Lachung – a small town with breathtaking beauty, snow-clad mountains and inhabitants with perpetually happy faces was to be the historic place that would witness the transformation of an ageing IITian into a Budhist monk!
As soon as Albert let out the four-letter word –monk – yours truly had an unquenchable desire to see myself as a reverend monk. To the question ‘why now?’ I respond with a divine smile on my face – ‘why not?’
I have lived my life to the fullest, enjoyed marital bliss for over 40 years, with no one to grieve over my suddenly slipping into monkhood. I looked down at the valley where the monastery stood in its sacred glory and felt a strange sense of peace. I was already on a high, treating my doubting friends with disdain.
Soon I will be able to watch the magnificent sunrise from behind the Kanchenjhunga. The eternally flowing mountain streams will be there for me without having to pack up and go home to the plains.
“Come on, come on, the cars are ready for the visit to the monastery” the booming voice of the new Netaji, Anil Patel, who was appointed as the leader of the expedition just for this visit as Arun Joshi had opted out from the visit. Perhaps the unbearable pain of watching his buddy relinquishing his worldly avatar could one of the many reasons. Later I heard rumours that Shanta had talked him out of it lest he should get similar ideas.
The monastery appeared to be at a stone’s throw from our comfortable hotel but it was a good 30-minute drive downhill. K. P. Gwalani, who had taken upon himself the onerous task of managing me on way to the monastery as well my worldly belongings on the way back, sat next to me.
Lachung was one of the last places to visit for the group and as the cars rolled on, they started discussing the places to visit next year. The words Japan, Vietnam, Maldives kept cropping up.
“What do I care? For me it is a full stop here. Lachung will be my Japan, my Vietnam, my Maldives from now on. Never mind, Vatsa. These are just distractions” I checked myself.
Gwalani brought up the issue of grand celebrations for the Golden Jubilee of our graduation at IIT in 2019. My ears pricked up at the mention of the Golden Jubilee.
“Will they miss me? Will they miss the music of my humble banjo?”
It was a bit painful to see them discuss the plans for the forthcoming celebrations without me. “They have already erased me from their memory; how sad. Is this all that they care for?”
I looked at Gwalani, who had instinctively put his arm around my shoulder, but he was in an animated discussion with Bharat Shah, checking the dates for the celebration. His gesture of putting his arm around me was just a mechanical one then!
No one cares if Rajen Naik becomes a monk. I could almost hear Albert’s loud laughter from the other Innova car as it overtook our car.
Gosh! All my visions of my friends surrounding me with a look of admiration started disappearing swiftly.
“Why this haste? Why not wait till the Golden Jubilee in 2019? Why miss out on the tours to Japan, Vietnam and Maldives?” the monk in me started on a journey of self-doubt. Besides, they say that unfulfilled desires play havoc with spiritual progress.
No one noticed the cracks in my resolve precisely because they had already thrown me off their list.
The cars took the final turn into the huge compound of the monastery. Anil, the leader, jumped out of the car first, before his car had even screeched to a halt. The remaining ordinary mortals slowly tumbled out of the cars.
The imposing gates of the monastery were locked. One could view the monastery inside the gate. There was not a soul there – liberated or worldly.
Anil kept gazing at the gate and wondered whether all the monks had gone on a holiday. The Buddhist temple though was not only visible but also accessible through the barbed wire fence that was broken at places.
“Arrey Rajen, aaj teraa kuchh hone wala nahin hai aisa lagtaa hai,” Albert prophesized. I really hoped that his prophecy would turn out to be true. That would save me from embarrassment without having to express my dithering thoughts.
I tried to retain my divine composure, befitting the frame of a person about to don the attire of a monk. I walked towards the monastery with others like the proverbial sacrificial lamb.
I froze at the huge entrance of the temple – it was open! But there was no one around even in the temple. No priest, no cleaners, no devotees.
“I still stand to redeem my pride” I reckoned. “Jiskaa koi nahin uskaa bhagwaan hota hai.”
There was no priest to grant me the monkhood. Everyone just went around the temple, marveling at the architecture and prayed in whatever way they considered appropriate.
“Hard luck, Rajen,” Albert quipped and smiled.
“Chalo theek hi hua, now Rajen will play his banjo at the Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2019,” Gwalani declared without checking with me.
“Don’t you want to go in and offer prayers, Rajen,” the leader Anil suggested.
“It is all right, Anil. I am heart-broken right now and no God can mend it. I will take a rain check and pray not just for me for all of you once we are through with the Golden Jubilee of graduation in 2019,” said the relieved future monk.
On our return trip back to the hotel I kept gazing at the monastery that would probably be my home post-Golden Jubilee. Who knows? At least it was an honest attempt at breaking free of the cycle of births.
As a part of the preparations for the IIT entrance exam most of us from Mumbai had enrolled in the popular coaching classes called “Agarwal Classes” at Dadar TT.
Mr. Agarwal – himself never going beyond Inter Science level – was known for his tough training, punishing the laggards by having them remain standing throughout the duration of the class.
One of his hilarious rejoinders to the student who had failed to submit homework was: “Try kiyaa? Try kiyaa to dikhao mujhe, kahan pe kiya hai. Solution nahi aayaa to koi baat nahin, lekin try kiyaa wo dikhao.”
So here I was – he who tried but for whom circumstances pushed the event away by two years.
Back at the hotel, Arun raised his eyebrows and muttered something about having to “add one extra person” for the dinner.
The monk-in-waiting slept well that night.