Short story

Palanquin Bearer

Print edition : March 02, 2018

“HEY Manga! Can you hear me? Ayyagaru is going to take the Ayyappa deeksha the day after tomorrow. You must dust the house and mop the floor clean... you have to come early in the morning tomorrow and for the next forty days. You have to finish all the cleaning by sunrise,” said Ammagaru. Manga remembered well the pious atmosphere that permeated their house when Ayyagaru took deeksha.... She also knew how dictatorial he was before deeksha, and how gentle and sober he became afterwards.... She knew how Ammagaru pampered him when he took deeksha and how busy and excited she became. “Look Manga! The house should be cleaned by tomorrow evening,” she warned her once again.

Indeed, when Ayyagaru took deeksha, their house looked like a temple. Manga may have more work to do, but she felt there was a kind of peace and happiness the moment she stepped into the house, which gave off the divine fragrance of roses and lilies mixed with camphor and incense.

“Ayyagaru is going to take deeksha the day after tomorrow. I have to go early and clean their house,” said Manga to the old woman, her mother-in-law, on returning home.

“What deeksha?” asked the old woman curiously.

“The black clothes deeksha… the Ayyappa deeksha.”

“Oh! People say the Ayyappa temple is far off and a lot of money is needed to go there!”

“So what if it is far off? They can afford it. He has already gone there four times and can go another fourteen times,” said Manga, going to light the stove. It was her duty to prepare the evening meal since her mother-in-law could not see well in the evening. The old woman managed to cook and take care of Manga’s two children in the morning but was helpless in the evening.

“Do you know? Our Ramesh also wants to ‘wear the mala’ (take deeksha) this year. Of course, not the black clothes one; he wants to wear the red clothes, the Bhavani mala1,” said the old woman.

“What!” Manga said, surprised, “Did he tell you so?”

“He said so while eating lunch.... Isn’t that good for him, and for us too? There won’t be drinking, smoking and yelling for some time,” said the old woman with a smile.

Perhaps that was true. But how could Ramesh perform the daily puja and other rituals? People have a special room for puja; a door with bells, a mandiram inside with silver idols of God. Only then can one think of taking deeksha, thought Manga.

“Let us think about it when he wears the mala,” she said to herself and was soon absorbed in her chores.

Ramesh came home drunk at eleven in the night, yelling at his mother and wife as usual. Good for him if he took deeksha, thought Manga.

Osey Manga! Listen! I am going to wear the Bhavani mala on Friday along with my friends,” Ramesh announced the next morning, while brushing his teeth. Manga had no time, she simply assented and left for work.

Though Ayyagaru was observing deeksha, Ammagaru had to do everything. She woke up early in the morning, took a bath, plucked flowers from the yard, cleaned the idols and arranged everything for the puja, filling oil in the lamps and placing wicks in them, placing incense sticks and camphor in their holders and readying fruits for the naivedyam. Then came Ayyagaru; he recited some mantras from a book, lit the lamps, incense sticks and camphor, offered fruits to the deity and tinkled the puja bell. By that time, everybody had to be present there to receive the prasadam from him and bow to the deity. Ammagaru had to be ready at the table to serve breakfast—piping hot idlis, paper-thin dosas or cotton-soft vadas. Behind these delicacies was Manga grinding pulses, making batter, pounding spices, making chutney, whipping cream and washing the dishes. Ayyagaru then left for work in black clothes, without shoes, as one could not wear shoes when one was in deeksha.

Ramesh too had to follow these rules if he took deeksha. Ayyagaru went to work in his car. There was no need for him to walk barefoot. How could Ramesh walk barefoot? “Anyway, why should I bother? It is his lookout,” thought Manga, somewhat vexed. In a way, she was happy that he was taking deeksha, but she was also doubtful whether he would be able to manage its demands. She laughed at her own thoughts. Did Ramesh seek her opinion? Did he ask her whether she liked his taking deeksha? No. He never asked her opinion on anything, not even while taking important decisions, like moving house or taking loans. They had stayed in a better house last year. It had drinking water. Ramesh had picked up an argument with the owner and hastily moved house without consulting her. The house they were in now was on a hillock. They had to carry drinking water from the foot of the hill. As there were a dozen houses up the hill, the corporation had constructed steps and paved a walkway. Men from these houses usually fetched water, but Ramesh would not. Unable to bear the strain, Manga shouted at him sometimes. Then he would offer to fetch water, otherwise he kept away, letting her do “her duty”. When he offered to carry water, his mother warned him to be careful at least a hundred times, which she did not when Manga did the same.

