Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Feast


 
The village K is on the west coast, a two-hour drive from the capital. I left home before dawn and got to the periphery of the village just after eight. It took thirty more minutes to cover the three kilometers from there to the inconveniently placed car-park near the village center.
Garish platforms and stalls blocked all roads in the village. On every stage, idols of gods shared space with posters of politicians and sponsors. Both camps vied for the same followers and garlands of flowers. Multi-colored banners – with religious thoughts, political promises and other lies – flapped in the morning breeze. Advertisements of jewelry shops, gold-loan companies and Ponzi schemes urged the masses to use the auspicious day to make a killing. Even the roads were not spared – psychedelic graffiti and artwork displayed atrocious spelling and impossibly proportioned ladies. Devotional songs, or was it film songs, blared on loudspeakers. Families, freshly bathed and wearing their best, ambled towards the temple seeking salvation. An equal number trudged back home after offering prayers, sweaty and smeared with holy paste, looking blessed, weary and crumpled. Eager young volunteers, in blue shirt and khaki pants, directed me to the car-park on the grounds of the village school.
The parking lot, with fifty or so cars packed dangerously close, was already half-full at that hour. I chose a shady spot beneath a tree, but my plans were thwarted by an annoying attendant who redirected me to an open area next to a rusty old Ambassador.
‘Closer, closer,’ he insisted, making me reverse and inch nearer to the other car.
‘Do you want me to park on top of that car?’ I snapped at him.
He went on like a parrot, standing in front, giving the same directions, gesturing wildly. I thought of pressing down on the accelerator and driving over him. He was joined by an equally disagreeable colleague. The situation was clearly developing into a show of strength. I too was itching for a fight.
I got out of the car, threw the keys on the ground a few feet from them and told them, ‘Do whatever you want with the car.’
The first irritant warned me, ‘We will get the police to tow away the vehicle.’
‘Whatever,’ I muttered, along with some expletives. Then I turned around and walked away.
I heard him say, ‘A bastard for sure.’
His partner added, ‘Yeah, and fit to be here.’
It was my second time there, in that village K, for the feast at the temple on the hill-top. The last time, fourteen years back, there was no parking lot. I was nineteen then and had come by bus.
The village center looked the same, other than for a few shops. I took the road leading to the beach and the temple. Closer to the beach, there were signs of new wealth and increased expenditure. The area was spruced up for the day’s festivities – with food-courts and hawkers’ make-shift stalls, bamboo barricades separating the gawking public and the pilgrims, new pay-and-use toilets, and a large presence of tourists and police personnel. Couple of years back, the temple was bestowed the status of a heritage tourist site, meaning that the place would receive more government funds to be preserved and at the same time get its name into more travel books inviting the curious to make preservation a harder job.
During my last trip, the natural beauty of the place had been my sole consolation. The beach is about ten meters wide and half a kilometer long, a natural embankment between the calm blue-green sea that lies like a lagoon and the darker, murkier backwater lake that separates this village and the next. The beach lies like a bridge, from the village K to the base of a hill.
The temple is at the top of that hill, about five hundred steps from the bottom. It is accessible only via the beach, making the village K seem blessed. The village across the lake has to make do with the grim rocky face at the back.
There is a natural flat field half-way up that hill. That has always been the venue for the midday feast.
It used to be held in the open, subject to the stern glare of the noon sun, the public below and the crows perched around waiting for their turn. This time, there was a large tent to accommodate the feast. That’s not the only change. Till a decade back, the whole day’s program at the temple, including the grand meal, used to be sponsored by a single devotee. Sharing expenses or the god’s blessings was frowned upon. But, with escalating costs, it became the norm for a few like-minded individuals to share the financial burden, and any divine benefits accrued.
