A few villagers made ol’ talk one Diwali about who bussin’ better and bigger bamboo, the picong started and that was that. The competition between the vastly different worlds of down d road and up d road remained a permanent year-round affair since then.
Down d road people believed in Pundit Jairam. He could do a real good puja. Whenever he did a puja in someone’s home, people said the whole house change, like it get ah power. So if pundit has a penchant for swearing and being ill-tempered, that really wasn’t their business. It didn’t change the fact that he was good man and a boss singer (better than the up d road baba who was quieter, more contemplative and couldn’t sing as well). Jairam could tell a good Ramayan story. But they could never understand all that philosophy the up d road baba was telling them. This was Ramayana country and all they wanted to do was enjoy the sermon, listening to stories they already knew.
The villagers, in the privacy of their homes referred to Pundit Jairam as Daroo pundit. He was known to have a few drinks of rum from time to time though they couldn’t say just how frequent this time to time was. His temper, however, was his true hallmark.
Some years back when his younger son, Devanand, was a student at the Caroni Catholic School, Jairam had chased a teacher for criticizing Hindus. The conversation had started peacefully enough. But it soon started to degenerate when the pundit lost his temper, pulled out a switchblade from his trouser pocket and started brandishing it. Before the principal could intervene, the teacher ran out the office, headed for the students’ toilet and locked himself in while Jairam stood outside throwing the switchblade up against the wooden door, like he was playing a game of darts. He did this until the principal turned up with a senior teacher in tow. It was a mark of the principal’s discretion as an administrator that he did not involve the police or security guards in the whole commotion. With an impulse to placate, he apologized profusely for the teacher’s disrespect and Jairam, not entirely satisfied returned home a little calmer.
To Devanand’s dismay, it became a joke in the village. The consensus was the teacher, a Hindu who had converted to Catholicism. had been in need of some “mannersing” and thereafter he had been christened Switchblade, a nickname that stuck so much that everyone forgot his actual name. Except Devanand, who didn’t like the idea of violence. Like most teenagers, he was ashamed of his father. He made a vow to never be so hypocritical. In school he went out of his way to be nice to the teacher, carrying apples for him, answering questions gingerly—even if he sometimes sensed the teacher took all these acts of kindness and enthusiasm as passive-aggressive acts of intimidation.
That Saturday, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were at the front of Jairam’s house calling at his gate. They had the irritating habit of appearing mid-morning just when everyone was busy preparing lunch. By the time people saw the umbrellas making their way down the street, everybody disappeared into their homes or behind curtains. It was as if people were afraid to make a sound, scared that the umbrellas would stay longer if they knew someone was at home. Adults and children peeped from behind doors and curtains. There always seemed to be a collective sigh of relief when the roving apostles moved on to another house.
“Blasted pests,” muttered Pundit Jairam, when he heard the first “Good morning,” the sing-song intonation of the happily blessed. “Dey like tick in you backside. No common sense. They can’t see a temple in my yard?” He walked towards the television to settle down to look at The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on the TCM network.
But the Witnesses continued to call out.
“Look! Devanand!” Jairam shouted, as he sat back in his recliner. “Go and tell them nobody home. And don’t take no book from them you hear. Tell them that you have no time to talk.”
Devanand had been engrossed in his novel, Siddhartha. A second-year undergraduate student, studying for a degree in Physics, he spent his spare time reading fiction on a spiritual theme, perhaps seeking the enlightenment which his father clearly was yet to find. It didn’t matter to him that the book was about Buddha. He was fascinated and fell under the writing’s spell. Also, it was hot and the last thing he wanted to do was raise himself from his bed to confront the Witnesses. He wondered for a fleeting moment why his father just couldn’t have ignored them and not answer, like any normal person would. They would have gone on their merry way after a few Good Mornings.
“Devanand! You can’t hear or what? I tell you go and tell d people we not interested,” Jairam shouted again, his eyes locked on Clint Eastwood as he was about to draw his gun.
“Yeah dad, I going, I going,” Devanand replied, taking a deep breath. He got up from his bed and trudged towards the front steps, his book still in his hand. He wasn’t going to disobey or to talk back to the pundit. He knew how that went. At least it wasn’t Prem, his fanatic elder brother, who was being sent to deal with the missionaries. That might be another fiasco.
Prem was a primary school teacher, seven years older than Devanand and blessed with true religious passion. He was poised to take over the pundit work from his father. After completing his CXC O’ Levels he had decided that he was going to teach. Teaching would give him enough time to do pundit duties. The way he had calculated it, if he took half-day off every week to do pujas for people, he would still have about one and a half days remaining, out of the twenty-eight days leave that teachers were allowed to take for the year. That was not inclusive of public holidays and the two months for summer. It was the ideal job. Moving between the classroom and the temple, he could mould the minds of youths and adults alike.
