I slept like a log till late in the morning when I heard Mohan calling me, as though in a dream. When I opened my eyes he was sitting on the edge of my bed and goading me to get up. Rubbing my eyes, I asked him what time it was. “All of us are ready. The girls are in the other room. Heard you were sick last night?”
“Are you alright now?”
“Yep,” I pursed my lips and replied, “I think so,” unsure of it myself. Although my head was clear, my stomach was aching. “I think it was due to hyper acidity,” I said, trying to preempt his platitudinous admonition that I was sure, would come. He understood it and smiled.
I rushed to the bathroom, thinking that the cramps in my stomach were more preferable to another romantic confrontation with Vani.
I came out of the bathroom with only a towel wrapped around my waist and was embarrassed to find both the girls sitting with Mohan. The breakfast of Masala Dosa had been delivered and they were eating. As aroma of dosa kept reminding me that I was starving, I quickly dressed up and joined them. I was wearing the same t-shirt that I wore the previous day since there was no other change of clothes left for me and was feeling as if I hadn’t bathed yet. As soon as I reach the hostel, I can take a good hot water bath and wear clean clothes, I consoled my self. It I didn’t know that Mohan and the girls had a different idea, or rather plan for the day.
I volunteered to pay the bill for lodging when we vacated the hotel and as we walked out of the hotel, Mohan said, “Thank you Harsha, we were running out of cash!” I couldn’t say it was my pleasure but said, “Anyway, we are going back to Dharwad now”
“No dear, originally we’d planned to go to Banavasi from Sirsi, but unfortunately we had to come here skipping it on the way. The girls want to go back and visit Banavasi today,” he said holding my hand while crossing the road as though I was a child under his protection. He did behave like my elder brother and I enjoyed it. I’d been leaving every decision to him since we left Dharwad.
“You mean we’ll be going back to Sirsi?” I asked him with alarm. Back then I didn’t know where Banavasi was. I had read that it was the capital city of the Kadambas who ruled in the fourth or fifth or century A.D. I also knew that the great Kannada poet Pampa, known as Adikavi or the first poet, had eulogized it effusively in one of his work. Any other time, I would’ve jumped at the opportunity to visit the place, but this trip was already coming on my nerves.
He laughed and replied, “No dost, we don’t need to go all the way back to Sirsi, only a few kilometers back on the road to Sirsi,” as though it were some consolation. I tried to think of some way to protest and urge him to take us to Dharwad as soon as possible, but I couldn’t say anything. Indeed, I thought, I had allowed myself to be treated as a young brat by Mohan.
Despite my unwillingness, and the continual irritation of Vani unnecessarily clinging to me as if now she owned me, I soon forgot all about it the moment the bus left for Banavasi, taking us through the rich greenery under the now clear blue sky. The perception as to why were the poets inspired so much by of nature was gradually sinking in me. The nature had unspoilt beauty, free, pure, simple, touching, appealing, mysterious, bold, and wonderful – all at the same time. I kept gazing through the window ignoring Vani reclining on my shoulders, and the other passengers staring at us.
‘Only a few kilometers’ turned out to be almost as good or bad as going back to Sirsi! I do not remember how long it took us to reach Banavasi, but I do remember vividly that I saw a small gopura of an ancient stone temple sprawling on lush green lawns, the first thing I got down from the bus. Banavasi was a small village then, the red mud road less than a hundred meters leading to the temple being the main road of the village, as I could perceive at that time. There were a couple of shops made of wooden poles covered with tarpaulin to form a roof and a couple of tables joined together to make a counter over which sachets of chips, wafers, biscuits, pan masala etc were hung on a thin nylon rope tied horizontally. A few paces from the shops was a man selling tender coconuts. But for a couple of other tourists, the whole place was deserted.
Though it was an ancient temple, but still puja was being performed there. I was the first to approach the entrance of the temple and read the dark blue board declaring that the temple was a protected monument, by the Archaeological Survey of India. An elderly couple with a boy who looked to be their grandson was curiously watching us.
We wandered in and around the 9th Century temple of Madhukeshwara, or the Lord Shiva. The stone elephants at the entrance were elegantly lifelike. A stone temple with the roof sliding outwards was indeed a beautiful sight. I wondered if the sliding roof was placed to drain out the rainwater, for the region is known for heavy rains during the monsoons. We went on scanning each pillar, the ornate carvings on those pillars and ceiling and kept marveling at the genius of the people who conceived and constructed it.
Since all that was to see in Banavasi was only the Madhukeshwara temple, we spent well over an hour there, the last half just sitting and chatting. A busload of college students, all boys, came all of a sudden and began to make a lot of noise. The moment they saw that two obviously unmarried, young couples were sitting, their raucous exchanges suddenly raised twofold. Some boys deliberately wandered near us a couple of times, making lewd remarks and gestures. A couple of teachers who were accompanying them tried to huddle them together in vain. This was all so irritating and offensive that I couldn’t help telling Mohan that it was better we left the place. As we came out of the temple complex, we could hear a lot of hooting and booing behind us. “Bastards!” Mohan cursed them under his breath.