However, the fundamentals have remained the same through the ages. Pilgrims sit on the bare floor in back-to-back rows. The servers scurry around like rats in the narrow lanes between the rows facing each other. The vegetarian meal is served on banana leaves – twenty traditional dishes, ranging from bitter to sweet, spicy to tangy, fiery to soothing, designed to tickle every sensory zone of a discerning palate. The priests from the temple supervise the show and distribute their blessings – spraying holy water on the gathering, giving each pilgrim a pinch of sandalwood paste and a teaspoonful of a sweet offering. In return, the pilgrims, rich or poor, give money as holy alms or tip and the priests accept it humbly, as long as the amount is not demeaning. After the feast, the priests return to the temple to divide and share their collection. The pilgrims make a round of the temple before the feast but not after. The arduous climb works well to build up a hearty appetite. Even the gods understand that the well-sated could hardly be expected to return to the top, to express their devotion or gratitude, after the big meal. Economics or modernity has not altered these practices.
I got to the beach around nine. The morning prayers at the temple were over and, the temple and the way up the hill were closed to the public. I joined the gathering of pilgrims at the foot of the hill. The queue writhed like a snake over the length of the beach, coiling against itself into a neat, tight pack. There were thousands there waiting to climb up the hill at noon for the feast. Only the very young pilgrims were already at the top, left there earlier in the morning. Their mothers would collect them later in the afternoon, after the feast and after the older pilgrims’ rush away from there. 
I ignored the stares and the clicking cameras of the public and the tourists on the other side of the barricade. I felt self-conscious for a while, with them treating us as if we were specimens in a zoo. My fellow- pilgrims were a sullen lot and, like me, disinclined to chat. Maybe, some had their prayers. Most had their troubles, certainly.
In that group of pilgrims, I saw an uncle, two cousins and a nephew. I had met that uncle and those cousins on that beach the last time too. Met is not the right word. We barely acknowledged each other. As for the nephew, he is a new entry to this clique in the last fourteen years.
The older of the cousins is a maternal uncle’s son. This time, quite like last time, we walked past each other, like strangers. His name slips my memory. It was quite by chance that I got to know about him when I was in my late teens. I had gone with an older family friend to a local bar. We joined a man sitting alone at a table. My friend seemed to know him well, but he did not introduce me to the other.
After the man left, my friend asked me, ‘Don’t you know him?’
I shook my head.
‘Didn’t you notice the resemblance – your buck tooth and the light eyes?’
I shrugged.
‘That’s your cousin,’ he informed and gave me a few more details.
That cousin and his mother shifted from our village long before I was born. They were paid off or, subservient loyalty made them go. His mother is of a lower caste and her family has been a dependent of my mother’s family for generations.
The other cousin on the beach, Hari, was standing way ahead of me in the queue. He and I used to be friends. Hari’s father, this one a paternal uncle, divorced his wife when she was two-months pregnant. Though his father never acknowledged him as a son, the rest of us in the family never deserted Hari. But, when I met him at the feast fourteen years back, it was I who avoided him. He had looked surprised to see me there. This time, when our eyes made contact briefly, I greeted Hari with a nod. There was little else to communicate.
The nephew there is another cousin’s kid. I don’t think he knows me. His parents parted after a bitter divorce and though his father got partial custody of the child, he never availed himself of that privilege. My cousin’s excuse was that he did not want to be a painful intrusion into his son’s life. It sounded too convenient.
As for that uncle, I saw him near one of the food-stalls on the beach. His much-speculated roots have been a family preoccupation-cum-secret, one of those incestuous cases even the garrulous in the family keep mum about. I am not even sure if he is an uncle or a grand-uncle.
I guess every family has its motley crew out there for the feast. Every year, in the fifth month of the local lunar calendar, this feast is offered at the temple on the day of the full moon. According to legends, the kind god of that temple loves to share a hearty meal with his consorts and the devoted hoi polloi. Every day, a basic lunch is offered free at the temple and devotees from far and near turn up to eat with the god. The grand annual feast is, of course, different from the daily fare and, special. On that auspicious day, the god chooses to have only his dearest sons for company. For some long-forgotten reason, that became a grand spectacle for the rest of the world. It takes little imagination to guess that that role, of being his dearest son, fell on the many bastards of the land.
