The Self is that where there is absolutely no “I” thought. That is called “Silence”. The Self itself is the world; the Self itself is “I”; the Self itself is God; all is Siva, the Self.
– Sri Ramana Maharshi
Cheers,” I said. He just stared back at me. My instincts told me to judge him scornful and bitter. But that was long back, at some dimly lit bar in Kerala. By the time I met Shaji a year later in Tiruvannamalai for the second time, I had developed a fondness for his quirks, enough to call him brother. Shajibhai was sitting among a group of regular beggars near Ramanasramam, he was drunk, and took a while to recall my name. When he showed me an old torn mattress and said it was his home, I was not surprised.
“Tiruvannamalai will call you again if you need to be here,” Shajibhai often said things like that, drunk, and sober. Tiruvannamalai was always full of seekers of all kinds, and they all agreed upon one thing: the charms of the land here.
The Annamalaiyar temple appears in history from the ninth century, though devotees believe it is much more ancient, and a seventh-century collection of devotional poems, Tevaram tells of the glory of the Siva temple here. Arunachala, considered superior to all the seven centres of liberation—Ayodhya, Mathura, Gaya, Kanchi, Kashi, Avantika, and Dwaraka—chooses who stays. The purifier, Siva, manifested as Agni, and the red hill kept calling people for thousands of years. The temple’s mighty gopurams dwarfed the crowd that thronged them, guarding Arunachala Siva for centuries, and through additions carried out by successive empires.
The gopurams, looking in four directions, were among the tallest towers of ancient India. The eastern tower, Rajagopuram, built by Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagara Empire, with 11 stories and a height of 217 ft., was the tallest. Still most of the legends about the temple are associated with King Vallalan of the Hoysala Empire; whoever took over the land gave hefty endowments to the temple, even the Muslim Nawabs; and the British did the stewardship of the temple scrupulously.
The complex has several shrines apart from those of Siva and Parvati, and many halls. There is something raw and primal about the first two, basalt stone-finished storeys of the gopurams; the rest soaked in lime compromises the solemnity. The temple’s lyrical antiquity stands in sharp contrast to modern conservation and the chaos of human habitat. Business outside the temple complex is not as exclusive as around Ramanasramam.
The cult and literature built around the hill changed track in the 1950s when people from the West started flocking to Tiruvannamalai after a Vedanta wave swept the hemisphere. The words of Sri Ramana, Nisargadatta Maharaj, and their like became a rage. There were two ashrams side by side, Ramanasramam, and Sheshadri Swamigal ashram. Westerners went to Sheshadri Swamigal mostly to have breakfast and lunch, but I found the place calmer and loved the water from the ashram well.
Urban legend has it that it was Sheshadri Swamigal who made Sri Ramana famous by persuading him to leave the cave in which he was meditating. Rats were eating away at his feet while he was deep in meditation. Sheshadri Swamigal asked his devotees to get him admitted to a hospital.
The westerners who came to Annamalaiyar looking for Sri Ramana found it difficult to call his town by its name. They affectionately called it Tiru. I wanted to enter the Annamalaiyar temple, but Shajibhai had a different plan. Through the alleys just outside the temple complex, Shajibhai guided me to the undeveloped part of the town.
Houses shared walls, and men shared space with their animals. Narrow streets had women sitting on either side, sharing laughter, washing clothes, babies and vegetables, selling weed to the hooch drinker. Many things in Tiru were not that holy, but there was the grace it carried in all its purposes. Shajibhai bought a hundred-rupee weed pack, and we slipped out on to a paved street. There were men inside a cowshed seated next to cows and an old woman selling hooch. They were mostly regulars, and Amma seemed to be a kind woman. Shajibhai knew the men, and everyone called him Kerala. I got information on the people that I met in the hooch den one by one after we left them, some scary and some funny.
I had to rush to Gayatri’s place, a Spanish born painter.
hey don’t like me, it doesn’t matter, but I am not interested in seeing them,” said Shajibhai as he dropped me close to the place where Gayatri Gamuz and her husband Anand Skaria lived. The couple saw Shajibhai getting back in the autorickshaw and leaving. Unwelcoming in the beginning, they later gave me tea. We sat in their kitchen. There were some books, and one had photographs of her paintings. They seemed brilliant. I chatted with Anand like we were old friends. Gayatri was the name the couple had kept for their daughter, but she delivered a boy Aditya and years later, another boy Arunachala.
