In the early nineties, when I was selling speciality chemical to Paper Mills, I used to travel in a 100 CC Motorcycle across Maharashtra, clocking thousands of kilometres every month. One afternoon, after riding 250 KMs, I presented myself before the General Manager of a Paper Mill. He was a Bengali and my dis-shelved looks made him to comfort me first and he chatted on various subjects before starting any discussion on what can we do for them. He asked me where was I from and I replied, “Tamil Nadu.”
He said, 30 years ago, he worked in Tamil Nadu (around the time this story was written) and two things about them impressed him the most. He said the people were afraid of the police and The God which made them to behave well. He added that they were generally honest and hard-working. I recalled reading this story and the narration by the author was confirmed after 30 years by a customer in Maharashtra 1500 Kilometres away from where the story happened.
The second thing happened only a month back. There was a story in social media about an 800 years old temple 300 KMs south of Chennai, lying in dilapidated condition and the temple priest was living in absolute penury but still serving the God 24 hours a day. Even the cloth adorning the God was torn all over.
The police, even the ones in Tamil Nadu have changed over the years but the priests of the temples are still very poor which breaks our hearts.
Also the story would give an idea about village life in India in the fifties and sixties (a decade or two since independence) to iPhone totting Gen X and the Millennials of today’s India.
Prasad – பிரசாதம்
Prasad in Sanskrit or Prasadam in Tamil: A devotional offering made to a god, typically consisting of food that is later shared among devotees. Oxford Dictionary.
Seventy Three Forty-Seven (badge number of the beat policeman) kept circling the square. He had to make five rupees before night. Only then, he could lift his head and look at her (his wife’s) face. He could look at her smile. He could celebrate the child’s birthday. He came back to the junction. At the edge of the main road, a couple were waiting to cross the road for the past 15 minutes. She was carrying a small child in her hand. It was clear they were coming back from the nearby temple.
‘My wife also wants us to go to the temple like this tomorrow’. She wants to celebrate the birthday of the child in a grand manner. He recalled every single word Ponnammai uttered in the evening. Her desire was little strange and he remembered her description of how they will go the temple with the child tomorrow.
‘We should get up early in the morning. Bathe the baby in hot water, dress her in a silk skirt and tie her hair with a colour ribbon. We should place a single rose – yes just a single rose in her pony tail. When we take the baby to temple, the women who will be busy sweeping the and making a rangoli at their front yards, will look up. And I should look at them. Then I should look at you and you should look at everyone and then look at me.’ Seventy Three Forty Seven, for a moment, forgot where he was and laughed loudly. The couple had crossed the street and disappeared.
But to make Ponnammai’s plan to come through, he needed five rupees. Actually, the plan would cost fifty rupees. But she asked him only five. She borrowed the cloth for the skirt from a shopkeeper and already given it to the tailor for stitching it. From the chit fund saving, she already bought a chain for the child. She would sell milk and pay the balance for the chit. She is asking money only for the miscellaneous expenses but he had no money. Not even a quarter ana (16 anas makes a Rupee. So quarter ana is 1/64 of a Rupee); yes, not even quarter ana. It was the twenty fifth day of the month.
He was tapping his stick on his boots. He was looking funny. People who see him once, can’t forget his face. There was a deep scar on his face from small pox. Thick eyebrows which were almost joining at the centre. Small strands of hair jetting out of his earlobes. A pencil line moustache below his nose.
His stare fell on the road like a shadow of an eagle and scanned it. He could not find anyone.
Sweat fell through his neck, his face looked tired and body uncomfortable.
He has not had bad day like since he joined the service. He wondered whom did he see when woke up and remembered with a wry smile, looking at his own face in the mirror. The noon movie show was over in the nearby cinema and the people flooded the street. He moved away from them and stood at a corner. Once the crowd had thinned he started walking again.
He started at four in the afternoon and it’s seven in the evening now; soon it will be eight and everything will become quiet. He could not catch anything.
His bad day. No one was going without a ‘light’ in their cycles. He checked all the street where people used to urinate and he could not find anyone today to levy a ‘fine.’ He watched from a corner (standing invisible) to catch anyone who would enter the street to relieve himself. (Urinating in Public place is one of the punishable offense under a law enacted during British Raj). But he could not see even a small boy. It looked like even ordinary people have become responsible citizens. Long live the responsible citizens!
Seventy Three Forty Seven made a face thinking at his bad luck.
He started from the junction again and walked northwards. He walked and stopped for a few moments and walked again; then stopped to gather his breathe.
