Somehow, I reached outskirts of Courtalam. I left my place with just one rupee in my pocket and I could hardly afford to use up this treasure. The travel on foot and hitchhike took several days. I relied on a number of tricks to survive on the way.
It was the year 1945, or so. Barring a few rich zamindars who owned cars, people used bullock carts and horse carriages for commuting. The motorized vehicles that crisscrossed in many towns and villages mostly belonged to the British and their army. The country was up in arms against the British rule. Even while Gandhiji spearheaded Satyagraha, a silent non-violent, non-cooperation movement, there was widespread violence against the Whites everywhere. Religious division was rearing its nasty head all over and there was a complete breakdown of trust between Muslims and Hindus. The Second World War was coming to an end. The British seemed to be veering round to a view that it would be impossible to continue to deny freedom to our country and rather, it would be a burden to them if they stayed on here longer. News about serious negotiations for independence was up in the air. News and rumors spread by word of mouth. Confusion prevailed among people as to what to believe and what not to. People gathered in street corners discussing, debating, questioning, arguing and many times fighting among themselves over the pros and cons of freedom and independence. Many had doubts in mind about a free India, though the overall mood was in favor of independence. Whether everyone genuinely believed in having independence or not there was a clamor for it everywhere. People’s expectations about life after freedom was running high, though there was no dearth of skeptics.
Stopping at several places, listening to a number of public speeches at street corners, staying in stone mandaps (open stone halls) for the nights, filling my stomach eating whatever was distributed as prasad in small temples, I managed to reach Shencottai, a picturesque agricultural town near Courtallam. I saw several lakes – big and small – on the way to Shencottai. Fine carpets of green paddy fields surrounded by lush green hills decorated the landscape. Abundant water flowed between mud bunds into the paddy fields. The soil was very rich and fertile. Clouds sat on the hill tops and a gentle breeze Thendral, as they call it, swept through the valley between the small hills. I saw banyan trees everywhere on the way blanketing both sides of the main trunk roads. I constantly felt the rushing of energy in me despite my tiring journey by foot.
As I approached the outskirts of Shencottai, I saw a small congregation of people sitting on the floor, underneath a banyan tree. The people were mostly silent or whispering among themselves. A sadhu in saffron dress, with eyes closed, was sitting before them. Even in the semi-dark twilight, with the only other light coming from a small lamp lit by his side, the sadhu seemed to be radiant. There was a peculiar aura surrounding him. The crowd patiently waited for the ‘sadhu’ to open his eyes.
Out of curiosity, I sat down quietly among the group. I learnt from the person next to me that the sadhu gave divine blessings when he opened his eyes and that his blessings had mystical powers. He told me that the sadhu had cured many illnesses, finalized very difficult marriage alliances, blessed couples for children, repaired broken relationships and miraculously helped solve a myriad of other problems affecting people’s lives.
Soon the Sadhu opened his eyes, made strange noises, invoked many gods and goddesses, spoke with a gruff voice, offered vibhuthi to some and kumkum to some others, touched a few people on their heads and brushed others away. I watched everything with fun, but soon I got disinterested and left the place. I had to reach Shencottai before it became very dark and find a place to stay for the night so that I could be ready early next morning to leave for Courtallam. Courtallam would be my first destination in my proposed encounter with Lord Siva.
Thanks to a small agraharam, a locality where Brahmins lived predominantly, I found a Perumal (Lord Vishnu) temple at one end of the street. The temple offered food generously that night. I ate stomach-full and waited outside for the temple to be closed. Soon the agraharam became quiet. I found a small corner, outside the temple, to sleep.
.... to be continued in Chapter 2