Ratan wiped his brow with the shirt sleeve. “God, not there yet? I must be a fool to follow your whims!” The earthen pot of yogurt swung from his uplifted hand. The other hand was weighed down by a dozen bananas.
Nirmala chirped, “Careful, don’t shake the yogurt. The cream on the top needs to remain intact, smooth, perfect.”
“Perfect!” mimicked her husband, “Why? Is that swami of yours finicky or what?”
“Not swami, but gurudev.”
“Oh, so now you think he will rope you in his supernatural lasso?”
They walked on a dirt road that grinned with scant teeth of shrubs. Stray dogs, wandering cows and fellow pilgrims trudged alongside. Ratan returned to his latest complaint, “Only peasants and gullible simpletons are headed this way.” The way led to the latest discovery – a swami, especially stamped by the Lord himself. He had a golden lotus in the sole of his left foot.
Ratan’s wife though felt happier at every step, which irritated him exceedingly.
A fellow traveller slackened his pace and waited for them to catch up, “Did I hear you call me a gullible simpleton?”
Ratan looked him up and down. On second thought he did look city-bred. His shirt was well tailored, although in disguise now with serpentine lines of dust marking the paths where his sweat had trickled down. The man glowered at Ratan.
Nirmala quipped confidently, “Oh, my husband was calling himself a gullible simpleton.”
Ratan glared at her, not at all grateful for saving his face.
The man would not let go, “Oh, then am I the other? A peasant?”
Nirmala became chatty, “Oh no, ignore that bit. We are from north Kolkata, the old city. Our house is near Dakshineshwar. So where do you come from?”
“I am from Medinipur. I started two hours back. But you must have been on the road for ages!”
“We did not crawl all the way here,” spat out Ratan.
Now their accuser having safely won the race broke into a smile, “Don’t feel ashamed! I passed a man who was walking for five days, all the way from Nabadwip. And he was truly crawling. As for the peasant thing, I can’t blame you. When I saw you I thought you were a peasant. But only at first. Then I saw the thorny bramble you are dragging under your shoe. Surely a peasant would be more street smart.”
“And what made me suspect you were a peasant was your dust coloured dishevelled hair. I thought a comb meant too much technology for you.”
The man patted his hair down, “At least I should feel grateful I have need of a comb.”
Ratan was bald. He held his peace. Fortunately it wasn’t put to great strain as he saw something pleasant, “Look at that gent out there! He is a pukka peasant – even has a sheep.”
“Hah, how right!” his companion was trying to be friendly, “We city folk should carry such a symbol, such as the sheep I mean, to proclaim our origins.”
“Carry the banner of your ignorance, gentlemen,” called out the sheep walker. He had heard their merry banter. “Call me a peasant, I don’t mind, but at least don’t call a poodle a sheep. They are different species.”
“Sorry,” mumbled Nirmala, “May I pat your dog?”
“Don’t call her a dog. She has a name.”
“And a surname too, I bet,” Ratan added under his breath.
“And of course she deserves the swami’s blessings,” his companion winked.
“She is the favourite of the king,” said the dog walker.
“King?” asked all three.
“OK, erstwhile king. You should feel lucky to be here today. The swami will move shortly because I have come with an important message. The swami is invited to the king’s palace. In Bardhaman.”
“Oh, if only we knew,” groaned Ratan, “At least they have trains running into Bardhaman.”
It all began a few months back when some ascetic set up his camp in Badampur. No one knew from where he came, but they all knew he was a spiritual master. Surely one with a golden lotus imprinted in the sole of his foot is no ordinary man. Some wayward journalist found him in his retreat, photographed the lotus foot and produced a neat report in the newspaper. Swarna Padma Swami became his name – the golden-lotus swami.
“The journalist had sunstroke and hallucinated” claimed Ratan when Nirmala cornered him with the story, “In India any man in saffron and beard who can skip a meal or two becomes an ascetic. The next thing you know there is a line of devotees stuffing him with sweets.”
“He doesn’t eat sweets,” bargained Nirmala.
“That’s not the point, we don’t know if he is a fake.”
“What about the madman who got cured?”