He was getting angry.
He clapped and stopped all the taxis that passed by. Every driver had a valid licence. In a car which could take five, only three were travelling and in a car licenced to carry four, only one was going.
He thought this country does not need a policeman anymore.
He wondered if he could catch hold of porters and threaten them with something. But no one was to be seen. Everyone had gone to watch the new movie which was released today.
‘Donkeys are wasting their money in a cinema,’ he thought to himself.
It was time when Arrack (booze) will be sold in the cold drink shop. Prohibition was in place in the town; he could complete his target there and celebrate the birthday grandly. He walked towards the shop only to find it locked.
‘May be his grandmother gave birth! One should run the shop responsibly!’ he thought bitterly.
From a side street, a horse-cart turned to the main road. The coach driver was a small boy. He had not even spouted a moustache. But even he a had the lamp lit brightly!
The cart neared him.
“Hai, stop the cart.”
The cart stopped.
“Where is your father?”
“He has not come.”
“Give eight ana” (half rupee)
“Give me eight ana”
“I don’t have even one ana.”
“I won’t ask again. Give eight ana.”
“Look here!” the boy removed his dhoti and showed him.
“Look at your face. Run fast! Look at your cart. No human being will get into this!” shouted Seventy Three Forty Seven.
The cart moved.
He walked towards the post office. There was a convenience store opposite to post office. He sat on a bench outside the shop. He removed his hat and put it on his lap. His head was wet with sweat. When he wiped his head with his hand, it became wet. He could not bear the irritation. He dried his hands by wiping them on his trousers. He looked at east and west and looked at the post office.
He saw a thickset man walking towards the post office. He thought he has seen the person. ‘Is he the Krishnan temple priest?’
The priest walked towards the post box. Seventy Three Forty Seven looked at him intently, stood up and followed the priest. He was carrying a long envelop. He was nearing the post box.
The priest turned back.
“Wait. I will post this and come.”
“Come before posting the letter.”
The priest was stunned for a moment.
“Hey come here!” he shouted at the priest.
The priest came towards him walking hesitantly.
He looked healthy but fat. His body was shining as if he had just taken an oil massage. His stomach looked as if he was seven months pregnant.
The priest stopped in front of him.
“What’s in your hands?”
“Nothing. Just a cover. Going to put it in the post box.”
“Let me see.”
He looked at the envelop (called cover in Tamil). There was also a postcard. The card was written by someone to someone else. The cover was addressed to the local DSP (Deputy Superintendent of Police) office.
Seventy Three Forty Seven started at the priest.
The priest face reddened with fear.
He stared even harder and the priest’s face became even more red.
Seventy Three Forty Seven was happy. He was very happy. His daughter, after all, will have a grand birthday.
“How did you get this cover?”
His tone sounded very authoritative.
The priest kept quiet. His face looked down.
“What’s in your mouth?”
“If I ask the peacock to give me a feather nothing will happen. Walk to the police station.”
The word ‘station’ shook the priest. Seventy Three Forty Seven pushed the priest’s shoulder gently.
The priest started to stammer.
“Please listen to me. It’s my bad time. Otherwise….”
“Don’t stretch. Come to the point.”
“See! It’s my bad time. Otherwise why in the dusk, in the middle of the road, as if I am robber or a thief or a rowdy or a pick-pocket…”
“Hey. Come to the point. Why are you blabbering?”
“See I went to post this card in the post box near the temple.”
“On your way, this envelop was lying on the road, begging you to pick it up?”
“Please listen. I went to drop this post card. But I could not.”
“Why? You had a sprain in your hand?”
“No. This big cover was blocking the mouth of the post box.”
“Oh? bring a story like that.”
“Not a story. I am telling the truth. This bent cover was blocking the mouth of the post box.”
“Oh! Is it?”
“I pushed this card through the gap. But it would not go inside. I tried as much as possible.”
“OK Carry on.”
“So, I just inserted just two fingers and pulled the envelop out.”
“Please listen. I have not committed a crime. I am not a person of that sort. Come and ask about me in the village. For the last four generations, we are doing Pooja at the Navaneetha Krishnan temple. Till today…”
“Can you not finish your story fast? You are circling like chekku maadu.” (Chekku madu denoted the bull, used in grind oil seeds to extract oil. The bull keeps going around in a circle, around the crushing stone.)
“After extracting the cover from the mouth, I tried to put both post card and the envelop into the box. But I could not.”
