Author’s Note: I wrote this story when I was working in Lilongwe, Malawi as IMF Financial Management Advisor (1998-2000). I used to visit the Temple quite often and became a friend of the young priest who lived alone since his contract with the temple management did not provide for travel for his family or leave during his two year contract.
Over eight thousand kilometres away from the place of their origin in India, there were men and women dancing to the beat of Dandia, the Gujarati folk dance in the Hindu temple in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. It was the eve of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, which is also heralds the beginning of the new fiscal year of the Gujrati community.
Watching them from one corner of the hall was Vishnu Sripad Oza, who had arrived in Lilongwe only a couple of weeks ago. He was feeling nostalgic, remembering the Diwali festival he had celebrated the previous year with his mother and his younger sister in the small village of Nathgaon in Porbunder district of Gujarat.
Vishnu remembered the tears rolling down his mother’s crumpled cheeks when he left for Bombay for his onward journey to Malawi.
“Son, your father looked after us from the income of this village temple. We would have managed whatever you earned here and felt satisfied for desires have no limits,” the old parent had said as he disengaged him self from her embrace.
Vishnu had often heard similar words from his father. He quietly sat in the waiting bus and left his people and the village to join as a priest in Malawi on a two years’ contract. It was true that the desire to earn an extra bit of money to make life comfortable was taking him to a distant place, he knew nothing about.
Vishnu’s father had worked as a priest of Nathgaon for forty years, never ever complaining. When he died three years ago, the entire village had shared Vishnu’s grief but no one came forward to help him financially. He burnt with shame when the village-head refused to give him money to perform the last rites of his father till he sold him his cow, the only possession and source of income of the family.
Vishnu was keen to go to college after his schooling. “Father, you have been leading a pathetic life, never sure of next meal. Why do you want me to suffer the same plight?”
The old priest had a conviction that material comforts were transitional and the real happiness lay in the frame of mind. He told young Vishnu, “Son! You are born in a family of priests. It is your duty to preserve the heritage. That is the real wealth. Never think that money is the answer to all problems, on the contrary, it creates many.”
Young Vishnu revered his father but he had suffered the indignation of being poor. He hesitated to ask his father money for books and stationery. He would often borrow books and sometimes his mother used to give him little money from the saving she managed by selling milk surreptitiously.
Vishnu’s father practised astrology and wanted Vishnu to learn it. The old priest often sat outside the temple on a grass mat and prepared horoscopes of his clients. He had amazing memory to recall the birth chart of every one in the village and of his other clients. Since almost all Hindus refer to their horoscopes on important occasions, it provided a steady though feeble source of income. The villagers listened to him and followed his advice to the extent they could afford. Whenever his prediction came true, they would come and thank him and offer some fruits, rice or sugar. For wrong predictions, no one blamed the old priest since Hindus believe in blaming only their fate.
After the death of his father Vishnu took over the mantle of the village priest but the village folks did not receive him well. For them the sight of a young man in trousers was inappropriate and irreconcilable. Since Vishnu never took astrology seriously, there was no income from this source. Vishnu was frustrated and he wanted to run away from the village and work as a labourer in a city. But it would have meant eviction from the temple cottage, which was the only shelter for the family.
Amrit Bhai Patel of Nathgaon village had migrated to Malawi about twenty-five years ago. His father owned a small grocery in Nathgaon and when the old man died, there was a dispute over it between Amrit Bhai and his elder brother. Amrit Bhai along with his young wife left Nathgaon with one of his relatives for Malawi. Amrit Bhai worked hard during these twenty-five years and the lady luck was on his side. He now owned a well-established business, a palatial house and a score of servants. He was respected among his people and was the president of the temple management committee of Lilongwe.
Amrit Bhai had come to Porbunder to find a bride for his son, which was the ardent wish of his wife. Vishnu met him and talked to him of his predicament. Amrit Bhai remembered that before leaving Nathgaon he had gone to the old priest with his horoscope. Vishnu’s father after looking at his horoscope had advised him to go abroad. “You will get prosperity and fame in an alien land”, the priest had predicted.
Amrit Bhai thought it an occasion to repay the debt of the old priest. He offered the job of priest to Vishnu, which had brought him to Malawi.
