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Desi Fiction Friendship

Most nights I slept under the banyan tree, on a straw bed, beside the smooth, black stone-representing Lord Shiva. Perhaps it was the gentle rustle of the spiritual energy that hovered around- I could not be sure, it lulled me into a dreamless state, into a cocoon, from which I was reluctant to emerge. But the sweet melody of the bulbul cracked it open and I crawled out. I rubbed my eyes and looked up into thick canopy above me, where a parrot and a monkey were squabbling over the little, red figs. Green, glossy leaves rained upon me. I got up, stretched and started sweeping the concrete platform before punditji stepped out from the small, dark room inside the Shiv temple.

Soon worshippers will flock around the 500 year old, sacred tree, that symbolizes for many longevity and perhaps immortality. An eternal soul that neither dies or revives! According to Hindu lore, gods and spirits of deceased ancestors roamed beneath it. It is said that once Lord Shiva and Goddress Durga dwelled under its cool shade and that Lord Buddha sat under it for 7days and nights in meditation. Many craved long life and happy marriage but I chose to sleep under it, absorb the spiritual energy and wait for Rani.

Today, it is Vat Purnima- full moon festival and the place will soon be swarming with married women, heavily clad in embroidered saris and antique jewellery, carrying silver thalis loaded with fresh fruits, kumkum and coconuts. They come in hordes, to worship the tree and pray for their husbands long lives and prosperity. I would step behind to watch them circle around the wide, thick trunk, tying it with a yellow and red thread. Very soon it will not be visible under all that color.

I was hoping that Rani would accompany her mother, allow me to explain my sudden disappearance and to make amendments.

Just then punditji poked his head out of the temple, glanced at my tattered jeans and muttered under his breath. Lazy fellow! I waved at him but he withdrew immediately. I smiled inwardly. Punditji was a rare specimen. With his short stature, bulging eyes and a shaved head except for the pigtail in the centre, he looked like an alien from outer space. He wore a yellow banyan and white dhoti and scurried around the temple in bare feet, his lips moving silently, chanting mantras. I guess I looked just as ludicrous to him, in my blue jeans, thick beard and long hair.

On the marble steps of the temple, lay a trail of beggars waiting for alms from worshippers and tourists alike. A woman in a tattered sari was trying to console her screaming baby. The sun blazed on her bare head and sweat trickled down her back. I beckoned her to come over and sit in the shade. At first, she looked towards the temple, her forehead creased in worry and then walked over with the baby in her arms. She settled beside the smooth, black stone, pressed her palms in reverence and then threw me grateful smile. She looked thin, almost emaciated, like she hadn’t eaten for days. Her hair was long and dirty and there were large holes in her sari. The baby lay quiet under the folds, protected from the heat and dust. It moved and whimpered. She pressed it to her breast but the baby tore away and shrieked in frustration. There was no milk!

Just then punditji walked towards us, with a wealthy couple in tow. He carried a lotta brimming with milk and honey, and a tray with puja items. They hovered over the black stone. Then punditji lit an incense stick, muttered some mantras and poured the milk over the black stone. In utter disbelief, I watched it flow, a white, frothy rivulet that ran over the concrete platform and dribbled into the parched soil, forming white puddles. A stray cat strolled over and lapped it hungrily. I looked at the mother’s crestfallen face as she saw it disappear into the earth. What a shame!

I watched in disgust as the white bubbles evaporated.

“Why did you waste it?” I shouted at punditji, dragging him towards the pathetic thing in the mother’s lap.

“This baby here is starving!”

Punditji looked at us as if we were cockroaches.

“Be gone.” He shouted at the beggar woman. “ You are soiling this sacred place.” and he shooed her away.

“You call yourself a priest?” I screamed at him, my hands flaying in the air. “ A guardian of Shiva and all the deities in the temple.”

Punditji’s pigtail quivered as he shook his head.

“You don’t understand. The milk is for Lord Shiva. I am in the middle of a ceremony. It is for the happiness and prosperity for this couple.”

He relapsed into a brief silence before he continued. His lips trembled in anger as he pointed to the beggar woman.

“ Beggars! Such pests.” and he spit on the ground.

“You ignorant fellow.” I yelled back. “ Lord Shiva is disappointed in you. He would have been pleased if you had given the milk to the baby rather than pour it over him.”

Punditji became silent, afraid that the wrath of Shiva would crash on his bald head. The couple beside him bowed their heads in embarrassment. I calmed down and looked for the beggar woman and her baby. She had withdrawn to the marble steps and joined in line with the others.

Just then I saw Rani with her mother, carrying a silver tray with fruits and flowers and a lotta filled with milk. I explained the situation and begged her to feed the baby first. She turned to her mother, her eyes shining with excitement and cried.

“Ma! Let us please Shiva today. He will bless us with long life and prosperity.” Her mother smiled and nodded. We hurried towards the beggar woman and gave her the milk and fruits. She thanked us and fed the baby who immediately started gurgling. It’s toothless smile a ray of sunshine.

I took Rani’s hand in mine and led her to a quiet spot under the tree. We looked up into the canopy and watched the parrot and the monkey jumping around, quarrelling over the fruits. They showered us with figs and leaves. A blessing from the Gods.

Lord Shiva will be mighty proud of me, I thought. Today, I made a mother happy and gained my love back!

April 21, 2021 16:32

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