‘Hotel Thiruvannamalai’- while big hotels have their recognizable brand names, the most inconspicuous lodges in dingy alleys have all the fancy names in the world. In my small village Vakkom, I have seen ‘Vakkom Palazzo’, one huge five star hotel near Panayil Kadavu, making people as well as itself wonder why it is there. Vakkom is not a tourist village. Vakkom Palazzo is built with the intention of attracting tourists from Trivandrum, Varkala and other nearby towns where tourism has been developing slowly. The owners of the hotel, I am told, thought that they would get bar license and liquor could be one of the biggest attractions for the patrons. Unfortunately, at least for the investors of this hotel, the Government of Kerala started taking stringent actions against bars and limited the allotment of bar license to new hotels. To make matters worse, the government also started contemplating a blanket ban on liquor in the state. Today Vakkom Palazzo stands like an anachronism in our village. Sometimes, when I pass by that way I smile unto myself thinking that the hotel is built for giving job to a lonely security man in his stylish uniform. People at Vakkom speak about this hotel with reverence tinged with something that moves between irony and sarcasm. Anybody visits their relatives at Vakkom, they are religiously asked whether they have gone to see the hotel. Now seeing the hotel from outside itself is an attraction for many people. Also the village folk call it differently; for some it is Vakkom Palazzo, for some others it is Vakkom Plaza, yet another group calls it Vakkom Palace and some simply refer it as Plazzo. However, you look at the sign boards of the lodges in any of the tourist centers, you may find names like ‘Taj View’, ‘Lake Side’ and so on often referring to the famous monument or place in their vicinity. Recently in South Delhi, in one of the rundown alley ways I found a cheap restaurant with a name ‘Bon Vivanta’!
Hotel Thiruvannamalai, however is neither a five star one nor a very cheap seedy one. It is right opposite to Ramana Ashram and the reason for its nomenclature is logical and understandable. Haunted often by the backpackers, the building looks more like an unplanned residence block rather than a designer hotel. In front of it a man sits reading a Tamil newspaper. His Enfield Bullet motor bike is propped on its stand and it reminds me of a villager sitting on a charpoy in a North Indian village, sipping his morning tea, with a buffalo munching away the cuds nearby for company. Shibu Natesan as he is inclined to many things including Enfield Bullets, HMT watches and Maruti Gypsy, makes a small talk with the person who neither shows overfriendliness nor outright disinterestedness. Apparently, Shibu had stayed here before and he is a good bargainer for rates. But, seasoned in handling such enthusiastic patrons, the man in front of the hotel gives us a half smile. I peer into the hotel and find that the reception is right inside but almost under a flight of steps that go up. It looks like the man has extended his reception desk to the streets so that he could have fresh air, great morning sunlight, his favorite newspaper and a philosophical disinterestedness for the worldly affairs. Though detached he is, almost replicating the philosophy of Indian sages who ask everyone to be detached from the material world, when it comes to money he seems to be too attached to make any departure from the proven materialism. Shibu struggles with his Tamil and enthuses him with some comments on his Enfield Bullet. Unrelenting the man is, he sticks to his price but asks one of his assistants to lead us to a first floor room. Now Shibu seems to have a choice to make. He has stayed in some other room in the same premises and he wants it now also. The man tells him that it is already occupied. But like any other Indian artist who has developed certain peculiar traits in due course of becoming rich, Shibu also has got certain peculiar traits. Despite his repeated pleas the man does not give us the room Shibu wants. Finally we settle in the room that the man has chosen to allot us.
(Abul Kalam Azad, photography artist)
The room is not so big though it could accommodate two people. We look at each other and keep our backpacks down. Slowly, the room accepts us and more importantly we accept our room. Once the mutual comfort level is established between us and the room, we start planning our day. It is just seven thirty in the morning and we exclaim how convenient it is to travel by road at night and reach Thiruvannamalai early morning and save a full day for ourselves. We mark it as an important point for future use. While I go into the bathroom, Shibu goes down to give some advance money at the reception desk and also to ensure that we get his favorite room by next morning. After taking bath we spread out ourselves on the bed looking at the vacant ceiling and bare walls with a sense of resignation. But we are happy for we do not feel any fatigue. We think of several things including going for a cup of tea. Suddenly Shibu’s mobile phone rings. It is Abul Kalam Azad at the other end. Abul has been in living in Thiruvannamali for the last three years and he has contributed immensely in making Thiruvannamalai famous among the Indian artists. He leads the Ekalokam Trust Photography (ETP) at Thiruvannamalai and also runs a small gallery called ‘Kalai Illam’ there. Small scale solo exhibitions take place in Kalai Illam with joint efforts and good will of the people around. Azad, a former Press Trust of India Photo journalist has this exemplary quality of making friends anywhere in the world. Shibu had promised to inaugurate an exhibition of Krigen Ulhman, a former Hippie artist living in Thiruvannamalai at Kalai Illam. Now Azad is there in the line. We have decided not to disturb Azad by pressing on him for accommodation or anything of that sort. But Azad enquires about our whereabouts.
