A short story
For two hours, the man did not so much as pause. His voice did not crack, his forehead did not crease; nor was there a hint of his fervour slackening. His palms were pressed together in supplication, his eyes lay transfixed on the image of Lord Muruga. People gathered around him, their heads swaying gently to and fro with an inaudible prayer on their lips. They stood silently on aching feet. And when they left they walked away so quietly that it seemed that neither the rustle of their veshtis and saris stirred the air from its unswerving attention. The children watched the man in awe. The peacock came out from its resting place in the dark corner of the temple and stood close to him, unafraid but subdued, its feathers bunched up with humility.
It was not every day that a devotee came to sing in the temple. The cool sea breeze had set in, the street lights flickered on one by one. The priest lit the earthen oil lamps placed all around the courtyard. Ah, such devotion in his voice, how could Shiva be unmoved by his pleas? The priest felt elated. He did not see any need for the usual prayers and offerings for the evening; this mysterious singer´s voice more than made up for a lifetime of prayers.
When at last the man stopped singing, after the resonance of his voice between the pillars of the temple had damped, there was a worshipful silence only broken by the soft crackling of oil-lamps. The man prostrated himself before the sanctum with outstretched hands and lay still for a few moments. Then he got up, lightly dusting his white veshti, and walked away as though his presence had made no difference at all that evening. Outside, under the streetlights, beggars loitered and flower sellers sat hunched behind baskets of marigold and jasmine garlands from where a sweet fragrance rose into the night air. They could see his throat still throbbing with fatigue, and his dark, wrinkled face was wet. The white towel on his shoulder lay unused. As he walked away towards the street-corner, the beggars retracted their begging bowls and the stray dogs stepped aside.
“You have a divine voice”, the priest said to the singer the following Tuesday.
he man smiled in embarrassment. “No, vaadhyare, divinity is all Muruga´s. I am only a common criminal.”
The man´s description of himself as a criminal startled the priest and he tried his best to suppress the excitement brimming inside his head. Someone had stolen exactly fifty rupees from the temple office only a few days ago. There had been over five hundred rupees there, and he wondered why the pilferer took only fifty.
They were sitting in the temple courtyard watching people come inside, tolling the bell, circumambulating and making offerings of fruits and flowers. The priest had also inferred—from the man´s speech—that he was not a brahmin. He touched the sacred thread slung across his bare torso and moved away a little. A few beggars pursuing a clutch of well-dressed people crossed over the threshold into the courtyard. As they ran after the worshippers, they extended their arms, casting furtive glances at the priest. The priest got up and yelled at the beggars, gesticulating angrily. “Get out, all of you! How many times have I to tell you not to come inside and bother people? Leave them in peace at least when they´re praying. Don´t you have any shame?” The tuft on his pate had come undone. As he returned to the porch retying it, he remarked to the singer irritatedly, “Cheh, cheh, cheh, cheh! They´re always here like a swarm of flies. Always annoying you, never letting you pray in peace.”
Then folding his legs he sat on the porch, leaning comfortably against a pillar. The singer said softly, “What can they do? They have to eat too, don´t they?”
The priest was startled and said nothing for several moments. He closely observed the singer. This non-brahmin, who sang with such wonderful diction and who now confessed to being a criminal intrigued him. He realised suddenly that was exactly a week ago that the singer had last come to the temple. It was exactly a week ago too that he had discovered that the money was missing. He leant forward, examining the creases on the man´s face, as though trying to divine a story inscribed in them. At long last he said, “Who taught you music?”
The man shook his head. “No one. But my last employer, a government officer, had a wonderful voice. Early in the mornings, before my duties as his driver began, I used to stand outside, squeezed between a hibiscus bush and the wall below his prayer-room listening to him sing to the gods. He prayed every day. Devotional songs sprang to his lips as easily as the sweet consideration he showed everybody. I never understood the lyrics because they were in Sanskrit, but I knew they must mean something very sublime and powerful”.
