“Fifteen paces from here and then take the left turn from that old bungalow and keep on walking till you spot a large peepul tree and from there another fifteen paces and you will be at the temple gates,” said the old guy conjuring a smile from underneath his bushy moustaches with a twinkle in his eyes and rickety fingers combing his flowing grey beard.
The wizened old guy serving biscuits and tea sitting on a creaking wooden plank had been the sole occupant of that spot under a banyan tree that grew by the side of the remnants of a crumbling wall. A flag fluttering atop the spire peeped from behind the enormous foliage of the banyan tree. For a person standing on the road that was the only visible indicator of the presence of a temple. From the spot where the tree stood the road apparently disappeared as if devoured by a sharp turn and a dirt track emerged from there like a crease on a weather beaten face as if simultaneously guarding transition and maintaining continuity.
Over the years, while negotiating that turning, this became a very familiar scene for me. I had deliberately slowed down on many an occasion, straining my senses, trying to discover any trace of deviation or variation in the content of that oft delivered dialogue. But for years on end responding to the same query the old man had been repeating the same directions like the constants in a mathematical derivation of an equation. And I wondered about the economics of his business. Although many people would stop there yet hardly a few stopped long enough to savor his culinary offerings.
The tree, the old guy and the wall - all seemed to defy parameters of chronological time. Antecedents of either the old man or the ancient wall were an enigma to me and I am sure to almost all those who stopped there now and then. Did anyone ever care? All those who paused there were only interested in seeking directions to the temple. They must have been pilgrims. Or at least I assumed so. An enigmatic mystery shrouded our trio of the tree, old guy and the wall. I did make a few unsuccessful attempts at finding clues to this mystery sometimes in the birdsongs and at others in the echoing strains of temple bells flowing through the dense foliage of the tree but all those attempts left me gazing at an emptiness that would slowly creep towards me from the nests hidden in the tree.
The road turned rather sharply from near the old guy’s seat. All those who wanted to go on their pilgrimage took to the track past the banyan tree and others like me just kept on following that road day in and day out in search of an elusive goal that was neither at this nor that end of that road.
On some days, a haze would appear from somewhere across the horizon and all distinctions between the tree, old guy and wall would get dissolved. This would lead me bewildered for a moment but sooner than later the familiar scene would reappear as if assuaging the uneasiness in mind and reassuring the observer that nothing was amiss. This must have been the feeling of the pilgrims as well. At least I thought so. I had never had a chance to meet those pilgrims and the old guy. But I discovered that someone within my being, deep inside residing in an obscure recess, did share a bond with those unknown pilgrims, a bond of concern for the old guy. Was the realization of this sharing that would clear the mist in the eyes and make me resume my daily journey? I could never discern but I think you can guess it right.
And then one day the overpowering urge to explore made me abandon the vehicle that I had grown so used to and venture into the dense labyrinthine realms of the banyan tree. Carrying a tremulous being on an uncertain step I approached the tree but could not find the old man. Had he disappeared or was he playing truant? Did he know that I was not one of those pilgrims who used to frequent his seat seeking just the directions to the temple?
While negotiating that turning and wondering about the old guy and his tea stall I used to be deluged by the thoughts of that dirt track and the flag fluttering beyond the foliage of the tree. Did he come to know about my thoughts?
At the fringes of this dense verdant canopy as I pried deeper and deeper I could not find any footprint trails nor any signposts. Yet the breeze and the leaves humming rustling songs told me that the old guy was there only. In the soft caress of the breeze I did find the touch of his breath and on the new opening buds I could see the marks of his fingers. He was very much there only I had to go still further deeper under the banyan canopy.
Roots, which had been growing from the thick branches of the great banyan, now emerged like strong stems on reaching the mother Earth. To me they resembled the flowing beard of the old guy. His piercing eyes with a cherubic twinkle in them and his creased face appeared to me like the Sun and the Moon in the yonder blue expanse hiding behind the banyan branches that spun a web trapping the sky. Yes, all these were there but not the old guy whom I was expecting to be at his usual seat under that tree besides the crumbling wall.
The original trunk of the tree where I used to spot him sitting was no longer distinguishable from the new stems shaping out of the roots descending from the branches. Had the old guy too become one with the tree? Was he ever different from it?
Why am I telling it all to you today?
Should you also decide to venture into the realms under this canopy one day do not try to find any footprints or signposts for there are none. And none shall you meet there to tell to you to take this turn or that and reach your goal. Yes, I will be certainly there but not as the one that you knew. And how about the old man? Breeze and her song, new opening buds and leaves, nests of the birds and chirping birdlings will all definitely tell you about the old guy but not like the image you might have stored in your memory.
You will surely find it all for yourself one fine day. But then you will not be the one, as you know yourself to be.