The temple priest’s wife Solaimma is draped in a yellow sari, turmeric paste applied on her face and hands, a garland of lemons around her neck, hair rolling down in a wave along her slim waist. She is the authorised medium for the village deity Mari aatha.
The village headman’s son Velavan sits on the culvert under the banyan tree, the villagers gathered around him.
This year all and sundry deities from outside the village ellai will not crowd our festival. Only Mari aatha is important to us, not the goat deity, cow deity, forest deities who flock like clamorous crows and keep our village women in trance. They waste our time, they should not be permitted into the village. Let us ban their entrance.
Ban entrance? How can we do this, they do not walk like us so that we can close the roads and paths leading to Kaattu Punjai with thorn trees.
The village priest is averse to abridging the rituals of the festival; it is one of the occasions that he plays an important role in the village. He stays at the head of proceedings in the temple, importantly he relays to the village people aatha’s words, aatha communicates every year through his wife Soliamma. The priest is annoyed with Velavan for undermining his importance by interfering in the affairs of the temple.
Velavan is in a hurry to wrap up the village festival by late noon so that he and the villagers can drink through the evening, he says to the village elders.
The priest has not shared with anyone the suspicion that leaves him sleepless- Soliamma’s affair with Velavan. Many years younger to the priest Soliamma is his second wife.
Who does not like a good drink, Velavan laughingly asks.
Soliamma who is sitting with a group of women under the neem tree admires the rippling muscles in Velavan’s arms, she adores the way his Adam’s apple bob.
Devidiya, the priest spits.
Soliamma asks, how do we stop these deities from entering the village?
That we cannot do, they can come for the festival but they have to remain silent. If they possess any of the village women, the deities will have to pay a penalty of five hundred rupees.
The village people gathered there break into a buzz, they look puzzled like a forest of question marks.
He is mad, the priest says loudly.
Let us announce the penalty over the mike before the village festival, circulate notice in the village and put up posters as though this is a serious affair like the panchayat election. Understand?
The village elders furrow their eyebrows in confusion and the priest clucks and mumbles to the effect this is what happens if tharu thalais are made to sit at the panchayat.
The drum beats tear through the temple complex, amman film songs blast from the mikes. The priest stands before Soliamma and begins the incantation; he strains to raise his voice over the drum beat. He holds camphor in one hand and a bunch of neem leaves in another. He knows that his performance that day is important or else next year Velavan will come with some other fancy idea and set him packing. He looks at Soliamma who looks beautiful like a statue made of gold, she too is putting her best performance, but for a different reason. She is faking, he achingly observes. She wants to dance in a trance like one of those heroines from movies, yellow sari, clanging glass bangles, tight blouse and all.
The priest looks around at the crowd, there is something amiss. The cloud of dust, the heat and the noise make his head reel briefly, he registers that there is not a single woman from the village in the crowd other than Soliamma.
Soliamma groans and shrieks, I am Mari aatha . Appease me.
I told you a 500 rupee penalty can silence all deities, Velavan laughs in the toddy shop.
The village women should have come to the temple complex. Then we would have known if deities can be silenced, the priest says.
Then they would have to pay the penalty.
Village women have to pay the penalty? The penalty is for the deities, right?
Both are the same, Velavan laughs uproariously.