It is a hot, muggy day in Benares. Flies humming summer hymns sway this way and that, unable to decide from between stale yellow blobs of shit gracing either side of the narrow gully. Like nectar to bees, a tube-paint ochre mound attracts a considerable cluster, before a blood-red jet of betel leaf juice causes the winged group to disperse.

Baraat ke raaste se hat, suar ke bachche!’ spits a vermilion- (and foul-) mouthed self-appointed baraat leader to a cyclist in the middle of the road. Get out of the way of the procession, son of a pig. The rancid abuse loses itself in the foetid environment; so overpowering are the surrounding sights and smells.

    The cyclist, a young man with fierce eyes, burns hatred into the motley crowd but begins to ride the other way in quiet defiance. For his unapologetic behaviour he is pulled back by the collar and cuffed on the ear. The man’s smouldering eyes bore deeper into the baraati’s face before he rides away in silence. The groom, astride a mare, with growing sweat patches under his arms and a garland of hundred-rupee notes around his neck, grins arrogantly at the receding figure of the low-caste cyclist. His cousins dance to the cacophony of the baraat band. His friends tease him that in the night he will ride another mare. Basking in the attention, the groom beams.

      The baraat is received with the usual pomp and the groom demands half a lakh of rupees before the ceremony starts. As if in anticipation, the bride’s brother has already pulled out several wads of notes from his pockets. After all, his sister will get a life in the city, and life in the city is costly. Besides, he will seek reimbursement at his own wedding. The groom turns back to smile at his baraatis in smug satisfaction. A deluded gigolo is all that he is, but the thought seems never to have crossed the minds of either party. A man has been bought and yet the air suggests a woman sold.
   He looks at the bride’s lowered face lustfully. He has been able to catch a glimpse of her chin, the only part of her body that seems exposed, beneath several kilogrammes of embroidered cloth. When the meal is over and the ceremony begins, he follows the shlokas and instructions of the priest diligently. And once garlands are exchanged, he leads her to his parents’ lotus feet, then to the feet of his uncles and other elders from the community. 

  The bride has been renamed Leela. This will be her married name. It is her mother-in-law’s idea. A name to complement her son’s name – Ram. What a couple, praise the guests – Ram Leela. What a perfect union.

  When the ceremony is over and the annual date set for the new bride’s visit to her maternal home in Jaunpur, she sits coyly (as expected of an Indian bride of good breeding and as popularized by what little Hindi cinema she has seen) on the mogra-adorned bed, ready for another duty to be performed. To her surprise, her husband enters with another man. Terrified, she watches the stranger set up a tripod and camera beside the bed. The groom, Ram, takes his turban off importantly. He drinks a glass of buffalo milk.

  The groom waits patiently for the photographer to set up his apparatus. As long as the maaderchod gives him good proof of his wedding night. So he can boast of it to his friends and prove that he is a man. Thus the nuptial ablutions are performed. The groom, in prime position, to the right of the bed, facing the camera. The photographer,  facing the two-backed beast, one hand on the shutter the other in his pocket. One does not really know what went through the mind of the bride but from the look on the little that may be glimpsed of her face (mostly covered, in a vain attempt to hide behind a pillow), in the photographs developed two days later, she can’t have enjoyed it much.

  A week after the wedding, Ram must leave for the city. He works as a peon in Bombay. He has been there half his life. A Kshatriya by caste, he sits on the same bench as his Yadav and Dhobi colleagues at a multinational company in the commercial metropolis. Stands up to greet the sahibs, gets cigarettes for the madams, avoids running errands for the mussalman manager. On her part, Leela will live in wedded bliss with her mother-in-law until Ram returns the next year.