Things change with that one phone call of Abul Azad. Next development of events could only be compared to a well edited film scene. Azad comes and in his booming voice chide us for not letting him know about our arrival in the town. Both of us smile vaguely and mumble things to explain the situation. Azad has come by a scooter. He speaks to the hotel assistant in Tamil. What he says is that we are shifting and they could cut one day’s rent and the rest of the money could be given to us. Sensing Azad’s arrival, I strongly believe, and also knowing Azad’s persuasive nature, the hotel owner has already gone away by his Enfield Bullet. In five minutes’ time we are in a different place. We pack up our things again. We haul it down on our backs. We walk behind Azad like two school kids. Azad is wearing a white dhoti and a white short kurta. Across his shoulders hangs a small leather bag which contains ‘I do not know what’. I like the way Azad walks with a lot of confidence. He picks up his phone and makes a few phone calls, shouting in Tamil. What I gather is that he is engaging some other person to influence the hotel owner to return our money and apparently Azad is successful in that. Following him we reach the next alley, which is just opposite to Ramana Ashram. Shibu shows me the place and I look at it with my unenthusiastic eyes. I am not yet converted to his enthusiasm. I have my reservations. I refuse to think much about my reservations about the place.
Azad pushes a gate open. We are now in a beautiful property. On our left there is a huge two storied house which looks like a heritage building but is currently used by someone. However, the building does not seem to have any occupants. On our right, there is a big but modest bungalow with a long verandah sheltered by a roof and netted large windows. Two dogs come to us barking. Azad scolds them in Tamil. They look at suspiciously. Azad opens the house where Tulsi Suvarna Lakshmi, Azad’s commander in chief in Thiruvannamalai is already there. The house looks inhabited by somebody and is exactly the same way. On the walls there are a few paintings intricately done. On the table there are vignettes from Ramana Ashram. The furniture smells of past. The divan linens are clean. The red oxide coated floors shine. The bungalow is designed in a curious way. There is an L shaped outer layer that covers the drawing room of the house which has a large permanent high table in the middle. Around it there are high stools and obviously this place is where people gather to have some drinks, though I do not see any personal bar nearby. We keep our bags on the divans. On the right side of the hall there is an attached bathroom and on the left there is a narrow bedroom with a dressing table and mirror. Just behind the pillared drawing room, there is a bigger chamber with a swinging cot. On the right side of it there are two doors; one opens to the kitchen and the other opens to the backyard. The lights are rather yellow in the rooms which accentuate the oldness of the building. One could use this bedroom and one could use the swinging cot, Azad tells us. We look at each other. We have already decided to use the swinging cot.
We are not there at Ramana Ashram. Nor have we gone to the Thiruvannamalai temple. I have not understood anything of Thiruvannamalai. Yet, we have already touched the history of it. It is better to say that we are living in that history. You are lucky because you are living in Arthur Osborne’s house, says Azad while lighting a cigarette. Arthur Osborne, does it ring familiar? I ask myself. I draw a blank. Arthur Osborne’s house? Shibu exclaims. He seems to have heard of this name. My studies later and conversations with Azad and Shibu reveal to me who Arthur Osborne is/was. Arthur Osborne (1906-1970) was an English writer who became one of the greatest disciples of Ramana Maharshi. It was through his writings and biography of the sage, ‘Ramana Maharshi and the Path of the Self Knowledge’ the western world came to know about the sage. After coming to Thirvuannamalai, Osborne left his teaching and writing career in England behind and devoted himself to Ramana Maharshi. He till his death edited the Ashram journal Mountain Path. Arthur Osborne’s son was Adam Osborne who is the inventor of personal computers. When I know that we are sitting in the same house where these great people lived, I feel a sense of wonderment; a first feel of extraordinary about the place. We were supposed to live in that small hotel room. Azad has brought us here. And we are sitting in a place perhaps, Arthur Osborne sat and wrote his journals and books. Arthur Osborne Estate is huge and it is one of the houses that were built in those days.
Azad leaves with Tulsi and Leo James, the young photographer who has come from Dubai to participate in a project called ‘Project 365’, an ambitious project to document Thiruvannamalai continuously for three hundred and sixty five days. Initiated by Azad himself, this project currently on has around twenty photographers from all over India engaged in all aspects of Thiruvannamalai as a place. We sit there is silence for a while. We do not know what to do. We consider options. Should we go to the Ashram first or should we go for a walk? Or should we just sleep off on the swinging cot? Finally we decide to make a visit to the Ashram and then go for a walk, and then come back and sleep. We step out of the house and as Azad has instructed we lock it up. The dogs come rushing to us. We walk out and latch the gate from outside. A voice calls out from the seemingly abandoned building, Please close the gate when you go out. It is in Tamil and it has a rustic tone to it. We train our eyes to see the person who has called out. It is a female voice. But we are not able to see her. So we stand there staring into a dark patch in the building which is a netted door. I notice there is a narrow aero bridge connecting this building and Osborne’s house where we are living. We say, yes to the vacant building, latch the door and come out to the alley. A cow lazily passes by. A young sadhu in his saffron uniform comes against us. Our eyes lock and release. We see an old foreign woman standing and looking at a frog hopping across the road with piety. Her face beams with a smile. Isn’t it a bit too much, I ask Shibu. He smiles. You are going to see more, he tells me. We cross the road, which is now busy with plying vehicles. We are now at the entrance of the Ramana Ashram. I am not going to change, I tell myself. I know this spiritual bullshit. But I am going to play along. As if he could read my thoughts, Shibu tells me, this way, let us deposit our footwear there at that counter. We leave our footwear there. The old men there at the counter tell us to leave it on the floor. But Shibu insists that they should be kept inside the rack and reluctantly the old men take our footwear from us. Turning I step on the earth of Ramana Maharshi Ashram with my bare soles. Something happened? I ask myself. Nothing. Nothing is happening.