Swami was not all that surprised when he got the admission letter from Annamali University. His father had pulled the right strings and Swami's decent scores in his 12th standard had helped. After having spent a few days conferring with knowledgable and educated elders, Swami's parents decided that this was IT. Swami had, long ago, decided that Annamalai University would nicely because many of his friends were going there too. The panchangam (star charts) came out and Sambasivam, after much frowning and fretting with occult calculations, finalized an auspicious day on which Swami would be officially admitted into the university.
Mangalam was happy with the choice because Chidambaram, where the college was located, was very near Mayavaram where she had spent her childhood. Her brother, who was still working there and looking after the ancesteral property, would be able to keep a hawks eye on the adoloscent and impressionable Swami. Sambasivam was happy because Swami would study in the great temple town where, in his words, "Adi Sankara's teacher's teacher's teacher - Patanjali - had taught grammar in ancient times." Sambasivam started calling up his old bank buddies to fix things like bank accounts and a decent place to stay. Swami was equally pleased as he had the chance to stay away from, what he considered, his parent's perpetual inquisitive stares.
The trio arrived at Mangalam's ancestral house in Mayavaram and the parents were pleased with the glowing tributes that Mangalam's brother paid to the university. He boasted of all the friends - people ranging from a common peons to the Vice Chancellor - he had made while on his frequent trips to Chidambaram. The got up early the next day and travelled in a rickety and mud splattered bus to Chidambaram.
With the right connections and well pulled strings, the ton of paperwork relating to the admission process was completed late in the afternoon. They then, as faithful Hindus, made their way to the temple. Sambasivam kept telling Swami that they had brought Swami to the same temple when Swami was hardly this tall to fulfill a vow that they had made to the deity of the temple when Swami had suffered from a mysterious illness during a hypochondroid childhood. Mangalam's relatives who worked inside the temple took them on a guided tour of the temple. While the prayer was being performed, Mangalam kept jabbing the dis-interested Swami in the ribs imploring him, repeatedly, to pray hard for blessings.
Back in Madras Swami soon forgot the temple. He had very little time left before he would be immersed in college life. He spent the remaining days roaming the streets of Madras during the day and playing long sessions of cricket in the MRC grounds in the evening.
The first few weeks of college were spent in just attending classes and going back to the hostel in sizeable groups. Perpetual fear of the seniors left very little desire in the freshies to investigate their environs. Budding friendships developed and older ones were strengthed. The euphoria of staying away from one's parents soon developed into a depressive period of lousy food in the mess, strange room-mates, silent tears and a general, all around sense of home-sickness.
Nobody knows who first made the suggestion about going to the temple. Swami and his new comrades Mani and Partha decided to visit the temple for lack of something better to do. Between the three of them they shared Swami's ancient and rickety Raleigh bicycle (christened Z-X-root-3) whose seat was fitted so badly that, the joke went, it could be pushed back more than the seats in Singapore Airlines' first class seats. Partha never drove his friends to college or anywhere. Whenever it was his turn to pedal his mates to college he would suddenly and inexplicably loose all knowledge of riding a bicycle that he had acquired in the side streets of Madras dodging autorickshaws and bullock carts. The cycle would barely move and then under Partha's mastery it would wobble horribly and end up crashing into the hedges. Invariably it was Swami or Mani (in that order) who had to take to the pedals.
The trio - Swami on the seat, Mani sitting on the front bar and Partha straddling himself on the "carrier" behind veered dangerously towards the temple.
The piety of Mani and Partha surprised Swami. But he immersed himself in the act of praying as it brought back a flood of memories of better and happier times he had spent in the safe and secure world of his parents in Madras. Even the act of smearing the vermillion on the forehead brought back memories of old times. In retrospect all old times seemed happy times.
Swami knew that prayers for better food in the mess and prettier girls in the college was doomed to be unfulfilled. Not yet under financial constraints, they purchased arChana tickets and made plans to feast at the restaurant on their way back to the hostel. After praying at the sanctum sanctorum they decided to circum-ambulate the temple. A bunch of vulturous seniors fell upon them and they had to spend the next four hours writing notes, performing stupid tricks and answering questions about their sexual and moral lives.
As the year progressed, the threat from seniors lessened and the trips to the temple increased. Inflation and new-found vices slimmed their pockets considerably. The student's knowledge of the temple increased. They became aware of the cheapest place to park their cycles, the sleaziest place where they could stuff their stomachs and the the temple going routines of all the good looking girls in the college. No longer could they afford the luxury of buying prasadam and archana tickets. The best acquired art was that of dodging the sub-priests who sold special eternal atonement plans on installment and the quacks who sold cure-alls.
The temple tank was one place that was a sanctuary for the dreamers like Swami. Swami and his more philosophically oriented friends (Mani not being one of them) used to spend hours discussing the problems of life as they saw it. Nothing was holy to them. They berated the priests, parents, professors and beuraucracy in unequivocal terms. The topics of discussion varied immensely from minute to minute. They spoke of space aliens, internal assesment marks, favourotism in college, sexual patterns of their professors, advaitam, the ills of society, poetry, the bust size of the university heart throb and many many other things.
During the second year the students increased their boldness. Slowly they started going out with their class girls to the temple. Swami often wished that the gargoyles in the sculptures would turn into the sinuously intertwined sculptures of Khajuraho. Many a young love and Rakhi siblingery developed out of these sojourns to the holy precincts. Mani suddenly became a militant feminist and started sympathizing with the problems that the college girls had to face. It was around this time that Mani started performing mass archanas and special poojas (prayers) for the well being of three particular girls in the class. Especially before the final exams.
