They came at the crack of dawn
their soft steps accompanying gently
swaying bodies, ringing sweet chimes
from tiny brass bells tied to their necks
with pieces of cloth
twirled into tricoloured rope.
Men in starched white shirts
and soft cotton dhotis, summoned air
from pulmonary reserves and let it out
to flow from bloated cheeks
through judiciously parted lips blowing
shehnai sounds into the morning air.
Their companions joined in
drums strapped across shoulders
a stick in one hand, thimbled fingers
on the other, playing auspicious tunes
to welcome the visitors, who reciprocated
by nodding their heads and tinkling their bells.
Half-asleep children, yawning and stretching
jumped out of bed with wide-open eyes –
not needing to dream any more about the secret
their parents whispered in the ears last night:
Along with the first rays of the sun
the cows had really come home.
The mother was on a leash, the calf needed
no such appurtenance; as if it were connected
still, by an invisible umbilical cord.
It licked languidly and nuzzled under the udders
to mildly proclaim a birthright
it perceived to be under threat.
Excited children soaked
in the sights and sounds
of moist sniffs and wagging tails
of nodding heads and tingling bells
now caressing the smooth coat
now fondling the soft folds under the neck.
A priest was ushered in by his disciples
silencing the children and sanitising
their parents, with full-throated chanting
of complex mantras. Amidst the faithful
a fool looked on, in mock deference
not knowing whether to smile or to frown.
Red lines of vermilion appeared on the foreheads
of the cow and the calf. A thick paste of turmeric
bedaubed their skins in approximate circles.
A pink nylex sari and a matching blouse-piece
bedecked their backs, only partly unfolded
ostensibly destined for a different purpose.
Fresh flowers adorned the necks
out of reach of sinewy tongues.
As the priest flailed his hands, still reciting
a man leaned across on cue, and whispered
to the cow, suggesting that the time had come
for the bowels to pucker.
As the earthy smell diffused, the faithful scattered
along with the fool. An unobtrusive servant cleared
the turf and receded to the periphery, in readiness
to perform hopefully less ignoble tasks. Giggling
people gathered again, thanking God for small mercies
that spared them and their clothes.
No such felicity came to their rescue though
when the cow flared its tail, voiding its waters.
A devout man swooped down cupping his hands
in the nick of time, to sprinkle the holy water
on the unsuspecting crowd. Baring concealed emotions
the faithful squirmed and the fool smiled.
The cow and calf now earned a large basket
of the choicest fodder. On the fringes, stray cattle
of unknown pedigree, waited their turn.
Before tempers frayed, the dutiful servant
turned them away, nudging them gently
back to where they belonged, by birth.
The clearance was required, as the phone rang
to confirm that the family’s guru was finished
with his morning ablutions, and was on his way.
Red carpets rolled out, on expectant air
gentle whispers rode. The shehnai players
and the drummers, were busy once again.
People who had earlier ringed the cow
in unruly fashion, touching and stroking
fondness having overcome bewilderment
now prepared to welcome the god-man
making way, standing in parallel lines, folding
hands, confusing affectation with affection.
Heads bowed amid drooping shoulders:
some overcome by humility, some by deference
others simply weighed down by conformity.
The imminent arrival of the guru shrunk
the faithful and the fool, who rubbed
shoulders, jostling for space in equal measure.
The guru came in a luxury car
with his wife and son in tow.
The patriarch and his wife bent
their rickety backs, to wash the guru’s feet
and reverentially sprinkled the water
on their own heads, and those of the onlookers.
Kumkum shone on the guru’s wife
the son bedaubed with sandal paste
garlands of flowers sewn with silver thread
rose-water, sprinkled from the upturned trunk
of a silver elephant, and an aarti completed
the trappings of the ritual welcome.
Seated on maroon-coloured velvet cushions
on ornate chairs with back-rests fringed
by gold-plated floral patterns
the guru and his wife smiled
beatifically, casting approving glances
at the arrangements, and at each other
A dhoti set and a Kancheepuram sari
both made of finest silk were presented
unfolded sufficiently to elicit appreciation.
