A day that starts with the rights notes could end up in chaos and a day that starts with a wrong note could prove unbelievably beautiful towards the end of it. This day is very important for us and I am very excited about today’s destination; Thiruvannamalai. From Sakaleshpur it is around four hundred kilometers away if we take the Bangalore route and more or less the same if we go towards Mysore and take a left turn. Anyway, as we have started quite early we believe that we would be in Thiruvannamalai by five o clock in the evening. I am eager to reach Thiruvannamalai because it was here in 2014 I had my first jolt that created cracks at the edifices of my materialistic thoughts. I have never been a seeker of wealth and despite several chances that had come to me for making more and more money at various stages in my life I have remained a staunch believer in moderation in everything. However, so many things are there in that life that tie you down to the materialistic thoughts and force you into the constant worries regarding money and material comforts. The more you are tied to the material world the more you are conscious of the disparities, discrepancies and disabilities of the society that mow down most of the people under the yoke of the striving for material success. The more you are conscious of such things the more you feel like self righteous and the more you demand justice for all. It is a good thing to seek justice for all but what you later on would come to know is that when you seek justice for all you are not sure whether you would dispense justice to all alike had it been in your hands. In those moments you turn selfish and you seek your comfort first than anybody else’s. Hypocrisy is so rampant in the materialist life that none wants to endure a little bit of inconvenience for the larger conveniences of all. In the blinding light of self righteousness one fails to see the purity of the soul one has and the falsehood of the body consciousness. When I went to Thiruvannamalai for the first time I was skeptical about the effects of the place would have on me. I resisted for a few days only to succumb to the charm of the spiritual influence of the place. I have written about those experiences in detail in a series that I wrote after the first Thiruvannamalai visit.
The early morning is cool and misty. The coffee plantations on either side of the road are still under the blanket of the fog which is cotton like and seemingly palpable. For a longer stretch I see a lot of trees cut down using machine saw, for widening the road. The ruthless of act of the human beings with varying interests stands like a raw wound all along the road. In the air the smell of the wood sap lingers on reminding us of the pain and death that they have endured. Further down the road we stop for a cup of tea and it is the place where we want to enquire about the road to Madurai (as Madurai direction would lead automatically to Thiruvannamalai). Tea shops are helpful in many ways; you could have your morning tea or coffee, you could take a leak, you could stretch your limbs and straighten yourself up, check your facebook and whatsapp, and just relax for some time. For us this is one point where we would get the direction towards the closer route to Thiruvannamalai. But it is rude to go to tea shop and ask for the route. We have the craving for a cup of tea and we ask for it. What ensues is a hilarious episode. The shop is run by a middle aged man who looks completely bored of his work. He is assisted by a lean, thin and a sickly woman who does not seem to be anyway connected to the man who makes tea. As if she is the bearer of the sorrows of the whole world, she mechanically washes the glasses and places before the tea maker and from there she hands over glasses filled with tea to the weary looking people gathered there in the shop. I ask for two cups of tea without sugar. The problem with me is that when I want to speak in Tamil (for I do not even know the basics of Kannada even if I could listen and understand what they speak) what jumps out of my mouth is Hindi. Where I am supposed to speak in Hindi I speak in English. In a professional situation when I speak to an elderly Bengali lady she speaks something in English and I answer her in English. And we do not understand a word each other. Then we repeat whatever we said in English in Hindi. Then we understand each other. But the catch is once we are over with the conversation, this elderly lady gains some South Indian accent and myself some Bengali accent. It takes at least five minutes to get back to normal.
