A corner for god

Print edition : January 31, 2020

“Krauncha Pakshigalu & Other Stories” by Vaidehi. Translated from Kannada by Susheela Punitha, Sahitya Akademi, 2018.

Vaidehi (b.1945), the author of this story, is the pen name of Janaki Srinivasa Murthy, a writer of great repute from Kundapura in coastal Karnataka. She is the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award (2009), Katha Award (1992, 1997), Anupama Award, Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award (1993, 1998), and the Karnataka government’s Daana Chintamani Attimabbe Award. At present, she is the Director of the T.M.A. Pai Sahitya Peetha of Manipal University .

Susheela Punitha (b.1938) served as a Professor of English Literature at Bangalore University. Her translation of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s “Bharathipura” (2010) won the 2015 Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize.

Kannada short story.

“Should we or shouldn’t we have a niche for the deity?”

That had become the issue between the couple from the moment they started putting up a small flat over their house.

“Will anyone building a house to rent out think of a corner for god?” raved Samitha. “We’ve done it all for our house and that was fine. We planned how it should be; the door would be finely carved with bells on it that jingle. When guests come home for special pujas, they should stand and admire it.... But we’re building this house only to rent it out. Who knows who’ll live in it? Do they believe in god? Will they need a separate corner for their god? Why should we worry about such things?”

Ramesha felt that his wife had a point. He thought of putting up at least a small shelf for that purpose but left it at that.

The flat was ready. The couple installed their deity temporarily in the drawing room and did the housewarming, keeping the rituals of homa and havana and the chanting of mantras to a bare minimum. Now they were ready to let it out. All they hoped for were good tenants. What does “goodness” mean? Could they thrust their hands inside the tenants to find out? They decided to let it out to someone in a transferable job; someone who would move out in three years. They could rent it right away for a thousand and five hundred.

“Yes, we may get a thousand five hundred,” said Samitha, “but ask for a lesser deposit, not fifteen. Take ten.”

“You shut up! You know nothing about such transactions.”

“Fine, then. Don’t consult me for anything.”

Even as such sparks flew back and forth, they were able to get a tenant. The man was on a transferable job. The family would move in three years. The rent was a thousand and five hundred with a suitable deposit. They looked the traditional type; seemed religious. Ramesha was happy, so was Samitha.

Though they were religious, the tenants did not expect a separate niche for their deity. They had been posted to ever so many places and had been through ever so many houses. They were used to making their own arrangements if there was no provision for it. And besides, this was a new house. Theirs was the privilege to provide a place for god. How would it be if they installed it in a part of the showcase in the drawing room? No, that would not do. It would not be proper to carry on with the ritual puja, stotra and mantra in the presence of visitors. So they set it up in a corner of the kitchen counter with a picture and an idol and lit the lamp. They placed a plank as a divider to prevent any contact with the cooking and to keep the area as clean as possible. That became the corner for god.

They invited the landlord and landlady for the housewarming puja. Samitha went upstairs, noticed the nook and caught Ramesha’s eyes as if to say, “Did you see?” and smiled. Would they have stopped at this if they had built a place for the deity? The expense would have been a waste...

“Swami, who’s your family deity?” asked the tenant, offering the arathi. Not that he really wanted to know; he was only being cordial.

“Ganesha,” Ramesha replied.

“Ho, Ho!” laughed the tenant. “The son governs the ground floor. The father rules the first floor.”

And that was that.

There were various noises from the first floor; the sound of footsteps of people going to office, to school and returning; sounds of cooking and the timely sounds of the conch and bell and the chanting of mantras during puja. Three years slipped by. The transfer orders came; the tenant moved out. Before he left, he arranged with the colleague who was posted in his place to move in. There was a slight increase in rent.

“These people aren’t like the previous tenants,” said Ramesha. “They don’t seem to have any faith in god.”

“Yes, surprising!” returned Samitha. She was the type who wondered how one believed in god when one did or how one did not believe when one did not. “They moved in and settled down right away. They didn’t have even a small puja or panchagavya. No such hassles,” she added with a mixture of approval and surprise.

An easy familiarity grew between the families. Samitha was curious to see how the tenants had set up house. She went upstairs to pay a courtesy call.

“Remember how diligently the previous tenants had fixed a plank on the kitchen counter to keep a corner apart for God?”

“Hmm?”

“Guess what these people have kept in that place?”

“Their god, probably?”

“Yes, of course, their god! And what do you think it is? Liquor!”

“Ayyo!”

“Not just that. They’ve even fitted a meshed shutter.”

“Hanh?”

“In the place for god, of all places! The previous tenants had sanctified that corner by lighting incense sticks and wick lamps and doing the arathi.”

“Let them be. Did we make the niche to become so attached to it? Anyway, how are you sure there were liquor bottles in the closed cupboard?”

“I asked her, ‘How is it you’ve got a door fixed?’, and she told me.”

