The Give and Take / Vijayalakshmi Sridhar

The evening the village was getting ready for the annual Kali procession I found Ayya in the make shift chamber at the temple backyard. This was where the men taking on the guise of Kali- the goddess of wrath and destruction were stationed. As a young boy I had accessed the surrounding compound wall through the lush plantain groove from the back and sat on it to watch the entire proceeding. Once the Kali exited the chamber I would find my way back home. This time though since Ayya opted to be Kali I had the opportunity of watching him getting ready, throughout, up close.

“You know why I have chosen to do it. Right?

Ayya asked in an unusual, guilt-steeped voice. Yes; I did. It was his escape from the sham of relationships he had created. In fact I was surprised in the first place as to why he had sent for me this day. I was going to confront him soon but I had perceived a different setting for it. I had no time or interest whatsoever in his confession. I was definitely not his favorite; or he mine. But I had to come today. And I had no choice but to listen to him. Never mind; this was to be his last chat- I told myself to put off the sudden flame of frustration that sputtered to life inside me and threatened to smother me.

I moved from his direct line of sight, retreating to lean on the side wall, my hand patting the side pocket of my washed jeans for the cellphone. Ayya was clad in a saffron colored dhothi. His portly figure was slouched in the plastic chair making his paunch round and protruding- like an overturned pot. His wheezing breath could be heard from a mile away. Just before I came, Ayya would have been served a sumptuous meal with over sixteen dishes. He would have topped it with a quarter liter of one of the strongest, home-grown alcohol varieties, bought straight from the distillery. In fact I had been instructed to bring some more of the same variety, which I had.

His dark chest was bare except only for a smattering of grey hair. I had always seen Ayya wearing a gold chain with a heavy gold locket- except the locket was now with me at home.

“The job has death written all over it…”

Ayya continued, offended by my silence.

“I wronged you Chandan.” He said trying to be in deadly earnest. “I betrayed you. I put you through a misery you didn’t deserve.” He ranted.

His sudden empathy pierced through the surface of my conscience, scraping open the anger I had buried only recently. 30 years and now he was up to talking about it. But what use did the guilty admission have?

Ayya had two wives and four sons when he had fallen in love with my mother, a young widow with a young son.When their secret meetings became the talk of the town he had to own up to his errant behavior and thus married my mother and took us under him. From then on life had turned upside down for me. I became the unwanted member in the family for Ayya, errand boy for his other wives and scapegoat for my step brothers’ aggressions and transgressions. Of the four, Rana, my eldest and callous stepbrother had made me do such things that now I had nothing but heart full of regrets.

“It was never my intention to treat you like that. The loss of the land and chance for livelihood rendered me helpless. Remember- I had 8 mouths to feed and I knew no other way to remove you- the best of all my children- the one I never fathered, from the travails. As fate would have it- the situation never improved and we never had a chance to bond.”

In Ayya’s words, I could sense the faintest acknowledgement of me as a foster son that was wrapped in a futilely, fluffy justification. Chance to bond! Why a marginal landholder had to have three wives? Did he have an answer for that?

With remorse, I looked back at the jagged edges of my past and the bold splashes of gray that dominated it. As of that day, three of my step brothers were government employed whereas I had yet to come to terms with two brief prison tenures for pilferage and attempt to murder. I had spent my adolescence in the juvenile correctional center in Tiruchirapalli.

Reformation wouldn’t have been easy but for Kanchana, my angel. I had promised her I would never go back to my old life and offenses. My record would have remained clean had Ayya kept his …. in the place right where it belonged. But he hadn’t; he had misbehaved with Kanchana and forced me to kill again. This would be the last time and it was Kanchu who had suggested the idea. I had agreed to meet Ayya only as part of her well laid-out plan to put an end to his life. 

I would do it for you Kanchu- I sent a telepathic confirmation to her. 

The memory of her dark eyes and her supple body sent a wave of yearning through me. The wedding was fixed in another two months, after I got a permanent job in her brother’s recommendation. We would be moving to Kanchana’s native to have a fresh start.

I gripped the can of alcohol tighter.

