Bruno Mazzucchi's decision to visit Saadhu's temple had come suddenly, while he was watching television in his hotel room after a long day. He was too tired to go down to the restaurant for his dinner and so was waiting for room service, after a hot bath.
Then he saw the Saadhu on TV, on a visit to a small village. He realized that he had attended to most of his work that he had planned and could wind up the remaining discussions the following day. That left him with two extra days in India. He had been thinking of changing his ticket to fly via Chennai to Rome via Dubai, but the vision of the Saadhu made him decide to make use of the two days to visit the Saadhu.
He thought that the Saadhu had made him watch this particular TV channel because Saadhu wanted him to visit the temple. Bruno had called one of his friends, who he knew was a member of the
Mumbai Saadhu Samaj.
"I want to visit Ananthnandi" Bruno had told Bhupendra, immediately he came on the phone.
"Fine. When do you want to go" Bhupendra asked, as if he was expecting the call.
"Tomorrow" Bruno said.
"You will have to go by train. I don't know if we could get a first class berth for you"
"I don't mind how i go. Will you arrange it somehow"
"I will call you in the morning" Bhupendra said
"No. I will call you" Bruno was impatient.
Bhupendra had picked him up from the hotel at 5.30 in the evening and had gone to the Dadar railway station. They had enough time, so Bhupendra took him to the Hotel Pritam where they had a sandwich and tea.
At the station, Bhupendra walked with him to a platform, without asking from anyone, as he was very familiar with this train. He showed the number on the ticket and the compartment number and they stood at the place where the compartment would come to a stop.
Another person joined them, carrying a bag. Bhupendra explained that there was water, some fruits and dinner for Bruno, so he need not worry about his meal on the train.
"I have already eaten. I don't want any more food" Bruno protested.
"Don't worry. You will be hungry soon, on the train. You must take this" Bhupendra insisted.
The waiting crowd grew as the time for the arrival of the train approached.
"Venu will show you to your seat. This train is always on time, and you will arrive at Solapur by 5.30 in the morning. You can tell the attendant to inform you when you arrive at the station. Anyway there will be many people getting down there and you should not have any problem" Bhupendra advised him.
The lights of the train appeared in the distance, growing brighter, and people who were seated on the benches started collecting their baggage and moving to where their compartments would be.
The train, as it rushed past them appeared fully packed and Bruno was worried that he may not get a seat. Venu had already disappeared inside the train even before it came to a standstill. Bhupendra pulled Bruno towards the door of the compartment and made him get in, pushing through the crowd trying to get out. Bruno could not locate Venu and the people behind him started pushing him further inside. He lost sight of Bhupendra too. The ticket was with venu. But then he thought Saadhu will look after him, he need not worry about such trivial things and then he saw Venu coming towards him, calling him.
Bruno managed to get through to where Venu was standing. He pointed to a seat, where several young men were seated. He showed them the ticket and they moved out.
"Yours is the lower berth" he told Bruno, pushed Brunos traveling bag under the seat and handed him the bag with the food and water. As the train was about to pull out, Venu wished him Saadhu's blessings and left him.
Bruno looked around him. He had been told this was a three tier compartment, and he could see only the seat where they were seated and one above their heads. There were two seats facing each other. He was seated by the window, and next to him were two young men. Fixed to the window between the two seats, was a small table.
On the seat opposite was a young girl and her parents. There was another seat alongside the other window. These seats were running along the side from door to door with one tier above. A very fat lady and her daughter were sitting on this seat. The fat lady sat cross-legged with her feet up on the seat, as if she was sitting at home. They were talking about internet and surfing and websites and email. The mother too joined in, may be trying to show that she was as conversant with all this new jargon as her daughter.
Outside the window everything was in total darkness and Bruno tried to get at least a glimpse of the land they were passing through, but except for a few lights which rushed past them from time to time, he could not identify anything.
He wanted to read, but did not want to pull out his bag and search for a book. He regretted that he had not taken a book in his hand before he got into the train. He couldn't help listening to the conversation of the young people and the occasional talk among the family seated in front. He wondered how they were going to sleep. It was too early to think of sleep. The food parcel was becoming a hindrance. He did not know what to do with it. He did not want to eat. He thought of offering it to the people around, but found it difficult, without starting up a conversation with them first. He did not know how to begin. He did not want to get into the conversation about net surfing, with these young people. He could not butt into the conversation of the other family either.