Anand showed me some of his poems and was enthusiastic about my opinion. I remembered someone telling me that Anand in his youth had roamed around Fort Kochi on his scooter carrying saplings for some of the trees you find on its streets and surroundings. I asked why he chose a relatively dry place like Tiru. He told me about a similar question that troubled Gayatri. There was a picture of the land from the time they settled there, a much younger looking Gayatri in a barren land with two small cabins woven from coconut leaves. Their place, now called Anandavanam, is full of trees, small mud huts, and a large, red brick studio.
Gayatri said her interest had shifted to silence. She excused herself, saying dinner time. I asked Anand about his spiritual beliefs; he just smiled back. I sat in silence, flipping the pages of the book that had her paintings while Gayatri prepared dinner. After a simple vegetarian meal, she announced I could stay the night.
I slept in one of the mud huts I saw when I entered their land. The room was a mess. Gayatri said there was a problem with power, that it needed an electrician. She gave me a flashlight. There were mosquitoes, but I was too tired to get the mosquito net from the loft.
The next morning, I woke up to a room that was nothing like any I had ever slept in. It was impressive in its simplicity with a bamboo loft and dug-in utility holes on the mud wall inlaid with discarded beer bottles of many colours giving different hues to the sunlight strained through them. After coffee, Gayatri showed me the toilet and bathroom. The eco-toilet was another surprise.
It was nothing but a pit, a lifted platform of two movable slabs open on one side, covered by what seemed like primitive walls so that a person could squat without being seen, and an open roof. Once you finished the business, put some dry leaves from the heap kept in a corner on top of it, the scorching sun of Tiru made sure the pit went dry in a few minutes. I used only a little water for my shower. After that, I wanted to leave, park my heavy backpack at the place of Binu Bhaskar, a photographer-director friend from my hometown who had made Tiru his second home, and head to the hooch shop.
Anand was leaving for the town on his moped, the ubiquitous TVS. Gayatri asked him to take me along. He gave me a look and told her the baggage was too much for him and the moped. I thought about a frail man and a frail bike, took leave of them, putting the business card Gayatri gave in my wallet. I promised to come back and see more of her paintings, the latest in her studio. The road was unpaved and dusty, the heat was too much, but the trees lined on either side offered some solace. I reached the bus shelter on the highway after two brief stops for soda and cigarettes. Soon I would get used to the different shades of Tiru.
n the beginning,” he said, “there was nothing, neither a beginning nor an end, never Vishnu or Brahma.” Binu Bhaskar was Shajibhai’s current patron. He lived near the Yogi Ramsuratkumar ashram in a rented house. Binu owned a plot away from Tiru, where a person known only as Swami lived, taking care of the land and its trees, many of which Shajibhai had planted. Swami never talked much, always smiled, and sometimes got very angry. Narrating the mythology of the hill, Binu ended with a paradox, the story of how the ketaki flower came to be cursed and banished from pooja to any God.
According to Binu, no flower ever lied, and Siva would remain nothing. For him, the red hill symbolised everything and nothing. Binu didn’t drink much while in Tiru, but Shajibhai always happened.
Binu’s father took him to Tiru with the family when he was a child. This is what he remembers from his first visit: while walking carefree with his family, he stopped suddenly and found a scorpion just underneath his impending step.
The scorpion, a spiritual symbol for passion, would come calling years later, and he bought some land to establish a production house in Tiru, rooted to the land he made his home. Binu had worked in the Malayalam movie industry as a cinematographer, produced and directed a Spanish-Tamil docufiction short movie, had inherited his softness from his father, a doctor who charged only a nominal fee and gave medicines for free. He lived in Tiru with his designer wife, Patricia; a Ginger cat, Mimi; a Doberman, Khaki; and a young movie assistant Amal.
His bilingual short movie portrayed the search for a man named Thiru of Tiruvannamalai. Thiru was a devotional singer who went looking for papayas for his pregnant wife, reached Kerala, was taken by the Portuguese and ended up in the town of Salamanca in Spain. Binu had a smothering aura, but his softness and the lack of sense for space were contagious; mostly the Ginger did the dog’s job, the Doberman brought in stray friends and fed them from his bowl while the otherwise abrasive Amal was soft in his presence. Binu had been busy readying his first feature-length film for its theatre release, a movie he had obstinately filled with novice youngsters in all departments.
