Worship – By Indira Parthasarathy

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Translated by Ka.Naa.Subramanyam

 

Vaduga Naicken was surprised that a beggar who made his living by going the rounds of the town begging fistfuls of rice from housewives who were charitably inclined should have had such luck. He, Vaduga Naicken, had this big mansion, men to do his bidding, untold wealth—but what was the use of his having all this? Varadaiyan might not have luck but he had Luckmee for wife. With a beautiful girl like Luckmee by him, why should he care for the glances of the other Luckmee, the Goddess of prosperity?

Vaduga Naicken had the luck to be endowed with vast wealth. But, poor fellow, he was equally endowed with an appreciation of beauty and imagination; that was his ill-luck. He tried his best to bid for the hands of Luckmee in marriage even before her actual marriage was settled. He sent word that he would transfer all his wealth to Luckmee’s father Venkatanather if only he gave him Luckmee in marriage. The times were not ripe; it was only the twelfth century when money could not accomplish all things. For his bidding for Luckmee, if he was not possessed of so much wealth, they might have driven him out of the village. Since he was wealthy, they just called him a mad fellow and let him be.

After Luckmee was married, Vaduga Naicken married a girl from his caste. Living with his wife, whenever he looked at her, he was reminded of what he had loved and lost. His wife was adorned with all the gold jewels human ingenuity could fashion but she was not endowed with charm like Luckmee. “Just because I am born a grain merchant does it mean that only measuring corn in my granaries should bring me joy? The world expects that I should be satisfied at my counting house—how cruel is the world ! Can a merchant not worship beauty? And what ideas of caste we have, while all the time we concede that Sage Ramanujar has said that even an untouchable who worships is the equal of a Brahmin. The people here in this town are veritably fools. I too worship–I worship beauty. And what and who can be more beautiful than Luckmee? Only he who knows how to worship beauty can become a true devotee. How did Urangavilli become a devotee except through worshipping beauty in the human form? No one understands me. I hear Ramanujar will be passing through this ashtasahasra* town on  his way to Tirupati. He might understand me”  – thought Vaduga Naicken.

What kind of happiness could charming young Luckmee find with that beggar Varadaiyan? Instead of providing for the beautiful bride that had come to him, he, the beggar, persists in begging rice enough from willing housewives for the day. He covers the golden figure of Luckmee with dirty rags. What kind of appreciation of beauty can you expect of a beggar both improvident and irresponsible? Vaduga Naicken had sent messages of love galore to her saying he will relieve her from her penury, her drab life. But she had refused to accept him, that foolish girl. The great Vyasa had given it as his opinion that a diseased husband, and one who is not able to procreate a son, can be abandoned by his wife. To this category of wives abandoning husbands should be added another—if the husband be not able to provide food for his wife she can abandon him! It should be an acceptable ruling.

“I do not want her completely, wholly for myself. If she will give me her favours for a night I shall be satisfied. In return I am willing to make that beggar Varadaiyan a millionaire. I told her through trustworthy messengers my idea but she has still refused me.”

He conjured to himself the beauty of Luckmee limb by limb and was sorely troubled in his heart. He thought he could now understand the suffering of Ravana for desire of Sita. “But why are so charming girls so pitiless in God’s creation?” he asked himself. “They kill those that love them truly by being unobtainable. Until I enjoy her, my life is useless and purposeless; the days without her are empty, days. Oh Luckmee! Luckmee!” he muttered to himself.

Vaduga Naicken rose from his worshipful reveries of Luckmee. He was feverish with the fever of the nonattainability of her whom he desired so ardently.

A servant came running in and said in a low voice…”To see you…”

“I don’t want to see any one now” Vaduga Naicken was brusque.

“But it is a charming girl.”

“Who?”

“Varadaiyan’s wife, Luckmee…”

Vaduga Naicken was thunderstruck. Would she have come seeking him? Really? He had been thinking of her so long that he might have the illusion of her coming seeking him. But the servant had said she, Luckmee, has come; he is not likely to be under an illusion.

“Is it really Varadaiyan’s wife Luckmee?” he asked. The servant humbly nodded yes. Vaduga Naicken hurried outside his house.

