Vagabond

You must’ve come across people like me. On the street, at the bus stop, on the train, in the airport, at the movies, banks...everywhere. We wear a trademark bored look. Not that we are bored; it’s just that our facial features have been arranged that way. We look as if nothing on earth excites us. I mean at times, even a dead piece of wood seems to have more expression. Indeed, when in company of strangers, I always run the risk of coming across as dull, doped...or both. Or worse, arrogant. Not that I don’t participate in ice-breaker conversations on weather and traffic, I do. But try as I may, I can only speak the two or three sentences – ‘Yes the weather is going crazy. Yeah the traffic is terrible. Yes, yes! In the 80s neither the traffic nor the weather was like this.’ And then I smile stupidly and nod and eventually look away to intently study the back of someone’s head, appearing as placid as a hippo peeking out of water.

But here’s the thing. In those few moments, I’d have studied faces, clothes, accents, toe nails. I’d have noticed jewellery, flowers in a vase, photos on a shelf, and nuances of speech between two people.  So you see? Below that sedate face, people like me are always restless. There’s always something bubbling, brewing, frothing in that head of ours. We may look bored, but draw pleasure and entertainment from everything around us. We are a bit creepy that way.

But what I did not bargain for is the sense of homelessness that’s come about in the past couple of years. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with age. And it has a filial bond with the restlessness. I’m like a moth in a bell jar, beating its wings furiously. It is strange because I am not the nomadic kind. Yeah, before you psychoanalyse me and start saying I need more freedom; I’ll have you know I like to remain rooted in a place. So for a while I’d been examining this homelessness feeling the way one would hold up a shining crystal against light. I’m afraid I can’t figure it out.

“Home is where the heart is” is a tired old cliché. So where the hell is my heart? There is a home back in Bengaluru. Every light bulb, every curtain, every curtain-rod, every mirror, every paining ...well we’d picked it up with much excitement the way a magpie collects shiny objects and puts it in its nest. Now I don’t live there. And when I visited to say hello to my tenants – there was no sharp jab of emotion. Yup. Not even a stinging behind the eyes, no lump in the throat...not even a sliver of nostalgia. Sure – it was the same lights, same curtain-rods, same ruby red tiles on the kitchen floor. But it was different. It had someone else’s touch. Someone else’s aura. It swelled with the memories they were making each day – maybe having coffee in the balcony; or listening to the wind chimes. 

This current place where I stay is turning out to be permanently temporary. It came furnished. I added my personal touches – books and dvds lying about; a vase balanced precariously on a window sill, a kitchen pantry overflowing with lentils and pulses – just in case the world ends and I don’t get on the ark – I can at least have rasam while aliens invade. As usual, the minute I get out of the house, I can’t wait to get back – to perch myself on the sagging sofa, plop a bunch of pillows for the back and pick up the paperback lying nearby. My routine is as fixed as the scene outside my window. Yeah...this is my home for now...it’s a bit too cozy and cluttered and I’m quite fond of it. But still, the wings beat and beat against the bell jar.

But, I believe I kind of got the answer...at a place that I’d visited on one of my India trips. At a sleepy village that’s growing into a town – kind of like a teenager going kicking and screaming into adulthood. Bullock carts and tata sumos shared parking space. Some of the important streets were tarred. Some were mud roads, baked well under the Indian sun. Youngsters zoomed around in bikes, wearing flared jeans and colourful shirts with their college notes tucked into their trousers. Old men in frayed, loose shirts and striped drawers ambled about. A school bell went ding ding and shrill voices echoed everywhere, as if a knob had turned on the volume.

This lovely place is the home to an ancient temple. One old man with only two front teeth told me the temple was ‘thousands and thousands’ of years old as he rubbed sunna on his palm. Going by his leathered skin and the cataract halo around his pupils, it looked like he was a thousand years old. Then he rolled the viLedele, put it into his mouth and mumbled some more about the temple. He’d lost me – he was lost to the world. His eyes were looking into the past through some invisible time-tunnel...way back, back into his youth and childhood. Then he flicked the towel that was on his shoulder, dusted a stone bench with it and stretched out luxuriously. The sun was just right – very warm but not searing; it was a quiet afternoon with the occasional crow cawing to its relatives – indeed a perfect time to sleep. Why can’t I do that? I mused. Education, social behaviour blah blah blah had taken away so much freedom.

The temple, with Vishnu (Lakshmikantha actually) as the main deity, is at least five hundred years old (Vijayanagara era) in its present form – but it is believed that parts of the temple dates way back to 1000 A.D. I am not a temple-going person. In the newer temples – the opulence puts me off – the marble and granite and what not. And don’t even get me started on the crowd. But these ancient and remote temples are something different.

