Nallappa practiced a peculiar vocation: he was a professional pilgrim. Early every morning, he pedalled an old-fashioned rickshaw that was improvised into a perambulating shrine, from one of those abominably putrid side streets that embrace Central Station, into the heart of residential Madras to solicit money and offerings; he would eventually make a 1,500 kilometre journey north-west to Shirdi and deposit them on the slightly exaggerated and symbolic feet of Sai Baba, a fakir who lived and died there over a hundred years ago.
Nallappa’s first encounter with Sai Baba was as a five-year old toddler living in a concrete pipe measuring three feet in diameter along one of the highways of Bihar that had the privilege of being in a state of perennial construction and mending. One night, his father had brought home a calendar that was forthcoming of details exclusively regarding months between August and December of the last year. Above some numbers that meant nothing to Nallappa, who couldn’t read, or to the others, who didn’t bother to read, was a picture of Sai Baba; he had deigned to sit with a folded left leg flattened cleanly on the floor and an oblique right leg, folded again. Nallappa would stand in front of the portrait and move a foot to the left and then to the right—the Baba’s eyes seemed to follow his movement.
“The boy is a bastard and a fool.” Nallappa would be able to recollect the words of a father whose name he would not be able to recollect with any consistency. “I hope Baba gives him sense. He has to start earning his keep in a couple of years.” The prophetic words came true. Seismic emigration of the wretchedly poor to other states followed an earthquake that struck Bihar in 1988. Nallappa, now a newly minted orphan, ended up in Tamil Nadu’s capital city: Madras.
“I come from Bihar, master. I am looking for a job here.” Nallappa’s lucid affirmation was lost on the Central Station tea stall owner who couldn’t understand a word of Hindi. He hated the language because his beloved and ever-young Tamil felt like honey poured into the ears; he had even forbidden his two daughters from learning Hindi. His wife brought the family much needed extra income by conducting Hindi tuitions on their porch in evenings. After some earnest miming, Nallappa was hired as an errand boy in exchange for remove from hunger, sorrow and the law.
In due course, Nallappa helped marry the tea man’s daughters. He especially enjoyed playing chauffeur for the post-marriage ceremonial drive around the neighbourhood in an old mongrel of a car decorated with gaudy plastic flowers; finally, he deposited the newlyweds into their “first night”—a trenchant expression with unbelievable assumptions causing no self-consciousness in anyone.
He had graduated from errand boy to errand man and felt the need to move on in life.
“I wish I were still an errand boy in my tea shop.” Nallappa told his wife with a wistful sigh that frequently admixed with his speech.
She continued to indifferently serve food, grumbling about how the two girls were pestering her to send them to school.
“We cannot afford it,” preempted Nallappa.
“Only because you cannot find a better job.”
“But what will they do with education after all? Baba has given us this life and we should not ask for more. I cannot wait to get them married and disappear from everything altogether.”
“What do you mean—disappear?”
“Oh nothing. Do you think we can afford a fridge? The girls like ice cream,” said Nallappa seguing into the quotidian.
“I don’t think so. Not with the kind of money you make.”
“We might be able to, if you give Hindi tuitions like madam used to do. Maybe the girls can give tuitions too when they grow up. That will be very useful to their husbands.”
“Where do I have the time? I walk with your pathetic shrine all day; I cook and do all the housework. The girls will not help and you just sit outside smoking your beedi. How much do you expect one woman to do?”
“Don’t start complaining now. Do we have chilies for the gruel? Go, bring me some quickly.”
“Amma! Amma!” cried Nallappa.
A tiny boy looked out through railings that were half-heartedly arranged into a gate to protect—purely in a moral sense—the impressive house from intruders. “What do you want?”
“I am going on a pilgrimage to Shirdi. Where is your mother?”
“Why is the music from your rickshaw so loud?”
“It is not a rickshaw. It is Sai Baba’s shrine. Are there any adults in the house? Amma!”
The boy was tenacious. “Why is the music from Sai Baba’s shrine so loud?”
“How else will the street know that Baba is here?”
The boy grimaced. “You are going to ride through the whole street anyway.”