It was indeed she. Luckmee. There can be no doubt about it. She was wearing a silk towel round her waist over her tattered saree. “How could she, a beggar’s wife, get this silk towel? How well her charms are adorned by this simple silk? She shines like a star! Why is she come seeking me? I don’t understand.” He thought and thought about it staring at her but still could not understand. He stood silent before her.

Luckmee smiled guiltlessly at him. Was it an illusion? Was he dreaming? She had come to make him happy or to torture him, which was her intention? Her smile bathed him both in terror and ecstasy.

“A guest has arrived at my house. I have to feed him. But I have not got a single grain of rice in the house; or anything else either. I need your help” said Luckmee simply.

Luckmee had come seeking him, she has come to his house and she needed his help. If he did not take advantage of this opportunity he would have to regret it all his life; such an opportunity might never rise again. She knew about his love for her but yet she had come. It augured well. He was filled with joy.

“You are more charming than ever in this silk dress” he said.

“You won’t be surprised if you knew to whom this silk belongs. No wonder I am beautiful in it.”

“Whose is it?”

“It belongs to a divine person who is full of beauty both inside and out. The string that binds sweet smelling flowers acquires the sweet smell of the flowers. You know I have only one saree which I wear, washing it every day and drying it. But to my humble house has come that divine visitor. He came and knocked at my door while great and rich households are waiting eagerly to receive him. I had just bathed—and had spread my one saree to dry. Looking at him through the window, I was thunderstruck. How could I receive him wearing the rags I was wearing till my one saree dried.”

“Who is the visitor?” asked Vaduga Naicken.

Luckmee did not reply to the question but went on with her story as if he had not interrupted her. “I told him my plight. And he threw me this silk dress through the window, asking the while `Where is he, your husband?’ Wrapping his silk round me, I opened the door and he came in saying `I have come to take my food at your house as your guest.’ I told him that my husband has gone to the neighbouring village but if he had no objection I would prepare food and he could take his food in my house. He agreed and said that he would go for his bath to the temple tank and left. I have no grain to cook food. That is why I came seeking you…”

“Who is the visitor?”

“Udayavar.”

Udayavar? The great Ramanuja. Many among the rich and prosperous were all agog to welcome and feed him but he had chosen to go as guest to that poor daily-beggar’s home; he had invited himself to be their guest. He was a strange fellow surely. Vaduga Naicken also wanted to meet him; his fame had preceded him. This is right, this is wrong— he was reputed to know what was right and what was wrong. He who worships, whether it be bodily beauty or spiritual beauty, cannot easily distinguish between right and wrong. Who else but that sleepless one—sleepless in dharma—would be able to read the riddle of his

own worship? Vaduga Naicken wanted to meet him and present his case to him. What, thought Vaduga Naicken, I desire of this beautiful girl whom I have been worshipping all my life—her body or her heart— he, he would know. He would know and tell also whether there was any  other royal road to possession of the heart except through the possession of the body. Luckmee, I have to possess you. I know no other language except that of the body.

While Vaduga Naicken stood lost in thought, Luckmee took up her tale: “With Udayavar have come seven or eight of his disciples. If you help me now, I shall never, never…”

“You know me. You know my desire for you, yet you have come of yourself seeking me now…Does it mean…?”

“I know the price I have to pay for the things I want to get from you…If you insist that I should pay the price, I shall. But you will have to give me the things I need now; I shall feed my guests, and after they have departed, I shall come to you…”

“Isn’t it the world’s custom to buy things paying in advance the price for them?” asked Vaduga Naicken.

“Such a price as I am willing to give you in exchange for the things to feed them with, no one else among human kind might have paid. So the world’s customary trade terms fail in this instance,” she said logically.

“Is Udayavar such a great being that you should pay such a price for feeding him?”

“Compared to feeding him, the price you will get from me is a trifle. You should be made aware of it, isn’t it? Now give me the things necessary to cook food for my guests. My guests will arrive at my house, shortly, after bathing.”

