Print edition : March 01, 2019

Visions–Revisions: Katha Regional Fiction edited by Keerti Ramachandra (Katha, 1995).

Keerti Ramachandra, the editor of this collection, is also a teacher and translator from Marathi, Kannada and Hindi to English.

Harekrishna Deka, the author of this story, is also a poet and critic. An IPS officer, he was Director General of Police in Assam from 2000 to 2003. After his retirement, he became the editor of the “The Sentinel”, an English daily and later of the Assamese literary journal “Gariyasi”.

Ranjita Biswas, the translator of this story, is an award winner for translation from Asomiya into English. She is a journalist and writes on gender, health and the environment.

IT was a happy day for the people of this small, almost rural town when a pump was installed to supply water to the temple. The town drew its importance from this mandir. People flocked from far and wide to pay obeisance at the shrine. By now, stories of the Devi’s great power and benevolence to the worshippers had, through constant retelling, grown to the proportion of legends. No one cared whether these legends were authentic or not. What mattered was that the Devi was more than a mute piece of stone, that she was alive to their prayers. One of the bhaktas had now arranged for water to be pumped up from the pond nearby. The pump was a convenience that everyone welcomed happily.

The only exception was Hanu. He was incensed by this new device. So far it had been his duty to fetch water from the pond for the bhaktas. The cool water that slaked their thirst had meant a few coins in his pocket, enough for his simple needs. But then, Hanu’s livelihood was less important than the convenience of hundreds of pilgrims.

Even so, Hanu could not abandon the mandir. Angry, no doubt, at his loss, he still clung to the premises. The numerous bhaktas might have been ignorant of his connection with the shrine, but the portly purohit knew all about it.

Hanu’s appearance did not evoke sympathy. He was ugly. The first thing that struck one was his enormous hump. He looked as if he carried a heavy burden on his back. The protruding upper lip below a flat nose accentuated his resemblance to simian ancestors. His very name was bequeathed to him by his ugly face, and Hanuman had been gradually shortened to Hanu.

Leprosy had made Hanu’s body swell, adding to his ugliness. It had eaten away his flesh and the tips of a few fingers and toes had fallen off. Though detected recently, it had already cost him his allotted place on the verandah of the mandir. These days he sat under the satiana tree beyond the temple complex. Hearing him scream, many visitors believed that he was insane.

But Hanu was not mad. When hunger pangs became unbearable, Hanu’s rage burst forth in torrents of abuse. The purohit could do nothing about it, except cover his ears and try to shut out the words. People visiting the temple for the first time threw stones at Hanu as if he were a stray dog. This upset him further and he would make obscene gestures. Then there was no choice but to ignore him.

While Hanu was still working at the temple, the purohit had been kind to him—in his own interest, of course. Hanu had helped with his household chores. Besides, the hunchback also knew of the purohit’s weakness for good food. A little secret about an affair with a washerwoman added to Hanu’s arsenal which he used mercilessly now, whenever he subjected the purohit to a volley of invective. This was his way of assuaging his hunger and the pain of the festering wounds afflicting his body.

That morning, too, Hanu started his tirade as soon as the purohit entered the temple. “Ai, you bastard, you dhobin’s pimp! How dare you let someone else take my place? What have I done to harm you, you parasite? Have I poisoned your pond?”

The purohit tried to ignore the abuses. But after a while, he could not stand them any longer and came out to the verandah. Thank god there were no bhaktas around yet. He shouted back, “Ai, Hanu! Have you gone mad? Why are you soiling your mouth so early in the morning?” Hearing this, Hanu let loose even more obscene abuses. The disgusted purohit covered his ears, saying, “Oh, you mahapaapi, you are soiling the Devi’s mandir. In your next life, you’ll surely be born a chandaal!”

Hanu laughed out loud. The purohit’s outburst seemed to have amused him. “Ha, Ha! Why? Am I better off than a chandaal now? Do you want to know what I can foresee? Kites will peck at your shrivelled body! Now tell me, whom have you allowed to occupy my place? Answer. Answer, you who are about to die.”

