Saturday, August 13, 2016

God of the Place

2500 words

God of the Place

by José Lourenço

Pundalik stood at the door of the puja room and gazed at the incense-filled interior with disgust. It wasn’t the deity that vexed him, nor the steel tray that held the oil, turmeric and other items of his daily devotion. It was just that the whole space now sickened him. The agreeable perfume of the agarbatti sticks wafted to him as it usually did, and yet this morning he pinched his nose tightly. And another orifice, other than his nose, greatly troubled him.
It had all started with Shenoi-mam’s visit to the house. Shenoi was a friend of Umesh, Pundalik’s office peon. Umesh may have been just a peon, but being about twenty years older to Pundalik, he insisted on advising him on everything under the sun.
‘Shenoi-mam is an expert on Vastu-shastra,’ beamed Umesh. ‘He checked my house and said everything is fine. So I brought him to check your house. You don’t have to pay him, anh, it’s my gift to you.’
Pundalik had nodded nonchalantly, as he did to all of Umesh’s advice. He had heard of Vastu-shastra, the science of planning rooms and spaces and stuff. But that was of use only to architects building new houses, not to him. This house had been built by his father, who had surely done whatever had to be done. Inheriting the house had saved him the cost of building a new house, Pundalik mused. God bless Baba’s soul.
‘Hey, Prashanti,’ he called out to his wife. ‘Just clean up the rooms, okay, Shenoi-mam wants to see the house.’
Prashanti dutifully put the house in order and excused herself to go to the market. Pundalik led Shenoi-mam and Umesh through the house, not without some pride. The vastu expert strolled through the dining area and the kitchen with his hands behind his bent back, nodding like a bird whenever he entered a door. He also made sharp sniffing sounds— ‘knff knff’—with his nose when he peered at the corners of the kitchen, as though his nose was a sensing tool to detect bad vastu. An occasional scratch of his bald head also seemed to be part of his investigatory technique.
When he walked into Pundalik’s bedroom and surveyed the windows and the orientation of the bed, Pundalik too looked at the sheets hoping there were no stains visible.
As Shenoi-mam approached the puja room he stopped and shook his head. ‘Knff, knff!” he snorted in dismay.
‘What is the problem?’ asked Pundalik.
‘This is your puja room?’ Shenoi-mam asked with a frown on his face. ‘The toilet should be here.’
Pundalik stared at him in stunned silence. Umesh had also heard the shocking pronouncement and came forward, nudging Pundalik aside, as though to take charge of the situation.
‘And where should the puja room actually be?’ queried Umesh.
Shenoi-mam scurried across to the kitchen, clucking and sniffing. His radar seemed to direct him to the narrow passage between the two bedrooms and he stopped at the little door at the end of this corridor.
‘Here! The puja room should be here.’
‘But that’s the toilet!’ exclaimed Umesh. Pundalik had followed the vastu man across the passage with panic in his heart and now he was simply speechless with horror.
‘Shee, shee, what have you people done!  You are making dirty in the place of worship and praying in the toilet?’ Shenoi-mam shook his head with finality and went back to the living room.
‘What can be done about this now?’ asked Umesh, looking at his devastated office colleague with great sympathy and a ‘thank-God-I-brought-Shenoi-mam-to-check-this’ look.
‘God must be given his right place,’ insisted the expert. ‘Do you have children?’ he asked. When Pundalik shook his head, Shenoi nodded, having thus easily proved God’s displeasure.
‘You have to change their places,’ he said, and then leaned forward with a look of compassion. ‘Or else you have to do a yagna to please God to allow this reversal. It will cost fifty thousand rupees. It is costly because, you see, God has to be convinced to move to the new place.’
‘Shenoi-mam, pardon for asking,’ said Pundalik in a tremulous voice. ‘But where is God now? In the toilet or in the puja room?’
‘You have to ask this?’ rebuked the vastu guru. ‘He is in your toilet, I told you. That is his holy space, which you are fouling every morning.’
 ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry,’ assured Umesh, looking at Pundalik’s crestfallen face. ‘We will do something to correct it, Pundalik-bab, I will get Mariano the contractor to quote for the changes and the repair work.’

