The street of Agraharam usually woke up to the suprabatham played in the Ramachandra Moorthy Temple in the street end. But for Maruthi, the day started much before that. He is the priest in charge of the temple. Nobody appointed or employed him there. One fine day he went in to the temple in which he was volunteering and started to take over the proceedings. Nobody asked any questions. Everybody felt like it was a natural thing to do. The Tamil month of margazhi was special to the Vishnu temples across Tamilnadu. Maruthi’s father, an atheist had told him that it was a trick to bring people out of the blankets because the mist in the month of margazhi is good for health. The women were asked to come out and sing praise of the lord which may get them the man of their dreams and the men were lured out of their bed with piping hot pongal served in the temple.
Maruthi felt he was late by five minutes. There was no one in the street. Not so long ago the street leading to the temple will be busy by 3.30 AM. The women of the house will start cleaning their front yard with cow dung and water. Margazhi is known for the Kolams that people drew in front of their houses. This month long practice will help them win the competitions which would be held during the end of margazhi month. But things started to change and people finished their Kolams before the go to bed at night. This is a new world, Maruthi thought as he walked quite fast to the temple. The weight of the pongal he made for people who visit the temple pulled him down. And as much as he chose to not to think about it, he was not getting any younger.
Maruthi lived with his elder brother and his family. His brother’s only son had finished college and was training for civil service examination. Maruthi wasn’t sure if that was what he wanted to do. Most of the time his nephew was caught roaming with people and going to cinemas rather than studying. He had a single vertical streak of Namam in his forehead. People had never seen Maruthi without his Namam. It had become his trademark. The weight of the hot Pongal which he had made without disturbing the sleeping members of the family dragged his pace a little bit. The aroma of the ghee and the sautéed pepper and cashews made him hungry. He will have the Pongal to his heart’s content when the pooja is done, he thought to himself.
He opened the door of the temple at 4 AM sharp and started bathing the idol, Sri Ramachandra Moorthy. Soon the people who had gone out for Bajanai will come back to the temple. The number of youngsters and boys who volunteered for Bajanai also had dwindled over the time. If he had had a son, he would have made him go for the Bajans since he started walking. He sighed at that thought. His fate was sealed when he was very young. When he was eight, he was enthralled by the sight of golden color of a mango fruit hanging high in his friend’s garden. Despite the warning from his buddies, he climbed the tree to get the mango. What happened after that was all a blurry picture to Maruthi. He woke up in the hospital with his face swollen. Even when the swellings in his face reduced, his lips remained swollen forever. The women were afraid of him. They couldn’t stand the sight of his face. He was a fifty four years old ineligible bachelor.
The bhajans sounded closer. A lone voice in the Bajan group grabbed his attention as usual. Janaki was the only woman in the bhajan group. Sometimes she joined the group at the temple, singing pasurams as they walked into the temple. In the mean time, Maruthi had finished decorating the idol. That was his moment. When he opens the screen which he had closed while dressing up the swami in the temple, everybody will be looking at him with such devotion and exhilaration in their eyes. He felt it was for him. After the rituals are over and Pongal distributed, Janaki came to Maruthi.
“For Archanai?” he asked her. She nodded. She was a mild mannered woman in her late twenties. Her conservative father kept pushing off the alliances coming her way. Maruthi too wished she got married soon and to see her in madisar with her husband in the same temple.
“Kataka Rasi, Poosa Natchatram,” she said.
“I know ma,” Maruthi said as he finished the archanai and handed over the small basket of flowers and fruits to her. Suddenly he felt a jolt hit him from inside. There entered a man to the temple with a radiance that illuminated the whole temple. Janaki’s gaze caught his eyes for a second and a smile crossed her lips. The way he carried himself and his confident smile took everyone by surprise. Even though nobody had seen him in the locality before, Maruthi saw everybody smiling or nodding to him with respect as he walked past them. He returned their gesture and walked to Maruthi.
He quickly paid his respects to the main deity and looked at Maruthi. Maruthi was not yet completely out of the spell of radiant young man.
“Raghavan; Punarpoosa Nakshatram; Mithuna Raasi,” he said. Maruthi couldn’t believe his years. This is the constellation of Lord Rama himself. Maybe that was why he radiated so much of positivity and light. After the archanai had been done, Maruthi didn’t want to let him go.
“I have not seen you in this locality,” Maruthi said. “Are you new here?”