“I kept pushing them. But the envelop was bending and blocking the mouth of the post box. I did not know what to do. I kept starting at the box. So I decided Navananeetha Krishnan is testing me and decided to bring it to the head post office and put them in the big post box here.”
“All lies. Pure imagination.” Said Seventy Three Forty Seven.
“You should not dismiss me like that. I am not adding or deducting anything to what happened exactly. This tongue can only pray; it can’t lie.”
“OK OK. Let’s go to the station.”
The priest held Seventy Three Forty Seven’s hands and begged. His fear was evident in his speech and his touch. There was a death look on his face.
“I am not lying. I did not commit any crime. I promise on The God Navaneetha Krishnan’s name. If I lie, The God will punish me. He will pierce my eyes.”
“Don’t sweat. Come to the station.”
He held on to priest’s hands and started walking.
The priest followed him but he was trying to retrieve his hands. He had Goosebumps all over. He was ashamed. He felt as if all the people he knew in the village were looking at him. Everyone was looking at him totally surprised.
They had to cross the market to go the station. He knew all the merchants there. On their zodiac sign birthdays, he would pray in the temple and take Prasad to them. All respected him. He thought, at this moment, everyone was looking at him. He imagined he was holding the bars at the prison cell. His wife and child were crying outside and the policeman was pushing them away.
He thought he would fall under Seventy Three Forty Seven’s feet. He wondered if he kept shouting some hundred people will gather and may be ten of them would take his side.
But he was worried that if he opened his mouth, he may be severely beaten. Also, something was blocking his throat. Every moment, something heavy was raising from his stomach, reaching the brain and made him numb. He was worried that he would cry in public.
The main road did not appear as yet. Huge neem trees on either side were showering darkness all around. He wiped his face with a piece of cloth.
The priest stopped walking after a while. The light from the street-lamp fell on his face.
Seventy Three Forty Seven looked at the priest. His face was dark red. He wiped his face again and uttered:
“I have not made a mistake. I have not committed a sin.” He started crying now.
“What can I do? I am only doing my duty properly.”
“Don’t you believe me?”
“It’s not about what I believe. Come to the station. Tell everything to the Inspector. If he frees you, am I going to tie you up?”
“Will he leave me?”
“Do I know astrology?”
“He won’t do anything else?”
“Who? inspector? Like what?”
“Beating? Caning?” he left little ashamed to say this.
‘This man’s big body is full of fear’ though Seventy Three Forty Seven which made him smile.
“Beating depends on the crime. There is no law against it. If he has a doubt he will crush your bones. The new inspector is a very strict man…”
“Oh my God. I don’t know what to do!” his worrying tone bothered Seventy Three Forty Seven a little.
“I feel little bad for you.”
“OK release me then. You will go to heaven.”
“That’s not possible. I can’t let go of someone if I catch them while committing a crime. Do you think it’s a play? My job will go.”
The priest stood like a statue.
Seventy Three Forty Seven started again.
“We can do one thing. I am doing this only because I pity you.”
“I can tell the HC not to make it as a case.”
“Who is HC?”
“Oh great. Tell me some good news like that. Navaneetha Krishnan will open his eyes on you.”
“But I have to go in front of him and beg. He will act big. He will cross his legs and shout at me.”
“Please do this for me. Otherwise I will be destroyed. I don’t run my life with money. If there is a case against me, I will lose my job. I will struggle through rest of my life. I can’t face anyone. If you help me, every moment, I will think of you along with God Navaneetha Krishnan.”
“I don’t want to punish you. That’s not my intention. But HC is a fink. He does not show mercy or pity anyone. He would expect money.”
“Yes. He will want money. Unless you pay, he won’t do anything. That’s why I don’t go for his recommendation. It’s only for you.”
“Five or Ten?”
“Ten. He will not open or close a case without Ten.”
“Where will I go now for Ten Rupees?”
“If you want to get out from this situation, give me money. Otherwise face whatever comes your way.”
The priest started walking without uttering a word. Seventy Three Forty Seven started the conversation again. “What do you say?”
“No. Where would I go for ten rupees?” this time the priest spoke in a clear and loud tone. Seventy Three Forty Seven got angry.
“Who was hurrying me so far to pay bribe? Walk fast now. Only if you get canning from Inspector, you will realize.”
“OK. Why are you cutting me fast.”
“Nothing. Don’t talk anymore.”
After a few minutes, Seventy Three Forty Seven started again. “I just remember now. Last week the inspector was shouting at us that all letters to DSP office are missing. Now I understand what’s happening.”
