Of whom are you? Who are you? Whence have you come?
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– Śamkara bhagavatpāda, “Moha-mudgarah”
The roots of people are not always clear. Sometimes, it is quite all right for things to be that way. Nothing much is gained by knowing the facts as they seem irrelevant to our lives, even when paths meet however occasionally. In what may be called my kosambari days (!), I encountered several people whose antecedents were not known, not inquired, nor volunteered.
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Some people said he was actually an ex-convict, who had since reformed. No one could, in any way, confirm or deny this. Of course, no one asked *him*.
He was rather large, huge belly, about 5’10” tall. Very dark complexion.
Every Thursday, at around 7.30 am (latest by 8 am), I would hear his loud booming voice, singing “himagiri-tanayay hemalatay” (a composition of Harikeśanallūr Muthaiah Bhāgavatar, in Śuddha-dhanyāsi).
He never finished the song.
He would slowly walk from house to house in the street, clad in saffron veshti, anga-vastram, and turban. Rudrāksha mālā around his neck, big wide stripes of vibhūti on the forehead and visible on his arms. A large saffron joligay (bag) on his shoulder. Around his neck was a substantial harmonium that he played in accompaniment to his singing.
At each house people gave him rice, dal, coconut, cash, jaggery… whatever. No one gave him cooked food, vegetables, fruits, or leftover food.
No one knew his name. No one seemed to ask.
He was treated with respect, not as a beggar often was.
His booming voice would carry from the end of the considerably long street.
In the midst of her the flurry of morning work in the kitchen, amma would get some rice ready or appa would get some cash ready (often two rupees) and I was the designated hander-over of the “alms” to him when he came to our door. Later, when little nephews arrived in the household and were able to walk, however uncertainly, they would be the ones (with my or amma’s assistance) to drop the alms in his bag.
At every house where he was given something, his booming voice would chant, in proper śruti, “jai gurudeva”, he would open his bag for the alms to be dropped, give a broad and nice smile, and then offer a very devout namaskāra, and he would resume his singing as he walked slowly over to the next house. Toddlers giving him the alms got an even more beautiful smile, a deeper bow and namaskāra.
He never lingered for a moment longer than was absolutely necessary. [Now, in retrospect, I find his behaviour rather like that description of Śrī Purandaradāsa … “like the bird that alights in the yard, and then immediately flies away.” (pakshi bandu angaladalli kulitante / ā kshanadalley hāri hōdantey)]
Up until 1982, when I left Bangalore, I used to see him weekly.
After that, I never asked anyone whatever happened to him.
The other day, I remembered him suddenly. I wondered whether I would talk to him and find out what his story was, if I had met him now. Then I thought, “Maybe not.” Some mysteries are better left that way. We don’t need “terminal demystification.”
Whenever I think of the rāga Śuddhadhanyāsi, I think of himagiri-tanayé, and I think of him.
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Narasimha was his name. By trade, he was a chammāra (cobbler). I have memories of him since the times before we moved to Jayanagar; we lived in NR Colony then. Unlike our singer mentioned above, his visits were not regular. He would suddenly show up, usually in the afternoon, between 1 and 3 pm.
He, too, was a man of very few words. With his mop of very curly, oil-shined hair, more or less clean-shaven face, and gentle smile, he was also a picture of dignity. I remember he also had a mole on the right side of his face, just under the lower lip. As a child, for some reason, these things fascinated me.
Old slippers, shoes needing repairs? Not urgent? Keep it aside. Old footwear to be discarded? Don’t throw it away. Keep it aside. The next time Narasimha comes by, he will deal with it.
He carried a huge amount of used and repaired footwear that he carried on his person, plus all the tools of his trade in a largish bag. With all this on his two shoulders, he walked everywhere. Those were days when buses were few and far between. Even if they did appear, I am guessing, he would have got grief for carrying all that into the bus. Autos? Not within the sphere of possibilities.
When he did come by, it was a very touching scene. Appa would scramble to the door, open it and ask him to come inside and sit in the verandah. Then he would start rounding up the footwear for Narasimha to deal with as needed. Only verbal exchanges were: “Narasimha, baappaa. Heygidīya?” (Narasimha, come. How are you?) His response would be a gently smile and “Sandāgiddīni.” (I am well.)
Amma would busy herself in the kitchen assembling lunch for him and coffee.
Once the tasks were completed, amma or I would offer him water to wash his hands, feet, and face.
Then, the food was given to him – usually on a leaf. If not, on a plate. He would happily eat the food, wash up, take the hot coffee amma offered him and drink it. Appa would give him some money.
He would rest for a few minutes. No conversation that I can recall ever seemed to happen. Then, he would bid goodbye and walk away.
Until the next time.