Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Arunagiri Diaries

Early last year, I made a startling discovery. I chanced upon it when I was clearing an old trunk from the attic yesterday. There was a set of books that smelt their age, some partially- torn diaries, papers, maps, photographs and other assortments that must have belonged to my uncle Srinivasan, about whom I knew very little until I found this. The proper thing to do would have been to burn them or discard them, but curiosity got the better of me. I must confess my curiosity was rekindled by the thought, even a fear, that my uncle might have been a great mathematician whose works were so far condemned to my attic, and that to destroy them might be an injustice to his genius. As it turned out, I was both right and wrong. Wrong, because Srinivasan Vaideeswaran was not a mathematician and right, because as you will read below, one of those diaries, though partly destroyed contained several rare first-hand accounts and chronicles that truly deserved preservation. Unfortunately, there are only a few pages which are today in any legible condition, and I have reproduced here, in full, a few of these pages, arranged chronologically.


There are few people in the world who have combined the contradictory forces of mysticism, madness and maturity into a potent philosophy as well as the man they call Maniyaru. He has been only recently written about by most self-respecting dailies, described either as a cult-guru or just as a supremely approachable philosopher. Sitting in the cradle of one of Tamil Nadu's most orthodox and religious belts, he has on more than one occasion spoken words of such terrible simplicity that the theists and atheists alike shuddered in awe and disbelief. As soon as they recovered from the spells cast by these magic words, they unabashedly resumed in their mundane debates and bickering about the nature and existence of God.

He was unlike any other man of wisdom of this age. He propounded no faith; he taught no method to reach the absolute, and spoke no ambiguous sophism - and yet that was his philosophy and that was his secret charm. He did not ridicule the practitioners of the most organized religions of the world, nor did he insinuate anything against the nihilists and the non-believers.

Some scholars said he was a doctor in the meta-physical domain. Others said he was just a lucky lunatic. Maniyaru could not care less. The most publicised piece of information about him was that he consumed a small amount of poison every day. And unlike other stories written about him, this was the one true story, verified by his own admission that he believed the right amount of poison at regular intervals was the secret to a long and healthy life. It should be no surprise then that this man is believed to have been climbing the Arunagiri mountain everyday for the last 48 years. Although no one knows where he was born or when, conservative estimates indicate that he is atleast 96 years old today.

Having heard only very recently about the man, and totally mesmerised by what was said about him, Raghu and I required no further motivation to set out to meet this strange man. We packed a few bags full of clothes, a Minolta camera and some munchables, and left by the 6.a.m train out of Bombay to Madras. After the train snailed into Madras Central at 10 a.m. yesterday, the 3rd of March 1978, we took a bus further south to the temple town of Madurai, and after some refreshments, we travelled further to the small town of Arunagiri, where we arrived late last night, tired, yet somewhat refreshed with the prospect of an exciting day today.

We left our small room in the lodge early in the morning, to ensure that we give ourselves the earliest chance of spotting him. Besides this would also give us so much longer to attempt to talk to him, if we did find him. And in the sweet mellow light of dawn, we walked steadily, towards the hill that now symbolized the single-minded pointedness of our pursuit, as much as it symbolized the unexplored facets of the man we were hoping to have an encounter with.

By quarter past eight, we had climbed to almost a fifth of the height of the hill, and in doing so, we also realised that Arunagiri was actually a pretty neat stretch from an adventurer's perspective, and even in the absence of a motivation as strong as the one we had, people should be gladly willing to go trekking around here. There was a densely vegetated area at the foot of the hills and as you climbed up there were progressively taller and fewer trees, but at each stage of ascent, I felt like I was developing an ever-so-subtly increasing familiarity with the hill. It almost felt like the first stages of a friendship, replete with little hesitant introductions and conscious smiles interspersed with short gusts of small talk.

I do not know today how long this friendship will last, but I have a reasonable intuition that it will last for a while, because the friendships in life that last the longest are those that are secured by the undiminishing power of admiration yet unchained by any need imposed by the rationality of the selfish mind.

(.....the other pages to follow...)