The heat had driven the pariah dogs to seek coolness under the only tree in the village square leaving Pundit Daya Dass to sweat in the hothouse that was his shop. He watched the dogs as they lolled in the shade with their mouths open, their long moist tongues hanging in the unmoving air. He fanned himself listlessly with a straw fan and looked beseechingly at the idle ceiling fan. Silently he cursed the bureaucrats at Punjab State Electricity board, the ones who rationed power at the most inopportune times. Then his glance fell on the cobbled square and the gathering filth on it. The flies had disappeared, but they would be back as soon as the sun moved more to the west and the tall shadows of the buildings around the square darkened the glare.
“Damn the untouchables,” he muttered. How any race could hold a wedding in this weather was beyond him. “The idiots are probably too drunk to notice the heat anyway,” he told himself and picking up the day-old paper to read, he separated its damp pages.
IMPOTENCE CURED BY PAINLESS ELECTRICAL THERAPY the advertisement promised, and he smiled. The reverse was the case with him. At fifty he was as virile as he had been on the first night of his marriage thirty years ago. For a Brahmin that was unusual, he thought. It was this age that the highborn gave up all worldly pursuits and retired to commence worship of the gods, thus preparing their souls for salvation and the final escape from the cycle of reincarnation. Although he was sure that he would live to a ripe old age, the time had come to exercise control over the senses.
“I will spend the afternoon here and not go home,” he told himself a little too firmly. He knew that if he went home, he would not be able to resist the temptation of passing the idle hours in carnal pursuits with his wife. She was still attractive and only too willing, and the thought weakened his newfound resolve a little. He fanned his groin with the paper. Under the shade of the tree a brown mutt was sniffing an eager female. A customer walked into the shop and the Brahmin tore his eyes from the mutt and lifted his ample frame off the divan.
“Damn the filth,” Tara Singh hissed and wiped the dung off his moccasins on the piece of gunny sacking the shopkeeper kept as a doormat. Daya Dass watched him in silent rage and thought of the flies that would descend on it later.
“What do you need,” he managed to say the words evenly.
“Packet of indigo,” the lanky peasant replied.
“You should spare your wife in this weather,” Daya Dass advised him humourlessly.
“She asked for it,” Tara Singh told him and eased himself onto the divan. Daya Dass sat down beside him. Despite his manners, he was happy to have the company of the peasant and they began a broken dialogue about the heat, the state of the village, the world at large and other small-talk. The sun continued its westward journey and the shopkeeper kept his eyes on the approaching shadows in the square. The conversation turned to the only current event in the village.
“She’s quite good looking, I hear.” Tara Singh described the new bride from the class of untouchables.
“Yes.” The Brahmin had little interest in the beauty of the women of that caste. In fact, he thought of them as little more than dumpy, ugly monkeys. To him they were untouchables in every sense of the word.
“My wife has seen her,” Tara Singh continued. “She is from the same village you know.”
The Brahmin looked at the peasant’s lined face and thought, so what.
“She could be a problem you know, what with all the idle studs in the village,” Tara Singh continued his musing.
Daya Dass felt his interest perk. His interest was not in the bride but the activity that would soon commence. He had a vision of the new bride being waylaid by a local lout and ravaged in a cane field. The thought amused him; in fact, it excited him to a degree. The women of the untouchable caste were fair game to the higher born peasants.
“Humph,” he coaxed the peasant.
“I have told my boy to stay away from her,” Tara Sing informed him and Daya Dass thought of the peasant’s son who was a lout and up to no-good in the literal sense. How often had he seen the youth walking around with ungainly bulge in his shorts? The boy must be endowed with a tool the size of a snake charmer’s flute, he thought.
“You should marry him off, Tara Singh,” Daya Dass advised him.
“It’s hard to find a decent match for him, you know.”
Oh I do know, Daya Dass told himself. Only a cruel father would inflict one such as him on a daughter. Aloud he said, “Talk to the matchmaker.”
