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SEVEN

A book of short stories By Arpita Bhawal

Monkey Business

1.

"Amma, I am going to ask Lord Hanuman to help me get a job in Bengalooru."

The young woman spoke, as she looked into the mirror, fixing the string of orange blossoms with dexterity around her thick braid. She wore a bright pink Kanjeevaram sari that blushed starkly against her black skin. Her name was Meenakshi.

"You would do well to go early tomorrow morning. Today I hear, the Chief Minister is coming to inspect the stone," her mother replied between picking her teeth with a matchstick and keeping an eye on the road.

There were throngs of people assembling in the Village Square, for a ticket to the special ceremony. This ticket with a number stamped crudely on it would help the villagers take turns to worship comfortably in a cue, during the ceremony. Those without a ticket would not be allowed near the worship premises today. The ticket would not cost money, just plenty of patience to wait under the sun for it.

The Youth Congress Committee members were yet to arrive for distribution of these tickets, and like fledgling politicians, they seemed to be taking their time.

Meanwhile, the morning sun with its warming treat did not deter women from decking themselves with finery, which included bright silk saris and elaborate gold jewelry. The men donned their Sunday best.

Word was out that the Chief Minister was visiting and there was some special ceremony prior to the darshan. The young women who wished for good husbands were ready with their offerings of milky coconuts and garlands, as they believed that the ceremony would bring them good fortune. The men, who looked forward for a good crop during the year, were also ready to immerse in the faith.

Meenakshi's mother Varalakshmi turned away from the window and looked at her daughter. Meenakshi was beautiful and old enough to be married.

Varalakshmi was married off at the tender age of 14. Being the youngest in a family of 7 children, 5 females and 2 males, it was natural for her wealthy parents to seek a good match for the girls as early as possible.

Fortunately, Varalakshmi's mother-in-law died after giving birth to her husband, the first and only offspring of his family. Her father-in-law, still alive though an invalid now, was a kind man who let her have her way in the house and the marriage.

Yes, Varalakshmi had been fortunate indeed.

Would Meenakshi be as lucky? Maybe Lord Hanuman would interpret her prayers in a way that Varalakshmi would be able to fulfill her duties, as a mother towards her daughter. This new dream of finding a job in Bengalooru was frightening.

A knock on the courtyard door broke her anxious thoughts. It was Sri Murali Ramaswamy. He was the district MLA and owed everything to Meenakshi's father Hariharan Hegde, for his political success and more importantly, the recent fame of Theranya.

Before this great phenomenon of Lord Hanuman, Theranya was just another obscure village in the Hassan district of Karnataka. If Hariharan Hegde had not given him the great idea to use this opportunity to invite the Chief Minister, Theranya would have remained what it really was: a spot on the district map, no more, no less.

"Good morning Amma," Murali greeted Varalakshmi humbly.

"Welcome Sir. Please come inside."

"Amma, I have come to take Hariharan with me to meet the Chief Minister. As you know, I never forget the favours people do for our village community."

"My husband will be here in a moment. He has gone to meet some labourers who work on our fields. Two cows have fallen ill. Can I get you some coffee while you are waiting?"

"Oh yes. That will be very nice. I missed my morning cup as I left for the party headquarters early this morning. After all, it's not everyday that we have the Chief Minister visiting, isn't it?" he concluded with a satisfied grin.

Varalakshmi asked Meenakshi to bring coffee for Murali and settled on the wooden cot opposite him, in the courtyard.

"Yes, yes. It's true. Theranya is now as important as any well-known village in south India. We no longer need to be ashamed of being villagers. We have the townsfolk coming here now!"

"All thanks to Lord Hanuman," Murali added sombrely, with an air of studied divinity. Meenakshi brought two tumblers of steaming filtered coffee. The rich aroma further lifted Murali's spirits.

He smiled at the young lady and asked, "Are you coming for the special ceremony this afternoon?"

"Oh yes, I am! I just got my SSLC results. I have passed with a second class. Now I want to ask Lord Hanuman for a job in Bengalooru," she answered triumphantly.

"Ah! That is the easiest thing to do. You must ask for something more difficult like a rich husband," he said with a mischievous smile.

"You are right Sir," Varalakshmi rejoined happily, "that is precisely what I was thinking this morning. She should now want to make a home, not look for employment in some big city."

Hariharan appeared at the door.

"Welcome, welcome! I was expecting you Murali."

"So here you are at last how are the cows?"

"There is nothing to worry about. The heat is getting to them. But I am sure, Lord Hanuman will take care of everything," Hariharan said cheerfully.

"Well, let us go then. The youth committee will explain your duties for the day," Murali replied.

"Fine. I will be with you in a minute. It is great pleasure indeed, to see that the holy granite has done what no one for the last 53 years of our independence could do bring the Chief Minister to Theranya!"

They all laughed and agreed that if it hadn't been for Nagraj and the great holy granite, Theranya would have not been on the national map today.

* * * * *

2.

It all began when S.Nagraj, a humble trustee of a temple in Periyakuppam, in Thiruvallur district of Tamilnadu, had a dream one night.

Lord Rama himself appeared to him and said, "Nagraj, you are the privileged devotee, who has been chosen for a special task. Go forth into the world and search for a stone to build a statue of my devotee Lord Hanuman. Build and install the statue in Periyakuppam. If you succeed, the land and its people will be blessed."

The good Lord Rama vanished immediately after. Nagaraj woke sweating with fear. The Lord had not left any further instructions to go about the task. Where would he find the stone and how would he raise the funds?

The next day he drew up a list of patrons who might contribute to this good cause. He met various people in Thiruvallur district, prospective patrons, and then he set off for Madras. He met senior officials in the Government there, who visited Periyakuppam from time to time, and upon their recommendations, sent letters to the chief architects in the city, seeking their advice on the purchase of a huge granite stone, measuring at least 40 feet high and 10 feet wide. However, it was easier said than done.

The architects in Tamil Nadu and the neighbouring states shook their heads in resignation. It was impossible to find such a huge stone, they said.

It took Nagraj a good deal of toil and planning and 5 long years, to secure a staggering sum of three hundred million rupees. However, though the first part of the task was over, what remained was the elusive part: the search for the holy stone.

Nagraj went from village to village, district to district, state to state, searching for the holy stone. He spared no lane, no field and no farm. He looked into courtyards and backyards. He looked into granaries and quarries. He looked in the markets and village squares. But the great big stone was not to be seen anywhere. He decided to give up the search and settle for a smaller statue. He had one more village to visit, on his way back to Periyakuppam. The chances are, he told himself, I won't find it. Nonetheless, it is a deed for the Lord, he thought, so I must do it.

With these thoughts, Nagraj entered Murkal on a hot, dry summer day holding his umbrella as close to his balding crown as he possibly could. He knew no one in Murkal and decided to leave by the sporadically inclined evening bus. His wife Shanthi was anxious about his insane obsession with the holy stone. She was afraid he would speak of renouncing the world thereafter.

To keep peace in the house, she supported her husband Nagraj in his endeavours, foregoing the pleasures of a marital life, while he was busy with his sojourns for collecting funds.

Now that the funds were ready, she did not wish to spend another day in isolation. She gave Nagraj an ultimatum: either he returns to Periyakuppam or she leaves for her mother's home.

Nagraj secretly rejoiced at this ultimatum, for he was also tired of wandering in search of the huge stone. He thanked his wife and believed God had spoken through her. He promised to return home from Murkal.

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