“Yes. We have shifted to one of those new apartments which they had built here. Everybody talked so high about Agraharam and this temple. I wanted to see it myself.”
“What do you do?”
“I don’t do anything now. I was trying for Civil Service. Born in the forward community meant I had less time to crack it. I was not good enough for it. I am thinking of starting a coaching center since I have all the materials. And people have to travel a long time to find a decent coaching class.”
“Even my nephew is preparing for Civil Service. I am not sure if he is too serious about it.”
“Maybe he lacks direction. Let me talk to him. He may get serious.”
That was how Maruthi introduced Raghav to his nephew. They hit it off right away and Raghav knew what to talk to an IAS aspirant. Raghav kept coming to the temple daily and slowly his visits started to coincide with Janaki’s. Nobody cared to see if it happened naturally or a predetermined delay from either of them. Raghav’s apartment didn’t allow strangers to come in and going out of their apartment complex all the time.
Maruthi had become a fan of Raghav. His nephew had grown matured and was putting his full effort in preparation. He also had a backup plan if things didn’t work out. Maruthi arranged for the terrace in Janaki’s house. He did it for his nephew. But the benefactor was Janaki.
Slowly but surely Janaki and Raghav’s relationship grew. Everybody felt it was the most natural thing. They looked like they were made for each other. The only opposition came from Janaki’s father.
“What will a tuition master earn?” he asked Maruthi. Maruthi had no answer for that. Raghav felt the same.
“It was soothing to help people who had the same aspirations as me. That was all. I have a management degree, and I can get a decent job soon enough.” Faithful to his words, he was waving his appointment order within another fifteen days. The marriage was a grand affair the locality had ever witnessed. Everybody from the tuition centre of Janaki, coaching centre of Raghav attended the wedding and took part in it as if it was their family wedding. Soon Maruthi’s dream of seeing Janaki in madisar with her family came true. They never asked for or told their star and rashi for archanai anymore. They belonged to the locality, loved and cared for.
Though none of the students cleared the UPSC exams, Raghav remained their role model. But he didn’t have time for his students anymore. He was busy with his work and Janaki. In Raghav’s company sent him to a different state with new responsibilities and team. He received a good farewell from his students. Soon Janaki stopped visiting the temple. Maruthi saw her now and then in the marketplace. He wondered why she didn’t move with Raghav.
One morning Maruthi was delivered with two contrasting news which made him wonder how he should feel about the morning. After the morning poojas were over, the local police inspector visited the temple. He was not a religious man. Maruthi hadn’t met him only while seeking permission for temple festivities. The inspector told Maruthi that there is a threat of theft for the temple. The gang targets small temple in the outskirts of the city and take whatever idols they could. It didn’t matter if it was stone or gold or any other metal. The intelligence suggested that they sold the idols to museums abroad for very good money. Maruthi was asked to inform if he saw anybody new spent time in the temple. When he reached home, his ecstatic nephew said that he had got a job. Raghav had referred him to a company in the city he was living in. After a round of discussion with family, it was decided that Maruthi would go with his nephew to the new city.
Maruthi had always felt he was not cut out for life in big city. His visit to city with his nephew only affirmed his belief even more. When his nephew left for work, He asked for the nearest Vishnu temple and walked around to find it himself. The life in the city was so alien to him. He wondered why everyone was in a hurry and was also surprised by their lack of knowledge about local temples. He tried to walk through the traffic. Somebody had passed out after heavy drinking in the pavement. He was appalled by the lack of sympathy of the people. He was late for the temple. But still, he tried to help the person who was lying unconscious in the road.
Maruthi was yet to recover from the shock. He never thought he would find Raghav in the he found him. The radiance, to which once he was famous for, had been drained out of him. It was like someone reached behind him and pulled out an imaginary plug out. Maruthi managed to hail an auto and took Raghav to the room in which his nephew stayed. After making him throw up a few times, Maruthi had managed to clean him up. It was well after dawn when Raghav gained his senses. Maruthi, by practice, woke up before the break of dawn. Seeing Raghav awake, he prepared a cup of coffee for him and handed it to Raghav. Raghav drank it without a word.
“What happened?” Maruthi finally asked.
“Janaki and I are not together. She refused to leave behind the place she grew up in.”
“That is not all. Janaki said she doesn’t want to live with me anymore. I don’t know what to do sir. She was the light of my life, and now it is extinguished.”