“I will,” the peasant said, in not too hopeful a tone, and stood up to leave. “Put it on credit,” he pointed to the packet of indigo.
Daya Dass lifted the ledger. He made the entry and looked at the square which was now completely shadowed. He spoke a silent prayer of thanks to his favourite god. This afternoon he had escaped temptation.
That evening his wife spoke little to him. She poured the water for his bath in silence and Daya Dass looked questioningly at her. When he was finished and she had still not uttered a word he asked, “What is the matter?”
“Nothing,” she shrugged and stirred the lentils cooking in a brass pot. Daya Dass shrugged, casually indifferent and went inside to say his prayers before dining.
As he chanted the mantras by rote a feeling of calm spread through him. Automatically, without looking he sprinkled the incense on the fire without missing any of the practiced rituals. “Rama, Rama, Rama,” he intoned and ended the session. He took out the conch shell and walked to the gate. Standing on the street facing his house, he blew the required sound. A passing woman folded her hands and bowed to him in deference. He did not acknowledge her.
“Why are you so upset?” he asked after taking the first bite of his food.
“You were to come home this afternoon,” she stated. The accusatory tone did not escape him.
“I had customers.”
“In this heat?”
“Yes, some people cannot let a poor shopkeeper alone.” He bit a larger piece and munched loudly on it, hiding a smile that had begun to build on his face.
“I was waiting,” she informed him and gazed crossly at him.
“For what?” he asked between chews and tried to make the enquiry as innocent as possible.
“You know for what.” She blushed and he was thrilled by her admission.
“Oh, you forget our ages.” He bent his head to the plate.
“What about our ages,” she fumed. “We walk, we talk, we hear well; we are not cripples. We are still young.”
“We must control Kama, woman.” He frowned at her. “Do you want me to enter the cycle of reincarnation again?”
“But what we do is no sin. Even the gods take immense joy in this activity.”
“They are the gods and thus have little to fear. We are humans.”
When he walked out to return to the shop he could still hear her whimpering by the hearth. He could feel an emptiness inside him and yet a sense of accomplishment too. It was time to adhere to the code of the Brahmins. For him sexual activity was coming to an end. Today had marked the beginning of that end. He entered his shop, lit the votive lamps, turned on the single light bulb and sat heavily on the divan. Soon the first of a line of customers drifted in.
Two days went by before the untouchables returned to their chore of keeping the village streets and gutters clean. Daya Dass was amazed to see that the elder one still wore his finery.
“Still celebrating, eh Ruldu,” he shouted. The grizzled patriarch of the miserly family walked over to the door of the shop, gave Daya Dass the benefit of a smile full of rotted teeth and chuckled, “One does not hold a wedding every day, Pundit.”
“True, true ,” replied Daya Dass turning his gaze from the man’s grin. “How does the bride like her new home?”
“The new home is her karma, Pundit, whether she likes it or not.” And the untouchable nodded at his own wisdom.
“Well give her my blessing,” Daya Dass said dismissing him.
“Thank you, Pundit.” The old man bowed himself back into the street.
Daya Dass watched him supervise the cleaning of the square as the flies buzzed angrily at the loss of their feast of filth. His thoughts returned to the resolution he had been able to keep, even if it took great restraint on his part. His wife had done little to help. Instead the old fool had begun to indulge in a touch of makeup and, bless the gods, lipstick! It all added to her not inconsiderable beauty and last night as she lay beside him under the full moon, her lips glistened seductively. He had stolen glances at her face and then no longer able to tolerate it, he had turned firmly onto his side and mantraed himself to a fitful sleep.
A week later he saw the new bride and not even the lewd tales of his youth had jolted him thus into Kama. When his gaze first fell on her she was bent over a broom in the square and the rays of the sun against her had outlined her thighs in the semitransparent material of her pants. At first he had felt a surge of rage at the manner in which the untouchable had sent her to work in her visiting clothes. And such clothes too. Then his heart had begun imprinting its own tattoo of passion.
He could not tear his eyes away from the rhythmic swish of her behind as she laboured with the broom.