Patricia admitted that even if you were a non-believer, you couldn’t be indifferent to the energy around the hill. Coming from Portugal, she felt comfortable in Goa, the undying Portuguese influence of its towns, and the internationalism of its beaches. Better than Binu’s home state Kerala Tiru marked its niche with its grounding tranquillity. They had been drinking for quite some time, and the mythology dispenser was leaking, but I wanted to take Shajibhai out, to go to the hooch den, to meet Mahalakshmi aka Maka, a transgender woman.
I came back defeated from the hooch shop dragging a tired, drunk Shajibhai. We met Maka in the cowshed, bought hooch she insisted we drink with her. After gulping three glasses, she started telling me about my past lives; in my last birth, I had been on a murder spree. Shajibhai shouted at her, and she returned the expletives in kind.
ou can use Bava, but getting used up by him for his material would be disappointing for you,” said Shajibhai when I told him Bava Chelladurai had invited me over to his land for an as-long-as-I-wish-stay. He gave me a picture of Bava as a highly intelligent and kind-hearted person the magnitude of which was only matched by his pride. The first time I heard about Bava was from Shajibhai in his stories about Anand and Shoukath, and a pastor who lived near Anand’s house in the plot owned by Bava.
Shajibhai used to live with Shoukath Sahajotsu, an award-winning mystical writer living near Anandavanam on a plot bought from Anand, who had plans to convert the place around into a cultural centre. Shajibhai sometimes spoke with reverence about Shoukath and Bava but always was almost contemptuous of the pastor. Shajibhai claimed he helped both Anand and Shaukath build their mud huts, with instructions from Binu’s younger brother Biju, an architect who specialised in indigenous construction technologies, the first of the brothers to make Tiru home. He ran an organisation called Thanal, spreading awareness of mud-based home construction.
When I met Bava, he seemed a farmer with no pretensions, one who gave away his excess produce to the needy. Bava was born to Dalit Christian parents, became an atheist and a declared Marxist, but gave half a kilogram of ghee on every Karthigai Deepam for Annamalaiyar following his late father’s tradition. Bava hosted parties around the trees in his ten-acre pet project near Tiru called “Pathayam-Granary.” The rich and influential sat and ate with dirt poor, listened to stories from the other culture so close yet so distant. The day I went to his house for the first time, they had an “Undattam” planned to celebrate the writer himself who had organised Undattam for several literary and cultural giants of Tamil. It was historically the event in which triumphant kings were welcomed back to the Tamil capitals after expeditions.
Bava seemed like a king, in the realms of the real and the imaginary. He ruled both with fierce pride. The next day, in an organic shop called Nalamini run by a sweet guy named Ummer owned by Karuna, another poet-short story writer from Tiru, I found Bava in a translated short story collection. Bava’s stories have belief in inherent human goodness; in them there are only situations and men getting absorbed; every fall is soft and cushioned but the man himself feels raw from outside.
Shylaja, his wife, appeared the polar opposite of Bava. She ran a publishing house called Vamsi, had translated works from Malayalam to Tamil, and many think her translations are superior to the originals. She made a moving speech at the Undattam. Bava works with a progressive writers’ union, and is not in the least interested in spirituality or any religion. Once when asked about the magic of the soil around Arunachala, he just shrugged. Shylaja thought there was “something” about the breeze around the temple complex that she felt different about but couldn’t explain.
In one of Bava’s stories, during a famine a village thief was tied up for stealing the grain offered to the deity. The village waited for the healer woman who had been in the forest for many days to find the right poisonous herb to execute him. It rained, signalling an end to the famine. The villagers untied him, saying the deity seemed pleased while the woman who was initially hesitant to kill the man ended up dead from poisoning.
he moderate season began, slight drizzles and sudden downpours, nature pulled a sleight of hand, and suddenly in green, the hill managed to evoke a sense of calm even in those of little faith. Shajibhai ruminated on the kings of Hoysala, who built the ponds around the town whenever he talked about gratitude. He said like the two seasons Tiru experienced, lives also go through extremes, with an idea of change. Our only job is to witness, and king Vallalan knew that one day he would be reborn a poor man around the same hill he adorned as his capital. He would have enough water for all his births.
His beggar friends around Ramanasramam talked about sharing being the spiritual point of Tiru. Healing would come once you cleared the ignorance of self, and my experiences and the people I came across convinced me about its truth. But Shajibhai seemed closer to drinking himself to death than any God-realisation.
