I stared out of the window, fields shot by as the car bounced from narrow street onto ever narrowing lanes. I hated temples, always have. The only thing I liked about familial visits to temples is the feel of the stone floor. Cool, rugged in the shade, burnt, scalding under the sun; I often wondered if this amorphous yet persevering nature was why stones were worshiped.
Through high school and college, I’d always wormed, squirmed and fought my way out of temple trips. Coming from a family that barely ever visited temples and actively encouraged me to abandon our sacred threads, my rebellion and agnosticism was welcomed into the fold.
But this trip was different, very different. I had to come, no questions asked. We were to go our ancestral temple in Mangudi ergo middle of fucking nowhere village. All the cajoling, blackmailing and begging had brought me to this nauseous seat in the back of the still bouncing Scorpio.
Cackling overstuffed relatives, mind-numbing familial puns and never ending stories of bumbling relatives flooded through my ears as I fervently hoped and prayed to be back in my calm, controlled Emergency Room.
We stopped to ask a solitary woman in a field for directions. My mind flew to Wordsworth; she was no lass though, nor was she singing plaintive tunes, nonetheless she told us to follow the dirt lane and turn right at the next cluster of houses. Convinced he now knew the route, the driver stomped on the accelerator leaving our solitary reaper in a swirl of dust.
Past the houses and couple of turns later we stopped in what appeared to be City center.
“Leave the chappals in the car only”, my dad categorically stated.
My mother fiddled on her phone attempting to call the pandit to meet us at the temple. Resigning myself to my fate, I climbed out of the car and walked towards the temple. It was larger than I expected. Ancestral temples had to me, brought an image of a couple of yellow red powdered rocks under an old looking tree. This was actually quite picturesque.
Framed against the evening sky was a temple gopuram next to which was a cowshed where a calf sucked noisily at the teats of his obviously bored mother. Adjoining the temple wall on the right was a small pond. Green fronds grew scattered on the moist earth below. I’d forgotten I was barefoot.
Bushes, trees; shrubs rather, leant over the pond, their leaves sending ripples across the still glassy water as they swayed with the wind.
My mother reappeared with the pandit, obviously unearthed from slumber or at least the depths of laziness. Dressed in a waishti (vesti) and bare bodied as always, he welcomed us with fake enthusiasm ushering us into the dark depths of the temple.
The decrepit gate of the temple swung on frayed matted rope hinges scraping deep scratches into the soft earth. He faded into the darkness through a rustic wooden door with habituated steps and after a few seconds the sanctum flooded with the light of a flickering tube light. Within were three recesses housing a Shivlingam and two nameless gods.
The temple floor stone was not how I remembered. It was sticky, I stared down, then up as a pair of pigeons startled from their roost flew out through the doorway depositing another healthy helping of guano to the coated floor.
As the pandit lit the lamp intoning the sleeping gods and goddesses and my parents and relatives faked piety and oohed and aahed at everything I decided to make the best of it and Instagram the crap out of the place. I walked around the complex in the fading light, the chants of the sole priest resounding off the temple walls.
#familytime #ancestraltemple #feelinggood #spirituality #sculptures #quaint.
The hashtags flowed and I found myself back in the inner alcove behind my mother. My uncle madly ringing the bell drew a look of ire from the still chanting priest.
I smiled into the screen as it froze with me juxtaposed over the sombre priest mumbling sweet nothings to the Shivlingam. As I tagged, filtered, cropped and edited the frame I was interrupted by the priest holding out a spoon of holy water. Suddenly chastised I stuffed my phone into my pocket gulping the leafy holy water, sprinkling the rest of it into my hair as I’d been taught to.
We trooped out of the sanctum, shuffling along around the complex. This Pradakshina business ensured you saw the entire temple even if just through a fleeting glance, I deliberated as I walked through the complex again retracing my hashtags. The now shadowy sculptures watched us as we went through the motions, revising grandmas’ tales and mythological comic books.
I wandered off ahead of the others towards the pond slapping at the mosquitoes feasting off my legs. Rough steps led down into the dark inviting water. My feet immersed into the silent, cool water rested on the soil. I sunk my toes into the soft sand letting the waters, cleanse me of this place, cleanse me of this madness.
I looked out, the bending branches now silhouetted framed the pond, its far end now invisible. Crickets living unseen lives chirped, sounding their presence, breaking the swishing winds symphony. The rustling wind carrying the still chanting priest’s voice brought with it wafting tendrils of the damp earth; I closed my eyes. Darkness.
I didn’t want to be there yet it was probably the first place I ever was.
“Vivek…”, I heard my mother call.
They could wait, they could all wait, Instagram, mosquitoes, Facebook, patients, people, God. They could all wait.
This was me, this was I.