As I stood in front of this temple, with its soaring garudagamba and massive gopura, I felt I was at the threshold of a time warp. The sun blazed on the outer courtyard, but the soothing darkness of the inner sanctum and the garbhagudi held a strange welcome. If time could be imagined as a gossamer web – then it had been packed carefully, trapping the periods of the Vijayanagara era, the Hoysala era in its folds – and held tightly in this beautiful temple.

But at first, I had to do the pradakshine around the temple perimeter. Childhood memories flooded – the more pradakshines one did, the higher were the chances of teachers being benevolent in correcting incoherent papers. This temple stood on a huge area. The outer courtyard had a portico running all along. The portico had installations of the alwaars in black stone – the representation of the greatest philosophers of all times. The flagstones were hot and seared my bare feet. It felt good to feel this heat – after the frigid cold of the place where I stay. From every angle of the courtyard, the gopura towered over – with different carvings facing each of the four directions. Sparrows fluttered around, their cheep cheep puncturing the silence of a winter afternoon.

Having finished the pradakshina, I went into the cool sanctum. As is typical of Dravidian architecture, the sanctum has a lower roof, supported by many intricately carved stone pillars. Modernity meant tube lights, though, thankfully, only one was switched on. The tube light flickered constantly, illuminating the fierce stone dwarapalakas intermittently, bringing them to life. Inside, in the garbha gudi, Lakshmikantha was illuminated by the brass and silver oil lamps. The smell of jasmines, sugandharaja, camphor, til oil, sandalwood paste, agarbathi – somehow swirled together in the darkness and produced a thick silence...I could hear the ringing in my ears.

The priest, who was busy preparing the naivedye came in with two steel buckets filled with the prasada. We sat in silence, as he drew the screen in the garbhagudi to perform the naivedya rituals – his deep voice resounding around the stone pillars. For how many centuries were these Sanskrit words uttered, I thought, surely the air here must have recorded the sound vibrations somehow. Maybe if one had a different auditory system, one could hear the words constantly.

After the mangalarthi, we sat in the outer pillared courtyard. I rested against one of the pillars, the flag stones cool here – a place that had been used for communal functions for hundreds of years. Today, I shared the space with squirrels and sparrows. The priest came with the prasada, and as is the custom, served a dollop on the palm. The first round was puliyogre and the second round was mosaranna. And I guess everyone knows that no matter how hard you try, you can never achieve the taste of a temple prasada.

I remained at the courtyard for some more time. Not because I am spiritual or devoted in that ritualistic way – but because I was surprised – the beating of the wings in the bell jar had stopped. I could imagine myself sitting in the ancient kitchen of this temple, bent over the wood fire, preparing a prasada. I could imagine myself stretching out like that old man, and finding a comfortable place for a snooze on the portico. Maybe if I got bored, I could move on to the next ancient place. I looked at the piece of sky sliced by the garudagamba. I ran my hands on the rough flagstone on which I was sitting. I finally understood the restlessness. I don’t have the courage or inclination to forgo my creature comforts. But deep down, I am a mental vagabond.

© Sumana Khan - 2013

Comments

  1. So mentally you have reached the stage of "vairagya" albeit halfway. Oh I forgot..you had asked not to analyse.

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    1. :) no no not even halfway. and it is not a concept that i agree with LOL!

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  2. Hi there! I read this post with interest and found some resonance within me reg this sense of homelessness & associated restlessness! I am glad that you were able to experience 'back to my roots/ home' at the temple. I have been reflecting about this for a while now as I too am away from India. Something feels amiss. I do not know whether it is related to the inability to "completely & thoroughly" integrate with the local community / culture to the extent of losing myself or being away from the support system (family, relatives, friends) we have in India or being in a place where we have no history of ourselves beyond the few years spent there i.e a sort of unfamiliar environment. Why do we have this craving to go back to our roots or our familiar environment? What defines our roots, anyway? What you call as restlessness or homelessness, I can it being anchor-less or drifting. Somewhat like - I am here but not "fully" here. Some part of my soul craves to be elsewhere, but no clue where. And I get a strange feeling deep down that this place is not my home, though I am living here for several years. So what is home?!!! The reflection continues.... :)

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    1. 'Not fully here' - yes that's a correct phrase. Though in my case i suspect it is not even about roots. and i am losing my ability to integrate with people in general LOL!

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  3. its a long long time since i've been here...way too long...and i'm happy that i came back to read..its a long time since i felt like reading too...maybe that is why i stayed away. but thanks once again heartfully for a wonderful read...this place that you're mentioning since you mention hoysala and vijayanagara...if from memory or otherwise anywhere near hampi? cos i was there this diwali as part of a bike trip...anyways a wonderful read... do drop a msg when ure online sometime...

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    1. hey leo! Yeah long time :) This place is near Mysore actually - though the influence of Hoysala architecture is seen throughout the region.

      A bike trip to Hampi? Wow...that must've been absolutely fantastic!

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  4. There is something inexplicable about returning to your home in the evening. I have lived away from my home for 5-6 years and now I am always reluctant whenever I get another opportunity.

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