“Who am I to allow anyone to sit there? What is the mandir committee for? Go ask them. In fact,” the purohit continued. “a shop is going to be set up in that corner. There will be a mela on the whole field. The Devi’s glory will spread far and wide. Bhajans are to be sung in her praise for seven days and nights. The glorious Devi is pleased and there is to be a grand union of Siva and Parvati. Whoever is lucky enough to witness this momentous occasion will bodily ascend to heaven. Not that an infidel like you would be so fortunate!”

Hanu spat at the purohit. The priest left the verandah in a huff, seeking refuge in the innermost sanctum of the mandir.

“Ai, Hanu!” The voice held both admonition and sympathy. It worked like magic, for Hanu calmed down immediately. Wiping the spittle off his chin, he turned around and saw Ahalya standing there. With a heavily made-up face, hair parted in the middle and a broad band of sindoor in it, Ahalya was a prostitute. If Hanu listened to anybody, it was to Ahalya. Her house was in a corner of the market and she lived by selling her body. Hanu did not know how long she had been standing there, listening to his abuses. Now she reproached him, “Chee, chee, Hanu. Did you have to pollute your mouth even before daybreak?”

“Why are you out so early? Didn’t you get any customers last night?” retorted Hanu.

Ahalya was nonchalant. “Who says business is bad? All these traders who have come for the mela....”

“Mela? Why is the mela being held out of season, Ahalya?” Hanu recalled what the purohit had said and wanted to find out more. The mela usually took place in the dry season.

“You simpleton! Don’t you know? The Devi has found a partner. And she will be going to her bridegroom’s house soon,” joked Ahalya.

Hanu could not believe this.

“Be careful, Ahalya. Don’t say such things.”

But Ahalya was still in a playful mood, and continued, “Ha! When you talk rubbish before the Devi, then it’s not a sin. But if I say something, it’s wrong. Anyway, come. I’ve brought some malpua for you to eat.”

Hanu retraced his steps to his place under the satiana tree. Ahalya followed, a little distance between them. Someone had stuck a few stakes in the ground there to mark the site for a shop. Hanu could feel a sudden surge of anger. Since Ahalya was there, he controlled his rage and moved to sit under another tree. The malpua doused the fire in his belly.

Ahalya and Hanu were old acquaintances. They had met many years ago. Though an ugly hunchback, Hanu had been young and virile then, with a newly sprouted beard. While returning from the mela one day, he had found Ahalya half-dead—raped and abandoned by a gang of drunkards. He had taken her to his hut and nursed her back to life. But for him, she would have surely died. In return, she had gifted him some unforgettable moments one night—an introduction to the pleasures of adulthood. His experience of lovemaking was restricted to that one night. And he guarded it jealously, an experience to be savoured little by little in his thoughts alone.

Now that he was afflicted with the dreaded disease. Ahalya, too, avoided touching him. The sight of his abominably swollen body repulsed her. But she also felt sorry for him. She could understand a little of what the purohit could not. She realised that his behaviour was a reaction to his misfortune, born of his helplessness. It was an expression of his frustration. And the extent of his agony was such that even the Devi did not escape his ire. No one but Ahalya sympathised with him, which is why she often brought him food or some rags to cover his nakedness.

It was Hanu’s belief that the mandir’s Devi had been cruel and unjust to him. Otherwise why should he suffer like this—he, who had devoted his life to her and had played an important role in the building of the mandir? But for him, this stone-hearted Devi would not have been as important as she was.

It had happened when the pond was being dug—the one which had provided Hanu with a means of earning his livelihood. It was meant to be a convenient source of drinking water for visitors to the bazaar and the weekly haat. The hunchbacked, adolescent Hanu had been allowed to join in this good work.

One day, just as he had started to dig, Hanu’s spade hit something hard, making a metallic sound. Quickly, he dug around it and found a carved stone idol of a devi. A part of the nose had been chipped off. Still, it was a devi’s idol. Hanu took it to the chairman of the market committee.

The news spread like fire. People thronged the spot to see this miraculous find. Soon it was decided that a mandir would be built there. The market committee took on the responsibility of supervising the work. The idol was first housed in a straw hut, then in a tin shanty, and finally in this concrete, pillared structure.

