Given a choice, I would never ever spend my vacation at a pilgrimage swarmed with hyperactive devotees singing His praises and their wish list in the same breath. And if the devotional hullabaloo was not enough, we have these agents of God – the temple priests - key elements of the thriving temple economy – with their golden prescription for every problem on the face of this earth. Precisely why they are so popular –commit any sin, just make sure you cleanse yourself through the divine conduit. But this time round, I had no choice. A couple of my mates from college days had already chalked out the trip to one such world-renowned shrine located so aptly on a picturesque hill. I had never been to the place before. The month was November and my leave record at the office was surprisingly positive. After a round of customary denials and cajoling, I was all set. The fascinating view of the hills was all I needed to soothe my nerves. We also managed two great Darshans of the Lord from close quarters – we were indeed lucky to have achieved that fast in a non-VIP queue – my friend told me later. Of course, I vividly remember the awe-inspiring image of the Lord, garlanded so beautifully, but I also have picture-perfect memory of the high and mighty priest who at once reminded me of my Group head at office. After granting me one full divine second with the Lord, he shooed me away with a hefty push. Enough is enough, his eyes told me, just the way my boss did. On our way back, we walked down the hill through the spacious cemented pathway rather than board the roaring bus run by the temple trust. We reached the base, much earlier than we anticipated. Exhausted that we were, our eyes looked for some decent accommodation in the somewhat shady settings of the city. Just as we were contemplating the next move, we heard a coarse voice.“Room sir, Bombay style. Good lunch & dinner”The guy seemed around 50 and everything about his appearance was beggar-like. He was thin, frail, covered in rags, but his eyes, surprisingly, were gleaming.Of course, we were in no mood to investigate the gleam further. His sight was most repulsive and his breath swore only by country liquor. Sure of his ignorance, I warned my friends under my breath in the Sahib’s language. “Avoid him. Don’t respond. Shoo him away”And then, we got the shock of our lives. He looked into my eyes and spoke in good English, if not chaste.“Why are you avoiding me? I will get only five rupees from Ashoka. It’s a good hotel. Trust me.”Call it colonial hangover or plain hangover; we Indians are invariably mesmerized by the English language, and coming from the so-called lowest echelons of the society, the enthrallment is even more. The only credential perhaps that turns a commoner into a distinguished member of the working class. Blabber, shout or abuse in English…. you sure get noticed and what’s more, you can even get away with it. Before we knew, we followed him like obedient students. In about five minutes, we reached the porch of Hotel Ashoka. He was right. The place was no great shakes but was clean no doubt. Just before we climbed the stairs to the makeshift privacy of our cubbyholes, the same coarse voice declared. “Bakshish, sir” “Not now, later,” Not anticipating this move, that was all I could utter on the spur.Grand Hills, Gleaming eyes
Fortunately, he was not around when we checked out the next day. It was strange, we were reasonably curious about the guy all the time, yet we wished him out of sight all the time. The better part of our overnight chat centered round him alone, each one of us trying to crack the apparent riddle of his life. A retired professor turned alcoholic fallen on bad days was the popular choice... On second thoughts, we turned him into a schoolteacher…that seemed more convincing. We reached the station, found our compartment, flung our luggage on the berths and came out for some tea. There he was near the tea stall. His winsome smile was a striking contrast to his gross face. This time, we knew what was coming. “Bakshish, sir” We already had our hands in pockets but my friend teased him. “Next time, we will come again”His precise answer rendered us speechless. “Definitely sir, you will come again. But I may not be alive then”As the train puffed out of the platform, I turned back. And there he stood, his face devoid of expression. And then, I noticed the gleam again. I still wonder how could it find a place of pride in those sunken eyes. It seemed more like a remnant of happier days. Maybe, it was sheer hope in all its raw splendour. Or could it be proof of the divine proximity atop. Either way, I am happy to have caught it at the feet of the grand hills. Away from the din of the sanctified commerce.