Story Detail

A Place they call Scary
by Rochelle Potkar
Pages: NA
A woman walks a tightrope between tradition and treachery.
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When she had come to the temple, she had not known who she was. She was 12 and just traveling through a wedged place—two high walls on either side growing above her head and out of reach. One, the restrictiveness of her adoptive father’s home after the loss of her mother, and the other, a 100-year old tradition and culture of temple worship.

Now 10 years later, she inhaled the musty odor of the shadeless room, the fine hair on the slim curve of her neck tingling. It was dark here, a great many miles away from the sanctum sanctorum where the angry God stood half-exposing his muscled thigh, his other leg bent, looking angrily through the front corridors of the temple at passersby and devotees alike.

Did man make God in his reflection or did God make man in his reflection? She always wondered.

The old priest was away at the river chanting prayers, and spattering water at the sun’s rising feet.

It was a small temple and there were at least five of them—devadasis, girls dressed in pink, brought when they were virginal from their homes; where their paths could not be traced back once they began to carry the temple’s heavy parampara on their unversed shoulders.

The darkness gave way to the faint smell of mist. Soon men, who would continue to remain un-fascinated with their wives of two, three, or five years, would start coming. They would creep through the entrance on the side, avoiding the direct gaze of the God and steal under the arched domes. And they would find her.

They, who would donate large sums of money to the God staying in the temple. They, who prepared themselves in a hundred ways before entering archway after archway of the temple to reach its sanctum sanctorum. These very gatekeepers didn't think twice before accessing her seclusion.

All of them had that instinct of hunger. They would sit her on the floor, cradling their heads in her lap, snuggling into its scent, smoothing over the length of her hand, or rubbing their finger tips over her shin.

Sometimes, over the mud floor, she would spread out a plantain leaf when it shivered and fell off a tender bark with the force of rain. But only sometimes if the men were ready to wait, if they were not in such a hurry.

She never tore a plantain leaf away from its bark, never believing in taking what was not hers or not given by nature.

They would speak for a while. It would be timed within the old priest’s visit to and from the river, droplets of water decked over his shriveled back like translucent beads, his muslin dhoti sticking to him like new skin, his ponytail clumped and pointy, an island of wet black on a shaved head.

The men would adorn her with little gifts they managed to smuggle away from their wives’ gaze or acquire at undistinguishable shops at the far end of the bazaar lane. They would string their needs on a lilting thread of appreciative words that glistened in the dark like pearls and rubies.

But once the passion of transient fondness was over, their generous affection would give way like the ripping of satin. They would watch her from afar, distant and wolf-like.

Whore, they would seem to spit out through their thoughts.

Their intoxication would vanish and a worldliness of insecurity would crowd their eyes, glazing them with a jealousy only one animal had for another.

Possessiveness would tear through their need for territory and property.

The priest would have returned to discover a pink, fat, wilting lotus on the well-oiled wooden slippers of the God, kept by her every night. The priest would take away the old flower and stream it into the water, showering fresh flowers over the God. He would begin chanting mantras as if one dip in the holy river had transformed him. Lit incense sticks would be rotated clockwise, its scent dispersed in tendrils of perfumed smoke that would waft around. The deity would once again be willing to get appeased, lending a patient ear, stopping in its tracks across universes to listen to the honesty of the priest’s words.

The tinkling of the prayer bell would mean that all in the outside world, outside the realm of darkness, was as it was.

She would arch her back as she listened to the birds in the trees, stray dogs that lost their paths and barked, children who ran in and around with mud slapping their slippers, tapping their hollow sticks or scraping sand, and hitting pebbles in a game. Fisherwomen who swished past with the daily catch yelling for a sale. Men trotting along cycles or rushing past each other on foot.

She caught her breath; it sounded like a gasp but was more a rush of irony. For only once if a man moved inside her, she would recognize who he truly was, retrieving a name from the repertoire of nicknames she kept for the shapes of bodies above her. There were so many of them even if they were just five of the biggest patrons of the temple. Each day caught them in a different mood with the feel and pace of their intimacies within her.

It was fate, they said, to be destined to God and devoured by men because she was the prettiest of devadasis.

She had also changed in these 10 years since she was brought from her mother’s house. She had grown into different women, each one embodying a separate feeling and rubbing against the other. Each mood, each doubt, each promise, each hope for the future, each musing, each yearning had created another woman, and it would take all these men to please all of her, to even out her every need.

Not all could fulfill this. And only when she was unified and one with herself, could she feel one with God who was not, after all, a man.

The man above her stopped for a moment as if he had heard her thoughts, then continued. Her fingers and palms ached as she used them against the mud floor to steady her body from swaying too much.

When he was finished, he lay on top, breathing deep into her skin. His was moist. The distant tinkling of the prayer bell had stopped. That meant the first shlokas of the day were over. The priest would be rising from his stooped position. He would now wear
his orange angavastra—soft cotton chiffon bordered with gold. He would move closer to God, press his thumb into vermilion and turmeric and paint it on the God’s forehead. The God would look less intimidating. A smile would appear on the stone face for a few seconds before it turned once again into stony anger. It might have carried her cold rage on its face.

