It must have been in 1972 or 73, I think. My elder brother and few other youngsters of my family and I were returning to Calcutta from Pondicherry. We had planned to go to Madras and take a bus to Tirupathi for Balaji's darshan. From there, we were to take another bus to Kanchipuram and have the darshan of the venerable sage, the Sankaracharya Maha Swamiji. After that we planned to return to Madras and board the train to Calcutta via Bhuvaneshwar. This was our itinerary.
In those days, there were only a few buses to Madras from Pondicherry. We left as planned, taking a bus in the morning. We could not get seats together and so had to sit in various places and not as a group. I was seated somewhere in the front, my brother was right at the back, on the long seat. The young boys were seated in various places. A Tamil friend of ours, Mr.Somasundaram and his group of friends had also joined us in our pilgrimage. The bus was proceeding towards Madras. Somasundaram was chatting with the passengers seated near him. As we neared Madras, he came up and informed me that he had just learnt that the Sankaracharya Swamiji had left Kanchipuram and was now in Tuticorin. He announced his decision to get off at Madras and catch a train to Tuticorin with his group. The news disturbed me. I was hoping to see the Sankaracharya about whose greatness we had heard so much.
Meanwhile, my brother who was right at the back had also been chatting with his neighbours in the course of which he told them of our proposed itinerary. Somasundaram went down the bus and informed my brother of the news he had gathered and the subsequent revision of his plans and then went back to his seat.
My brother, it seems was also quite upset on receiving this news. The gentleman seated beside him had been watching the conversation between my brother and Somasundaram. He turned to my brother and said, 'I had Maha Swami's darshan yesterday in Kanchipuram. He is very much there. Do not believe the rumour that the Maha Swami has gone away from Kanchipuram!"
When we got down in Madras, there was some heated discussion. At the end of it, Somasundaram and his friends left for Central station to catch a train to Tuticorin (here the narrator laughed in amusement as he recalled the scene). Several times over the gentleman in the bus who had been seated next to my brother reasoned with us that Swamiji had to indeed be in Kanchipuram for he had seen Him only the day before. Besides, he offered to escort us to Kanchipuram, putting aside his work in Madras, which he said he could attend to later. We were convinced. After talking over the matter amongst ourselves we concluded that we could visit Tirupathi when we next came South. “Balaji is always in Tirupathi and will not go away elsewhere. But what if the Sankaracharya Swamiji goes away to Tuticorin or elsewhere? It is better we go straight ahead to Kanchipuram!”
Once we made this decision, we submitted ourselves entirely to our new-found friend. We boarded another bus to Kanchipuram. There being few buses those days, the halts were many on the way, and when we reached Kanchipuram it was nearing midnight. Our friend took us to a dharmasala. Since we were a group of men, we decided to rest on the large pyols outside the dharmasala and did not go in although there were large halls. Our new-found friend procured some mats for us and even managed to get us something to eat at that hour of the night. Finally we settled down, but really could not sleep a wink because of the mosquitoes. Our friend had warned us that we had to be up very early so that we could have Swamiji’s darshan as soon as He came out. We were all up by half past three in the morning. We went to a well nearby and drew up water for our bath. The water was ice-cold and even now I can recall how it tingled my spine. When we had bathed, we took out dhotis from our bags and wore it in the traditional Bengali fashion. It is customary for us Bengalis to wear a kurta above the dhoti. When we were about to do so, our friend told us that the upper garment was not worn by men when visiting Swamiji. He told us to either wrap it around our waist to do to so with a long towel. We did exactly as he suggested and in all matters obeyed him with implicit trust. Finally, when it was barely four o’clock, we set out. I remember that we walked atleast four kilometers. It was still quite dark and the roads were deserted. As we neared the Sankaracharya Matha, our friend noticed that my elder brother was constantly looking around on both sides of the road even as he continued to walk. Our friend enquired, ‘What are you looking for?’.
‘I was looking for a flower shop. I feel I should take an offering of flowers to Swamiji’. ‘He will not take it. Do not worry, come along. But if we find some flowers on the way, you can offer it to Chandramoulisvaraswami in the Sankara Matha’.
We continued walking. Suddenly, out of the darkness, when not even the first light of the day was to be seen, a man came walking towards us from the opposite end of the road. As he neared us, we saw that he held two large bags of fruits of all kind. My brother asked him if the fruits were for sale, and with the help of the Tamil friend on learning that the man was indeed taking the fruits for sale, purchased many fruits to his heart’s content to offer to Swamiji. We finally reached the Sankara Matha even as dawn was breaking. There was already a small crowd of devotees there, maybe forty or so of them.