“Ye gods,” he moaned. “What have you sent to test me?”
In relief and yet greedily he watched her disappear from his view. He prayed that she was ugly. For, he had not yet seen her face.
He did not see her for the rest of the day. He stayed in his shop ostensibly to spend the afternoon away from his wife and seductress, but the anticipation of catching a glimpse of the untouchable wench made the task so much easier. The thought of the demands of his age and the stern code of the Brahmins tortured his feverish mind. He began the silent chant of mantras that were the salvation of simmering souls.
“A packet of indigo.” The surly youth broke the reverie and Daya Dass opened his eyes to recognize Tara Singh’s son.
“Another one,” the Brahmin exclaimed. “Has your mother become a laundress now?”
“I do not know.” The youth had failed to appreciate the sarcasm in the shopkeeper’s voice.
“Here.” Daya Dass handed him the packet. The youth took it and at the door turned once. With his free hand he began to scratch the upper part of a bare thigh. This gesture disgusted Daya Dass and he was about to give him a rejoinder when the boy grinned, “She is a fairy.”
“Who is a fairy?” Daya Dass asked in relief. He did not enjoy yelling at louts.
“The new bride.”
“So?” Daya Dass felt his throat quickly drying.
“So,” leered the youth. “I bet my cousins ten rupees that I will be the first at her.” He scratched savagely at his thigh.
Daya Dass stared at the youth and then a fit of rage rose like a volcano from the tip of his toes. When it reached his mouth he screamed, “Get out you filthy cur. How dare you say such things in my presence? Don’t you know that I am a highborn?” Terrorized by the outburst, the youth backed into the square. Then regaining his composure he muttered loudly, “Highborn too have penises.”
“Be gone, be gone,” Daya Dass shouted as the meaning of the youth’s remark sunk into him and the sense of shame became overpowering. It was obvious that the youth had but retorted in his idiotic manner. It stung the sensitive Brahmin. He closed the shop and went home. His wife was surprised to see him and on seeing the expression on his face, she fluttered about looking very concerned. He was grateful that she made no comment or enquiry and decided to reward her. As soon as the chores of the evening were done and the sounds of the village settling down reached him, he pulled her into the house and made violent love to her.
“That was beautiful,” she cooed breathlessly, satiated beyond belief. Daya Dass, his loins calmed, lay on his back and stared at the ceiling with his mind in turmoil.
She came into the shop, her face partially veiled and he did not need identification to recognize her. She still had the same clothes on, but they were now soiled by her labours of the previous day. She stood silently in deference just inside the door.
Daya Dass had not dared stare at her face. His gaze was on her feet and he noted that her toes were vividly painted and she wore silver anklets with little bells on them. She shuffled her feet, perhaps in embarrassment, and the Brahmin cleared his throat loudly, quickly raised his eyes to hers and asked in a business-like manner, “What did you wish to buy?”
She lowered her face into the fold of her nylon shawl and murmured, “A bit of sweet candy.”
He heard her voice and the velvet in it caressed his ears. He had not heard such a voice in ages; certainly not in this hell-hole of a place he thought.
“I have several kinds,” he offered, his voice firm. He wondered if he should sit down.
“I would like some with nuts in it.” She was twisting a rupee note in her hand.
Daya Dass scooped a large amount into a brown bag and handed it to her. She took it, saw the amount in it and said, “I only wanted a little bit.”
“Take it girl,” he waved. “It is free. It is Pundit Daya Dass’ gift to the new bride.”
“Is that a tradition with you?” she asked innocently.
Not really Daya Dass thought, but aloud he said, “We like to welcome our brides in this village.”
“Thank you,” she bowed. He thought that she would leave but she lingered. Again, he cleared his throat loudly. From the corner of his eye he saw a couple of louts hanging around the square and watching his shop. He said, “Go now and enjoy your candy.”
