Above Earth stretching till the horizon, the Shiv temple. It was hot, there was a tractor on the side of the kuccha road like a boat on the shore, I was no longer counting stars on the glass window of the car. The sky was manic blue. Hay was built, while the mud houses seemed to have appeared naturally. When we were moving again, I asked Mummy if we’re going to the temple first, to which she replied “We are going to the resting place for travelers who have come to the temple”, and I said: “I’ll stay there until you come.”
The difference in what I had imagined and what I saw, in passing carts, waving green fields, glowing patches, women carrying water, men working, cows staring into nothing, a tap of water, cars and bikes passing us, was so big that I felt I am someone other than myself. I was thinking, thin straws of thought without interconnection: Mummy, Papa are authoritative. I don’t want to go to the temple. How can I break the chains of myself? Everything is possible. In freedom, life is beautiful. Life and death don’t matter. Everything that is true exists. But its choice is impossible.
All this time the car continued to rail down the road, Papa was on the phone and Mummy was quietly looking outside the window. Except random honking and Papa’s chit chat with the driver, the rest of the journey happened in a silent wait. It seemed to take a lifetime to get to Shiv House For Travellers in the centre of the village. It was quiet as I went inside the room. The car was parked outside in the dusty road, and moments earlier I had felt life as it appeared to live; children behind the car still stood about it, there was a fan but no light in the hollow room, it was bare with minimal objects such as a matka, mats, newspapers, and Papa kept our two bags on the floor next to the right-hand side wall. He then disappeared into the sunlight outside. Mummy was busy organizing necessities like water bottles, snacks, clothes, and pillows and quilt, and kept talking to me and I responded unwillingly, although never in agreement with her. The white walls had a blue hue to them. Through the big windows that Mummy opened as soon as the local in charge of the affairs here gave us the key and Papa had asked him about the temple, the exact route, etc, I saw a wall erected emptily in the dry Earth, some loose grass about it where a cow grazed, a broken jhula between two leafless trees, in the distance behind it a little hut where perhaps no one lived. The house would be built and someone would live there, but it seemed it had long been abandoned.
Mummy had taken out the tiffin and Papa asked me to bring newspapers that lay on one end of the floor. I ate but had lost my hunger, while Papa kept talking. Mummy too broke in between moments to first ask me if the sabji was good and later to scold me, here and there, between banter. Light kissed the room, silence was my only friend. But there was a sudden movement at the door, that papa immediately recognised.
Papa said, “Hello! Come inside. Don’t be scared.” Then paused and added, “What’s your name, beta?”
A boy stood in a shadow before the open door. At first I didn’t pay attention. Mummy added, “Come! Will you eat something?”
The boy replied that his name was Chandan.
Mummy said, “Go meet your friend, Monu. Sit beta.”
Just then a man came. He said “I’ll take him with me. Don’t worry.” Mummy said to Papa, “Tell him to bring him in the evening.”
Papa said to the man, “Let the boy come in the evening if he wants. We will be going to the Shiv temple.”
The man replied, “Okay. He’ll come in the evening if that’s the case.”
After they had gone mummy continued to talk from time to time but papa ate quietly.