Despite these lofty aspirations, Devanand knew the truth was that the apple did not fall far from the tree. Like father like son, Prem had a problem with anger management. Once, in a moment of righteous anger that, Prem had reached for an old walking stick that was leaning on the wooden bench downstairs, where people often sat while waiting to seek his father’s counsel on spiritual and personal matters, and brandished it at two young male Witnesses self. He chased the enthusiastic messengers of the divine down the street much to the entertainment of the young men hanging out at the bar at the end of the road. Devanand had been horrified and tried to reason with his brother who ranted on and on about “those blasted people” converting Hindus and encouraging mixed-race marriages.
“You doh see how them pastors and them building big, big houses down central? Some massive ting that looking like Disney castles? All dat is Hindu money. The stupid people converting and giving it away. But when we ask for some donation for a temple, they twis’ up dey face and saying all kinda ting about dem pundit only like gol’. You pass around d aarti and they putting one one dollar in d plate.”
Devanand, with a grin, had played Devil’s Advocate, “But Prem, is a different church. All is not the same ting. Dem is not Jehovah Witness.”
Prem responded with a clout. Literally.
“Doh come wit your university self to tell me about different church. Different church my ass! Is d same ting. Same idea. Convert the dotish Indians and get d money. End ah story. Dat goin on donkey years now.”
Devanand’s head smarted as he ran back to his books. He knew Prem was just being ignorant but he had learned early o’clock that he shouldn’t argue.
The Witnesses at the gate this time around were two well-dressed women. The younger, an Indian girl in her mid-thirties, Devanand thought was cute even if he wasn’t too sure. The elder was rather frumpy, looked like she was in her early fifties and might be the girl’s mother. So, hell no. They were smartly attired, dresses cut just below their knees. The elder was wearing a wide brimmed church hat and glasses that gave her an air of authority. The younger woman’s sunglasses made it difficult to see what Devanand imagined to be her dazzling eyes.
“Mornin’, mornin’,” he greeted them. His voice was stuck, like if his body wasn’t sure whether it wanted to send out a sound that was gruff or polite. It managed an indiscernible mumble.
“Good morning. Do you have a minute to spare? We won’t be long,” said the elder woman smiling.
Like most Witnesses, she was well-spoken but she had a face that Devanand instantly disliked. She looked at him from above her glasses, her head tilted downwards as if appraising him.
“Sorry, I don’t have time now,” he replied.
“It will just take a few minutes,” said Sunglasses, reaching seductively into her shoulder bag to pull out a magazine. He could see the large AWAKE title on the front cover. Below it, was a headline about managing relationships in a digital world, a topic which intrigued Devanand who, despite his better judgement, often found these magazines attractive. He had, in fact, read a few from time to time whenever he found one thrown away at the side of the road, assessing the pieces to be decently researched and easy to read for what it was worth.
Sunglasses passed the magazine through the gate bars. Devanand stared at it for a few seconds, feeling drawn not to only the magazine but also the way her hand had grazed his. He took the magazine and shyly mumbled “Thanks” and started to walk off. He got as far as a metre.
“It’s free,” she said wanting to prolong the interaction, “but if you like, you can make a donation. It’s up to you.”
“I don’t have any money on me,” he mumbled, feeling about in his pockets and wishing he did.
“It’s o.k.,” Sunglasses said, “the donation is optional.”
Devanand stared down at his Adidas slippers and felt a heat on his cheeks. Was she flirting with him? The three stripes across his slippers reminded him of the Adidas cap he always wore to university. The cap was such a permanent part of his attire that friends had nicknamed him ‘Road Kill Sadhu’. They said it looked like a car had run him over and left a permanent tyre print on his head.
“Well, since you don’t have time can I ask you to read the magazine and maybe we can come back another day?”
Sunglasses took off her shades and what he saw made him smile foolishly. I knew it, he thought, such pretty brown eyes.
His father’s voice made him jump.
“Yeah Dad. Comin’,” he called back.
“Before we go can we ask if you believe in a God?” asked the elder Witness.
“Yes,” he answered. “In fact, my father is a pundit.”
“Ah! But do you really believe in a God?” the elder persisted.
She looked at him again in the same way, glimpsing above her glasses.
“Well,” he paused. “Yes.”
Can I ask, what that stone means? I see it in many Hindu homes, said Sweet-Eyed Girl pointing at the Shiva lingam in the yard.
It was a river stone that Devanand’s great-grandfather had installed on a white concrete pedestal. His father made daily offerings of water at sunrise. The boys were not that diligent, but something about the question jarred him. Suddenly, it seemed embarrassingly phallic.
“That? Well it’s called a lingam. It’s a symbol really. For the god Shiva. He’s part of the Hindu trinity. He’s the god of destruction. A lot of Hindu people have that in their yards. They offer water on mornings.”
“I see. We believe in the one true God, Jehovah,” said the elder woman. He realized with a sinking feeling that the conversion conversation was at full-throttle.
“Yeah I know. We have a one God belief too,” he replied, looking down at his slippers again, kicking a little stone, and hoping Sweet-Eyed Girl would say something else.
It was a round black pebble, about three-quarter the size of a table-tennis ball. He had found it on a trip to Matelot the week before, put it into his pocket to use as a comfort object, but had promptly lost it the next day. Funny how you find things at random moments. He wondered how it had gotten so far out the house.
