We were returning after conducting an examination in another city. The small cavalcade of cars sped along the highway in the gathering dusk, their headlights bobbing up and down, slicing the darkness ahead and occasionally catching a stray animal in its glare. All of us were eager to get back home and deposit the examination booklets at the University office, before finally being relieved of this arduous responsibility. As our cars hurtled along the dark road, an occasional light from a stray establishment or some random houses along the way served to remind us of the late hour. Tired and hungry, our small group of University teachers decided to take a small break at the next pit stop to stretch our legs and have a cup of tea before resuming the tiring journey ahead. Shortly we chanced upon a small suburban area, with several shops flanking the highway, busy with the evening crowd of dwellers and passersby.
The cars slowed down and stopped on one side of the road, and the travellers disembarked. I stretched as I got down, and, asking others to order tea and some snacks on my behalf, stepped to the other side of the road to take a quick leak. As I crossed the road, I eyed the other side for a suitable place for the short call. A small alley branched off the road and was sufficiently dark and suitably dirty to serve my purpose. Hurriedly I crossed the road and headed towards the alley. As I stepped into this side road, the world suddenly fell away! The highway was suitably and brightly lit and, compared to that, the alley seemed totally dark. I hesitated, allowing my eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness. Presently, as my night vision returned, I was able to see that the road was just a little dirt track leading up to a railway line and dotted with several dingy establishments on its right side. From what I could see, one of those establishments, of doubtful repute, was a motor garage and the other a country liquor shop. A shadow of doubt crept into my mind. Maybe taking this alley was not such a good idea after all.
Nonetheless, I kept walking, keeping my eye on the right side, trying to make out the activities going on there and mentally making a list of things I had on my person, in case I was mugged. A few stragglers loitered about the garage, flitting in and out of the darkness, apparently busy working on the few vehicles stationed there. Another couple of shady characters reclined against the liquor shop, eyeing me with curiosity, talking loudly, the naked bulb inside the iron-girded shop throwing grotesque shadows on the ground, accentuating their features in its garish light. I thought I was in serious trouble now, but it was probably too late to turn back, so I kept going. Passing the garage and the liquor shop, with a beating heart, I noticed a shadow lurch across the road. Alarmed, I stared at the tumbling form, only to realize that he was just another drunk crossing the road to take a leak. As I followed the plummeting dark shape across the road to the left side, I noticed a tree with a platform built around it. On the platform was seated a single stone figurine of some deity with a naked incandescent bulb hanging over it to provide the light for the make shift temple. The light from the bulb formed a circle around the tree and the temple, plunging the other areas of the road beyond it into relative darkness. An old man, wearing ochre robes, shuffled across the street carrying something in his hands and deposited his load on the platform. It was a harmonium, an Indian piano, used by bards and folk singers across the length and breadth of India as an accompaniment to their songs. The old man looked frail and lonely, not unlike his deity, sitting on that platform amidst all the dirt and darkness and squalor. He was struggling with a microphone attached to a stand when I passed by him.
As I passed by the tree with the old man sitting on the platform, the darkness engulfed me again. I decided not to go any further and, after attaining a respectable distance from the tree with the platform, I relieved myself, worrying all the time about my trip back. As I turned to retrace my steps back to the car, I worried about crossing the same place again. However, I also knew that I had to hurry back, to get out of this godforsaken place as soon as possible. As I walked back to the car, I noticed, things had changed. The old man in the ochre robes, had established himself on the platform and was singing devotional songs in his resonant voice, assisted by the harmonium, his voice rising, clear, in the sky, assisted by the microphone and the loudspeaker. The pool of light, thrown by the bulb overhead, seemed to cast a halo around the whole place and the music flowed from that place, filling me with awe, inspiring courage. As I strode with greater confidence, I took a closer look at the old priest. Balding, with few streaks of grey hair framing his head, he had a long beard. His forehead was smeared with saffron paste, and his wrist and neck stringed by rosaries, made of the sacred ‘rudraksha’ seed. He sat in front of his deity and sang, his clear voice rising, sweet and fearless, his face calm.
Suddenly I felt at ease, secure, emboldened. I walked with greater confidence, and surveyed the scene around me without feeling afraid. The drunkards at the liquor shop were still there, but they stood close to the shop now, not venturing to cross the street, clutching their drinks, standing as steady as they could. The drunken clamor had died down, a semblance of order prevailed in the street. The drunkard, who had tottered across the street, had stayed put, not venturing to cross the street again. The men in the garage had ceased their chatter, putting an end to their cursing and swearing and the street calls. While music flowed from one side of the road, the other side had quieted down, become orderly. I looked at that island of light and music once more, an oasis of sanity in that dark and threatening environment, and found God!
The old priest kept on singing praises of the Lord, immersed in his music, the pool of light providing the safety and sanity, so sorely needed in this little corner of the world. The shadows held no more horrors for me as I strode across the street with a renewed confidence. At the end of the street, before I stepped onto the light flooded highway, and civilization, again, I paused and turned back. I could still see the old priest singing and the men at the garage and the liquor shop respectfully staying away. What was it that brought this discipline into this dark corner of the world? A place with a potential for untold horrors was suddenly converted into a street safe enough for people to cross confidently. How? It was then that I realized, why we still need God!