The following is excerpted SJ Sindu's novel, Blue Skinned Gods. Sindu is the author of the novel Marriage of a Thousand Lies, which won the Publishing Triangle Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, and was an ALA Stonewall Honor Book; as well as the hybrid fiction and nonfiction chapbook I Once Met You But You Were Dead. Sindu teaches at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
Twelve years earlier, a girl named Roopa arrived at our ashram in Tamil Nadu, India, dying from a sickness only I could cure. This, my father told me, would be my first miracle.
It was the eve of my birthday, an important transition. I was the tenth human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and I was turning ten years old.
Like every Friday, the villagers filtered in with rice and lentils, fresh milk from their cows, spinach, moringa, and bitter gourd from their gardens. They put these gifts in front of me as I sat on the only pillow in the room and took their seats on the bedsheets we’d laid over the cement floor. My father, Ayya, sat to my left, and my cousin Lakshman to my right. We faced the open green door that led to the veranda.
The village kids played outside. As a birthday treat, Ayya had promised to let us play with them after the prayer session, if Lakshman and I were well-behaved and lucky. My mother had wanted to have an eggless cake made to celebrate with the villagers, but Ayya thought it too Western and decadent.
One of the village kids had brought a cricket bat for the first time, and he showed it to the others, beaming as they touched it, demonstrating how to hit the ball. I’d asked my parents for a cricket bat for my birthday. I imagined holding it, showing it off to the boys when they came for next week’s prayer meeting.
Ayya nudged me with his elbow and I snapped back to attention, ashamed I’d let myself be distracted. Now was not the time for cricket fantasies. Now was the time to focus and prove myself in whatever test would be demanded of me that night.
Lakshman jiggled his legs up and down, watching the kids too. He was my first cousin, a year younger but almost as big and much braver. He had the round face and big eyes that painters always gave Hindu gods. All I had was blue skin.
The Sri Kalki Purana, the Hindu text that prophesied my birth and life, said it was on my tenth birthday that my trials as a living god would begin. I would be tested three times, and I would have to prove myself worthy of my birth. Ayya had reminded me of the scripture that morning, though I read the Sri Kalki Purana regularly, and had been anxiously counting down the days to this birthday for over a year.
“I saw a vision,” Ayya had said after our morning meditation.
I’d seen a vision, too, early with the sunrise. I’d woken up dreaming of goat blood. In the dream, I’d wrapped my hands around the neck of a month-old kid and held tight as it thrashed, then stilled. I’d pushed my hands through its skin and felt its insides. I’d smeared the gummy blood on my face, my chest, my feet, until my skin prickled and grew fur and my nails knit together into hooves. Until I was the goat.
But I was afraid to tell Ayya about this dream—afraid my vision meant doom.
“I had a vision of your first test,” Ayya had said, leaning against a plaster column in our courtyard. “Someone will come to you tonight. A stranger who will need healing.”
I’d healed plenty of the villagers already. Arthritis, back pain, bad luck. I could handle one more healing.
“This stranger will be dying,” he said.
I watched the angles of his face for clues as to how I should act. I’d only ever healed minor aches and pains. I’d never brought someone back from the edges of death.
“Do not doubt yourself,” Ayya said. Disappointment tinged his voice.
I’d let my guard down, shown my doubt on my face. I schooled my expression into something hard and impassive.
“Yes, Ayya,” I said.
“You want to travel the world and bring it the healing it needs? The journey starts tonight, with your first trial.”
In those days, I wanted more than anything to make Ayya proud. I believed only my own doubts and fears stood between me and my destiny as Vishnu’s tenth and final avatar. I believed that if I had enough faith, I could do anything. But doubt crept up on me whenever I laid down to sleep, wrapped its invisible hands around my throat, burrowed into my skin, and refused to let go its hold on my brain.
Now, in the room facing the veranda, as the villagers got ready for our prayer meeting, Ayya reached stealthily toward Lakshman’s jiggling, full-motion thigh, and pinched him. Lakshman jumped. The leg-agitating stopped.
Ayya stood and closed the doors of the large room. He lit two five-wicked oil lamps with a small one that fit in the palm of his hand. Lakshman rang the hand bell during the pooja. Om bhuur bhuvah svah, we chanted, tat savitur varennyam, bhargo devasya dhiimahi, dhiyo yo nah prachodayaat—a prayer from the Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu text in existence, calling on the sun god. I gathered up my god energy for the healing session that would take place after the prayers and meditation. If my first trial would begin tonight, I would need as much god energy as I could manage to build. In my mind’s eye, I saw this energy like fluffy cotton, accumulating at the corners of how I pictured the inside of my body—an empty room the size of the one I slept in. I walked around the room, squatting and scooping up big armfuls of the cotton, soft and itchy on my skin.
Beyond the veranda, the village kids bowled and batted and ran around, their cries barely audible.
I tried to focus on the chanting.
The kid with the bat had been the hero of this game, and he ran around the others with his bat held high, pumping it up and down.
Lakshman was watching, too, and he sighed, rubbing the spot where Ayya had pinched him.
A man and woman from the village sang bhajans as the setting sun danced through the open windows. Two boys growing shadows above their lips played the wooden harmonium and tablas. When it was his turn, Lakshman sang his favorite Krishna bhajan, his voice achingly soft, arching high across the ceiling. Enna thavam seithanee, Yashodha, engum nirai parabhrammam Amma endrazhailkka, he sang. What great penance did you perform, Yashodha, to be blessed with a God for a son?
Finally, the bhajan ended and the healing session began. All the villagers stood, lining up. I put the kids and their game out of my head, and focused instead on the room here, now. The villagers would sit in front of me, tell me their problems—sometimes physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes financial—and I would heal them. I spun the armfuls of cotton in my mind into fine, strong god light, blue inside my skin, and focused it outward. I chanted Om Sri Ram over and over in my head. This was my prayer to Rama, one of my previous incarnations.
