It was after more than two years that I was heading to Tirupati. Not that I had planned to myself; my sister in Calcutta (not Kolkata for me) was after me the past two months, urging me to schedule a trip to the Tirupati Hill. So, finally the day arrived. It was a Sunday, the last day of February, and we were up at 4am to get ready and be at the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC) office on Wallajah Road before 6am when the bus, an air-conditioned Volvo, would leave.
When we arrived, we saw the office closed and there were only stray dogs to greet us. The outer area looked like it was shelled in an air raid. The boundary walls were gone; there was a huge dug-up area all around resembling a moat, which made it impossible to people to get into the office without balancing steadily on make-shift plywood boards nailed together. All this thanks to the construction of the new Secretariat complex (one wonders what will happen to Mount Road once it is inaugurated and the meetings begin). Some of the staff were asleep inside. We got to know as the lights inside suddenly came on and a person was putting on his trousers and shirt.
Breakfast was at a wayside motel, or so the guide announced. But we were shepherded into a large mandapam where tables and chairs were arranged as is done for weddings and the like. There were idlis and vada, pongal as well, and a small cup of coffee. Quite filling then, but not quite enough considering that all of us had to do without the promised lunch and almost starve till late in the evening.
Our guide (Alvin was his name if we heard him correctly) I’m sure knew exactly how it would be at Tirupati. He did announce that the rush was so huge the previous day that people had to wait in queue for seven hours. However, to comfort us, he said that the rush might not be as much on Sunday. How wrong he was! Perhaps it was only to be expected – after all, it was Holi, Pournami day, and Monday was holiday for many in the north. All this we learnt only much later. As a good guide, he should have told us clearly what to expect, but perhaps, looking at it from his point of view, it was best to make the travellers feel easy. My sympathies are, of course, with Alvin. Managing a group of tourists and taking responsibility for their welfare is not easy at all.
Well, things went according to plan till we reached Tirumala. The only unexpected thing was a change of bus – from the Volvo to an ordinary Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation bus. The change-over indeed jolted us to reality. As we always do in India, everybody rushed to get inside. There were even some who threw handbags and kerchiefs inside to bag places. I managed to find a place at the rear, sandwiched between a relative and two Bengali men with hardly anything to hold on to. The driver seemed to be in a tearing hurry and the bus swayed from one side to the other as he manoeuvered the bends. I was hoping I wouldn’t get nausea and puke. Luckily, I didn’t.
At Tirumala, we were asked to head to one SN Cottage. The first floor that had two rooms and bathrooms were for us, one for men and the other for the ladies. I almost burst out laughing as the queue formed to get into the toilet. Reminded me of the chawls in good old Bombay. Ablutions over, we followed the guide to the temple barefoot. He had our mobile phones (switched off) and cameras locked up in one of the rooms. Little did we know how long it would take before we got back!