Luckmee carried away the things she needed for cooking for her guests. Vaduga Naicken sat as if stunned. He thought: “The price I pay shall be a trifle…but if it were such a trifle, why did not she accept his offer when he was willing to pay fabulous prices for her favours?” He was stunned by the fact that what he had considered untouchable like the receding horizon was so within easy reach; she had come within his reach. It was a shock to him!

Vaduga Naicken’s wife chose that moment to confront him. She came and sat before him. He looked at her. She had a beauty spot on her left cheek. He saw it and asked himself, why have I not seen this beauty spot in my wife’s cheek all this life? And her cheeks dimpled charmingly when she smiled; he had not noticed it either, before.

“I understood that you gave Varadaiyan’s wife the wherewithal to cook food for her guests. Who are her guests?”

He did not reply, but sat looking intently at his wife. “Why do you look at me like this?” He did not reply to this question either.

“Who are the guests at Luckmee’s house? What has happened to you? Why are you silent? Tell me who is the guest that Luckmee is entertaining?”

“Udayavar.”

“Oh Udayavar. He is the person who has to he asked about this!” said Vaduga Naicken’s wife and got up.

“What are you going to ask him?”

“I shall ask him whether it is right that a girl wallowing in poverty should sell herself to the first bidder to feed him and his disciples? I shall ask him.”

Vaduga Naicken was silent. Now he knew that his wife had come to know of his passion. Was she ignorant till today? Certainly not. Till this moment I had never cared to know whether she knew. She says she will ask a question of Udayavar. Is she capable of asking that question? I did not expect this cleverness of her. But what do I know, really know of this woman after all. I put out the light before I knew her with my body. I knew her body it is true, but what do I know of her mind or heart? Mandodari knew Ravana, but did Ravana know Mandodari as well? The epic poet does not say. But if he had known enough of Mandodari, the Ramayana might not have come to pass at all. He could not think further; he felt confused.

“Do you think that what that girl is doing is right?”

“What?”

“That she return to pay you the price you demand in return for giving her the wherewithal to feed her guest?”

“She said that the price I ask of her is a trifle.”

“So it is ! What she said is true indeed !” his wife said, after thinking a while about it.

He looked up with wonder at his wife. “Do you also think that the price I ask is trifling?”

“I don’t think so. But the question is whether you think so?”

Vaduga Naicken did not understand the question. I don’t understand you” he said.

“Only those who embrace women as they do lifeless corpses in the dark will know how trifling that assuagement of a moment’s passion is. When one cannot avoid the compulsion one does so. It is trifling the way you come to me at night seeking my body and Luckmee’s thus coming to you seeking you. I think there is no difference.”

On this word she left him and went inside. Vaduga Naicken sat motionless looking at the door by which she had disappeared. How interesting are women, both in mind and body, he thought.

The night meal was over. Vaduga Naicken sat on the outer ,thinking alternately of his wife and Luckmee. His mind was the scene of a great conflict.

“My wife has come to pay the price you demanded of her” he heard some one saying, and looked up to see Luckmee and Varadaiyan standing before him. He was really startled.

“What do you say?”

“She has come to pay the price you demanded of her!”

She had come with her husband, How courageous, and how odd!

“I expected her, but I did not expect you too would come” said Vaduga Naicken.

“Why?”

“Do you also think that the price I demanded of her was trifling?”

“It is trifling indeed. And my wife does not hide anything from me. You gave us the wherewithal to right royally entertain a great one among us. I was surprised that you should have asked such a trifling return for it.”

“Does it strike you as trifling?”

“Yes. We, my wife and I, understand each other very well. We know that we are inevitable for each other in our hearts; our love is complementary. Chastity is not merely of the body. That gracious one Sri Rama gave life to stone after the curse only to make a fool of Gotama who thought himself wise. You want her body; take it. You cannot take her heart–it is mine for ever. I am sure of it. And as long as I am sure of it, the price you asked is indeed trifling.”

“How are you so sure? Is it not only through the body that you begin to possess the heart also?”

Varadaiyan laughed.

“Why do you laugh?”

“The five Pandava brothers tried to possess the mind of Panchali through possession of her body. But her heart was wholly possessed by Sri Krishna. For passion to dawn, it is the heart that matters, not the body.”