An older hunched woman came forward, holding her lower back. She touched my feet. I blessed her.
“How did you hurt your back?” I asked. Ayya had taught me this. Diagnose early, before they can tell you.
“Too much work for an old woman.”
“Your sons should take care of you better.”
“My sons don’t care.”
I prayed and hovered my hands over her. I willed my light to spin into the muscles of her back. Om Sri Ram.
She stood up straighter, hands at her lower back. Her face relaxed as I pushed my energy into her.
“Thank you,” she said.
I kept an eye on Ayya for his nod, to show me I was doing the right thing. He nodded.
Next, a young boy who was developing too slowly. A regular. Every time I prayed over him, he came back the next week stronger and taller. Om Sri Ram.
A man whose textile-selling business wasn’t doing well. He touched my feet and I told him he would sell more podavais and veshtis next week. Om Sri Ram. A young woman nearing thirty and still not married. Her parents had set her up with an arranged marriage; the groom was scheduled to visit their house on Monday. I blessed her with luck. Om Sri Ram.
One family, a young father with his wife and small child, came from many miles away. The child’s legs and arms were whittled and thin. Her father carried her in his arms like she weighed nothing, though she was nearly my height, and he placed her on the floor in front of me. I shifted on my cushion to get a better look. This was it. This was my test. I was sure of it.
Roopa’s face was sunken in, like she hadn’t eaten in weeks. Frail skin stretched over bone. She looked almost like a corpse, but her eyes were pretty and large and she watched me as she lay on the bare cement floor, her chest moving up and down fast, like a songbird’s. She was almost beautiful, if I only looked at her eyes.
The god energy filled my skin, filled the inside of me shaped like a room, and I looked around and saw the others filled with their own energies, their own people energies, but Roopa’s skin was empty. It was like her soul couldn’t find any room inside her fragile body anymore. I didn’t know if a person could leave a body and still be a person. And the body they left behind—was that body a person?
But her eyes—I could still see her personness in her eyes.
“Please,” her father said. “Our daughter needs healing. We can’t afford to pay.” He glanced at Ayya, at the ground, and finally toward me. He held pain in his face, and embarrassment. Ayya had told me that a lot of men find it hard to ask for help. The father dropped his gaze to the floor.
“How did she get like this?” I asked. I always knew to ask the question, though I still didn’t know what to do with the answer. Ayya knew, and he would tell me what to do.
“She took ill one day. She’s not eating.” The man looked at his wife, who covered her mouth with her hands. “We have four sons. We can’t afford to bring her to the private hospital. The doctors at the clinics don’t know what to do.”
Ayya nodded at me, a signal to begin my healing prayer. I sat myself next to the girl, the cold of the cement floor shocking my legs through my veshti. When I looked only at her pretty eyes, the rest of her receded.
I took some kumkumam powder and rubbed a red line of it on her forehead. People normally got kumkumam, turmeric, and sandalwood powders from their local market, but we also made them at the ashram. On any given day, my aunt and uncle, Vasanthy Chithy and Kantha Chithappa—Lakshman’s parents—would sit grinding sticks of sandalwood or dried turmeric roots on stone in order to make the powders we sold. Villagers bought them for the shrines in their houses, because what we made was purer, made with care, and made in the home of a god.
I put my hands over Roopa’s face and closed my eyes. Om Sri Ram. I tried to summon up the god energy inside me. Sinewy and blue and gold. Om Sri Ram. Blue and gold and bright. I touched her forehead with my thumb. She was dying, and I was the only one who could help. This was my first test. I tried to push the energy inside of her. Gold and luminescent and blue. Om Sri Ram.
She didn’t move. She lay where her father had put her, eyes darting around the room.
The room had stopped breathing, everyone watching us. My lungs felt too small.
I pushed more god energy, spun more of the mind cotton into light, pushed it all inside her. But still she lay there, with everyone watching. I blinked away the tears in my eyes. I imagined my previous incarnations in the room with me, Rama and Krishna and all the rest, letting their own god energies shine on Roopa’s sickness, easing it away.
Ayya was trying to signal something to me, but I couldn’t tell what he wanted.
Lakshman took my hand and squeezed it. He leaned over, pressed his shoulder into mine, and whispered, “I’ll help,” into my ear. I turned back to Roopa and put my thumb back on her forehead while Lakshman held my other hand. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ayya nod.
I tried again, this time with Lakshman, pushing and pushing the god energy, spinning more of it from the cotton in my mind, and Roopa lay there, breath rasping inside her chest, not moving except for her eyes. She opened her mouth, and the room was silent. She mouthed something. I leaned forward to hear.
Still too quiet.
I pressed my ear against her lips.
“You look constipated,” she said.
I didn’t realize I’d laughed until I heard the bark of it echo back at me from the silent room. Some of the villagers traded looks. Heat prickled up through my head and narrowed my vision.
“It will take time to heal her,” Ayya said, his voice booming across the room. “She needs to stay at the ashram until she’s well.”
People nodded. The girl’s mother and father looked at each other for a long time, searching for something, the mother’s eyes baggy and raw. The father turned to me and bowed, acknowledging his consent.
I clenched my hands into tight fists to keep them from trembling.
“Meditation time,” Ayya said.
Roopa’s father picked her up and put her in his lap. Everyone bent their heads for meditation. Lakshman still held my hand, his little fingers slippery in mine. I lowered my face too, grateful that the angle hid my tears.
Excerpt from Blue Skinned Gods. Copyright © 2021 by SJ Sindu. Used with the permission of Penguin Random House.