The man woke up. He had used her body as a bed. He had probably been asleep for a few minutes. “I have to go,” he whispered. The weight over her body decreased.

This was society's tradition of allowing a woman outside this temple to choose and accept one husband, but impose those chosen husbands upon women like her, attached to the temple.

She lay there for a moment longer. In the dark, the silhouette began dressing. It wrapped a cotton dhoti around its waist and tucked a bunch of cloth in front, looping the rest through its legs to the other side and tucking it behind. It bent its head in concentration as its hair fell like fuzzy gauze against the suffused light from the shapeless window that refused to seep more light in.

Light stood outside the window rather stubbornly and spread largely through the village, making itself look vulgar and bright. Because of this, she always felt the walls around her would expand in the darkness and go on forever until they merged with the thick of the jungle far beyond, where wild animals prowled.

The silhouette exited. Would anyone else come today? She wondered, but did not get up.

The men never looked at each other as they crossed the same lane to get to or away from her. They bent their heads watching for potholes, to see if their slippers got stuck in the muck as they moved swiftly away.

She balled herself by resting her head in the interval of her knees, and wept. She knew she had bondages. She also knew there was freedom. Both came from the fair skin that ran the length of her body and stuck close to the blood that ran like a river in her, raging to meet her sea. The wideness of her brown eyes that were hymn-worthy, or so she was told, the smallness and innocence of her smile, and her long flowing hair were all guilty of what was happening to her.

She would walk away one day, barefoot, casting her footprint into the mud as she reached the silt-ridden steps of the river where a boat docked every half hour. She would take a weather- beaten boat and cast her anguish into the sea, wading through to the other side, reaching the shore, and then onward to the thicket, where her freedom lay.

She could easily be eaten by wild leopards or she would move laterally to the other side of the jungle into the village that ran a dirty, sparsely-filled bus to the town. She would go anywhere from there, be someone’s wife, mean something to somebody, help someone, change her name and become anonymous, or just lie here, stretching out on the smooth plantain leaf, releasing its warmth from under the smoothness of her back, shifting to a colder part of the leaf until her back touched the cold grainy mud floor, warming it too.

She turned onto her stomach, and pressed her nose into the dried mud. It smelt like a faraway forgotten place, where apples and unnamed thorny fruits grew.

People would be thronging the temple now. The lilting sound of chants echoed through. The deity would be woken once again from his stupor. Only she and He were awoken by turn with pleas from mankind.

She pulled on her long cotton sari and bathed, then dressed her oily, wet plait with white flowers in a row like fallen comets adorning a jet black lake.

It was time to go in union with God, entwine into his holy thoughts, tell Him about her fears: of beasts and gory paradises. She would stand beside Him in mind and soul, following the wisps of wandering fragrance from the incense sticks—the only thing that were truly free in front of Him.

Amongst the thick mass of devotees, He would again be the only man who understood her.

Today, she would ask for courage to go as far as her feet could take her, even if a search party hunted her down, dragging her back by the hair, her feet off the earth, forcing her back on the temple path.

Today, she might ask for something alien—unheard of even to her own mind. She would pour milk and water, offer sandalwood, turmeric, vermillion, fruit, coconut, flower, and place before Him many fragile thoughts, un-worded, that blinked through her moist eyes.

She left the aarti before it was complete. She reached and touched the wall of her chamber. It had no odor other than of human comings. There were none of her belongings in it. It would not need to be locked. The darkness would always be its cloak.

Today, she would ask Him to remove her from everyone’s definitions. Allow her to slip from the concentric throttleholds of every one’s thought-prisons and patterns.
Even my own, Lord. Even my own beliefs.

Before the aarti was over, she slid barefoot in the opposite direction of her chamber. She didn’t look back as the temple filled up - in the throes of its worship, the crescendo of the concluding aarti. The temple steeple watched her run down a path to the river, becoming a miniature of herself as she climbed into a forlorn boat and rowed it through the water.

She was well-timed with the aarti. Before it was over— if her rowing was quick—she would reach the middle of this shaking mirror.

Just as the ripples stilled in the middle, and the aarti concluded, she dived letting her hair swim like seaweed. She let go of her breath, closed her eyes, and allowed herself to sink to the bottom. Liquid freedom. Freedom in liquid. Water, more expansive than air. Water, her cloak, this colorless color her camouflage.

She could sense the looseness in the sparkling liquid grey-green as she used all the strength in her muscles for swimming. Before this, she had only ever sat at the edges.

Before she was out of breath and as she firmed her thought with the spirit of carrying on with her journey, she saw Him! Broken pieces of the same God at the bottom of the river. Yes, long ago, tragedy had struck and they had discarded Him here before making a new Him.

When they let go of God, they used water too. This God had the same cracks over its limbs that she had on hers.

 

From 'The Arithmetic of Breasts and Other Stories'.

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