His eyes kept moving from the window to his watch, to the people seated opposite and the people on the other seat and back to the wristwatch. Time stood still and the dark land outside rushed past him. People were moving around the train and everybody seemed to know everybody else, would stop at each seat to talk to someone, exchange greetings, may be sit down among them for a few minutes.
"I feel hungry" Bruno heard the girl on the side seat tell her mother.
"Shall we eat" the mother asked the other boys.
"You go ahead. We are not hungry yet" one boy said.
"How about you" she asked the boy seated next to Bruno.
"I am not going to eat anything more tonight. I had enough before i got in" he said. He was wearing denims and a cotton short-sleeved shirt, the uniform of the Mumbai youth.
The mother and daughter got up and went towards the end of the compartment, to return in a few minutes, probably after washing their hands. Bruno watched the lady pull down a bag from the top bunk and open it. She took out several stainless steel plates and then a few containers and spoons from the bag. The girl laid a cloth on the seat and the plates on which the food containers were placed.
"Please have something" the lady asked the boy next to Bruno, who once again politely refused.
The mother and daughter went on talking loudly, with the boy and with people passing while they ate. Bruno continued to watch through the window, look at his watch, look at his fellow travelers and once again out through the window.
After the meal they took all the utensils to the end of the compartment returned and replaced the items in the bag, wiping each one carefully in a white piece of cloth.
A man in some sort of uniform came by carrying a box. He stopped at their seat and handed three packets to the family seated opposite, with plastic spoons and a plastic container. They too got ready to eat.
Bruno looked around and realized that the three people were not very comfortable. Hesitantly he offered his seat so they could use the table, which they accepted with gratitude. Bruno moved over to their seat and the father moved to the window, where he placed their meal packets and the three of them began eating. After they finished their meal Bruno went back to his seat, to once again begin his routine.
The young girl in the seat opposite him told her mother she was going to sleep and she climbed upto the bunk on top, with a blanket and an inflatable pillow. She curled up on her bunk.
There were fewer lights rushing past them when he looked out of the window and even inside the train it was darker because some of the lights had been switched off. More people would be getting ready to sleep.
Next to settle down for the night were the mother and daughter on the other seat. They stood up from their seat and pulled down a bunk, which all this time had been folded up against the compartment wall. A sheet was spread on it and the mother placed her handbag and an inflatable pillow to rest her head. The girl climbed onto the upper bunk and sitting cross legged she opened a book. To Bruno's surprise she started reading aloud and slowly he realized that the girl was studying from a text book. Bruno had seen only very young children reading aloud, but for the others around him it appeared quite normal.
Except for Bruno and the young man next to him, everyone around had settled down for the night. The young man was reading a book. The title was "History of Time".
"The title sounds very interesting" Bruno tried to open up a conversation.
"Yes. I picked it up because of the name" the boy replied.
"Are you going to Solapur" Bruno asked.
"No. I am going upto Almatti"
"I am Bruno Mazzucchi, from Milano, Italy" he introduced himself "i am going up to Solapur".
"Soni Nannapaneni" the young man said, "are you on holiday"
"I came to Mumbai on business. Since i had two days free, i thought of going to the temple"
"Where is that? I have not heard of any special temple around Solapur" Soni asked him.
"You mean you have not heard of the Saadhu?"
"There are so many Sadhus in India. Where is this one operating from?"
"He is the Saadhu and his temple is at Ananthnandi, close to Homnabad"
"I have heard of a small village by that name"
"This is a large town. I have to get down at Solapur and go by bus or taxi" Bruno explained. "You may have come across Saadhu on the internet. He has his own website and he is on SadhuTV, 24 hours"
Soni did not show any further interest, which annoyed Bruno and fell silent.
"Shall we settle down now?" Soni asked and Bruno agreed. They pulled down the lowest bunk and then the second bunk, to which Soni climbed up. Bruno took off his shoes, pushed them under the seat and lay down after switching off the light. He had set his wristwatch alarm to 5.00 am.
Bruno spent a restless night. He observed that all the others were sleeping soundly, some even snoring. There was also intermittent traffic to the toilets. He was already awake when his alarm went off. He got up and put on his shoes, went past the sleeping fellow travelers to the toilet and he was ready to get off the train. The conductor came in calling the people who were to get down at Solapur. Some were already up and getting dressed.
When the train stopped at Solapur it was 5.35 in the morning. Bruno pulled out his bag and left the train, he was still carrying his food parcels and the water and he was looking for a needy person so he could give the food. He wanted to keep the water.
As he came out of the railway station, a middle aged man came upto him.
"Mr. Bruno ?" he asked.
"Yes" replied Bruno, hesitantly, for he did not expect anyone to meet him there.