“What do you understand?”
“You walk now. If you open your mouth, I will hit you on the head. Only when you go inside the station, you will realize.”
“It’s what The God has decided for me.”
Both have neared the station. Seventy Three Forty Seven started once more. “It’s not a good time for good people. Only bad people get away. I should not show any pity.”
“You have committed a huge crime and keeping quiet as if nothing has happened. I took pity on a priest who bathes in temple and you don’t take my advice. Only if you get severe beating you will realize.”
The priest let out a smile.
“I thought I will get you out of a tough situation. I should hit my mind with my footwear” said Seventy Three Forty Seven.
“You are right. You wanted to save me. But only the HC is avaricious. Let him be. But the God has also made me so poor.”
“Oh! Once you are inside and they screw from all side, you would know the suffering of the poor.”
“Let the God decide. For the last fifteen years, I am bathing him every day and decorating him. With all the prostrations I do, I have a huge scar on my forehead. If that ungracious fellow wants to get only beating on canning for this as gratitude let him do that.”
The priest spoke calmly.
Seventy Three Forty Seven looked at his face. There was no trace of fear on it. He was walking briskly now.
“Can we do one thing then?”
“You are not a Tata or Birla (big industrialists of India those days), somehow pushing your life. I can do something for you.”
“You are not coming to the matter but beating the bush.” Commented the priest.
Seventy Three Forty Seven felt something fell on his head. “I will manage the HC with five rupees. Give five rupees fast. I have other jobs as well.”
He wanted to get the money from the priest without allowing him any time to think about it.
The priest now spoke more calmly.
“What is this? If I can give five can I not give ten? If I had all these money, why am I bathing Navaneetha Krishna? Moreover, did I steal or rob or snatched a woman’s hand in public place? Let the HC make a charge against me. If he wants my head let him take it.”
Seventy Three Forty Seven felt like cutting the priest into million pieces.
“You are such a miserly person.”
“What to do? He has kept me like that.”
“The one at the top. He is the one.”
They arrived at the front of the police station. At the shop opposite, a man was talking to the shopkeeper. Seventy Three Forty Seven called him, ‘hey brother’ and started talking to him without looking at the priest. But he was standing like a statue. The brother was getting bored with the conversation.
Seventy Three Forty Seven looked at the priest and said, ‘You can go now. Let’s see later.”
“No let us complete the job we came here for.”
“Sir I am telling you that we can do this later. But you are not listening.”
The ‘brother’ asked, “What’s the matter sir?”
“Nothing brother. Tomorrow is my child’s birthday. Wife wanted to do some Pooja in the temple and I was discussing the same with the priest. He says I have to get a few things. Where do I have money for this?”
“Oh! is this the matter!” thought the priest.
The word ‘money’ must have to put off the brother. He took leave immediately.
Seventy Three Forty Seven started walking directly opposite to where the priest was standing.
The priest ran after him.
“Hey. Stop. You made me stand in the centre of the road and started walking away.”
“It’s OK. You go now.”
“Go home. Why are you behind my life now?” said Seventy Three Forty Seven.
“You said so many things. Now you are driving me to go home.”
Seventy Three Forty Seven got angry. His nerves at the forehead were bursting out. He stared at the priest’s face. The priest also stared at him without blinking his eyes. He was afraid a little. But the same time, he could not control his laughter. A wry smile erupted from his lips. Seventy Three Forty Seven looked at the priest controlling his laughter and the smile coming out of his lips.
Seventy Three Forty Seven laughed. His body shuddered. He laughed loudly and he laughed like a child.
The priest joined the laughter.
Seventy Three Forty Seven went near the priest and said calmly, “You go home and I am also going home.” The priest looked at him. His face was not like the one which troubled the troubled the priest till moments ago.
“I am also going in the same direction. Let’s go together.”
“You said something about child’s zodiac sign birthday. Is it true or is it the balance of the play act you did with me?”
“It’s true sir. Tomorrow is the child’s first birthday.”
“Is it the first one?”
“Yes. She was born after eleven years of marriage.”
“Oho what’s the name?”
“It’s a dear name to my God, Navaneetha Krishnan.”
Seventy Three Forty Seven left out a wry smile.
“OK. What all you are planning to do tomorrow?”
“My wife planned so many things. Only I am dragging things.”
“Why are you dragging? It’s the first child. It’s born after many years by God’s grace. You can’t leave out anything. You don’t have the right.”
“That’s all fine. Who is saying no. But there is no money.”
