One of the top three entries of Bound’s Short Story Contest 2019

I know for a fact that Ma, so careful about her privacy and her well-tended gardens and lawns, does not wish for anything like that at all. If such a stone had suddenly been unearthed on her grounds, she would have nipped all thoughts of it being ‘the appearance of God’ at the very start. But in Dilip Choudury’s case, things are different. He is poor, of the lowest caste, and he does, by some fluke of fate, own a very small piece of very fertile land in the middle of the landlord’s farms.

My mother’s body is stiff with righteous indignation, and her eyes stare at me, amazed at my question. Her voice is sharp enough to cut flesh. “Observed by so many, and you are asking me how it is possible? They have seen the stone with the figure of God engraved on it, rise from the ground, before their very eyes. Arvind, God has revealed Himself!”

 

She looks away from me, for corroboration from her servant and gardener, Ganesh. “Ganesh, is it not so?”

 

“Yes, yes, Memsahib, it is so, all the village, it is shaking with this news, and my wife…she has already gone to join the line…”

 

“See, Arvind,” says Ma, looking at me again, her gaze penetrating, as though wanting to cleanse my soul of all dark doubts, “people are standing in line to be among the first to get a darshan of our God, and watch the priest as he sanctifies the space with milk so that a temple may be constructed…”

 

“Ha!” I almost say it, and stop myself, for many reasons. One of them of course being Ma’s wrath, which can be so sudden and wrecking that I may run away again with my tail between my legs, achieving nothing. I have no intention of doing that this time. I want to deal with this in a mature manner, to prevail upon her belief with reason, and convince her that all this is mere bunkum.

 

So instead I ask, “Whose land is this where our God has deigned to appear?” I am very careful to keep the quiver out of my voice, the voice of a non-believer.

 

“Hmmm, Dilip…Choudury…is it not?” Ma looks at Ganesh again. The red vertical line in the middle of her forehead reaches up to meet her hairline and shines in the winter sun. She wears it proudly, with a great sense of entitlement.

 

“Dilip…Dalit he is…Sahib,” says Ganesh, addressing me, but looking down at the carefully tended green grass under his feet.

 

Ma’s voice is steady as a rock. “Ah, Dalit! That underdog, he is so blessed to have God on his land. He will have a temple there, how lucky for him. I wish Krishna had been kind enough to bless our land like this…”

Her wrath descends on me…I have courted it, haven’t I…for I have actually used the word ‘shit’, used it in front of the gardener, and it is her shit I am talking about! She shakes violently, for she is hearing all this from her one and only son.

I know for a fact that Ma, so careful about her privacy and her well-tended gardens and lawns, does not wish for anything like that at all. If such a stone had suddenly been unearthed on her grounds, she would have nipped all thoughts of it being ‘the appearance of God’ at the very start. But in Dilip Choudury’s case, things are different. He is poor, of the lowest caste, and he does, by some fluke of fate, own a very small piece of very fertile land in the middle of the landlord’s farms. Seth Madhusudan, the landlord, has been eyeing it for quite a while. Now God, quite conveniently, has laid claim on that very land.

 

I also know for a fact that Seth Madhusudan will build a temple there very soon and make that land a part of his own sprawling acres. And when this happens, since Dilip is Dalit, he will not be allowed to enter the sanctified temple grounds, and hence his own property will be forever forfeit.

 

My head reels at this, and I am about to protest, when I realize that Ma is looking at me as though reading my thoughts. She says, “Isn’t it a good way God has chosen to get rid of these low-born from the face of the earth? Our God is smart.”

 

‘Yes’, I think to myself, ‘even our God does not want the Dalits around.’ There is no point in asking Ma why they are there, through God’s grace, in the first place? For she would have a ready answer, of how our roads have to be cleaned, the waste disposed of, and people like her cannot do it, so therefore…!

 

The answer to this issue hits me in the face. “Ma,” I say finally, “if these Dalits and untouchables go from here after this, then you will need to clean your own shit…”

 

Her wrath descends on me…I have courted it, haven’t I…for I have actually used the word ‘shit’, used it in front of the gardener, and it is her shit I am talking about! She shakes violently, for she is hearing all this from her one and only son.

 

Ganesh has politely walked away, pretending not to have heard me speak to Ma this way. I do not look down at the well-tended green grass but look straight into Ma’s face, ugly and contorted with anger.

 

“How dare you, Arvind! How dare you talk to me like this? Your father is to blame, all the obnoxious ideas and notions he filled your head with that has turned you away from all of us.” I think Ma wants to spit in my face; I have riled her so much. But I stand there, for once not willing to turn tail and give up the ground to her.

