A dip at the Sangam in Allahabad at the right moment guarantees a complete moral bleach — all sins maaf. That’s the problem. Not just because it makes lakhs of people want to dive into a narrow strip of water at the same time. But also because it makes somebody or the other want to take this as a shortcut to heaven. Sadhus are, of course, more minded about nirvana than commonfolk. So some sadhu or the other threatens to die every other day during the half-kumbh spread over a month-and-a-half. Ironically enough, Hari Chaitanya of Amethi threatened to drown himself in the Ganga if the much-abused river were not cleaned up.
There is another lot that counts the triennial ‘quarter’ kumbh as the only fair for sadhus — who, unlike commonfolk, do not have “one fair a month”. A half kumbh is twice as auspicious. So this is the one time and place where the sadhus have a licence to frolic. Yes, things tend to get “a bit out of hand” at times. But given that they enormously enjoy a simple dip in the water, why should anyone cross their path when they are marching towards a dip? That is the grumble of this lot.
Then there are those in the middle, who, rather than committing suicide or wrapping up the networking of three years, prefer to inflict pain upon themselves. Predictably enough, it is often a flimsy excuse to make a spectacle. But then again, why shouldn’t they? Practitioners of any “trade” —where you are the product as well as the one-man marketing army — would do it. Lawyers do it, musicians do it, even budding authors do it. So what’s wrong with Kanhaiyalal Giri if he puts a large, half-full steel urn on his shaved pate, wraps himself in fluorescent posters bearing gods’ names, and walks the vast fair-ground playing cymbals and singing at the same time? Like some well-meaning inhabitants of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magicland Macondo, Kanhaiyalal wants to remind the amnesiac laity that god exists. In Macondo they did it by writing over the town square — what else? — “God exists”; our starched-dhoti sadhu does it by pulling out a Ganesha from the urn whenever challenged. Truth be told, no photographer could afford to ignore him and none did.
We find Bharat Giri of Devariya lying roadside, sandwiched between two bundles of thornbush, his weatherbeaten dark skin pricked purple at places. As soon as my colleague, photographer Arvind Yadav, trains his camera on the baba, a circle of curious onlookers inevitably gathers around. Baba tells us he is doing the penance to raise money for a mandir back in Devariya.
The across-the-road chai-shopwala elbows into the circle and asks loudly: “Baba, chhutta hoga? (Do you have change?)” Bharat Giri gets up, extricates the notes from a thornbush bundle, and hands over the change. You look out from the circle and see acres upon milling acres of humanity jostling hustlers in herds.