Manga cleaned her one-and-a-half-room dwelling and created a separate bay for the mandiram of the goddess. She tied mango twig festoons to the only door of her house and drew a muggulu around it. Wives of men who had worn the mala gave many an advice to Manga regarding the rules she had to follow when her husband was in deeksha.

“It is as if it is I who is taking deeksha,” Manga laughed.

“Hey Manga! Do not allow Ramesh to have his breakfast and other tiffins at roadside stalls from today. You have to cook for him only after taking a bath. Now Ramesh is not your husband, he is the Goddess Bhavani herself, you know! You have to treat him as your God. Whatever you do for him, do it honestly and with devotion,” said one neighbouring aunt.

“He is accustomed to eating spicy non-vegetarian food; now that he can’t eat that food, make his vegetarian food tasty,” she said again.

Ramesh came home in red clothes and a rudraksha mala around his neck after duly taking a bath in the river Krishna. People around him touched his feet in a namaskaram; so did Manga.

“What breakfast did you make for me?” asked Ramesh.

Manga was not used to making breakfast; earlier, Ramesh would eat at any roadside stall and she, at her workplace. The old woman ate the leftover rice, and so did the children. How could “God” Ramesh eat leftovers? It was a sin to offer him such food. The wives of Ramesh’s friends had already started cooking breakfast for their husbands. One of them offered Ramesh breakfast that day.

“Give me some money. I will get necessary provisions from the market,” said Manga.

Ramesh had bought three pairs of red clothes, a mat and two bed sheets for himself the earlier day. The person who is in deeksha is called a “Bhavani”. Bhavanis should not use old bed sheets and mats.

“Where is the money? I spent all I had on these. You have to manage somehow,” said Ramesh.

Manga was aware that one should not argue with a Bhavani. So she spent all the money she had saved and bought dough, pulses and an idli-maker. According to the rules, the person who is in deeksha and the person who talks with him should not lie to each other. Therefore, Manga could not lie to him that she had taken a loan to buy these things; she had to tell him that she used the money she had saved.

A Bhavani was not supposed to eat rice for dinner. So, Manga had to make other foods—she was not an expert in this. Ramesh’s hunger was not satiated with what Manga had made because it was not as filling as rice.

Manga got up at six in the morning, swept the little yard, fetched water, boiled milk for her children and left for work. Then the old woman bathed the children and cooked for them if there was no leftover food. Manga returned from work at noon, washed clothes and made some curry and rice for Ramesh. The old woman and Manga would eat whatever leftovers Ammagaru gave her. Ramesh wanted either fish curry or mutton once in two days; and a “quarter” every evening was a must. Sometimes he had more. That was the routine before Ramesh took deeksha.

Now she had to get up early in the morning at four thirty and take a bath before Ramesh returned after bathing in the river Krishna. She had to clean his idols, make all the preparations for puja, make breakfast and lunch for him, because he came home at noon. She had to rush to be at Ammagaru’s house as early as possible because she had to clean their house too before Ayyagaru started his puja. She had to work in two more houses apart from that house. She returned from work at noon and took a bath again, as she had cleaned the bathrooms and washed clothes at the houses where she worked. She could not serve food to Ramesh without taking a bath after doing all this dirty work; one had to be pure and clean to serve a Bhavani. After serving food to Bhavani, she had to wash his clothes separately. Ammagaru did not wash the clothes of Ayyagaru; Manga washed them. Ammagaru sprinkled some water on them and put them on the clothesline. Manga's second child was still a bed-wetting baby. As her mother-in-law could not wash her clothes, Manga had to wash them; Manga was now bathing thrice a day and changing clothes thrice. She had her own clothes to wash. Altogether, Manga had to wash and dry a pile of clothes every day. Moreover, her mother-in-law changed her clothes whenever she relieved herself. By the time she finished all the chores it was time again to rush for work. After returning home, she had to make some tiffin for Ramesh; that too, a different item every evening. Ramesh was not a man who would eat the same dish every evening. Manga was not good at cooking these tiffins. Ammagaru made a variety of tiffins for Ayyagaru, but never offered them to Manga so that she could give these to Ramesh. Ammagaru said that she could give the food made for Ayyagaru only after he had eaten. How could Manga wait until then?

