By Devdutt Pattanaik
YOU CANNOT pee when a goddess stares at you. There she is, painted on the wall across the gutter, above a pile of garbage, glaring, her bloodsoaked tongue sticking out, a string of human heads covering her nakedness. Mahesh looks at the sword in Kali’s hand. He finds it difficult to relieve himself. He zips up and moves back across the road, frustrated.
Where was Akshay?
They were supposed to meet here, near the paanwala at the corner of Apollo apartments at half past midnight. It’s almost one now. Unseasonal rains have made the road wet. Water in the perennial potholes reflects the streetlight. Cars whiz past impatiently. In some time, the city of Mumbai will go to sleep.
Shutters are being pulled down. People are hurrying to the station to catch the last train home. A giant banyan tree yawns behind the paan-wala and stretches its branches towards the sky. At the base of its tangled trunk is a tiny shrine made of white bathroom tiles housing a vermillion-smeared rock. An alert lamp sits beside it and dozens of lemons are piled around it.
As Mahesh bends down to get a better look at the deity inside, the paan-wala shouts from behind, “That’s our Devi. She protects this zopad-patti.” In his Marathi accent, he refers to the slum that stubbornly wedges itself between two swanky sea-facing apartments named Apollo and Dionysus. “Even the builders know that. That is why they leave us alone. They dare not make her angry.”
Yeah right, Mahesh wants to say. Everyone knows that as long as these shanties are vote banks to some politician, their survival is assured, goddess or no goddess. As this thought crosses Mahesh’s mind, Kali glares at him once again. This time, she sits in a golden photo frame between the spices and cigarette cartons of the paan shop.
“Her name is Rakta-vilasini,” says the paan-wala.
“She who enjoys drinking blood. It is another name for Kali-mata.”
“So you are here to see her, right? You want to ask her a question, right?” Mahesh remains expressionless. How does this man know? “You don’t have to be shy, sir. I know what is going on. I have been living here for 40 years. I see saabs like you coming here on nights like this, in the week before Navratri.” Mahesh feels exposed and vulnerable, but the paan-wala continues, “Don’t worry. She will give you what you want. Just give her what she wants.” Mahesh smiles. Suddenly the paan-wala grabs his hand and whispers, “This tantrik stuff is very dangerous. Be careful. You look too fresh.”
They stop before a curtained door. There is a dim bulb. A small bed with three gaudily painted girls on it. A Hijra sits chewing paan
Mahesh rushes back to his car, a bit shaken. He has parked in front of Dionysus apartments on the other end of this zopad-patti. Parking in front of an apartment block seems safer than parking in front of a slum. There are three other cars parked on the same road — a BMW among them. None have drivers. It must be safe to leave cars here unattended. Maybe the cars belong to those who have also come here for the ceremony. Akshay said that he should not be surprised if he bumps into a celebrity.
MAHESH MET Akshay less than a year ago with friends in a pub. Soon they were drinking buddies, meeting almost every weekend. Akshay knew all the coolest places to hang out, lanes where spicy eggs were served with alcohol even after midnight, corners where to get the best quality grass. But Akshay never spoke much about himself. All Mahesh knew abut him is that he lived in the distant suburbs, alone, and was into exports. He did not own a car, rarely paid the bills but made up for it with his company. Mahesh held Akshay in awe, so different from his father and brother who were only interested in work and money. They were irritated when Mahesh had refused to join the furniture business. They had laughed when he said he wanted to be a DJ. Akshay had not laughed. In fact, he had introduced him to some club owners and event managers. Very quickly Akshay had become the father and brother and friend Mahesh never had.
Once, when driving to an after-party, they passed a strikingly well-dressed hooker standing at a bus stop. “I can get her for you if you want,” Akshay had said when Mahesh kept turning his head to look at her. Mahesh did not know how to respond. “It’s okay, you can take her to my place. Nobody needs to know.” Mahesh had blushed and Akshay had chuckled. “Still a virgin! A handsome guy like you? Not many like you today. If I had a sister, I would want you as my brother-in-law.” Mahesh had quickly changed the conversation.
The Tantrik starts to sway. ‘I feel her coming in,’ he shouts. The girl with neem leaves starts to sway hysterically. ‘I am thirsty,’ she says
That same night, Akshay had told him about this place next to the sea, in the slums. “Twice a year, a week before Navratri — you know there is a Navratri in spring and in autumn, right? — a Tantrik from Tripura comes to Mumbai to invoke a goddess in the body of a young girl. She answers any question if you are willing to pay the price. She is approached by stars, industrialists, bankers, brokers, politicians, gamblers, anyone eager to peep into the future.”
“What crap! You don’t believe in this stuff, do you?”
