The Man from Madras Musings is a regular at the temple dedicated to the God of Skulls, located in Peacock Land. You can see him there almost every Sunday. The place has been witnessing record crowds of late, but the administration ensures that everything is ship-shape and functioning at the height of efficiency. The temple, in short, has not had it so good in quite a while. But there is always the thorn among the roses and in this case it happens to be the place where you leave your footwear.
There was a time when a signboard would exhort everyone to leave his or her ‘chapel’ at the counter. This was pretty much superfluous and served the sole purpose of amusing MMM who could have written a whole tract on the philosophical underpinnings of such a Freudian slip. But the Chief always being against any writing that could start a riot, MMM desisted. Anyway, that placard has gone and the faithful, knowing what is expected of them, throng at the counter to leave their chapels, sorry, footwear behind.
This is where their travails begin. The counter is actually a boxed-in concrete structure with grilles all around. It would not be out of place in a zoo, for it has a marked resemblance to a lion’s cage. You will always see an excited group of people peering into it and there will always emanate from within a series of bad-tempered growls, as emitted by the lion in the zoo if its daily rations are somewhat delayed. A closer look will reveal to you a leonine individual prowling hither and thither. He is the much-feared man in charge of the counter.
Now, this is a fairly simple operation. You turn up at the window with your footwear in your hand. The man gives you a numbered token, writes down the same number on the upturned soles of your footwear and then places them in a slot. When you return, you present your token, get your shoes or slippers or sandals or whatever, place a coin or two as a token of appreciation in a box and walk away. No rocket science here. But it all gets so complicated in reality that you would be better off leaving your footwear at home.
As always, there are faults on both sides. The throng being what it is, you need four times the number of people who are usually there to man the counter and that number is inevitably One. There are no separate in and out queues and even if there were, our populace, which believes firmly in lateral thinking, forms several, until there are as many lines as there are people outside the windows. To anyone not familiar with what is happening it would appear that besiegers were trying to break in and one man was defending the room. Thus, with the division between in and out queues getting blurred, the man at the counter gets all confused. He never knows for certain as to whether he is collecting footwear or returning them. If that were not enough, the man perpetually runs out of numbered tokens. That means people who have come to give in their shoes have to wait till someone who is inside the shrine returns, hands over his/her token, collects his/her footwear and leaves. This only adds to the numbers at the window. It also means that the tokens become at times more valuable than coins minted by the Reserve Bank of India. Those at the counter decide on who is to get the token next and MMM will not be surprised if a blackmarket of sorts soon begins to operate outside the temple.
These are days when the average size of a family is four and when all of them call on the God of the Skulls, it is not one member who collects the footwear of all others and delivers them at the window. Each individual holds out his/her slippers and this includes grandmother who has osteoarthritis, father who has a paunch that could crush six, and the young stripling whose weight already needs measurement in tonnes. All of them crowd the window holding out their footwear. In the process, grandmother of Family 1 has her toes trod upon by child of Family 2 who in turn has elbowed mother of Family 3 in the process of making it to the window. This means pater familias of Family 1, whose honour has been besmirched, has to challenge his counterpart in Family 2 to a duel even as the head of Family 3 generally vents his ire at the man inside the counter. That functionary, who is forever on the boil, rarely suffers from a shortage of insults and soon there is a free for all.
In the meanwhile, as is usually the practice in our nation, some enterprising individuals have found a short cut to the system. They, having discovered the door through which those at the counter enter and exit, simply walk in and leave their footwear on the floor and walk out. The counter manager shouts out that he is not responsible for what is left that way and the people should not hold him responsible in case the shoes are missing when they return. To this the inevitable response of the intruders is that in case the shoes are missing, they, the erstwhile owners of the shoes, would ‘attend to’ the man in charge on their return. More curses are then exchanged. In short, the atmosphere is charged and you could expect the God of Skulls to strike with thunderbolts at any time.
The process of collecting footwear is no joke either. Having navigated the crowds at the window and furnished your token, you shall have to catch the eye of the man who will dispense your footwear. The only signal that he recognises is the glitter of a coin. Not that MMM minds, but it is the lack of a system in an otherwise well-run shrine that is particularly galling. Those like MMM, who have long given up any hopes of their footwear being in safe custody while they go in to pray, make informal arrangements with shopkeepers nearby. There again, there is no guarantee for the safety of the footwear. MMM for one invariably ends up praying that he should find his shoes on return. The Gods have smiled on his entreaties till now. It is no wonder that the area near the entrance of the temple is a sea of footwear. There is also no space where people can sit and put on their shoes. Not everyone is agile enough to manage this standing and some of the poses struck in the process could teach The Lord of Dance a thing or two.
And yet the solution is quite simple too, as has been demonstrated in places such as Madurai and Thanjavur. We need more people manning the counter and a woman or two will only help, for they bring in certain patience to the task they handle. The pilgrims will also behave better, and will be less prone to some of their cheap behaviour. The entire practice of handing over footwear, often soiled as well, can be avoided if there is a system of people being asked to place them in cartons or plastic bags, to be made available at the counter. There could even be gunny bags for large groups of ten and more people. That way, only one member out of the group needs to stand in the queue to hand over and collect the footwear. And of course, we need more tokens to be produced and made available. Let us not make a virtue out of an artificially created shortage.