“Oye here! Reduce the volume. Little master here is not keeping well,” shouted Nallappa to his wife, casually dissimulating facts; she stolidly fidgeted with knobs and brought the volume down.
“That is better. So, why are you going to Shirdi?" asked the boy.
“To carry peoples’ offerings and to pray for their profuse welfare."
“So, Amma asked you to come?”
“No, not specifically. I will be going to Shirdi anyway. I am here to ask if your mother has anything for me to carry.”
“Why do you want to carry other peoples’ offerings?”
“To help them. Baba helps me, if I help others.”
The boy hesitated for a moment, turned around and went into the house. He returned with his mother.
“Nallappa! You are here finally! I knew Baba would send you soon," said the boy’s mother animatedly as she opened the gate. “The last time you took our offering to Shirdi, my husband got promoted at his work! A true miracle!” The boy had lost interest by now and was trying to balance a big smooth pebble on top of a tiny serrated rock.
“It is all Baba’s grace Amma. I am only a messenger,” said Nallappa with a humility that he was very proud of in a very humble manner.
“When are you going again? I have some clothes and money. This time I have vowed to feed five beggars.” Leaving the gate open, the boy’s mother went inside to fetch Nallappa’s cargo.
“Swamiji, where are you traveling to?” Nallappa asked cautiously.
A bearded gent in ochre robes rearranged his face instantly into a smile. “Haridwar—I go there every six months. One needs to wash one’s sins away, eh? But then, they start accumulating even on the journey back! These sins, how pernicious, how capricious…”
Nallappa remained silent, not wanting to offend his Swamiji by appearing to understand deep mysticism. “I am going to Shirdi, Swamiji. I go there every three months.”
The gent quenched conversation by looking out the barred window.
“Do you want to know what I do for a living, Swamiji?”
The gent stared at Nallappa indifferently.
“Swamiji, I collect people’s offerings, offer them to Baba and pray that he blesses them profusely in return.”
“No other job?”
“Yes, Swamiji. One wife and two daughters.”
“How do you feed them without a job?”
“Whatever I collect from people I take forty percent as Baba’s blessing to this poor soul, Swamiji. I even pay for my travel to Shirdi and accommodation from that forty percent. All the rest is Baba’s! Forty percent feeds my family. It is barely adequate. You know, with two daughters and today’s prices, just forty…”
“What? That is preposterous. You will rot in hell for this,” scowled the gent with sudden animation.
Nallappa was startled. “But Swamiji…”
“Also, the beedi you were smoking at the station will throw you into the cesspit of cancer. Over and over we are born and over and over are we killed. You are entrenching yourself in this horrendous cycle of samsara. Find a decent job. Leave the saint alone.”
That night, the gent slept the sleep of an honest man who has withheld nothing.
“This infernal coughing is getting worse. Sometimes I even cough blood. What are you putting in my food nowadays? Sawdust instead of chili powder to save money?”
“It must be the beedi you smoke all the time,” protested his wife.
“Don’t take away the only pleasure I have, please. Check if there are insects in the kitchen. I saw a grotesque lizard there just yesterday.”
“I won’t," said his wife flatly. “By the way, do you remember the loan we took from mama? He has waited so long only because he is my mother’s brother. He wants his money back by the end of this week.”
“Where is the money?” asked Nallappa helplessly.
“Find it. You don’t want my family to think that you are no-gooder, do you?” taunted his wife.
“If he wants something by next week, I can only think of taking money from Baba’s offerings,” said Nallappa without conviction. “But of course, that is unthinkable,” he teetered.
“Why? We can always replace the money. Who would really know if you did not go to Shirdi? Baba will understand. Helping the poor is helping God.” Without meeting his eyes, she got up, went to the fridge and brought him some ice cream.
“What flavour is this?” asked Nallappa.
“Butterscotch. The girls like it a lot.”
“Hm…it is good. Let us take the money out tonight. I think we should repay mama’s loan immediately. I won’t go to Shirdi this time. Baba is merciful, he will understand.”
“Amma! Amma!” crowed Nallappa.
The boy recognised him this time and called out to his mother.
“You did not bring back any prasad from your last trip,” accused the boy’s mother as she approached the gate. “How was it?” she continued, trying to mask her accusation and produce an aftertaste of curiosity.
