It was somewhere in a hot June. The drama unfolded itself in a small street corner, in the city of Cuttack, Odisha. Do I have to quote the date ? It could be any day, and anyplace, where men have a tryst with themselves.
I was returning home from my college for a late lunch. I did not have classes in the afternoon, so I thought, I could afford a late lunch to save myself from coming back in the grueling heat. Though my mind was running away to a curd-rice plus saag bhaji , my favourite in summer, I was looking around in search for a fruit stall to buy some banana for puja, specifically wanted by my wife, for it was a Thursday. The street looked almost deserted, every dog taking a nap in some shade, and every puddle in the street simmering in the sun struggling to hold on to dear life. Typical of human life, I mumbled. We are in love with life, but hardly bother to add value to living. I discovered a small shop tucked away in a corner, near a banyan tree in its last lap of life, not because it was too old to exist, but men were too greedy of space to let it exist. Most trees are gone from the side of streets in cities, in the name of expansion. Are we really expanding ?
I got down from the cycle rickshaw, and went near the shop to buy some banana. On my right, a little away from where I stood was unfolding the first scene of the drama. A blind beggar was sitting in shade with the tell-tale tin in front of him. A vendor stepped into the shade and rested his vender’s frame against the trunk of the tree. In villages and side streets of cities we see these vendors selling a thousand things, each not more than a rupee or two. They make a cross-like bamboo frame with three or four bars tied across a vertical pole. Then they hang typical women’s needs on them. One can find ribbons, balloons, tooth-pricks, ear-diggers, nail-clippers, hair-dressing items, locks, and a hundred other things hanging from those bars. They walk the street, stand at a corner, and ring a bell. Customers come to choose whatever they need. Living from hand to mouth. I overheard them.
Vendor – Rahim bhayya, kya kuchh mila ? (did you get anything)
Rahim – Kaun.. Hari bhayya ? Allahki mehrbani, ek paisa bhi nahin.(By the grace of Allah, not even a paisa)
Hari – Hm. To kya khaoge ? (what are you going to eat ?)
Rahim – Allahki mehrbanise thoda pani milegi to achha hoga.(By the grace of Allah if I get a little water to drink, it would be alright)
Hari - Allah karega to panika sath aur kuchh bhi miljayega Rahim bhayya. Aj mujhe do rupayya munafa mila. Isi do rupayyame char puri to hoga. Tum baith raho. Mein abhi char puri lekar aata hun. (If Allah wants, we can get something else with water. Today I got two rupees as profit. Two rupees can buy four puris. You keep sitting here, I will go and bring four puris.)
I kept on standing there pretending I was afraid to brave the sun. In fact I was struck by the piece of great humanity unfolding before me. The vendor came back with two green leaves pack, each containing two puris, and a little chutney each. Hari had brought a tinful of water too. He sat down and passed on one packet to Rahim. Both ate the puris with great relish, drank water from the tin, and fell to their inconsequential daily gossip. They do not talk of purpose of life, of new technologies, of international politics, of fashions and films, but of simple living. I left the shade, washed by the lyrics of life, by the quintessential beauty of an inconsequential life.
But that was not all. God had something more for me before the end of the day.
That was a Thursday. So after a short post-lunch nap, I had a wash, and went to a Thursday bhajan centre. Those were the early seventies, and bhajans were held in devotees’ houses. It afforded a beautiful get together in homely environment. Now mandirs have sprung up everywhere as public gathering places, and organized formality has cruelly replaced informal conviviality. I called a rickshaw, and arrived at the centre before time. I was standing before the gentleman’s house waiting for a friend, the second part of the drama showed up.
There was a big gate opening to their compound. The garage faced the gate, the other side of the house had a sprawling balcony. The ground floor hall started under it, and spread inside the house. That was the bhajan hall. The lady of the house and a daughter were standing in the balcony, and probably looking for a known face. A couple of beggars appeared near the gate and asked for alms. The woman was blind, in her forties, with a blind-woman’s staff, led by a girl ten or twelve, probably her daughter. They chanted their prayer two-three times. The ladies were watching them with some disapproval in their eyes. When they heard it a fourth time they realized it was a bhajan day and these people should be disposed of quickly. The lady of the house went inside, got a coin and tossed it to her from her overhead balcony. The coin fell on the hard floor below with a tong and rolled down to the street. The blind woman bent down and groped for the precious coin, the girl helping her. While both of them were frantically searching for ‘heaven’s gift’, the two ladies found it quite amusing, and laughed. Finally they got the quarter-of-a-rupee coin, blessed the giver, and left.
I went inside the hall. That day I chose a place far down the congregation in the hall. The bhajan started, but I couldn’t concentrate at all. The faces of Rahim, Hari, the old woman, and the two balcony ladies kept torturing me. I looked at the life size standing picture of Swami on the pedestal. Suddenly his eyes became living, and in their place I saw another pair of eyes.
A few months earlier, during the puja vacation I had been to Prasanthinilalayam. One day I was sitting in the second row for darshan. A middle-aged man was sitting in front of me with his sick child, palsied limbs struck by some wasting disease. After some time Bhagwan came along, stood by him, looked at the father and the child, waved His hands, poured some vibhuti in the hands of the father, wiped His fingers on the forehead of the boy and walked away. I had the good fortune of looking into His eyes. I felt the dewy eyes of Bhagwan reflected all the suffering of humanity, and all the compassion of God. It was such a soul-stirring vision.
I now saw those eyes, soft and glassy, you can pierce them with a pin-prick as it were, yet they encircle all existence. I couldn’t sing a song that day, for there was another song overflowing my heart. I remembered Wordsworth, “…for the vale profound/was overflowing with the sound..”