Having conquered the fear of the seniors, the students travelled to Chidambaram by trains. Swami was greeted by the lights on top of the temple towers every time the train arrived at Chidambaram. A frequent sight in the temple was the hoard of foreigners interested in visiting the temple of the "cosmic dance." Swami sneered inwardly at the guides who were explaining the spiritual significance behind the dance. To the unbelieving eyes of Swami there was no spiritual significance in the sculptures.
Another peak period for the temple was the sabarimalai season. Hundreds of black clad devotees arrived in busses with registration plates from Andhra and Karnataka. They usually arrived late in the evening. They trooped inside to visit the various temples and sub-temples. Cries of "Swamiyeeeeee....Saranamayyappa!" pierced the air at the sanctum sanctorm of the various gods and godlets. New rituals seemed to evolve with each successive bus load. They stayed inside the temple for the night and left early in the morning to invade, en masse, some other temple.
By the third year in college a visit to the temple was as routine as going to the first screening of the latest movie from the super stars. I would not be honest if I said that the motivation behind these trips was entirely spiritual. Mani had finally decided to "go steady" with one of the above mentioned three. Or rather, one of the three decided that Mani and she were "going out". Mani discovered new nooks and crannies where he could cuddle up with his new found love - Sagalasowbagyasantanalakshmi - a doctor's daughter from Srivenkatanarasimharajuluvaaripetta in Andhra Pradesh. Swami was amazed that a bubble-gum kid like Mani would end up hitching his wagon with a country girl like sagala...lakshmi. But love acts in strange ways.
Swami was distantly related to Mani in the paternal, maternal grandpaternal and various other sides. It was, however, during this affair that Swami discovered an entirely new kinship to Mani. His job was such that he came to be considered to be the maternal uncle of Mani by knowledgable circles. Swami usually had to accompany Mani in order to add a little respectability to his friend's frequent trips to the temple and to dampen the suspicion with which the rest of the university had started eyeing Mani's visits to the temple. Mani spoke incessantly with Swami on the way to the temple. On reaching the temple entrance, Mani seemed to disappear leaving Swami to fend for himself for the next couple of hours.
The thing that surprised the not-very-religious-and-spiritual Swami was the zeal with which some of the visitors to the temple worshipped. The few years in college had changed Swami from a occasional spiritualist to an agnost. Whenever Swami saw a devotee loudly singing Tamil and Sanskrit songs of devotion, his heart filled with a sadness at his non-belief. The devotees, it was apparent from their demenour, were filled to the brim with devotion and serenity.
A trip to the temple, for Swami and his ilk, no longer neccessarily involved a trip to the main sanctum santorum. Swami and his classmates discovered new unexplored corners of the temple where they could argue incessantly over the mysteries of nature and the even greater mystery of their exam scores. The students saw the coming and going of chief ministers, governors, petty politicians and stars from tinsel town. The dancing sensation of the silver screen landed in Chidambaram for the annual dance festival - Natyanjali. Natyanjali was a gala affair for the town and the students. It was one occasion when the students could see the beauties who was very scarce in Chidambaram.
The final year saw a entirely new breed of immature kids - juniors - taking over the temple and the university. Swami's class mates were disgruntled with the fact that these juniors were taking their girl friends to the temple. They seemed to know more about the temple than their seniors.
Trips to the temple increased in frequency. There were trips before the "campus interview", before the GRE, before the final exams, after the final exams and before leaving for home. The most remembered trip would probably be the last one. Swami and Mani were staying in a lodge and had come to Chidambaram to collect their final mark sheets and get their transcripts signed. They visited the temple on the final day in the evening. After having performed elaborate poojas and after having spent hours visiting every nook and cranny which held a piece of nostalgia, they left for the station.
Shenkottai passenger slowly pulled out of the town. Swami, Mani and the others crowded near the door. They saw every flagstone going away from them. The train gathered speed. Swami kept staring at the lights on top of the temple towers till they went out of sight.
Two Years Later
Swami barely had the time to visit Chidmabaram. He just had a months time to vacation in India. He was left with just one day which he could spend in Chidambaram. His parents relatives and friends had taken up too much of his short time in India. Mani who was working as a Software Professional in Korukkupettai - the Silicon Allley of India - could barely spare a couple of days to spend with Swami. They seemed to have drifted apart. Mangalam kept bringing up the topic of Swami's marital status. Sambasivam, always a mild man, started talking about his desire to retire from the bank. The pressure was getting to Sambasivam.
Swami, on the way to the temple, reflected on the past two years. After having gone through hell wiping tables in cafeterias and sucking up to professors for funding and finally getting an assistanceship, Swami had finally graduated with a Masters in Bioelectrical Production Management Engineering. He had been smart enough to register for enough programming courses and these had landed him with a job in New Mexico. His consultant had promised to start processing his green card as soon as Swami was back. Life was not that bad.
The temple seemed to be empty. Swami saw a bunch of pimply faced adoloscents loitering around the temple. "The new crop," Swami thought. Was he really like one of them when he was in college. Was he that jobless? Did he not have direction while he was in college? The temple seemed dirty. The priests looked old and emaciated. Swami looked around for the bulletin board with flyers and checked himself. This was not the Pittsburg temple. Had he really drifted that far from his college days? Had he become the yuppie that he so despised?
The temple echoed with forgotten ghosts of memories with friends who seemed to have disappeared. Where did Swami stand? What had he lost? His life back in New Mexico was comfortable but not fulfilling. His friends in India seemed to be leading a middle class life having to take a loan to buy a motorbike. His parents had aged dramatically, to Swami's discomfort. And Swami was suddenly aware that he had aged too.
Swami did not even bother looking at the sights flying beside him while he was travelling towards madras and civilization. He was thinking about all the wonderful times he had had in Chidambaram and the temple.