Anand was getting impatient and restless, in part due to the scorching and oppressive heat of the Indian summer and also due to the never ending wait for the bus.
“Amma, how long should we wait for the bus ?” Anand asked his Mother, Narmada desperately for the umpteenth time.
“It should be here anytime.” replied Anand’s mother.
“But you have been saying the same thing since morning. I see so many buses but our bus never turns up”
“Anand, can you catch me ? ” teased Anand’s cousin, Rajesh and started to run away with Anand’s hat that had adorned the freshly shaven head of Anand.
“Oh, Anna, stop it. I am tired of this game already. Can we play something else. I wish we could buy a ball and play cricket here.”
Just then, they heard a loud horn and turned back. A green colored bus, tattered, creaking and crowded with people hissed slowly into the bus station shelter.
Anand’s father and uncle started to beckon to Anand’s Mother that the bus is here.
“It’s so hot, can we get some ice cream, Amma ?”
“Anand, the bus has come and we need to board it now or we will miss it.” saying so, Anand’s mom started to hold Anand and Rajesh’s hands and hurriedly moved towards the bus.
“But the bus is already so full, how can we get into it ?”
“Buses here are always full. I told you in summer a lot of people come to this place. You have to stop complaining. Also this is the only bus until late evening.”
Along with Anand’s family there were a lot of people trying to queue up at the bus door.
“Amma, where are akka and anjali akka. The bus is already here, we have to go.”
“Yes, they are buying bangles and they will be here shortly. Narender Uncle went to get them.”
“oh, buying again. You always buy so many things for them and we ask for a ball and toys which you never buy”, complained Anand.
“Ah, here they come. We can start boarding the bus”, said Anand’s Mom as she saw the girls along with their aunt, Sujatha returning from their shopping.
They started a queue outside the bus but as more people joined the queue, chaos ensued. Suddenly, people from all over swarmed over to the bus.
Just as on a rainy day, small rivulets from all over converge onto the big river, people seemed to have suddenly descended on to this already beat-up bus.
Everyone scrambled to get into the bus. At the end of all pushing and pulling, the bus was as crowded as a village fish market on a festive Sunday.
In the hustle and bustle of the crowd, Anand’s father and uncle almost missed the bus as they were among the last to squeeze into the bus.
Needless to say, none of them found a seat.
“Anna, where are we going again, I forgot”, Anand asked Rajesh as the bus started to lumber out of the bus shelter.
“We are going to another temple. I do not remember the name as it’s a big name and starts with P and something.”
“But we just went to the big temple yesterday and stood in a long line for 5 hours, and got our head tonsured too. Why another temple now ?” shrugged Anand.
“That was Tirupathi temple where everyone gets their head shaven for God’s blessings. Now we are going to another small temple
which is said to wash away all our sins.”
“what, wash your sins ? I did not do any sin ? Anyway what are sins ?”
“When big people do big mistakes, they call it sins ”
“Oh, so its not for us then. But you said they will wash them ?”
“I think just like amma washes clothes, they can wash the mistakes too ”
“Then you can wash them at your home. Why do you have to come here for that”
“They say the water at the temple we are going has some magic and it washes them completely”, clarified Rajesh.
The bus was on its way to a nearby town called Papavinasanam, with the heavy load giving it a squeaky and rumbling demeanor. The bus conductor started to push himself around for collecting the tickets. He was having a harrowing time with most of the passengers as they either did not have the exact change or were giving him old, torn out currency
notes or still worse, were not giving the correct count of their families. This made him overtly jittery and stressed out. He then came to Anand’s father, Sudhakar for collecting the tickets.
“How many ?”
“8. 4 Full Tickets, 4 Half tickets “, confirmed Sudhakar and pointed out to the adults and kids, some standing, some sitting.
“No, 5 Full and 3 half”, interjected the conductor.
“But, sir. Why 5 Full ?, Where is the other Full ticket. We are 4 adults and 4 kids and I showed them to you.”
“Mister, that girl is Full ticket. Do not fool me.”
“Wait a minute, this girl is 11 years old. Full ticket is from 12 years.”
“You want to buy or get down from the bus”
“Again, let me tell you again, both the girls are same age and are studying in 6th standard. How can one be half and the other full.