“Enough, Ma, enough. Go tell Seth and the villagers that God has blessed Dilip by appearing there; that every rich house, and there are many in our village, should make a deposit of at least one silver coin in Dilip’s lap, and only then will the place be sanctified.”

“Shit!” I hurl the word at her. “Shit and piss, Ma, and other waste matter. All of it will lie around and stink up your beautiful home and these hallowed grounds. Your Krishna will not be willing to enter your home then, will he, or dance the Raslila in your gardens? Or Goddess Lakshmi, who you say brings you all this wealth, she will stay away despite all the lamps you may light for her welcome. Then what will you do? Will you go pray in that temple that the Seth will construct on Dilip Choudury’s land, and ask your God Krishna to bring Dilip and his family back? For Dilip will surely be made to leave, you and I both know it.”

 

I want to sink into the ground, despairing at Dilip’s fate, but I do not allow my knees to buckle. I say, standing upright in front of her for once, “You and I know this is all a strategy undertaken by the Seth to take over the poor man’s little piece of land…to leave him with nothing. It’s a strategy used by so many to usurp what they can on some pretext or the other. You think Dilip wants God on his land? You think he does not know that this bodes ill for him, that the Seth and God have become one against his existence?”

 

“You…you…thankless, worthless son of mine…” Ma raises her hand to strike me, but I reach out and hold it.

 

“Enough, Ma, enough. Go tell Seth and the villagers that God has blessed Dilip by appearing there; that every rich house, and there are many in our village, should make a deposit of at least one silver coin in Dilip’s lap, and only then will the place be sanctified.”

“And…” I say, holding her hand in a vice-like grip, “…tell them that they should also give him an alternative piece of land as replacement, so that he may stay there and tend to everyone’s…needs, shall we say?  You don’t want to suffer with him gone, do you, for he may take all the other Dalits with him…”

 

Mother has clout, what with her high-caste, her wealth and her position as a Government bureaucrat. She can easily turn a stone into God, or a God into stone, I know.

 

She struggles to release my grip, and I let her go. “Remember, Ma, this is just so that someone is there to clean all the shit you leave behind. To make sure you and others like you don’t have to suffer with Dilip and his biradari gone from the village.”

 

On another day, she may have picked up her slipper to give me a good hiding, and I may have taken it. Yes, I am a grown man, but still her useless, good-for-nothing son, who allows himself mistreatment and abuse at her hands. But this time, I have gathered my strength to retaliate. I am fighting for someone else, scorned by people like my mother, full of their religious shenanigans. I feel a certain kinship with him.

 

Ma has stormed away, and spent, I finally sink to the ground. I know my words to her have found their mark. She has realized their usefulness, and how they can be turned to her advantage.

 

Ma will soon go to the place where the stone has surfaced, stand on a slightly higher ground and then address the people gathered there. Her eyes will be bright and glowing, the red vermilion mark on her forehead will glow even more, and the red glass bangles on her emaciated arms will jangle as she speaks.

 

Addressing the growing crowd, she will proclaim, “Our God Krishna has surfaced in stone on a Dalit’s land, to give him His blessings. A temple will be built here on Dilip Choudury’s land. Let us all give the man enough money to buy another piece of good land in the village. Remember, it would be wrong for us to do anything but this, since he has Krishna’s blessings, and we do not want to go against our God’s wishes, do we?”

 

I imagine Seth Madhusudan and the village people listening and bowing to her words, and Dilip, till now scared of being beaten and pushed out of the village with his land taken away, weeping in gratitude and falling at Ma’s feet.

 

I can imagine the whole scene, and I cannot bring myself to wonder at it at all, for this is how things work here.

 

Ganesh has been quietly watching me from a distance. Now he walks up to me. He sits carefully on the grass and hands me a beedi. “Light up, son,” he says, his eyes no longer looking down at the green grass, but at me. I am no longer Sahib, but son, and I like the difference it brings to our relationship.

 

I sit down next to him, the grass soft and yielding under me. This is Mother Earth accepting me, I think to myself. Ma never will, especially not now, not after this. But I know she will accept the path I have laid out for her this time; it is well strategized, and suits her in its totality. I don’t care if she spits on my face now, for I have won a piece of land and respect for Dilip, who in my eyes is no different from me.

 

I take the beedi and light it. I stare at its bright orange glow in the slowly descending gloom. Small, yet defiant, this flame symbolizes a beginning.

Abha Iyengar

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