Shankrya sat on a broken milestone eating one half of the vada pav he had split with Baba. His eyes were transfixed on the last of the Wari walkers that danced through the village of Jejuri, some of them strummed their Tanpura while some played the Dhol. Shankrya’s left hand and thigh too had joined them in a percussive beat as his legs swung to the tempo of an ancient man’s Taal…
All along the dusty road, stray marigolds were strewn. They perhaps fell from Dyanba’s Palkhi, quivering the Earth beneath as she received this prasad. One could feel her erupt with joy at being graced by the footfall of the Divine Pilgrims and she too enjoined them, thrumming…
Atop the verdant plateau of Kadepathar, stood a soul older than time flanked on each side by his two energies- watching the boy. Unbeknownst to anyone else, they noted how the portal gates of heaven were left slightly ajar, right in the middle of the highway- in the aftermath of the procession. Through it, trickled fervour filled echoes and strains of devout yearning that firmly latched onto the little boy’s heart. Forever syncing it to…
Thus, a 7-year-old school boy, sitting on a broken milestone in the middle of nowhere, came to understand that this was the moment he forever longed to be in.
“Shankrya…come now! They have left, let’s clean up.”
It had been a hectic few hours of dawn at Jejuri Che Wadewale, a small wayside eatery that sold Vada Pav, Misal-Pohe, Chaha aside biskeet and the random free shoe repair for pilgrims on NH 965. Shankrya and his aaie-baba made most of their earnings during the Ashadi and Kartiki Waris and on other days they farmed their small patch of land that was right behind it. Shankrya was in the 2nd grade. A tiny scrawny kid who often took absence from school, like today, to help aaie-baba.
As soon as Shankrya walked inside, he grabbed an old rag left by the side of the till that was at the entrance of the eatery and began wiping the tables.
“Any thoughts on going to school today, my dear? You can still make it by 9:00.” Aaie called out from the kitchen.
“No! Aaie, School’s already started- and besides, teacher will make me stand outside for a whole period before she lets me in.”
“Hope you have discussed your plans with Baba?”
“What plans,” asked Baba who had just finished moping the floor with phenyl.
Meanwhile, three curious pilgrims had made their way just outside the eatery. They were peering in through a half-open entrance door. “Anyone inside,” a very strained voice called out.
Baba raised an eyebrow having picked up on this. He quickly walked to the entrance to see who it was.
An aged man in a white but greying kurta pyjama and a Gandhi topi stood in front of him. He was diminutive in stature— a fact further enhanced by his hunched back. In his right hand, he held a long staff and had roped a manjeera around his neck. His thin, wrinkly skin was over bronzed, perhaps from prolonged exposure to the Sun and his turmeric laden forehead had found a way to stain the clothes he wore. He had deep piercing eyes, a long bulbous nose, high cheek bones and very thin lips. He also emanated a peculiar smoky odour that Baba was not immediately able to place and mentally put it down to him not having had a bath for a few days.
The old man was accompanied by two equally old women. One wore a faded red nauvari and had covered her head with her pallu. The sarees’s brilliant border of intricately woven golden threads, framed her face. She wore thick glasses and had vermillion spread across her forehead. The other looked like the first woman’s twin, except she wore a blue nauvari, and looked relatively younger of the three. She didn’t cover her head but had tied her long white hair in a tight bun and kept adjusting her nose ring. Perhaps she had a cold? Baba wondered; November had been cooler than usual lately.
“Ram! Ram Ajoba!! Can I help you?”
“Are you open? We haven’t eaten in a while and are hungry…”
“We certainly are open! I’m sorry if it seemed like we were shut- I was just cleaning up… please-please come inside first…”
With big toothy grins all three hobbled in through the door and sat on the very first bench.
The eatery was mostly a pick-up and go for travellers who- rode in, parked their vehicles on the side, took whatever was freshly made and went on their way. The Wari walkers would also do the same as their sitting halt was a good 15 kilometres behind at Jejuri City. Any prolonged wait was mostly for shoe repair. Which is why the inside of the eatery was sparse- just 3 wide benches and tables with a water jug on each. Hung on the right side of the wall was a picture of Vithoba and on the left was Khandoba both seemingly absorbed in each other.
As the three sat down, the old man asked “I saw the sign board for free shoe repair- really? The soles of my chappal’s seems to be worn out…it’s hard for me to keep pace with the others like this”.
“Are you all also on the Wari? “Baba asked surprised. “The last Dindi left sometime ago!”
“I know! What to do? I can’t keep up with the others, now-a-days- so we stick to our pace- reaching the destination is more important…no?”
“Yes! Yes! I agree. Tell me what can I offer you? Chaha? Misal-Pohe? Vada-Pav?”
“Everything! And water?”
“Haha! Sure! Sure! Alka! Can you please…”
“15 mins…I am making new” Aaie replied having heard the conversation.