“If we have gas stoves, mixers and grinders, we too can cook wonders,” thought Manga helplessly. Manga lost her enthusiasm by the following week.

On the other hand, Ramesh grew healthier. Now that he had stopped drinking and smoking, he ate with relish. He gained some weight too. He exuded a whiff of the fragrance of lilies and camphor whenever he came near her. Earlier, through all their years of companionship, she had only known the disgusting odour of alcohol and cigarettes, even in bed. He had never come to her smelling good, though she herself wore a fresh sari and had flowers in her hair. Manga slapped her cheeks herself as people do whenever they commit a sin, since engaging in erotic thoughts when her husband was in deeksha was a sin.

All the provisions she had bought were finished in a week, and she had run out of money too. She asked Ramesh for some money again, though she knew that he would not give any. “How would I have money? I am also buying flowers, coconuts and other things. Please manage by yourself. See if you have any money in your box,” he said.

“Yes! I have saved a lot of money that you gave me! Would I have to face these troubles if you had given me money properly? Why would I have to slog like a slave all day if you were a responsible man? Now do something. I don’t have any money with me. I wanted to buy a couple of blankets for the children this winter; I am using my old saris to protect them from this winter’s cold....” Manga raised her head to say all this, however she could not. As soon as she saw the big vermilion mark on his forehead and the rudraksha mala around his neck, she dared not speak to him in that manner. She contained her feelings, sported a smile and said, “In that case I have to borrow money from Ammagaru. She may give me some advance from my salary.”

“Do something,” said Ramesh.

“This is for God only. Go get the money from your Ammagaru,” said the old woman, readily supporting her son.

“What else can I do?” said Manga. She took an advance of five hundred rupees from Ammagaru. The same Ammagaru had refused to give any advance earlier even if Manga was in dire necessity. Now that it was for God, she gave it without a word. However, there would be a cut in next month’s salary. How would she cope with that?

“He will not drink for forty days. Maybe he will stop it forever. Who knows! You will be lucky if he does so. Then he will give you all his salary. Do bear with him now,” said the old woman, though she knew her son very well and that he was not a person to change easily. Manga too knew him very well. If he was so agreeable, why should she undergo this ordeal? He gave her only 1,500 rupees out of his 2,500-rupee salary. Manga had to supplement with her earnings to make ends meet. Actually, she had wanted to work in a garment factory after learning sewing and embroidery instead of washing dirty dishes and clothes, but she was never able to spare either the money or the time to join the sewing classes.

Ayyagaru arranged a bhajan in his house. He had a porch built with palm leaves in front of the house and hired people to decorate it with mango twigs, flower garlands and iridescent bulbs. He invited a number of swamis for the bhajan. He hired a number of cooks to make eleven types of sweets and other delicacies. The bhajan singers were also given a great deal of money, Ammagaru said. This grand event cost him thousands of rupees, said Ammagaru. She gave Manga also a variety of sweets. Manga came home in an elated mood and described the bhajan to all the people around.

“It will be good if you also arrange a bhajan, Ramesh!” suggested the neighbour-aunt.

“Do arrange the bhajan, Ramesh. The Goddess will bless you with a male child,” said another.

“It is beyond our means. We can’t afford such things,” Manga said immediately.

“Don’t do it the way they did, do it within your means,” said the aunt again.

“I should not have told them about the bhajan,” Manga thought with bitter regret.