Time was slipping away. The setting sun had spread an oily orange glow. There was a mix of sounds coming from the front. I could hear the rehearsing strokes of the drummer’s stick on the eye of the urumi. The sibilant voice of the chief Pujari, also likely intoxicated, in pursuit of decking up the idol for the evening reached us like a thrust of dagger. Shopkeepers were setting up their makeshift shops for the evening. The buzz pushed Ayya closer to the precipice.

Each year, the procession of Kali was one of the important rituals of the temple festival. The village men, who viewed Kali as some kind of gate-keeper and whistle-blower for their vices and ill deeds feared the ferociously portrayed deity. The sensitive village folks who had no control over their tempers and got into slayings and killings, those like Ayya who had roving eyes and straying personalities surrendered themselves at Her feet and begged for pardon. She was Baby Jesus who took the confessions from the hot-tempered, emotional heads.

During the procession the Kali slashed a line of the holy ash on their foreheads with a blunt knife. There was also a round of prophecy. There was a superstition too: the person who bore the guise of Kali would die soon after. So every year the temple took only volunteers who were prepared to leave the mortal world. I hadn’t subscribed to the belief at all; last year potter Shivam had died of tuberculosis, the year before that, a road accident had taken small-goods peddler Krishnan away. But today the superstition had come handy for me.

I shifted my weight from one leg to the other as Ayya started again.

“Your mother Lakshmi knew the truth. She was my confidante.”

It had been three years since my mother’s death and there was no way I was going to get proof of what Ayya shared with his third wife who he had spent two weeks in a year with. And throughout her life, more than me, she had needed his identity and money to survive the baddies of this world. But I didn’t need anything, not anymore.

I shook off the brooding that threatened to grip me. All I had to do was to give him this can of alcohol that was laced with poison- one of the slow killing varieties and leave the rest to time. Kanchu was sure with the Kali sentiment the suspicion would never reach me. I believed her and her love and trust in me, believed her when she had told me how she was attacked from behind in the weaver’s hut where she worked. She had fought to save herself- brave girl! She had grabbed the chain before the attacker ran away and all she was left with was the locket- Ayya’s locket. How could he cast his dirty eyes on Kanchu who was like a daughter to him? I fought hard to bite back my rage and frustration.  

A sudden hush fell over the entire place. The Pujari entered the chamber with two other men to ready Ayya. As they lifted his old frame of body off the chair for a last purifying bath, a series of deep coughs wracked Ayya. I hand him a plastic cup with water. 

I was pacing the grassy hedge outside the chamber with the phone when they brought Ayya back- this time a yellow dhothi wrapped around his waist. His body was smeared with a thick paste of turmeric. His eyes were lined with black paint, as terrifying as Goddess Kali was made out to be. Thick rows of anklets were tied to his wrist and feet. The face mask was fixed, with the long, blood-stained tongue sticking out of his mouth. His blood-shot eyes completed the terrifying look perfectly. Just before the body mask could go on him, Ayya gestured for me to come near him. From the folds of his saffron dhothi he took out the chain- the broken chain and handed it to me. “For you,” he mumbled with difficulty. My hand closed on the chain. Anger shot through me like hot bullets. My resolve hardened.

Without any guilt and full of loyalty for Kanchu, I handed him the can of alcohol and watched him finish it through the opening of the mask.

The Kali was fully ready for the procession. The last shot of alcohol had given Ayya the strength and other-worldly feeling needed to carry out the arduous job, of being the Almighty.

We followed him outside to the front of the temple from where the procession was to begin. There was a huge gathering there. The urumi broke the silence, sending a shiver through all of us. A loud ululating noise filled the air that sent a chill down my spine. I had never confronted the Kali. I would hide in the barn until the procession had crossed our house.

The procession was all set to move when Ayya motioned for me to come closer. His eyes were clouded and swimming in tears. Death was written all over him, in bold letters.

“Rana beat me and drove me out of the house. I took this chain from his trunk. I am sorry,” he paused for breath and continued, “Bury me beside Lakshmi.”

It took me several minutes to make sense of Ayya’s words.  

I squinted to see Ayya’s receding figure that was slowly fusing with the low, setting skyline. All that remained was the echo of Kali’s anklets.

Since young, stories have been part of Vijayalakshmi Sridhar’s world – both telling and listening to. She believes that human relationships and their dynamics are the most interesting things to write about and is keen to explore her journey as a story writer in many interesting genres.

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