She did not move. He moved around her, stepped out and stood in the square. She came out and, after folding her hands in deference, she quickly left the square and entered the street that led to the untouchable section of the village. The louts eyed her every move and made bug-eyes at each other. Once she was out of sight they made lewd gestures to each other hardly paying any attention to the Brahmin. Daya Dass fumed. He an elder of the village and these fools carrying on like this in his presence. What is this place coming to? He wondered. Shaking his head he went back into the shop and collapsed on the divan. Two more youths had now joined the others and raucous noises could be heard in the square. He did not have to guess the topic of discussion. The quarry was seen and the hungry hunters smelt it in the wind. Daya Dass felt a sharp pang of jealousy and murderous thoughts invaded his normally non-violent mind.
“What is happening to me?” he asked himself. He began to recite the calming mantras in a feverish pitch.
That night after another session of desperate love-making, he lay awake and counted the stars in the clear ink-black sky. Beside him, his contented wife snored softly. Every nuance of the bride’s face was vivid in his mind. With his inner eye, he saw the exact colour of the shiny nail polish on her toes and panic gripped his mind. It was taboo to even touch her. He could be defiled by her mere shadow. And yet he lay on his cot making tender love to her in his mind. He fought as hard as he could but the good in his soul just could not muster enough power to defeat the wicked thought; for the first time in his life, Daya Dass could taste defeat at the hands of his senses. These were the senses that he was supposed to have in complete control at his ripe age. He should now be a mystic of the soul and the feeling of Kama but a recent memory. Yet Kama rode him as one rides a willing steed.
Finally exhausted, he let his mind wander every which way and let himself slip completely into the hands of lust.
“I will prove stronger than thou,” he promised as delicious licentious visions floated across his eyes. In one he was a vengeful god who had impaled his lingam into her and she was an erring slave being punished. That image was to haunt him and taunt him.
“Did you hear what happened last night?” Tara Singh asked as his bottom met the divan.
“Did I miss something?” Daya Dass responded from his reclining position. The sleepless night was taking its toll on his body in the unrelenting heat of the day.
“A couple of the boys tried to drag Ruldu’s new daughter-in-law into a can field.” Tara Singh exclaimed. Daya Dass sat up in one immense spasm. “Nothing happened. Some of the women with her beat them off.”
“But that was terrible, is terrible,” Daya Dass shouted. “How can we allow the boys of this village to act like criminals right here in our own backyards?”
“No harm done.” Tara Singh dismissed his outburst. “She was asking for it, walking around half nude in those see-through clothes. Of course it heated the blood of the boys.”
“Still it is not excusable,” Daya Dass insisted. Then using his superior mental abilities he coaxed, “If they get her today, it will be someone else tomorrow. How can we morally keep silent?”
Tara Singh rose to the bait. “I will see if we should call a meeting of the council and put some fear of God into these curs.”
“Good,” said the Brahmin.
And at the meeting of elders that night Daya Dass used clever arguments to convince everyone present that an example must be set of the two perpetrators. The boys agreed to join the army the next day. The council would escort them to the recruiting office in the city and see them off to a cantonment. The fathers of the two seemed relieved for after all, it had caused an embarrassment to them. Now they were to be rid of their burdensome sons. They thanked the good Brahmin for his useful suggestions.
“Now be sure to send half your wages to your fathers each month,” like an uncle, Daya Dass sternly advised the future warriors.
“We will,” they chorused in unison.
The fathers beamed. It was then that it occurred to Daya Dass that no one from Ruldu’s family had attended this righting of a wrong. He seethed in fury for a moment and then thought, what can one expect of an untouchable?
As he walked home through the dark streets, a sense of proprietorship was strong within him.
“I came to thank you,” she said.
Daya Dass sat on the divan and looked at her. He was thankful that the square lay deserted in the afternoon heat.” “It was nothing,” he said. “It is our duty to protect the women.”
“I knew that you would,” she stated and shuffled her feet.
Daya Dass was taken aback by the remark. “How did you deduce that?” he asked.
“Because I knew.” She looked at him, and met his eyes. “You are a good man.”
“I try to be good,” he said in a tone that surprised him. It was an honest tone and he felt vulnerable.