I had seen Teresa everywhere around Ramanasramam, smiling at people, giving away cigarettes to whoever asked. She knew about the teachings of Sri Ramana from 1986. Her late husband Jean Luc was a Vedanta follower and had studied Sri Ramana for years. Teresa, a British national, first came to Tiru with her husband, and after his death, left her job at Shearson Lehman Hutton and all the perks offered by the high life in London.
Shajibhai told me there was a tragedy behind that beautiful smile and warmth. “This is the story of a woman who got airlifted in an ambulance by her rich father all the way back to London,” Shajibhai said. Teresa ordered tea for all three of us and offered cigarettes from a Camel 20s pack.
In December 2016, she met with an accident on the way to Tiru. The driver of the cab she hired was killed on the spot. She had head injuries, and her body was broken. She lay bleeding for three hours at a super-specialty hospital until Ajith, a man she knew from Tiru, went there to sign. Jean Luc was more than a husband; Teresa was his disciple.
Jean Luc died of throat cancer, his parting soaked in blood, but the clarity and fearlessness in his eyes and the calmness he radiated were enough to convince her that death was not the end. “Even after Ajith came, the authorities wanted some blood relatives to sign,” Teresa said. She puffed on her cigarette and offered me another from her pack, and asked whether I needed one more cup of tea.
“Then that voice came,” her face filled with childlike wonder. “Are you here to do business or to save lives?” The last thing on her mind before she slipped into a coma was Arunachala and Sri Ramana. When she was airlifted to London, the doctors said with the kind of brain injury she survived, she was indeed a medical miracle.
Teresa didn’t believe in miracles, the universe would push and pull you in many ways to make you understand what it was really to be living, sometimes take your partner, and a piece of brain, stretch your thigh bones to walk normal just so you realise who you really were before moha (the worldly web) polluted you.
Her experiences taught her to be happy without a mind. “It’s like you travel and you don’t go places till you learn, and when you learn, every place is the same. You get closer to the universe; you will do just what is required. You don’t need much, you know that.”
Counting from World War 1, she explained how the world had changed, according to her, for worse. She went on mixing the spiritual with history and geopolitics, admonished Jinnah as a west-copying elite who had no vision matching that of Nehru.
Like many young people I met here, Teresa believed Narendra Modi would do good for India. She held Gandhi and Churchill in the same plane, was proud her grandfather served British India, said she wouldn’t expect a man like Churchill to emerge now as values had given way to opinions, the hashtags.
hajibhai’s conversations often revolved around the fundamentals of this small town, which he is convinced were the same for the entire universe: acceptance, sharing, and sacrifice. For him, all three were closely connected and remained the keys to his drunk wisdom. I always asked why he couldn’t give up alcohol; he would only stare crudely. One day he ordered a friend to leave his place—a torn bed on the pavement near Ramanasramam Hospital—when asked to reconsider his habits. Shajibhai didn’t take anything for impure, he ate with dogs and cats. A drunk, a beggar, he would say, “a saint regardless”. Someday, he wanted an ashram built, called “Quarter Sidhar.” His devotees could get Satsang and limitless wisdom for a quarter bottle of alcohol, be it brandy, rum, or hooch. He had offers to build ashrams that didn’t cover alcohol.
The tradition always had it that some sadhu beatified, made famous some stuff he used, either the props or what he consumed. Yogi Ramsuratkumar was known as “Vishari Swami—hand-fan Swami,” a smoker. “Mookipodi” Swamigal, the most celebrated of the recent saints, had a “snuff” habit. A lot of young people I met were eager to say they knew Mookipodi Swamigal or had met him, and some even claimed to be his disciple.
Rajamani talked softly with Shajibhai and Subramani, aka Periyavar—the great one who hardly spoke. His “people” formed the only ones I got to know from the thousands on the pavement around the road circling the hill. Subramani, from a respectable family of Palani, had been a little erratic from childhood itself. After his family disowned him, he went with truck drivers to Madurai. Once he learned to drive Subramani was stable financially, so he went home. His antics were the same, so they put him in chains at Ervadi Dargah, a place where many abandon their mentally ill relatives. One day he broke out of the dargah and reached Tiru. How he pulled it off remains a mystery. He had been to the Himalayas several times. He got money and clothes from ashrams and people regularly, he never had to beg.