I ask her for two cups of tea in Tamil. We want sugarless. She asks me “Coffeyaa?” I say, “No, No,Tea, Tea, Chai, Chai.” “Decoction-aaa?” she asks me without changing her expression. “Sakkar illama randu chai,” I manage. “Black teayaa?” the tea maker pitches in. “All ayyaa..tea..chai,” I repeat. “Illai..illai..No..No,” he dismisses me. What I hear from his ‘no no’ is ‘Go…Go.’ That person wants to get rid of us. Suddenly a good Samaritan appears from nowhere. He tells something in Kannada accent and now the couples’ face show some sign of understanding. We take seat at the table where the person who has come to help us to join in. Just a few minutes back I had noticed him. He was looking at the number plate of the car which has a Kerala registration. “Attingal alle?” (from Attingal, aren’t you?) He floors us with his ability to decode the number plate and tell us in which RTO the car is registered. We nod in agreement. He drives a taxi here and he is from somewhere near Attingal and has been living in Sakaleshpur for over twenty years. He seems a bit shabby and not to have had enough sleep. I look at his taxi; it is an Indica car. We are heading to Thiruvannamalai and we are just negotiating whether to go by Bangalore or is there any other road that leads to Thiruvannamalai. We present the case before the good Samaritan and he is ready to help. He thinks for a while and says that we should avoid Banglore route and hit the Mysore road so that we could avoid the Bangalore city and enter sideways to Thiruvannamalai. He gives some landmarks about turning left-right and about hitting certain bypasses. We are happy that we could avoid the tediousness of seeing the same route once again while driving back towards Bangalore from where we came two days back. We thank him, pay for the tea and get into the car and move from there.
There are certain circumstances in life when you reach the places where you have not intended to. I put the destination in my google map search and it shows almost half of Karnataka in there and somehow the road that has been mentioned by the good Samaritan is not seen anywhere. Anyway when we see a signage that shows ‘Mysuru’ we take the right turn and drive on. The road is smooth and seems never ending. The landscape is distinct for there is nothing particular to see other than barren fields and the occasional appearance of some villages and some odd business establishments. What I notice is the appearance of very post modern buildings with strange shapes standing alone in nowhere places. They are either engineering colleges or some other technical education centers. How do they find such places to set up educational institutions? An education institution should have a peaceful and sylvan atmosphere. Even if it is remote it should be away from the human habitat. There should be life inside the campus as well as outside the campus. But these educational institutions do not seem to have any life outside the campus. Even the campus itself looks like lifeless and inhuman with their glass facades and geometrical shapes. Hardly one sees any trees lining the roads that lead to these institutions. When campus life gets connected to the life outside, then only the students get full education. If they are cut off from the realities they would only be able to make themselves into Frankensteins or make a few for their nefarious uses.
There is something intriguing about this journey. We do not see any Mysuru signage after hitting the bypass. Or have we lost the way and taken some other road that leads to some other place. At one cross road a signage sends shivers to my spine. It says, ‘Mangalapuram/Mangalore’. Are we at the northern part of Kerala-Karnataka border? Aren’t we supposed to go to the North-East side of Tamil Nadu? We stop the car a few yards away from the cross road and I get out of it to enquire about Mysuru. A person who apparently understands Malayalam and surprises me with his fluency in speaking Malayalam says that we have to take a U-turn and go around fifty kilometers to hit the Mysore road. But if we take the straight road from here we could cross Satyamangalam and then take a left towards Salem and from there take the Chennai Road to Thiruvannamalai. There are a few moments of negotiation; whether to go back or proceed? We decide to proceed and cut through Satyamangalam. The name sounds familiar. It rings in something into my mind. Yes, I know Satyamangalam is the forest where the biggest Sandalwood and ivory smuggler Veerappan had lived for many decades and did his deed. This romantic guerrilla fighter against the state and a great helper of the poor in and around the Satyamangalam forests had been shot dead after a couple of decades’ effort of the joint forces and special task forces. Veerappan with his unmistakable nose and moustache and the olive green war fatigue was neither a terrorist nor a freedom fighter. He was a smuggler who might have worked in tandem with many rich and powerful in various South Indian states. At some point he had to retreat to the forests to expand and maintain his operations. Once he abducted Kannada super star Rajkumar and it had become a huge news making Veerappan a nationally recognizable Robin Hood. The truth of his existence is not revealed yet. Who were his associates and why he was hunted down are not clear. The romantic aura around this beloved thug made Ramgopal Varma to make a multilingual film ‘Veerappan’ though it bombed in the box office. The lesson is simple; Gabbar Singh looks good in silver screen, but a real one’s story is not that appealing to the people. Had Veerappan become a corporate head after surrendering, perhaps his story would have been more appealing for the contemporary audience. This is not good time for the Robin Hoods.