“You are a beggar going about for fistfuls of rice in the streets. What do you know of the beauty of this wife of yours?”

Vaduga Naicken asked this question looking at Luckmee. She stood without showing any emotion on her face—neither of hatred nor of love. Her eyes were fixed in a corner—she looked lifeless without heart or mind but just a beautiful body. Vaduga Naicken was reminded for his wife’s words, “like embracing a corpse in the dark…” He looked again and saw lifeless Luckmee, just a body with no heart or mind, just a corpse. To generate passion you need the heart; the mere body cannot do it. Why had he not known it so far?

He prided himself on being a worshipper of beauty, of the human body. But as he looked on, he saw Luckmee ageing before his very eyes. Her head of hair was suddenly grey; her face showed wrinkles. Her eyebrows which had been like cupid’s bows were now like dried fish. Her eyes which had been like lotus flowers were oozing dark fluid and were lustreless. Pearly regular teeth had given place to caries and hollows. Her proud upstanding breasts were now fallen bags. Her soft feet were now thorny wood.

Vaduga Naicken grew afraid of the vision he saw before him. He was terrified. How could such beauty give rise to this terrifying ugliness? He ran inside. But he was given no peace. A messenger came from Udayavar asking him to present himself before him.

When he came back after seeing Udayavar he was full of happiness. He understood what he had gained. His wife waited for him and asked him why Udayavar had sent for him.

“I knew that a great man like Udayavar only would understand me. As soon as he saw me, he turned to his disciples and told them: `Look at him; he is the perfect devotee; the ideal worshipper.”

“Did he? Did he call you a perfect devotee, the ideal worshipper?”

“Yes. That is what he said. Do you know what more he said. `He is the only one among us who did not want to dirty the purity of the mind and heart; that is why the vision of the decay of beauty was vouchsafed to him. This is like divine darshan—a vision of God. Only those who

are capable of goodness can desist from evil. If his desire for Luckmee had been wholly evil, he could not have overcome it at all. Vaduga Naicken too is a divine worshipper, a great disciple, just like Ravana was.’ I don’t know whether his disciples who go about with him understood him or not but I think I understood what he was saying.”

“He called you a great devotee like Ravana, did he? I don’t really understand. Yet I do.”

“Some one among his disciples asked him the same question that you are asking. And he replied: `Ravana was a great worshipper. You know why? It is only because of the power of desire that one becomes a lover of woman and beauty. It argues that his passion for beauty is uncontrollable. He who has learnt to control his passion for beauty becomes a devotee. That is why in the world too many sinners are among those who really become great saints. It was true that Ravana did steal Sita with evil intent; but when he died, he was a great saint; he was a worshipper of the eternal, an unchanging beauty. It was his devotion that gave him the strength to fight on equal ground with God himself.’ Oh, Udayavar’s pregnant words are echoing still in my heart. I wondered why Udayavar chose to be the guest of that beggar Varadaiyan instead of with others prosperous like me. His intent was to work this miracle in me, I think!”

Vaduga Naicken’s wife said: “Udayavar has replied to the question I wanted to ask him.”


Foot Note:  * Ashtasahasra –  Eight thousand families.

About the author & translator:

Indira Parthasarathy  was born on July 10, 1930 in Chennai. He has written several short stories, plays and novels in Tamil that have been translated into several Indian and world languages. He has carved a special niche for himself in Tamil literature – his characters, mostly urban intellectuals, speak very openly and analyze deeply what others say. Most of his novels are set in Delhi, where he lived during his working years, or in the Srirangam area of Tamil Nadu, where he spent his childhood. Some of his novels, such as Kuruthi Punal intermingle these two milieus. He has won several awards including the Sangeeth Natak Academy, Sahitya Akademi and Saraswathi Samman Award. He is the only Tamil writer to have won both the Sangeeth Natak and Sahitya Akademi Award.

Ka. Naa. Subramanyam (31 January 1912 – 18 December 1988) was a Tamil writer and critic from Tamil Nadu, India. He was also popularly known by his Tamil initials , Ka. Naa. Su. In 1986, he was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for Tamil for his literary criticism Ilakkiyathukku oru Iyakkam (lit. A Movement for Literature).