Belur, 1996: It was one of the designated stops in the long tour around Mysore. My parents and I have always been thrilled to visit temples for a different reason – architecture. And Belur seemed to be an excellent choice at that. The cab stopped at the gate allowing us a generous 2-hour stint in the temple. With the sun beating down with vengeance, we had to cool off with some iced-snacks first and then entered the premises. Before we surveyed the guides who weren’t engaged with tourists, a man popped up from nowhere, greeting us with a wry smile over those parched lips. He called himself an official guide for the temple and led us to the insides.
There were 10 more tourists with us, all from different parts of India. He queried the languages we spoke and spontaneously delivered his guided speech in layman’s English with an effortless mix of the vernaculars so that everybody got a gist of what he was talking about. Sure that people always brighten up when they hear a stranger talk to them in their native tongue, especially with some humor. He soon ripped off a few visitors from the other guides and in no time, he was leading around 20 to 25 people into the dark alleys of the temple. People were keener in taking pictures than attending to his lecture on the sculptures and their background stories. Though he paused several times for people to take pictures, they took pictures even while he was talking. Sometimes, people just want memories of the visit and not the information from the visit. The barrage of camera flashes didn’t bother him though as he kept pouring stories on every minute carvings on the walls and ceilings.
As we walked outside, I thought he was done for the day. But he began a new chapter like a tireless sage of overflowing wisdom. He told us stories in chains I even began to think whether he was really making them up. Such fluency with profundity in what he does is a rare sight in the current world of growing skin-deep showmanship. Though he had done this day in day out he was no mug with the information he had. He answered interesting questions from a few inquisitive tourists and backed his stories with accurate historical facts. They nodded in appreciation and sometimes in wide-eyed admiration. I was one among them. I have had teachers at school who never taught History as an art. They are not to be blamed, however. Who could draw inspiration from looking into stale pictures of bronze coins and fossils and stone carvings on a book? We have to be there, right there to teach it or study it. To grace your fingers over those fine, ingenious sculptures is to truly feel the intricacies reflecting the exquisite craftsmanship that are seldom taught in classrooms. I like History. But during school days, it was more like a fever to be ridden of, facts to be memorized, and marks to be scored from. It never gained any relevance for the kids. History is a story, a bigger story of how we all got here. It’s a primordially relevant story that shows us our roots and how strong we were to become what we are. And those who master it make excellent guides of the bigger picture. This guide, standing in front of us, with a dry throat, a bold mustache, an old HMT watch that he occasionally liked to dangle around his wrist, a drenched kerchief tucked partially into his shirt pocket, and patches of thick sweat around the armpits, and a stained white cap is a living proof of the excellent kind. The way he drew himself close to those sculptures and pinpointed the beauty of the little curves and odd depressions in them showed how much he was into it. He was a little genius who had absolutely no idea of what he was accomplishing. He explained complex, winding, historic tales and theories in the simplest form possible that even as an ignorant simpleton I could understand and remember with relevance. That’s the hallmark of a great teacher.
After the guided tour was over, and we were done taking pictures, he came to us for the fee. The guide charge on the board read 30 Rs. An old man from one of the families discussed with his brothers for a long time and finally gave the longing guide a 2-rupee note that seemed to have survived some serious battering. He was totally sunk in embarrassment. In a broken voice, he started demanding the official charge but the old man brazenly said, “How much more do you expect us to give a guide? That charge you have on the board is daylight robbery” chomping on a few oil-soaked samosas that he had bought a while back for 20 bucks.
He had no options but to argue with them for what he deserved. He lamented, “Sir, I am a B.A. History graduate and you treat me like this. We don’t have any other sources of income. This is all I do every day. Don’t insult me. I am not even asking you for tips. Give me at least the charge that’s official.” But they simply turned a deaf ear to him. We gave him 100 Rs, which he accepted with a gleeful smile followed by a friendly salute. It was more of a solace for the bad episode. But he didn’t indulge or revel in the fact that he got a good tip. He simply moved on to the next set of tourists that got out of the bus. He had work to do, remember? As I left the place that evening, I not only rejoiced the timeless beauty of the temple’s meticulous architecture but also the rewarding experience of watching a guide who was a great teacher, and of course, a misplaced one.