Marc de Faoite
The powdered soil under the giant tamarind tree was cool and dry and soft to touch. Mrs Velusamy sat there in the dark, only half aware of the contact with the earth, her fingers absent-mindedly drawing swirls and whorls and curlicues in the dust as she watched flat banks of clouds on the horizon turn from bruised purple-gray to the deep crimson red of dried wrinkled chilli peppers.
“Red sky in morning,” she murmured to herself. Wait, was it ‘shepherd’s warning’ or ‘sailor’s warning’? Both seemed correct. Both seemed wrong. She could ask Sita. Always with her nose in a book that one. An answer for everything. Sometimes her daughter’s cleverness irritated Mrs Velusamy, but mostly it made her proud. Sita should have come today, everybody else was here, but instead she was probably getting ready to stand in front of a blackboard in a schoolroom, far away in Pahang, pushing her glasses towards the bridge of her nose while looking out at the sea of expectant children’s faces.
There were children here in the crowd today whose parents had kept them home from school, and of course the babies and the toddlers who were still too young to go. Many of the parents, and grandparents like Mrs Velusamy, had never been to school. Things were better these days. In some ways at least. In other ways things were getting worse.
The brightening sky woke the coucals and the koels. They filled the cool morning air with their strange whooping and coughing and their melancholy wails.
Somewhere in the distance Mrs Velusamy heard a cockerel crow. Above her in the tree, insects began a steady buzzing drone that slowly filled up the background of the morning and would grow louder through the day.
She gazed out over the flat land, towards the forest, a vast expanse of dried yellow grass and weeds grown almost long enough to hide a sleepless flock of grazing goats. At last the red rim of the sun rose shimmering, melting the upper branches of the dark distant trees.
In the nearby temple Balaramasundram raised the conch shell to his lips. Almost instantly its plaintive cry was answered by the rasp of a microphone, followed by the loudly amplified call for prayer from the minaret of the newly renovated mosque.
“Jai Jai Aarti vigna-vinayaka…” he chanted, waving a heavy brass plate of camphor towards the rising sun and the brightly painted statues of the gods, tendrils of black smoke writhing around his wrist, the purifying fire dissolving the camphor like flaming cubes of ice, while his left hand pumped up and down ringing a strident high-pitched bell.
Balaram never intended to become a priest, but the way he saw it he never really had a choice. He wondered if he had been a priest in a former life. How else to explain the prayers and actions that came to him so readily? His first visit to this temple was over fifty years ago. The young boy he was then had automatically copied the priest’s movements with uncanny precision, as if awakened to some forgotten body-memory.
For thousands of dawns he performed this ancient rite, chanting the names of sacred rivers in a different land, rivers far across the sea, where his ancestors had come from generations before, the same land the ancient ancestors of the rulers of this country had come from, the ones whose names lived on in the titles of kings and queens, the same ancestors who had left the moss-covered carvings in the forests. When his father brought him deep inside the jungle to see these hidden relics, a stream of Sanskrit slokas flowed spontaneously from his mouth
Balaram could trace his lineage in this country back two hundred years. Every person in the crowd had been born here, and their parents too. Some had worked on the rubber estates before they were cut down. Some had found good jobs here close to the city, but most struggled to get by. They clung tightly to their faith and its rituals in the way only desperate people can.
He finished the prayers and finally let the tears that had being welling in his eyes flow down his cheeks. Hundreds of devotees had turned up this morning, far more than ever before, spilling out of the temple building all the way to the foot of the giant tamarind tree. He scanned the faces and saw that his were not the only eyes moistened with tears.
But there wasn’t just sadness in the crowd, there was anger too. Small groups of young men stood protectively behind the women sitting under the tamarind tree.
Mrs Velusamy saw that some of them had brought strong sticks. She understood their anger, but no good could come of this. They snarled under their moustaches, muttering among themselves, then merged together to form a human barricade across the dusty road that led to the temple grounds.
Sweat dribbled in rivulets down the dark faces of the men. Some of them nervously teased their lips with their teeth. They had no desire to fight, but they had to make a stand. How could they face their families if they just stood back and let this happen?
