He had lost interest in life. His life had turned into one like those countless chickens in poultry farms, just that unlike the chicken he had the capability as a human being to end his life by his own will. There were many a time when he had a strong urge to end his life.
Life in Trondheim, Norway was far from impressive for Jan-Erik. Norway has been ranked consistently as a top performer in the world surveys as one of the happiest places in the world. For all he knew, the definitions of happiness in the survey did not tally with his notion of happiness. Or perhaps, the protracted and lonely dark winters there or some kind of Nordic depression gene always kept him dismally depressed. This had been his state – a wasted aimless life in torment – ever since his memory could rewind it for him. He had consulted psychiatrists, joined loners’ clubs, taken meditation courses, practiced yoga – done it all. Yet, everything seemed so empty. One of the worst things while you’re depressed is that even the tolerably passing things seem somehow permanent. You enter a vicious cycle of heartache, low spirits and self-pity.
It was an unremarkable day, parenthetically Jan-Erik’s thirty-sixth birthday. He wakes up himself and his laptop by jiggling the lifeless mouse resolutely, clearly not to make plans for his birthday, but to learn more about an alien country. A few days back he’d overheard a group of people, rather disinterestedly, discuss about how happy people were in not-so developed countries – India for example. Jan-Erik was never interested in socializing and shunned people like a prey trying to escape from its predator. He had no irresistible wanderlust either- there was no desire to travel the world; all he’d seen in his life is a little of Nordic. But now that he’d decided to break the chains which life had girdled around him, he felt free without a care for what he was and what his likings were. By the end of his two-hour intense google-search, he’d pinned down upon Puri, the abode of Lord Jagannath – a remote place by any standards for a Scandinavian. He’d heard about India, of Kerala, of Goa, of Taj but never of Puri. Universe never wants anyone to stay sad for long; it is we who take ourselves seriously and invite sorrow.
Somehow this idea of last-wish stuck him – maybe a colleague (he’d no real friends) suggested it to him – he wanted to die in the spiritual land. Being cremated in India seemed hinted to him as a short cut to break out from the unending, ever gloomy cycle of rebirth. Or, maybe he just wanted to do something different before he died. Anyway, the point is Jan-Erik was not in a balanced state of mind and a change of place from his country of birth to an exotic land, even for the intent of spending the last few days, appeared like an alluring option to him. All his life he’d lived in Norway. He wanted to breathe his last in another country, not where he’d lived all his life.
Life had taken an unaccustomed turn for Jan-Erik. He’d found out about Puri, as much as he could do without actually being there. The mystifying, rainbow images of Puri and Sri Jagannath kept persisting in his dreams like a virtual tour, almost real for him. He was hypnotized with the idea of visiting Puri and getting a darshan of his lord. He’d imagine he was born in India in his last birth. Seeing Jagannath in his dreams, which turned commonplace after a couple of days, gave him a high more pronounced than his past cocaine addiction. “Is this some kind of hallucination? Am I turning psychotic?” he’d continue to gawk, while his overwhelming hallucination scaled higher into an endless sky.
In a matter of days he was disposed for the trip. He wanted to be free, not just speak of freedom as a goal. The truth is that he did not own much. Whatever little he had he sold those things or gave it away to others, who needed it more than he did. He even discarded some fragments of his old self.
He headed straight to Puri. It was the first place in India he ever visited, not counting the port of arrival – Kolkata. Puri proved to be very different to what little he’d seen of it on the internet. Reality was a contrast – a picture of outlandish chaos to him; hell won’t be very different than this is what he felt. He could not breathe. This is not what he’d imagined Puri to be. He’d read that it was the pathway through which one could get rid of the wheel of existence, escape the cruel cycle of rebirth, you could attain Nirvana (Jagannath, literally the lord of universe, probably had some plans for him). No way, not here!
He locked himself in a low-budget hotel with a name similar to scores of hotels conjoined to each other starting with word ‘Sea’. He was in Puri, the supreme, spiritual land but it did not accord with his interpretation of liberation. Now, the entire world resembled a big diabolical place – just that some places looked better than others.
In a couple of hours the initial bout of anxiety and irritation made way for curiosity. Jan-Erik started walking towards the temple.
Outside the temple he finds hordes of hawkers shouting as loud as they could, beggars who looked poor and starved, stalls selling religious items, unhygienic food stalls with flies floating all over, and the bicycles and motor bikes sailing through the sea of people, cows, stray dogs and through all kinds of shit. Crowds of people, mostly barefoot, were heading in and out of the temple. Jan-Erik would not be able to enter the Jagannath temple; he was aware that the temple was barred to non-Hindus. As white as he was owing to his Scandinavian origin, he would stand out like a sore thumb, like an outcast white tiger amongst a gigantic ambush of the usual orange-cinnamon tigers. But he still wanted to. In this life.
