Baladas Apte awoke and busied himself preparing for the day. It was Sunday, and a crowd of confessors would start streaming in soon. He bathed and dressed for church.
Baladas Apte was a well-known figure in the Tusughat and Panjim areas of the Konkan Pradesh. He was the assistant priest at the small village church of St Xavier’s on the highway to Goa. He did not preach very often, but every Sunday he heard confessions and handed out suitable penance. People respected and feared Balasaheb for his piety. Gazing at the enormous maize fields and the low mountain ranges of the Western Ghat through the tiny window of the confessional, trespassing devotees could not but feel utterly sinful and hopeless every time they caught a glimpse of Baladas’s long beard.
Sprinkling a little of the holy water from the Jordan on his head and donning his long canvas cassock, Baladas took his seat on the stool by the confessional window in the Church of St Xavier’s. He had been doing this for the past twenty years. Before that he had been a scribe for a mason in Goa.
A farmer had come to confess early in the morning.
Baladas performed his scheduled task mechanically. Sprinkling the holy water from the Jordan on the cultivator’s head, he chanted the approved Latin prayers, pronouncing the words wrongly –
Out noncommitis soncomittis o dela Jesu
Noncommitis sancomittis o imid Chris Marie
Hippocritea nihil salvitor e out…
Then he instructed the country farmer in a stentorian voice – Recount your sins. The Lord is seated on the throne in the court of the afterlife. The angels are blowing their trumpets and proclaiming all your acts in this world. Do you wish to keep anything concealed?
Terrified and silenced by this controlled eloquence, the farmer looked at the priest and said – I shall hide nothing, Father. On Monday evening, two sets of pumpkins from Solomon Balakrishna’s pumpkin patch without telling him.
Admonishing him, Baladas said – Repeat after me, theft is a grave sin...
– I have committed the grave sin of theft, Father. Nothing on Tuesday. On Wednesday...
– Nothing on Tuesday? Think it over. One rupee and four annas for every unconfessed sin on the sacred altar of St Xavier...
– By Mother Mary, Father, nothing on Tuesday.
– Very well, continue. On Wednesday...
– Buruth Tudu and his son Sol Tudu were running away with potatoes and oranges stolen from my farm. I threw rocks at them and broke their legs.
– Broke their legs?
-–Yes, father. Fractured their legs. I won’t lie.
– But it was no sin when you stole from someone else’s farm, was it?
– It was...
– Go on. Thursday. The day made sacred by the memory of the holy St Teresa.
The priest knelt to display his reverence for the abovementioned St Teresa. The farmer followed his lead. Then he said – On Thursday I was supposed to have paid back some money I had borrowed, Father, but I did not.
– Deliberately? You did remember?
– I did, Father. I couldn’t bear to part with the money.
– Hmm. It didn’t occur to you when borrowing, did it? Have you returned the money yet?
– No, Father.
– Those who wish to reform after sinning must correct their errors on the same day as the confession. Return the money today. Continue.
– On Friday, I quarrelled with my wife and told her to go to her parents’ house...
Gulping, the farmer said – Er, it’s a little...
– Go on.
- Er, Mangaldas’s sister-in-law is here from Panjim. When the women were bathing at the roadside well in Mangaldas’s neighbourhood, I stood beneath the fig tree to spy on her.
Placing his palm on his face, Baladas said – Goodness me! Why?
– Since I’ve come to confess, I will. Mangaldas’s sister-in-law is a well-known beauty from Panjim. She works at a dance hall there. There isn’t a better singer or dancer than her in India. She dances the garba beautifully. It’s a wonderful dance, she earned a big name for herself the last time she performed here.
Baladas thought he remembered hearing that a lovely woman from Panjim had put up a spectacular show during the Hindu festival of Garba.
Frowning, he said – Hmm. Very eager, I see. How many times did you spy on her?
– Er, four times, Father.
– Four times?
– Yes, Father. I won’t lie.
– Oh no, you are Paul the Truthful. How old did you say the woman is?
– I would have to say she’s a young woman, Father. Educated. She pays half the expenses for Mangaldas’s household.
– What is her name?
– All right, you may go now.
The farmer left.
He was so despondent over his sins that he could barely make a meal of his red rice and potato curry. Wheat was not grown on the Konkan coast. Maize and red rice were planted on the highlands in September, while autumnal paddy was sown on the lowlands. Poor farmers cultivated red rice on half their fields because it ripened in only sixty days; they ate their fill of the same rice every morning before going to work.
Morning rolled into afternoon. In his field the farmer concluded that what he had done was definitely wrong. And he had been rebuked roundly for it by the honourable priest Baladas.
Sakhibai was not going to be here forever.
She would return to Panjim in three or four days. Most certainly she would.
Never mind. After his work was done on the maize farm today, instead of going home directly he would take a detour for another glimpse of Sakhibai.
You didn’t get women like her in this part of the world too often. Maybe he would have to place a candle on the altar of St Xavier next Sunday for this transgression. The priest would fine him for repeating his sin.
A rupee and four annas. He would pay. He could recover the money easily enough by selling a cartful of pumpkin to a dealer from Goa.
When he was done for the day, he set off towards Mangaldas’s neighbourhood, reaching the large fig tree near the well on slow footsteps. Someone was standing, his head bowed, on the other side of the clumps of branches that had descended to earth like the strands of a prophet’s beard.
– Who’s there?
Rounding the trunk, the farmer saw a figure in a long canvas cassock, his long hair and beard well-combed, standing furtively beneath the network of branches of the fig tree. Priest Baladas Apte himself.
Translated from the Bengali.