Whenever I mention this aspect of the feast to my friends from outside the state, they usually find that detail funny if not offensive. Those from within the state are mostly immune to such, accustomed as they are to even stranger beliefs. For example, it was believed (or, it is still believed) that a prostitute is the best omen to see before one sets off on a journey or an important errand. In fact, that is recorded in Edgar Thurston’s ‘Omens and Superstitions of Southern India’, a 1912 text freely available on the Project Gutenberg website. There has been a slow erosion of that belief in recent times. The traditional practitioners of the oldest profession have lost their place in society, mainly due to large-scale urbanization and a burgeoning middle-class ready with their morals, and the new sleazy set inspires little belief and comfort.
But, the temple and its ways have stood the test of time, and the number of pilgrims that partake of the feast has always been on the rise. The rules of the temple are rather flexible on the exact definition of a suitable pilgrim on that auspicious day. There is of course the traditional set, those who have no idea about their father’s identity. My uncle (or grand-uncle) probably falls into that class. Then, there are those with a father who never assumed responsibility or even acknowledged the relationship. My cousins and nephew belong to that category. That is the largest group. My case is different.
I had a family, or rather, I thought I had one. When I was eighteen, it was made clear to me that it was a delusion. I resisted a lot to avoid that reality. At first, I thought it was a decision based on economics and that I was just unlucky not to get a share of the family wealth. I was left out of all discussions and decisions pertaining to the family. Silently, and without any fuss, I was erased from the family logs. I had to accept the fact that there was no place for me in the group that I used to call family.  
The next year, at nineteen, I attended the feast at the temple – to protest, to accept and to move on without that baggage I lost. I was angry, sad and defeated when I joined the assembly of pilgrims on the beach. I had stared at the audience, naively trying to challenge them. The spectators, then and now, probably like to think that there is not even a tenuous link between them and us. Then, as a nouveau pilgrim, that barricade symbolized a separation between families and their invisible, forgotten or amputated parts. And, in that sentimental vein, I thought they are there to watch because that consciousness lingers even after removal. Now, like most seasoned pilgrims, I know that they are there feeling nothing but curiosity. On that first trip, I had also convinced myself that I must be the saddest of the pilgrims there, to be a bastard without really being one. But, after the feast and on my way down the hill, I was somehow determined to forget that crowded past and to make a future for myself, alone.
That resolve helped me to remain undistracted and to focus on my studies. I had a fair amount of luck too. I got scholarships that allowed me to study and after graduation, I was fortunate to join the trading desk of a bulge-bracket investment bank. After three years, at twenty five, I was a vice-president who functioned sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. Two more years of slog and increasing profits made me a senior vice-president, with too much in the bank and too little time to spend.
That is when I met Savitha. She is from my village. We were not childhood sweethearts or any such clich├ęd stuff. She worked in the same city, in some call-center operation. We were alone and desperate for company. She was not demanding or intrusive and a live-in relationship seemed mutually beneficial. We did not plan to have a kid but that too happened within two years. I gave her the option to quit her job and she took it. I deposited a large sum, as insurance, for her and the kid. She said that that is not necessary.
My private and professional lives were a study in contrasts and I kept those separate. Savitha and her simple ways would have stood out against my black-suited colleagues. To them, she would have seemed like an old relic.
Professionally, I was still going at break-neck speed. Last year, I was promoted as a managing director and, at thirty two, one of the youngest in the firm. I was also told to shift abroad, to play in bigger markets. There was no place for Savitha and the kid in that play. I talked to her. She did not say much. She and the kid disappeared from my life, and I left for new shores with greater challenges. They never touched the deposit.