Mrs Velusamy and the other women around her stayed sitting on their grass mats, but pushed their hands down into the ground to shift their hips so that they could face the road as well. They waited.
The police cars came first. Balaram shuffled forward and pleaded with the uniformed men, but he knew that they were only performing their duty and the decision wasn’t theirs. At least there were no dark faces among the policemen. That would have been too much for the crowd to bear. After a brief discussion the police walked back to their cars. A sigh of relief went through the crowd.
The women rose to their feet, some of the older ones like Mrs Velusamy grunting theatrically. This universal chorus of groans and grunts almost made her laugh. There must have been a time, in the pre-historic past, before language and religion came along to separate them, when all humans communicated in the same shared sounds of sobbing and laughter and moans and yawns and sighs.
She smoothed out her sari and looked around at the other formidable corpulent matriarchs in their finest saris, the lithe young women dressed in kurtas with wilting jasmine flowers in their hair. The children were excited and unable to keep still. Some of the smaller children squatted for a moment before springing up again. She envied the supple elasticity of their youth. She couldn’t squat anymore. Her knees gave her trouble these days. Just one in a long list of aches and pains that came with age.
The sun climbed higher. The fierce tropical heat reached its cloying fingers underneath the tree. Despite that, the women huddled closer, sheltering in the diminishing circle of shade. Sweat stains bloomed and blossomed, darkening the colours of their clothes. Tempers began to fray, countered by vain attempts to lighten the mood with strained laughter and unenthusiastic jokes. Plastic bottles of water were passed around. A few families squatted over pre-prepared meals wrapped in banana leaves, stacked in tiffin cans, or bought food packaged in plastic and polystyrene. Mrs Velusamy watched the younger people eat, but she herself had no appetite at all.
In the distance, further up the road, the policemen stood in huddles smoking cigarettes, or playing with their phones, or squatting in the dust in the meagre shade of their cars. Saiful was proud to be a policeman and believed the uniform he wore stood for something. But not today. He felt a sick helplessness in his stomach, like the first day in a new school. He knew that this was wrong. If he had known that they were coming here he would have called in sick. Maybe if he had told the truth he might have even been excused. He tugged nervously on a cigarette cupped protectively in his hand and tried to hide the tremor in his lower lip.
Saiful hadn’t told anyone that this was his old neighbourhood, that this was where he grew up, and that among the crowd gathered in front of the temple were people he had played with as a child. He could never tell his colleagues about his broken heart, or how he had fallen in love with one of these dark-skinned girls, how they had hidden their forbidden love. He hoped she wasn’t there today among them. Seeing her again, and on this day, would be just too much to bear. He winced as he remembered the beating his father had given him when he found out about her, and being here again today reminded him of how he had wept that night in the cinema, the night she had kept her eyes on the screen but leaned closely beside him to whisper sorry, and to tell him she could never convert to Islam. A radio crackled in one of the cars and new orders were barked out. Saiful dropped his cigarette, slowly ground it into the dust and walked over to join the other men.
Mrs Velusamy felt the electric currents running through the crowd. She closed her eyes and began to sing. After a moment the women around her sang with her as well, shyly at first, but soon with more confidence. The older men with their greying hair and lunghis and sarongs joined in too. Soon the crowd of several hundred sang together, to Shiva the destroyer — ironic, but fitting in a way, thought Mrs Velusamy. It was Monday after all and it was Shiva’s day, and this was Kali Yuga, the iron age of destruction, where things were torn apart.
The crowd sang so loudly that they didn’t hear the rumbling of the approaching trucks, but when they saw the boiling dust-clouds further up the road they knew they were on their way.
The crowd fell silent, the hot air suddenly filled again with the sound of insects whining in the trees.
Men climbed down from the trucks. They arranged themselves in rows. The harsh sunlight reflected blinding flashes from their plastic shields. They beat their truncheons against the shields in loudly echoing unison as they marched towards the crowd.
The young men stood firm, but inside they trembled with expectation. A small child started to cry. The riot police stood aside and a giant truck rumbled forward. The young men braced themselves. The women shielded the children with their bodies. A turret on the roof manoeuvred with a mechanical whine and the long barrel pointed straight towards the line of young men barring the way.