“I don’t know. I thought she would follow me here after few days. I went back to bring her with me. But she simply refused. I asked her thousand questions. She said she doesn’t have a reason, but she doesn’t want to move in with me. She had even sent the divorce notice to me. I don’t know where I went wrong?”
“Can’t you get a transfer back to our place again?”
“But why would I come back and what guarantee is there that she would be back with me when I am there? It is all over sir. I hope what I am going through is just a phase and I will get back to track soon.”
“Raghav! You are an inspiration to so many youngsters in our locality. They would be heartbroken to see you like this.”
“Do you think I am happy to see myself in the mirror daily? It is like somebody churning curd inside me sir. At one moment the curd seems to spill out, and I think ‘ah! It’s going to be over soon’ and then it suddenly goes quiet and the curd rise again on the other side. With my love and hate ebb and flow with every churn, I feel like giving up. But it is not so easy.”
“I am taking the bus back home tonight. I will talk to Janaki. Let us hope for the best.”
Maruthi couldn’t understand what Janaki’s problem was. He felt thankful that he was not married. He couldn’t understand women. There were many of the girls who got married and moved with their husbands to different cities, even abroad. But he couldn’t figure out why Janaki didn’t want to do that. After the temple duties next day, he walked to Janaki’s house. She was in the garden, sitting under a tree and looking at the distance.
“Janaki” Maruthi called out.
“Hello, Uncle.” She said. She didn’t look very different from Raghav. The only difference is Janaki hadn’t drunk.
“What happened ma? I saw Raghav. He is as broken as you. Can’t you make things work out?”
“It is too late uncle. And I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Think of me as a friend Janaki”
“I don’t know what he told you. And I don’t know what you will think when you hear my side of the story. Even my family members didn’t understand first.”
“I will try my best.”
“Raghav is not what everyone thinks he is Uncle. He has his dark sides too. Well, we all do. He wanted me to go with him, wherever his job dragged him to. I don’t feel like I belong there, uncle. I belong here. In this calm, serene locality. This tree and the temple. I don’t want to get used to the hustle and bustle of the city. I thought he would understand. But he didn’t. “
Maruthi thought of his evening stroll. It was no surprise that Janaki didn’t want to go.
“He didn’t understand even a word that I had to say. He started suspecting that I am having affair with one of the younger boys from his coaching class. That broke it all. I have no inclination to go back to him. Suspicion is a serpent which is coiled now, uncle. Think about it after ten or twenty years. When I am in a place where I had no connection with and dependent on him, he could unleash all his anger on me. I don’t want to be there. Times have changed. Right now I may not know what I want. But I sure as hell know what I don’t want. I don’t want that life uncle.”
“But, it may be because of frustration.”
“See. This is what I told you. You would reason with him. If a drunken man hits his wife, people say he is like that only when he is drunk. If a drunk woman falls off from her vehicle, everybody will say that she deserved her. A man is a man when he could handle his failures and frustration and still be a gentleman uncle. Frustration doesn’t bring out the beast within. It just unmasks the nice guy facade.”
Maruthi didn’t know what else to say.
“I am going to the city to see my nephew next week. Do you want me to say anything to Raghav?”
She thought for a while. She looked at her hand and removed the diamond ring from one of her fingers. “He gave it to me when we got engaged. This ring is too precious to send with other things he had left behind. Just give it to him in person if you can.”
Raghav was waiting for him in the bus stop as Maruthi got down the bus. He didn’t want to beat around the bush. He wanted to keep it as simple as possible. Raghav took him to a coffee hotel nearby and ordered two coffees for them. The hotel was full in the morning with office goers gobbling up whatever that was in their plate and rushed out. Maruthi wanted to get it out but he wasn’t able to. He slowly started, “I saw her” he said. His old mobile phone gave out a polyphonic ringtone which attracted the attention of few people. It was the standby priest in the temple.
“Anna.. There is a problem” he said. Maruthi didn’t reply. The person in the other end confirmed if he was audible and then continued “Somebody stole the temple idols anna. They have taken away both Rama and Sita vigrahams. It is heart breaking to see lone hanuman statue praying for no one in particular. When are you coming back Anna?” he went on and on.
“I will come as soon as possible. But I am not surprised. It had been so many days since Rama and Sita left the world and people’s mind.” Maruthi said and cut the call.