He slowly drifted into wakefulness with the smell of wood fire burning and its muted crackling. Then the touch of her hand on his ankles, and her husky voice calling, “Kunje?”1. Smiling, he turned over and reached out for her, eyes half open. She smelled fresh and her skin felt cool. The fine droplets of water from her hair fell on his face and shoulders, bringing him awake, his body fully aroused.
A few minutes later, he climbed over her body, off the creaking woven bed, and walked out into the still dark, early dawn. Drawing water from the well, he cleansed himself and his sacred thread while chanting his prayers. Back in his little kitchen, he helped himself to the black coffee still in a pot on the fire, drank it hot and steaming and looked over at Bhadra and smiled.
‘It’s good and strong,’ he told her. ‘Drink some before you leave.’
‘I will, Thirumeni’ she replied.
Of pure body. That was the literal meaning of the word. She addressed him knowingly, because after his ritual bath, he was now a priest. Unsullied and deserving of the right to go into the sanctum to worship the Goddess.
Now, she could no longer touch him.
She stood in the doorway watching him leave, while Easwaran Kunju, the tall lanky Namboothiri made his way to the little temple, about a furlong away through the winding path in the woods. The eastern sky had just taken on a light pink hue as he opened the heavy bronze lock more by feel than sight as he had done almost every day for the past five years. Those chapters in the story of his life lived as a priest in this small hamlet on the foothills of the Western Ghats.
It was a Friday and likely to be busy, bringing in the villagers who believed it to be auspicious for their Goddess, and a good day to pray to her. Today was also the annaprasanam, the first rice feeding ceremony of the village officer’s granddaughter. Easwaran cleaned out the fireplace, lit up the hearth and into a bronze vessel, measured out the raw rice to be cooked for the payasam2. While it cooked, he made his way to the sanctum sanctorum and parted open the heavy wooden door. As his eyes rested on the Goddess he felt his soul lighten up and all the burden of his insignificant life seep away, leaving serenity in its wake. This was his favourite time of the day – just he and his Devi, in a wordless commune. He cleared out yesterday’s wilted offerings, bathed her carved figure, draped her in her rich red satin and lit the lamps, all the while chanting verses in a song as ageless as time. Soon the business of the temple would start, bringing in the others, but for now, he was alone in her presence. Enveloped in light from the oil lamps and her benevolence, he looked upon the shiny ebony contours of her stone form with reverence. This was his time to offer her his worship and his adoration; his penance and his devotion.
The first one to arrive was Maraathi Thankamma, the only other staff at the temple. Although employed by the temple committee, hers was a hereditary position. Thankamma, and others of her family, were Maraars, whose job it was to keep the temple clean – sweeping and scrubbing twice a day. So also were most of the other chores that went into the running of the temple – like fetching flowers and fashioning them into garlands for the deities. Fortunately for Thankamma, the neighbourhood homes had generous Tulasi bushes and Hibiscus, laden with scarlet flowers that the Goddess favoured, and these, she gathered on her way to the temple. She set the basket of flowers inside the forecourt of the temple and straightened her stiff back. A bird-like woman of uncertain years, she had a weathered face marked by penury and a bright smile that shone with the acceptance of it all. Thankamma and Easwaran shared a fondness that was inevitable given the time they spent together in the midst of conversations and silences. She kept him abreast of the happenings in the countryside, which he found useful since he did not venture out much into the village square. Easwaran brought out the greasy bronze lamps and placed them on the verandah for her to scrub. Thankamma looked up at him and asked, ‘Did Bhadra make you something to eat?’
‘No, I told her not to. I will eat only after the naivedyam.’3
‘Why do you bother with it anyway?’ she continued, not even pausing to listen to him. ‘It’s only some rice and chilli paste in a banana leaf. I told you I can make you some nice hot rice and sambhar right here.’
Easwaran turned away, silent, smiling to himself – he did not want to be pulled into another argument as routine as the temple rituals. For the next five hours or so, he was kept busy with a steady stream of devotees. Pujas, special prayers and flower offerings, dedication of lamps lit with ghee and the distribution of prasadam. The village officer brought his family for the annaprasanam, and this special ritual brought in a substantial income for Easwaran Kunju. He contemplated the money and wondered if it would get him a pair of ear studs to put into the empty holes on Bhadra’s shapely ear lobes. Around noon time, after the rituals and Devi’s lunch pooja were done, the temple closed its doors till evening.