When the faithless sets off for his journey, not too many people find it interesting. When the faithful packs up even for a small trip outside his home town, it is generally seen as a pilgrimage. The ones who believe in pilgrimages and the ones who believe in the divinities in those places naturally attract the attention of the people who have not crossed the thresholds of their own houses for a real pilgrimage. The believer who goes out to holy places carries a part of holiness in him/her. When he goes out, it is an expectation of the others that makes his trip so important and when he comes back he brings back a bit of divinity that he himself has witnessed. Our land is full of such moving holy people who in their daily lives really do not claim to have such divinities. They are just ordinary people indulging in ordinary things. But something makes them different. They have so many stories to tell and some miracles to perform. At the same time our country is filled with faithless people who are also in their own pilgrimage. Perhaps, their trips are not called pilgrimages. They are wanderers in the lonely terrains of negation and restlessness. As they go on, they too imbibe a bit of divinity without their own knowledge, though others do not acknowledge it. There are instances when believers go for pilgrimage and come back as non-believers and there are non-believers who go for pilgrimages and come back as faithful people.
(Shirdi Sai Baba Mandir)
I think I have gone through both these facets of belief. When I went to Shirdi, the seat of Sai Baba, I did not have any particular belief in me. My friend had wished for my sake that he would take me to the feet of Sai Baba. I liked my friend more than any other divine personality at that point of time so I decided to go along with him. He took me there in his car after a long drive from Goa where we all had gone for spending one year ending and for witnessing the beginning of a new year. I was ready to believe in the power of the place but the moment I came to know that ten thousand rupees that one of us was carrying in the bag was picked at the sanctum sanctorum of the Shirdi Temple by organized pickpockets operating from within the temple premises. We went to the police station and there were a few like us who got stolen during the temple visit. Policemen took it so lightly and they said it was a usual occurrence. If it was a usual occurrence, I thought there must be beneficiaries within the police force and temple authorities. Someone suggested that the money lost must be taken as an offering to the Baba as the Baba had wished so. What was that kind of a demand from a holy man from a person who was taking a family comprising of two small kids to ‘see’ him? And even if it was a forced offering there, then I should have been benefitted from that incident in the coming days. Contrary to my belief, I lost a series of jobs though gained a big project only to lose it forever after conducting it successfully. We all, including my friend chose not to talk about it ever since.
(Artist Gayatri Gamuz)
This time, however, when I decided to travel to Thiruvannamalai with Shibu Natesan, I had a different feel about it in my mind. I took it as an experiment. Friends who had gone there before me told me different stories about their visit, sojourn or stay. Shibu has been visiting Thiruvannamalai for the last ten years and if given a chance he is ready to buy a house and settle there, a move that according to him would solve his issues regarding the ‘right’ place to live and work the way he wants. I have been hearing good things about Thiruvannamalai for a long time not only from Shibu but also from a few other people. When I say good things, I do not make a judgment about the place or the people who tell me these stories. For me, good things mean, stories about peaceful and affordable life that they lead there. Anand and Gayatri Gamus, an environmental activist and poet and his Spanish wife who became Gayatri long back, have been living there for a long time. They live in hutments created by them in their own farm. Anand does farming, writes poetry and involve in environmental activism in his own style. Gayatri Gamus paints in her studio there and exhibits in different parts of India. Three years before Abul Kalam Azad, a noted photography artist (former photo journalist) moved there and set up his studio. Now with the help of Tulsi Suvarnalakshmi and many other friends he became successful in setting up Kalai Illam, House of Art and Ekalokam Trust for Photography. ETP is now involved in a huge year long project where a set of selected artists document Thiruvannamalai throughout the year. Anil Dayanand, another artist also has moved to Thiruvannamalai.
(Abul Kalam Azad- Photography artist)
Azad has been inviting me to Kalai Illam at Thiruvannamalai for a long time. Each time I received his invitation I declined it as I was not feeling the true calling had yet come. An unwilling traveler as always I have been , postponing a trip is a joyous thing for me. It does not have anything to do with people or place; I simply do not want to travel. I do not even want move out of the room where I sit. But things are like that I travel quite often, mostly for work. But I like to wander around in the small alleys and sit silently in temples where people do not frequent that often. Destiny is a different thing altogether, you believe in it or not. I always feel that you undertake a journey when the time is ripe and you are mentally prepared. That’s why when Shibu called me and offered me a trip to Thiruvannamalai, which he said would change my life completely. I smiled at the offer though I did not reject it completely. Slowly I started thinking that it was time for me to go. With severed ties with many in life, I started believing that it was time to undertake a trip to Thiruvannamalai. And I was happy that it was with Shibu who always have a lot of things to tell me. He talks sense except when he is not pulling my leg. So instantly I agreed to travel with him. My happiness was also due to the fact that I could meet Azad and other friends in Thiruvannamalai without feeling the guilt of rejecting their invitations earlier. Shibu was supposed to inaugurate a show of his old friend Chrigen Ulhmann at Kalai Illam. The time was perfect as I too had a good reason to visit Kalai Illam with Shibu.