“My mother said that I could always rely on a Brahmin,” she informed him. “She knew a good Brahmin once.”
Grant me mercy, Daya Dass prayed to his gods. The implication in that statement of hers stung him like a whip. “And you wish to know one too?” he found himself asking.
“If my fate be so kind.” She kept looking at him and Daya Dass noted that she was only about sixteen years old. He had daughters older than her. In fact, he was a grandfather now. He beseeched the gods with silent screams.
“He would have to be young.” Daya Dass tried to laugh.
“Not necessarily.” She smiled knowingly and before he could reply, she turned on her heels and disappeared into the square.
I am being tested by the gods, thought Daya Dass and remembered the many legends of mystics and holy men to whom the gods sent women of immense beauty. These women could work magic with weaker men, break their resolves; turn them like putty in their hands into raving animals full of lust. The true mystics resisted these wenches. In turn the women performed lewd dances before them and attempted to break them by posing in various positions and wafting perfumes at the mystics’ noses. These perfumes worked like potent aphrodisiacs, irresistible to the strongest men. One out of a hundred so tested survived. And he became a god. The rest chased elusive dreams, their minds consumed by lust and depravity. He prayed for strength. He was but a common Brahmin. He hoped the test would not be as hard as the ones inflicted on legendary mystics.
He saw her many times after that as she cleaned the square, always in the company of one or another member of her family. Not once did she gaze in his direction or in some manner acknowledge his presence even when he stood conversing with someone but a few feet away. He found himself talking too loudly, flitting about the square trying to position himself so that she could hardly ignore him, but all to no good.
She bent to her task, did it and drifted out of sight without once glancing over her shoulder as he stood forlornly willing her to acknowledge him with his entire psyche. He was desperate now to the point that he would have given anything for her to left her eyes to him. In return for that knowing smile he had received the other day, he would have sold his shop and handed her the money. He spent expectant afternoons in the heat of his shop, keeping himself cool with vigorous waving of the fan lest she walk in on him and he be sitting there wilted like an old leaf. He wanted her to see him in the best light, fresh as today’s gladiolus.
He spent his nights in open-eyed dreams of love-making, with his neglected wife tossing in her cot beside his. He forgot his imaginary testing by the gods. He forgot salvation and the escape from reincarnation. There would be plenty of time left to assure that.
His obsession rose like the waves of an angry ocean and beat his Brahmin’s soul into pulp and he quivered at the sounds of the broom against the old bricks of the square, aware that her hands held it. He wanted to be that broom; a lowly broom. And he was a highborn Brahmin. The cynical guffaw of the judgemental part of his soul taunted him, but he hardly heard it. Nevertheless it was there.
Then one morning he saw her smile at Tara Singh’s son, the lout having developed a habit of being present in the square as it was about to be cleaned. In his expectant misery Daya Dass had forgotten the youth’s interest in her and now the memory of the lout’s bet with his cousins seared his mind.
“She is a bitch.” He cursed in silent rage as he watched the smile of victory on the youth’s face. He wondered if it would be tonight or the next that the boy would attempt to make good his bet.
He retreated to the shop in defeat.
His spirits rose though when he saw the lout appear a couple of days later at the square with a worried look on his flat face and dim expectation in his eyes as he gazed hopefully at the bent figure pushing the broom.
You too my friend, Daya Dass thought in sympathy. He found himself siding with the youth who also had been beguiled by her short-lived interest. But he shot like a bullet to her side as soon as the youth, enraged by her unconcern, tried to manhandle her right there in the village square.
“Get ready for the army boy,” he hissed in the youth’s face.
“I will get her.” The lout spat the words at the cowering figure holding the broom like a weapon before her.
“Go home and cool off,” Daya Dass advised him and watched him shuffle away.
“What impertinence,” screamed the old crone who had accompanied the bride to the square that day. She had found her voice now that the menacing presence of the youth was no longer there.
“Tell your charge to stop her flirtatious ways,” he shouted at the withered specimen before him. “Tell her to stop.”
