My life in college had always been public. I had wanted it that way, and destiny had willed it that way. For long I had lived cooped up inside my home, inside my mind, inside others’ rules and expectations. In college I had broken all shackles and come out and exposed myself to public eye. With a new-found confidence, a stranger to me in my past life, I had taken on the world, and for a time excelled at it too. Later on, I realized that those who enjoy the glory of a public life must also suffer its ills. Everyone seemed to know everything about me. The classes I bunked, the tests I flunked, the movies I went to, the gifts I gave, the people I met, the talks we had, everything became a matter of public discourse. And thus, later, when things had gone south, the public glare had hurt. Few people had stood with me during those trying times, the people who were still with me today, my core group, my home team, the family I had found in college.
And thus, it was no surprise that it was with this home team that I was revisiting my past today.
The cars came to a halt outside the intimidating iron gate of the Kasturba Girls’ Hostel, KG for short. Vaishali and the other women, along with the children went inside the hostel, and me and Appu and Sutanu started walking towards the Hanuman temple located inside the hospital premises.
Evening was fast approaching, and a cold wind blew. December is usually the coldest month in north India and this year it was exceptionally cold. We buttoned our coats and started to walk across the road towards the entrance to the hospital premises, but not before clicking a few pictures in front of a newly erected structure with ‘Institute of Medical Sciences’ etched across it.
Appu and Sutanu chatted merrily and looked around the hospital building, while I walked quietly, immersed in my thoughts. It was no chance that we were at this temple in the evening. Evening time is especially auspicious for prayers in the Hindu religion and is called ‘sandhya’. The word ‘sandhya’ comes from the root ‘sandhi’ which means joining or junction. ‘Sandhya’ is thus a junction of either day and night (evening), or night and day (morning), or morning and afternoon, or afternoon and evening. A day can thus have four ‘sandhyas’. Hindus are instructed to pray for at least two ‘sandhyas’ (morning and evening) – out of which the evening ‘sandhya’ is the most auspicious.
I walked a little behind Appu and Sutanu and looked intently towards my right, where I remembered the temple to have been.
‘Would it still be here’, I asked myself?
From a distance, I could see a brick structure underneath a huge tree which I thought should be the old temple. But it was not how I remembered it. Obviously, some changes had been made in the structure and the area looked different now, and the temple itself could not be seen from the road.
‘Is this it’, Appu asked. He was also confused.
‘Yes, I think this is it’, Sutanu said.
As we turned right into a small fenced area with a wall and an iron grill gate, we recognized the old structure inside. The boundary wall and the fencing had been renovated and the porch outside had undergone a facelift. The floor was paved with marble now and the premises looked much better now than what we remembered from our days. The temple itself, however, was still the same. A small single room structure with a small spire rising above it. The deity resided inside the single room, and the only door in the structure faced east. The ‘pradakshina’ or the path on which devotees circumambulated around the temple had been renovated now and also had a tin roof to protect the devotees from sun and rain.
We removed our footwear at the entrance to the temple, and walked in, looking around with curious eyes. A lone ‘purohit’ or priest walked around inside the premises, tending to the plants inside the temple and picking up pieces of paper which careless devotees had littered the temple with. I looked at the priest, smiled and nodded. He smiled back.
‘The temple has undergone a lot of construction lately, has it’, I asked him.
‘Well, not lately. It has been a few years now,’ he said, wondering why we were asking this.
‘Must have been. It has been a long time since we came here last,’ I replied.
A shadow of understanding crossed the elderly eyes, as he understood why three men in suits had suddenly appeared inside this small temple.
‘We used to come here during our student days,’ I continued to explain, although I doubt if any explaining was necessary.
The priest merely smiled back.
While I was talking to the priest, Appu and Sutanu had already paid their respects to the deity residing in the temple and stood looking around. I turned around after talking to the priest and walked up to the single door which opened into the inner sanctum of the temple housing the image of Hanuman. As I kneeled down in front of the deity, I looked up and saw the small statue stare back at me with unblinking eyes. The image seemed familiar, very, very familiar. Thousands of times I had come to this temple, seeking help from this deity, talking to this statue installed inside the room, pleading, fighting, arguing.
The door of the temple where I knelt, had a stone threshold separating the mortals from the immortal deity which resided inside. It was on this stone threshold that I had put my forehead innumerable times and called out to him to help me. And even then, the statue had stared down at me with this familiar cold stare, not revealing what he had in mind, or even if he had heard me or cared about what I said. But I had persisted, in my asking, in my pleading, in my prayers.
And now I was here again, and the stone deity looked down at me once more as I kneeled before him in my pinstriped suit, my heart churning with emotions.
‘Why?’ I had asked him then, as I had rubbed my forehead on the stone threshold.
‘Enough,’ I said today, as I put my head down on the threshold once again, talking to him once more after so many years. Did he listen at all? Did he care? Was he there? Who was I talking to? Does he exist? I had again come back to the same question which has haunted mankind ever since the beginning of this world. Is there anyone out there, listening to us????
‘Enough,’ I said again, probably a little loud because Appu and Sutanu stopped shuffling and looked at me.
‘Enough,’ I said again, and I kept my head on the stone and I wept. The emotions I had kept in check for such a long time broke all restraints and escaped from the deepest recesses of my heart and flowed freely. As they emerged, bubbling and simmering, they stoked my tears and rocked my body, which shook. I was weeping freely now, unashamedly, my body shaking with the sobs, tears running down my cheeks, washing away the years, pushing me back into time, making me a child again. I wept for the lost youth, the lost years and for the lost innocence. I wept for the person I will never be again, I wept for the lost opportunities and for things that had happened and things that didn’t happen.
Appu and Sutanu were shocked to see this and ran to be by my side, suddenly protective of me.
‘What happened, bhai (brother)’ they asked, each holding me by my shoulder on each side. Their grips were warm, understanding, protective.
‘Nothing,’ I wiped my tears and looked at them. Looking at my two friends standing by my side, here in the temple at this point of time, I knew the deity had spoken. I knew what he had said. I needed to ask no more questions; they had been answered. I bowed my head and accepted his verdict. Acceptance was everything. It was the way to truth, the way to salvation, the way to true happiness. Acceptance of ‘acceptance’ was the way to God!
‘Kya hua (what happened),’ Appu asked, still bewildered, his eyes innocent of what had just transpired between me and my deity.
‘Nothing,’ I said, ‘I am just tired, very tired, and want to go back to the hotel now’ I said.
Later as I walked back from the temple towards the hostel where Vaishali waited, flanked by Appu and Sutanu, I felt lightheaded and happy. The ghosts of the past had been exorcised, the storm had blown over and it had ended in the company of the same people who were there when it had started.
My tryst with destiny had been honoured and I felt I was a different man now. Life had come a full circle!
To be continued………………………………….
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Mann ki Baat
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Haan bhai! 🙏🏻