In the week that follows my fervent prayer, I tell Anisa my first half-truth: my uncle does not want either of us to go to the temple.
Outside, cars strapped with loudspeakers begin to circle the streets. Multicoloured flyers litter the sidewalks. Pamphlets fly with denuded petals from the trees above them in the tails of late afternoon winds. Hindu devotional music blasts from the temple at four in the morning when all but a few of the very faithful curse at the noise and turn over in bed. In response, a distant mosque raises the volume on its speakers for the customary call to prayers at five.
People turn over again, curse some more. Posters of Lord Rama appear on private compounds that homeowners rip off in exasperation, only to see them appear again. Gone is the beatific smile on Rama’s face in those portraits. He looks resolute, martial even, ribbed and muscular, as if He has discovered a celestial gym. The rains still arrive most afternoons, frequent and welcome, but they leave less of a mellow afterglow behind. They seem innocuous, not radical or new as they should, these departures from the life we have known.
When the adults have forgotten the altercation at the temple, we finally go back one evening with Ajji. There are more saffron-clad outsiders, both in the temple and on the street below. They hand out pamphlets in the streets: Sadhu Devidas Coming to Town. Join Sanskrit Classes, Learn about Our Glorious Heritage. Hindu Values, the Need of the Hour. Lord Rama, the Epitome of Righteousness. Anisa takes care to walk a wide loop around them. Thankfully, the man who shouted at us is not with them. But we know his name – Sadhu Devidas; my uncle says he was a goonda only weeks or months before.
Ajji walks by them with disdain. “There’s nothing these fellows can teach me,” she snorts, and that seems to be most of our neighbours’ reactions. Some of the most fervent TV serial-watchers of the years before seem glad, however, as if all this is an extension of the Ramayana they loved and watched every week. And in some ways, it is. Just as the television drama supplanted varying regional retellings of the story with a gentle and unifying authority that bemused people like Ajji, so too do these fervent saffron youth.
This is being Hindu, they say, not all the other nonsense you’ve thought it was. The priests at the temple are happy enough, because there is finally some excitement at their door. More visitors mean more cash in the hundi, more collections when the aarthi plate comes around at the end of the pooja. Indeed, they puff up with importance as they come around with the aarthi, a new assertiveness in place of their former servility.
“Yakshagana performances, all old-fashioned things,” a young priest tells Ajji, oblivious of her appalled disbelief. “We will bring sadhus for discourses so they can talk about our true Hindu values. Lots of people will come.” For once, Ajji is speechless.
No one remarks on Anisa’s presence at the temple. Anisa has always come to the temple with me, because we have always gone everywhere together. The ones who know her have not minded before. They are often the housewives who have received us when we went Ganesha visiting together, when we were five or six. On Ganesha’s birthday, all around, when except inside Anisa’s home there would swirl the distinctive smells of ghee and jasmine, sandalwood and incense.
Schools would close, loudspeakers would scream and these ladies would set before the newly fashioned clay images of Ganesha in their houses the sweets they laboured over since daybreak. We banded together, as children and urchins did, in mutually exclusive groups, to go Ganesha visiting. The first year, I had begged and badgered Rehana aunty, hopping on one foot outside their door, until she let Anisa come with us, against her misgivings and her better judgement.
Vinay, who straddled that line between street child and better born, was the leader of our little group. He would ring the doorbell first and say “Ganesha nodbeku”, we need to see Ganesha, his shoulder thrust out, almost a challenge to the lady at the door. Daring her to point out that one of us was dressed not as well as the rest, and that another was a camouflaged non-believer. Not one did, of course. They opened their doors, because children are like god, and who could refuse Ganesha on his birthday?
Anisa was arguably the most enthusiastic Ganesha-viewer, and asked often, dimpling prettily, when offered a laddoo, for “Godambi irodhu”, one with cashews. Because another of our goals, less stated, was to sample a hundred and eight different offerings for pot-bellied Ganesha that the smiling ladies made with their finest ghee, and handed to us, even as they saw through our fervent piety.
The others see us with Ajji and assume that we are sisters, or more likely, cousins. In truth, Anisa and Ajji are both fair-skinned and petite, and I am the tall, dark-skinned, perhaps-not-relative standing between them.
Anisa, however, seems less assured than she usually is, hesitating before stepping into line in front of the idol. Ajji motions her forward, “Step up, step up, people behind you can’t see.” The young priest, who is new, frowns at Anisa’s name when Ajji mentions it for the archane, the blessing. “What kind of Hindu name is that?” his frown seems to say, but there is a big crowd, and the frown disappears when he moves on to the next family.
On our way down from the temple, Lakshmi shouts at the outsiders to clear the space in front of her stall.
“Interfere with business, and I’ll make you wish you were never born,” she threatens, sending a saffron-clad recruit scampering. I smile widely at her when I get my flowers. “Look at you girls,” Lakshmi says. “Such young women already. You haven’t come by in so long.”
And yet, two days later, we hear that her son and the boys he plays cricket with have signed up to hand out flyers. It is easy money. Besides, there will always be time for cricket afterwards. We see them from the terrace late one evening, knocking on our neighbours’ doors, calling out to each other on the street, “This one is mine.”
Girish uncle gets the flyer from Vinay as we watch. We are too high up in Anisa’s terrace to hear what is being said, but it is a short conversation. My uncle walks him to the gate, and we can hear him call out to the boys on the street, “If you boys want better work, come to the party office.”
Meanwhile, I have been so successful at timing my visits to Anisa’s home that Farid uncle complains, long and loud, that he never gets to see me these days.
“Where is my other daughter?” he demands, standing outside our gate one evening. “Mira, have you become too grown up for us?” He has bought a jackfruit on his way back from work, and Adil stands a little behind him, balancing it on his palms. It is huge. “We’ll never be able to finish it all if Mira isn’t there to help us,” Farid uncle tells Ajji, who is standing at the gate. Even the boys loitering in the street with flyers laugh.
That evening, I sit on the floor of Anisa’s drawing room with her family, as Farid uncle sits in the centre, his oiled knife gutting and slicing the jackfruit. I get the first fruit as it emerges, orange-yellow, slippery and slick.
“For Mira,’”he teases me, “because she is such a rare visitor these days, needing a special invitation.”
Adil gets the next, then Anisa, then Rehana aunty, who then sets aside the next one for Farid uncle as he works. The pile grows higher, even after we can eat no more. Farid uncle continues to skin and gouge until the last piece is extracted, not stopping to taste the pile that grows by his side. “Plenty for all the neighbours,” he tells me at the end. “Later Anisa and you can go around and give it to everyone.”
Excerpted with permission from The Alchemy Of Secrets, Priya Balasubramanian, Tranquebar.