   The years pass them by as swiftly as the corpses in the holy Ganga. Most times, life seems to be in spate. Leela flows along, no longer afraid. It comes from a deep acceptance – of being swept away; of the fact that there is no other way. In times of gentle current, they produce a baby boy. In a celebration of triumph, he is named Purushottam – Superior Man. Following family tradition, the child ought to live with its mother, only to join the father when it is time to contribute to the family income. However, the boy and his mother are transported from the stench of Kashi to Bombay’s squalor and the child is brought up in a filth of castes, communities and faiths. His mother would rather raise him in the respectability of their Kshatriya locality back home but is deterred by the fact that her mother-in-law is with child. Fortunately, she gives birth to a boy. Leela would rather have her sisters-in-law raise her youngest brother-in-law. She has her hands full with her own child. Predictably, her mother-in-law names the baby Laxman. When he marries, we will call his wife Rekha, she is known to have said.

    Purushottam recalls his early childhood. Alternating between the crowded, squalid basti of suburban Bombay and the open fringes of Benares that he would visit once a year. Benares is a mela of sights and experiences. Of temples, poojas performed by his mother for his well-being, the Holy River, the ghats, the sadhus, the colours, the mithai, and games with his uncle Laxman. Here he is the centre of attention. His grandmother organizes pooja-paaths and kathas for them - readings from the Ramcharitmanas. His maternal cousins visit him from his mother’s native Jaunpur. Even his father does not beat his mother. 

   Back home in Bombay, his life comparatively, is inglorious. He grows up with friends from the basti, many of them neo-Buddhists who worship all the gods that he does, except they keep a garlanded portrait of Dr. Ambedkar by their side. Purushottam speaks fluent Marathi and snatches of Bihari Hindi. He celebrates the festival of Ganeshji as well as that of Vishwakarma, even though the Maharashtrian and Bihari sections of the basti are a long walk from his own. His parents don’t mind that. He can play gulli-danda with these friends or watch TV in their houses but he is not allowed to enter the mussalman basti. Because they are unclean. Even if you are dying, you must not take food or water from them, he knows. Once, he had made friends with Rafique and his father had whipped him. His mother had pulled down his underpants to see if they had made her Purushottam a mussalman. Rafique may have lent him his catapult when he wanted that bright green guava from the tree, but he too would grow up to be evil and violent like the rest of his lot. He knew.

    When Purushottam is seven years old, he encounters Rafique again, albeit in different circumstances. It is an unusual Friday when, in the company of friends, he follows his father and other men from the north section of the basti, as they charge towards the mussalman mohalla. The roads are strangely quiet and even the microphonic wails that usually emanate from the nearby mosque, with the howls of the neighbourhood strays in accompaniment, are conspicuous by their absence. The children watch from afar, as a heated exchange takes place. But the elders take leave of the beef-eaters abruptly, leaving the children somewhat disappointed. On their way out, the children are pelted with stones. Purushottam is left with a bleeding temple. A group of young Muslim boys, one of whom holds a catapult, sneers at them. Rafique has graduated from breaking fruits to stunning squirrels and enemies. We’ll bring down your holy shrines, too, he says.

   Purushottam cannot slip into his hut quiet and unnoticed as per the original plan, what with his injured temple and all. His father is not home yet and his mother does not notice the blood at first. Since he has injured the right side of his head, he tries to keep as close to the wall on the right as possible, away from the gaze of his mother. But they are no rich sahibs and the wall on the right is not far from the wall on the left, so his mother finds out anyway. At first she is alarmed because of the blood but on finding out about the real reason for the injury, the less said the better. It is only a matter of moments before the entire basti learns of Purushottam’s bloodied temple. Pleasantly surprised at not being whipped for entering the forbidden mohalla, Purushottam begins to show off his temple. Families come from far and wide in the basti to look at what the mussalman boy had done and how the Hindu boy had stoically borne the pain. It had never struck Purushottam that he was a hero. Even his father had rushed home from a basti committee meeting near the women’s washing area when he learnt of his child’s bravery. And angered that a mussalman mongrel had dared to touch his flesh and blood, he vowed to seek vengeance. An eye for an eye. A temple for a temple.


© Janhavi Stories 2009