“You caught hold of a poor man who bathes lord and gives Prasad. What can you do with it? Only put it on your forehead. You should have caught hold of a rich man who is wearing a silk dhoti and gold chain. You don’t even know this?”
Seventy Three Forty Seven laughed loudly now. “True I have been looking for somebody like that. The birthday expenses were hovering in mind. But I could not catch anyone. So, I thought, let me at least catch hold of this priest. But you turned out to be a tough nut to crack.”
“I also move with ten people between dawn and dusk. Don’t I know how much Seventy Three Forty Seven will jump?”
“Oho, is it? Who cried a lot few minutes back? Whose teeth was typing Morse code? Whose hands were shivering with fear?”
“Yes. Initially I was afraid. I accept the truth. But you made my life miserable?”
“What to do sir? It’s all for the eight-inch stomach. Otherwise I can just sit and watch things.”
“Of course! There is no doubt. I am also going through the same in the temple. When some people come inside the temple, the God goes out from the back side. And I go and tell them they are great people. After I praise them that they are saints like Aazvars and Nayanmars, they put two ana in the plate. I wash them and keep them inside my dhoti.”
Now both laughed together and they neared the Post office.
Seventy Three Forty Seven said, “I will post the envelop and the letter.”
The priest retorted, “do it carefully. Some PC may catch you. We don’t know who is sick of what.”
After posting the letters, Seventy Three Forty Seven went to convenience store opposite to the post office and removed few bananas from the bunch which was hanging at the entrance. He offered a couple of the bananas to the priest.
Seventy Three Forty Seven told the shopkeeper, “put it in my account.”
“I keep writing but nothing is credited.”
“Just two days. I will write a cheque” said Seventy Three Forty Seven humourously.
They reached the junction from where they have to part with each other.
“Sir. Let me take leave. Please don’t keep anything in your heart” said Seventy Three Forty Seven.
The priest replied, “What use? the Khaki (police uniform colour) caste is like this!”
“Sir all castes are like this” replied Seventy Three Forty Seven.
“OK then. But what are you going to do tomorrow?”
“I don’t know sir. I feel ashamed to face her. She has planned a thousand things. OK let me go” Seventy Three Forty Seven started walking.
“Hey come here.”
Seventy Three Forty Seven came back.
The priest opened his dhoti a little bit. Seventy Three Forty Seven could see a cloth belt inside. The priest let his fingers wander around the side of the belt, stopped at one place and inserted his fingers inside and took them out.
A five rupee note.
“Show me your hands. Take this.” Seventy Three Forty Seven hesitated for a second and then extended his hand and accepted the note.
“There should not be any shortcoming in child’s birthday celebration. That’s why I am giving this” said the priest.
“Sir it’s a great help.” Seventy Three Forty Seven’s voice melted with a tear appearing in his eyes.
“Don’t give a speech. You should pay this back when you get your salary on the 1st.”
“Yes sir. Definitely.”
“If you don’t, I will complain to the HC.”
Both started laughing.
“Bring her tomorrow to my temple. Lord Navaneetha Krishnan will be happy to see Kannamma. I will also stay with you and chant all the mantras and let’s celebrate the birthday in a grand manner.”
“OK I will bring her.”
“OK I will leave then. Remember 1st day of the month.” The priest started walking in the dark.
Seventy Three Forty Seven stood rooted to the spot and watched the priest disappearing at a distance.
You can get the original story here:: Prasadam (Short Stories).
Doodle Courtesy: Rachna
Sundara Ramaswamy (1931–2005), fondly known as “Su.Ra” in literary circles, was one of the exponents of Tamil modern literature. He edited and published a literary magazine called Kalachuvadu. He wrote poetry under the penname “Pasuvayya”. His novels are Oru Puliya Marathin Kathai(Tamarind History), tr, Blake Wentworth, Penguin 2013, J.J Silakuripukal (J.J: Some Jottings, tr, A.R Venkatachalapathy, Katha, 2004) and Kuzhanthaigal, Pengal, Aangal (Children, Women, Men), tr, Lakshmi Holmstrom, Penguin 2013.
Ramaswamy was born on 30 May 1931, in Thazhuviya MahadevarKovil, (a village in Nagercoil). At 20, he began his literary career, translating Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai‘s Malayalam novel, Thottiyude Makan into Tamil and writing his first short story, “Muthalum Mudivum”, which he published in Pudimaipithan Ninaivu Malar. He died on 15 October 2005 (IST) aged 74.