“But who is arranging tickets for us?”

“I do not know.  Someone will be handing over the tickets and other materials tomorrow.  They will not give us any cash, as they know that I will not touch cash.”

“Without cash, how we can we complete the journey?”

“We need not bother about it.  They will take care of all minute details of our journey” said guruji. 

The night was becoming darker.  Birds begin to chirp. The chirp is more audible at the time of sun set.  After a while, they will calm down.  Occasionally, some birds could chirp in the night.  But, if it is before four in the morning, other birds will not respond.  After four their chirps gradually become louder and at the time of sun rise, all the birds chirp together.  Mostly the birds sit on the tree above my rocky bench.  I am greatly attached more to these trees, Cauvery River, my land and in particular my rocky bench, than my mother.  I may have to see these, may be for the last time.  I do not know.”

“Will anything happen to my mother during my absence?” I asked guruji. 

“I wish nothing happens to her.  But, nobody can foretell this.  Only God alone knows about births and deaths.  If anything happens to her, you will come to know about it. Don’t worry.”

I could not make out anything from what guruji had said.  I was there to perform the last rites of my father.  I wanted to perform the last rites for my mother too.  I thought it is too premature to think about this anymore.  I went inside my home.  My mother appeared very dull.  I know that she is upset.  When I am here, she will not interact with me. But my mere presence gave her immense satisfaction and moral courage.  I went to Mangalam and spoke to her about my mother’s requirements.  I explained her about the work to be done in the land.  I told her that I would take her to the land tomorrow morning.  First I thought of sleeping inside the house.  Then I decided against that and went to the verandah to sleep. 

The next morning, I took Mangalam to our land and told her in detail what is to be done.  She did not reply, but every time I told her something, she simply smiled at me.  Her smile had a divine flavour.  I plucked some vegetables and fruits and gave it to Mangalam to handover to my mom. 

“Shankara, I am going to cook from today” her voice was very melodious. She left.

After our morning chores, guruji and I took a bus to the town.  I took some money from the pot.  I always keep surplus money in a pot that hangs from the roof with the help of some ropes.  One end of the rope was tied to the pot and the other end of the rope was tied to an old wooden box.  Whenever we want to have money, I used to lower the pot and take the money.  I take as well as deposit money in the pot.  The pot literally acted like a safe deposit vault to me. I should have saved at least 10000 Rupees.  We got down at the bus stand and waited in front of a flower shop.  After a minute or two, a little girl came to guruji and handed over an envelope and a shoulder bag.  Guruji gave me the envelope and asked me to check the contents envelope. I opened the cover and saw two sets of tickets as said by guruji.  My name was spelt with initials and guruji’s name was also there.  There was a small note attached to the tickets in local language which said ‘shall meet you at Haridwar’.  I told guruji about the contents.  He handed over the cloth shoulder bag to me.  He asked me to check the bag.  There were three dhotis, three long towels like what guruji has at the moment and a woolen shawl. 

“All your things have arrived.  Now get ready to leave this place tomorrow.  We will go ahead as per the schedule.  Do not worry about your food. Homely food will be given to us whenever required.  You have the whole day at your disposal.  I am not going to have lunch with you today.  I will go to the other side of the river and return late in the night”

We returned to our place.  Guruji kept his bag in the usual place and went to the river and had begun swimming.  I decided to bid goodbye to my yoga master.  I ran through the fields and reached his place in less than fifteen minutes.  I told my yoga master that I am going out on a long trip with my guruji.  Yoga master was also visibly upset.  When I returned, I was very hungry.  I had another bath in the river and went in to have my lunch.  I told my mom that guruji is not going to have his lunch today.  Surprisingly mother informed me that Mangalam had already informed her about this.  Mangalam served lunch.  The food was very delicious.  I ate more than I could.  My mind was totally confused.  I had mixed feelings, the sadness of leaving my mother and this place and the happiness and curiosity to know what is going to happen to me in the future.  I roamed around every part of my land.  I came to the place where I buried my Jimmy.  In a way I thought that the death of Jimmy has relieved me a little.  Otherwise, my mother has to take care of him as well.  He may not eat if he is not served with love and affection.  He was a different dog altogether, full of love and gratitude.  He knows nothing except me.  I was everything to him.  Fortunately, he is not alive today.  Had he been alive today, I would have surely refused to go with guruji.  Now I realized that everything is predetermined.

I went to Ganapati temple.  Now I could freely convey my thoughts to him.  Till a few days back, I had no thoughts.  But now I have a few thoughts and worries.  Worry is about my mother and thoughts about my future.  Earlier, I never thought about myself.  I was having a blank mind all these days as I never thought about my future.  Now things have changed. But I was confident that my guruji will take care and protect me in case of difficulties.

I wanted to spend some time with my mom. For the first time, I wanted to lie on my mother’s lap.  I was ashamed to do that in front of Mangalam.  Somehow, Mangalam knows about whatever I think.  She asked me to rest head on my mom’s lap.  I ran towards her and she hugged me and kissed me on my forehead.  She sat down resting her back on the wall and I kept my head on her lap.  I felt on the top of the world.  Again I had the feeling of happiness and sorrow together.  I got up wiping out my tears and sat opposite to my mom.

