It had been over a couple of months this time. A pang of dull stabbing guilt for not making it to the sacred pilgrimage like every month was a disquieting feeling I could not neglect any longer. For a decade and a half, I’d been devotedly frequenting the holy place- and been almost gawking at the revamp of the Hindu shrine over the years.

An impulsive quirk one afternoon had me heading uphill with a few days remaining to clock the month-end. I was in my usual blue jeans with my spectacular looking tote-bag,  and hair ends in blonde ruffled up in a knot for that erring Anglo-Indian look. Did I look outlandish or what that day? I had to because I so felt like a scapegoat-for the unappreciated pilgrimage revenues just about beaten out of me that day.

The first surefooted step on the marbled stairs set me on my metaphorical journey into my own beliefs. The deity in mind did little to dissuade the forbearing bawling of the shopkeepers, each of who stood with one foot out of their business space to call one’s attention. That’s the first checkpoint of the guilt trip I take my self through- for refraining from recognizing their beseeching to stop by at their little shop to buy the “prasad”. By the time I make it to the final footsteps of the ‘Bhawan”, I leave behind a long row of pleading shopkeepers, with guilt creeping inside me for not responding to them empathetically.

A bit of a relief in a group of untidy children idly playing around in the corridor or clustered near the stairs motionless and glaring with ‘need’ in their eyes, yet not intruding. Whoa! I’ve been spared- only to realize a few moments later that they are part of the return brigade for imploring the pilgrims on their way back from the shrine.

Soothing vibes bring on the devotees forward on to the entrance of the shrine. The air brims with chants, prayers and an aura of humble submissions before the deity. The sweet fragrance of roses, the aromatic scent of incense and the peal of meditative bells flood the soul with the sacredness of the holy place I am about to enter.

A short distance and a barricade between the ‘Mata’s deity’ places me under the scheming eyes of the elderly ‘pundit’ who earmarks the fat purses through his years of insincere experience of culling the pilgrims. In his own secret language, the chosen ones are assigned to the junior ‘pundits’ in the guise of performing the religious rites for thoroughing one’s sacrosanct journey.

The ‘Pundit Ji’ in a loose white outfit adorning a saffron scarf around his neck, his forehead marked with a thick long red “tikka” winds out of the Bhawan holding a ‘Mauli’ behind the solid gold barricade. He begins to mechanically chant “mantras” with concentration strong enough to impress me he had the power of a superhuman being to consecrate. His prayers last longer than I thought and were signed off with a voice of concern over having been able to have had a gratifying range of the deity’s view. Okay, so the excessive attentiveness was a no subtle tip-off for being suitably rewarded in cash [what’s kind- only cash, please]. Quite accustomed to the payoff for the ceremonies just performed I made a rather over-generous offering. Not quite happy, his wide eyes drip with greed and thwarted expectations. In less than a minute we both were bargaining like street shoppers. I was determined but he had a plan. “You see what you’re giving is to be equally split amongst all the priests inside” That probably came from their marketing playbook. The hard-selling manifested in a distaste for economics behind their prayers.

I head out of the mandir to get myself away sooner than soon. While the mystic allurement of the mandir was lugging a part of me to stay on longer, the disgust for the commercialization just had to have myself removed from what seemed like a marketplace.

Descending the stairs on my way back through the alley with shopkeepers fixing their gazes at me for the slightest eye contact, I almost headed down with my eyes locked on the ground. Just then the group of the nice girls on my way up began getting all over me- from pulling my clothes to touching my hands, and even blocking my way from moving forward. The young priest’s ritual shot back in my ears, “Offer the prasad to the ‘Kanjaks’ first. Yes, of course, his directions were very clear in setting the downline in motion and then it was all about their art of clinging to me like ivy. From chocolates to wheat; from a meal to ask for dollars, the little girls put before me an array of options to choose from. The pulling, the nudging, and the crowd of girls swelling up by the time I reached the parking lot were enough to talk to myself aloud that I felt being robbed of my religious sentiments.

The sight of my car never seemed so relieving as it did that day- I was just a few steps away from being rescued by a mob of locals bent upon beating bucks out of me for my religious penchant. As I sat in the safeness of my car the driver started the downhill drive and I looked back at the “mandir” appearing smaller the faster the car moved away. Another feeling of guilt sneaked inside me- I felt like a runaway leaving behind God seemingly helpless amongst the pecuniary cult.