“Crazy guy!” I swore from the back seat.
A Renault Duster swerved ahead of us, going off-road and climbing back, steadying only as it passed us. Mahesh was silent, he is always silent, the best driver I've ever had. Then he spoke.
“Snake,” he said, dropping speed.
I looked back. It was a long one, the length of a rat snake. Non-venomous, a kere haavu. It was sleek and smooth and shining, a blue n’ white beauty, winding and unwinding and stuck on asphalt. A car behind had wised up to what had happened and had also slowed down to watch.
“It’s run over,” Mahesh said.
We were a half-hour away from our coffee plantation, where we visit twice a month from Bangalore. Being close to destination, we were more earnest on completing the journey than stopping to contemplate on how to end a creature’s suffering.
And anyway, I haven’t it in me to do a mercy killing. I’ve cut open anaesthetised frogs in school and seen their little hearts pumping while I’ve poked their other organs. But, being born vegetarian, I cannot kill for food, and I'm too squeamish to kill for sport, or in imitation of "Christian kindness".
This trip was for the annual prayer offered at the Devi’s shrine on the plantation.
Until this year, every year for eight years now, I’ve been pressing my fingers first on a goat’s brow, and pressing them next on my forehead. After that ritual, the plantation workers have led away the goat for slaughter in Devi’s name. “You mustn’t stop it. The villagers will blame you for misfortunes that might befall them,” the priest from the nearby temple told us when we bought the plantation eight years ago. Even the priest from the Shringeri temple, the temple to the goddess of wisdom, said the same thing.
A fresh young government officer near Tumkur was faced with such a problem some months ago. His townspeople killed a buffalo each year to appease the deity in the main temple. When the event came up this year, soon as he learnt about the imminent sacrifice, the officer gathered priests and devotees and asked them if they shouldn’t stop the practice in this time and age. He was met with silence.
He met them again. “If we don’t pour a paav of buffalo blood over the goddess we’ll all face doom in the year,” the men submitted. After hours of argument the officer struck a deal.
“Why kill a whole buffalo for a paav of blood? Why not ask a vet to draw only so much out?”
He won. I read the story in the papers. And I showed it to my wife, who has twice the normal woman’s will, and the same measure of pluck.
She called the plantation last week, and told the manager, and the foreman, that we’ll not have a sacrifice on our plantation this year. “Government orders,” she said. I know of no such order. The other side of the line returned silence.
“That’s good,” she said. “None of them protested.”
I sat back watched the wife in action.
She called an astrologer in Kerala, a state that stocks the best of them. He gave her permission, and a vegetarian solution: “Smash to the ground a water-gourd stuffed with kumkum. Smash two gourds, actually.”
My wife had the manager and the foreman buy two fat gourds, and one more. They did her bidding even if they didn’t break their silence.
“They don’t seem worried,” she said to me.
The same priest does the ceremony each year. He is head priest at the big temple nearby, so he’s much in demand, and should be booked two months ahead. He can’t help play prima donna, but he was a changed man this year. He smiled when I entered the hallowed ground. He decorated the deity better than all past years. He spoke kindly to the poor villagers who squatted about. When his cell phone rang, he ignored it.
When the finale comes there’s not even the sound of breathing, or the rustle of leaves among the press of coffee plants and shade trees. Even the birds are hushed. The breeze halts. With grave deliberation, the priest makes a hand-sized base of sand, presses a coconut into it, spreads a copper foil on the coconut, balances a block of hollowed-out vibhuti on the foil, inserts a lime in the hollow, and settles an egg on top of the lime. He takes a machete; he raises it over the assemblage before him, and closes his eyes, and meditates. Then, in the terrible silence he has caused, he brings down the machete, cleaves the assembly into equal halves, a sharp crack pierces the still and silent hearts gathered there, bringing gladness and relief with it.
The right hand of every man and woman rises to the breast and stays there. Eyes close. The goddess is happy. She will protect these her devotees; she will hand them the fortune that’s been prayed for; and a good crop; and she’ll keep out every disease from the old and the young.
Post-finale, for a touch down, the sacrifice. A vegetarian one this year. Into a narrow incision in the gourds the priest asked an assistant to pour red kumkum powder, and seal the incision. On either side of him he had two young men raise the gourds as high as they could. At his command they brought down the gourds with the full strength of their arms. From the smashed gourds red juice flowed, redder than blood.
In peace I write this, at my table in Bangalore.