A place of worship, correction, let’s call a spade a temple, located somewhere in the heartlands of south India. Ramu, a mendicant, sits in a long line of beggars outside the temple walls with a pock-marked, pitted aluminium begging bowl, seeking alms from the daily flow of worshippers who throng this holy abode of the presiding deity. A ragged length of dirty white cloth covers his head to keep the unforgiving sun from dealing him a heat stroke. The power of the temple’s deity is said to be formidable, and though it is almost seemingly inaccessible to normal travellers, visitors flock in great profusion every day for darshan and to pay obeisance to the almighty. They come by car, truck, van, two-wheeler, bicycle and bullock-cart, juddering through the unmade, stone-strewn paths that pass for roads leading to this village shrine. Those that live within a two-mile radius trudge to the temple with intent, avoiding stray dogs and skeletal cows sure-footedly, familiar with the rough terrain. The coins drop in dribs and drabs into Ramu’s bowl, but over the course of a long day, they add up.
Vikram is a brilliant software engineer, based out of Bangalore. At the relatively young age of 28, he is already worth several crores in stock options and dynamic investments. His wife, Shanta, spends her time running a highly successful creche and a kindergarten in a tony area of the garden city. On Sundays and public holidays, she puts in a few hours with an NGO involved in helping mentally challenged children. However, one dark cloud looms over their idyllic life. They have not been blessed with a child after three years of wedded bliss. And that is the reason Vikram has sought out this place of worship in a remote hamlet as he has heard tell that the presiding deity can make good any lack if the proper rituals are performed. Unbeknownst to Shanta, Vikram has been a regular monthly visitor to this shrine for the past six months. He has been following all the liturgies and ablutions as directed by the resident priest, who has assured him that the local deity is fully seized of his issue, or rather the lack of it, and the patter of little feet at his bide-a-wee home is not far away.
How do we know all this? We know this because Vikram has struck up a warm friendship with the supplicant Ramu. Which then begs the question, rather like Ramu, how these two unlikely individuals come to enjoy such a close camaraderie. All rather strange and mysterious. Apparently, it started like this. On his first visit to the temple, Vikram decided he must do the decent thing and donate some of his loose change to these beggars squatting outside the temple premises. Any good deed to please the gods. As he chanted some private mantra while doling out the change to these unfortunates, he came to Ramu’s plate. On dropping a five-rupee coin into the battered receptacle, he thought he heard the beggar saying, in perfectly accented English, ‘You are most generous Sir, that must have made an awful dent in your bank balance, even if not in my dented bowl.’ A hint of sarcasm as well. Vikram felt his mind was playing tricks and that he was hearing voices. A disturbing thought. Then the beggar spoke again. ‘Take no notice of my prattle, kind Sir. I am given to making off-the-cuff comments, tinged with irony. You go about your business, Sir.’
Vikram made no response. He dropped more coins into the other beggars’ bowls and pretended he heard nothing. He found the recent exchange unsettling. His drive back to Bangalore was not comfortable. Not because of the pathetic condition of the roads, till he got to the highway, that was rattling his bones up something awful, but because of the beggar Ramu’s astonishing conversational methods. ‘Prattle,’ ‘off-the-cuff,’ ‘tinged with irony,’ ‘awful dent,’ ‘go about your business,’ – who spoke like that these days, even among the educated classes, leave alone the poorest of the poor? What’s more, his accent was quite polished. There’s more in this than meets the eye, thought Vikram to himself. Vikram’s drive back home was buffeted by a maelstrom of strange emotions. He could not get Ramu out of his head. That night he slept fitfully.
Next morning, he told Shanta he was motoring to Chennai on a personal errand and would be back by nightfall. Instead, he decided to drive back to the village housing the holy of the holies, having put in for a day’s leave of absence. Prior to his leaving, Shanta ran and fetched a thermometer and inserted it into her husband’s mouth before he could protest. This man, a confirmed workaholic, had never taken a day’s leave in his entire working life, and now this. She feared the worst. He wants to drive back to Chennai? On a personal errand? Sounded distinctly dubious. Dementia and high fever, possibly Covid, were her biggest worries. She placed her hand on his forehead but could feel no abnormality. Overwork, that was the trouble. The thermometer said Vikram’s temperature was sub-normal. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s just something I came across at a kovil on the outskirts of Chennai that I need to sort out. Will tell you all about it when I return. Trust me.’ Shanta was flummoxed. She was not even aware that her husband was visiting a temple or indeed, why. In his dashing personality as a successful IT professional, she never smelt the incense of religion in his make-up. Why, they did not even design the de rigueur prayer room in their state-of-the-art apartment. However, she decided not to press but to await his return.
Arriving at the village, Vikram parked the car under the shade of a spreading banyan tree and proceeded to confront the eloquent Ramu, who was sitting cross-legged at his appointed place, apparently in deep contemplation.
‘A penny for your thoughts,’ opened Vikram, stirring Ramu mildly out of his reverie, ‘Caught you by surprise, didn’t I? What is it exactly that you are doing here? I can see that you are well-bred and well spoken, so what’s with the indigent costume and grand deception?’
Ramu was equal to the occasion. ‘I fully expected your sudden return this morning, brother. I could see that my highfalutin garrulity yesterday took you unawares and you have been thinking of nothing else ever since.’
‘You’re doing it again, “highfalutin garrulity” indeed! That’s awfully clever of you, but I need to know what your real game is,’ replied Vikram, ‘I distinctly smell a rat. Something fishy. Go on, out with it.’