“Bored journalists are worse than epidemics. They publish lies and you gullible people devour them. Enough of this nonsense! These so-called swamis perform a miracle and people eat out of their hands. And then fame, money, food, women come tumbling in.”
“What miracle? Like materializing laddus from thin air? He performs no miracles. Read it for yourself. It is in every newspaper. Personal accounts – how the swami blessed and the infertile conceived, the bitter found happiness, the stressed got peace.”
“Everybody wants a short cut to peace, happiness, wealth!”
“A path is a path, short or long. In fact, the shorter the better. Didn’t you study hard to get your job? Why didn’t you just sit around at home and wait for money to fall into your palm?”
“Personal effort is a different matter.”
“That is why pilgrims walk long distances on rough terrain. They suffer therefore deserve divine grace.”
People walked all the way to Badampur barefoot carrying offerings. They forgot to discuss petrol price and cricket scores. Sweets went out of fashion. Fasting and fainting was the new epidemic. Ratan felt he was the only goat not sacrificed at the altar of the Irrational.
Nirmala was all admiration. “And he quotes from the Vedanta and Gita.”
“Nobody would know what he says anyway. Who understands Sanskrit these days?” asked Ratan.
“He prescribes gemstones without reading the horoscope. And they work.”
“I could do that too. You can never test the course of an event that hasn’t happened. Did anyone both wear the gemstone and not wear it at the same time?”
“OK, what about the lotus in the sole?”
“You think people have not suspected that?”
Ratan patted his goatee, “You know those thin skins women wear?” Then addressing the arched eyebrows he continued, “Oh, don’t wear that accusing look. We both saw them in the film ‘An Affair to Remember.’ Stockings, yes, that’s what they are called.”
Nirmala giggled it away.
The next day as soon as Nirmala opened the door, Ratan blurted, “Tattoo”
“The lotus is a tattoo.”
Nirmala started laughing. Ratan snapped at her irritated, “There are many tattoo dens around the country.”
“But tattoos are black.”
“No, my dear, they can be of all colours. I saw them in the biceps of the Grateful Dead fans.”
“Even golden…” trailed his wife pretending to be serious.
Soon Nirmala was heading towards a spiritual crisis. She needed a master. No, not a dead guru, but one of blood and flesh whom she could talk to. She started having a recurring dream of thunder and deluge. She would be washed away, but for a strong hand that reached out and grabbed her. Always it belonged to one wearing a saffron robe. And in his other hand he held a lotus. Finally, one day she declared if he, her husband, was not going to take her to the guru, Babu-da next door would… gladly. That sealed the matter.
On a Sunday morning they settled in a taxi. One looking resplendent, the other poisoned.
“What! To Badampur!” jumped the taxi driver “That horrible road will ruin my car.”
Ratan cursed, “OK, let’s get on another taxi.”
“No, sir,” grinned the taxi driver, “Nobody will go there.”
“Given the exodus to Badampur, should it not be a wise business plan?”
“That road will put us out of business. There will be no scope to be wise in any business plan.”
Of course he was right. They climbed the public bus, squeezing between haphazardly scattered limbs. Dreamy eyed pilgrims stepped on polished shoes. The smell of flowers and sweat reluctantly joined the wind outside. Those with teeth felt they wore dentures, and those with dentures bit their tongues. All praised God and the government for providing a bus at all. Barefooted pilgrims walked on the roadside and looked up at the bus condescendingly.
At last the heady journey ended and the bus vomited out people in a village. “Badampur Post Office” read a board in front of a tea shop. Makeshift stalls sold coconuts, kumkum, flower wreaths and all the paraphernalia of a pooja. In other towns every temple-side shop posts a pestering boy to herd pilgrims to their stall. But this rickety village, having reached prominence too hastily, had a hard time coping with demand.
Nirmala stopped dead and all her breath escaped in a heart rending “Eeeshh!”
“Now what is it?” grimaced Ratan.
“What shall we offer to the swami? We forgot!”
“Let’s get some fruit.”
“Eeeshh, only that? I have a better idea – I will give him my necklace.”
“Your gold chain that cost me a fortune?”
“Peace is priceless. If I can get peace bartering this I would feel grateful.”
“Do one thing – ask for my peace too.”
