It started to drizzle in the afternoon. Though there was no rain in the evening, the weather was cool and Vanessa shivered in the chilly breeze. As usual she forgot to bring her umbrella. Walking on the slushy stretch of road road loomed over her as a night mare.
A slight drizzle made the road into a slippery stretch that is more fit to skate. Instead of water, the slushy mud horribly spread across the entire road. Puddles of water with mud on the road made everyone walking on the road learn some acrobatic skills to balance every step.
Vanessa was new to the place, and still struggled to be on time for the bus. The office closed around 6 pm every day.
Walking lonely along the stretch, Vanessa never failed to watch the changing shapes of clouds in the evening sky. The silver lined clouds slowly drifted across the sky and occupied her thoughts. Out of the blue, Vanessa suddenly remembered climbing the broad steps of the Palani hills. She vaguely remembered the walls of the rocky path and the monkeys overlooking people who climbed their way to the temple.
There are four ways to reach the temple at the top, one by climbing the steep steps, next, the elephant path which is used by mahouts to walk their elephants, one by winch, and the last one called Theertha pathai, which is widely used only by the people working at the temple to bring holy water for abishekam.
Childhood memories about walking along that path brought a smile on her. While the old family members preferred to travel by winch, the younger ones preferred to walk along the elephant path way. All through the way they giggled and laughed and enjoyed their walk. Though they had to climb more than 697 steps, it was fun. They climbed fast or raced to see who reached first.
‘Slush,’ a car passing by her threw the muddy water on her.
‘Idiot,’ words escaped from Vanessa, but it did not have any effect on the person behind the wheels. Not even apologizing, the car moved away fast.
Vanessa tripped and fell into the ditch filled with mud and shrubs. She struggled to get up from the ditch, but her left leg along with the slipper got inside the mud. Her colleague who was walking behind Vanessa pulled her out of the mud.
The security guard at the gate brought a bucket of water to wash the mud. Luckily she wore a dark colored chudidar made of synthetic material. Shivering in the evening cool breeze, she waited for her pants and tops to dry. Luckily, could get into an auto along with her colleague to home.
When Vanessa reached home, everyone was getting ready to go to their native town. Initially, Vanessa told them that she could not come. But, now she changed her mind and started to pack her travel bag.
Unaware of events that would follow her in the next two days, she decided to travel along with her family. She needed badly a break from her monotonous life.
“Go to hell,” Bala pressed the accelerator hard to show his anger. The car moved forward with a shudder and the wheels shrieked aloud.
“Am I a fool to you?” With his hands tightly pressed on the steering wheel, he spit out words with scorn. The slight drizzle covered the entire wind shield and hid the road from his eyes.
Fuming with anger, he tightened his seat belt and set the wheels rolling. For the first five minutes, he could not suppress his anger and he never wished to drive with heightened irritation.
The first lesson he learned during his driving lessons was not to sit behind the wheel when he did not feel at peace. He wanted to shatter everything around him. But, he did not have the choice to stay behind and let his feelings cool down.
Bala rolled down the windows. He enjoyed feeling the fresh air while driving. Every swish of fresh air played with the curls of his hair and made him feel like a little kid playing in the wild. The next twenty minutes he drove in silence. But after taking a sip of special tea, which his mother gave him, his mood started to cool down. Relishing every sip of tea, he spent some time relaxing.
“Bala, are you coming along with us?” His mother looked at him for approval.
Lifting only his eyes, he looked at his mother without uttering anything.
“We are all going to Palani.”
“Ok. No problem.”
“But, we want you to come along with us. We go by walking.”
“What?” Bala looked at his mother, shocked. “Ma, are you joking? How can you walk such a long distance? It is almost 200 km from here.”
“I am not the only person who is going. The whole town walks. Are you coming with us?”
“Me, I have much work to do.”
“Let it be, take a break and come with us.” His mother looked at him with the request.
Bala thought for a while and accepted the invitation to join them.
People started their padayathra (holy walk) from their place in the month of January to celebrate the Full Moon day that falls in that month. It coincided with the Tamil month ‘Thai.’ The devotees visited the sacred place Palani by walking all the way.
