"Chetimani, Chetimani, come quickly." the conductor shouted.
"Bagamandala 8 Kms" read the mile stone.
"Bagamandala" the voice sang out in my head. I was going back to my roots, to my village, after a long gap of 10 years.
Bagamandala, a small village in the far end of Coorg district is the place I spent most of my childhood with my grandparents.
Tall green mountains in the background, sparkling waters of river Kaveri cutting across, green paddy fields on one side of the road and rich coffee plantations on the other. I often tell my friends in Bangalore how Mother Nature has been too kind to the people of Bagamandala.
I lowered the window, and immediately a strong gush of cold wind hurried in and slid into my shirt. It seemed to hug me, the chill that it left felt familiar; it whisked past my ear and seemed to whisper
"Welcome back home."
The bus stop in front of the Bhagandeshwara temple forms the centre of the village. A road runs to its right and turns into a stretch of small shops, coffee curing works, few houses and a small hotel.
I got down from the bus and started to walk, I turned around constantly to see if I could spot a familiar face.
On reaching my grandparents house, I stood silent, lost in time looking at the house, not a brick seemed to have changed place since I had last visited.
A small iron gate opened into the front yard, where sat the Tulsi plant decked with flowers and a few incense sticks, surrounded by lush green plants with colorful flowers smiling, a few coffee plants that bordered the compound wall and overlooking them stood strong a mango tree.
"Sidhartha" a voice called me from behind.
I turned around to see an old man pushing his bicycle towards me, the khaki uniform and the letters in his worn out bag reminded me that it was Postman Ponappa.
"Siddhartha, look at you how tall you have grown." he patted my back.
"Do you remember me." he asked with a heartfelt smile and care in his eyes hidden behind those smudged thick glasses.
"How can I forget you anna, how can I forget those letters you brought to me."
"You remember." he smiled
"Look at you, you have grown taller than your father. I remember when you were seven or eight..." he took me back in time.
Postman Ponappa is the only postman to have served the village for more than 30 years. He would often come home to deliver letters or register posts. Once when he had found me bored and restless, counting days to go back to my friends in Bangalore, he had introduced me to letters and into my life walked in names that I had fondly called ‘Pen-Pals’.
Addresses with black and white photos found in Tinkle comics became my friends. One in the Middle East, two in Europe. I would sit looking at the road, waiting for Ponappa to come riding on his cycle with my letters.
I would run into my room, sit at the table and feel like a grown up to have received a letter addressed exclusively to me. The next two days were often spent in writing back a reply, getting up from my desk only to ask Ajja a few spellings or requesting for his copy of the dictionary.
"Ajja must be waiting go on in, I will come later. You have to tell me everything about Bangalore." he smiled and walked away pushing his old cycle.
I bent down and touched my grandfather's feet, ajji stood near the table wiping away a tear filled with joy. I hugged her, she pulled me down and kissed me on my forehead.
"Look at him Radho, he has grown taller than me." ajja spoke with pride in his voice.
Ajji affectionately brushed my hair and spoke
"Go take a bath, I will keep break-fast ready."
Hot steaming idly with cocunut chutney sat still on the banana leaf waiting for me. Seeing Ajji holding a jar of 'Midi Opinkai' (mango pickle) brought an instant smile on my face.
Steaming hot coffee in a dented steel cup added extra joy to my break-fast.
I sat on the floor cross legged. The break-fast slipped past in world politics, Kannada authors, Bangalore and a few times ajji forcing more idly onto my leaf.
The hands of the clock had come together to welcome a new afternoon. I looked out of the window. The mighty Sun struggled hard to break free from the thick clouds that had covered it, the fog had cleared and now visible was the majestic mountain that sat facing the village center, a pleasant chill filled the air, the road invited me out for a stroll.
"Going out for a walk, will be back in half an hour." I shouted out
"Don't forget to take the 'Kodae' " ajji shouted back.
I entered the road bare handed, walked along the line of shops, the smell of coffee from the curing works at the end of the street filled the air, Kaveri Darshini, the only hotel in Bagamandala was packed with tourists. I walked further ahead and stopped at "Aghora Provision Stores".
Rajanna stood across the counter handing out a pack of beedi to a costumer. He looked to have changed a little, slightly on the fatter side but people often preferred to call it prosperity than fat.
"Mathe Rajanna vishasha?" (So Rajanna, what’s new at your end?)
"Siddhartha!" he let out a loud cry.
‘When, what and how’ covered the next ten minutes. He invited me into the store and forced me on his chair while he sat on a pile of rice sacks.
Rajanna had once visited Bangalore five years back. He left the store to his younger brother and landed in Bangalore with bags on his shoulders and a dream in his eyes. A desire to live in the big city, a strange fascination for Bangalore pulled him to the city.
I will never forget that day I ran into him.
I parked my bike outside an abandoned bus stop and ran under it to take shelter from the heavy rain that lashed with no mercy. A human like figure sat crouched with his head hiding between his legs. A soft sob was all I could hear, but when the sob turned into a cry. I walked up to the guy, patted his shoulder and was about to talk to him when he jumped to a side, turned to me and shouted out with trembling folded hands,
"Sir, I don't have anything. Please don't hit me sir." he pleaded with tears flowing from his fear filled eyes onto his dirt laden cheeks.
It took me a few minutes to realize it was Rajanna, robbed off all his belongings, no food for three days, beaten up by cops, chased by dogs, he roamed the streets of Bangalore not knowing where to go. The people, the traffic, the smoke filled air had choked him into a shock.
