It should be a goat, and it should be black without blemish. It should be taken round the bungalow of the planter first, with incense in one man's hand and a prayer bell working by another man's hand. Its should then go to the writer's quarters, and thereafter to each hut in the labour line. At every stop the women of the house bring their own incense and take it round the goat's unreceptive face, and they press vermilion upon its reluctant brow, wash feet that refuse washing, and fold their hands to it in prayer.
The thing nods. It has spent a lifetime nodding, nodding most of all to matters that it clearly doesn't approve of.
That done, the goat is marched off to the coffee patch where the shrine of the goddess is, in a clearing among the coffee plants under the shade of a closed clump of shade trees, arali trees here on my plantation, and tied close to the stem of a coffee plant. The prayers offered it are the new experience for the animal; whereas it knows well the tethered life.
The yearly ceremony before the goddess Chowdeshwari is a practice so old no one knows when it began, and also not when the ritual was first performed on my plantation. The goddess is manifest here as a clump of rocks each the volume of two-three soccer balls, rocks just as nature has formed them, unworked by the hand of man. The rocks lie against the broad trunk of a tree, and before them the soil is a rich wet black. The deity in this form is no less sublime (or stirring) than a sculpted statue of any God, or of His Son, or of any Prophet who ever spoke to Man.
The priest who does the ceremony on our plantation, who comes from the Kenchamma Temple six kilometres away, is a middle-aged irritable man who prepares for the prayers with his cell phone annoying him all the time. If a prayer-article is not at hand when he reaches for it he lets loose a grumbling and shakes you up, because during a ceremony for Chowdy nothing should go wrong. She protects your health and your assets and all your loved ones, but her devotees have always feared she will move against you if you displease her. The priest knows your fear. The village by the plantation has gathered there also, and all the plantation workers, and all are filled with love for this wondrous goddess of protection, a love mixed in equal measure with fear. The priest senses the vibration of both emotions. On this day you will not challenge him, you will not fault him. He is prima donna, plus he is as a lawyer performing a professional duty, and any sentence handed down holds opportunities for him.
Besides being vegetarian, I'm also a believer, as fervent as those who pray to the handsome-in-every-sculpture Son of God and those who pray five times a day facing the One Shrine. And I store as much a measure of conviction for my faith as Alain de Botton's for his Temple of Atheism.
It is hypnotic, how the rocks of yesterday transform today by the priest's hands. First they become a wavy set of wet lines of turmeric and vermilion and sandalwood; the waves go down beneath strings of prayer-flowers and heaps of hibiscus and marigold; a colourful sari made of fine silk is draped over the arrangement. Other things flank the deity: a chatri made by a villager by hand who has a special wish, and a slender but strong black metal trishul which stands where it has stood for ages, one with the soil.
It takes an hour to set up the whole thing, and a hush has fallen. The priest is no more in a temper. He is calming, calming, and he comes to the centre of the space some six feet before Chowdy and begins a new arrangement on the ground: he spreads a thin metal foil on the base; stands a coconut on it; over the coconut he balances a block of vibhuti which has a hollow in it; he keeps a chicken egg in the hollow; and sprinkles other sacred things over the arrangement and round it.
He settles into deep meditation. Nobody speaks, except for a quick inisistent direction from a few volunteers to all to not fold their arms, but to leave them limp on the sides. The priest ignores the light buzz round him and concentrates. A machete has come into his hand. Silence returns, and now it is total, and the priest and his machete have become one with his handiwork.
The blemish-free black goat that's been tied to a side and has been bleating has gone quiet also. It is nodding to shake off a fly or a flea. My mind is on the goat. I'd told Basavanna, my neighbouring planter who manages my plantation for me, that I'd like from this year to make the pooje far more grand than in all the years the plantation has been in my possession, even more than when it was with the large family that owned it before me, or when it was with the English clergyman Fr. Jeremiah before them, and anybody else before that reverend. Basavanna took a long time to reply—we were on the phone. "You can't do that," he said, his fear louder than his words. The quiet was lasting a long time and just as the eyes began to drift from the priest to the deity there was a crack. Exactly as it should, his machete had gone clean through the egg, the vibhuti, the coconut, and the metal foil, halving every one of them precisely. And, as a bonus, which sight few missed, a large red hibiscus fell on the right of Chowdy, in the very moment the coconut cracked.
After which I closed my eyes and spoke to Chowdy. "I want your blessings," I prayed. "I'm afraid to displease you. Please guide me."
In the years until now after I'd done the final prayer, the animal would be taken a few feet away, and I'd see the thing as they lay it down, clutching its feet and pressing it into the ground and then I'd turn away and after a few moments I'd turn back and see that all had risen and the black blemish-free fellow had a red, red neck and no head anymore—gone without a sound. I'd turn away again, not sick, not unhappy, just confused.
So on this day I watched with greater anxiety than the rest, feeling fear for having questioned the sacrifice with which the village and the plantation workers have always been appeasing the goddess, and with which they've obtained protection from disease, tried to bring alcoholic husbands to their senses, sought suitable matches for the single, asked for freedom from debt to which each was tied.
The quiet was lasting a long time and just as the eyes began to drift from the priest to the deity there was a crack. Exactly as it should, his machete had gone clean through the egg, the vibhuti, the coconut, and the metal foil, halving every one of them precisely. And, as a bonus, which sight few missed, a large red hibiscus fell on the right of Chowdy, in the very moment the coconut cracked.
A great blessing! The goddess had been pleased with how the worship had gone. Everyone asked everybody. "Did you see the prasada? The flower falling?"
I was relieved. I supposed Chowdy had approved a reasoning I'd worked out the day before: I take folks out all the time for dinner—family, customers, friends, suppliers. Most of them pick meat dishes while I search the vegetarian menu. What's the difference now, at this pooje? The difference is that here I am made to see how the meat is supplied. Also, I press vermillion and sandal paste on its brow, hold incense to its face, and fold my hands to it. They slaughter the lamb some distance from me but within my view in the name of the goddess, and offer prayers to her, and take the carcass away and cook a spicy Malnad-style meal for themselves to eat, with liquor that they've brought over—for liquor is allowed on the day of this pooje. And my family retires to the bungalow for a vegetarian meal.
But Basavanna had dispensed with all that this year. He took me away right after the priest had done his work with the machete. We went to the bungalow. "They'll do the non-vegetarian part," he said. "You rest." And so it was. In a few moments I heard the sound of bells and went out. They were bringing the goat to take it round the bungalow, so as to bring the building and its residents under Chowdy's protection. They'd changed the order of the ceremonies this year, I realised. They went toward the back of the building and disappeared, and reappeared, the bell ringing all the time, and the procession went toward the writer's quarters. I went back in, not at all confused as in past years—happy even.
I'd seen the flower fall, too.