“Amma, do not worry.  I will return back very soon.  You know I cannot live without you and this place. I will learn whatever they teach and will return to be with you all the time.  Till such time take care of your health.  Mangalam knows the doctor’s place and in case of necessity, she will take you to him.  But I will pray that nothing will happen to you till I return.  If you want to convey something very important to me, convey that to Mangalam and she will convey that to me.”

Mangalam looked at me with surprise.  I had said that only to reassure my mother, that anything can be conveyed to me at anytime.  I personally requested Mangalam to take care of my mother and she assured me that she would.  I moved out of the house and awaited the return of my guruji from the opposite bank.  I did not ask guruji about his purpose of visiting the other side of the river.  It could be just before six in the evening and I saw him swimming back with ease.  When he walked out of the river, his body was totally dry and there were no symptoms of water on his body.  A sort of inexplicable fear began to creep into my mind.  I could not comprehend the way in which a girl delivered travel tickets and a bag for me, arrival of Mangalam from nowhere, the sight of Shiva and Shakti and now guruji getting out of the river without any signs of water in his body after swimming, his caution not to sleep on the rocky bench, his prediction on the death of Jimmy.  Each of these began to creep into my mind and worked hard.  I have decided to call off my trip and made up my mind to tell guruji.  I also knew that guruji could read my mind.

As expected guruji said, “You want to call off this trip, right? You are unnecessarily nursing ridiculous thoughts.  Get away from your wavering thoughts.  Keep your mind relaxed.  After this night sleep, we are leaving this place. Have a good sleep.” Having said this, he proceeded to Ganapati temple.  He returned and spoke a few reassuring words to my mother and told Mangalam to take care of my mother henceforth.  He had gone to his place to do his meditation and other pre-sleep routine. 

I also wanted to have my sleep.  The time will not even be eight in the night.  Normally this is not the time for me to go to sleep.  My mind in contrast to my earlier days is now full of thoughts and fear.  My head was about to break and I thought I should go to sleep. Due to mental and physical fatigue, I had good sleep.  I knew the next morning is going to be different.  I observed that guruji was sleeping well.

I got up a little early than my usual time.  The sign of dawn was visible and the sky on the eastern side has become red.  I was about to leave this place, the place where I was born and brought up.  For all these twenty five years, I never saw the outside world beyond the town and yoga master’s village.  First time I am going to see the outside world.  I do not know any of the places near my hamlet.  Guruji got up very early in the morning.  He almost spends about two hours in yoga and meditation, in a secluded place.  I never attempted to know what he was doing and the thought never occurred to me.  I went around my land for the last time and then proceeded towards the river to have my bath.  The water was very refreshing.  It relieved the stress in my mind.  I went to Ganapati temple.  Interior of the temple was thoroughly cleaned, Ganapati was given a bath, a garland made out flowers was placed on him and two banana fruits were at his feet.  I thought Mangalam should have done this.  I went to see my mom.  Mangalam appeared very fresh and was cleaning and mopping the floor. Mom was in the kitchen.  I went to her and rested my head on her shoulders.  She looked at me and tears were ready to roll down her cheeks. I comforted her and assured her that I would return at the earliest. But some strange voice is telling me that I am seeing my mother for the last time.  I tried to ignore it as hallucination.  

We have to take the bus to the town at 10:00 in the morning via the main road.  To reach the main road, we have to walk about twenty minutes. We were planning to board that bus.  The time now should be past 8:00.  Guruji returned after taking his bath and he was ready.  I also kept my bag ready.  I am now ready to leave my place.  I went to my favourite rocky bench.  I became too emotional on seeing the bench that gave the comfort I needed all these years.  It reared me like its own child.  I am going to miss all this. It was a very painful moment for me.

At that time I saw my yoga master coming in.  I was surprised.  He bowed before guruji. Then he came to me and hugged me. 

“I am going to miss you Shankara” he said in a low voice.  He was visibly upset. 

“I need your blessings in all my future endeavours” I bowed before him. 

He smiled.  He went to my mother and gave her a lot of comforting words.  My mom introduced Mangalam to him. 

Time has at last arrived for me to leave the place.  I had wept enough in the past two days and I am not in a position to cry now.  My mother sobbed uncontrollably and Mangalam composed her.  The manner in which Mangalam was comforting my mother, I was confident that she will take care of my mom very well.  We have to take a left turn to reach the main road.  I stopped at the junction and turned back at my place for the last time.  I really do not want to leave this place.  I thought of running back. 

“Shankaraaa, you have more responsibilities. You are not born to be here all the time. You have to respond to the call of the Divine. Forget about this place” guruji brought me back on the track.  But I am not able to understand about the Divine call.  I did not have the mood to ask about this to guruji. 