On that Diwali eve, Vishnu was watching the enthusiastic dancers. In the melee, he noticed a girl. He thought there was some thing different about her. She was tall and fair and her braid was abnormally long, touching the floor while dancing. Unmindful of people around her, she danced ecstatically moving graciously as if she were in a trance. Vishnu was reminded of the mythological fairies that danced in the court of Indra, the king of Hindu gods. After the dance and distribution of sweets, he retired to the cottage next to the temple, which was his new abode. Vishnu’s thought were divided between his people back home and the fascinating girl he had seen that evening. He could not sleep well that night. Suddenly he longed for her company. He fantasised that he was Lord Indra and she was dancing in his court.
Conventionally, the Hindu community came to the temple only on Monday evenings as such there was hardly any visitor on other days.
It was a Sunday evening, Vishnu was preparing for the evening prayers. He was about to light the lamps when he saw the same girl entering the temple. Vishnu could not contain his excitement. His hand struck the lamp and it fell down spilling the oil on the floor. Vishnu was flabbergasted and stupefied.
The girl came forward and picked up the lamp and placed it on the pedestal. She then went in to the adjacent store room and brought a rag and cleaned the mess. Vishnu, still unable to compose himself looked at her from the far corner of the room.
“Please refill the lamp; it is time for the prayers.”
“Yes, of course. I am sorry for the mess and thanks a lot.”
“It is OK, she said briefly and after the prayers were over, left the temple.
Vishnu since then was ever more restless. He was annoyed on his clumsiness. He remembered her walking away from him and her swaying gait. Then it occurred to him that she had come alone and on a Sunday evening, he was a bit surprised.
“I should have talked to her, at least asked her name. God! I have never seen such a beautiful girl.”
Vishnu waited for her every day but didn’t see her until next Sunday evening. She offered prayers and then sat down in the lawn outside and opened a small tin box. She had come with some home made Indian sweets.
“I am Sudha,” She told Vishnu offering him a portion of the sweets.
“My name is Vishnu,” and then he added, “I am the new priest.”
“Of course, you are the new priest,” she said with a smile.
“What about your parents? I mean you come to the temple alone….. on a Sunday… ”
Sudha looked towards the sky and then after a while she said, “I have no parents, they died several years ago. Amrit Bhai brought me here six years ago from India to work in his house. It is a cheaper and a reliable arrangement to bring servants from India.”
I get an off on Sunday evenings. If I have nothing else to do, I come here… feel good.”
Vishnu had not pictured a sad background. Sudha could notice his saddened face.
“It is the providence that takes us to places that we might have never imagined or make us do things that we would have hated. Just see, isn’t it destiny that brought you away from your dear ones to this godforsaken place.”
Vishnu looked at her. He was unable to say anything. He remembered his mother and her words to him at the time of parting.
“After the death of my parents, I lived with my maternal uncle. He had six of his own children and my joining the family only added to his woes. He was a mason by profession with sporadic income. Amrit Bhai had come to know about us and offered ten twenty rupees to my uncle for my services as housemaid. That was about six years ago.
“Haven’t you been to India since then?” Vishnu asked her.
“How could I? Where is the money and in any case my passport is in the custody of Amrit Bhai. I am a captive, a slave, no?” Then she added, “I do get Sunday off unless Amrit Bhai takes me out to his lake house on week-end.”
“What? You mean you go alone with him…spend night with him…” Vishnu gasped as if Sudha had poured molten lead over his body. He could not comprehend such an image of Amrit Bhai.
“Oh God, and this man fakes to be spiritual and is the head of the temple management committee,” he said in a disgust.
“It is part of my job and that is the real side of life, dear young priest,” she said with a wry smile and left him, restless more than ever.
Vishnu lost all respect for Amrit Bhai. The gratitude melted away. “If alone I had power, I would have put him in a dungeon for life time,” he muttered to him self.
Sudha didn’t turn up the next Sunday. That drove Vishnu crazy. The bastard must have taken her to his lake house. He imagined Sudha being raped by Amrit Bhai and crying for his help.
“May be, that after meeting me, she resisted Amrit Bhai and told him about me and that Amrit Bhai has ordered her not to move out of the house…may be, she wants my help …….” Vishnu’s mind wandered.
Sudha didn’t come even on the following Sunday. Vishnu was worried. “If only I could find about her welfare. God, please save her from the devil,” he included in his prayers.
Sudha came after three weeks. She looked cheerful in her new dress. Vishnu sulked not seeing any sign of distress that he had been imagining. He looked the other way.
“Don’t be angry. Amrit Bhai’s wife was seriously ill. I have been busy with the children and the household chores. He has taken her to South Africa today. All these days I have been remembering you,” she said blushing.