As he sat in the shop that afternoon watching the playful mutts conduct their daily romance under the tree, she came into the shop and stood just inside the door.
“What do you want?” he barked, after gaining his senses.
“I came to apologize,” she replied in a childlike voice.
Daya Dass sat in silence gazing at the floor.
“Have I wronged you?” she asked in the same voice.
Wronged me! Daya Dass exclaimed to himself. You have wronged me alright. But aloud he said, “I do not understand?”
She gave him the knowing look.
When he could no longer control the rising emotions in him he asked in as steady a voice as he could muster. “Do you still wish to know a Brahmin?”
She stood with a downcast gaze and for a long moment twisted a loose corner of her shawl. Then she lifted her eyes to his waiting ones and nodded in assent.
Before she could turn to leave he asked, “On my terms?”
“Yes.” And she was gone.
Daya Dass sat stunned by the turn of events and felt the gradual return of his self-esteem. A smile crossed his face and he felt a strange potency rise within him. He locked up and went home.
He spent that night in thought and the old fears and taboos returned full force. He was after all a highborn. A Brahmin. He could become defiled by a mere touch and here he was planning an actual event of sexual intercourse with an untouchable. It was one thing to dream and fantasize, but to live it? Unthinkable.
Try as he might, he knew that Kama had control of him. It dictated his obedience. Perhaps when the time of judgement came, the gods would not be severe. He was but an ordinary Brahmin, a weak human, not a legendary mystic. He had always admitted his weaknesses and his wants. He had always lived by the rules. He was to be allowed at least one transgression. That’s it, he thought. Just once he would have her and afterwards he would live a life of mysticism and denial thus cleansing in this life the sin of a few moments. He would have to undertake arduous meditation. He was convinced of that. He must also take as many precautions against excess as possible, but how?
By the time the first rays of light appeared in the east, he had his answer. He would touch as little of her as possible. He would have to position her and himself in such a way as to have as little skin touching as possible. Since his lingam was a defiled tool anyways, separate from the rest of his body, its penetration into the yoni of an untouchable was excusable. Furthermore, he could quickly wash himself with the cleansing water of the Ganges making sure to pour ample amount of it while bathing the lingam.
He would not kiss her or fondle her breasts. He would not let her touch him either. But the position in which all this would be possible eluded his tired mind. I will think of it more during the day, he told himself as his wife stirred from her sleep and he felt the heavy lids of his eyes close.
In the afternoon the solution came to him as he watched a mutt mount a bitch in the cool shade of the tree.
Yes, he thought in glee. That’s how I will have her. Like a bitch, a bitch in heat. And right here in the shop behind that stack of boxes.
But I will not grip her middle like that mutt holds his mat’s with his forelegs. I will arch my back and only my lingam will be in contact with her.
He felt exhilarated by this discovery and waited breathlessly for her to appear. His heart pounded and his throat became inordinately dry. He searched for and found a bottle full of holy water of the river Ganges. It was one that he had brought back from his pilgrimage to Varanasi two years ago. He placed it beside the ledgers on the divan. He went to the door and checked the square. Only the dogs were there. Two of them locked in carnal combat while the rest watched in disinterest.
He had barely sat down when she floated in and stood just inside the door. For many moments neither spoke.
Daya Dass felt urgency rise within him. He was not one to pass up opportunity and there was not telling who would come looking for some obscure item to buy on this blazing afternoon. “Can I explain something to you?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.
“Yes.” She shuffled her feet.
“I am a Brahmin. Thus I am a captive of rules and rituals. If you are to know me you must agree to observe them for my sake.”
“I will do as you wish.” She smiled that knowing smile.
“I want to be sure ...,” he continued and finished laying down the rules.
She turned to look at the panting dogs who now danced to their own tune under the sun. The she hurried behind the boxes.
Daya Dass lifted the bottle of holy water and cautiously gazed into the empty square.
“Lock the door,” he heard her say from behind the boxes. “I don’t think you are going to be happy with so little.”