Gopi felt cheated on his second visit to Katra near Jammu. The typical Indian village, base camp for visitors to the Vaishnodevi Temple, that he had seen on his first visit in the late 1960s had entered the pages of history. Even the residents of Katra had moved progressively. “Then why am I still living in the past?” wondered Gopi with the times.
In the 1960s, Gopi remembered, was the time when the local villagers would keep their ramshackle wooden doors open at all hours generously offering accommodation in their ready-to-tumbledown homes and happily share their frugal hospitality with the motley groups of pilgrims who would religiously trek uphill on a pathway to reach the venerable Himalayan abode visible as a speck in the distance.
Priests at the small temples and dharamsalas would admit larger groups and for longer stays. Faith, not money, was the consideration in those days. The trek, uphill or downhill, used to be a journey of faith and the villagers accepted with grace whatever money the pilgrims gave in the form of donations. Today, the tarred roads, the hotels, restaurants, brightly-lit shopping areas, loud music, crowds carrying shopping bags emerging from the marketplace, couples behaving like vacationers, even a helicopter service to ferry pilgrims close to the Bhavan, reeked of commercialisation and entertainment.
Today, in 2017, the hordes of people at Katra, Gopi felt, resembled the scene at a Mall in his hometown Shimla during the summer season when the tourists would arrive like tsunami waves. The Vaishnodevi Temple-bound crowds, the glut of hotels, eating places, shops displaying flashy wares, dry fruits and much more, the roadside hawkers, rickshaw-wallahs, touts, all with the sole intention of relieving the visitor of his money, was as apparent to Gopi as was the eye-catching view of the white-painted Bhavan glowing in the sunlight in the distant Trikuta mountain.
To change his mood, Gopi looked up at the cloudless blue sky instead. The sky is innocent, he thought. “What a change!” he exclaimed to Shailaja, his wife. She was standing outside the taxi which had brought them from Jammu that morning, helping her mother and younger sister extricate themselves from the taxi’s interiors.
Considering their figures and fitness levels, Gopi had his doubts about his ma-in-law and sister-in-law’s capability to trek the entire uphill route of 14 km to the temple. And then to tackle the return trip, clambering down the same distance.
His mother-in-law was the first to react to Gopi’s comment. “Everything changes, son. Look at us. Ten, twenty years ago we were different from what we are today, aren’t we?” Sheila, Gopi’s sister-in-law, frowned. “No Maa. Nothing changes. The sky, the gods and goddesses, the earth, the rivers, they are still the same. I only wish…”
“Must we have this discussion?” interrupted Shailaja. She knew her sister’s capacity to argue on trivial matters. “Let’s get the luggage out and arrange for a hotel,” continued Gopi, in tune with his wife. Considering that there was no paucity of hotels in the vicinity, the task of securing a room was over in 10 minutes. Their room was on the first floor overlooking the crowded road and busy marketplace.
“Didi, let’s unpack, change and go out for lunch. I want to see some shawls and buy lots of things from here.” Sheila said excitedly to her sister. “Ok. Ok, Sheel. First, we’ll shop and eat afterwards. Maa can rest in the meantime,” replied Shailaja.
“You two sisters, eat something light, and have you come on a pilgrimage or a shopping spree?” Gopi teased his sister-in-law. She reacted by school-girlishly sticking her tongue out at him. When she wanted her way, she was quite a tomboy.
The two sisters quickly washed their faces, changed into navy-blue track suits and sports shoes, picked up their purses and left the hotel room. Their mother had discarded her chappals, washed her face and wiped it with a towel. She was tired because of the journey and the lack of sleep. So she lay down on the bed.
Gopi sat on a chair near the window and positioning his feet on a nearby table, looked out at the milling crowd. His feeling of being cheated returned. So what if 50 years have elapsed and time had taken its toll in the process. He went back to gazing abstractedly at the sky.
Gopi wondered whether a visit to a holy place could be considered a pilgrimage when it was combined with a sport where the contestants displayed the extent of their wealth in a variety of forms. Blessed were those villagers of Katra in the 1960s who offer accommodation and food to strangers determined to climb the steep, unpaved route, armed with the name of the goddess on their lips.
The march of time could not be stopped, the purchasing power of money is limitless, and greed knows no bounds. If the simple villagers of Katra had changed, it was only to keep in tune with the city-smart visitors, he concluded. Maybe some of them were running the hotels and food outlets today, he wondered. Gopi fell asleep with a frown on his forehead.
An hour later the sound of laughter woke him up. The two sisters had returned loaded with packets of almonds and walnuts, dried apple slices, rajma, or red kidney beans, a favourite item in some parts of North India, copper rings, bead necklaces and knick-knacks for giving away to friends and relatives.
“We had such fun. There were so many things we wanted to buy. But we were scared that Gopi bhaiya would scold us,” complained Sheila as she naughtily narrowed her eyes while looking towards Gopi. “Not if you order us some hot tea and samosas,” Gopi retorted.