(Kazhakkoottam, entry to Trivandrum City)
It is a reunion sort of thing for Shibu Natesan and myself. He is a declared spiritualist but I am a declared materialist. But the materialist does not have money to purchase a travel bag that could accommodate a couple of dresses and the basic things for a weeklong trip. So Shibu offers me one of his shoulder bags which I think should not be returned in the near future. Hence, I go to his palatial house in Attingal with a few clothes packed up in a small polythene cover and transfer them into the bag that he gives me. I am happy to have a new bag on my back though it has to go back to its owner in the near future. I write this with the hope that out of shame he will not insist that I should return the bag. We are dropped at Kazhakkoottam from where we are supposed to get into the Volvo bus that would take us to Villupuram. From where we have to take another bus to Thiruvannamalai. At sharp six in the evening the bus comes and we get in. We instantly strike friendship with the bus driver and the attendant. They promise that they would take care of us during the rest of the trip including dropping us safely at Villupuram. The bus heads for Chennai which is another four hours drive from there.
Shibu, as we all know by now, is a very famous landscape painter also. That makes him the natural claimant for the window seat. His argument is simple; he is a landscape artist so he needs to see a lot of landscape. I take an avuncular position and let him take the window seat. It is good to see him enjoying the passing landscape. As we cross Trivandrum and enter Tamil Nadu, which is made conspicuous by change of language from Malayalam to Tamil in the hoardings and posters, also by changing the faces of the actors and actresses in those posters, the bus attendant switches the LED television screen on and plays a movie called ‘Dhool’. It is a film with Vikram in lead. Vikram is one of the success stories in Tamil film industry. With none to back him up, he started off his career as a struggling small time artist to find his way to the top rungs of the Tollywood industry. He found his success when he crossed the age of forty. His Annyan, which is dubbed as ‘Aparichit’ in Hindi made him a national success also. I decide to watch the movie and let Shibu indulge in his romance with nature which has been growing darker by time. Though I like Vikram, I feel Dhool is a very boring movie. The same old story of a simpleton moving to the city is repeated with the same masala ingredients. At some point I could almost tell what would come next. The bus is in a rush to take us to Villupuram and many others to different destinations, therefore the attendant tells us that there was no ‘formal’ stop for having dinner. They give us five minutes in Nagercoil to freshen up ourselves and have a tea and a bite from the available array of snacks. Men rush to one of the dark corners at the edge of the bus station and liberally ease themselves. Hapless woman scramble here and there in group and finally they find a proper paid loo just outside the bus station.
Back inside the bus the air condition has been stepped up. It is one ploy to make the passengers sleep as early as possible so that the driver could step on the accelerator without letting the passengers know of the horrifying speed of the bus in the highway. They provide us with a blanket and we have comfortable push back seats. A graphic rendering of the people sleeping in such bus would show a series of strangers sleeping on the lap of the ones who sit just behind them. I look at Shibu and he is not in a mood to sleep. He just wants to look outside and lap in everything that he sees. But after sometime he too grows tired of watching outside and prepares himself to sleep. We say something to comfort ourselves and crack some jokes in hushed up tones. Slowly, with the steady rocking of the bus on the smooth highway, we fall into a deep slumber. We are woken up by the benevolent bus attendant who has been giving company to the driver throughout the night. We pick up our bag and get down at Villupuram. Once we are out of the bus we still have a steady rock feeling. Dazed and amazed at the scenes of a sleeping town we look around us in three sixty degree. From the lights seen at one side of the road we recognize the bus stand. There are no people on the road to ask for directions. But we trust our instinct and walk towards the light. We pass two arches and mark them as landmarks when we come back to take the bus for Trivandrum. At Villupuram Bus Stand, suddenly the world looks different. People have parked themselves on the floor and even on the platforms. Stalls selling flowers, tea and plastic toys are very much alive. I recognize the consumers; women want to wear flowers even if they are not washed and cleaned there at the bus stop. Children bawl for toys and toys are immediately bought and peace is maintained amongst the squatting families waiting for their buses to places unknown to us. Men want to drink tea, standing and women do the same sitting on the floor. We also feel like having a cup of tea from there. But people with regular habits often find it difficult to have a cup of early morning syrup like tea rich with milk. The moment you consume it, your bowels are ready and you need to ease yourself. We ask ourselves how much time would it take us to reach Thiruvannamalai. It is hardly two hours, says a bus conductor who stands in front of a bus ready to depart for Thiruvannamali sharp at five in the morning. We have a few minutes left for having a cup of tea. But both of us are skeptical about it. The conductor assures us that there will be a tea break in between. We reach a silent agreement on skipping the morning to saving ourselves from some undeclared embarrassment by our own bodies. We get into the bus and we thus start our journey to Thiruvannamalai.