In the matter of offering prayers, Kali and Ponna left no stone unturned. They did not discriminate between small and big temples. They promised an offering to every god they encountered. For the forest gods, it was a goat sacrifice. For the temple gods, it was pongal. For some gods, the promises even doubled. If a child were indeed born, the rest of their lives would be spent in fulfilling these promises. Kali, in fact, was ready to forgo his cattle and all that he had saved with his incredible frugality, if only their prayers would bear fruit. But no god seemed to pay heed.
How many prayers and promises they must have made in Karattur alone! If you went past the forest where the Devatha shrine is, and climbed further up, you would arrive at the Dandeeswarar temple on top. They called this deity the Pillayar on the hilltop. He was guarding the maladikkal, the barren rock that was nearby. An ordinary soul could not reach there; one needed both mental and physical strength.
When they were younger, Kali and Muthu went there with a large crowd of young men on every new-moon day without fail. People would arrive there in bullock carts. Elderly folk and ailing people would touch the first step and pray and lie down in their carts.
Muthu and Kali’s crowd of young men positioned themselves in the mandapams, the rest houses that marked every significant climb, and laughed at those who needed to rest before proceeding further. They would make a competition of running up the steps. It was pretty much like running on flat ground. It was only after the dip at Pambar Pallam that it got steep. One had to be patient, particularly while climbing down. If not, then one ran the risk of tumbling down the hill, without any control, all the way to the sunken landing. The young crowd usually left their homes before the crack of dawn, walking and running to reach the hill six or seven miles away. To cross distances was a sport. Nothing gave them as much joy as this.
People sold millet rice in the mandapams on the hill. The rice was mixed with thick yogurt and was full of the fragrance of millet. Two full pitchers were enough to keep hunger at bay. Besides, they were of an age when they didn’t worry about hunger. In fact, going to the temple was only a feeble excuse to undertake this journey. It was over as soon as they stood in the inner sanctum, touched the camphor flame, prayed and smeared the holy ash on their foreheads.
No one went into the forest where the Devatha shrine was. A fear of that place had been instilled in everyone. On days when there were bigger crowds, they even appointed someone to make sure no one strayed into the forest. Walking past the forest, they came to a rocky patch where small trees grew out of the crevices between the rocks. They were so narrow, no one could walk through them. So instead they jumped from rock to rock. The ruckus they made leaping about like this scattered even the monkeys away.
Then a flat surface. If you walked over it, keeping to the left side, you would come to a gigantic rock that stood like a sickle. Its tip looked like it was ready to pierce the sky. They would place their feet on small fissures and climb to the top of even this rock. There was a cave under this rock. It was cold inside. They’d lie down there. If no one was talking, they could fall asleep. If they leaned out from the entrance to the cave, they could see the town below. They could even see the other temple located at the base of the hill and the thatched roofs of the stationary chariots. The houses of the priests who worked in the temple, and other houses, were all arranged along four or five streets. The two temple tanks looked like beggar’s empty alms bowls, holding nothing but sand. Running right across from the temple at the base of the hill was the devadasis’ lane. Anyone was allowed into that lane.
In front of the cave was a vast shaded space. They would talk non-stop. Now when he tried to remember what they talked about, Kali could not recollect a thing. Perhaps such incessant chatter was the prerogative of youth alone. Once he grew up, the brain might have decided that it was all meaningless and erased all memory of that prattle. But it could do nothing to the feelings of happiness that came with it. They were spread out like a vast, open space.
When the sun went down a bit, they’d move from that spot and go towards the next peak. How many peaks there were in those hills! They had to climb down from the rock that was right in front of the cave. In the gap that looked like a crocodile’s gaping jaws, there was a stream. On rainy days, they could jump, dunk their heads and bathe in it. For the elderly folk who managed to limp, wobble and drag themselves to that spot, it was sacred water. “Don’t go into the water!” they’d shout. They then had to climb above the stream on to a barren rock surface that was totally bereft of any vegetation. No tree, shrub or creeper could grow on that bald rock. That was where they could feel the force of the wind. Wind is more powerful than anything else. If it sets its mind to it, it can destroy anything in an instant. They could climb only after humbly requesting the wind to give them way. They had to place their feet carefully, their grip tenacious and strong as an iguana’s, and focus on climbing one step at a time. In certain spots, the only way to move was to crawl over the rock like a creeper. And there was nothing the buoyancy of youth was not equal to.