This group of pilgrims was in a happy mood. They had left their domestic worries back home and looked forward to enjoying the holiday and a strenuous yet inspiring trek. After a comfortable night’s rest, they started the trek early next morning. They were so excited that they were out of breath soon after the uphill climb started.
Shailaja and Sheila tried joining in the full-throated cry of “Jai Mata di” by trekkers bearing red-coloured flags along the route but could not match up to the intensity or speed. The religiosity was intact but their lung power fell short. By the time they reached the crest, even the flesh was waving the white flag of surrender. “I am dead tired,” announced Sheila resignedly as they reached their destination, Bhavan.
“You may be exhausted but I am amazed at how you three managed to reach here in one piece,” Gopi said with pride in his voice, frankly declaring his earlier doubts at the same time. They planned to hire a room, rest for the night and visit the shrine the next morning.
A room was booked, dinner was puris with aloo ki subzi at a nearby restaurant, and this group of pilgrims went to sleep. Their stomachs were full, they were happy though tired. The next morning would be the day of their darshan in the cave.
It was a beautiful morning. They were awakened before sunrise by the insistent pealing of the temple bells, the metallic rhythm of the bhajans blaring away from loudspeakers, the unmusical cawing by the crows in the distance. These were familiar noises. The only jarring and unpleasant sound was the neighing of ponies from the pony stand in the neighbourhood, not to mention the stink.
As the sun rose, the sky turned orange which added lustre to the saffron-coloured pennants waving in the morning breeze. There were plenty of colours as bright green parrots competed with bluish-grey coated pigeons and corporal-striped, brown mynahs attempting to dominate the space between the grey-coloured rocks and the green-hued trees in the valley below. The millennium-old Baan Ganga river continued to streak its milky-white ribbon-like flow at the rocky junction far below.
Once in the sanctum sanctorum inside the cave, Gopi bowed his forehead in devotion. His wife did the same, as did her mother. “Keep moving, keep moving,” admonished the priest as Sheila took her time in paying obeisance to the idol. The family, except for Sheila, was happy. The mission had been successful. Only Sheila was disappointed. Her mind was distracted. Her inner voice had barely whispered her wishes to the goddess. On top of that, her legs were paining.
“Don’t worry Sheel. We will all return to Katra on ponies,” said Gopi as he tried to blow away the grey clouds hovering over Sheila. So four ponies were hired and the family started from Bhavan so that they could reach Katra by the evening. Sheila smiled. The family smiled. The clouds, the sun, the birds, the trees and the entire valley smiled in unison.
Gopi knew of Sheila’s trait as a chatterbox. Sheila, sitting astride the pony as it plodded along the road, got into her elements. The four youths guiding the ponies were chatting among themselves in low tones in the local language, probably Dogri or Kashmiri. “What’s your name?” she asked the youth holding the reins of her pony. “Dilip,” he replied shyly. He looked smarter and was better dressed than his other three friends.
“Dilip, my name is Sheila. I live in Delhi. My daughter Geeta lives in Bangalore with her husband Srinivasan who is a South Indian. They have two children, Gitika and Gautam.” Details of the family’s economic status, educational standards, social standings, awards won, holidays taken, every iota of information were revealed to Dilip and his friends who were guiding our ponies. The youths, in turn, started chatting among themselves, sharing smiles and laughing as they walked alongside their ponies.
Sheila was proud of the achievements of her son-in-law and her daughter. The more she told the youths, the more they chatted with one another like magpies, in a language that we could not comprehend. Sheila was all abeam with happiness. The stories about her family continued uninterruptedly.
We passed Sanjichhat and stopped for tea at Adhkwari. The chapter on her son-in-law’s achievements seemed never-ending. But the route was long, the ponies trod slowly and carefully downhill and Sheila ran out of the plethora of her family’s tales.
Then, focussing on Dilip but including the other three youths in her spotlight, she changed gears. “This is my elder sister Shailaja and that one on the brown pony is her husband. They live in Shimla. We are Punjabis but Gopi, he is a Kashmiri. So we are an all-India family, you see,” as she went on to elaborate on my family’s achievements.
It seemed as if the four youths had been struck dumb. They looked apprehensively at Gopi, then stared at one another and looked away. Gopi did not enlighten the youths that he had never lived in Kashmir and did not know a word of Kashmiri. The youths turned their attention to their ponies, scratching the worn-out leather straps, pulling at the stray woollen strands of the blanket under the saddles, looking for mites in the manes of their ponies.
Anyway, one person talking non-stop throughout the journey, highlighting the family background, present and future generations, was sufficient. Sheila started enjoying the totally devoted attention of her now-dumbstruck captive audience. The four youths had other things to worry about. Would the sahib refuse to give them bakhsheesh and would he shout at them for having made fun of Sheila in their local tongue?
