The day started badly. The end of April, inland south India. Hot. Very hot. With the temperature shimmering around 40 degrees at nine in the morning, and likely to rise by another five degrees by early afternoon, staying home in the relative cool of my shady garden was definitely the activity of choice.
I had to go to town though, to attend to some unavoidable obligations. Accepting my fate, I jumped on the motorbike and kicked it into life. After riding five metres though, the rear wheel’s wobbling motion assured me I would not be covering the six kilometres to town on that machine. A flat tyre, and no puncture kit to remedy the situation. Oh well, my trusty bicycle would have to suffice. Not without effort, but better than nothing. It was in good condition and I always enjoyed the pedal, even in the sweltering heat. A bit of sweating does no harm after all, and actually is supposed to clean out accumulated toxins.
I set off out the gate on my faithful steed. Twenty metres down the road, and pfffffffffft. Another puncture. The degraded landscape of south east India is full of thorny shrubs, and with people gathering every combustible material for the cooking hearth, inevitably some spines litter the road. More fool me for not fulfilling my intention of acquiring a puncture kit.
My options had narrowed significantly. Basically, the only way to town would be on my two feet, but I might as well push the bike, and at least enjoy the return journey with two wheels to ease the trip. Even without any great exertion, I was already sweating profusely, and my mood was gloomy.
It did not improve walking under the blazing sun, and after a kilometre or so, I neared the local school. There was the usual throng of children milling about outside the buildings, spilling onto the road.
A posse of young boys pointed at me as I approached. A victim for their bored mischief. I stiffened internally with their unwanted attention, but was determined not to react to their baiting. The usual wisecracks, most of which I didn’t understand literally, since they spoke in incomprehensible village Tamil. But the significance of their wisdom was obvious enough; variations on the theme of ‘what a stupid whiteman to be pushing a bicycle when he should be riding it’, addressing me in mock politeness, or undisguised taunts.
I managed to pass beyond the gauntlet without succumbing to their barbs. The effort cost me dearly though, and I wished awful fates to all of them. My mood was foul, with the day apparently determined to make me suffer at every turn. Sweating like a pig, rivers of the stuff saturating my clothes, and stinging my eyes. A stupid white pig, pushing his damned bicycle.
Still nearly five kilometres to trudge, and the sun was rising higher, getting hotter. The roadside trees were offering less shade with each step, and my mood was sinking deeper all the while, the bitumen sticking to my sandals, rooting me to the road.
The road runs around the base of the sacred mountain Arunachala. To Hindus, the barren rocky mountain represents Siva, the Destroyer, Transformer, and Regenerator. Clearly I was being destroyed, but whether I was being transformed and would finally be regenerated, felt extremely doubtful. Clinical dehydration seemed to be my most likely immediate fate.
All along the roadside are shrines, large and small, dedicated to various deities. Several hundred metres ahead of me stood a very small plain temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god. Hanuman is greatly revered by all, since he represents pure devotion, direct from the heart. Devotion was far from my fevered thoughts, for the gods had obviously deserted me utterly, were intent on torturing me mercilessly for whatever sins I had accumulated. I tramped on in my cloud of wretchedness.
Three young girls from the same school as my gang of juvenile tormentors, stood barefooted in front of the temple earnestly praying, each with her hands pressed together before her chest, sandals removed to one side. As I neared them, they finished their prayers.
They turned in the direction of their school, saw me approaching, and immediately greeted me, hands pressed reverentially before them in namaste, eyes reflecting the same devotion they had bestowed on Hanuman a moment before. My cloud of misery and self-pity dissolved, transformed by the purity of their salutation.
I floated to town, oblivious to the heat and dust and smells, grateful even to the heckling young boys who had unknowingly conspired to make my experience of the girls even sweeter, deeper.