Mariano the contractor squeezed his bulk through the toilet door and turned on the tap. He peered at its running stream and closed it. Then he yanked at the flush knob of the toilet and carefully listened to the gurgling sound of water.
‘There’s nothing wrong with the toilet,’ he declared to a worried Pundalik. ‘Why you want to change it?’
Pundalik explained his predicament to Mariano, without mentioning what Shenoi-mam’s remedy would cost. Hopefully the contractor’s switching work would cost less.
Mariano shook his head with a baffled look. Then his brow cleared and he took on a wise demeanour.
‘Arre, Pundalik baba, God is everywhere. That is what they told us in our catechism class at church, when we were small.’
He sat heavily on the toilet seat which creaked under his weight.
‘God is in this toilet, yes, but he is also in your puja room.’ He casually squeezed the handle of the new jet spray that Pundalik had recently installed and directed the stream of water at his bare calloused feet.
‘He is everywhere,’ he declared again. ‘He is inside you and me. He is in our heart,’ he rose to his feet with an effort and leaned towards Pundalik with a conspiratorial smile. ‘And have you realised, Pundalik baba, he is even in our arse!’ 
Pundalik flinched at this sacrilege and shook his head. ‘How much will it cost to make this a puja room and shift the toilet there?’ he asked.
Mariano scratched his head and rolled his eyes upwards as he did the math.
‘Sixty-five thousand rupees,’ he said. ‘What about the kitchen, did the vastu fellow tell you to change the kitchen platform? That will be another twenty thousand.’

Mariano had come to the house six days ago, when Prashanti was away at her mother’s house, so she did not suspect anything. She simply musn’t know, Pundalik had decided. At least he could go to the office toilet to relieve himself, which is what he had been doing for the last five days. He had simply not been able to ‘make dirty’ the rightful place of God in his house. And what was worse, he had not been able to pray at the puja room either.
He pinched his nose at the smell he perceived coming from the puja room and turned away. God could wait. He was not going to pray in the wrong place. If Prashanti came to know, she would have to go back to her mother’s house. Where would she go for toilet? To the neighbour’s house? What reason would she give them?
It was not easy even for Pundalik to shift to the office toilet. He went to the office half an hour earlier, so that no one would see him. He sensed that Umesh knew. The peon would look at him with great pity, as though understanding his plight. Pundalik missed the early morning beedi that he would enjoy in his home toilet. The thought of the hundreds of people who must be using the office toilet also revolted him. So though it was a European style waste closet, he would clamber up and perch his sandalled feet on either side of the toilet seat, so that no part of him touched the commode.
He also missed his jet spray, which he had gotten quite used to of late. That gentle massage, that warm water stream … by contrast, the cold water of the office toilet always made him jump with shock.

‘Mariano has quoted sixty-five thousand,’ he informed Umesh. ‘That’s more expensive than Shenoi-mam’s puja. Can we ask some other Vastu fellow for his opinion? Like how we ask doctors?’
A few months back, when Pundalik had great pains while passing water, he had consulted six doctors, one after the other. Each of them had told him he had a kidney stone. Each had quoted around thirty thousand rupees to remove it by putting a tube inside him and breaking the stone. Eventually, after drinking several gallons of water, the stone had popped out by itself and the pain subsided. The bill of the six doctors had come to two thousand rupees only, so he had clearly saved a lot of money.
‘Yes, why not,’ agreed Umesh. ‘Tomorrow I will get another Vastu expert from the market or the temple.’

‘Yes, there is a problem,’ said the plump young Hindu priest from the local temple, who doubled up as a Vastu expert. He had asked for his fees in advance, a princely one thousand rupees. Pundalik winced as he paid, inwardly cursing Umesh and Shenoi-mama, who had gifted him this wretched problem for free, in the first place.  
The vastu-expert-cum-priest had walked briskly through the house, pausing a while in Pundalik’s bedroom to gaze at the bed. He also strolled around the house, looking at the trees. He gazed into the well, looked at his reflection and instinctively brushed his wavy hair with his hand.
‘But, you see, the plot is sloping in the forward direction, and there is a peepal tree in the eastern corner and a banyan tree in the northern corner. So all this neutralises the problem of the toilet and the puja room.’ The young man finished his diagnosis with clinical efficiency.
‘I have to go,’ he excused himself. ‘A builder has called me to decide if the paddy field where he is putting up a building is cursed or not. I hope God gives him the blessing of the petals today.’
‘But, bhat-ji, where is God in my house now?’ Pundalik asked anxiously.
The young man looked at the house up and down for a moment. ‘God is somewhere between the toilet and the puja room,’ he said, and left. 