“I will, I am so glad you see…”
“Oh, stop it!” He had to live with a simpleton – such was his fate. And she was the one in need of peace!
“Why should an ascetic need a necklace?” he tried to reason.
“It is not for his need. But for mine. My need to offer something valuable.”
Poor Ratan was weighed down with yogurt and fruit, but whenever he thought of the other offering his burden felt light. They negotiated the last dirt road and came to a grove of banyan trees. There was just one mud hut. But for the silence one would think it was a picnic scene. Families and friends sat under trees reading, meditating, eating and talking in whispers.
“You go in, I will wait outside,” ordered Ratan curtly.
“What! You don’t want his darshan?”
“Please don’t start now, I am tired.”
Nirmala looked hurt. So Ratan added, “Ask your swami if I can inspect his lotus thing. I’ll go in then.”
“How can you be so…” Nirmala could not find the right word, so she grabbed the offerings and entered the hut.
The swami had heard her footsteps, “Come in, my child,” he said. He was seated on the floor cross-legged wearing the expected saffron attire. He had a long white beard. He was smiling at her. A few devotees were around speaking in whispers. He answered some of the questions in his gentle tone. Nirmala was suffused with a peace she had never experienced. She went to a corner and sat down letting her eyes drink in all aspects of the room – flowers, earthen pots, oranges, bananas, coconuts. She breathed in the fragrance of incense deeply and whispered to herself, “Ah, this is it.”
When the swami spoke his voice seemed to come from a different world – a world of absolute joy. “Do you want any of these prasads?” he asked.
Nirmala shook her head, “No”. Then waking up she said, “Can I have a coconut?”
“Look around, child. Then make your choice.”
There were foods of all kinds – piles of sweets, fruits, fried savouries, rice of different colours. And then there was gold jewellery, rings studded with precious stones, brass vases, ornamental snuff boxes, carved idols.
Nirmala knew this was a test and lowered her head, “Nothing, master. Just make me your disciple. Give me a mantra.”
The swami touched her head lightly, “Child, you don’t need a guru. Remain pure within.”
She looked puzzled, “Gurudev, but I have no peace in my life.”
“Peace will come when you can conquer desire. True internal peace. You are on the right path. But do not go out of your way to disrupt external peace. Take this as my gift to you.”
He held up a gold chain.
“It is my own necklace that I offered to you. I cannot take it back.”
“It is mine now and surely I can give you whatever is mine?”
With some remorse she understood what he meant by not disrupting external peace. The swami unfolded the leg from the seating posture. Even as her head shook in shame, her eyes darted to the sole and completed their scrutiny. Curiosity satisfied she knelt down and touched the golden lotus with her forehead. The swami blessed her and said, “Call your husband.”
In gratitude she ran outside and sent Ratan in. He entered hesitant. Then seeing the foot he crouched close to it and began his inspection. No, it was not paint. It was indeed on the inside of the skin. Only then did he meet the swami’s eyes. They were dancing mischievously.
“Tick, tick, tick, like a studious clock your mind does tick.”
The words sounded like musical notes. Ratan winced when he caught the meaning.
“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” said the swami.
As though by reflex Ratan answered, “Shakespeare, Hamlet.”
The swami laughed, “You are a bright man, you can do it.”
“Stop that interfering tick, tick, tick. Be calm, be happy.”
“I am happy,” grumbled Ratan and walked out peevishly like a student caught cheating.
“So did you pass the exam?” asked the travelling companion.
“This is a tricky one. The more you study, the lesser the chances you will pass.”
Back home, Nirmala sang out a hundred praises. Ratan listened in stubborn silence. Then when she had finished he observed,
“I still think it is a tattoo.”
“But how can you get a tattoo done in your sole? It would tickle you to death.”
“They can use local anaesthesia.”
“Gurudev does not need a cheap trick to attract people.”
“They all begin that way – with a trick. Then when they can trap people, they, they, they…”
“They trap more people, what else?”
In the silent night, one was ecstatic, another thoughtful. Suddenly Ratan sat upright.
“Quick, switch on the lights. Have a look. Tell me what you see.”
“See what? Where?”
“You know, it struck me, I have never seen the soles of my own feet.”