He hugged me tight outside a restaurant after our lunch and cried on my shoulder for one last time.
I waved good-bye to him at the bus stop the next day, I stood there for a few minutes reminding myself of the promise made to him; his story would stay a safe secret with me for the rest of my life.
"Please come home for lunch." he held my hands and requested me getting up from the pile of sack he was sitting on.
"Tomorrow for sure, today I have to visit the temple." I slid away.
Bhagandeshwara temple built in the 16th century by architects and masons from Kerala, had a huge open air corridor that ran around the main temple complex.
The speciality of the temple was that the idol of lord Bhangandeshwara is taken around in procession thrice a day, accompanied with dhol, 'chande' (a type of drum) and 'Valaga' (a type of Shehnai).
Rama Shastri a vetran pojari of the temple had the honor of carrying lord Bhagandeshwara on his head. As a young kid I looked at him with awe, his concentration, his strength amazed me. I would almost everyday tell my grandmother that I wanted to grow up to be like Rama Shastri.
Rama Shastri is a kind hearted man but is also famous for his volcano like anger. When walking on the streets, people seeing Rama Shastri approaching them would step aside immediately, bend a little and and wish him with folded hands. With one hand holding a bronze tumbler filled with water from the river and the other swinging swiftly by his side, he would walk past the people nodding his head and not stopping for a second to exchange pleasantries.
On one of those lucky days when huge groups of tourists entering the temple coincided with the idol procession, Rama Shastri would walk briskly with both his hands swinging by his sides and balancing the heavy idol on his head. He would suddenly jump, hop on one leg but manage to keep the idol stable on his head. A loud gasp followed by an expression of pure surprise often played on the tourists' face. I would look at all of them with a proud smile on my face.
I would try to keep pace with him swinging my hands to match his action but also manage to keep a safe distance from him. On reaching the main door of the temple he would stop, with folded hands he would shout out
"Bhaganda Bhaganda Bhagandeshwara." I always thought that his shouts were so loud that it would compel Lord Shiva to look down and smile at Rama Shastri.
It was almost two when I walked back home. I silently made my way to the bed room, and fell asleep on the soft mattress.
I was rudely awakened two hours later by voices coming from the living room. I pulled myself up from the bed and walked into the living room to hear ajja say
"His son was never interested; he is now an American citizen. He will not come back. Now all the secrets, all the knowledge will burn to ashes with him."
"It is a sad day, we have lost a great soul." Rama Shastri shook his head.
On seeing me walk into the room, Ajja turned to me and broke the news immediately
"Karei Gadhae Chikayya is no more."
I stood silent trying to picture him in my head. The last time I had heard about him was when ajja and called me up two years ago to tell me Karei Gadhae Chikayya had turned 80.
Karei Gadhae Chikayya or often addressed to as Ayya was a brilliant man. He was a dear friend of Ajja and an excellent doctor in his own right. He was a genius at identifying the medicinal qualities of a plant, an art, a science that was not documented anywhere but was passed on from generations from father to son.
People from around 20 nearby villages visited him for remedies and advice on their health problems. He never said 'No' and treated them all for free. Nobody had ever seen him frown or sulk, he was often heard saying "I have a hundred problems in life but my lips don't know them, they just smile."
"His son will reach by tomorrow afternoon." one of our neighbors entered the room.
"Last month I had called him and had warned him of Ayya's deteriorating health." Ajja fumed.
"Ayya died without getting to see his son or his grand daughter's face. Could there be a greater curse." Rama Shastri lamented.
"The bus is here." An other guy entered the room.
I stood silent with folded hands looking at the stream of people who had arrived to pay their respect to Ayya. Almost three hundred had arrived and more were expected, I walked into the veranda to see Ayya's body surrounded by his family. Tears made their way down their cheeks, people sobbed finding it hard to accept the loss. I bent down to touch Ayya's feet, a calm expression with the hint of a smile looked to have settled on his face.
"He was adamant, never agreed to visit a hospital." an old man shared with a group of people.
"He never wanted the English medicine in his blood." another from the group spoke.
"Ayya, ayya, ayya." a man ran to his body crying like a child, few tried to pull him away from the body.
The affection, the honest tears, the genuine sadness around me, made me feel proud of Ayya. So many people he had touched, a life of absolute brilliance he had led.
I turned away from the people and stood looking at his farm, I had spent many a days playing on the trees, hiding away from the neem juice Ayya wanted me to drink.
I walked away from the house and entered the farm.
Cardamom plants along with coffee filled the 20 acre area. Various vegetables and a few trees like the jack fruit, mango, sapota (chiku), and areca nut stood scattered in the farm. The centre was filled with medicinal plants that had a special place in the farm and in his heart.
Almost every summer that I had spent in Bagamandala he had brought me a special jack fruit from his farm. On seeing him walking towards our house, I would run towards Ajji singing
"Chikayya bandhru, halasu thandhru." (Chikayya is coming, jack fruit he is brining)
The sun had dived into the horizon, darkness slowly started to engulf the area. I sat under a jack fruit tree and looked up at the tree; small unripe fruits filled the tree. I lay down with both my arms folded behind my head. The clouds parted ways and out came a full moon. Stars bright and dull appeared to fill the dark empty sky. The silence that surrounded the place felt peaceful, I closed my eyes for a minute and memories of Ayya and my summers spent in Bagamandala flooded my head.
I opened my eyes, a bright star to my right caught my attention, the star looked new to the sky, it sparkled and seemed to smile at me.
I smiled at the star and said to myself
"That has to be Ayya, the brightest star of Bagamandala."