Nothing happened. When the journey ended at Katra they received their standard payment and a generous tip from the sahib. The only person who was complaining at the landing platform was Sheila. “My legs are still aching. I want to rest at the hotel. Let’s hurry up,” she said in an irritable tone. Shailaja and Maa held her up by her elbows and guided her along the pilgrim-wearied road to the hotel.
Dilip, sizing up the situation, helped Gopi by carrying the water bottles and shoulder bags. Walking a step behind Gopi, he mumbled “If the madam has a foot massage the pain will vanish,” and he claimed “I have massaged many such pilgrims from the cities who come here. Just one hour of maalish and the madam will be running around.” Gopi acted as if he had not heard the boy but could not stop the boy from following him to the hotel.
This just-returned group of pilgrims stopped at the hotel entrance. Shailaja and Maa collected the bottles and bags from Dilip. He repeated his proposal to them. They looked at one another and then at Sheila. “What’s the harm in trying it out,” exclaimed Sheila unhappily. Gopi took a step back, showing his reluctance. “I learnt the art from a maalishwallah here, Madamji. He was a professional,” Dilip bluffed with confidence.
Sheila was not used to physically challenging activities such as trekking uphill and riding a pony downhill. Her legs, hips and back were complaining. Climbing, for her, was escalator-assisted in the air-conditioned shopping malls in Delhi and Gurgaon, and the car was meant to avoid the need to walk.
Her body was screaming with pain. “So why are we standing here? Let’s hurry up and go back to our room. My whole body is aching. I just want to lie down and rest,” Sheila told her mother. The pilgrims progressed towards their room to the first floor. Dilip followed them discretely, a step away.
By the time the family had reached the room, the mountains had swallowed the sun, the streetlights were cannibalising circles of captive flying insects. The aroma of rajma-chawal and chole-bhature was being jettisoned by exhaust fans of restaurants in the vicinity and pilgrims who had returned from that day’s darshan were doing their last-minute shopping.
All the pilgrims who had returned from the Vaishno Devi shrine had a bow-legged style of walking which identified their elevated status unlike the confident swagger of the newly-arrived visitors as if they were without a care in the world. For the newcomers, tomorrow would be their day of reckoning, when they would acquire a robot-like gait.
Sheila was, for once, not concerned with the world outside the hotel. After Dilip unlaced and removed her sports shoes, she stretched out her legs and lay on the bed. “Could you give me some hair oil,” he asked Gopi who was standing behind him suspiciously. Gopi went to the bathroom to get the oil while Shailaja kept an eye on Dilip.
On getting the oil, Dilip first adjusted Sheila’s saree to uncover her ankles and then rubbed some of the oil on his palms before massaging Sheila’s ankles and feet. One by one he rubbed the oil onto her fingers, giving special attention to her toes and soles. His heel-to toe rub gave Sheila such relief that she was purring like a kitten.
As a smile came on Sheila’s lips, and as she closed her eyes, pushing the back of her head, chin upraised, into the softness of the pillow, Maa and Shailaja laughed simultaneously. Gopi clapped his hands together joyfully. The family was happy once again. Dilip had his back to the lamp so the shadows prevented them from seeing the crease lines on Dilip’s forehead.
“Maa, I am going downstairs for some tea and biscuits,” announced a much-relieved Gopi. “I’m also coming with you. Shall we bring something for you, Maa,” asked Shailaja. “No. I’ll drink some water and rest here,” the mother replied in an exhausted tone. She hobbled over to the wicker basket on the table and took out a banana.
Gopi and Shailaja quickly went out of the room pushing the door shut behind them. The mother ate the banana and limped across to the bathroom to wash her feet with warm water. Dilip took some more oil from the plastic bottle kept on the floor. The mother returned, sat on her bed, wiped her feet with the towel and with a long sigh stretched out on the bed to rest her aching back.
Sheila also lay down on her cot. The difference was that her mother went to sleep in five minutes but Sheila, although her eyes were closed, was awake. She felt Dilip’s soft and oil-smoothened hands moving from her ankles up to her knees, squeezing them gently. The base of the saree too had moved up. The massage had reached the next level, she realised as she tried to resist the creeping drowsiness.
She felt his fingers tenderly squeezing her knees, the palms squeezing hard into her skin as he moved his hand down to her ankles. He repeated this, she counted, five times, and the pain in her legs seemed to have seeped away. Then she discerned the rhythmic sound of her mother snoring lightly. She must be very tired, thought Sheila.
At the same time, she felt Dilip’s fingers change direction. Instead of moving them downwards from her knees, they were pushing upwards gently. It felt as if his fingers and palm had fused into her soft skin.
She forgot her aching body and the painful pony ride. She was oblivious of her mother’s snoring, the sounds of neighing and the stink coming from the ponies standing outside the window. The heady scent of agarbattis, the sound of pealing of bells, the chanting of slokas entered her thoughts. A flash of brilliant lights exploded in her mind accompanied by an inner voice, along with a deafening echo. “Jai Maa . . .” was only a whisper of the echo that eagerly escaped from her quivering lips.