‘Make up your mind. Rat or fish? Don’t mix your smelly metaphors. Nothing fishy, my friend. Or ratty, come to that. We are strictly vegetarian here. Tell you what, why don’t we go and stand under that banyan tree where your swank car is parked and we can have a chinwag,’ said Ramu.
‘Fair enough,’ said Vikram and the two of them walked towards the shade of the banyan’s cooling branches, ‘now reveal to me why you move in this strange, cloak-and-dagger way, keeping me guessing. And don’t think you can fob me off with some lame, hard-luck story about losing all your ill-gotten gains at the bourses or the race courses. We are standing on sacred land. I want the truth.’
‘Got a fag?’ queried Ramu.
‘What? No, I don’t smoke,’ replied Vikram, clearly taken aback by this startling request and plainly irritated. ‘Filthy habit.’
Ramu drew himself up to his full height. ‘All right, don’t get all hoity-toity with me. It’s just that these hand-rolled bidis are killing me. I’ll get straight to the point. Your name is Vikram, right? You work in a software company, you are well paid, your wife Shanta is doing noble community work – a happily married couple, except for one, solitary sorrow in your young lives. You don’t have a child. And that’s why you keep coming here.’
Vikram was aghast. ‘Who are you? Where did you come from and how do you know all this?’
‘Peace be with you, bro. Don’t get so hot under the collar. Things will soon sort themselves out and your wishes will be taken care of.’ Ramu sported a broad smile.
‘I still don’t get it,’ cried Vikram. ‘What are you, a godman, a shaman? And I am not your brother. And don’t call me bro, either. I hate that new wave corruption. And you, with your mumbo-jumbo black magic.’
‘Says the guy who, for all his cynicism, comes here monthly to talk to his god. Let’s just say I know things. I can’t reveal more. Why don’t you just go home and let nature take its own, majestic course?’ Ramu was clearly in high spirits, revelling in the techie’s discomfiture.
Vikram was getting quite irritable and fidgety. ‘And how come you talk like this? A poor, starving beggar in rags, looks like you haven’t had a shower in months, stinking to high heaven and you converse like Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. And now you’re advising me to let nature take its own course.’
‘Majestic course,’ interjected Ramu, imparting plenty of topspin. ‘Great movie, My Fair Lady. Saw it six times.’ At which point, he started singing Get me to the church on time, under his breath. Was this guy for real?
Vikram was now at his wit’s end. A Broadway hit song, on top of everything else. ‘All right. Majestic course. I am going home now, Your Majesty. And if what you say turns out to be true, I will return and break a hundred coconuts in your name. What is your name, by the way?’
‘My name is of little consequence, my friend. Just go home to your wife,’ replied Ramu darkly. ‘I will bid you farewell for now. You sure I can’t bum a fag off you? Dying for a proper smoke.’ So saying, Ramu wandered off towards the line of beggars, leaving a puzzled and disturbed Vikram revving up his car.
Vikram returned home early. Shanta was still out. He helped himself to a cold beer from the fridge and switched the television set on to watch one of the many sports channels. India 36 all out? What is the world coming to? The TV was supposed to soothe the savage breast. He turned to another channel showing some soporific golf and fell soundly asleep, his beer only half consumed.
He woke up to Shanta’s urging voice asking him to go and sleep in the bedroom. Vikram was wide awake now. ‘Listen Shanta. I have something strange and dramatic to tell you. Why don’t you sit yourself down?’
‘I know all about the 36 all out Vikram, but first I have to take something for my stomach. I was violently sick at the creche and am still feeling woozy. Could be that five-day old custard in the fridge I ate this morning. Must have been off, what with all the power cuts.’ While she was narrating this, she heaved sickeningly and ran to the bathroom, and came out in a few minutes looking pale, white as a sheet. ‘I think we should call the doctor,’ said Shanta weakly.
Vikram was wreathed in smiles. He could not believe what he was hearing. Can this be actually happening? He had seen too many Hindi and Tamil films not to recognize the tell-tale signs. Only the rousing background music was missing. This tale does not need any more telling. Dear reader, you can surely guess what the beaming doctor or rather, the gynecologist said.
Tailpiece: Next morning, first crack out of the box, Vikram was speeding away to the village temple to meet Ramu and thank him brokenly. En route, he picked up a carton of India Kings cigarettes for his benefactor. That was the least he could do. On arrival, he parked his car under the ancient banyan and ran towards the temple. He searched high and low amongst the long line of squatting beggars, but Ramu was nowhere to be found. Was he ill? He ran into the temple and asked the head priest if he was aware of Ramu’s whereabouts. The priest knew every single beggar by name. He merely gave Vikram a knowing look, turned back and gazed reverently at the resplendent deity, and said, ‘Ramu was His plaything. You are a Tamilian aren’t you? Have you seen that old classic Sivaji Ganesan film Tiruvilaiyaadal? Where the Almighty descends on earth and plays the common man in different disguises? You have? Five times? And you doubtless recall the Hollywood film, Oh God! where George Burns, who plays God, tells the judge in the final scene, “If it pleases the court, and even if it doesn’t please the court, I’m God, your honour.” Then you will understand what transpired here. Go home and be with your wife.’
Vikram was dumbstruck. A die-hard film buff, this temple priest but he was moved by what he said. Vikram merely reached out and offered the carton of India Kings to the appalled priest. ‘Believe me your Holiness, He would appreciate this gift much more than the hundred coconuts I was planning to break.’
As he drove away from the temple, Vikram thought he heard a disembodied voice call after him, ‘Brother Vikram, where’s my fag?’ He peered into his rear-view mirror, saw nothing, smiled to himself and pressed on the accelerator, a thick cloud of dust rising in the vehicle’s wake.