It took two to three days to reach the place. The devotees assembled in a place and prayed to Lord Muruga by singing traditional songs called ‘Kavadi sindhu’ in Tamil. The devotees carried decorated kavadis on their shoulders and offered them to the God after they reached the temple at Palani.
The group then started their divine journey by singing Tamil traditional folk songs. They walked 25 to 30 km per day.
Once they reached the place, they would first take bath in the sacred river Shanmuga. After taking the holy bath, the devotees walked and reached the temple at the top of the hill. Usually the people who walked to Palani would wear bright green colored clothes, but Bala preferred to dress in casuals.
Bala wanted to have a break. Luckily, some of his friends also joined him and he wished the trip would be filled with wonderful moments. They started around 4 pm in the evening from their place. As Bala was going everywhere either by car or train, walking all the way first excited him. It also provided him some time to catch up with his friends.
After walking for more than three hours, around eight at night, everyone started to search for a place to sit and have their food. Every group accompanied by small trucks or mini-lorries carried whatever they needed. Prompt supply of food, medicines, blankets and other necessary materials made the journey comfortable.
As evening started to set in, the bright moon moved slowly high up in the sky. The moon light lit the whole sky and people enjoyed eating under the moonlight. Though traditions were lost in the fast moving pace of modern life, still some old traditions like this helped to bring people together. Events like this brought everyone together irrespective of wealth and status in the society.
Bala remembered sitting in the terrace and eating supper along with his friends on a full moon night. Vague memories brought a smile on his lips.
“Where do you want to sleep?”
“Anywhere,” Bala looked around. Every bit of space under the tree was occupied by the people. With the blankets spread around the tree, many of them were already asleep.
“You can sleep inside the car,” Bala told his mother. But she refused and shared a place near her neighbors.
“Ma, I will come back in a few minutes.” Bala slowly walked toward the space that stretched beyond the trees.
Except for a few hurricane lights from the bullock carts, the whole place looked serene in the cool moonlight. Bala stretched himself on the bonnet of his car parked at the open space and looked at the sky. He could see the full moon shining bright among twinkling stars. He could even see the planet Venus in the eastern sky.
The night did not look eerie. Though he could hear the shrill sound of insects and screeching owls at a distance, Bala felt peace at heart. The night breeze carried along with it the faint sound of music from a distance. After some time, he could hear only the rustling sound of leaves of the trees. Bala slowly crept into a peaceful sleep listening to the buzz of insects and mosquitoes.
Bala woke up suddenly with a shiver. He could hear someone murmuring in pain. But, he could not make it out.
The group resumed their walk around 4 am in the morning. Walking in the early morning hours did not tire them much. Breathing in the fresh oxygen is a treat. Besides fresh air, the rapid change in the wide blue sky was a real feast to the eyes.
Bala could see the moon slowly going down in the east. Down in the eastern sky, he could see Venus also. As he had been quite busy attending only to office work, Bala missed all the nature wonders for a while. This trip gave him the much needed break and he enjoyed every minute of it.
Vanessa sat on the huge protruding root of the tree and stretched her legs comfortably. Small blisters on her feet sent a tingling pain to her brain. Vanessa looked at the people who were walking on the road singing loudly songs to Lord Muruga.
Most of the people looked normal. As they were used to walking like this every year, they knew how to take care of themselves. People like Vanessa who rarely walked long distances got into problems. Usually vans loaded with food items and other things helped people who get stuck on the way to travel the remaining distance. Unfortunately, Vanessa could not find a place in any one of those vans. Her neighbor did not want to leave her alone in an unknown place and so stayed along with her. Though everyone who came along with them resumed their walking, both of them waited for a lift.
Luckily, Vanessa’s neighbor Sundari spotted Bala’s car on the road. She approached the driver and asked him to drop Vanessa at Palani. She explained to him the situation and requested him to help Vanessa. Initially he hesitated to take Vanessa along with him in the car. When he felt she needed help urgently, the driver asked them to wait and went in search of Bala.
