This year, we asked the poojari — the priest — to buy the prayer articles himself. Each year for ten years now, he has put on a prima donna act, shouting for a sari, for agarbathi, making a scene for the odd flower in the heap hauled in for the poojé, for banana, for milk, and sweet-lime and honey — the things that go into making a prasada. It took all these years for the simple idea to occur to us, and have him buy everything he needs for the Chowdy Poojé.
The stuff lay about the poojé area, under the shade trees in a clearing on a coffee patch. That's where the shrine to the Shakti goddess Chowdeshwari is. Chowdeshwari is Chowdy in daily usage, and her shrine is a natural grouping of rocks — which are not cut, not sculpted — that give off a suggestion of the divine to the eye and to the sixth sense of the believer.
The priest was especially proud of his purchases, particularly the marigold, though it appeared to me that the heat had taken their juice out of them: their yellow was no more bright, the orange had browned on the edges. Still, those flowers were the boldest and largest in the pile, ready to sit as decoration on Chowdy.
"See," the priest said in Kannada, pointing to the flowers. "Maari gold. Too expensive."
Sujaya giggled, and, soon as the priest left us to tend to other tasks, she started to laugh. Watching her, I shed my always-on grouch and joined in, and we laughed together, taking care to not to be heard, glancing about to see if anybody was watching.
(We laughed because Maari is the name of another Shakti goddess.)
It's not other people that you worry about at the time of Chowdy poojé. Only the foolish laugh before Chowdy. When misfortune comes, you run and pray before her for dispelling it. She will likely oblige you, according to your faith. But you slight her, and her wrath has no bounds. So, after we were done laughing, I felt the cold of fear in my heart. I withered a wee bit, much like the marigold around us. I put by hand on my chest to summon up as much humility as I possess.
For decades they'd been killing a goat for Chowdy on the day of Chowdy Poojé. We'd been paying for the goat, by custom, which hapless thing, by tradition, must have an unblemished black coat. Villagers from around our plantation had each been bringing a chicken for slaughter before Chowdy. They'd slit the throats of their offerings, our goat included, on a block of granite some fifteen feet from Chowdy. We have tried to stop the practice, pleading, "We're vegetarian." But the folks have gently pressed for continuance, to be allowed to propitiate the goddess.
"Don't worry sir," the plantation manager would say, which the foreman would echo after him. Those words, used in these parts, don't mean much. What they did was to keep the rituals vegetarian in the morning in our presence. They went on with the killing after we'd gone. Our bungalow is a fair distance from Chowdy's shrine, but in the afternoon the smells of meat cooking in pepper and Malnad-masala came wafting in, thick and strong. (Emptied bottles of cheap liquor we'd see the following day.)
Three years ago, the government banned animal sacrifice, which we enforced with gusto. The entire affair turned vegetarian.
I'm writing now about a change within this change. Until last year, the poojari kept an egg on top of a hollowed block of vibhuti, the vibhuti on top of a coconut, at the base of the coconut a copper foil, and beneath the copper foil, powders of turmeric and red bhindi. Once he had this little minar ready, the poojari raised a footlong machete, meditated a few seconds, sending the crowd round him into awed silence, and brought down his tool, slicing his arrangement down the middle. An error in that process was unthinkable — it would send home every single soul present on the premises terrified of the hardships to come during the year ahead.
But they are safe hands that have been wielding that machete. The poojari, with flab on his arms and shoulders, fat overflowing the waistband of his veshti, has handled the blade with a sure grip. He has made sure no trouble visits anyone on his account.
Today, the priest introduced a small innovation. In place of the egg, he planted a four-inch-long peeled banana. When he brought his machete crashing down, slicing the banana and the vibhuti, and cracking the coconut, there wasn't in this year's poojé the yellow of yolk or the goo of egg-white. In a moment the debris was swept up, and there was only Chowdy, resplendent in a bright red and golden sari, and orange and yellow and blue flowers. The ground was clean and dry and a fecund black before her.
If you count out the honey, and the silk in Chowdy'd sari, we've had a vegan pooja this year. It came without asking. I pray that this was all to goddess Chowdy's liking.