Shajibhai believed Subramani was a real hermit walking among people. Subramani appeared every time we spoke of him, sometimes with alcohol and weed, sometimes with clothes for Shajibhai.
Rajamani, a rich man in his own right, came to Tiru on a Karthigai Deepam for Girivalam, and never went back home. He almost died one day of chronic liver cirrhosis, Shajibhai took him to the government-run hospital and stayed with him over a month, but when Shajibhai was seriously injured in an assault, Rajamani placed him at the hospital gate and left. He was grateful Rajamani took him there.
The ritual circumambulation called Girivalam is ancient, brought hundreds of thousands every year, and on the day of Karthigai Deepam, would become a human millipede, people moving much slower than usual. The place for Moksha, Arunachala called people meant for this land but made them stay after such moderate ordeals. People come here with expectations, and the hill drives them madly till they learn to let go, a truth the people who had been here for generations carried in their cultural memories.
Shajibhai introduced a new friend he made from around the ashram, Prithviraj Singh Rathore, who gave him a 100-rupee note the day before. Prithviraj was unaware Shajibhai was drunk, taking money for hooch. Once he realised his blunder, he would only buy him watermelons and muskmelons.
Prithvi and I later became friends and I often visited him in his tin-roofed single room, learned from his self-imposed austerity, and figured out which places gave free food. He had been just out of a Vipassana centre somewhere away from Tiru, but which was still, according to him, within Arunachala’s healing radiance, filled with flowers and butterflies in winter, where jungle babblers were uncharacteristically silent and the soil turned red from the heat in summer.
Tiru had several such places, ashrams and yogis, dead and living. Prithvi talked of a monk who lived on the centre land before the Vipassana trustees, three brothers, two of them Vipassana teachers, bought it. Prithvi could go on and on about the trees planted by the monk, the vibrations the land gave. He walked on the thin wires of supernaturalism, accommodating his traditional Hindu beliefs to the new path.
An ardent Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev follower, which he never admitted to, Prithvi, with his friend Mithun Sundarraj, both preparing for Samyamam with Sadhguru, had become my most trusted guide to Tiru’s sacred antiquities. They called themselves “seekers,” and like Shajibhai being my spirit guide to the dilapidated underbelly of the town, helped explore the sacred concepts and ancient science of the hill town.
Mithun complained the ashram and Annamalaiyar temple had become so commercialised even the vibrations had become noisy. He wouldn’t go even for free food or occasional concerts. Prithvi and Mithun had quit their high paying jobs, and the differences in their outlooks and profiles—Prithvi a self-evasive IT consultant and Mithun, once a high-flying professional conference organiser sure-footed about starting a spiritual empire—were dwarfed by their shared sense of nationalistic pride. Both were apolitical and diehard fans of Prime Minister Modi. However, the actual point of their bromance was “seeking”.
Sometimes, I accompanied Prithvi on his early morning spiritual trips. The first time I did this, we met a little Hebrew girl, Gali. She was crying, worried that the monkeys on the hill would attack her. The night before, a drunk Shajibhai was telling Amal’s Siri to find a Shabad song, and we thought it was Hebrew Sabbath he was referring to till Siri got it figured: Nit Kar Ardas, singing praise for Nanak. As Prithvi led me to the top of the hill, near the Skandashram’s gate, there was a band of monkeys begging for food from visitors.
Four-year-old Gali didn’t agree the monkeys meant no harm. She insisted they all left the hill. Her elder sister, a cousin, and the two elderly women who seemed related to them tried everything to comfort her. Gali kept worrying. The eldest of the girls, Ingber, told us we could call her Amber, like all her Indian friends, as we wouldn’t be able to pronounce her name right.
Prithvi sat in meditation for some time with the girls sitting close, getting up he broke off a branch from some tree in front, sharpened and gave Gali pretending he was giving her some magic weapon. Wiping her tears, she giggled. Gali’s giggle turned into laughter, and everyone around laughed. Gali was missing her front teeth. A man in plain white clothes gently reminded everyone to respect silence.
Prithvi lowering his voice, announced dramatically, “Dhamma works”..