The Sankaracharya Swamiji was seated on a darbasan on the floor in a small, thatched hut. His legs were folded sideways and he was holding his danda. He was poised and elegant and was a picture of beauty. His face was radiant and it made us feel jealous to see Him. Our Tamil friend introduced us. We went forward and putting the fruits on a bamboo plate we prostrated to Him. We learnt that Swamiji was observing mouna that day. Through gestures which His attendant and our Tamil friend interpreted for us, we were questioned at length by Swamiji and we were blessed to hold a lengthy conversation with Him.
What follows is my recollection of the conversation. Whenever we answered the questions that were put to us correctly, Swamiji would smile with His teeth flashing and shake His head in assent happily approving our answers. If the answer given was wrong, His expression would turn grim and he would shake His head from side to side in forceful negotiation.
“Where are you coming from?”
Swamiji shook his head vehemently rejecting our answer. After fumbling, finally my brother mentioned the name of our native village, really a tiny hamlet in the erstwhile East Bengal. My elder brother had lived there as a growing boy, but I had no experience of living there. My father had built a house in Calcutta and as children, we went there sometimes. Only the residents and natives of the region immediately around the hamlet would know of it. No sooner we mentioned the name of the hamlet, ‘Tehlir Bagh’ which is in the well-known Vishnupur district of Dhaka, a volley of questions were fired at us, following His approved acceptance of our answer. He began with making enquiries about the temple of our village-deity where my father had performed the annaprasna ceremony for my elder brother.
“Who takes care of the temple and of the village-deity now?”
“Who does the worship?”
“Is the method of worship followed by your forefathers and your grand-father still practiced today?”
“Are the annual festivities being performed?”
We were stunned. Swamiji questioned with thorough knowledge of the customs and traditions prevalent in our region referring to precise details of worship. He knew of the deity in the village, the kind of families which lived there and their traditions and ways of life. We felt that Swamiji must have either been there for a very long time or been a native of the hamlet Himself. Besides He had questions on all the temples in that area which my brother had himself visited and recalled to memory with effort. We struggled to answer His questions in a satisfactory manner because we were not sure of the details ourselves. Swamiji ‘spoke’ through gestures of course – with such authority and precision on a number of details concerning our life, traditions and customs and method of worship in a tiny hamlet, known to few of us, located in a faraway region that was once East Bengal and later became East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh!
We were deeply moved and my brother was so overwhelmed that he felt choked with tears. Unable to stand in the Swamiji’s divine presence at such close quarters anymore, he moved away and stood at a distance, his eyes closed and palms held together in salutation. I was now left alone to answer the questions, much to the amusement of the youngsters, I learn later. I was like a nervous student.
“Is there any sect of Bengalis that do not eat fish?”
“Now what kind of question is this’, I wondered. “Why, all Bengalis eat fish and everyone knows this!’.
So, very confidently, quite puzzled by such a question to which I thought anyone should know the answer, I replied, ‘No! Everybody eats fish in Bengal!”
Swamiji rejected my reply with a vehement shake of the head signifying negation when I hardly finished voicing it.
“There is no Bengali sect that does not eat fish, Swamiji! Everyone eats fish!’. I repeated my answer in unambiguous terms to drive home the point.
But Swamiji would not accept it. He rejected it again with the same grim expression. Puzzled by this, I moved away and hurried to my brother.
“Dada! What is this! Swamiji asked me if there is an sect of Bengalis that does not eat fish. I said that there is no such sect and that all Bengalis eat fish, but he does not accept the answer!”
“Why, there is a sect in our parts that does not eat fish! The Vaishnavas do not eat fish, no matter to which caste they belong”, my brother corrected me.
My brother went forward and with folded palms said, ‘Swamiji asked my brother if there was any sect of Bengalis that does not eat fish. He replied that there was none because he did not know. If Swamiji permits, I can give the correct answer!”.
Swamiji consented with a nod of his head.
“Swamiji, the Vaishnavas of Bengal do not eat fish, no matter to which caste they belong”.
Swamiji smiled graciously and accepted the answer to His question. He rewarded my brother by picking out a nice fruit from the plate, himself, and giving to the attendant signaled that it be handed over to my brother. My brother won a prize from Swamiji for answering the question correctly! All of us in our group felt blessed and later on all the devotees there told us that we were very fortunate to have been given so much time, attention and grace by Swamiji.
What left us dumbfounded was the extraordinary clarity and precision of detail Swamiji had of our hamlet and its ways of life and worship while all the time He was only communicating to us through gestures interpreted by an attendant. I wonder what we would have been put to, had he spoken to us directly with words. We saw Him just once, but how well we remember our visit!
Sitting in a small hut in Kanchipuram, He knew so much more about us than we did. We saw His divine radiance and His appearance was delightful to the eyes and to the heart’.