We took our car to the temple. The place was my ancestral village. Papa seemed to be happy, while Mummy was quick in her thought. I could tell they were at one with the place. I felt uneasy in the car and was looking outside thinking I want to be either free or rich, and the people here are free. I wasn’t rich, but I wasn’t free either. Brick houses were constructed together at some places, and where we stopped there was a big cowshed beyond a wall, adjacent to it was a home where my distant relatives lived. It had brown walls. I was here for the first time. It had been silent outside, an old woman sat with a fan looking straight ahead, children played, it was windy and hot, and the houses on either side of Pawan Mama’s were looking like I had been here many times. I felt I had to come here, but it must have a reason. Papa was talking to Pawan Mama outside, and here and there dust flew off patches in the lane. Inside, it was dark despite the lights being on. I sat on the floor on a mat with the thought of what I can do if the light goes. Whatever happened I was not going to sleep. Bholu, Pawan Mama’s son, sat beside me. Pawan Mama asked me if I recognized him and I said yes. Who am I? I awkwardly replied who he was. I asked Papa if I can go with Bholu inside to play, and ran away with him, and through a room where a woman sat, on a charpai, afraid, as I was thinking beyond the life she led was the door to freedom, as I disappeared into a little storage room in the shadow as the woman sat still. This was the dead end deep into the house, there was a low ceiling, close walls with gutters on three sides one of which was covered by two trunks. I wanted to live here, become friends with the woman, work in the village, and told Bholu, who hadn’t spoken to me yet, that he should use this room. He told me that the place had insects and rats, that it was dark, when it rained the water drained through here, and it had never been used for living. There was a glow about the place that made it seem ancient and dream-like. Or maybe I was imagining what I felt. The woman outside, too, I thought, was happy. As I went out she had gone to feed the cows they owned, which were tied outside the house in a shed. I was uncomfortable and tired, and sleep weighed on me even inside, and so I left the room to its lonely darkness. In the only other room there was a TV. But an old woman was sleeping on a charpai. There was a bed, a coloring book with Jungle King characters and another story book for children lay beside Pawan Mama on it. Mummy and Papa had both come inside to rest and lay sleeping on the mat on the floor. I asked Mummy if I could watch TV but she shushed loudly and pointed towards the ground. I sat on the bed and after a while of lying down looking at the ceiling my eyes shut. In a moment’s thought I was awakened. Papa and Mummy were up and there was hushed talking in the room. The light had gone, and I sat unconscious but not irritated. I woke up to see Pawan Mama’s animated face; he spoke of his missing son…”Pandu was a drug addict…One day, he was caught stealing from a shop owned by Bittu Yadav, Zamindar Sahab’s son. Bittu wasn’t present, one of his men was who left the shop for some work, agreeing to pay some money to
Pandu to sit there. Later, he realized that Pandu had stolen money from the shop. It was confirmed when the villagers frisked him. They later said they found a packet of drugs, and so they beat him. He continued to take drugs for a year, and we realized that he was in debt from Zamindar Sahab. When his men came home, Pandu ran off. He hasn’t returned. It’s been three months.” Papa asked him how much the debt was, and Pawan Mama replied “Fifty thousand rupees”, and added, “I paid from my savings.” Then suddenly he became teary eyed and ashamed. He tried to be objective with his words, but his feelings got in the way. Daylight cracked into the room through the open, mosquitoes buzzed – there was a traditional posture in the old woman’s frame as she used the fan with her hand. She was silent, as though she was certain in her mind in meeting life’s unpredictability. She was, of course, religious and constrained. But when Mummy was talking to her earlier she spoke about her Kafka-like life, the reasons she had come to think of life in a fatalist way. “I told Zamindar sahab I will pay him the rest of the money when Pandu returns,” Pawan Mama said. “Pandu will pay him. He will stop taking drugs, because he is a good human. I have worked hard to stick by truth all my life. I know he will return.” Papa asked Pawan Mama if he had filed an FIR, to which he replied: “I had gone to the police station, but they refused to file it, saying they know he owes money to Bittu Yadav, who is a local leader. They said it was against him they should file the case. For this reason we are waiting for him to return instead of looking for him.” “If there was something,” Pawan Mama reiterated, “it is that Pandu has gone astray, but he will come back.” It was silent, as if Pandu would come inside any moment. Papa then said “We’re going to the temple.” We took the car despite the temple being a five minutes walk.
I felt that nothing mattered, not even the thoughts and feelings I hid behind my heart and did not allow to appear on the emptiness of my life. Next year, I’ll do good, I thought often. I could never be that person. The day was what it was and I sat silently towards its end. The temple was in a market place. Evening glowed in the temple in its four directions. There were no murals and the architecture was plain. We stood for a while outside the temple to buy flowers. The flower seller asked Papa questions, and he replied without fuss.