Amber told us the history of their families who migrated from Denmark to Israel. Now settled in Auroville, the girls could speak French, English, and Hebrew. Walking back, as we were reaching the foot of the hill, the most aggressive-looking of the women handed the children their shoes, said something in Hebrew, and all three giggled. I looked at Amber questioningly. She cleared her throat, told me it meant there would be shit everywhere. Prithvi bantered on his favorite topics, Aghoris and equanimity, and said not everywhere is Disneyland. Perhaps, he tried to make the idea of India clearer.
hen your mind is still, butterflies land on you, birds carry messages only meant for you, you find peacock feathers while strolling, strangers smile at you, and when someone looks at you with love, the skies send blessings, this is abundance. You see, every scripture says the same, about peace.”
Shajibhai spoke like a hermit when sober but was just another homeless beggar when drunk who lived on the streets of Tiru, who once had money in Saudi Arabia working on a free visa for years, ran a three-star bar in Kodaikanal, had two mistresses, who was married twice and divorced twice; the last one he married, a Danish-born painter, still lived in Tiru.
Binu Bhaskar’s living room had a vase full of feathers found by Shajibhai. Shajibhai’s father, Jalaluddin, a clerk in a munsif court, had been cruel to him in his childhood. Shoukath, who lived in Fernhill ashram of Nitya Chaitanya Yati in Ooty, brought him to Tiru for the first time. His mother asked Shoukath to take him away from his hometown Punalur in Kerala. She still owned the property he believed must go to his only son Ashik. He spoke of him fondly. He cried at times. He said nothing more about his mother, remembered his father gratefully. Pulling the skin on his forehand, he would say, “This is him.”
Shajibhai always left food on the plates in the restaurants, sometimes taking food from our plates. I never asked why. The dogs in Tiru wagged their tails upon seeing him sober. Tiru people called dogs bhairava after the cursed dog from the Mahabharata, believed they were reincarnations of sages cursed by gods for transgressions, and treated them with compassion. Shajibhai had a dark side. On alcohol, his vibrations changed. All the dogs chased him when he was drunk, except the ones near Ramanasramam. They were as used to this split in him as the rest of us. Sometimes, strangers attacked him for no reason when he was drunk, putting his life in danger at times. He laughed it off always, told us with a solemn face that they were carrying his karma.
Shajibhai had always been careful about karma, but when drunk, he abused people verbally. One day a young westerner kicked him in the face, Shajibhai still looked for him in every young white stranger’s face. “Don’t know why that guy had to take a flight to come and kick me in the face.” One day I asked him why he had to live in the street; he could still go back home. He sat silent; he was sober. After two glasses of hooch, he narrated the story of a zen master who was a compulsive thief. Roshi, confronted by his disciples about his transgressions, told them there was no one to give zen to those convicts in prison. Shajibhai believed we are just witnesses of a drama set by the universe.
“Unak Yamalingam than da—you are going to die soon,” Shajibhai was drunk, shouting back at Mari for complaining. Illiterate like most others on the street, Mari had only heard of a place like Chennai. Once he found himself in trouble with a sadhu who harassed him and kicked away his bowl of begged food. After failing to boot the sadhu’s face, he fell on his knees, breaking one. Mari goes to Ramanasramam to collect the free meal, begs money for alcohol, and joyfully shares both with his people. Whenever I gave him money, he declared I was his Guru. When he got more than what he expected, he exulted, “petta rap.”
Tiru has 18 lingas around Arunachala’s hill, and Yamalingam is for the dead. Mari was in prison for inciting the suicide of his wife. His mother died when he was a toddler. His aunt had brought him up. Mari got his taste for alcohol and weed from his father, an ex-soldier who always sent him to buy alcohol, marijuana, and sometimes the psychiatric pills he abused, all of which he shared with his juvenile son. Mari had four children, three boys, and one girl.
Abusing alcohol and weed for many years made him paranoid. One day he accused his wife of adultery. She hanged herself. Nila, the daughter of his Guru, an old man he was friends with, bought him weed, had eloped with him and got married against the wishes of her family. Mari ran a fruit shop, and they were in love for many years. He came out a hardened man after serving his sentence, gave his house to the children, and lived on the streets feeding off the beggars around the temple, scaring them into subjugation. Briefly, before shifting to the temple, Mari worked as a henchman for the loan shark, who ruled his village, Babaji Nagar. Mari had become only a suggestion of a goon, a little sadistic hue on the darkened whites of his eyes, when drunk.