“I do. I have seen it. It’s real stuff. You can see it too, if you wish. Navratri is round the corner. And if you get some money, maybe I will be able to get you to ask a question.”
SO HERE he is. To check out the Tantrik of Tripura and meet the goddess in the zopad-patti. Raktavilasini! Mahesh feels the wad of notes in his pocket. One lakh cash. That is all he could arrange. Akshay had asked for five and had sounded disappointed on the phone the last time they spoke. Mahesh thinks this is all a joke, of course. But, no harm checking it out. And if it turns out to be true, if he makes some serious money, his father and brother will stop treating him like a loser.
Mahesh feels someone tapping his hand. It’s a street kid. “Uncle, uncle,” he says. Mahesh recoils. The boy is filthy. “This way. Come with me.” Mahesh ignores him. “Akshay sir has called you.” On the mention of Akshay’s name, Mahesh reluctantly follows the boy into a dark narrow lane that leads into the zopad-patti.
A tiny rivulet of sewage glints in the moonlight and marks their way. The stench of dry fish, sea weed and the sewage fills the narrow corridor. Along the way, on either side, Mahesh finds open doorways of the rooms that make up the basti. They are tiny and surprisingly clean with polished utensils and electricity. One even has a TV. And another has a small puja room — with fresh jasmine flowers and an image of Kali. She is still glaring at him. This is ridiculous. His mind is playing games.
“Hurry, this way,” the kid shouts. The path is getting narrower and it splits in every direction. It’s a maze. A really big maze. Mahesh realizes that the zopad-patti is not as small as it appears from the main road. The houses lean in from either side. Cable wires, plastic sheets, and dish antennae block the view of the sky. Huge drums storing water block his way and he has to move around them. He steps on a soft patch. Is it shit? Muck? He scrapes the sole of his shoe on a rock. “Hurry, sir,” the kid urges. Mahesh feels sick and claustrophobic and anxious. A few metres from the main road and he is in an alien world, a world he does not know, a world he does not want to know.
What has he gotten himself into? Where is the kid taking him? And where is Akshay? What if this is an elaborate plan to rob him? Mahesh feels his heart racing. He feels the wad of notes in his pocket once more. It reassures him but his mouth still feels dry
They stop before a curtained door. They enter. There is a dim bulb. A small bed with three gaudily painted girls on it. A Hijra sits on the floor chewing paan. This is a brothel, Mahesh realizes. He hesitates. The boy goes straight through and draws another curtain at the far end of the room. Mahesh follows. It is a dark room filled with the smell of alcohol and tobacco. Saris of every colour hang from the ceiling. A gaunt man sits there. He has a scar on his face. He grins and shows a golden tooth. “Keep your boots here and go that way,” he says pointing to a third door with the curtain. From beyond come the smell of incense and the sound of chanting.
The kid does not cross the third curtain. He draws it aside for Mahesh. A huge man walks out and shouts, “Get more whisky. She will need it.” Mahesh hears the Hijra yell instructions as he enters the room.
Oil lamps glow in every corner and clouds of incense hang from the ceiling and a tiny shrivelled man with long white beard and a red headband sits in one corner with marigold garlands around his neck. It’s the Tantrik from Tripura! Behind him is a huge laminated poster of yet another glaring Kali pinned to the wall. Next to the Tantrik sits Akshay in his jeans and trademark black T-shirt. Mahesh reads the words ‘Black Sabbath’ on it. He holds back a smile.
Akshay gestures Mahesh to come closer and nudges him to join his palm and bow to the Tantrik. The Tantrik speaks with a heavy Bengali accent, “You are sure about him?” Akshay nods and takes Mahesh to the side. Akshay puts his finger on his lips and then looks at the people around the room. Mahesh follows his gaze.
There are about a dozen people in the room. Mahesh recognizes a starlet amongst them, wearing a tight kurti and a dupatta over her head, looking very pious. Next to her a prominent stock broker whose photos appear regularly in Page 3. The curtain shifts once again. Two more people enter. A minister’s son? Seen in the party circuit. Known for his cocaine habit. He looks up and his eyes connect with Mahesh. He looks away. Everyone in the room looks very rich and powerful. Gold watches, diamond cuff links, pot-bellies, designer clothes, even an iPad. Everyone avoids looking at each other. Some look at the Tantrik. Others are busy texting on their mobiles. There is anxiety and anticipation in the air. No one speaks. Akshay was right. This is surreal. He is actually going to witness some bizarre Tantrik ritual in the heart of a Mumbai slum attended by crazy rich and famous people. This will make a cool party conversation tomorrow.