“From Delhi Sahab?”
As the flower seller continued to make the beads for offering, Papa added: “We’re here to visit my Mama.”
The flower seller handed over the flowers to Papa silently. “A nautanki has come here?” Papa asked him.
- “Yes. It travels from village to village. They are performing in the temple’s backside.” “They perform Mahabharata?” Papa asked.
-“Yes. Okay sir, please clear out, let others also come in.”
My father looked behind, there was no one. “Do you know Pawan Chaudhary? He lives near the ashram.”
-“In this village?”
“Yes,” Papa muttered. “Yes,” he said once again, automatically.
-“Yes, I know him. Why?”
“He has a son named Pandu. Do you know him?”
-“Yes, I knew him.” “He’s missing.”
-“He’s not missing sahab, he ran away. He’s a smackey. He lost money in gambling one day that he had loaned from Bittu bhai. When he asked him to return it he denied having borrowed anything and started throwing his weight around. That’s when they beat him, rather badly. Then before they could take him to the police, he had run away.” A woman stood behind us a moment ago and as she stepped forward the flower seller diverted his attention towards her.
The air was fresh. We stood in the shadow outside the temple. Behind me there was a long stare upon the world with the ink of creation. Time, Time, I had seen. I thought about what truth is? The temple was a drunk building of a human kind. The priests had a cool expression devoted to the great work of Art. I saw the deep rooted prayer on their lips, and didn’t want to believe in a turning planet that I had heard in the rites. Evening as a day’s unfulfillment in the people themselves. Women in silhouettes, men walked around and spoke, but everything was still, except the bell being struck. Papa and Mummy spoke about the temple’s significance to our life today, because of which people come here. I paid no attention and projected the ritual I would have to do. I negated it, and realized I had secretly always been terrified of God. Mummy explained to me that faith exists for life, as Papa went inside to conduct the ritual. I told her I don’t believe in faith. I thought about the way to reason this but had no answer. I couldn’t lie to myself, however. And so when Mummy explained to me that women aren’t allowed to go for the ritual and that I had the opportunity, I told her I don’t believe in rituals and prayers, though it wasn’t true. Papa came back and told me to go inside. I was not afraid, but went inside. As I disappeared into the infinite room, Papa looked on in serenity. The images of Shiv, Parvati, and Ganesh resembled the stories I heard as a child. I could sense their presence and was nostalgic. Nandi was in the centre of the hall, the black symbolic object, and I thought of it without arriving at what I was thinking. The priests were as elusive. Their language was symphonic, and I was arriving at a thought when the priest asked me to sit. I stood without talking, the divinity of the temple reached out of the marble and the scriptures, the hollow, dim, sad flame echoed my voice whose silence was pierced by the bell; it was lonely inside, like a school without a teacher, and I felt grace. I told the priest that I will not participate in the ritual.
Cleanliness is next to godliness, and the ‘god’ here is a very human creation. The priest told me
something he believed in but did not speak about: “There is a God, you agree?” I said, “I don’t believe in God.”
The priest thought for a second and then said: “There is a God. Even you believe in him. Tell me, do you respect your parents. Why? Do you have respect for rules? For your teachers? This temple has been made by human hands, and the idols were made by Man, but God lives in them.”
He was happy, as if he let out a secret. Then it occured to me, Man didn’t create God, he gave it a form, but this form is understood by thoughts, which can mean anything. God is what we create.
At the same time there was a loud noise coming from behind the temple and I walked away. Mummy complained to Papa as we began walking. Papa justified my behavior by saying “If he doesn’t want to believe we cannot force him.” I agreed with him, and thought I believe in it.
Mummy didn’t agree, and said, “He might reject anything tomorrow.” They were talking, and fought also on spoken instances, and I wondered if they were in love. We walked into a noisy road, where street lamps were tied by ropes, glowing arbitrarily and bright enough for the nautanki to be seen. People assembled around the wooden stage on the foot of the temple. Night always makes one think. I watched the actors, and felt they were speaking about the world they were in. I knew nothing about this world, which could be seen only from a distance. The actors were there in that place.
