At 4.30am precisely, a cream Ambassador car drew up alongside the narrow lane which lead to my hotel. I had startled the Gurkha guard when, at 4.15, I had asked to be let out of the locked gate. The streets were empty but I could hear movement in the ancient houses either side of the lane. India wakes early. The devout, which appears to number almost everyone, rise, shower and pray to their chosen deity.
The money-changer’s car sped along the empty roads, headlights picking out clumps of sleeping bodies huddling together upon the pavements. I was shocked – in those days in Kenya urban poverty was relatively uncommon. We slewed to a halt. The doors were flung open and we stepped along a narrow slit between houses. The sky opened up and I gazed at abundant stars. A faint patch of light towards the east hinted the day was about to begin and I made out the muddy course of the wide Yamuna.
We walked along the raised grassy bank until we came to a temple perched above the shallow valley the river had made. Perhaps forty women and men stood in silence. The old figure I recognised from the photo was busy lighting a lamp. He handed it to one of the women and his eyes turned towards to east, flicking aside his woollen shawl, he lifted his conch and blew. The low note hung in the chilly air as we watched day break. And as the sun burst forth with a brilliant note, bells and brass plates sounded as if its audience had gone mad.
Silence surrounded the dying notes and this was broken by the sadhu’s frail voice. As soon as he had completed the first line he was joined by the others and together they sang the sweetest lullaby to the the gods and I was charmed. What had happened. Months of meditation hadn’t done a thing, yet here I was stoned as a hippie on nothing but a simple lullabies. This most Indian of mementoes is still my favourite. In my novel the hero is likewise enchanted and despite his struggle to comprehend religion, his heart is softened by Arti’s repetition across the land each dawn and sunset.