He rests himself a little away from the crowded road, in front of a quaint paan shop selling paan, chocolates, cigarettes and bidis and bhang. The Paanwala with a thick moustache, chewing a paan of his own make, was engaged in serious discussions while doing his business. He was wearing a white colored dhoti with a gamucha around his neck. He looked like a character straight from the past. The Paanwala’s eye caught Jan-Erik’s eyes and he enquired with the firang “Do you want some ‘Green Fanta’? Authentic Indian bhang”. It was an appeal which got nothing more than a spell of indifferent silence from the prospective buyer. He vaguely remembered someone mention about ‘bhang & paan’ – these abhorrent stuff. He just did not want to speak to a stranger in this part of the world.
As it happens in this part of the world, the sun sets rather too early. There was new moon in the sky. Jan-Erik stood there silent, passively observing all that surrounded him. Abnormalities seemed quite normal here. He had nothing to lose, nothing to fear, after all. He stood still like the moon above his head. The mishmash of the flickering lights of lamps and the ever rising decibels of kirtans, chanting, bhajans in the nearby temples and mutts soon created a sort of mystic, celestial effect. There, in the distance, stood the impressive dome of Sri Mandira, the temple of the Lord of the Universe. Strangely despite his fatalistic self, he could feel positive vibrations outside him, within him. He feels connected to the place. He feels empowered.
Time freezes for Jan-Erik, but slides on surreptitiously in the background. He is awaken from his stupor by the sound of closing shutters. The Paanwala calls out as he moves towards him “Hey! You want something?” Jan-Erik says after some delay “I want to see Lord Jagannath”. The Paanwala says with a smirk “You also know that you can’t enter the temple, but you’re a true bhakta. We’ll do something about this. Meet me at my shop tomorrow”
The first half of the first night in Puri felt so hot that Jan-Erik could not sleep. His bed was wet with his sweat; it was like lying in a bathtub of sweat. Even the cushion was dripping dank. But water, whether rain or sweat, cools you down. He did not react, his mind did not moan. He just completely submitted his self to the prevailing reality. Suddenly, like a refreshing breeze, the realization dawned on him “Why not surrender my life instead of trying to fight it out? Why not spend my life in service of others?” It was an opportunity and a spell to learn tolerance – tolerance like that of a large Banyan tree. He’d found a slim way of life, that’d suit his style.
Next morning, much before his shop had opened there was a visitor waiting for him. The Paanwala introduced himself as Utkalamani, Utkala in short. He was a localite and appeared to have some influence. To start with, there were some communication issues – Utkala spoke broken English with a strong Odiya accent with a large paan stuffed in his mouth. But as it happens, general warmth destroyed the language barrier. In a few minutes, Utkala had arranged for Jan-Erik to view the proceedings inside the temple from the roof of one Raghunandan library within the precincts of the temple, for a small fee, rather a donation. He could not enter the temple, but like an eagle could watch his target from a distance without having to land there. He still could not get a darshan. Utkala had a quick fix for that as well. Unfortunates like Jan-Erik who are not allowed to enter the temple, can still get a darshan, without breaking the rule of entering of the temple premise. Utkala escorted him to the gate of the temple, from where he could see the Patita Paban image, a replica of Sri Jagannath. There is always a way out in life, if you are ready to reconcile with an alternative.
They started to walk back. Utkala in his usual leisurely style stuffed in a paan into his mouth but not before offering one to Jan-Erik. Jan-Erik remarked casually “Doesn’t this have tobacco?” Utkala quipped back “My friend, long before they began announcing on TV and movie halls – tobacco is injurious to health, I’d been addicted. Now there is no return. It is okay for those who started this habit before these announcements”. Both of them had a hearty laugh.
Utkala handed him a Tulasi-mala, which he had specially arranged to be touched by the idol of Jagannath before turning into a gift for Jan-Erik. It felt like he’d touched his lord’s feet. He felt connected with Him.
Puri and its lord, Jagannath had arranged a lesson for him – a lesson which would last his conscious life and beyond.
The Sankaracharya of Puri, the Gajapati Maharaja (king of Puri) and the Chhatisha Niyoga (temple’s priests’ body) are the people, who can decide on any modification or change in the rules of the temple. Maybe, there will come a day when Bhaktas like Jan-Erik would be allowed to get darshan of Sri Jagannath Bhagwan inside the temple. For now, Jan-Erik is settled in a village called Kakiriguma, in Koraput- a remote tribal village in the tribal district of Odisha. He runs a guest house there for a living, while supporting his passion and purpose of his life – teaching tribal children in the village.