my bicycle with one arm and stabilizing the front wheel so that I could safely cross without tripping, carrying a small notebook to jot down notes, contacts and to-do lists (days before cell-phones), and picking trash from our playground everyday blown over from neighborhood buildings or dumped by unscrupulous passersby without complaining.
I sincerely believe that attending RSS shakha in those formative years has helped my personal life, family life and professional career as well as aided me to become a socially conscious member of American society.
Mandar Pattekar is a radiologist by profession. His service interest is in the basic education of children in underserved urban areas of America as well as improving urban food deserts. He likes to share the universally applicable Hindu Dharma principles with interested people.