Then, there was a vacuum. I would love to say that I could not work because of them, or that I turned into an alcoholic trying to escape from remorse and headed towards self-destruction. I should have seen Savitha everywhere, her soft hair, those trusting smiling eyes, the sad smile and her graceful body I could not have enough of. And the kid, my son, should have haunted my every waking hour. But, there was just a vacuum. I worked like before, and lived like before, almost. I could not feel anything. I banged my fists into walls and watched my knuckles swell. I felt nothing. I cut my fingers and let blood drip. I felt nothing.
I quit my job three months back. I searched for Savitha and the kid. I made discreet enquiries with old acquaintances in the city and in my village but no one seemed to know anything about their whereabouts. That is when I decided to attend the feast at the temple. It was not based on any premonition. I was desperate and clutching at straws.
The temple opened exactly at noon, and we were allowed to climb up the hill. In a single file, we made a round of the temple, then descended to the flat field and entered the tent. I did not take a seat but waited near the entrance. The tent filled up with pilgrims. The older pilgrims left space at regular intervals for the young ones. Each young one would be entrusted to an elder who would make sure that the child had a full meal.
After the older ones were seated, the young ones came down the hill from the temple and entered the tent. I looked at each passing tiny tot. More than a hundred tottered past me and I had nearly given up. Then, I saw him, my four-year old son. I didn’t expect him to recognize me but he did. He gave me a sullen, challenging stare. His eyes were like his mother’s, round and made for a smile, but he was not smiling. I did not say anything to him. What could I say? I held his hand. He did not try to pull away. We walked in those tiny lanes between the rows, searching for a space for two. We must have looked odd and I could feel the stares of those seated. A row split in the middle and the pilgrims shifted to the right and the left on either side, making place for us.
We had a grand feast together. I made little balls of rice, vegetable and curry and fed my son. He was still not smiling at me. But he ate with a good appetite. Midway through the feast, the priests turned up to present their blessings. They went around, covering each lane between rows, giving to each outstretched hand, and accepting their dues. A priest stopped in front of us, and frowned at the way I was feeding my son. He must have guessed our relationship.
He pointed at my son and protested, ‘He should not be here. He is polluting the place.’
People around us stopped eating. They raised their heads and turned to stare at us and the offended priest. Each sullen face turned darker. They looked at my son and then at me, my hand still holding a ball of rice for my son.
One of them addressed the priest, ‘Do you want to take the kid’s place?’
The priest was taken aback and it took a while for him to comprehend the implied insult. His face turned red. But he gathered the mood of the crowd and kept quiet. He gave me and my son the offering, but he did not accept my money. He moved away quickly and continued with his task.
That incident did not affect our appetite. We finished off everything on our banana leaves. I carried my son to the washing-place. I helped him wash his mouth. I wiped his hands and face with my handkerchief. We moved to the exit.
Ma will come later to pick me up,’ he said.
‘Let’s go down the hill and find her,’ I said. For the first time that day, he smiled.
I carried him down the hill. Some of the pilgrims looked at us and they smiled at my son. They ignored me. The few who looked at me made it clear that I was not at all worth a look. I wondered then if Savitha would greet me with similar reproof.
My son spotted her first. She was having tea and snacks at one of the stalls near the entrance to the beach. When she saw us, she disposed the cup and the plate but made no move towards us. Her kind eyes had a sad smile. We did not say anything to each other. My son described the feast to the last detail, even the part about the priest.
‘I polluted the place,’ he reported proudly.
We laughed together.
‘Let that god be damned,’ I said to myself, ‘or be praised.’
I am not sure if Savitha will accept me again as her man. Maybe, she will only accept me as her kid’s father. Well, I have a future ahead of me to correct that past.
We walked together to the village center and then to the parking lot. The same attendant came to us. I smiled at him. He seemed bemused and curious, suspiciously staring at the three of us. He handed over the car-key without a word. I had a tough time getting into the car. While reversing, I scratched the car against the rusty old Ambassador. That did not matter at all.