The bus came on time.  From the town, we took another bus to Tiruchi.  When we reached Tiruchi it was 11:15 in the morning and guruji had hardly another 45 minutes to have his lunch.  When we alighted from the bus, someone bowed before guruji and took us to a nearby temple.  We were served lunch there.  We still have time to board the train leaving for Madras.  The train was supposed to be a super fast train and should reach Madras in five hours. It leaves Tiruchi at 4:00 in the evening and will reach Madras at 9:00 in the night.  We have our train to Delhi at 10:30 in the night, which after 30 hours of journey reaches Delhi at about 9:00 in the morning.  After spending a few hours in Delhi we have to take another train to Haridwar.  Only in Haridwar we are going to have our first break. We reached Haridwar at 3:30 in the afternoon.  Our journey was very comfortable.  Someone appeared from nowhere and gave us lunch, fruits, water etc.  Guruji was speaking in fluent Hindi with his co-passengers, but I could not make out anything, as I do not know any other language except Tamil.

Haridwar is a typical Indian spiritual town.  On getting down at Haridwar station, guruji took my hand and we began to wade through crowded streets.  Pavements are the place for window shopping.  If one has the capacity to bargain, he can make a killing.  But no stuff on the streets is original. On one side River Ganges was flowing beautifully with its inherent force. The water was swirling in the middle indicating the huge depth of the river in the middle.  There were occasional boats carrying a few passengers. We should have walked at least a couple of miles. When we moved away from the crowded streets, only the flow of Ganges was audible.  There were a few mutts here and there.  Guruji slowed down his pace of walking to enable me to enjoy the cultural difference from my place and the difference in the water current of the two rivers, Ganges and Cauvery.  We walked some more distance before entering an old mutt.  I was happy to note that there was a stone bench here too, outside the mutt.  We entered.  Someone brought water in two brass jars, handed over one to guruji respectfully and another one to me with warmth.  We washed our feet. We were led to another place in the mutt to take our bath. I was wondering why we are not allowed to take bath in the Ganges, running just across the small road.  After two days of train journey, we badly needed a bath.  Our clothes became dirty.  We washed our clothes and had our bath.  

“Shankaraaaa, you are taking bath in the Ganges waters for the first time” 

“Why guruji we are not taking bath in the river.  The river is just flowing across”

“The river is very deep here. You cannot take bath here at any place of our choice.  There are only certain areas, where we can have our bath.  Ganges water at this point is very pure.  It comes from Rishikesh straight. This water is also Ganges water pumped by a motor straight from the river.”

After bath, I felt very relaxed and refreshing.  My thoughts quickly went back to my place. There is no way I can communicate with my mother.  Letters cannot be delivered in our hamlet.  Many people in the area use mobile phones, but I never had any necessity to talk to anyone.  Guruji joined me after a few minutes delay.  Probably he was tired.  We sat on a wooden bench in the hall.  A man came and gave us two glasses of hot milk.  As usual guruji asked him to pour the milk in his copper jar.  I was not too sure whether I can take the milk.  I looked at guruji and waited for his instructions.

“Shankaraaa, you can take that milk.  This is pure cow’s milk.  No sugar is added.  Pure cow’s milk is good for health and is a refreshing drink.  This is not reheated milk.  If you do that, it will lose its nutrient properties.”

I took the milk from him.  This man was different from the one who had given us water to wash our feet.  Guruji, after finishing his milk, washed his glass, wiped it dry and kept back in his bag.  I washed the glass and kept it in a corner.  Both of us were sitting quietly for sometime there.  Guruji was chanting some mantra.  Probably after an hour’s wait, we were taken to the upstairs.  The stair case was very dark and narrow.  As we climbed the stair cases, there was a divine fragrance emanating from above.  We were led to a naturally well lit room.  The room was airy.  In the western side of the room, an old man with beard and uncut hair was sitting, resting his back on the wall.  In front of him there was a square fire pit, possibly one ft by one ft.  No smoke was coming from the pit and few tongs of fire were burning.  The old man was throwing some dried leaves into the fire by reciting some mantra.  When he saw us, there was a broad smile on his face.  He signaled us to sit by his side. The fire in the pit made the room hot and humid.  There was a strange silence.  I looked around the room.  Walls and ceiling have become black, probably due to the occasional smoke coming out of the fire pit. Onto his right side there were several bundles of well dried herbs and roots tightly bundled.  There were some bilva leaves in a basket. In another basket, there were some white flowers.  There was an earthen jug and an earthen glass was placed on the top of the jar. The jar was slightly bigger than the one carried by guruji. 

The man sitting there was moderately built.  He was wearing a saffron dhoti. There is a still silence.  Episodic sound of fire from the pit was clearly audible.  Behind him, there was a window.  He can turn back and look at the Ganges whenever he wants.

“How was the trip” he asked my guruji. 

“With your blessing there was not a single problem” my guruji answered.  This man appeared much younger than guruji and guruji used the word blessings.  Probably, the man should be senior to my guruji.  As I do not know anything about these mutts, I stopped to think.

(to be continued)