The train stops in the dense night by a temple that stands on a hillock. A Banyan hugs the walls of the medieval temple where a mute god waits, guarded by his bull. Trains passing this way stop to pay homage to the god but the people who stand at its windows and doors, hands joined in ardent prayer, cannot see beyond the orange and yellow rampart-like exterior, the Banyan’s canopy around the temple’s shikhar, or the tall fluted pillars around its façade. They cannot see the intricate carvings that run along the length of its pillars, or conjure fantasies about the men who carved the motifs. They bow their heads to a god they cannot see, to a temple that on dark nights is a mere shadow jutting out of the hill.
Trains whistle in response to prayers sent up from their doors and windows and snake up the slope towards other destinations. There is no station at this point but people say trains always stop here.
A man waves the green light, waits till the train stops blinking at him, and walks to the temple. He prays at the entrance. Let my son have a son this time Lord. Let him have a son this time. How many more do we send to you? He steps away from the door, an ear cocked as though for the muted wails of lives taken before their time.
The priest waits for the man to depart, lights a lamp for the night and leaves for home. Let the village committee appoint me head priest, Lord; let it appoint me head priest.
He walks slowly towards the cycle parked under the Banyan tree and dreams of the motorcycle he wants to buy. The village head priest riding his Bullet. It won’t impress his wife, but others will look up at him. He turns back to look at his deity asleep for the night.
I am Tara.
Every morning I walk around the temple, pour water on the Banyan’s roots, tie a red string around its enormous trunk and bow my head before Bholenath. Today, I cannot enter the temple. Today, I am stained red.
The village wakes early. From here I see it laid out below—mud huts and stone houses, thatched roofs and cement-and-brick buildings, landlord’s mansion and farmers’ cottages, the whitewashed village committee office, houses at the periphery with unwashed walls, smaller temples nestled among trees and hidden in the crops where village women and the elderly offer prayers round the year, TV and wireless towers.
I see the village well where women congregate; they watch now as I walk down the hill to my house where my husband waits for tea. My husband, the temple priest, dreams of becoming Lord Shiva’s head priest some day, mediator between human and divine.
From the well, the women watch Tara. Her appearance mocks their age old beliefs, no matter that she is one of them.
“She’s returning from the temple.”
“She went to the temple! Today!”
“It’s her time of the month!”
“I saw her.”
“Hey Lord Shiva! No wonder the signalman’s son can’t have a male offspring!”
“What does that have to do with Tara?”
They turn towards the young woman they had welcomed into the village as a bride a couple of years ago, still in her veil, still new to the village and its ways.
“Why don’t you leave her alone? After all, she doesn’t enter the temple on these days.”
“You don’t know our ways, not yet, Janki.”
“I know your ways. They are no different from the ways I come from.” The young woman mutters to herself but doesn’t venture further. She knows the dissonance of her own thoughts. She thinks of the home she has left behind and smiles under her veil, remembering how it was her father, not the women of her family, who understood her unorthodox views. She looks at Tara walking downhill, head held high, her saree flaring behind her in the morning breeze, oblivious to the gossip around the well.
Whispers take wing. They swish through acres of corn, bang along the edges of wind-rattled windows, gurgle in brooks where men bathe and women wash clothes, nestle in the hollows of the Banyan where woodcutters saw at branches, and come to rest at the temple door where the priest blesses newborns with holy water and tulsi leaves.
With the whispers fluttering in his ears, rustling at his feet, the priest walks home where Tara waits for him.
“Why did you go to the temple this time of the month?”
“I didn’t enter it.”
“Even then. People don’t like it.”
“What about you?”
“Why do you, woman?”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“When the villagers don’t like it, you shouldn’t.”
“I don’t live in their house.”
He glares. “I do mind.”
“What’s wrong with standing at the door and praying?”
Once a month I provide entertainment for the village. With Maha Shivratri round the corner, my husband is busy with no time for whispers now. This year the TV people will make a film out of our devotion. The reporter who has come to record our Shivratri celebration is curious about the temple and its history, the Banyan, our rituals, beliefs, … She wants to meet me. I wonder what it is she seeks in me.
We sit by the old discarded well; the rail tracks below disappear into the forest, up a steep incline. Is that why the trains stop here, to breathe before the climb? The temple’s double shikhar dazzles in the afternoon warmth. Below us, a train waits for the signal to bow out of God’s presence.
“This place looks mystical.”
“Why do you want to record our celebrations?”
“You know, I saw the temple once during a train journey and was hooked. It looked so… so, er… what shall I say, exotic, as I said, mystical? Anyway, when our channel thought of recording village festivities, I remembered this place.”
We sit quietly; I still don’t know what I can offer her.
“Will you be here only till Shivratri?”
“Let’s see what we’re able to get. But right now, I want to know about you.” She smiles at me; her nose ring glints.
“You know, you seem different from most of the women here. So why?”
“Why? Why what?”
“I mean, why do you live here? Er… you could also live in a city, couldn’t you? Wait! Don’t smile like that!”
I run my right palm over my smile. “What’s wrong with it?”
“It has fate written all over it.”
“But that’s right. My fate brought me here.”