The Tantrik moves back and forth and starts to chant. In a few minutes, his chanting gets louder and more intense. He picks up a bell and starts to ring. Mahesh feels movement behind him. There is a curtained door there. The curtain is drawn aside. Four figures walk in. Two hijras clapping loudly. One large woman helps a girl walk. The girl is wearing a black kameez but no salwaar. Her gait is unsteady as if she is in a trance. Around her neck are dry hibiscus flowers. Her face is smeared with turmeric and there is vermillion on her forehead. In her hand is a bunch of neem leaves and she is waving it as if swatting flies. “Bow to the Devi,” the Tantrik shouts suddenly. Everyone bows. Mahesh bends down too. The room suddenly feels crowded and hot.
A minute later, the girl, now goddess in Mahesh’s eyes, raises her head. Her lips are smeared with blood. She licks the boy’s face
A man in the opposite corner sits up and starts to play the drum. The beat is steady for a minute and then the pace picks up. The Tantrik starts to sway. “I feel her coming in,” he shouts. The girl with neem leaves starts to sway hysterically. She is made to sit down. “I am thirsty,” she says. The whisky bottles are opened and given to her. She picks up one and empties the liquid in less than a minute. Then she drinks another bottle. Then a third. Mahesh realizes this is not an act. Something serious and genuine is happening here.
The clapping and the drumbeat become even more intense. Mahesh feels his heartbeat rising. Akshay holds his hand to reassure him. Mahesh feels safe. Then everything stops. Silence. The girl drops her head and her hair extends to the floor. She convulses. Then she inhales. Then she spits.
“What do you want? Why do you call me?” the girl speaks in the voice of a hoarse old woman. The stock broker jumps up and goes close to her and touches her feet. She turns her ear in his direction. He asks something. Akshay tells Mahesh, “He is surely asking about the next market crash before which he can rake in his millions.” The girl whispers something back in the stockbroker’s ear. He smiles, bows his head and touches her feet once again. He gestures to his assistant to bring a garland of jasmine. He puts it around the girl and applies turmeric on her head and gives her a red piece of cloth with golden tassels. “I am thirsty now. Give me something to drink,” she says. The stockbroker offers her a whisky bottle. “Don’t humour me,” she snarls, “Get me a real drink. I am thirsty. I am really thirsty.”
“Bring him in,” the stockbroker shouts. The outer curtain parts. A young boy, about 15 years old, thin with an oversized dirty shirt and track pants, is brought in by the gaunt man with a scar and golden tooth, Mahesh had encountered earlier. The boy looks like he is high on drugs.
“Is he fresh?” the girl asks. The stockbroker nods. So does the tall man.
The gaunt man pushes the boy towards the girl. The boy resists, the drug seems to be wearing off. “What is this place? Where are the girls?” he shouts, looking confused and frightened. The gaunt man does not reply. The young man tries to wrestle out of the gaunt man’s grip in vain. He is shoved towards the girl. The stockbroker moves away, looking a bit excited, his eyes wide.
Everybody in the room freezes as the girl catches the boy by his neck. The boy shouts and then squeaks as the girl throttles him with a single hand. The boy struggles to push the girl away but fails. He tries to unclamp her hand but she is firm. He tries to strike her but she is unfazed. Her eyes are focused. She looks into the boy’s eyes with an uncanny kindness as she squeezes the life out of him.
The drummer in the corner beats his drum so that no one hears the sounds of struggle. Blood starts to spurt out as the girl’s nails cut into the boy’s flesh. The boy kicks and throws her a punch but fails to strike her. He finally gives up. The smell of urine fills the room. The spurt of blood in the neck turns into a gush. The blood looks bright red in the yellow light. The girl locks her lips around the stream and starts to drink. The boy crumples down like an empty tetrapack. A trickle of blood flows down his arm, onto the floor. It rolls towards Mahesh. Mahesh is tempted to touch the blood. Maybe even taste it. The scene has got him excited. It is better than any reality show on TV.
He runs for his life. There is no light except the moonlight. He runs, following the rivulet of sewer water that he had seen on his way in
A minute later, the girl, now goddess in Mahesh’s eyes, raises her head. Her lips are smeared with blood. She licks the boy’s face. Then with her two hands she twists his neck. Mahesh hears the bone crack and the skin rip. The goddess separates the head from the body. The body slumps to the floor. A few drops of blood drip from the severed end. He seems to have been drained of all blood. This goddess of the zopad-patti is indeed Rakta-vilasini. She holds the boy’s head in her lap, caresses it like a doll, and says, “Next question.”
The stockbroker steps back and then leaves the room. The starlet comes forward to ask the question. Mahesh is drawn to the sweat in her cleavage. The question is heard. Mahesh asks, “What do you think she is asking?”
“I think she wants to know if the producer who is doing her will finally give her a leading role in his next big budget film?”
The starlet starts to sob. The goddess says, “I am thirsty.” Another boy, similarly drugged, is brought in.
