Instinctively, my toes curled up in crankiness as I sneaked my way through the sacred shores of one of the most prominent pilgrimage centres in India of the Hindus. I heaved a sigh of huge relief when I was instructed to ‘just sprinkle a few drops onto yourself’ (and not bathe!) as the gushing waters of the sea (Bay of Bengal) didn’t look very clean and hygienic and there was a strange nauseating stench floating in the environs owing to the blatant disposal of untreated sewage from the nearby areas.Ironically enough, I was partaking in the mandatory sacramental ritual of cleansing my body at Agni Theertham, one of the most visited Theertham (sacred holy water body) of Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu before proceeding to pay my respects at the Ramanathaswamy temple.
Blessed were the magnificent sands on which I was walking, I was very well aware. Various references to the place could be traced back to the sacred Hindu Texts or Puranaslike Skanda Purana illustrating its infinite powers of absolving all sins and purifying the heart. Countless number of believers had walked on it before, including the celestial Demi-God Agni or Fire – washing their sins away – cementing this hallowed waterfront with their faith, belief, conviction and devotion.
And yet, no matter how hard I tried to evade… this murky feeling of dirtiness that creeped within this city-bred girl’s senses as she made her way past the cacophonous edge of the beach through to the glorious temple corridors of 17th century Ramanathaswamy Temple in Rameshwaram… just refused to subside.
I ambled aimlessly on the same hallowed seashore later that day and also towards the evening, after my coveted temple darshan earlier in the morning. That’s when they caught my attention. They kept to themselves, totally engrossed in what they were doing, unmindful of the frenzied world that guzzled around them. Unmindful of me.On this bright, balmy and auspicious day of Diwali in the month of November, the shores of Agni Teertham at Rameshwaram wore a festive look.
People, belonging to different age groups, having travelled from different parts of the world, merged and mingled in a colorful rendezvous by performing reverential acts showcasing their steadfast faith towards the divine water body. They asked for a child and they pleaded for deliverance of their ancestors… joyously, they bathed, chanted mantras, mumbled prayers, performedpoojas and floated flower/leaf diyas with a conviction that their prayers shall be heard and they shall be blessed.
In this culturally nuanced kaleidoscope, my gaze was arrested by two women, clad in shirts worn over their saree. Between them, they were carrying a basketful of ‘kachra’(trash).
My eyes met theirs,
And, I continued to follow them,
I continued to walk, pausing at one point this time, for a long time… albeit from a distance and zoomed my vision on the clothing, garbage and debris heaped at the edge of the shore. Standing right in the middle of this garbage heap, was an old man, in a grey shirt coupled with a lungi half-folded and tucked in to his waist, continually sweeping his digging fork to and fro, sifting and collecting the garbage at one single place. ‘Wasn’t it smelling awful for him?’ I wondered, feeling a bit nauseous myself at the same time. The sight was awful. The same grimy filthiness slowly creeped in the senses of this city-bred girl again. But this time, not with a silent contemplation…
as opposed to the overwhelming feeling of faith and devotion
today morning itself?
And why just today?
how many times in life had I cribbed about where I was
and what I was doing?
The more I thought about it,
the lower I drowned in my self-built well of shame.
What a relief it must be for the sea! I thought and exclaimed ‘Bahut Achha’ in a tone audible enough to reach the ears of the old man from the group whose attention I had managed to catch during my introspective reverie. In response, the man threw me a surprised look and a string of words in Tamil which I couldn’t comprehend. Disappointed at my failed attempt to successfully communicate my earnest appreciation but not losing hope just yet, I decided to try one more time, conveying the same in a different manner this time. More universal. Sign language!
No sooner did I flash an excellent thumbs up sign with my fingers than the old man’s wrinkly face beamed in an ecstatic smile. I panned my camera on him suggesting that I wanted to click his picture. Excited, he motioned to one of the women of the team to see and face the camera along with him and together, they just turned, moving slightly closer, and in those moments… the world around us disappeared.
The glee sparkling in their eyes told me of the massive riches they had nurtured in their hearts, the pride and peaceful content for the highly significant job that they were doing… As Martin Luther King had once famously remarked –
sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures,
sweep streets like Beethoven composed music,
sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera.
Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry.
(And if I were to add – sweep streets like Lionel Messi plays football.)
Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.
And indeed! Their reliable, self-driven work preventing the pollution of the holy Theertham ensured a greener, cleaner and more sustainable environment for me and countless more, before and after me – weren’t they the pioneering leaders of Narendra Modi’s ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’?
Images are author’s self-contribution