‘Kundaswamy, temples are my biggest source of income. Don’t you understand, elections are around the corner and I need the money.’
I blurted out after several fruitless days of trying to persuade the priest to install an additional deity in the compound. The magnificent Lord Shiva idol occupied one corner of the generously laid out compound, leaving plenty of space to accommodate Lord Ganesha at the entrance. This would also be a great way to begin one’s prayers.
It was also the tried and tested way to generate funds from all the businesses that lined the street. The otherwise, stingy traders and residents – many of whom, entirely evaded taxes – would loosen their purse strings without even a moment’s hesitation. They believed the funds would boost their own ranking in God’s ledgers or they simply felt that a priest was in a better position to handle their funds, as opposed to a tax official.
‘Kundaswamy, the truth is, if you don’t quickly add the Ganesha Idol at the entrance, that wily Nandeesha will propose the same in the temple down the road, and all the funds will go there. They will have a big inauguration, he will give a speech, make all his false promises and soon laugh his way to the bank. And you, well, there will be many more people going to that temple; more the deities, more the worshippers. Trust me, I’ve been in this business longer than you have.’
‘And he will win the election, you forgot to add.’ Kundaswamy quipped.
Oh, he was trying to be clever with me now. ‘Yes, dear priest, yes, that in fact is bothering me the most. I would not like Nandeesha to become more popular than me. Do you see anything wrong in my feeling that way?’
‘What if someone comes to know that I’m diverting funds to you?’ he needled.
I would have to explain the whole thing over, to the simpleton. How did they become priests in the first place?
‘See Kundaswamy, do you know that your daughter wears jeans to college? No, right? You notice all the girls near the bus stop wearing them, you see girls in movies and on TV, wearing them, and you wonder how their parents allow them to wear jeans. Yes? But you are certain that your daughter doesn’t. That’s how we all are. Even though we hear that everybody and everything is a scam, we want to think that temples are above this, or at least the ones we contribute to, use our funds wisely – our funds make it to God’s hands. That’s what everyone wants to think.’ I paused, hoping to give him a moment to digest everything I had just said.
‘What’s wrong with her wearing jeans?’ he lamented.
Oh, a liberal priest. That backfired. ‘That wasn’t the point I was making,’ I recovered.
‘I’m just saying that most people will assume that the funds are used for temple upkeep and the excess is used for charity.’
Kundaswamy nodded. ‘Okay I will propose a Ganesha Idol. How much will I make?’
That had to be the biggest about-turn I had witnessed in a while. I was beginning to like this priest. What had I said differently? He must have just wanted me to be straight with him. I had misjudged this gem of a priest! I made a mental note to prompt for another idol opposite the soon-to-be-coming Ganesha Idol.
‘15%.’ I didn’t like being ambigious. If his stake was promised early, he would put all his energy behind it. He nodded and gestured towards Lord Shiva. I went across and said my prayers and then took leave of my new business partner.
Next, I placed a call to Jyantilal, the head of the trader’s association and told him about my proposal. This was a routine affair and he quickly asked me about the function that would be arranged on the day of the inauguration.
‘Last time, after we inaugurated the Shiva temple, all the shop owners complained about the tent we erected on the road. It blocked the traffic, and business was affected. We should think of something else.’ he complained.
‘I need the party seniors to take notice of me. If I can’t make it a big deal and rally enough people on that day, they will not give me a ticket. Besides, we’ll be collecting a lot of money, I want the inauguration to be a grand affair. People need to believe this is a powerful temple. Remember, more the visitors, stronger the belief.’ I was overselling and decided to speak no more.
‘Okay, if it has to be on the main street, it has to. I’ll manage them. It will cost me a bit.’ he said, in a matter-of-fact way. I asked him to meet me the following Saturday to discuss all the other formalities and hung up.
Harisha, my new driver, arrived with the car. ‘What took you so long?’ I said, as I got in, half expecting no answer.
‘Traffic jam, near the Anjaneya temple.’ he said. Even as he said that, I could feel a lump forming in my throat as Nandeesha’s mugshot flashed across my eyes. Had he pulled the rug from under my feet, that easily?
How could he have managed such a big function, without it coming to my notice? If he had, there were many things that I would have to correct and many people that I would have to summon. Even though we were about to pass the Anjaneya temple and I would soon know for myself, I couldn’t contain my curiosity any longer.
‘Why, is there some inauguration there?’ I asked hoping to be immediately dismissed by Harisha. Maybe a bus had broken down or a bunch of cows were taking their time to cross the street.
‘Some function in the temple,’ he chimed. He was barely two weeks old into his job and was gleefully unaware of the implication that this had on my affairs, otherwise, he would not be saying it with such cheerfulness.
Then his expression turned serious and he continued, ‘These temple folk are not bothered about the inconvenience it will cause for people like us. First the blaring speakers, the music, the garbage left behind after the function and to top it all, the delay it causes in our appointments.’ I had misjudged his expression.
‘Who hired you?’ I blurted out.
He was taken aback and looked at the rear-view mirror to find me staring right at him. Uncomfortable now, he said, ‘Did I say something wrong?’.
I wasn’t listening to him anymore. I had turned my attention to the left side of the street. We were crossing the Anjaneya temple and I could see a small crowd at the entrance. Sure enough, amongst the crowd, I noticed Nandeesha and his bunch of unruly cronies. They had occupied half the street and slowed down the traffic. I began to laugh as the implication of what I had just seen, dawned upon me.
‘What were you saying about garbage, music….’, I trailed off. Now, I was suddenly interested in hearing what Harisha had to say.
‘Nothing sir, nothing.’ he answered, looking utterly perplexed.
‘See, it’s a small inconvenience people have to suffer, in return for God’s blessings. You get late for your meeting. But at least the meeting will go well.’ I said.
Harisha looked like he had a retort ready, but chose to merely nod. My mind wandered back to Nandeesha. What a fool he turned out to be! I had overestimated his abilities. He had arranged a pooja for his new Honda SUV outside the temple. He was incurring the wrath of every passerby, for they could not only see the man responsible for the traffic jam but also recognise that buying an SUV was such a big occasion for him. Everyone did a pooja for their new vehicles, but this little commotion was not prudent.
‘See Harisha, when I inaugurate the new Ganesha deity in the Shiva temple, I will completely block the traffic from both sides. People should know that I’m powerful. They will think, if he can do such a big function and get so many big people to attend, then he is the right person to vote for,’ I paused for his approval.
‘yes, yes sir.’ he said on cue.
‘The public behaves like a tiger, if you nudge it, it will bite you back. But if you completely overpower it, you will get respect.’ I finished. Harisha kept driving without betraying any emotion. Maybe he didn’t agree with me.
Poor Nandeesha, not so wily after all. Little did he know, that blocking the traffic for a new Ganesha deity was an ‘investment’, while mildly interrupting traffic for a new Honda SUV was an ‘expense’, that would prove too dear.