She smiles; she will ask me again. Then, “How long has this temple stood here, Tara? Do you paint it every year?”
“The gods need cleaning up, na?” I laugh.
She stares, then looks back over her shoulder at the temple. “Will this temple hold up much longer, Tara? What does your faith say?”
“My faith has nothing to do with this temple’s life.”
“You visit the temple even during your menstruation. I’ve heard the villagers don’t like it.”
“Do you believe in such things?”
She looks into the distance. “Will you offer puja during Shivratri?”
“I offer every year… You know, my mother was a priest.”
She sucks in her breath and sits up straight. I look away from the camera she turns on me.
The priest stretches his legs and curls his toes to ease the tiredness out of them. Maha Shivratri. Lord Shiva’s night of justice. The temple clamours with prayers and the tinkling of bells, heaves with the press of bodies and their sweat; sometimes he worries that the old walls will succumb to the pressure. He shudders to think about it, and then shudders again; the whispers are louder than the throbbing crowds … the signalman’s son has had a daughter again; he clenches his fist thinking of the tiny shroud, the pit behind the temple… some say the mother is going mad. And all the while, the whispers gather around him.
The priest’s wife soiled the temple.
The signalman’s son can have no son.
The priest ought to do something.
Why does she visit the temple in her unclean state? Why is she so headstrong? Why can’t she think of his position in the temple? His future depends on it. If nothing else, she can at least think of the temple’s sanctity, its purity. Not even that?
“Nothing is purer than thought.”
He feels frustrated with her logic.
“Your temple doesn’t get dirty if I don’t soil it?”
“When I question, it is nonsense. Why?”
“You and I will die one day. That temple has stood for centuries. Lord Shiva is immortal.”
“Lord Shiva is immortal, not the temple. What if the temple crumbles one day? Will I be responsible for that too?”
“The villagers might think so. But come now, why should the temple crumble?”
Only the temple and I were privy to plans about its future. When the men arrived with pen and paper and instruments to measure the land, I was at the temple. They took off their shoes and folded their hands before Bholenath; they discussed ways to demolish the temple without hurting the people’s feelings. I understood parts of their conversation. The rail tracks had to be widened… steep climb… hill to go… I was confused.
The temple and I heard the discussion, but only its deity knew what would happen.
Amidst the clangour of Shivratri bells, the priest is besieged with queries.
“Pujari ji, why don’t you talk to your wife?”
“She shouldn’t defile the temple’s purity.”
“No woman comes here during her bad days.”
His own voice sounds hollow to his ears.
“What makes these days so bad?”
“You and such a question, pujari ji? You know the shastras better than us.”
“Not the shastras, the prayer books. You forget I am only a priest.”
“Still, pujari ji. You know our rituals don’t allow women in their impure days to step into temples and prayer rooms or eat the holy prasad. How can you let your wife break the rule?”
“I’ll talk to her.”
“Pujari ji, do you know why the signalman’s son can’t have a male heir?”
“Has he found out?”
“You’re making fun of us! You know very well that it’s because of your wife’s behaviour. Lord Shiva must be angry.”
On my way up the temple steps, I meet Janki.
“Will you wait? I’ll be back soon.”
She smiles in assent. I return earlier than I want to; she is pregnant and I don’t want her to wait in the hot sun. Handing over a sprinkling of the sugar I had offered to Bholenath, I look into her doe eyes. “What did you pray for today?”
She smiles, her eyes dance. “My in-laws want me to pray for a son. The first child in the family after 15 years should be a boy, you know,” she says.
“So, did you pray for a son?”
She moves away towards the shade of the Banyan, takes out a spool of sacred red thread and walks around the tree. After tying the thread around the trunk seven times, she returns to where I wait for her.
“You know, when I stand before Bholenath, I am a free woman.”
“Who knows what my silently moving lips pray for? Who knows whether I pray at all? Can anyone prove I didn’t ask for a son?”
The priest cannot sleep. Beside him, Tara sleeps peacefully. He watches the steady rise and fall of her breasts, the crumpled heap of her saree around her and the spread of her hair on the pillow. He touches her gently—her arm, waist, forehead. He nudges her. She sits up alarmed.
“Did you hear anything about the temple?”
She gapes at him. The long vigil has left her tired. But she knows him and recounts what she overheard at the temple.
Early in the morning the priest leaves for the village committee’s office. The headman sees him climb the steps and gingerly places his newly acquired cell phone, a gleaming, tiny, laminated black thing, on the table before him.
“What brings you here so early, priest?”
“The temple… what is my future there?” The priest had planned to introduce his worries rather than blurt them out.
“Your future? What about the temple’s future?”
The priest blinks and gapes.
“Do you not know about it, priest?” The headman’s booming voice brooks no ignorance.
“You mean the railway…? I… I was referring to the head priest’s position.”
“What will you priest over, eh? And what is this I hear about your wife?”
The priest looks around the room.
“I’ll talk to her.”
“Do that. You want to lord over the temple, but in your own house…?”
The priest turns to leave.