“Ajoba, please give me your chappals- I will mend them outside while my wife cooks… and, Shankrya can you please get water for all of them?
The old man carefully removed the chappals from his feet and handed them over to Baba. After doing so, he absentmindedly proceeded to massage the soles of his feet.
“I feel real guilty of getting you to mend these- I know it’s a lot of work…”
“Not at all, I have the rubber to fix both by grace of God. You will be able to walk to the moon and back once I’m done with these!” Baba laughed as he walked his way out.
Shankrya, meanwhile had come to the table with three glasses and after filling them with water from the jug he noticed what the old man was doing.
“Ajoba, I can oil your feet if you like? I do it for Baba often, and it seems you may need it…you must be so tired from all the walking!”
“No need Shankrya, I am Fi…” But before he could complete the sentence, Shankrya had already vanished to the kitchen.
The old man smiled at the two women with him as they quietly sipped on the water.
Shankrya was quick, he came back with warm coconut oil in a small steel wati and proceeded to sit on the floor near the old man. After having wiped the feet with a cloth, he took a little oil in his palms and began to apply it with slight pressure to the very worn out and calloused feet.
“Ajoba, can I ask you something?” Shankrya asked.
“Ho! Please…go ahead, but first thank you for doing this for me. My feet are already better!”
“What Ajoba! I have just started, Am I so bad?” And they both giggled.
“Ajoba, tell me…do you go every year?”
“I have not missed a single year, Shankrya, and neither have these two!” Ajoba said pointing to the old ladies sitting next to him.
“Really? But why do you go?
“It’s simple! HE calls us and so we must!”
“But they say HE is a stone! How can HE call?”
“Well, that depends on your understanding of a Stone”
“I don’t understand what you are saying, Ajoba” It was beginning to seem a bit hopeless for Shankrya.
“We are limited by what we understand. That what you call a Stone has been around for 28 eons and will be around, long after we are gone. So, what is really real? The one that has been here for ever, or we who are gone in a blink? And as far as calling goes…must we only hear with the physical ear?”
“Then how does HE call? How to hear HIM, Ajoba?”
“Just like your mother…”
At that very moment Aaie called out: “Shankrya! Please take this over for our guests…”
Shankrya, who was totally absorbed in listening to the old man, suddenly turned his head towards the kitchen.
“Yes -Yes! Aaie, I’m coming…”
As he got up , the old man continued …
“HE calls just like that, my boy! When a Mother calls-we forget everything else and heed her… exactly the way you are doing right now…”
“Ajoba, please one min- let me go and get your food…”
The boy came back along with his Aaie. He carried a tray filled with freshly cooked food, while the mother carried the three cups of tea. They both carefully laid it on the table for their guests.
As Aaie started to make her way back to the kitchen she remarked “Please ask for more if you need, ok? And don’t mind this boy, he can get very talkative.”
“No! No! it’s no trouble at all …” said the lady in the red nauvari “at our age, all we need is someone to talk to.”
Shankrya, quickly took a seat next to the old man- who was now busy wolfing down the hot missal-pohe on his plate.
“Ajoba, you were telling me that HE calls like a mother…but then how come I have never heard him?”
“A mother is always calling her children, the question is- are you listening?”
“How do I listen Ajoba?”
“Give me your hand, boy.”
Shankrya gave his hand to the old man, who placed it on his chest.
“Close your eyes, and tell me- What do you see? What do you feel? What do you hear?”
As soon as Shankrya closed his eyes…he once again saw those joyful Wari walkers, singing and dancing to heartbeats that went…
And his face lit up. Even with his closed eyes…he could see them, like he was with them-singing and dancing. He could hear what no-one else was hearing…
And he was immersed in a profound joy that he could not express…and just like that tears rolled down his eyes…
“What is this that I am feeling, Ajoba?!!”
Slowly as Shankrya opened his eyes, he saw the old man smiling at him. He saw the old women smiling at him and He was smiling back at them with his hand now held close to his own chest.
“Ajoba, your Chappals are fixed!” Baba called out as he came in…they are pretty much as good as new!
“Oh! I am so grateful!! Bless you all….” the old man said with the glee of a young child.
“We must be on our way now…after all we can’t keep HIM waiting too long!”
“Indeed!” Baba nodded.
And just as they came, the old folk left.
“I marvel at their faith, incredible devotion! They must be at least 80, no?” Aaie asked.
“More! At least 100” replied Shankrya smiling while being lost in the direction they left in.
“Baba, can we all also go?”
“Where? On the Wari?! What happened to you suddenly?”
“I heard HIM call Baba! I heard HIM call…”
I offer this humbly at the feet of Sri Hari..who is everything.
I also offer this at the feet of My Master, My Guru…who continues to inspire me every single day.
I am incredibly humbled by all the love and support, I have received…my gratitude cannot be expressed in words.