Big droplets of water hit the windscreen as I started my journey from Koregoan park. Everyone had left office early, it was one of those rare days that was declared a half day. It was the day when the ‘Palkhi’ proceeded to its holy destination through Pune.
I had planned out the route to my home in Shivajinagar in my head; the diversions I would take and how I would bypass the blocked roads but little did I know that eventually I’d travel a path I had avoided for more than two decades.
As the rain grew heavier so did traffic until at a point it came to a complete standstill, long queues of red tail lights lined up in front of me. No right No left. I saw people getting out and that’s when I decided to pull over and park. I was going to walk my way home even if it took 2 hours to do so.
The rain had gentled down a little as I , in my corporate navy trousers and pin striped shirt complete with a poster blue tie, reached closer to Fergusson College road. I could hear the clanking of the Manjeera a few meters away, several of them chiming out their rhythmic collisions. I thought of ways to avoid the rural lot; perhaps I could wait for a lull in the procession and cross the road? Or perhaps I could run through it? I cringed at the very thought of it. For one I hated crowds and for two I really thought processions of the religious kinds were a waste of time. No urban born Indian could truly spend days walking to a place just to walk back.
Drenched, I watched from the Pavement; men and women swirling and swaying to the rhythm of several hundreds of manjeeras, dhols and tutaaris all tuned to a different beat, families handing out packed parcels of food to those who wanted a bite, a few others clad in saffron turbans passing bottles of water to the thirsty and several others who occasionally jumped in and out to catch a glimpse of the Palkhi. As I searched for the right moment to run across to the other side of the road, I wondered what was it that all these people see that I couldn’t. Why would someone walk for miles in this rain? That’s when something soft touched my forehead.
A man had appeared out of thin air. He spoke to me in Marathi. I did not hear him well over the music but could make out the rural accent. When I touched my forehead I realized he had smeared a tikaa onto it; a faint sandalwood one. The man flashed a wide white smile and disappeared into the perennial river of people. I wanted to wipe it off. I didn’t. I simply followed him into the crowds.
The rain had almost stopped now but I was surrounded by a different kind of rain; that of colour, chanting and the cacophony of several instruments playing at once. I wasn’t sure how I could push my way through to the other side. I had to get out of this madness. Just as I saw a little sliver of road clearing up, a woman stopped me and applied something black onto my forehead. I ducked back - too late - looked at her quizzically but she had already moved on to the next person with her bowl of black powder and an even wider smile than the man before.
The little clearing I had seen had been swallowed by a group of men carrying what looked like a chariot. I could hear their song. ‘We walk this distance for you, oh lord’ it rang. Some swayed, some turned a full circle and some bowed in respect. I stared at the overly decorated chariot. The silver 'padukas' (traditional Indian footware) inside were not unfamiliar to me and yet it looked alien. The reverence in the atmosphere made it new to me. I still could not fathom the zest with which people carried it but I could feel the energy that had kept them going. I could understand the untried smiles beaming friendlily at me; these people didn’t care about my pin striped shirt or my leather shoes. They made no difference between me and them. It was I who made that difference. It was I who viewed them as another people. At least till this moment.
My eyes closed for a while, I took in what I had thought was noise earlier and let it transform into music within me. I loosened my tie and decided to walk with the Palkhi for a while.
A short distance later, with my hands full of tiny white sugar balls I exited the procession and turned into the lane that wound to my house. I was drenched to my core, not with rain but with awe and respect for those who travel several hundred kilometers; For those who are more in touch with themselves than any urban bred slicker would ever be; with their spirit to never give up and unquestionable trust in their faith and with the regret that I had shied away from such revelry for so many years of being a Punekar.