“Really? So then why all these gods and goddesses? I know you have the monkey god and elephant god.”
Sweet-Eyed Girl was suddenly very disappointing. He felt genuinely surprised, as though he’d gone through the arc of some long, epic romance in the blink of an eye and it was now all over. He looked at her and his peripheral vision also caught sight of the elder, still looking at him as though judging.
“Well, you see,” he said, trying his best to adopt a polite tone, “Hindus recognize that people are different. You know, like we all have different tendencies. Everybody is not the same. So all these gods and goddesses represent that. They are symbolic. People also need to have something visual to latch onto when they worship.” He was a science student, a modern generation of Hindus who Prem said, talked a pack of shit, and was responsible for Hindus losing traditions. Devanand had always retorted that the rational impulse was good for faith: such people were actually choosing Hinduism. They didn’t blindly believe.
“Ah! But Witnesses don’t use symbols like you do,” said Judgmental Lady. “You like reading?” she asked, indicating with her head the novel he was holding.
“Yeah,” he replied curtly, still thinking about her comment about symbols. For a second, he wondered why Hindus needed them. He made a mental note to find out. “Yeah, I like Herman Hesse.” He stared at the steps. His body was still diagonal to the gate, still in a state of uncertain departure.
His father’s voice pierced the brief silence.
“Yeah Dad! Ah comin’!” he shouted back.
“These literary stories take your mind away from God,” said No Longer Sweet-Eyed Girl.
“Eh heh? So why you all have the whole Eden story then? You believe in a talking snake?”
“The serpent,” she replied speaking slowly as if he was hard of understanding, “is a symbol, a symbol of jealousy.”
“So, you telling me that the snake is a symbol, but you don’t approve of our gods?”
He was interested now. He knew a thing or two about symbols. He didn’t look at Ancient Aliens for nothing!
“We are not criticizing your religion. Don’t misunderstand. We just believe that Jehovah is the one true God.”
“But when you say that, you are saying that mine is not true. Ent?”
“Yes, we believe that Jehovah is the one true God.”
He stuck the magazine inside his novel and shifted his weight. He was standing on equal footing.
“Tell me something,” he said, facing the gate now. “You ever see your god? How do you know he real?”
“But we don’t need to see God to believe. Everything around you is evidence of his existence. The Earth, the trees, the sun. Everything.”
Judgmental Lady silently looked on, as though pleased her protégé was providing all the right answers.
Something moved in Devenand. He was at the age, and possessed the temperament, where idealistic thinking bred Gandhis. He was now thinking that Modi was probably on to something with his Hindutva behaviour, dictatorial and militant.
“You are a bright, educated boy,” Judgmental Lady said.
“I’m sure you can make sense of what we are saying,” No Longer Sweet-Eyed Girl said.
“But of course, I can see your point. You see we believe that all views are equally valid. So, you would be Hindu still, even if you call him Jehovah,” he said. His speech was now deliberate. He tried his best to smile.
“Oh!” Judgmental Lady cried out in alarm.
“It is we who do Jehovah’s work,” No Longer Sweet-Eyed Girl said. “Our job is to spread his message.”
“But you see,” he continued slowly, “anything you believe is Hindu. We accommodate all belief systems you see.” He heard himself sound almost scientific and was pleased. “Do you see? You call him Jehovah, I just call him by a different name. How you know is a ‘he’ anyway?”
“It is written,” No Longer Sweet-Eyed Girl said quickly.
“So you believe everything you read?” he retorted.
“The scriptures are God’s words. His spoken word. Rituals and idols are the work of Satan.”
“Yes,” Judgmental Lady chimed in, and suddenly she reminded him of a Bobblehead on the dashboard of his car.
“So you mean to say, you never watch or read Harry Potter?” he asked, in mock surprise.
“No! No! J.K. Rowling was into witchcraft. You know? That’s how she got so famous,” said No Longer Sweet-Eyed Girl.
“Oho! But you do believe everything you read,” said Devanand. His ears felt hot. His face felt hotter.
“We are only interested in leading people the right way. Jehovah’s way. It is up to you.”
No Longer Sweet-Eyed Girl looked like she was ready to leave.
“Well,” he said, picking up his comfort stone, “you seeing this?” He opened the gate and stepped out.
The women took a step backward.
“This stone? Well, the existence of this stone means my god is real. Dat is not what you say? He is real because of all this? The trees, the sky. Well, the stone too right?” He opened his arms wide, embracing the street in a sweeping flourish. “So with all due respect, if you ladies don’t get your arses out from in front my father gate, my god will meet you before your god does!”
He waved the stone in front of their faces. As the Jehovah’s Witnesses hurriedly ran off he shouted, “Tell the rest ah dem, pass this gate straight next time! This is d pundit house! And his second, and last son is Devanand Devindra Dinesh Maharaj!”
Then he went back inside and meekly told his father the women had left.
Sharda Patasar is a Trinidadian musician and writer. She was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2020.