There's this quiet little temple near my house... built to typical Kerala architecture: A closed Sanctum, surrounded by a walk forms the central portion. At various places along this you find other deities, most often under the shade of a huge banyan tree. Typical.
Then you have the lovely 'grove' in which a small path leads to a tiny pond, surrounded by small leafy trees, in the midst of which stands a Krishna, complete with his wooden bansuri, and a little calf grazing near his feet. Tiny little bells hang above the idol, which tinkle by themselves as the breeze filters through the trees after rustling their leaves, and the morning sun-rays illuminate the smoke wisps emanating from the sandalwood incense sticks placed nearby. As if to complete the serenity, a soft, devotional song in the soothing Sahana raaga or a mellifluous Yaman Kalyani floats in from afar..
This evening I felt the urge to spend a few minutes at the place and took off. After making some customary salutations I sat down to enjoy the evening breeze under one of the huge banyan trees which adorn the temple. A few people were sitting on the stone platform surrounding the old, wizened tree. One side of it, however, was a figure. An old man with an unkempt grey beard, a shabby, randomly buttoned green shirt, and a dirty white dhoti. He was sitting crosslegged, eyes staring into the distance. No one was on this side of the platform. Having given it a thought, I went and sat a few feet away from him. A few questions popped up in my mind... was this guy a tramp? Is he okay in his head? (this is one thing all we Indians think on seeing a haggardly dressed figure in a decent place).
Out of a few furtive side glances I saw that he was tapping his fingers to the music. My doubts started vanishing.. I wondered what he would be thinking of this young man sitting next to him. I feared he might have put me into the category of people who dismissed him as 'just another tramp'.. and something told me he was not what he seemed to be.
A couple of minutes later, I turned my wrist to look at the time.. but my watch had died the previous night and so I slid my hands into my pocket and had a look at the mobile phone's screen. 18:32.
Then he spoke. A quiet voice: "Samayam entha.. aarara aayo?" ("The time.. is it six thirty now?")
I looked at him, surprised for a fraction of a second, and replied in the affirmative.. "ah.. aarara aayi". He smiled.
I was right.
A few seconds later, he spoke again, in Malayalam. "You shouldn't get used to wearing these glasses... try moving about without them... do some exercises, ones that stimulate the nerves and the blood vessels of the eye"
I nodded, "Yes.. but my glasses' power is very high"
"You should have thought of that before... this has become a sort of a compulsive accessory for students nowadays.. and is promoted by certain medical companies too... forcing the community away from regaining good eyesight, and to become dependent on spectacles."
He asked me what I did, and I told him I was an engineering student. Where, he queried. "Trivandrum Engineering College.. at Kulathoor", I replied.
"Oh", he raised his eyebrows, "the government college?" he asked. I nodded.
After asking me which branch I was in, he asked me if I knew a certain Mr. M, in the Civil Dept. I told him that I didn't know him personally, but that I have heard of the professor.
Ente aniyante mona, he said. ("He's my brother's son")
He then went on to say where he had been working (I forgot), that he lives in Sreekariyam(12 kms from here), and also mentioned the names of some other lecturers in my college and how he knew them.
Every statement he made, was uttered from a completely normal, educated mind. I asked him his name and got an answer. He then asked me about the opportunities for higher studies in my field, told me how his sister moved to a good research post in the US after a brief stint at TIFR, Bombay, and made a remark about how nice an atmosphere my college has. All except about himself.
It was getting dark. I made a gesture as if to rise, and said "Well okay then.. see you again sometime". He nodded.
I made my way out of the temple, and walked back home. Just another day... and I had met a new friend. I wanted to ask him a lot of questions.. "Why are you dressed like a shabby tramp? Or have you fallen upon bad times? How do you come here all the way from your house? Why don't you give a thought to your appearance?"
I thought he would take the conversation to that direction when he spoke, but he preferred not to.
I respected his dignity.