The driver came back after sometime and told them that he would drop Vanessa at Palani. Sundari climbed into the car along with her. She asked the driver to drop her at the next stop where her group would be waiting for her. The next ten minutes went in silence. Vanessa could not put her feet down and she started to feel restless with the pain.
She had only applied the ointment she could find in the First Aid box. There was no doctor on the way to check her feet and prescribe some pain killers or medicine. In spite of all facilities, there were no medical camps on the way. The small villages they crossed on their way lacked proper medical facilities. Vanessa felt so sad for the villagers who lived there for they need to travel to Palani to meet a doctor and get treated.
Sundari found her group in the next stop and joined them. She asked Vanessa to wait at the First Aid centre at Palani. She also asked the driver to leave her at the centre. To Vanessa’s surprise, Bala joined them at the next stop. Sundari did not want Vanessa to travel alone. First she requested Bala’s mother to accompany Vanessa. Bala’s mother did not want to travel by car and she wanted to complete her pathayathra without any break.
So, she asked Bala to travel in the car till Palani. Bala reluctantly joined Vanessa without knowing that the trip could alter his life to a very great extent.
Vanessa blamed herself for the hundredth time. When her neighbor asked her if she was willing to walk along with them, she accepted without thinking about things that would follow. With nervousness creeping in, she struggled to sit without feeling uncomfortable. She could not let her legs down and every second she felt the tingling pain. She shifted her position one more time. But the pain did not decrease. She wanted to recline on the seat and stretch her legs across the seat. Yet, something prevented her from doing that. Necessity forced her to travel in Bala’s car. They hardly knew each other and they did not have any proper introduction.
The first ten minutes went in silence. Usually, Bala was a cheerful person. It was always difficult for him to keep his mouth shut even for a few minutes. He started to have some meaningless talk with his driver. But he stopped talking to him as the road became more congested with traffic.
Though Bala’s eyes were fixed on the road, his ears were alert listening to the rustling sound behind. Bala realized that Vanessa grew uncomfortable with the pain on her feet. He turned around and looked at Vanessa. The first thing he saw was two eyes brimming with tears. That told him the pain she had been going through. Bala felt the immediate urge to comfort Vanessa and tell her she would be all right once they reached the first medical centre on the way.
‘You can stretch your legs on the seat. Sit comfortably so that you will not feel the pain.’
‘No, thanks. It’s fine with me.’ Vanessa’s murmur did not reach his ears.
‘Don’t feel shy. Sit comfortably.’
To avoid further conversation with Bala, Vanessa lifted her legs and stretched them across the car seat. She had to take the maximum effort to lift her legs as the pain grew unbearable and her painful mourn shook Bala’s heart for a while. He could not avoid regretting why he asked her to do so.
Now, Bala started to feel restless. Every second felt like years, and he asked the driver to drive fast. In the next fifteen minutes, they reached a Primary Health centre. Unfortunately, when they went there, the doctor was not there. The only available nurse cleaned the blisters on her feet and applied some medicine.
All the while, Vanessa wriggled in pain. She felt so embarrassed to let Bala know that she went through acute pain and wanted to be left alone. The nurse gave her a pain killer to relieve her pain temporarily. The nurse asked Bala to take Vanessa to a hospital in Palani and see the doctor there.
The nurse took Vanessa in a wheel chair and helped her to sit comfortably at the back seat of the car. He also helped her to sit comfortably without feeling much pain.
The car moved smoothly on the road for another ten minutes. Bala asked his driver to stop near a road-side tea shop. He asked him to get a cup of tea and gave it to Vanessa. Vanessa looked at him with a smile.
‘You are my guest. It is my pleasure.’
Bala replied with a twinkle in his eyes. For a second, his eyes rested on hers. Vanessa boldly returned back his gaze. Bala could not suppress his excitement at heart and slowly turned away. Vanessa captured his heart at the moment and he could not tell why he felt so.
After sipping the hot tea available in the road-side tea shop, they resumed their journey. After ten minutes, when Bala turned around to check her, Vanessa was already in deep sleep. With her head comfortably rested on the car seat, the breeze from the window swayed her forehead curls. It looked like an invitation for him and Bala could not resist the urge to kiss her forehead and whisper in her ears some sweet nothings. Bala wanted to hold her hands and tell her, he would always be there for her to relieve from any pain.