"I am Janardhan Agarwal. Mr. Bhupendra Sarma asked me to meet you here. Come, i will take you to my place first" Janardhan took his bag and Bruno followed him to the car park. They got into an old Ambassador. There was enough light now for Bruno to see his surroundings. At first glance it looked like a small town in Italy. There were a lot of cattle around, small huts under huge trees. People were already moving about, opening the shutters of their shops and washing down the shop fronts. They passed through the town with its rows of shops on both sides of the road, the billboards and the cattle lying by the roadside.
They entered a residential area and Bruno could not understand why in such a remote place they still went in for high rise apartment buildings and he asked Janardhan.
"We prefer the convenience, the security and other facilities here" Janardhan explained. They were now passing through narrow streets, and passed a huge cattle shed. There was a small crowd at the gate, with metal cans, who had come to collect milk.
They stopped outside an apartment block and went upto Janardhan's apartment which was on the fourth floor. At the door, they removed their shoes as they went in, Bruno greeting Janardhan's wife with his palms together.
It was a compact apartment similar to so many, Bruno had visited in Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Delhi, with one notable difference of a huge photograph of the Saadhu dominating the room. There were also photographs of the other Hindu deities and Shirdi Sai Baba.
"I have made a reservation on the afternoon bus to Homnabad. The bus in the morning was leaving too early. There are only two buses with air conditioning. You would not be comfortable in a non-ac bus" Janardhan explained.
"Not many people travel from here. Most pilgrims are from Sri Lanka, and it is easier to fly to Chennai from Colombo and to come by train from there to Bidar, where they have a very good road transport service through Homnabad to Ananthnandi. They could also land at Hyderabad and reach the temple by train and bus or direct by car or bus from Hyedrabad. Most devotees who come from Europe, Korea, Japan and other countries also prefer to fly to Hyderabad"
"What am i to do till then"
"Don't worry about that. You can take a wash, freshen up, then we will have breakfast. If you are tired, you could rest a little or we can go out"
Breakfast was served by Janardhan's wife. There were so many dishes, rotti and mung beans and several preparations made from different types of flour. There was also fresh buffalo milk.
Janardhan took him to the bus stop after lunch, which once again had been of many dishes, paratha and roti. Bruno was surprised at the variety of vegetarian dishes prepared by them and when he mentioned this, Janardhan's wife told him they repeat a dish only after about two weeks.
Bruno was the only foreigner on the bus, all the others were Indian nationals. He was told by Janardhan that most of them would be traveling on business or visiting relatives.
A few miles from Solapur the bus stopped suddenly. The driver got down.
"A flat tire" a voice said and people were heard sighing in frustration. Bruno looked around him. Other passengers were getting down and he too got out. Outside there were no houses or any sign of life. On both sides of the road the barren dusty land stretched as far as the eye could see, with a few shrubs and half dead trees. It was very warm and he felt thirsty. He wished he could buy a cool "Limca", his favourite drink when he came to India. He walked upto where the driver and his assistant were struggling with a wheel. The flat tire was in shreds, the rebuilt layer was coming off in pieces. The spare too had a re-built tire and did not appear as it would last many miles. The passengers watching the tire change were commenting about the same thing, guessed Bruno. The driver was getting a lot of advice.
The bus started again, and had to stop at the next tire repair shop by the road, to repair the flat. Passengers got out of the bus once again. Some of them went behind the hut to return in a short while, adjusting their trousers. The driver was arguing with the mechanic, both were pointing at the tire and gesticulating and the passengers were watching with impatience. The mechanic pointed to a stack of old tires to the driver who went upto them and began inspecting the tires one by one. Some of the passengers joined in the inspection and began giving advice to the driver. After what seemed to be a long time, the driver selected a tire and pointed it to the mechanic, who said something and again an argument started.
In the end the tire was purchased, the driver paid for it grudgingly and it was fixed to the spare wheel. The bus began its journey once again.
The road ran almost in a straight line. All the vehicles on the road were driving at very high speed. They passed a truck which had toppled over, with the goods scattered everywhere, its wheels facing the sky. There were more accidents, more trucks, which had collided with trees, culverts, or run off the road.
There were dogs, cats and other small animals run over by speeding vehicles. No one had bothered to drag them off the road, and were crushed by every passing vehicle. Bruno could see such carcasses which were slowly becoming a part of the highway.
