By Savitri Narayanan
“People from all over converge there making the Kumbh Mela the largest gathering of human beings on earth….,” went the news channel with file shots of crowds in motion. Despite the numbers there seemed an air of serenity. What could be the reason? What is it about the Kumbh that attracts all these people? The only way to know was to go there, to be one of the millions!
“Anyone game for Kumbh Mela this weekend? We could leave by tomorrow night’s train, roam around the mela and board the night train back,” I made a public announcement at the lunch table which didn’t even generate a discussion.
At home it was a different story.
“YOU? To the KUMBH? Crazy!”
“What if there is a stampede?”
“How will you find a doctor? What if your BP goes up?”
“What if you fall down? What if you get lost?”
Among all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘you betters’ came an encouraging voice from the maid, Chameli. “You are blessed,” she said, “Wish I could go with you, Madam! My Dadaji had promised to take me, but God had other plans…” As she mopped the floor and I sipped my tea, her memories unfolded.
When Kumbh started large groups of villagers went there with head-loads of firewood and pots and pans. They set up base, pitched their tents, cooked and slept there for weeks together. “When Dadaji packed his bag, I cried to go along,” reminisced Chameli. “When you grow up I will take you too,” he promised but he never came back.
“Come along, I need a companion anyway!”
“Lakshmi chachi may want to come too,” she said pulling out her cellphone.
Thus, one cold afternoon, we three boarded the train to Prayagraj.
As the train rushed past the plains of Najibabad, Moradabad, Aligarh, Kanpur and Fatepur, the demography of the coach changed noticeably. Groups of families and villagers crowded the coach and squatted on every inch of space. The women wore colourful saris, glass bangles and huge marks of sindoor. By the time we crossed Kanpur, the coach turned into a mini-Kumbh.
Prayagraj railway station was spotlessly clean and dotted with uniformed policemen and volunteers. ‘Lost and found – missing persons’ was written on a tent from which an announcement was in progress. “Madam Khurana from Chhattisgarh, wherever you are, kindly come to this counter. Your daughter is here awaiting you.”
“God forbid, if we get separated, this is where we’ll meet,” we decided. It seemed wise to make a plan.
“Get lost? Impossible! We three will stay together, hold hands at all times, like this,” said Chameli, “Let’s go!”
So we walked hand in hand soaking in the Kumbh Mela air.
Going by the signboards, all the roads seemed to lead to the Sangam.
If only we could find a rickshaw!
“Today is Basant Panchmi, shaahi snaan,” said the uniformed railway policeman,” “No vehicles in this area.”
So we started the walk. With our backpack of quilts and change of clothing, we headed for the bathing ghats. The roads were wide and clean. Bhandaras along the way offered kachoris and pakoras to the passersby. The Indian Army, police, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, vied with each other to help the public.
“It is seven kilometres, Madam,” said the volunteer, “Don’t over-exert yourself; do sit down for a while when you feel tired.”
“Imagine us walking fourteen kilometres up and down!” said Lakshmi chachi.
“So what! I walked that distance daily to my village school for seven years!” I waved it off.
“Chachi, don’t you remember how we used to walk for hours in the Garhwal hills looking for our lost cattle?”
We recounted stories to pep up our spirits.
The roads were clear, the shops were closed, there was not a single vehicle parked on the roadside as the ocean of humanity headed for the Sangam.
There seemed to be something noticeably different about the crowd. No pushing, no rushing, no shouting, no arguing. People seemed to be in a busy, purposeful yet relaxed continuous motion – very different from the crowd in the metros or markets. There was a general air of gaiety and camaraderie as the people moved in a purposeful motion, more like the rise and fall of waves.
After the customary dip in the Ganga, once we managed to change into dry clothes, the chaiwalla was at hand. “Take care, Mataji, take your time”.
A little away from the river bank, families were sprawled on durries – eating, chatting, dozing, joking – generally celebrating. Children blew the trumpets and tossed the balloons they had picked up at the fair.
“Let’s go, we have a return train to catch,” Chameli’s words got us on the alert.
“Wish we could get an auto-rickshaw,” said Lakshmi chachi but there was none in sight.
“Even a cycle rickshaw will do,” I thought wistfully, “Anything to let us catch the Samgam Express!”
“We still have an hour left, let’s walk faster.” We drew upon our reserves.
“Those with confirmed tickets this way,” said the sign board. We entered but had missed the train!
There we were, far away from home, stranded at Prayagraj railway station, our phones dying, power bank draining. How do we get back to the Doon?
We approached an RPF man in uniform. “We walked up and down to Sangam and missed our train,” we said. “When is the next train to Dehradun? Where do we buy the tickets?”
The officer turned out to be the embodiment of help and courtesy.
“The booking counters are there in that building,” he said, looking at Chameli, “One of you go and buy the tickets.”
“Of course not, we three stay together,” I stood my ground.
“A lady constable will escort her; you two sit down here and relax for a while,” he was patient but firm as he pointed at two chairs.
Chameli was back soon with three tickets. “The train is on platform #8; get in and find a seat anywhere!” the lady constable said, bidding us farewell.
Delhi was home ground. One could walk across to Kashmere gate ISBT and easily catch a Dehradun bus and that is what we did.
Looking back on the day spent at Allahabad, what lingers is the air of welcome, of hospitality, of caring and helping, an air of efficiency, of systems being in place. Cheers for the work force that makes this happen!