‘Vanessa, Vanessa.’ Vanessa woke up hearing her name.
‘Can you please get up? Let me help you to sit in the wheel chair.’ Vanessa looked around and blinked for a while. She could not make out where she was. Bala was the only familiar person at that place, and her eyes searched for him.
‘He is inside the hospital talking with the doctor. Let us go inside.’ The nurse pushed the wheel chair slowly and entered the hospital. She helped her to lie down on the cot and went out to call the doctor.
While waiting for the doctor Vanessa called her mother on her mobile and told her what had happened on the way. The doctor checked Vanessa and prescribed some antibiotics to heal the blisters immediately. As there was nothing serious to worry about, Vanessa felt relieved. She did not want to break her holy journey.
Bala left the hospital after Vanessa’s neighbor Sundari came in. After taking rest for an hour, Vanessa travelled along with her in another car and reached Palani.
Sundari and Vanessa reached the winch station at the downhill. The winch had only two trucks and it was always crowded. The people who did not get a place in the first trip had to wait for the next trip. It took eight minutes for every trip to reach the top. Each winch carried only 34 passengers for every trip. Usually pilgrims who came there in families occupied the trucks in full.
People who came alone always found it difficult to find a place in one of the trucks. Sundari thought traveling by winch would be most comfortable for Vanessa to travel, so she chose the winch ride. They waited for more than fifteen minutes to get their turn. As usual a big family occupied the two trucks and only one seat was left. Sundari asked her to go first and wait for her. Vanessa got into the truck reluctantly.
Every one in the truck felt excited when the winch started to move up the hill. It was a pleasant experience. The winch moved slowly and Vanessa could feel the cool breeze on her face. Vanessa could not avoid thinking about her travel in Bala’s car.
She could not resist thinking how it would be if Bala happened to travel along with her in the winch also. When the winch reached the top, every one got down from the truck. Vanessa looked around for help. With heavy plasters on her feet, she could not walk freely and get out of the truck. Vanessa felt stuck for a while. The assistant who travelled along with them in the truck stood looking at her and he was a little hesitant to hold Vanessa’s hand and help her to climb down the truck.
‘Wait, wait, I will help you.’
Vanessa could not believe her eyes. Bala came to her rescue.
‘I know you will need my help.’
With a smile, Bala took her right hand and helped her to climb down from the truck.
Vanessa could not say no, and she was forced to accept Bala’s help. Bala asked the assistant to bring the wheel chair and helped Vanessa to sit comfortably on the chair.
‘Thanks.’ Vanessa’s eyes brimmed with tears. In another ten minutes, Sundari joined her.
Initially, Sundari volunteered to push the wheel chair, but she found it difficult.
‘Let me help you.’ Bala took the wheel chair from Sundari and rolled to the sanctum.
The people at the temple allowed Vanessa to see the deity immediately. While hundreds of people waited in the queue, Vanessa and Bala got the blessings of Lord Muruga without difficulty.
After having their lunch, they decided to start home. Most of the people preferred to climb down the hill by winch. As Bala’s mother got a place in the truck along with Sundari and Vanessa, Bala could not avoid accompanying her once again. Bala could not build a conversation with her as his mother was there. With a heavy heart, he looked at Vanessa. The winch reached downhill in another ten minutes.
Sundari helped Vanessa to get into the van first. Seated near the window seat, she looked out. Her eyes searched for Bala. But she could not find him anywhere. The driver got into the van and started to move. Sundari was the last person to get in. After sitting near Vanessa, she gave her a visiting card.
‘Bala asked me to give this to you.’ With trembling hands, Vanessa took it from Sundari. For sometime she struggled hard to hide her rising emotions.
Then, with a smile, she started to type her first message to Bala with a hope that would open a new chapter in their life. Bala was also desperately waiting for her message.
With a brimming smile, he replied to her message with love.
Text: Kalai Selvi Arivalagan
Publication Date: 09-25-2011
All Rights Reserved
Driving could drive you nuts!!!