“It was a bad trip. I lost all my belongings including the prasad in the train. I know how much prasad means to devotees; they are physical manifestations of Baba’s blessings. I have known children being cured of serious diseases after eating just a handful of the rock sugar. I don’t know why Baba is testing me like this.” Nallappa began to intently follow the track of an ant carrying a piece of, what looked to him like, jaggery on its back.
“Oh, that is not good! Did you lose any valuables? Do you need any money?”
“No, Amma. It is the prasad that I am feeling guilty about.” The ant dropped its putative jaggery and was trying to pick it up again.
“Don’t worry. When are you going back again?”
“In a week, Amma.”
“All right, I will bring some money. Wait a minute.”
As he was waiting, Nallappa suddenly became conscious of the boy who was staring at him from behind the bars of the closed gate. Even though it had been only three months, it seemed to Nallappa as if the boy had grown over two feet.
Madras Central Station was crowded. Nallappa was sitting on his berth, looking through the barred window at his wife who was standing on the platform.
“I am sorry that I cannot come this time,” said his wife.
Nallappa shrugged. “Oh, that is all right. We need to start saving more money. The girls will have to be married off soon.”
“They are only fifteen. We should wait for five years.”
Nallappa was looking intently at a train that was just pulling into the station. Initially, it produced a pinching shriek that degenerated progressively into a chugging quiet. “I don’t feel comfortable waiting that long. It is good to get everything over soon. Especially with my health…”
“You are fine, Mr. Hypochondriac. Mama said that coughing blood is quite common for your age. Oh, and you have not yet stopped smoking beedi,” said his wife in mock vexation.
“Have you packed all the offerings?” asked wife. She strained her toes and confirmed the existence of a bundled cloth bag. “You should buy a cellphone. It will be easier for me to keep in touch, now that you are going to travel by yourself often.”
Nallappa nodded. “Okay. The fans have started spinning. The train will leave soon. You go home and take care of the girls.” His wife seemed not to hear; she was squinting at someone who, she whisperingly conjectured, was a film actor. Nallappa’s train began to chug out of the station. The actor had disappeared.
Nallappa was coming out of Sai Baba’s temple wearing a white shirt decorated with haphazardly splashed rust red. He started walking to Shirdi railway station.
“Give me something to eat, master. I haven’t eaten anything for a week.” A beggar was approaching Nallappa with his four pet stray dogs.
“I don’t have anything now. I will give you something next time.” Nallappa turned away from the beggar to look at the temple. He perfunctorily tilted his head downwards in symbolic obsequiousness. Usually, he liked to catch a glimpse of the shrine before turning left into a lane with high-rise apartment buildings that hid it. The funnel-shaped dome appeared whiter than usual. He wondered whether it had been polished recently.
“Life is too short to wait, master," said the beggar jolting Nallappa out of his reverie. Nallappa turned around and almost crashed into the beggar’s scraggy and hirsute chin. Without lifting his head, Nallappa apologised to the beggar’s thighs, sidestepped, and continued walking.
“Master, I cannot wait," reminded the beggar.
“What? Who are you? What do you want?” asked Nallappa with unfeigned curiosity.
“Master, I said I cannot wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“Wait until you come back.”
“Why do you have to wait for me? Did I ask you to?”
The beggar decided to restart. “Can you give me something to eat? I haven’t eaten anything for a month."
Nallappa gave him a tattered five-rupee note, smiled indulgently and resumed walking.
Nallappa was alone in his compartment. He stretched himself out on his berth and stared through the barred window. As the train picked up speed, time compressed space, rending objects into a hypnotic visual concoction that was engrossing as kaleidoscope but devoid of meaning. He began reminiscing about how he slept on top of a goods train on his first trip to Madras, about how the view from the top was very different, about how he sold tea in trains, about how when a compartment was empty he sat by the window and pressed his forehead against the metal bars to count speeding trees, about how someone once stole his purse, about how the kind ticket inspector loaned him some coins to save him from caning, about how the blind beggar sat next to the lavatory and sang delightful songs.
As the train reached the next railway junction, a sleep that had eluded Nallappa until now, finally enveloped him.