A person who is born and brought up in Kerala, the idea of forest is different that from the idea of a person who is born in the northern part of the country. What the northerners qualify as jungles look like thickets of shrubs and some babool trees for the southerners. Kerala with its Western Ghats and Sahya Mountain ranges with the thick and ancient tropical forests has given rise to a different imagination about forests. Those people who go by car through the inside roads of Kerala especially during the monsoon season would think that they are going through a never ending forests with homes on either sides of the asphalted forest paths. Only the north eastern people would find the forests of Kerala so natural because they too have similar kind of forest cover and paddy fields (I have to say that in Kerala too the forest cover is fast thinning, rivers are just drying up and the paddy fields of the yesteryears now sadly bear multistoried apartments and housing complexes and malls on them). Hence Satyamangalam forest looks less dense and less menacing for me. May be we are passing through the areas where there are no thick forest cover. Some sort of bamboo species grown beautifully on either side of the road turns it into a sort of very appealing boulevard. And it takes many hours to get out of Satyamangalam. Apart from sparse traffic and an occasional police post there is nothing so menacing about the Satyamangalam forests. However, when I think about the place as an erstwhile hunting ground of the legendary Veerappan, I feel good and some kind of inexplicable sensation inside me.
By the time we reach Salem it is already six o clock in the evening. We do not want to enter into the city but somehow we miss one by pass and lo we are there in the city outskirts which is full of traffic, dust and human chaos. As we drive towards the wrong direction some people direct us back to the main road and ask us to drive for another fourteen odd kilometers to find a left turn that hits the Madras Road which would take us to Thiruvannamalai. We are hungry. At place where there are a lot of eateries we stop. Most of the eateries sell dosa and idli. I try to read the Tamil signage but not able to read any. People are not in the small restaurants. So we walk towards a small restaurant at the far end of the road where an agile woman in her early forties is seen making dosa vigorously. We walk towards that shop particularly because that is the only shop where we see some activity. A traveler’s gut feeling is this to eat from the places that are busy. If you eat from the inactive places chances are more to get served with stale food. This lady is so quick in making dosas and multitasking including packing the parcels, handling her teenage daughter who is there hanging out with her Pomeranian dog, the boys who have come there in the pretext of eating dosas and gazing at the young girl. We sit at the only one table available in the shop. This lady, who looks extremely beautiful in her raw rustic appearance, serves us with dosas and chutneys. The boys who are there at the table are boisterous. She sends her daughter home, which must be behind the shop. Then she picks up a dried up wood. With a skillful move of her strong legs she breaks it into pieces and pushes it with force into the choolah (traditional stove). I find it as a covert warning to those boys. She could just hold any person who messes up with her daughter or herself, break him into two pieces and push him into the stove. I like her act. She is a warrior. However, the greatest gesture comes from her when she serves the best dosas to those unruly boys. (she was removing some dosas while serving them. One of them asks why she does so. She says that she wants to give everyone the same sized dosas and the removed ones are smaller in size). The day’s hardship is over by seeing that gesture of human affection. When we leave the place what I feel sad about is the fact that perhaps never in this life I would be able to see this woman in again!
I drive. I tail a truck in the lonely road. It goes on and on. The truck keeps a particular pace. It is already ten o clock at night. I do not rush because even if we reach Thiruvannamalai any time from now we are not going to have a settled night. So I go behind the truck. But at some point I feel that we have once again lost the way. I stop at some point and enquire where this road is heading to. They say that it goes to Chennai and upon asking about Thiruvannamalai, they tell us that we have to go around eighteen kilometers back and take a left turn to Thiruvannamalai. If I have not asked at this point for directions we would have been received by Chennai in a few hours. We go back. And the Thiruvannamalai road is calm and silent. The trees all along the roads stand guarding the wayfarers. By the time I drive into the Girivalam road, it is already past midnight. We cross Ramanashram, then Sheshadri Ashram. But it is time to stop and take rest till the day break. We drive into an area where we have a faint idea that one of the friends is staying. I park the car somewhere on the road side. There are three palm trees on the right side and an open field on the left. We push the chairs back and recline. The mosquitoes just start their work. But our fatigue is so much that we fall asleep soon. Somewhere from the top of one of those trees a strange bird hooted looking at a strange creature standing still down here; it flapped it wings and went back to sleep. The flapping of those wings kept on reverberating in my semiconscious mind throughout the sleep.