Saturday, October 5, 2013

Tirupathi as metaphor for India

I am not a temple going idiot at all. Nor do I scorn the pious and devoted; it does not concern me at all. I have long realized the futility to express any view on macro issues: Is America a boon or curse to the world? Tamils are aggressive to Telugus? Chennai is worse than Hyderabad? Or M S Subbalakshmi a better singer than any North flaunts? Or is Chiddu a good finance minister? These questions can be argued on both sides and none wiser even after hours of straining vocal chords and reducing life-span. Even for a time-filler “Which monkey is a bigger draw – Big B or SRK?” is not my scene. I refuse to be drawn on any macro issue. I am more interested at which grocery store in the neighbourhood gives more value or who to invite to a dinner or which job offer to take.   
And if you observe closely any view on a macro issue – which is only an opinion and nothing else- is directly related to your experience. If you have a bitter experience you will project it on the issue. I loved Bahrain from the people I met and interacted and so I transferred that affection to the country. I have never gotten a good deal in India and so I don’t have any respect for it either. So when a sod says: Delhi is the best place on earth, nothing registers on my mind. It is a stimulus not worth reacting even if I am alone in a desert and desperate for human company. That’s one of the reason why I love stories or anyone sharing their experience on any god damn thing – that’s invaluable but what they think of a macro issue is idle talk better suited to a 24x7 Indian news channel. This leads to a nice classification: listening to any experience is something I have unlimited patience; but opinions are something I run away a mile even if Einstein were to talk about his opinion on Science or spirituality. 
A long drawn introduction to my Tirupathi visit yesterday!
Kesavan called and in the exchange he dropped,” I am going to Tirupathi on Thursday. Interested?” This was last week when I was recounting my Bangalore tales.
I instinctively said,” Yes”
“Shall I book your ticket by Sapthagiri Express?”
Another “Yes” escaped me.
Within 10 minutes of the call I get a sms confirmation of the rail ticket. My “yeses” were weak and even before I could recover my wit and reason the trip was ON. It is after all a one day affair and I cheered up.
            This train is at 6:25 in the morning that meant I left house by 5:15. Last week Brindavan Express offered more engaging company, K7 (he signs his name with this “super smart” abbreviation) slept the whole 3 hours of the journey. I was immersed in a Wodehouse and looking out at the window. The day was alright for travel; cloudy misty skies and the Indian countryside has more green than brown.
            We hired a car as it climbed the hill. Every vehicle is given a printed slip from the pin pad (I mean those things that scans and out pops a slip of paper with the details of the car number and time). There is a minimum time of travel to the top where another check-post verifies – if you report early the penalty is Rs.100 for every minute ahead of the pre-fixed time. That ensures no one is in a terrible hurry.
            K7 had booked his darshan time on the internet months back; so he went to a Rs.50 line. I went looking for Rs.300 line. This is a huge temple and even to find the start of the line is a lot of effort and a knot to untangle. There is a free darshan, a 50 rupee Q, then a 300 rupee Q and another for those who climb the hill on foot. Since the queues can get very long , we are talking of lakhs and lakhs of pilgrims and 24 hours on queues is not uncommon. On any day and at any hour of the day there are thousands and thousands jostling and shoving in lines for a darshan.
            Crowds depress me. First I am oversized and tall at over 6 feet; Indians are a short race and so most halt near my shoulder. In a cramped place, god there is too much of flesh squeeze. My elbows would come near a person’s neck or nose and it gets uncomfortable for all of us. I was in the line for 3 hours and my mind was growing in resolve: never again. Tirupathi crowd is not an intelligent and cultured crowd, it’s more the unruly and you understand why stampedes occur. Why do people come to this temple and in such hordes? I think it is more hope than faith. Hope is for a derelict while faith is for those on a roll. We were waiting in one of the compartments that comes with benches and so one can squat; this is a large room bolted with bars as it leads to a line and resemble a cage. I asked a person sitting next to me on his reason for coming to the temple, he explained,” Last month I read someone donating 10 crores. What we donate here returns back to us tenfold.” That’s as gross as it can get. I saw a Marathi family; a man looked not a year younger than fifty and he gave his reason,” My eldest daughter is 18, and another 16. Lord gave us twins, both sons after 14 years.” The twins were less than two years and they made a very pretty sight. I saw the family and loved the sight of two elder teenage sisters engaging their toddler brothers while the mother was beaming from ear to ear. It is this miracle that attracts millions. Tirupathi is more a hope visit and thanksgiving but the theme is the same: a belief that Venkatachalapathy confers worldly goodies if you are supplicant enough. However I never saw the causal link in my case, sadly and maybe in the hundreds of cases that I know.
            We waited for an hour in the cage and another hour in the line as it went in a snail pace. The queue is anything but orderly, those behind and in the front crush you like sandwich. I am not exaggerating but you feel the pressure of flesh at most points in the queue. Then the metaphor stuck: India reduces us to an ant colony. We are forever busy and squirreling away forever frantic and going nowhere. The system is so apathetic that it does not care whether you are a Newton or a Shakespeare. It is this crowd, horde, multitude that reduces life to a survival struggle. We are all rats in the sewage or chickens hanging on a cycle bar. That makes us worshipful of success and feudal; bow and scrape to everyone ahead of the line. Like they have this "break darshan" for VVIPS. Three hours in the queue and my mind was growing stronger with the thought: I am not going to succeed in this society.
            K7 took 2 hours in his Rs.50 Q and he graciously waited for me for an hour. We went down and gulped food at 4:00 in the evening. That felt a lot of life flowing again. I told him,” If I get a gulf job or maybe a newspaper or magazine job in the three months of 2013, I’ll come again to Tirupathi and tonsure my head.” That’s the level of cynicism I suffer. K7 said,” Why so gross a prayer; just come for thanksgiving.”