The man´s eyes glazed, the thin wisp of a grey moustache turned upwards in remembrance. “It is only recently that I learnt to sing. After all, when you´re a mere driver, being kicked from one employer to another as casually as changing a shirt, and when you have a family to provide for, how can you indulge in luxuries like music and devotion? I´m retired now, I have nothing to do, and I come here to escape the constant bickering of the wife who dotes on her daughter-in-law but only spits venom on the son.” He smiled wryly at the irony of his own words.
From the way the man´s eyes narrowed into a reflective look the priest knew he was going to tell him more about himself; there was no need to prod him.
“I used to be unemployed half the time”, the man continued.”But then the fault was entirely mine. I was neither very responsible as a young man nor very bright. Whilst the friends I used to loaf about all day somehow grew into men responsible enough to learn to lay electrical wires or make furniture or learn some such skill, I remained a loafer, uneducated and unskilled, never worrying about the future and totally unprepared for it. My friends left the neighbourhood one by one in search of jobs and came back in bright shirts and pants. But I continued spending lazy afternoons outside our little home, lying on a coir cot, staring at the sky and waiting for my mother to shout when the next meal was ready. My poor father laboured all day, came home and berated me with regularity, but I remained unconcerned. Even after I got married, the only thing that changed was that instead of my mother it was my wife who drew kolams in front of the house every morning and came out demurely at meal-times to call me in to eat. My father continued to slave and feed us, his anger at my irresponsibility unabated”.
The man stopped. “But I mustn´t bore you with my reminiscences. When a man gets old, he tends to ramble”.
The priest, who had been listening intently, said hastily, “No, no, not at all. Please go on. I have nothing else to do anyway”.
He really wanted to ask, “You said you were a criminal. What about it?” But he realised it was best to hear the story at the man´s pace and not rush it.
The man smiled, “I have an audience, at last,” he said and continued…
It was only his father´s sudden death that jolted him out of his complacency. The rough hands of poverty now had them in its grip. For months he knocked on doors looking for employment. But he knew very little and had no skills. He suddenly found himself tossed into a world where they asked him difficult questions, ones for which he was totally unprepared.
“Can you type and take down notes in short-hand?” a man calling himself an employment agent asked him, looking at him with self-importance. “Can you repair motorcars? Have you sold toothpaste and soap? Can you cook meals for a hundred people everyday? Can you go inspect manholes and unclog sewage drains? Can you at least talk? How do you expect me to find you a job if you stand out there staring at me without saying a word? At least close your mouth boy, you look stupid like that!”
He cycled many miles every day during those hot summer months, racing against time to meet as many employers as possible and coming home after sunset, delirious from the heat.
“For over seven months I did not earn a regular income other than the few annas people dropped in my hands out of pity when I helped them carry their luggage or hauled furniture. At nights I would sit outside our little shack for hours, leaning against the lamp-post that I had never seen lit, watching the mosquitoes and flies feast on my skin. My young wife saw all this. When I picked up those tiny beedi stubs from the road to smoke them in order to forget my despair, she would be ashamed and coax me to come 1 indoors. ´What will people think?´ she´d whisper from behind the door. ´That my husband is crazy?´ When I´d snap back at her like a rabid dog she would shrink back in fright and never reappear until dawn. She used to be a timid one, my wife.
“When I did finally get the job of a peon in an office in one of those huge stone buildings by the sea-shore, I was still not happy. The money wasn´t enough, I complained. While I went scurrying about the endless halls of the office carrying those enormous files and ledgers it seemed to me that they were laden with rocks just to teach peons like me a lesson. Carrying for the clerks and officers from the vendor at the street-corner, I used to curse my employers for breaking my back and for not paying me enough to feed my wife and the child growing within her. Oh, the arrogance of youth! One learns gratitude only with age”.
The priest nodded, accepting this piece of wisdom without question. The man paused and called out to a beggar child who had been staring at the two men from the entrance. The girl walked towards them gingerly holding out a hand normally poised for a rapacious lunge at passers-by. She had large roving eyes, sharp as an eagle´s, sharp enough to spot a large hearted worshipper from any distance. Her hair was the colour of jute fibre, her torn frock precariously clung to her body, a layer of dirt drew out the contours of her feet. Normally the priest would have told him not to encourage beggars to come in, no matter how young they were, but today he was distracted by the serene expression on the singer´s face.