When I first saw him, he was calmly smoking a beedi. All around him, devotees were teeming, anxious to dip in the sangam while it was still auspicious time. He was taking in the melee with a bemused look. I never could never quite settle the question of whether he was a bona fide swami or just someone playing the role and having fun while at it.
His prominently parked bicycle had caught my eye first. He was standing off to the side in the sandy delta formed by the intersection of the two rivers. He had laid down a couple of tattered mats and made himself home right there.
It was nearing 9 a.m. and I had been up since four. Hoping for a break, I walked up to him. His cycle was painted the same saffron color as his robes. He had matted dreadlocks, a flowing gray beard and was wearing dark glasses.
"Namaste." He gave a welcoming nod.
While the crowd of thousands and thousands had all walked to the sangam, his was the only bicycle that I noticed. I asked him if he had cycled to the mela.
“Yes, I did,” he said, beaming. He pointed to a sign in his cycle.
Mounted on his bicycle frame, in the triangle formed between the seat, the handlebar and the pedals, was a big white triangular sign. In bright red, someone had hand-painted rows and rows of tiny letters – a log of all of his long-distance biking trips. The freshest entry showed that he had left his hometown almost a month ago. It also said that in this same trip, he was off to Nepal.
I asked his permission to take a photograph. "Are you going to write about me?" he wanted to know. Yes, swamiji.
"I go everywhere with my bike,” he said. “I have ridden more that 80,000 kms in it. They call me the Cycle Swami."
I had a small notebook with me and I was jotting down things in it occasionally. Seeing my notebook, he started to work the press in earnest.
“Beedi peeyenge?” He shook one out of its bundle and held it out as if it was a divine offering. For a second, I felt like I had to put out my right hand over my left, bow reverently and accept the beedi. A quirky headline occurred to me to accompany the still image in the back page of Kumbh Times. Cycle Swami Bestowing Beedi Prasad.
“Nahin, Swamiji,” I declined his offer of the beedi. He seemed surprised that I didn’t want to smoke. It had been a chilly morning.
He then asked me to sit down in one of his mats. In front of us, the mad rush of pilgrims towards the sangam continued unabated. In the midst of all that chaos, the swami seemed to have created a tiny little oasis of peace. It occurred to me that he might not even have bothered to take a dip in the cold water, but I didn’t dare to ask him that question. I didn’t want him to think I was being blasphemous. He offered to show me something. His whole luggage was strapped to the back-carrier of his bike. He pulled out a paper for me from a plastic bag hanging to the side. It was a letter typed in Hindi from the Governor of Madhya Pradesh wishing him the best for his trip to the 2001 Maha Kumbh Mela.
“Yeh to jerox kapi hai.This is only a photocopy. Let me show you the original!' He fished around deeper in his bedroll and pulled out a red folder. The original was there. Swamiji also had an album full of newspaper clips and photographs from his various trips. He clearly relished showing me all the articles written about him, and there were quite a few.
He was treating me as a journalist, and it was clear that he had given several interviews in the past. I used this opportunity to ask him a lot of questions that I was curious about.
I started off by asking him about his trips. He said he had undertaken over a dozen trips of considerable distance, all of them duly painted in his sign-plate with the accompanying dates.
How much did he travel a day?
"I am 65 years old, but I can bike 100-125 kms in a day! A lot of jawans (young people) tell me that even they cannot ride that much in a day.” He might have renounced a lot of things, but his pride was still very much in evidence. I was very impressed with his achievements. I know people who have paid upwards of a thousand dollars for state-of-the-art lightweight bicycles meant for long distance riding. This man, in his rickety bicycle, had been as far south as Rameshwaram and to Kashmir in the north.
Where did he sleep?
“Oh, wherever I can find shelter. Sometimes in the villages I reach in the evenings. A lot of people know me. At other times, in roadside temples.”
Even though he was an ascetic, I asked him: Did he have a family?
“Yes, I have a wife. I have two sons who work in offices.”
Didn't they worry that he was gone for these long durations of time?
“No, word gets around. Also, if I have planned a two month trip, I tell them that I will be gone for two and a half. That way, I am back ahead of time.” He smiled at his ingenuity.
Finally, I asked him the money question. In as circumspect a manner as my Hindi would allow me, I asked him: How did he manage the money for his trips?
I ask the money question every chance I get. I ask not because I am nosy about other people’s finances. The only reason I ask is that the decision-making process that allows some people to disregard the conventional wisdom about how essential a steady income is fascinates me. While the rest of us cling to our day jobs and put up with the daily grind, anyone who bucks tradition and steps off the narrow ledge of having to go to work day after day is a hero to me. Some jump off, confident that there will be a safety net waiting for them. Others are confident that they can fly.
So I asked the swami: What did he do about money?
He gave a tangential answer, not getting down to actual numbers.
“I eat whatever I can get. A lot of people help me.” Then he looked at me and saw that I wasn’t satisfied with his answer. With the merest hint of exasperation, he pointed heavenwards.
"Wo dekhbal karega, na?" (He will take care of me, won’t he?)
To do my part in keeping the cycle swami on the road, I handed him some money and thanked him for his time. He took the money with the same bemused smile he’d had when I had first seen him. With what appeared to be sleight-of-hand it disappeared somewhere into the folds of his saffron robes. He hadn’t even glanced at the amount. He had accepted it with a true ascetic’s detachment to money.
Leaving the cycle swami in his serene encampment, I stepped out and merged back into the throng of Kumbh devotees.