The son swooped down, to fold and stow away
the fineries; suggesting that they
would be used for the intended purpose.
The guru wore a benevolent smile, sputtering
when he spoke, slobbering when he didn’t.
Drooling devotees soaked
in the sights and sounds
pinching themselves, at the fortune
of obtaining such a proximate darshan.
Two coolers and two fans kept the guru
cool and dry. Others squatted on the floor:
The old and infirm, crying infants
women and children, awaiting their turn
waving hand-held fans of dried palm leaves
wiping their sweat with their faith.
A gentleman tried to mitigate the suffering
by slightly moving a fan, only to be admonished
for showing disrespect to the guru
and elbowed out to where he belonged
by his act: To join doubters, and people
of doubtful pedigree, like the fool.
The guru noticed the commotion
perhaps also the sweat on the bosom
of the wailing infant’s mother.
Yet he chose not to bother
for a long day beckoned; a longer queue
of people waited, biding their time.
The high and mighty, the steady and flighty
the young and brazen, the old and wizened
the honest and corrupt, the innocent and guilty
relatives and friends, of devotees and their families
– people of all ilk, had their own dreams
and voids in their hearts waiting to be filled.
They took turns to bend, and touch the feet.
Some knelt down, gravitated by faith.
The more devoted prostrated themselves
occupying space and kicking bystanders
in the process. But continued to lie
until they could catch the guru’s eye.
The more important devotees came with silks
silverware, golden figurines of gods
boxes of sweets, and baskets of dry fruits.
They showed them to the guru. And gave them
to the wife, who was promptly relieved
of the bounty, by their caring son.
A man whispered to the guru, leaning across
from the shadows, as each party stepped up.
The first had a working, unmarried son
and a qualified daughter looking for a job.
The guru said the stars were
favourable, the time was near.
He told a businessman that his venture
would bloom like three flowers
and twice as many fruits, adding
as the man from the shadows prepared
to whisper again; to remember
the inflation, before making a donation!
The next in line were the visibly worried faces
of a young couple. They were told not to worry.
The old man would improve after 13th January.
The man from the shadows whispered again
bringing clarity to understanding, bridging
the gap between the blesser and the blessed.
They were in a hurry to get their new house ready
but worried about the delay the old man might cause
by an untimely pass. The guru told them a trick
– it’s unimportant which – to browbeat fate, saying
he understood what a mortgage meant, cleansing
the last vestige of guilt from the anxious visages.
An arthritic was asked to chant the sacred hymns
from a prescribed text. A stressed-out couple
in well-paid jobs, were exhorted to cultivate pure minds
and pure thoughts, and told, lest they misunderstood
as the man in the shadows whispered, not to forget
to fill the hundi; softly, without making a sound!
A waiting young man was told to wait some more
for the H1B to be processed. A young boy wished
to break into the district cricket team, his brother
dreamt to join IIT. Both were blessed and guaranteed
success, as the man in the shadows whispered to stress
their parents had done much for the local temple.
The man in the shadows whispered one last time
introducing family friends: NRIs who followed
the guru’s discourse on the internet and came
to seek his blessings before visiting the Lord
of the Seven Hills. The guru smiled knowingly
and told them to mention his name to the JEO.
They bowed to the guru, and moved to the wife
complimenting her on the choice of her sari, extolling
her virtues as the ideal wife, before exchanging pleasantries
with the son, inviting him home if he ever visited the U.S.
They thanked the friend – the one in the shadows –
who humbly said that everything is guru’s grace.
The stray cattle now voluntarily returned
to their homes. Along with the guru
the faithful left, with radiant smiles
and satiated souls, wishing each other
a good night’s sleep. The fool stayed up
to earn his peace, by writing this piece.
Madras Courier originally ran as a broadsheet with a poetry section. It was a time when readers felt comfortable sharing glimpses of their lives through verse. If you too have a poem you’d like to submit, do mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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