It was almost evening. Mari and Sailal were smoking weed rolled in beedis near the Ramanasramam hospital. Prithvi and Mithun spotted me sitting with them. Sailal always offered people beedis. He never said no to anybody asking him for any service, and everyone sent him to buy tea all the time. He complained but obliged every time. He offered Prithvi and Mithun beedis, which he rolled quickly. Mithun smoked while Prithvi said no, laughing. Sailal with hurt and a provoked face asked Prithvi why there was scorn in his voice. “I am Siva, you are Siva, and this is Sivam, too. When everything is Sivam, how could you show disrespect!”
Prithvi gave in, and after smoking, asked me what to do. I suggested he meditate. When Prithvi opened his eyes, the rest of us had finished two cups of tea each. Sailal continued, “People believe in divinity like it’s predefined clean and just that. Bath, good clean clothes, temples. You sleep, dream, stay awake. You say Isvara, but I say Sivam. You get stuck in a dream when you could travel beyond life and death.”
Sailal, a good tabla player, left for north India when he was young with some Muslim men from his village in Kerala. He referred to them only as Mohammedans. They helped him find a job in Prayag. Mari convinced Mithun and Prithvi to give 200 rupees each, promising the money would be used only for weed. Mithun wanted to smoke. He wasn’t contemptuous of the low-living street sadhus but believed their experience didn’t add up to anything. Their wisdom which he discounted as “street-smart” only meant a little bit more change in their begging bowls or alcohol for a night of undisturbed sleep.
One wouldn’t know the truth, things around the red hill were so simple, but cluttered at first sight.
Shajibhai was drunk, talking, singing sometimes, his favourite lines “Vazhve Mayam—life an illusion,” the only part intelligible in the tirade that included expletives after the names of the saints of the town he only spoke of with reverence when sober. Shajibhai could, in the same breath, articulate both the holy and the profane. Once talking of the scriptures, he said how the Bible was the most beautiful for the difference it made, for Jesus and Love. He quoted his compulsive sinning Syrian Christian friend from Kerala a moment later, “I don’t trust a God to give me bread hereafter who can’t cut it while alive.”
Tiru never lets any of its seekers go hungry to sleep. Sinners came in hordes, bringing bread, waiting to atone for their sins in the hunger pangs of ex-cons, ex-prostitutes, hurt lovers, broken lives. A fair-skinned Indian woman in churidar went around in a pick-up auto-rickshaw, giving away food to those lying on the street. A funeral cavalcade, accompanied by music and dance, was passing through Ramanasramam road when Teresa came down the street. Some of the young boys dancing waved at her. She waved back, smiled, and walked on.
Arunachala kept everyone who arrived in the heart. As the locals say, even outsiders turn into kings and queens. An evening pooja progressed in Ramanasramam. A full quorum of Brahmin priests in the sanctum recited ancient mantras, and western women clad in impeccable sarees styled as upper-class Indian ladies prayed with their folded hands high up in the air while the photos of Sri Ramana Maharshi adorned the walls. The ever-smiling eyes of Bhagavan seemed gleaming stillness in spirit, his photos lacked the customary sacred thread. Sri Ramana was born a Brahmin.
The recent affirmations by modular physics on matter and metaphysics, the stories of self-realisation and magic cures, and the unending lists adding new yogis to the hill were counterpoints to the new construction everywhere and quarries gnawing away at the hills around.
People around Arunachala hill doubted the sustainability of a development model lacking both vision and direction. Tiru survives on meagre rainfall. The ancients considered the hydraulic structure of the hill and the land around with care and devotion, built ponds for cultivation, recharging the groundwater in the process.
Disregard for the brilliance of the centuries-old water harvesting structures so much in sync with the earth, and the greed for natural resources producing a devastating environmental impact are much in evidence. One could not help but wonder whether we are witnessing a capitalist Hindu missionary nation emerging through the blur of a liberating spiritual quest or a magnificent philosophy on truth rediscovering itself.
One evening, on a walk, to watch the sunset, I saw a vast field of green with several small water bodies like interruptions where the soil had been taken away for construction. I was told stories about a powerful land-grabbing mafia at work, possibly with high contacts complementing their money and muscle. The orator of “Njan yaar—who am I” would’ve accepted anything anyway, but the reality was alarming.
From the start of this century, there had been talk of making the hill and its ancient shrines a world heritage site and protecting it under international conventions, with the likes of writer Peter Berking promoting the idea. But any end to the defilement still seems far-fetched.
A recurring impermanence as Shajibhai would call it.