Balaram pushed his way forward to the front of the crowd. He shook a raised fist angrily at the steel mesh windows of the truck. That seemed to be the signal they were waiting for.
When the water hit, it knocked Balaram right off his feet. He could hardly believe the force of it. He was badly winded and gasped for breath, but the water kept on coming. The young men who had been on the front line had all been knocked down too. They scrambled to their feet and tried to get away. Balaram felt strong arms grasp him and pull him away. He turned to thank his benefactors and then saw the sunlight reflected on the protective visors they wore. They heaved him off the road and left him lying there, winded once again. More police were pulling the young men off the road. A few of the young men had been hauled into the back of trucks, but most had gotten away, fleeing toward the safety of the bank of trees beyond the yellow grass. The women and children realized that their combined might and prayers were powerless now. They fled the meagre shelter of the ancient tamarind tree, the older women half tripping in their long saris, the younger women jerking their stumbling children along by their extended skinny arms. Only Mrs Velusamy fought her way back against the fleeing crowd, determinedly elbowing her way towards the temple.
The crowd gathered at a safe distance. The colourfully painted statues of moustached warriors on horseback would not be able to defend the temple today. The pantheon of gods on the towering wedge of the gopuram stared down impassively and watched as the water cannon truck moved aside and made way for a crane-like machine that ran on tank-like tracks. It inched slowly forward, positioning itself, then swung the heavy wrecking ball.
A wail of futile protest went up as the shattering weight hit the gods with all its might. They cracked and crumbled, raising clouds of dust as the wrecking ball struck again and again. A bulldozer moved in close and pushed aside the debris. The wrecking machine rumbled forward and methodically took out the supporting pillars and the walls. Balaram sobbed uncontrollably. No one knew what to say. There was nothing they could do. They had learned today just how truly powerless they really were.
Saiful was the only one who saw that an old woman was still inside. If she stayed she would be killed. He clasped a hand over his mouth, coughing through a fading cloud of tear gas and powdered concrete, signalling for the driver of the wrecking machine to stop. He clambered over the rubble and disappeared inside.
Mrs Velusamy had thought that she would get out. She hadn’t counted on the entrance being so easily destroyed and blocked. Through the dust of crumbled concrete she saw a young man come towards her. As if half-remembered in a dream she recognized his face. Then she realized that she had known this man as a boy, but what was he doing here now, a Malay man in a Hindu temple? Had he come again for her daughter? It took her a moment to realize that the clothes he wore under the dust was a police uniform.
Saiful recognized Mrs Velusamy at once. She was greyer and heavier, but she still looked just the same. His heart played tricks inside his chest as he realized that this woman, clutching a bundle of cloth to her heart, could almost have been his mother-in-law. He wanted to ask her if Sita had come today, but the dust made his throat dry and he couldn’t find the words. Instead he held Mrs Velusamy by the elbow and gently guided her over the piles of rubble until they were outside.
The riot-police left with their armoury. Only bulldozers and the wrecking machine and the dismayed crowd remained. The crowd had come, now all they could do was go. Some offered Balaram food, others a spare room where he could stay. He just silently shook his head. He couldn’t leave now. He had to watch this thing through to the end. One by one the crowd slowly left until Balaram stood alone in the broadening shade of the tamarind tree. He sighed and leaned back against its sturdy trunk. After a while he slid down to his haunches and sank his head into his folded arms.
A heavy sun rose beyond the distant wall of trees. First light had already touched the sky before its red rim rose. The earth under the giant tamarind tree was cool and hard and dry. An hour earlier Balaramasundram had brushed the dust from his sleep-wrinkled clothes. He crouched down to open the cloth-wrapped bundle Mrs Velusamy had given him. Inside was the brass plate and the camphor and the conch shell and some other things. He used his finger to daub his forehead with kumkum, ash and santal paste, then stood and faced the dawn. His lips touched the conch shell and he blew a long and wailing note. It was answered by the coughing red-eyed coucal and the melancholic koel, and the call for morning prayer from the newly renovated mosque.