“I thought you were away with him to his lake house or some other place.”
“All men are alike. Their minds work only on a single track. I have responsibilities towards the children and the family other than sleeping with Amrit Bhai.”
“I am sorry, I was worried for you,” he said sitting on the bench along her side. While eating the sweets and fruits Sudha had brought for him he suddenly asked her, “Are you happy here?”
“I have no choice. People know my relationship with Amrit Bhai but there is nothing new about it, whether here or back in India. It doesn’t bother me any more. I am living my life as it comes to me.”
Sudha left Vishnu once again in a pensive mood. He was ashamed of himself. “Who am I do judge others? How many of us are so truthful about our relationships? I will not interfere in her personal life hereafter,” Vishnu decided.
It was Sunday evening. Vishnu had completed his evening ritual and was in his cottage, writing a letter to his mother. Now he no longer waited for Sudha. He had made some friends who sometimes invited him to their place. He was learning to live alone.
It was raining outside. There was a knock at the door. Vishnu opened the door and found Sudha with a vessel covered with a silk cloth. She entered the cottage and as she stood close to him, Vishnu could feel the smell of her wet body. It unsettled him.
“How are you and how is Amrit Bhai’s wife?”
“The treatment in South Africa has done her a lot good. She is much better but the doctor has advised her rest.”
Vishnu told her to take the towel and dry her hair and then added unmindfully, “You have long beautiful hair, like my mother.”
Sudha looked at him and asked, “You miss your people too much, don’t you?”
“Yes but as you say, there is no option. Poverty makes you do things whether you like or not.”
“Today I am free. Amrit Bhai and his family have gone to Blantyre yesterday to attend a marriage. They will return tomorrow only.”
Vishnu didn’t know what to make of it.
“I will make dinner for you. They say I am a good cook,” Sudha was in an exuberant mood.
“What if someone drops in?”
“Don’t worry. No one enters a priest’s cottage unless there is a special relationship.”
“You mean that is not applicable to you?”
“Exceptions are always there,” she said with a big smile ignoring Vishnu’s remarks.
Vishnu was unsettled once again. Does she understand the import of her words? He was not sure as he glossed over her curves, which had become more pronounced with the wet sari clinging to her body.
Sudha cooked the meals as Vishnu talked of his family and his school days.
“Why don’t you get married?” Sudha asked him suddenly.
“The village-head is asking my mother to vacate the temple cottage for the new priest. I have to send her money to raise a hut and then I have the younger sister of marriageable age. How can I think of marriage?”
Sudha was visibly moved. “Take your meals while it is hot. I should now rush to my place,” she said and left him hurriedly. Vishnu looked at her till she disappeared behind the temple wall.
Sudha didn’t come to temple for several weeks after that day. Vishnu tried unsuccessfully to forget her. His sister had written a letter thanking him for the money he had sent. “We have shifted to our new cottage. It is big and better. You will be happy when you come and see it.”
Vishnu knew he has been away from his village only for ten months yet it seemed as if he had been wandering in a dark forest for hundreds of years. The few moments he spent with Sudha were the only bright specs of light in his life.
It was Sunday. He remembered Sudha. He imagined several evil things happening to her. As the day passed, he felt like crying. He conducted evening prayers with a heavy heart and retired to his cottage. He had by then purchased a cassette player and borrowed some cassettes. He would listen to music late until midnight till sleep overtook his fatigued mind.
Then there was a knock at the door and before he could get up, Sudha entered the room with a vessel in her hand.
“Seems you are enjoying the music, have forgotten me altogether,” she said in a lighter vein.
Her words unleashed the storm that was raging in side Vishnu.
“I don’t even know your place and I can’t ask anyone. You are the only person with whom I can open my heart. I was worried all these days not knowing anything about you. Sudha! I missed you…I missed you every second…if only you knew how terribly I missed you…” Vishnu couldn’t continue, emotions had choked his words.
“I too missed you as much. Amrit Bhai’s wife has fallen sick again. He has again taken her to South Africa this afternoon. I came to you at the first opportunity.”
Vishnu looked at Sudha. There were tears flowing silently down her cheeks.
“Sudha you are my life-stream in this alien land. You know I get crazy when you don’t turn up,” he said and taking her in his arms he kissed her passionately.
It worked like showing a match to gunpowder. The lava boiling deep inside burst and came to the surface. For Sudha, this was a different experience. She kissed him wildly all over. She wanted to be coalesced in to his body as she held him closely. As Vishnu reached the peak of ecstasy, he cried, “Sudha! Oh! Sudha, the nectar of my life…you are my love…” and then the tempest was over.