From that spot, the Dandeeswarar temple seemed like a small lookout on top of the hill. Right next to it was a stone that was as tall as a human being. That was the maladikkal, the barren rock. On the other side of the rock, it looked like someone had carved a semicircle out of the hillside. The challenge was to come round that semicircular path. Even if you leaned over a little, you would start shivering in fear; your soles would sweat and you’d fall and vanish down the steep hillside. It was sport for them to perform feats on that spot. Several people had died trying to walk around the maladikkal, in the hope of fulfilling some wish or having their prayers answered. Due to this mounting death toll, a British man had built a wall that barricaded the stone. But could anyone change a belief that had survived through the ages?
In fact, the wall made everything all the more convenient. One could hold the edge of the wall and move quickly to the other side. Then, relying on the coarse surface of the rock, one could cross the semicircle and get to the other side of the rock. After that, you could hold on to its edge and proceed further. If you were used to it, you could go around it in the blink of an eye. Kali and Muthu had done this many times.
But men don’t benefit from this prayer. Only women do.
That is what Ponna was told by a short old woman who had come one day to weed their field of groundnuts. According to her, any woman would be blessed with a child if she walked around the barren rock. She added that this was how she too had conceived. Ponna listened intently to her before leaving for the temple with all that she needed to make a pongal offering. She did not listen to anything Kali said. She did not want to tell anyone where they were going. They might discourage them. Everyone would have an opinion. While beginning to walk around the barren rock, even if someone warned “Careful! Careful!” it could be distracting. Also, if Ponna felt scared on seeing the spot, she might return without walking around the rock. In that case, if someone came along, it might give them something humiliating to talk about. “She said she would walk around the stone, but she took one look at it and came back without doing it,” they’d snicker forever. People constantly needed something to gossip about.“Perhaps such incessant chatter was the prerogative of youth alone. Once he grew up, the brain might have decided that it was all meaningless and erased all memory of that prattle. But it could do nothing to the feelings of happiness that came with it. They were spread out like a vast, open space.”
They went on a day when it was not crowded on the hill. Ponna had never been to the top where the maladikkal was. She had noticed it when people had pointed to the Dandeeswarar temple and the stone that looked like a raised finger and told her that was it. She was used to roaming in the fields. The only hurdle to negotiating a bald rock that had no steps was her sari. But since no one seemed to be around, she lifted her sari up to her knees, tucked it in, and climbed with ease. When they reached the cave, Kali pointed out the barren rock to her. It looked to her as though someone had stood a gigantic, flat rock upright and placed a small knot of hair on top of it. Kali tightly embraced Ponna, who sat and leisurely gazed at the stone. He pulled the sari away from her breasts and buried his head between them like a goat kid. He held her passionately, nuzzling her, when she lowered her face to his head knot and said, “Maama, are you scared I might fall while walking round the stone? Is that why you are holding me now like it is our last time together?”
Kali let go of his embrace in shock. Tear trails ran all over her face. The altitude of the hills, the shade of the trees and the flat ground there had kindled his lust. Her sari, which had now gone up to her knees, and the cloth covering her breasts, which had come undone in the wind, all added to his longing. The sacred thread caressing her neck and the taali glittered invitingly. He was never satisfied making love in the confines of a walled space. He preferred open spaces. He had to see the sky. It was even better if a bird took a peep on its way somewhere. He would take her to their barnyard just for this reason.
The two-acre farm had a fence but no roof. As soon as he set the cot down in the middle, he would be in the mood. She would have some complaint or another: “The goat is watching; now it is the cow.” She quite liked this whole process, but would still make mild protests because she did not want him to think of her as a shameless woman.
He would say, “Don’t we see when the cows and goats do it? Now let them watch us.”
“You have no decency at all, maama!” she would reply.
Whenever he managed to find good arrack, he took her to the farm without fail. She did not like toddy. She complained that the sour burp stank for days. All she needed was half a glass of arrack that left a sharp sting on her tongue.
Now, the hillside had awoken the same desires in Kali. But she put out his fire with just that one remark.
She immediately tried to console him. “We are here to pray, maama. That’s why my words came out like that.”
“Whatever it is, don’t say such crazy things,” he said.
They made peace and climbed to the spot where the barren rock was. One look at the foot-wide space around it and she was scared.
“We don’t have to do it if you are scared,” he said.
The old woman had said, “Don’t look outside. As long as you keep looking at the stone as you walk around it, you will have no trouble. It is just like walking on a ridge in the fields. The difference is that there you would fall into the mud if you skidded, and here, it is rock—if your head hits it, it will shatter into smithereens like a coconut. But it is nothing for those who are used to walking around in the fields and forests, Ponna.”
