Most of his life Sugam has hid his face from people. He was 12 when a deadly disease left him with big pockmarks on his face, after which, he was afflicted with another skin ailment. He had to be forced to go to school where the other children would mercilessly make fun of him. The son of a poor Brahmin from a mofussil township in one of the backward regions in Bihar, Sugam ran away from home at the age of 16.
He joined a group of wandering minstrels who went from village to village singing spiritual songs, in praise of Lord Krishna. The boy had a beautiful voice that was much loved by the people, wherever he travelled, across the small villages and towns of Bengal and Bihar states. However, he would always hide his face with a cloth, till he managed to grow a full beard.
This was not the life he wanted – Sugam aspired to study more, become successful, earn well enough to take good care of his old parents, and get married. But he was confined to lead the life of an impoverished minstrel because he felt he had no place in the society. He blamed his pockmarked “ugly” face for everything, never understanding that the problem was rooted in his own mind.
The troupe would travel the whole day, and at night camp at one of the temple precincts where they would prepare food and rest for the night. At every temple, Sugam would have just one prayer for the deity. He always hoped that a miracle would happen someday.
It was a very special night when the group of minstrels halted at the temple of Goddess Lakshmi on the fringes of a village. This was the night of the brightest moon in the sky in the whole year, celebrated as Guru Purnima in India – the full moon dedicated to the teacher who gives the light of true knowledge.
Sitting in the courtyard of the temple, Sugam kept staring at the beautiful moon for a long time. He was feeling very restless and couldn’t sleep. He looked at the darkened temple, and something made him get up and step inside the sanctum sanctorum. He could not see the face of the goddess, so he lit a lamp.
“Thank you for bringing light,” he heard the voice, even before realising that there was someone else inside the temple. He looked around to see her stepping out from the shadows, and was startled to see the most beautiful face one could ever imagine.
Sugam started at her, almost transfixed, wondering who was this ethereal beauty in the dress of a village girl.
“Why should there be darkness inside when there is so much brightness of the beautiful, big moon lighting up the world outside,” said the young woman with a smile.
“What are you doing in this temple, so late at night ?” asked Sugam, unable to hide his curiosity.
“Why are you so surprised ? This is where I live,” she said. He understood she must be the daughter of the temple priest.
“And may I ask what are you doing in the temple at this hour ?” she queried.
“I came to pray,” he replied.
“Pray for what ? ” came the next question.
Sugam kept silent. How could he tell her what he always prayed for, so that he did not have to hide his face without being ridiculed or pitied.
“I am still waiting for your answer,” she said, still persistent.
Her beautiful voice, her presence, the sacred atmosphere of the temple, did something to Sugam. He did not know why tears started flowing from eyes. It was as if the last 10 years of his life, which he had lived in shame, hit him like a single blow. Guilt, shame, loneliness, being unwanted, unloved, every negative feeling overpowered him in waves. He did not know what was happening to him, crying before an unknown person. That too a beautiful girl.
She watched him silently, and then spoke softly, “What is it that you seek ?”
“Beauty,” Sugam blurted out, before realising how foolish his answer might seem to the young woman.
She smiled and said, “So it shall be. From this day you will realise the true beauty of your heart.”
“I am not talking about my heart, but my face,” Sugam wanted to say, but by the time he spoke, he realised that she had stepped into one of the corners of the temple where a stream of moonlight now entered through a latticed window. And disappeared.
“Hello, where are you ?” he called out loudly, wondering if there was a gap in the wall through which she had left. She seemed to almost melt into the moonlight.
His voice woke up the other three minstrels, who rushed inside the temple, asking what had happened. He told them about the beautiful girl, but nobody had seen her leaving.
Sugam looked at the idol of Goddess Lakshmi, he had not prayed to her yet. The goddess of beauty, auspiciousness, wealth and prosperity, everything that he wanted in his life, but never had. As he looked at the goddess’s face, something stirred in his heart. Tears welled up in his eyes again, this time of gratitude.
Somehow he realised that everything that had so far happened in his life was because he could be here, this very night. The words of the young woman echoed in his mind, “True beauty of your heart.”
He understood that before he could ask, the goddess had accepted his prayer.
As he stepped outside, into the courtyard, which was now awash with the silvery light of the moon, an elated Sugam looked up at the sky. He did not know who the young woman was – the priest’s daughter, a divine angel, the play of moonlight, or the Goddess of beauty herself….
She came as his teacher, to make him understand a truth. She was his Guru on the auspicious night of the brightest moon, Guru Purnima. He knew she would meet him again, maybe in another form, a different way. Of that he was sure.