Gradually the mandir became an important place of pilgrimage for the Devi’s bhaktas. A mela began to be held there every year. With the increase in devotional fervour and the number of visitors to the temple, some elements meant to satisfy baser needs also made their surreptitious entry—small sheds serving liquor or bhang, and of course, women like Ahalya, who sold their bodies.

Since the Devi’s nose was broken she could not be kept in full view of the devotees. So a light muslin cloth screened her from them. Only the purohit was permitted to see her, as he was in charge of the rituals. He would bathe the idol and adorn it with flowers and ornaments. Benevolence and blessings poured forth from the veiled Devi in the dark sanctum. Her mysterious presence aroused the curiosity of devotees and strengthened their faith. Legends of her powers spread.

Hanu had been associated with the temple right from the beginning—when this bountiful Devi was not so well known. Initially it had been his duty to strike the gong in the morning to announce the opening of the doors of the mandir. Then he took on the exclusive task of supplying drinking water to thirsty pilgrims, earning a little money in the process. But now, that same Hanu was in this sorry situation.

Ahalya’s malpuas had cooled Hanu’s temper as well as his hunger. He was eager to find out more about the off-season mela. So he asked her again.

“I would have told you, but I didn’t get a chance because you were so angry.”

Ahalya told him that a Siva linga had been found recently on a snake-infested hillock a little distance away. The linga, it seems, was a natural one—not fashioned by any human hand.

“Who found it?” Hanu wanted to know.

“I don’t know. They say that the chairman of the market committee dreamt that this Siva linga is our Devi’s bridegroom. She wishes to join him, it seems. She will stay on the hill for six months of the year and spend the remaining six here.”

The mela was being held to celebrate this union of Siva and Parvati. In the dream, the Devi had promised that those bhaktas who were present at her wedding would be delivered from all suffering. Even sinners would be pardoned.

“The Devi and her bridegroom will be on the same platform for a fortnight and then be put on individual pedestals. The goddess has promised to bless anyone who witnesses the union. Hanu, if you can somehow be there, you might be cured!”

Breaking into loud guffaws. Hanu said, “Did you know I broke the nose of that heartless one? Unknowingly, of course! That’s why she’s punishing me now. Why should I go to enjoy her amorous adventure? But, what about you? I don’t think you will be able to make it. Your business has picked up, you said.”

Ahalya was shocked. “Are you mad? The Devi’s listening. You shouldn’t say such things, Hanu.” She moved away quickly, before he could utter any more profanities.

Preparations for the mela picked up. It promised to be a big one. The whole area was alive with people and noise. Everything had to be just right for the puja. Expensive muslin of different quantities was brought from the big market far away. Hundreds of packets of agarbatti and dhoop were bought, mounds of the best quality Joha rice, ghee and spices were piled up—offerings for the Devi.

Groups of people from different areas set up camp. Their kirtans went on day and night, echoing in the surroundings. Other goods, too, were brought in for the mela. On bullock carts, hand-pulled carts, even on motorcycles. There were glass bangles, cosmetics, spurious medicines, brass and stone utensils, earthenware, aluminium pans and ladles, religious texts next to tales from the Arabian Nights and illustrated sex manuals. And almost on cue, came the palmists, showmen with monkeys and bears, magicians and bodybuilders—even a circus company. Temporary sheds sprang up overnight, displaying their wares—vegetables, tamarind pulp, and blue, red and yellow sherbet. Also, delicacies like nimkin, gajja and khurma, liberally garnished with flies. Mango and jackfruit pherwalas came. And barbers. Attracted by all this, even more people visited the mandir. They thronged the temple grounds until about midnight. In the din, Hanu’s loud voice almost went unheard. Ahalya did not have time to enquire after him. There was, however, no shortage of food for Hanu. Visitors often threw away food, half-eaten. So there was enough for him and the other beggars, though they had to fight for it.