Manga had already taken the next month’s entire salary as advance. In addition, she had taken petty loans from her neighbours.

Of the forty days of deeksha, ten days remained. The next day Ramesh suddenly announced that he was going to arrange the bhajan in two days.

“I can’t raise any more loans,” Manga said.

“Don’t worry. I will manage, I will ask my master for an advance on my salary,” said Ramesh.

“Why didn’t you do it before?” Manga wanted to ask him, but did not dare.

“Listen! Your four friends can arrange the bhajan together so that it won’t be a burden on any one,” suggested Manga.

“No, no. This can’t be. We cannot share devotion. The Goddess will get angry. We should not think of money in the case of God; it is a sin, you know,” said Ramesh, decidedly.

Manga had been unwell for the last one week. Due to frequent and untimely cold water baths, she had caught cold and a fever; she had to visit the doctor and spend money on medicines. While Ramesh was in deeksha, she could not afford to be ill. The baby too had fever and needed medicines. Now Manga had no money and no source for raising any.

“Don’t worry, I will take care of everything,” Ramesh said again.

“It is not wise to argue with him; let him do as he pleases. We should be happy that he is not using foul language, happy that he is not beating us, at least now,” thought Manga.

Ramesh arranged the bhajan, as he had said. He had a shamiana erected in front of the house, hired a mike set and flickering lights too. He also hired two cooks to make sweets and other prasadam and invited all his neighbours and colleagues for food.

“He must have borrowed a large amount of money, but what can I do other than keep quiet?” Manga heaved a sigh.

However, unable to contain her curiosity, she asked him how much money he had borrowed for arranging the bhajan. He said he would tell her later because he could neither tell her the truth nor lie to her. All said and done, Ramesh successfully completed his deeksha. He bathed in the Krishna, had darshan of Goddess Kanaka Durga and took off the mala. While he looked hale and hearty, his deeksha had been like a yagna for Manga. He told her that he had taken a loan of five thousand rupees from his master. Manga was taken aback. Of late, she had been feeling weak and exhausted due to heavy work at home and the houses where she worked. She wanted to rest for a couple of days and told Ammagaru this.

“Suppose you go on a deeksha without consulting your husband, would he cooperate with you?” she asked.

“It is out of the question,” pat came Manga’s reply.

“That is why God Ayyappa doesn’t allow young women to take deeksha. He knows that it inconveniences men. He is a shrewd one,” said Ammagaru again. “Tell me the truth! Were you happy when he was in deeksha or when he was normal?” she asked Manga.

Manga could not answer her readily—each phase had its own problems.

The old woman gave a garland of lilies to Manga when she returned home from work saying, “Go! Bathe quickly; comb your hair and braid these flowers in it. Ramesh said he would come home early.”

Manga felt as if her head was spinning. She wanted to eat quickly and have a good night’s sleep.

Ramesh came home “hungry”.

Not the “God” Ramesh, but, the same old Ramesh with the same old smell—the same old aggressive person.

Ammagaru asked the tired Manga who was cleaning the floor absent-mindedly the next day, “Why Manga, you are still exhausted! I think your man’s deeksha is over.”

Manga had no answer.

Her man did not seek her consent yesterday night just as he had not taken her consent while taking deeksha.

“Our sweat is their pleasure either in bhakti or in rakthi,” said Ammagaru philosophically.

Manga tried hard to understand this.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan.

(P. Sathyavathi's prize-winning story, “Glasu Pagilindi”, was first published in 1977. “Illalakagaane”, a volume of stories, won her the Chaso award and established her as a leading feminist writer in Telugu. Recipient of the Rangavalli award and the Telugu University award, among others, she has also translated, to much acclaim, Ismat Chughtai’s stories, Revathi’s “The Truth About Me” (A Hijra’s Life Story) and “My Father Balaiah” into Telugu. A retired English lecturer, Sathyavathi lives in Vijayawada and is at present co-editing an anthology of contemporary Telugu women writers’ stories translated into English and to be published by the Sahitya Akademi.)

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