All the stuff she had brought to make pongal with lay in front of Dandeeswarar. Only those who planned to walk around the stone made the pongal offering. Others just lit camphor and prayed. They had bought all the stuff with the intention of making the pongal once Ponna finished the walk. But now Kali was worried, wondering if she’d be able to do it. Even if she tripped just once, that could be the end of it all. What if something like that happened? They would definitely accuse him of doing away with her by pushing her off the edge. This place was infamous for murders and suicides. But it did not appear that anyone who went to walk praying for fertility ever fell down. But what if it happened to Ponna? His heart suddenly weighed like a rock. If she fell, he would fall down with her too. It might be possible to live without her. But he couldn’t live with the allegations.
“Maama, I will walk around now. If something happens to me, don’t let it affect you for long. Marry another woman. At least let her be blessed with a child,” Ponna said with teary eyes.
“Chee!” he exclaimed, dismissing her gloomy words. Wiping the tears from her eyes, he consoled her, “We lack in nothing. We can be happy. It doesn’t matter if we don’t have a child. How long will these morons in the village keep harassing us? Maybe for another ten or twelve years. By then we will have grown old. So what if we don’t have children? We can still triumph. We can write off the little land we have to some temple. Or else, we can leave it to someone who has nothing. Let him make a living out of it.”
He embraced her. He felt his mind had acquired some clarity. But she was confident about completing her walk around the stone and negotiating the dangerous precipice. She took this as a challenge above all the prayers and austerities she had undertaken until then. Her logic was that the gods might find some compassion for her if she put herself through this most difficult of tests. Once she made up her mind to go ahead with it, Kali told her how to. He felt she might fly into a wild panic if he offered to show her how to negotiate the precipice. So he simply showed her without asking. He went to the edge of the wall and said to her, “Look,” and in just two swift moves went around the stone, and climbed over the other wall. When she screamed, “Maama!” he was already in front of her, laughing.
Everything felt like an illusion. She wondered why such a simple thing scared her so much. Kali was clearly used to walking around the stone. Her brother, Muthu, too had done this enough number of times. But no one at home knew this. Young men are great at keeping secrets. The second time, he asked her to watch closely, and demonstrated it again with her permission. She observed how to hold on to the railing and also made a note of how much space there was to place her feet. She was reminded of a rock lizard. The way his body clung to the rock while his arms and legs were spread out embracing it looked just like what a rock lizard would do.
He told her she could either walk around once or do it three times, and went ahead and did three rounds himself. Watching him, Ponna lost all her fears. Like the old woman had said, this was nothing for someone who had roamed around forests. He helped her hoist up her sari and fasten it securely.“She was confident about completing her walk around the stone and negotiating the dangerous precipice. She took this as a challenge above all the prayers and austerities she had undertaken until then. Her logic was that the gods might find some compassion for her if she put herself through this most difficult of tests.”
Two vultures circled around in the endless expanse of the sky. They seemed motionless, their wings stretched wide without a discernible flutter. They blessed her. She held her palms together over her head and prayed, “God, my father, please make sure I do not gain the reputation for being barren.” And just like Kali had done, she crossed the wall and navigated the precipice with the tenacity of a rock lizard. When she reached the end of her ordeal, he gave her a hand and helped her cross over the wall to his side. He held her close to his heart and exultantly kissed her on the cheek, lips and head. When they sat in front of Dandeeswarar, she burst into sobs.
“Seeking a life, we have pawned our lives. Don’t cheat us, god,” she cried out loud. With her head on his chest, she felt dizzy. She lay there with her eyes closed. He laid her on the ground and splashed some water on her face. She regained consciousness. “Maama, shall I do two more rounds?” she said. He was firm in his refusal. The effect was the same whether you did it once or a thousand times.
She started making pongal in front of the Dandeeswarar temple. This temple had different priests. They came only when there were crowds, like on new-moon days. On other days, they came only if someone went and fetched them. Kali climbed down fast and was back by the time she had finished making the pongal. She was amazed at his speed. When the mind is excited, the body begins to take flight. By the time the priest came and finished the prayers and they climbed back down, darkness had begun to wrap itself around everything.
They could never forget the night that followed. That was the night everything came together blissfully. That was the night they slept well, confident that the seed they’d planted would definitely grow. She also thought of it as her penance for wounding his heart with her words earlier that day. His body and mind expressed his conviction that nothing could sufficiently express his gratitude for this woman who had risked her life doing something all women feared to do. The night was filled to the brim with giving and receiving. In the middle of the farm, on the coir-rope cot, she lay like a garland on his chest. They both felt they needed nothing; nothing could make him happier than to die at such a moment.
She was confident that she wouldn’t bleed that month, that there would finally be an end to all the talk.
From One Part Woman. Used with permission of Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Atlantic. Copyright © 2018 by Perumal Murugan. English translation copyright © 2018 by Aniruddhan Vasudevan.