But that did not stop Hanu from ranting. He could not join in the fun because of his physical condition. It made him even more irritable. Most of his abuse was directed at the purohit. But he did not spare the Devi and would describe her body in gutter language. The purohit’s warning, “You’ll surely go to hell!”, only served to increase the volume of the expletives. His disease saved him from a thrashing, perhaps even from being murdered by irate bhaktas.

A day before the Devi was due to leave for her bridegroom’s house, the doors of the mandir were closed to the public. There were so many rituals to go through. The Devi had to be ceremonially bathed to make her more radiant for the occasion. She had to be decked out in rich clothes and adorned with jewels. Then she would be placed in a beautiful palki, which was to be carried on a big-wheeled vehicle made to look like a rath. Accompanied by chants and kirtans, thousands of devotees would pull the rath to the hilly abode, where her husband—a block of stone—awaited her.

Once the doors of the temple were closed, the pilgrims thronged the mela. The courtyard of the mandir fell silent. The purohit and his assistants were busy with preparations for the next day’s festivities. But the purohit was worried. He was afraid Hanu would defile the holy atmosphere. Fortunately, Hanu had stayed away until then.

Another problem occurred to the purohit. Suppose Hanu wanted to pull the rath with everyone else? The Devi had appeared in a dream and commanded that nobody was to be stopped from drawing the rath on that auspicious day. To overcome this problem, a separate rope was attached to the vehicle, though the purohit hoped Hanu would remain sullen and refuse to join them. At midnight, all the preparations were over. Everyone went home to rest. The mela, too, had broken up.

By dawn, the temple compound was teeming with people. The Devi was already in the palki, behind a beautiful muslin screen. It would not be removed until she was united with her bridegroom. She would be taken to the foot of the hill on the rath. From there, the members of the committee would carry the palki on their shoulders. The purohit would accompany them, chanting mantras all the way. Bhaktas could follow the palki, at some distance.

The procession began to move forward slowly, led by the members of the committee. The elated cries of the bhaktas rent the air. The sound of conch shells and gongs added to the fervour. Women ululated. Kirtan singers beat their drums and clanged the cymbals. Holding on to the palki, the purohit sat on the rath.

They stopped about three kilometres away, at the foot of the hill. The palki was taken down, the Devi still behind the muslin screen. Even the purohit was not allowed to see her until she faced her bridegroom.

Carefully lifting the palki on to their shoulders, the leaders of the procession moved up the hill. The purohit and the devotees followed. It was an ardous journey. Steep. The path lined with thorny bushes. The fear of snakes. But the expectation of instant salvation egged them on. They huffed their way up, undeterred.

The stone, eight to nine feet high, was visible from quite a distance, standing majestically alone. It looked exactly like a Siva linga. Eager to attain salvation, the bhaktas regarded this piece of stone as an unmistakable sign of Mahadeva. Their cries of praise reverberated in the sky and the space beyond.

Suddenly, the procession stopped. The chants were replaced by a deathly silence. The purohit was the first to discern the reason for this unnatural silence. A man sat cross-legged at the base of the Siva linga, staring at them with bulging eyes.

“Hanu! You sinner! What are you doing here?” screamed the purohit, panic-stricken. “Get away. Move.”

But Hanu sat there, unmoving. Absolutely still. The purohit inched forward cautiously. It was as he had suspected. Hanu was dead—had been dead for some time. He held something in his arms. What could it be? On my god! The Devi! Hanu must have stolen the broken-nosed idol last night.

What then had they been carrying in the palki all this while? The palki was still on the shoulders of the carriers. Trembling with fear, the purohit rushed to it and pulled away the muslin screen. The crowd could see that it had accompanied a slab of stone. Hanu had placed the stone there in the dark of the night.

Terror chilled the blood of all present. To the committee members, the palki suddenly seemed to weigh several maunds more. They dropped it abruptly. All eyes now turned to the huge stone, the embodiment of Siva. In the play of sunlight, all they saw was a lifeless monolith, jutting into the sky, indifferent to their plight.

A stampede broke out. The terrified bhaktas rushed down the hill. A snake slithered down the side of the broken-nosed idol in Hanu’s arms and disappeared.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy the publisher, Katha