My daughter looks a little tall but she’s the same age as the other girl, they are cousins. If you don’t believe me, ask them.”
“Can you stop this argument. We are already late, don’t give me headache. I will have to ask you to get down the bus then..”
“Why will we get down, Why will we pay Full ticket for one and half for the other when both are same age.”, both the brothers started arguing angrily with the conductor.
“And why will we get down from the bus.”
“I told you the rules and its the same for everyone. Or else the entire bus will have to stop now for your sake”, the conductor stated nonchalantly and using his ticket
holder, hit it firmly against one of the standing support columns of the bus. The bus driver immediately stopped the bus by the roadside.
Some of the passengers in the bus started to look angrily at Sudhakar and his brother and were forcefully berating the brothers to stop the argument for a few rupees and just give in, so they all can reach the temple in time. Some started to shout angrily and the chaos started to get bigger and louder. And the argument continued to get hotter between the brothers, the conductor and other disgruntled passengers eager to see the bus get going. Seeing this commotion, Anand’s mother tried to tell her husband, Sudhakar to just pay a full ticket and get it over with. Sudhakar angrily rebuffed her suggestion and started to shout at her to stop meddling when he is busy talking. Anand and the kids, did not know what to do and were already in duress owing to the stifling heat and overcrowded bus. Anand did not understand the arguments that were going on and tried to inquire with his sister but was asked to keep quiet. Anand was sitting with his sister away from his mother and wanted to go to his mother. But the bus was so crowded there was no way he can push through the crowd. Anand wished he was at home and never came here in the first place. He was so excited to come to Tirupathi because of the train journey. But now after the long wait in the queue at Tirupathi and now this bus ride, he was feeling sad and downcast.
Sujatha, Narender’s wife silently gesticulated to Narender to just pay it off. Narender nodded his consent.
Narender said to his brother, Sudhakar, “Let us pay the aditional amount. Why to break our heads with this idiot. We will think we gave a beggar some money.”
Hearing this, the conductor got very angry, shouting abuses at the brothers and started to push towards them to get into a fight.
The other passengers intervened and held the conductor to stop in his tracks.
“They said they are paying the money for Full ticket, so get going now”, said one of the passengers.
“Come on, brothers, you have to stop this argument now. Its getting late. Stop it now, please. There are old people and kids too. Please spare a thought for them”, suggested an elderly man.
After another angry exchange of looks, the conductor took the money from the brothers and after giving them the tickets, made the usual sound with the ticket holder to signal the driver to start the bus. Finally, after some tense agonizing moments, the bus pushed itself laggardly back on to the road.
As they were nearing the temple town, people in the bus started to push each other further to converge towards the exit door. The bus would stay at the temple for around 2 hours, so they would have to do darshan, have a bath, clean up, get the prasad and come back in time before the bus starts back. This was the last bus for the day so they cannot take chances.
The bus slowly entered the bus shelter and parked under one of the designated parking spots. People started to exit the bus in a hurry. Anand and his cousins, were jostled by passengers rushing towards the exit door. Anand observed after he got down from the bus, that some of the passengers were still inside the bus.
“Daddy, why are some of them still sitting in the bus ? ”
“They don’t want to lose their seats. By sitting there they want to save seats for their family”, replied Sudhakar.
Anand was puzzled. “But why did they come here then if they did not want to see the temple ?”
“Anand, they want to see the temple but they do not want to lose their seat on the bus as it is so crowded. So they will stay in the bus and protect the seats for their family when everyone returns from the temple. ” explained Sudhakar. Anand found it very crazy and started laughing out loud along with his brother, Rajesh.
” anna, I cannot stop laughing. Can you believe this, they just want to keep the seats “, blurted Anand.
“Yes, Anand. People do crazy things all the time. But this one is really strange, after taking so many pains to reach this temple, they just want to stay inside.”, said Rajesh.
