‘Om Namoh Shivaya! Om Namoh Shivaya! Om Namoh Shivaya!’, chanted Nambi the priest as he hurried along the dark road. The sun would rise soon, he thought to himself glancing at the sky. He had to finish bathing the Lord and lighting the lamp before the sun spilt the dark sky and shone through.
As he opened the Temple door, he touched the threshold, his forehead and the center of his chest with his fingertips, continuing his chants. After finishing his morning rituals, Nambi circled the temple premises, sprinkling holy water beside him as he did. On his 7th and last round, the sky had lit up enough to make him see a shape in the flower bushes. What was it he wondered, as it still wasn’t light enough to see clearly? He decided to finish his final circumambulation before coming back to check.
Completing his pooja and rituals he walked back to the rear of the temple. From afar it looked like a dog curled up in between the bushes. On nearing further, he realized it was a child. Instinctively his hand reached out to touch, to see whether the body was warm or stone cold. As soon as he touched the warm body, he pulled back his hand, reprimanding himself for doing so. Who knew who this child was and where he or she came from? He would have to bathe again, now that he had touched an unidentified caste.
At his touch the prone body jerked, unfurled, and turned towards him, all in one quick motion. It was a little girl. As she sat up, she looked at the priest, fear making her eyes wider than they were. She pulled up her knees and gathered her body, curling into a tight ball, not taking her eyes off him at all.
Nambi started and then turned away, embarrassed. The child did not have a stitch of clothing on her. What should he do, he wondered? He walked to the front of the temple hoping to find someone to talk to, but he could see no one at this early hour. He walked further outside and down the road, till he could see two silhouettes in the distance.
Hopefully, they were the girl’s parents who were looking for her, he thought to himself. As the figures reached closer, he saw it was ArasiAmma, with her faithful servant Seenu behind her. Just his luck that she should be the only one out at this hour, thought Nambi.
‘Namaskara Poojari Nambi,’ ArasiAmma called out ‘has the Lord sent to you look out to see If I am coming to meet him today?’ she guffawed.
ArasiAmma was a formidable woman. As the matriarch of one of the richest families of the village, she threw her weight around blatantly. This is why people bit back their words when she spoke down to them. She was almost always the first one to reach the temple every morning, in her crisp saree, a big kumkum pottu marking her forehead and fresh flowers in her hair.
‘Why do you look so disturbed? Did the Lord refuse to be bathed by you?’ she guffawed yet again, and Seenu laughed along dutifully.
‘Amma, there is a problem’, Nambi blurted out.
Her ears perked up and her steps quickened, ‘Problem? What problem? Where?’ she began looking around.
‘Come with me,’ he gestured, turning and walking towards the temple, and ArasiAmma and Seenu followed behind. He didn’t stop till he reached the flower bushes, and the child still sitting there.
‘Amma’, he gestured towards the child.
ArasiAmma looked in the direction he gestured towards and her eyes widened.
‘A girl! Who is she? How did she get here? Where are her parents? Why doesn’t she have any clothes on?’ she rattled off questions looking from the Priest to the girl.
Nambi shrugged helplessly.
‘And why haven’t you put any clothes on her? Seenu, cover her now!’
Seenu undid the cloth on his head and handed it to the Priest, who refused to touch it. Seenu then walked towards the child and lay it in front of her, gesturing to her to cover herself up with it. The child picked it up gingerly and put it around herself as best as she could.
‘What should we do about her, Amma?’ asked Seenu.
‘First, we bathe her and feed her. Come girl!’, declared ArasiAmma as she turned to walk away.
The child stood up. As she did, the cloth she has clumsily wrapped around herself fell off. She snatched it up and wrapped it around herself again.
‘Keep your distance and walk behind us’, Nambi whispered to her.
This strange group made its way towards the center of the town that was just waking up. ArasiAmma asked Seenu to go fetch his wife who worked as her personal maid. When Sharada got there, with her old saree as instructed, she was asked to thoroughly bathe the girl under the communal tap. Sharada took her instruction very seriously and scrubbed the girl within an inch of her life. Even wrapped in an old saree the washed clean the child looked different. She had fair skin and fine features.
‘Looks to be from a good Hindu family, if you ask me.’ remarked ArasiAmma, looking at the child.
‘Yes. Probably.’ shrugged Nambi.