Sudha gave him a loving look and kissed him again before getting up from the floor. “I must leave. The children must be getting worried,” she said and walked out in to the dark.
Vishnu’s world had changed from that moment. He was beginning to like the place. Sudha came to him sometimes while going to fetch children from the school. The few minutes they shared were very pleasing but not enough to douse the fire that engulfed both of them. Sudha however managed to come to him on couple of evenings. It satiated Vishnu temporarily. But it wasn’t enough; Vishnu wanted more and more of her.
The dream run came to an end soon when one evening Amrit Bhai rang up from Johannesburg and told Sudha to take the children away to his relatives as he was coming with the body of his wife the next afternoon.
Sudha could not come to the temple for several weeks. Vishnu was restless pining for her company.
“Now that the scoundrel has lost his wife, he must be sleeping with her openly,” the thought was crossing his mind over and over again recollecting the exciting moments spent with her. He waited for her every moment. I was a long agonizing wait of no avail.
One Sunday morning Sudha finally came to the temple. Vishnu could see anxiety writ large on her face.
“Where were you all these days? Why didn’t you come to me? Didn’t you think of me? Why are you looking so worried? What is the matter?” Vishnu unleashed a barrage of questions.
“Amrit Bhai wants me to stay with him permanently.” Sudha told Vishnu looking the other way.
Vishnu was furious.
“What do you mean permanently? Aren’t you already living with him?”
“He wants me to look after his children and be his mistress. You know such arrangements exist in our society.”
“What a sinful suggestion? Moreover, he is more than double your age. Why can’t he find a woman of his age? And what have you said to him?”
“I told him that I will look after his children but I wanted to marry some one else.”
Vishnu was jolted. “You mean you have told him about our relationship?”
Sudha looked at him and said, “He was furious at my suggestion. Vishnu, I wanted to talk to you before telling him anything. We have no time. Tell me, will you marry me? I have taken out my passport from his cabinet. We can return to India and start a new life.”
“Sudha, are you crazy? What am I going to do in India? You think my mother is going to accept this marriage?”
“Vishnu, you are young and educated and I have some money with me. You know, I am a good cook, we can start a small restaurant here itself if you are not keen to return to India.”
“Oh! Come on. You think Amrit Bhai will tolerate that the priest he brought for temple service has married his keep.”
Sudha was shocked by Vishnu’s words. She felt as if he had branded her by red hot iron. She had loved him and loved him dearly, from the core of her heart notwithstanding her relationship with Amrit Bhai. She was hurt by his words more than her uncle’s deal with Amrit Bhai but there was nothing to show her anguish on her face. She was poised and composed.
Vishnu walked up and down, he felt as if his entrails were burning and that the whole world was on fire. He didn’t know how to face the impending ignominy or bear for the loss love.
“Vishnu, I know you come from the family of priests and I am a low caste girl. Tell me, does this stigma remain even after crossing so many seas?”
“I don’t believe in that but we can not ignore the society ….. please try to understand my position,” Vishnu managed to say.
“Yes, I do understand. You don’t believe in it when you sleep with me under the cover of darkness. It is in the daylight that our relationship troubles you.”
Vishnu was dumbfounded. He was worried of losing his job and facing public ridicule. He knew no one will engage him in any capacity.
Sudha looked at his pulled down face.
“Vishnu, I understand your position and rest assured I would cause you no harm or embarrassment.”
Vishnu struggled for words. He wanted to seek her forgiveness but word failed him.
“Vishnu, I got your answer. I will pray that one day you return to your people. I will leave now for Amrit Bhai must be waiting for me,” Sudha said and left the temple.
More than fifteen years have passed. The Lilongwe temple has been renovated and there is a new cottage for the priest. Vishnu is still the priest of the temple. He has been to Nathgaon on two occasions, for the marriage of his sister and then for the last rites of his mother. He no more longs for his village and he is still unmarried.
Age is catching up with Vishnu. The believers revere him as a celibate priest dedicated to the temple service. Sudha comes to the temple now on Monday evenings along with her fourteen year old daughter Vibha and her stepchildren. Occasionally, Amrit Bhai accompanies them. Sudha often brings food, which she tells Vibha to keep in the priest’s cottage. Sudha and Vishnu have not talked to each other ever since their last meeting but whenever their eyes meet, there is remorse in Vishnu’s eyes and compassion in hers.