How had I missed such a significant pilgrimage town on my research I wondered. I had visited Bhimashankar twice, another jyotirlinga town closer to Mumbai. Both times a hike through the day, spent the night there and returned the following day. Both times I had liked the ambince of the town and would have certainly pencilled in Aundha had I known. A stroke of providence, I contended.
As I was finishing my tea, Anoop beckoned me from the manager’s office. Beckoned by Anoop meant that the matter could not wait. Otherwise, he was the kind of chap who would walk all the way to you, explain the matter and lead you to the manager’s office.
As I walked towards the room, I gradually kept getting a better view of it’s inside. It was actually a much smaller room than it seemed from the outside. Just a desk and a man sitting behind it. An old, frail looking man with prominent upper teeth, which was made even more prominent by a gap left by a missing one. I waited outside the door, not wanting to be one spreading claustrophobia. As the man spoke I noticed he was anything but frail. His actions and speech betrayed his frail look and revealed his inner exuberance. Briefly glancing at me he proceeded to inform Anoop that the room would be no problem, Rs. 200 for the night and that we’ll just have to wait a few minutes until he settled some other business. Then, with incredible agility he got up from his seat and exited past me, clutching a red ledger book in his left hand.
We decided to wait on the bench of the tea stall, under the sweet-tamarind tree. I noticed the courtyard in more detail then. A temporary shed with an asbestos roof and 4 inch lead pipes for pillars was constructed inside the boundary wall. Two four-wheelers could be parked comfortably under that. Next to this shed was our tea stall and next to it was the large passageway. The passageway connected this yard to the main access street leading pilgrims to the gate of the temple’s courtyard. I could view people walking past on it. The hustle and bustle on it seemed disproportionate to the significance attached to the temple. This was a good sign. Less crowd meant more time to observe. My personal feeling is that off-season is the best time to be a pilgrim and a pilgrimage is the last thing you should be rushed into finishing! If rushing to finish is the feeling most of us seek then why leave Mumbai in the first place?
All the connected rooms – on our left as we entered the yard – had verandahs. It was a nice sized area to sit inside the house and yet in spirit be with the people and cattle outside. Upper half of this verandah was shielded by a patterned iron grill. The lower half was a brick wall. Another iron grill door protected access to the verandah. Once inside the verandah one had to pass through another, larger, double-leaf door, in order to let one into the house.
The manager was returning in the same brisk manner in which he had made his exit. We trailed him into the office. As he handled the register book, opening it to the page of the last entry, he demanded that we show him our identification before anything else. He then went into a ramble on how people nowadays were abusing the charitable nature of their accommodations and bringing whores into the rooms. Taken aback at such blunt revelation my motions became more purposeful. It was clear as early as then that this man was not to be trifled with. Rub him the wrong way and we could wave goodbye to our stroke of providence. Dutifully we handed our driver’s license to him and watched him study them closely through his fake horn-rimmed glasses, nudging upwards at the lower tip of it’s right frame with the index finger of his right hand…the index finger also crooking a ball pen with his middle finger. He was wearing a full sleeve shirt of some synthetic material. He was certainly frail in his built. A narrow, almost bald head, hollow cheeks, the missing front tooth and a lavish peppering of a day old silver stubble. From his dark pouting lips and hollow cheeks he seemed like a smoker, or at least an ex-smoker. He wore the fact that he took immense pride in his job on his sleeve. By this point, already into his next ramble, he had , with Quixotic disdain, declined accommodation to hypothetical ministers and their families on account of incomplete paper work. Quietly and quickly we completed the registration formalities and followed him to inspect the room.
We were shown to a house in the centre of the connected houses. It was a sufficiently spacious room with a double bed in one corner and a large square blanket spread on the floor. The room had not been swept or cleaned in a long time. Lifting a corner of the blanket revealed an unruly layer of dust and grime. The bathroom and toilet was somewhat cleaner on account of frequent flow of water. Cobwebs flourished uninhibited on the ceiling. The bathroom and toilet doors were rotting at it’s lower corners. Years of unchecked dampness taking it’s toll. It took a solid 15 minutes of tidying before the room turned hospitable.
Taking the first crack at the facilities, I freshened up and dragged a plastic chair out into the verandah and spent the next few minutes enjoying the happenings outside. Few more pilgrims had arrived since our checking in. The hall was getting noisier, not so much because of the children this time, just boisterous adults settling in. The state police department’s Special Protection Squad had parked it’s van, with grills shielding it’s glass panes, slightly to the left of my view. A few of the policemen were walking from the van to my right. When I craned my neck I discovered that they were all staying in the first house. All 7-8 of them. Signs that they had been camping for some time now was apparent by a clothes line drawn outside their veranda on which hung, among other articles of clothing, their inner wears. Two 5-6 month old calves were also walking the yard, scavenging strewn litter. Few more folks were gathered around the tea stall now.
Noticing me from afar, sitting idly in my verandah, the manager started his inimitable walk towards me. Soon I found him standing inside the verandah asking me about our trip on the motorcycle. I offered him dates and routes and our next plans but all along it was clear that he wanted an opening for talking rather than listening. So I enquired about the topic of misuse of accommodation. He stated that off late people from neighbouring towns found it convenient to rent accommodation here and indulge in their vices. With strict identity checks becoming a norm at most lodges because of the heightened security atmosphere all around, the pilgrim towns were the only ones where such checks were relaxed. Now, even these places have tightened up. Without taking a breather he launched into how much he did not care for such elements of the society. His thrill at refusing accommodation to imaginary miscreants and people with incomplete documentation could not be suppressed. Like the bright saffron flag waving atop the temple this servant of the trust too announced his views boldly.
It can be generally observed that most boisterous people do not care much for their management. In his case, he continued, the management would occasionally request him to be understanding of the plight of genuine pilgrims. His argument was that if he were to take a judgement call which turned out to be incorrect then would the management accept the explanation that it was done on their behest, implicating them? His sense of logic was twisted beyond reason by his pride of duty and his strong sense of devotion. This became even clearer when he started talking about his family.
He was a widower with 3 sons. The eldest was married, a father of a son and presently settled in the neighbouring district of Aurangabad. He was a lawyer and practised in the High Court there. They would visit now and then. It wasn’t clear if our manager was invited to live with his son’s family or not but the offer was rejected quite comprehensively by him stating proudly ‘I can still earn my bread!’. The second son worked in some capacity at the temple. He had tried his hands at a few business, even borrowed seed money from his father but his acumen at business was the same as his old man’s. His partners duped him and now he’s content serving the temple’s trust. His youngest was quite simply, a Mawwali. He is yet to perform a honest day’s labour. If it were not for someone shouting from the outside that he was needed in the Manager’s office I would have heard more colourful stories about the youngest. Promising to return immediately after sorting out the nuisance, he vanished.
Continued in Saved by Aundha – part III
27th August, 2010, Mumbai.