By now the early risers had started gathering in the town square. In a place where nothing ever happened, this was an exciting development. Curious eyes gathered around the girl.
‘What is your name?’
‘Which village have you come from?’
‘Where are your parents?’
‘What is your caste?’
‘Which God do you worship?’
Till one sensible soul thought to ask, ‘Are you hungry, child?’
The, till now mute, girl nodded vigorously.
A glass of milk and 2 chapattis were procured from 2 different households and kept at a respectful distance from the child, who looked a bit puzzled at this.
‘Eat now!’, ArasiAmma commanded, tapping her walking stick on the ground. The child looked around and tentatively made her way towards the food. She picked it up and gobbled up the chapatis and drank the milk in one gulp.
‘The child was obviously hungry. God knows when she ate last’, someone remarked.
‘How lucky she is, to have reached our privileged Brahmin community’, said another.
‘Shut up you, talking nonsense. We don’t know what heathen caste and community she is from. Till we find that out, we are the unlucky ones!’
‘True, you know what would happen if she isn’t one of ours right? The last time one of ‘those’ entered our village the entire town and all our homes had to be washed! Remember how all of us had to do a 21-day penance, to be cleansed.’
‘How do we find out about her then?
‘But Amma, so many of us are not Brahmins, yet we stay here, with you all.’
‘That’s because we are all Hindus. Whose families have served our owners for decades? They know where we come from, our bloodline. Am I right, Amma?’ Seenu, squatting beside ArasiAmma answered smugly.
‘Hey girl, what’s your name? Where are you from? Who found you?’
‘Keep quiet everyone! How many times will you ask this child the same questions? Don’t you see, she refuses to answer!’ ArasiAmma roared.
‘I found her,’ spoke up Poojari Nambi, ‘in the Vadamalli bushes behind the temple’.
‘Vadamalli? What is that?’ someone wanted to know.
‘The lovely flowers growing behind the temple, which is neither pink nor purple. Those.’
‘Ah! The ones that bloom all year round! Even when they are uncared for’.
‘Now that you have all displayed your knowledge of plants and flowers, someone call the Headman, so that we can decide what to do about this child.’ said ArasiAmma. ‘Though I am very surprised he hasn’t reached here already,’ she rolled her eyes.
‘The village grapevine seems to be slow, Amma.’ tittered Sharada.
Before long the steadily growing gathering saw the Headman hurrying towards where ArasiAmma sat, with the child a distance away. The girl still hadn’t spoken a word, even though probing questions continued being directed at her. She continued taking it all in, as a silent observer.
The Headman was followed by the Head Priest, who was followed by the heads of the important families of the village.
What do we do with this girl, was the focus of the discussion? The child had refused to answer a single question. She didn’t even volunteer her name, not even after she was bribed with Ladoos to do so.
‘Let Nambi take her home and rear her as his daughter. He and his wife are still trying for a child after so many years of marriage after all’, was one opinion.
‘ArasiAmma, you could always do with another servant.’ said another.
‘Once we ascertain more about her, we should school her.’
‘Where will she live though? She needs a roof over her head, clothes on her body, and food to eat.’
The child intently watched these views flying back and forth, still stoically silent. Her freshly washed hair had dried in the sun and lay around her face in soft waves. The faded pink of the saree reflected on her golden skin, she didn’t know it, but she looked like a little goddess
‘If only she would speak!’, exclaimed the Headman, ‘and at least tell us something about herself or her parents. Or just even the place she came from!’
‘I am sure she is from this village,’ said ArasiAmma, ‘as no child her age can walk too far. Even her feet are not very calloused.’ she said, pointing with her walking stick.
Her belly full, her body clean and the warmth of the Sun on her, the drone of voices around put the little girl to sleep.
In her sleep, all that she hoped to forget came to her. Her beautiful mother soliciting clients and performing strange acts with them. Her mother drinking straight from a bottle, then beating her up. Her mother asking her, and the Lord, for forgiveness later. Her mother taking her to a Church occasionally. Finding her Mother’s dead body when she woke up one morning. A strange man touching her like men used to touch her mother, and ripping off her clothes when she tried to escape.
She woke up with a start, to see the people still debating.
‘Vadamalli’ she whispered. ‘My name is Vadamalli’.
After all wasn’t, ‘Iris’, her real name, a similar hued flower too, not pink nor purple.
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