A gale comes howling in from one of the three seas in the middle of the night, rattling the windows, and plunging the southern tip of India in total darkness. From my drenched balcony, I cannot see the Vivekananda Rock, 500 metres out into the sea, only the rock next to it, with the massive statue of Thiruvalluvar under construction there. A red light blinks intermittently on top of the poet's head to warn low-flying aircraft.
The Thiruvalluvar statue is pure shock. The vulgar Ozymandias pomposity of the thing, towering over the sedate Vivekananda Rock Memorial: the poet, clutching his great work, the Thirukural, to his breast, a bearded, vaguely Assyrian-looking Statue of Liberty personally designed by Kalaizsgnar M. Karunanidhi. People gawk admiringly. "What a statue they've built!" marvels Vinod Walia, tourist from Jalandhar, standing in queue for the ferry to the Rock. He writes down the poet's name laboriously on a slip of paper. "What sort of name is this?" he grumps. I let it ride; I'm not here to get into arguments.
On Christmas Eve 1892, the 29-year-old Swami Vivekananda came to Kanyakumari. He had spent four years traversing the length and breadth of India, following the wishes of his late guru Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who believed that pursuing an incorporeal God for personal nirvana was arrogant and selfish while millions of Indians, each of them embodying the same boundless creator, lived sub-human lives. Standing on the southernmost edge of India, at the end of an incredible voyage, the young monk saw the twin rocks in mid-sea. This was where the Kumari Kanya, Shiva's bride, had waited for the god who never arrived, and finally turned to stone. Vivekananda swam there, a feat of courage and endurance that seems unearthly today. He spent the next three days on the barren crag, and came back transformed. The rest of his short life—he lived for only 10 more years—was an extraordinary journey of ceaseless teaching, social work, building.
On the east lies the Bay of Bengal, on the west the Arabian Sea, and ahead in the south the mighty Indian Ocean. And behind you, in the north, a continent. Spray flies 50 feet up in the air as fearsome waves crash on the twin rocks. On Kanyakumari beach, newly weds, the wives laden with gold jewellery, wet their feet shyly in the water. Two young Muslim girls, only their faces visible in the burqas, run back giggling from the advancing tide. Dozens wait for the waves to come and erode the sand under their feet, and then scramble shriekingly in pursuit when they realise that the receding water has also taken their shoes. A white-clothed politician and his wife wet their foreheads in the sea. A bodyguard carrying a giant mineral water bottle hovers nearby. Palmists, photographers, sea-shell sellers, coffee vendors, binocular lessors and "Please take care of your belongings" signs abound. And dozens of men who want to sell you cheap Chinese TVs, music systems, torches, cameras, watches that change colour every hour.
Hemanti Devi has led a flock of 12 women from Bihar through Puri, Tirupati, Rameshwaram, to this, their last port of call before returning to husbands and hearths. She says she has come to watch "true things". "You people watch films," she accuses. "All that is man-made stuff, makebelieve." The bells peal in the Kumari Amman temple behind us; pilgrims hurry to pay obeisance to Parvati's avatar, doomed to stay a virgin when Rishi Narada tricked Shiva into missing the sacred wedding moment.But Hemanti Devi isn't interested: "I'm not visiting any temple here. I sit by the beach and look at the light." The light? "The different hues of the sun's rays, the colours the sea takes on at different times of the day. This is all real. The light is a true thing."
I walk past Dubai Store and Singapore Fancy and Malaysia Fancy to catch the ferry for Vivekananda Rock. On the Rock, the high winds whip and keen around us. It is a strangely peaceful place, a place of amazing solitude even if there are a hundred tourists tramping around, and their children playing tag. Land's ends are lonely places, places of crystal silences that don't crack with noise. The endless seas simultaneously mock your insignificant smallness and fete the grandeur of the world. All around me rise the structures of the Rock Memorial, perhaps the most public of monuments on earth, for it was built with contributions from 30 lakh people. Thankfully, the architecture is subdued, with the emphasis on open spaces. I try not to look north-west where the half-built Thiruvalluvar looms. Do poets ever want 300-feet statues built of them?
This is where Vivekananda sat, and he had seen his destiny in the blinding light of truth, and known that it was inextricably tied with the fates of the most wretched of his countrymen, in each of whom he could espy his god. He had seen India from here in all its greatness and destitution, inestimable wealth and infinite squalor. In the majestic rebellion of this chunk of black rock against the infinity of the seas, he had found ineffable meaning. He had discovered and understood India.
Around me mill people from every province, every corner of this country. From Ahmedabad, Shardabehn Shah; after the earthquake, this seventyish widow decided she must see Kanyakumari before she died. From Jaipur, S.K. Harlalka and his dozen-strong clan; he had come here 30 years ago as a student and had always wanted to share the experience with his entire family. From Maharashtra, a gaggle of tough rural women led by a suspicious patriarch who won't even reveal the name of their village. Three Muslim clergymen, who say that they have never experienced such serenity before, and claim they are from Bengal but, mysteriously, cannot recognise Bengali when it is spoken at them. Nalini Roy and his wife from Durgapur, who have been sitting on the Rock wordlessly, staring out at the seas for two hours when I meet them, and who are still there when I catch the ferry back an hour later. An entire village of Tamils, from a toothless tonsured man who could be hundred, to a newborn infant. A sardar from Jammu mopes around, feeling cheated that he cannot see Sri Lanka from here. How does it feel, how does it feel, how does it feel, I ask all of them, to stand at India's edge? But none of them feel anything much. Or maybe what they feel is so private, so personal a thing to treasure, that they won't like to talk about it to strangers, preferring instead to nod and smile and say alright, okay, great place.
How do I feel, someone asks. Alright, okay, great place.
The ferry waits. And at the jetty in Kanyakumari, dark polyglots peddle Chinese watches that change colour every hour.