The bus stopped at a restaurant, where several other busses, trucks and a few cars were parked. Again the passengers got down, some of them heading straight for the toilets. Bruno at last had a chance to have a cool Limca. He did not want to eat anything, but was feeling hungry. He looked inside the display cabinet and asked for a chocolate. It was past four in the afternoon. He was now worried that they may not reach Ananthnandi before dark.
About half hour from there, the bus crawled to a stop again, for another tire change. Then the next stop at a tire repair spot to repair the flat. By the time they started once more it was close to sundown. The sky was turning crimson, the cows and goats were drifting back to their villages for the night. Bruno wished he had brought his camera, the sky was so beautiful with the blood red sun just hovering over the tree line.
The bus kept on going till the next flat tire and on again. It was dark now, except for the headlights of oncoming vehicles, which never bothered to dip their lights, and the lights from the roadside restaurants and small shops in the villages they were passing through.
It was past 8.30 when the bus reached the outskirts of Homnabad and its speed dropped as there was more traffic. Bruno was getting impatient. He was worried that he may not be able to get a taxi. They reached the center of the town and the bus stand at 9.15. He got down wearily dragging his bag along.
There were only two taxis at the taxi stand. The first taxi driver was not interested in going to Ananthnandi. He just shook his head. Bruno walked up to the next taxi. The driver again shook his head. He pointed at his watch, indicating it was too late in the night for him to go. Bruno offered a hundred rupees. He shook his head. He offered hundred and fifty. He still shook his head. He then offered two hundred. The driver got out and opened the rear door for Bruno.
They drove through the town and through the now deserted road in silence till they reached the town of Ananthnandi. The driver stopped the taxi in the town center. Bruno wanted to be taken to a hotel. The driver just waved his hand across the street to indicate all those were hotels.
Bruno paid him and got out of the car. He walked upto the first hotel he could see, with his bag across his shoulder, glad now he had decided to take only one days change of cloths with him in the small bag. He walked upto the sleepy receptionist and before he could even ask for a room he was told that the hotel was full. He walked out.
He got the same answer from the next three hotels that he walked into, which were close by. The doorman of the last hotel pointed to a building little further up the road. Bruno walked on. He received the same response.
Bruno walked to a bench under a street light and sat down, resigning himself to spend the night on the bench. He did not want to look for any more hotels. He had heard that there was free accommodation for visitors somewhere in Ananthnandi, but was too tired to start looking for it. He would rather sleep on the bench.
He was dozing off when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Bruno opened his eyes to see a small boy of about twelve years of age, standing by the bench.
"Are you looking for a room" the boy asked him.
"Yes" Bruno said, hesitantly. He had heard of little boys employed by houses of ill fame.
"I can take you to a hotel" the boy said again.
"I have tried all the hotels" Bruno said wearily, giving up hope.
"You would not have tried this one. It is on the next street". The boy waited for him. Bruno stood up, gathering his bag, thinking that he had nothing to loose by trying this hotel too, except may be walking for some distance, which he did not mind after having been sitting in a bus for over eight hours.
He followed the boy, around the corner to the next street where in the distance they could see the lights of another tall building, which appeared to be the hotel. The boy left him at the entrance before he could even thank him, which made Bruno wonder if there really were any vacant rooms in the hotel. However now that he had walked all the way upto the entrance, he stepped in. The receptionist looked up as he opened the door.
"I would like to have a room for the night" Bruno told the receptionist, who pulled out a card from below the counter and pushed it towards him without a word. Bruno could not believe his luck. He filled the form hurriedly and pushed it back.
"Passport please" the receptionist asked, looking at the filled form. Bruno pulled out his passport and his credit card. The receptionist disappeared behind a door with them. Bruno looked around him. There was no one in the half lit lobby and at one end he saw a sign of a 24 hour coffee shop. He was tempted to go in, but thought again to first soak down in a hot bath and order something from room service. He hated to eat alone in a restaurant.
The receptionist came in and returned the passport, handing over a credit card slip for his signature. He pressed a bell and a sleepy bell boy came upto the counter to pick up the room key and lead Bruno to the elevator.
"You are going to the temple" the bell boy said, because it was obvious, as they got in the elevator.
"Then you will have to leave by four o"clock"
"I found all the hotels were full and had given up hope, when a young boy came to me and led me here" he told the bell boy, who appeared to be a more friendly soul than the receptionist.
"There could not have been anybody on the road at this time of the night to bring you here, and we do not have any one working as guides to bring business to the hotel" the bell boy told him, refusing the money Bruno offered.
Bruno sat down on the bed, to take off his shoes, and wonder who the boy was, who guided him to this hotel. Then he realised that it could have been only the Saadhu, who had helped him find this room.