The temple was beautiful, very old and was bustling with activity and sacred sounds all around. It was swarming with people, most of them with their heads tonsured. There was a long wait again for taking the sin-cleansing bath under the water. Anand was fascinated with the lion-headed spouts at the top of the bathing place where water was pouring down in small streams for devotees to bath under. But the long wait did not bother him as much as it did at the Tirupathi temple, as here there were so many things to look and marvel at. He observed with keen enthusiasm the way people were bathing and were chanting their prayers, some of them silently, as they bathed. In between, he kept hearing people chanting loudly, in unison – “Govinda, Goovinda !” And everyone around start repeating the chant in chorus, after them. He became familiar with this strain of musical words now. Just as a small group of birds embark on a flight of ecstasy and slowly, cajole other birds in the neighborhood, with their tweets and beautiful formations in the sky, to join them for a long drive, the “Govinda, Goovinda !” chant had a similar mesmerizing effect on all the devotees there. It was akin to a siren call, from the Almighty himself, to drop everything at hand and immerse oneself in praise of God, with wholesome and undivided devotion.
As soon as Anand got close to his bathing turn, he saw the color of the water, the unclean mess around the bathing site and his excitement took a severe beating. He was not feeling good and told Rajesh he does not want to do bath there. He saw another kid his age, just pee as he was bathing. Anand started to scream at his Mother who was getting him ready for his bath, that he is not having his bath there. Anand’s mother tried to convince Anand but he would not budge. His mother turned to Anand’s father, Sudhakar and asked him to help. Sudhakar held Anand tightly and asked Narmada to start the bath. Anand started to wail but no one cared to pacify him as this was a sacred ritual and had to be undertaken. It was sacrilegious not to take bath at this sacred temple. Rajesh was laughing at Anand’s throwing a fit all of a sudden when so many kids, including himself were enjoying the bath in the open air. Having been forced to change his clothes in public after the bath, Anand stuck to his sullen mood and was hard to talk to.
After the bath, they descended onto the temple premises to complete darshan and other ceremonies that go with the bathing ritual. Anand continued with his grumpy self and kept moving away from his family to let them know of his displeasure for making him bath against his wishes. Anand wondered if the water was dirty because of washing so many people of all their sins or if the water had to be of a special type, unclean as it maybe, to help people wash off their sins.
The time to head back to the bus was around the corner, so the passengers started to move towards the bus shelter. Having washed away their sins, people seemed to be excited to embark on the remaining part of the journey with renewed vigor and enthusiasm. In the meantime, to cheer him up, Anand’s father bought a cricket ball so that Anand can cheer up a little. As they got close, Anand saw that there was already a huge line of people piling up, waiting to get into the bus. They joined the queue and as they waited for the bus driver and conductor to join them, the waiting queue got into a continuous chanting of “Govinda, Goovinda !”. Anand and Rajesh enjoyed chanting with the crowd and felt it lift up their spirits. As the bus crew came on-board and opened the bus door, all hell let loose and there was a mad scramble to get into the bus and take the seats. There was very little space for cover and it was in the best interests of old people and kids to just wait and then enter. As some people already stayed on in the bus to keep the seats safe for themselves and their families, there were not many seats left anyway. In addition to the already running chaos, there started a power struggle among passengers who claimed that the seats they had when they left the bus is logically theirs and they should have it back. They cannot lose their seats even if someone else was squatting in their seats after they left the bus. Some other passengers put handkerchief to indicate that the seats are already taken, but other passengers removed them and sat in those seats. There was no one to act as a truce maker to make them listen. There were some old people, women and kids who needed the seats more but there were no such basic courtesies waiting for them. The bus conductor and some elderly gentlemen tried to talk to some of these bickering people to vacate their seats and first allow old men, women and kids to get seated. But all their suggestions fell on deaf ears. Anand was watching all of this with a stoic silence and seemed to have descended into a contemplative state. Rajesh bought a game at one of the temple stores and was busy playing with it, ignoring the rumble that surrounded him. In the ensuing war of words, the bus driver started the bus and slowly the humdrum of the feuding voices seemed to calm down but again resurfaced, when one of passengers pulled out another veiled taunt against another passenger. This squabble seemed to mimic the ebb and flow of the sound made by the bus engine, which seemed to be tottering on the verge of imminent collapse, at any moment.
Anand, who was standing along with his mother, clung to his mother’s saree and told to himself he will never be poor when he grows up. That way, he will not have to travel in a bus like this and can take his family in his car and save everyone from such an unhappy experience.