About four decades ago my siblings proposed a visit to the Tirumala Tirupathi hills. Those were the days when you had to reach the hilltop early to buy tickets for the next morning’s “seva.” Leila, the eternal optimist, said, “I am sure, we can get them if we reach before sunset.”
Kshama, with her nonchalant attitude, announced that you had to have the right connections in these holy places. The careful Ramani doubted that the drive would be safe with all those hairpin bends on the hills. She was even ready to call off the trip.
It mattered little to me one way or the other. The prospect of an excursion with siblings was attractive enough. So, we set out bravely in an old jalopy with a daredevil driver and reached the hilltop after several breathtaking turns on those crazy hairpin bends.
The sun was setting as we made our way to the ticket counter, which screamed “closed.” Leila sat down on the steps and wondered if we should meet the chief secretary of Andhra Pradesh. Ramani recommended we return to Bangalore.
Kshama walked off silently in the direction of the marketplace. I followed her, and witnessed some superb stage showmanship. “How much for a ‘seva’ ticket?” she asked a vendor of incense sticks. He quoted a sum and she walked on to the next vendor of turmeric and kumkum. A small crowd followed her and she bargained fast and loud in Telegu. The amount kept increasing and we were surrounded by several vendors holding out tickets.
“I will report you to the police” she threatened loudly. The vendors retreated and we came back ticketless. The eldest sibling consoled us: “At least, we stepped on the sacred ground.”
We started walking back to the car when I saw him. He was middleaged, handsome and well groomed. He wore a white ‘veshti’ with a mauve shirt. I still remember the colour of his shirt.
“Excuse me,” he said softly, “are you looking for darshan tickets?” We stared in disbelief. “I have a special pass for five people, and I am alone,” he continued. “You can join me for the next ‘seva’.
We followed him in total silence. In the sanctum sanctorum, the great idol of the seven hills was waiting for us — also in total silence. It was an unforgettable experience.
Darshan over, we walked out, still dazed by this incredible occurrence. We tried to thank our benefactor, but he seemed to be in a hurry to get back into the temple for the ‘ekanta seva.’
“We don’t even know your name,” I said. “Ananthapadmanabha,” he smiled before vanishing up those steps.
Even after 40 years, I still wonder who that well-groomed young man in the mauve shirt was.