A man with a bicycle loaded with bunches of tender coconut was looking at us with hope to get customers. The girls didn’t disappoint him; we walked straight to the vendor and Mohan ordered tender coconut water for all of us. “I don’t want,” I said to Mohan but he brushed it aside saying, “You of all need it more,” and by the look in his eyes I knew that he was alluding to my getting sick and vomiting the previous night. “The coconut water will help regain your strength boy,” he added and left for the nearest shop, obviously to buy cigarettes.
“I don’t think it was worth coming all the way back from Mundgod,” I said as after making some enquiries, and finding out that tourists usually would like to spend time at the riverside, we were heading towards the river.
“Yeah, apart from the temple, there is hardly any thing to see here,” Vani rejoined as though trying to please me.
“I too didn’t know it Harsha,” Mohan exhaled smoke and said, “Anyway, aren’t we enjoying another holiday?”
“And aren’t you enjoying additional nights?” Nirupama winked at me. It seemed that she never failed to shock me by saying things that even the boys would hesitate to utter, especially or at least, in the presence of girls. At such times I really hated her and at the same time I wanted her even more. Vani was watching me closely, perhaps expecting me to say something, but when I didn’t respond, she blurted out, “Of course he didn’t enjoy last night”.
Nirupama certainly knew about the previous night, for she said, “Look at Mohan, he’s not even eating more in the evening to keep himself light!”
I hated the whole conversation as it looked very degenerate to me. Mohan glanced at me but couldn’t understand how I felt. He said, “We should have brought Saroja along”
“Boys would remain boys for ever!” Nirupama feigned anger, “Are you ever satisfied with one girl?” It wasn’t a question. Relieved that the conversation was drifting away from me, I joined Mohan, “Well, bringing her along would have been wonderful!”
“Oho, then we should’ve invited Bhaskar also!” Vani quipped but bit her tongue immediately, thinking perhaps that she shouldn’t have said that. While Mohan and Nirupama didn’t take this seriously, I felt it was directed at me, at my failure. The conversation was again veering towards me. I remembered Vani’s version of her encounter with Bhaskar in Raichur, which I wanted to believe, but Bhaskar sounded more and more convincing to me, the more I thought about it. Why had Mohan chosen to bring me along instead of Bhaskar? Was it Vani who had asked him to do so? There hadn’t been even so much as a small difference of opinion between Mohan and Bhaskar as far as I knew, but still deviating from his usual preference, Mohan had brought me on this trip. Without questioning as to his intent, or that of Vani or Nirupama, I’d grabbed the opportunity with both my hands and had placed myself at the disposal of Mohan against all my hauteur, gut feeling, and will. Will? No, I did like his invitation, at first because I liked to be closer to Mohan than Bhaskar was, and then because of Nirupama whom Mohan had held as a carrot before my greedy eyes. Or was it all about just pleasure? If that were so why was I not able to have it? Questions came rushing to my mind and I didn’t here what they were talking now.
It was a small river with muddy water flowing at a fast pace charged with the recent rains and the water enveloped most of its sandy banks. The sky was clear and sun was shining brightly, yet the weather was cool and pleasant. We sat under the dappled shade of a tree, on the soft cushion created by the growth of grass. Mohan was teasing Nirupama about something and Vani was taking side with Nirupama. I lit a cigarette though something in the pit of my stomach told me not to, and began gazing at the lofty trees that looked like reaching the heavens.
I began to wonder at the strange world I had entered into. I had a dream, the result of my upbringing, of long and delightful years spent with romantic novels, poetry, and stories, and shaped by movies both Hindi and Kannada, by the lofty ideas and ideals that had been ingrained in me by the sum total of all I had heard, read or experienced, and it now seemed like it was going to be shattered to pieces. Is this the real world? Are the hallmarks of youth - the wide-eyed innocence, the ambition to make a mark, to change the world and to conquer the world –to vanish into thin air in the face of these realities? I certainly must be in a wrong company. The things that used to trouble me surfaced again, but as always, I was finally able to shrug them off.
It was already midday. But it seemed that nobody even so much as thought about lunch. “Isn’t this a beautiful place?” Nirupama asked Mohan but continued before he could respond, “I would like to have my home in such a place, a small house with a garden full of flowers all around it”
Mohan laughed. “I can build you a bamboo house in no time. Then you can live like forest tribes here. You are from a town, you don’t know the hardships of the people living here.”
“How unromantic!” Nirupama exclaimed.
“My village is located in Malnad area, as you know. It is in fact more beautiful than this place. But my father was lucky to escape to a city since he got a job. He had to walk at least five miles to attend a high school. He used to dread the vacations for he was supposed to work in the paddy fields during holidays. We still have our ancestral house there. It is romantic only to the townspeople.”
“You can go there for your honeymoon,” Vani suggested.
“What do you think we are doing now?” Mohan asked unabashedly. Nirupama blushed and began scratching the ground with a twig fallen from the tree. Vani simply said, “You are shameless”. Mohan laughed out loud.
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