“Who are these poor kids?” wonders Mahesh.
Akshay replies, “Drug-addicts, runaways, street kids, wannabe stars who come from small towns, who knows, who cares. The going rate is five lakh for a teenage boy. Nobody is looking for them. So nobody will miss them. The police will give up the search in a few weeks. The mafia watches over the boys, gives them drugs, a place to stay, and ensures they do not lose their virginity.”
“Is that what she meant by fresh?”
Mahesh is surprised that he really does not feel sick or disgusted. It’s just a body. It’s just blood. He is supposed to feel bad. That is the civilized reaction. But he does not feel that. In fact, he feels special, part of a secret society. It makes him feel powerful. He feels grateful to be part of this moment. He is so happy Akshay is his friend.
“Why only boys?” wonders Mahesh.
“Don’t you know that sacrificial animals are always male? The goddess will never accept a female sacrifice,” says Akshay.
“So girls are safe?”
“So girls are safe?” “From her, yes. Not from the men,” Akshay chuckles, “They will end up in brothels such as these.”
“When is our turn?”
But we don’t have a boy.”
“We don’t have five lakh, but I managed a jugaad.
Have you brought the money?” Mahesh gives Akshay the cash from his pocket.
The starlet wipes her tears, touches the feet of the goddess, withdraws and leaves the room. The goddess plays with two heads. Mahesh looks at her. He remembers the image of Kali in the street, in the paan-wala shop, in the room he peeped into on his way here and now behind the Tantrik. He realizes how deceptive calendar art is. The reality of a goddess with a string of heads around her neck is not cherubic at all.
“Next question,” the goddess yells. She sounds happy and satiated.
“Your turn,” says the Tantrik looking at Akshay.
Akshay asks the question. The goddess answers. He smiles. “I am thirsty,” she says. Akshay turns and points to Mahesh. Mahesh’s heart misses a beat.
Mahesh makes a dash to the door but the gaunt man trips him and Akshay drags him back by his foot towards the goddess. “No, no,” Mahesh shouts. He realizes no one cares in this heartless crowd. He is just an investment in exchange for a valuable piece of information.
“Kaula hai?” asks the goddess.
“Yes,” says Akshay.
The goddess grabs Mahesh by the neck and stares into his eyes. Her fingers feel hot and sharp. Mahesh cannot breathe. He looks into her eyes. She does not glare. She is kind, benign.
“No, he is not fresh,” she says and casts him away. Mahesh starts to breathe again.
“Trust me, he is fresh,” shouts Akshay.
“Trust you?” she sneers.
“He has never been with a woman. He is fresh. He told me so.”
“Not with a woman, yes. But not fresh. Not fresh at all. I want someone fresh.”
Akshay looks confused. Mahesh wants to laugh. He draws back. The goddess does not look at him. All her attention is on Akshay. She is angry. “I am thirsty. I am thirsty,” she says and grabs Akshay by his neck, “You will have to do.”
Mahesh gets up and leaps towards the door. No one stops him. He moves into the middle room, forgets his boots, and barefoot rushes out into the front room. The three gaudily painted girls are still seated on the bed, looking lost, and the Hijra is still seated on the floor chewing paan, indifferent to the crazy events taking place inside. The street kid who brought him here sits in the corner playing with a mobile. No sign of the gaunt man with the golden tooth. Mahesh runs into the narrow lane outside. He has to find his way out of this maze on his own.
He runs for his life. All the lights that spilled out of the rooms when he was coming in have been shut. There is no light except the moonlight. He runs, following the narrow rivulet of sewer water that he had seen on his way in. To his surprise and relief, in less than a minute he is out on the main road.
HE WANTS to run but he stops. Everything seems so normal here. The street lights and their pothole reflections illuminates the canvas. Cars whiz past. The Kali image on the wall across the street is still glaring at everyone who tries to pee. The city is awakening. The paan-wala is shutting the shop. Mahesh sees the newspaper van throwing a bundle on the footpath. His is the only car parked on the road. The other cars, even the BMW, are gone. He sees the moon above, the sea lashing against the rocks behind the slum, the banyan tree in the corner, Apollo and Dionysus standing tall on either side. He looks back. No one is following him. He looks at his watch. He has been inside for over three hours.
He feels like laughing. It feels good to be alive. He looks at the zopad-patti. Everything looks so normal. No one can hear the drumbeats, the claps, the incantations, the bell, the drum, or the screams. Did he imagine it all? He looks at the rivulet of sewer making its way to the gutter that runs by the road. It gleams in the street light. It is red.
Pattanaik (devdutt.com) writes on mythology and is the author of the bestselling The Pregnant King (based on the Mahabharata), The Book of Ramand Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata. He is the Chief Belief Officer at the Future Group and is based in Mumbai.