Pundalik was not satisfied. He paced up and down between the peepal tree and the banyan tree every evening now. He thanked his father for having planted the right trees in the right places, but having a God who was neither here nor there was not good. He envied Mariano, whose God was everywhere, even oozing out of all his orifices. Pundalik did not believe in that. God had a place. Otherwise why would they call him Zagyavoilo Dev, the God of the Place? Lord, give me a sign, tell me where you are, moaned Pundalik. Are you in the puja room or in the toilet, just let me know somehow!
He worried about Prashanti, sinning every day, without knowing it. Perhaps this was indeed why they could not have children. Lord, forgive us, he murmured, as he raised his eyes upwards. The sky was clear, a fact that reminded him to call Chari the carpenter to do the annual removing and refitting of the roof tiles of the house. They were still the old style country tiles that his father had fitted. Other houses had switched to Mangalore tiles long back. But Pundalik had calculated that he could save money by maintaining these country tiles instead of buying new Mangalore tiles, just as he had saved money when treating his kidney stone.

It was on the morning of the ninth day, that it happened. Pundalik was standing at the door of his puja room, which was lit by a surreal light through the partly opened roof. He was struggling to say some token prayers with a pinched nose as of late, when there was a loud crash in front of him. He jumped in alarm and instinctively ducked out of the way. After the noise had subsided he peeped into the puja room. A coconut from an overhanging tree had fallen through the open roof and, narrowly missing the idols of the deities, had come to rest in a corner.
Pundalik picked up the coconut and stared at it. How did this coconut fall here, he wondered. That tree had been leaning over this part of the house for years now, but the plucker had always skilfully taken off the nuts well in time, to avoid them falling on the roof. He made a mental note to rebuke the plucker.
Then he looked closer at the coconut. Was it his imagination, or was that the familiar trunk of Lord Ganapati? O Lord Ganesha, remover of obstacles! It was usually during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival that the local newspapers would report of some villager finding a coconut or brinjal or papaya, or even a tomato that was coincidentally shaped like Lord Ganesha’s elephant head, with a prominent trunk-like protuberance in the said fruit or vegetable. And this fallen coconut clearly resembled Ganesha’s head! Why had it fallen at this time of the year? What did this mean?
Just then he heard Prashanti cursing loudly in the kitchen. He went running to her.
‘What happened?’ he asked her.
‘Stupid crow! I was sitting in the toilet and some damned bird’s shit fell on my head, through those open roof tiles.’ She wiped the bird droppings from her hair with a wet towel, swearing all the time.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Pundalik, secretly upset that his wife had been swearing in the toilet. ‘It’s a good sign. Don’t they say, if a crow shits on your head, you will get some good money one of these days?’
Good sign! Suddenly it all dawned upon Pundalik. This was it! God had dropped a blessed coconut nearly on his head in his puja room. And he had sent a bird to relieve itself on his wife in the toilet. That meant that everything was exactly as God wanted it!

‘God is in the puja room,’ he gave the good news to Umesh at the office three days later, a Sunday and two public holidays having come in between. ‘And the crow shit also brought us something good.’
Pundalik blushed slightly as he gave the even better news to his peon and adviser. ‘Prashanti says it has been four days since she missed her … you know…’
Umesh broke into a broad smile, as though he was the grandfather to be, and hugged Pundalik.

The familiar old ceramic felt warm and cool at the same time to his buttocks. What a relief not to do anymore acrobatic balancing acts, he thought. He lit up a beedi and felt the aromatic smoke rise in the air. He took a deep drag of his beedi, closed his eyes and murmured a thankful prayer as he fell into a state of meditative bliss.