“Oh ho, pujari!” He turns back. The grain trader stands behind the headman. His bejewelled fingers twirl his new toy, the keys to the car his son has financed from abroad. He looks lovingly at it, replaces it in his shirt pocket and turns his attention to the priest. “Tell your wife to conform or else…. carry on her antics outside the village, with the other outcasts.”
When the priest reaches home, Tara braces herself for the onslaught.
“Have you no shame, woman? Did not your mother instruct you well when you were growing up?”
“My mother was a priest. She never missed a day of puja as long as she lived.”
“She died young.”
“Was she cursed to death? Is that what you want to say?”
The priest turns away.
The signalman sees Tara enter the temple precinct. The mud at his feet is still fresh.
Tara’s anklets jingle as she climbs the final steps and stands at the temple door.
His forehead throbbing with an unknown thought, the signalman turns homewards; his shovel grates along the ground.
Tara hears it and looks back.
He hurries down the hill.
She returns home to find it in disarray. Copper pots and steel tumblers roll away as she pushes open the heavy door. Bedsheets and pillows, prayer books and clothes lie around in dirty, finger-stained heaps. Her eyes pick out the individual household items as she sets about putting them back in place. The priest is not at home; she is silently thankful that he is spared this sight.
At night, as she quietly serves him his food and listens to him describe his trip to the city, she keeps secret her own travails of the day.
A knock sounds on the outer door.
Her hand trembles momentarily and the lentils spill over from the ladle she holds. The knocking resumes rapidly on the door and windows. A metallic object grates along the window bars. She recognises the sound and pushes away the utensils.
The priest opens the door to find the village at his doorstep.
“Where’s Tara, pujari ji?”
The priest looks from the signalman’s face to his son’s, to the others collected in the motley crowd of women, men, young girls and boys. They peep into the house; he follows their gaze. Behind him, the kitchen door stands open; beyond it, darkness. He feels the rush of bodies as they pour into the house and out through the open door. He trembles alone in the room suddenly emptied out, thinks of Tara alone out there, and finds his sandals at last.
Tara races through brambles and shrubs, along grassy lanes and hard stony ground; she hears the clamour behind her.
Will this village demand her blood? Blood for blood?
She doesn’t stop to question; anger grows within her as she runs uphill towards the temple. She will find refuge there, only there. The mob closes in on her lone figure flying through the night.
She stumbles as one foot sinks into soft wet mud and steps back in shock. The pit where the signalman’s infant granddaughters are buried! Horrified, she stands still. Behind her, she sees the crush of people, hears their anger; at her feet, lives lost before their time.
She shakes her head and her hair, hurriedly done up, cascades down her back; it streaks behind her as she flees once again till she reaches the temple door.
Today she should not enter.
As she thinks of other ways to escape, a hand reaches out and pulls her back. She stares into the hate-filled eyes of the signalman’s wife. Other hands will grab her too. She struggles free and runs into the temple as shouts rent the air.
She hears her husband supplicating, “We will leave this village, go away! Don’t harm her, I beseech you.”
“We don’t believe you. She’s done enough harm already.”
“Get out of the way!”
“Where will you go? We will banish you anyway.”
“We will leave. Let her be.”
She reaches the sanctum sanctorum and scrambles into it.
The voices cease.
She leans against the idol, panting, her heart pounding, head throbbing. Her saree brushes against it, her temple rests against its cold stone and she stares at the deity, close to her, cheek to cheek. She wants to live in this moment of exultation, but there is no rear door here. She turns around to face her assailants.
A collective gasp and complete silence
She stares at her pursuers. The priest stands aside, disbelieving. What has she done? Inside the garbha griha, the sanctum sanctorum? In her condition?
Revulsion for the unanticipated, the unaccepted, seals their mouths, chokes their voices. They cannot believe their eyes. Does the night play tricks on them? Is she really inside the venerated space, Shiva’s private chamber? Staining His purity?
“How will we worship here again?” The grain trader sounds belligerent.
“How could she do this?”
Tara smiles as she looks at the deity, “What will you do, Bholenath?”
The priest finds his voice.
“We will leave. Why create more trouble now?”
“What about the idol?”
“Take it home,” the priest says.
“He’s everybody’s god.”
Women and men are aghast, “How will we worship an impure idol, pujari ji? How can you suggest this? Don’t you see what she has done?”
“In our time, we didn’t even enter the kitchen. And she!”
“No! No! We cannot allow this. We cannot worship the idol any longer.”
The voices rise in unison.
Inside, Tara turns towards the idol and gently wipes caked sandal paste, turmeric and vermilion from his forehead with her saree end. She picks out the dry flowers at his feet and puts them away in a heap on the floor. She picks it up, staggers under its unexpected weight, and walks out with Bholenath nestled in her arms, her dark hair curling over his locks. Nobody moves. When she reaches the temple entrance with the deity, the priest takes one last look at the petrified assembly and falls in step by her side.
In the moon’s surreal light, the empty temple stands silent, its deity outcast.
Down below, a train screeches to its ritual halt. The passengers bow their heads and send up prayers to a god they cannot see.
[This story was first published in the Africa-Asia anthology, ‘Behind the Shadows,’ edited by Rohini Chowdhury and Zukiswa Wanner. The anthology is available on Amazon Kindle.]