A man appeared, and said:
I see Krishna, like the flowing Ganga, He comes here, and has proclaimed, This peaceful land to be at war,
He can arrive any moment, Is it his chariot?
A voice declared:
I ask you, Man,
If I can come inside Your humble world,
You may question my visit, And look for answers,
And begin to speak,
But instead, I have come here
To not meet you, and would only bother, You with the truth:
Exiled from this vast nation,
And the dusty pyre burns it to dust, And I am this fire,
That in the clear sky, Turns quickly. And does,
This world have a bitter hope,
Born in a heaven above this great empire, And glows before death?
As the sky trembles and opens Into this world, I
Utter the decree: beauty, Truth, among great passions, Creations born outside of Man, A life’s great hope,
His worldly love and its suffering, Must affirm life. And yet evil Negates what lies outside it.
The actors truly appeared like a man and and a god. Behind the actors, in the wings, three people stood distinctly visible. One of them sat on a chair with a blank expression but with a consciousness at once powerful and light. I thought he was an actor. But in the interval he was called on the stage by the host and was given a mala.
As the interval started, one of the men in the wings who was holding the mala proceeded on the stage. He spoke into the mic: “Are you liking the play?” There was an audible approval from individual members in the crowd. “The nautanki has been brought here by Rashtriya Dal. First I will call Bittu Yadav, the party’s leader to come on the stage.” He gestured to the man sitting and said “Please.” Bittu Yadav quietly walked on the wooden platform. “This is a small gesture for the village’s development.” He put the mala around his neck. There was a cheer and clapping in the audience. Bittu Yadav then said on his mic, “Thank you for the respect you have shown me. As the leader of Rashtriya Dal, I seek the blessings of our elders to work for the village and for the nation, for development and for values, and to fight our enemies. Namaste.”
The play resumed quickly. The crowd lessened by the time the play was over. It was late. People began leaving as Duryodhan died. I fell asleep in the car.
I woke up in the afternoon. Mummy asked me to get ready quickly. Papa had gone outside. I brushed my teeth sleepily with a mug. Mummy asked me to use only one bucket to take a bath and use the toilet. Papa had freshened up but Mummy was still to take a bath. We were going to Pawan Mama’s house. We didn’t take the car. As we walked, down the road across Pawan Mama’s house, I saw Chandan. I asked Papa if we could play outside Pawan Mama’s house, he didn’t allow me at first but then did. We decided to play cricket. We went to a field nearby. In the distance, towards a wall at the corner of the empty ground, before a road, there were a few tents. I went to see what the tents were for. The nautankiwallas had set up their tents. We played for a few hours, before Chandan dropped me outside a sweet shop near the market. I figured out the way and reached Pawan Mama’s house. The house was crowded by people.
The temple bell cut sharply into the evening like a hymn.
Ritwik is a writer and actor. He has acted in a couple of plays, and has been published in the journals Kitaab, Countercurrents, Zeno Press Magazine, RIC Journal, and Indian Ruminations, as well as an anthology ‘A Map Called Home’ published by Kitaab. He is the untitled equivalent of a human.
Shiv: Hindu god, the destroyer
Kuccha road: a road made insubstantially Matka: earthen pot
Jhula: playground swing Sabji: cooked vegetables Beta: child
Charpai: charpoy Mama: uncle Zamindar: landlord Sahab: address, sir
Nautanki: vaudeville company Ashram: monastery
Smackey: smack addict, drug addict Parvati: Hindu goddess, Shiv’s wife
Ganesh: Hindu god, Shiv and Parvati’s son, god of knowledge Nandi: a demi-god animal associated with shiv, a bull
Krishna: Hindu god, the sustainer Ganga: holy river in India
Mala: flower beads Rashtriya: national Dal: faction Namaste: salutation
Duryodhan: eldest brother of the Kauravas in the Mahabharata