16 Nov 2017 14:46 IST

Sea you again

Of a journey to Puri and Konark, and the many wheels that life and time move within

That year the road from Puri to Konark was a tangle of memories — sheets dragged on the floor, sand and saltwater on the flip-flops, and the piles of wet towels. There was sand everywhere on skin, in hair, in the trails from the door and back. It was a time spent at a private resort filled with promises, whispers of continuity and a train deliberately missed so that togetherness could be dragged out. This year’s return was a kind of retracing of something that still lingered, though promises had been broken long ago.

The road I took from Bhubaneswar to Puri was very unlike that first bus journey by night over a not-yet built highway. It was a smooth, almost-straight drive punctuated by coconut sellers with crooked cutters and drinking straws that never quite reached the bottom.

Gradually the green coconuts gave way to the signs of resorts, including the one we had originally stayed in, though now that was no longer on the map of the hip-and-happening. I had a poet friend and his wife with me on this trip and he was a great writer of love poems, though he knew nothing of the private journey that I was making.

Feathery tufts of kaash and coconut trees tossed restlessly in the breeze, though not quite enough to disturb the swelter of the sun; occasionally, bare-bodied priests walked by, flanked by the bulls that roamed the Puri lanes, secure in their sacredness.

Puri is where the Bengalis knock on heaven’s door. Swargadwar is both a shopping place and the road that leads to the Presence who rules Puri. Slippers litter the cycle-rickshaw stand of the Puri Municipal Bazaar while their owners throng to the great lion doors of the temple. Mobile phones are now an equal no-no. I remembered hopping barefoot over a scorching pavement only to be glared at by a priest who asked if I was ‘foreign’ — by which, I gathered, he meant NRI. My poet friend asked if I really wanted to go in. I looked, hesitated and backed away — the last time I had had to produce proof of Indian citizenship, but then Indira Gandhi, Brahmin roots and all, had not been allowed darshan of Jagannath because she had married a Parsi.

Instead we passed the red-brick, green-shuttered Dutt Villa and took the back roads to the Totapuri Ashram, dedicated to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s Adwaita Guru. It is a quiet place atop 34 steps, built by another Bengali — Monica Mitra, whose name was on the dedication stone. Lunch was prasad — not Jagannath’s famed mahaprasad, cooked over 752 braziers, for which the Lord came to Puri to dine, but a smaller spread eaten off platters, while seated reverently on the floor — or, in my case, on the wall of the verandah. The ashram had a mongoose that went round and round restlessly in a cage too small.

Later we walked out on the beach, past decorated camels, to meet the sand and surf, those heaving jade green waves that rolled in and out, bringing memories and snatching them away. The sea boiled in, caught my ankles and soaked my salwar to the knee before rolling out again, leaving me to fight for my feet in the shifting sand. There were no pyramid-hatted nuliyas nearby nor did I see any young couples waist-deep in the sea, holding hands and jumping the breakers — I had done that once, I thought disbelievingly.

Konark, down the Marine Drive, had lost an ‘a’ over time and gained a son et lumière that flashed into action at eight in the evening. The approach to the temple had a chattering bazaar spread out in front, stringing tourists along with garlands of so-called coral and pearls. It was the poet’s first visit in 25 years and we got a guide who talked us through things I had heard of — the deity levitating between two magnets, the pirate Kalapahar’s attack on the temple, destroying everything metallic in it, because the magnetism had the power to disrupt ships’ compasses.

There were three halls to Konark — a dance hall, a meeting hall and the inner sanctum, all in states of disrepair, with swarming tourists taking selfies. On the pillars there were lesbian lovers and what the guide tactfully referred to as Kama Sutra poses. To change the subject I asked about the recurring shringar (make-up) theme and heard about Surya Dev’s wives, Chhaya and Maya — when you apply a bindi on your forehead, you block the light momentarily, thus invoking Chhaya (shadow).

Of course, there were the fabled wheels, some sundials, some horoscopes, one from a bank note, all spinning frozen circles in time. Oddly enough, I was standing under a wheel when my mobile rang. I answered to hear that voice out of the light years at the other end. “Who have you gone with?” he asked when I told him where I was. Was it coincidence or had I, after all, been writing love letters in the sand? The poet, deep in his postcards of Konark, didn’t notice a thing while the Sun Temple had seen it all an epoch of devadasis ago.

(Anjana Basu is a Kolkata-based writer. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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