“Not just that. ‘Will you have a drink?’ she asked. How could she?” Samitha laughed.

“Whatever! Once we’ve rented the house, that’s it. Let them drink, let them do whatever else they want so long as they don’t make a nuisance of themselves outside,” said Ramesha. “The rent’s been coming without a problem.”

“Hunh, true. How can we put too many restrictions on tenants?”

They moved when they were posted out. Another family moved in. In a way, the house seemed bespoken to people transferred to that post in that office; each tenant fixed it up for the person who replaced him.

Somehow Ramesha was not very keen on renting it to the people who came this time. Their religion was different; their god was alien. So who knew what kind of people they were? How could he let it out to them without knowing anything about them? But he could not refuse to give it to them either. He had been getting tenants one after the other without any effort on his part. And the rent too. Was there any sense in looking out for tenants of his choice? What guarantee was there that such people would be willing to pay as much? The instalments on the loan had to be paid every month. From where else could they get the money? No point in looking at their beliefs, religion or caste. They had built the flat for renting out. They had been getting good tenants with a well-paid job easily. He decided he should not be too finicky.

“Wonder which god is sitting now in the corner the first tenants had set apart for god and the second had converted into a liquor cabinet.” Samitha was curious, Ramesha too. “Did their god have the same space? Or another? Or none at all...!” It was not their concern, of course, but their curiosity held them to it however much they tried to let go.

One morning—

It may have been around ten o’clock.

“Aunty, Amma wants you,” called out the maid from the first floor. “She wants you to come upstairs if you have the time.”

“Why?”

“Simply.”

Samitha thought for a moment. She climbed up the stairs slowly. The lady of the house seated on a sofa was obese.

“Come in, come in,” she said, shuffling a little without getting up. “I wondered if you’d think, ‘Why should I go up?’ I can’t walk about. I’m fat, you see. The doctor says I must reduce....” She carried on and on about her health problems, her doctor, the house she had left behind, her neighbours there and the market place... Samitha was curious. She cast a furtive glance towards that corner of the counter.

“Arre!” The niche had no shutter. They had removed it. They had placed a book on a book-rest. The book was adorned with flowers.

That was what she told Ramesha when he came home from lunch.

“You know, when I looked, there was no picture of god, nothing! Only a book with flowers on it!”

“What are they? Did you ask?”

“No. I didn’t. Somehow as I was staring at it, I felt, what does it matter what they are? Or who sits in that nook?”

“True.”

And then came Saldanha.

And then someone else. And during one such tenancy came Nafisa’s family. The house moved from hand to hand, from god to god, to whoever was considered god; to each his own. Before each new tenant moved in, sundry repairs were done and the house was spruced up as a matter of routine. Only the recess for god was transformed with every new tenant; sometimes open, sometimes shuttered, sometimes locked, sometimes not. It had become dark and musty with smoke from wick flame and incense. Who knows how many gods and icons had dwelt in it and got up to move on? Whatever it be, the house upstairs broke through the loneliness of the couple. There were casual conversations and polite exchanges, and homely sounds of footsteps, of tables pulled, of dishes washed and put away....

And that was when that small family moved in: husband, wife and child. Ramesha would casually ask them to which caste they belonged.

Whenever he did, their reply was only a smile. They did not say to which caste they belonged; they did not say they did not belong to any. He did not know what to make of it. Once again, the couple remembered their priorities and left it at that. Once again, their time revolved around the new family upstairs: the baby’s laughter, the jingle of its anklets, its faint cries in the dead of night sometimes.... Samitha listened to it all. She tuned into it as she turned over in bed thinking. “What a difference a baby makes! It’s brought new life to the ambience.”

One day, Samitha went upstairs. She was bored; the same old curiosity had got hold of her and, besides, she wanted to talk to the baby. The lady of the house was busy in the kitchen.

“Come in,” she called out respectfully on hearing Samitha. “Come right here.”

Samitha walked into the kitchen and stood stunned. Until then the niche had found and lost the divider, shutter, padlock, chain, hook, but now...it was completely bare. Completely, in the sense that there was nothing like a recess there. The woman had removed the divider, dismantled the door and put away everything. The baby was sitting on that vacant corner of the kitchen counter. The mother had sat the baby there and was talking to it while seasoning the curry. The child clapped and laughed at the splutter of the seasoning. It imitated the sound. It chattered away in baby talk. Samitha stood transfixed, drinking in the scene. She took a deep breath as though the whole house was radiant, as if a fragrance was everywhere. She felt a deep grief welling up from within her; a sorrow the couple had stifled despite their utter mutual loneliness. She swallowed the overwhelming tears while pretending a cough brought on by the pungent seasoning.

“O, what does it want... the baby-god...?” She cried as she darted towards the child, hugged it and smothered its startled face with kisses.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy Sahitya Akademi

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