fiction

Sacrifice
- Varsha Seshan

Outside the temple was a tall coconut tree that was generations old. In fact, it was so old that everyone paid respect to it before entering the temple. No one really separated the temple from the tree. The two went together, almost like the Ardhanaarishwara. It completed the idea of Shiva who was worshipped within.

Two priests had charge of the temple. One was, of course, senior to the other. The lineage of the priests had been preserved ever since the construction of the temple, years and years earlier. The priest blood was pure, uncorrupted by inferior strains, the epitome of holiness.

The senior priest had managed practically everything, down to the last detail. What could fall less under suspicion than the temple? It was ancient and sacred.

The younger priest entered the temple and closed the door securely behind him. 'It will be done tonight, panditji,' he said, his hands folded respectfully in front of him.

The senior priest looked at him, his eyes narrowed. 'Are you absolutely sure nothing can go wrong?'

'As sure as I am that Lord Shiva here and Uma in the tree outside are one,' replied the younger.

The elder one uttered a prayer in Sanskrit under his breath before questioning the younger one again. 'What have you told her?'

'Exactly what you instructed me to tell her, panditji,' said the younger, his tone still respectful. 'I have assured her that she will have a son to carry on her husband's name if she sacrifices that which is most precious to the family.'

'And she confirmed that this most precious heirloom is the ancient ruby necklace?'

'Yes, panditji. She has promised to steal it at –'

'Steal?' snarled the senior priest. 'What an ugly word!'

The younger priest's knees trembled. 'Forgive me, panditji. How can she steal what belongs to her by right? She will bring it to us at night when her husband is asleep.'

The elder priest was silent for a moment. 'This temple has never been party to any corruption,' he said finally.

'This is not corruption, panditji. It is not as if we will take the necklace without praying to the Ardhanaarishwara. We will, of course, pray. And your prayers always work, panditji, you know that. And if, for once, they don't, it won't be our fault – for who can understand the ways of God?'

'Hmm.' A long silence followed. 'Even so, I do not trust you to have checked all the loopholes.'

'But panditji –'

'And so,' interrupted the elder, 'I will not be here when the actual handing over of the necklace takes place.'

The younger priest was silent.

'If someone comes to hear of this transfer, I shall not admit to any part of it,' continued the chief, smearing the holy ash on his forehead. 'You will be here and will take the necklace from her while I am away. I shall be back before dawn – well in time for the morning prayers.'

The younger priest bowed his head without a word. Nothing could go wrong. Absolutely nothing could go wrong.

When night fell, both priests were even more involved with evening rituals than usual. The elder priest lighted all the incense sticks. He poured oil in the lamps himself, prepared the wicks for them and the garlands for the idol. The younger priest sat chanting prayers before the coconut tree.

The night was uncomfortably still, but the young lady appeared as promised. The swish of her sari as she walked was loud in the silence. She fell at the priest's feet and he blessed her, accepting the necklace. He promised to sacrifice it to Shiva and Parvati, with all the prayers to ensure that she bore a male child. Thanking him with tears in her eyes, she left quickly, her pallu covering her face.

The priest hid the necklace behind the statue and continued to pray. He chanted his shlokas till the senior priest came back. '

Is it done?' he asked tersely.

The younger nodded and moved towards the idol to hand over the necklace to him.

'No, don't give it to me. Let Lord Shiva guard it for us for now.'

The younger priest sighed. There was an uncomfortable silence.

Outside, the lull had changed to howling winds – typical of the season. A shiver ran through his body and he clasped his cold hands together in prayer.

The storm broke just before dawn. The rain came down in torrents and the wind roared as it had never roared before. The very earth seemed to tremble – as it had trembled once, long ago, when Lord Shiva performed the Ananda Tandava.

The priests, huddled inside the temple, began to pray feverishly. The elder priest took out the ruby necklace, which now had taken on the sheen of blood. He clutched it, his teeth chattering.

And then, finally, the wrath of the gods found expression. The coconut tree, worshipped as the goddess Parvati, came crashing down onto the roof of the temple. In the morning, there was nothing but rubble and branches.

Nine months later, the lady gave birth to her first son.

A writer, dancer and teacher, Varsha has a passion for Bharatanatyam. Her first short story was published in 1992. In 2010, her story – The Nationals, was published by Puffin in a collection of stories titled Let's Play! In 2012, Happy Squirrel published a collection of her short stories titled The Story-Catcher.In September 2013, ELJ published The Caravan of the Cultures of the World, a personal travel narrative.