A Betting Man


By Vallath Nandakumar

Mohan felt the coolness on his damp body as he walked through the dark passageway from the bathroom into his bedroom. Selecting a clean white loincloth, and a shirt with buttons down the front that he could easily remove in the temple, he finished dressing.

His mother was in the gods' room doing her daily 9 am ritual of offering bananas and parched rice in silver dishes to the gods. "Did you dry your hair properly, Mohan?" she called out mechanically.

"Yes," Mohan answered with a trace of impatience, although water was dripping in tickling streams down his neck.

"Well, take an umbrella. The sun is too hot. And remember, if you go to the temple, to break a coconut for Ganapathi."

Umbrella! Mohan disdained to reply to his mother, and with a jaunty upward flick of his ankle, he folded his mundu up like a kilt, put on his sandals, and walked out into the hot April sunshine.

His grandmother and her brother were sitting on the porch. Mohan paused to let his eyes adjust to the brightness outside.

"Where are you going in this heat, Mohan? Don't you have exams to study for?" his grandmother Kalyani Amma demanded. She was a dignified old woman, past eighty, but her eyesight and hearing were still sharp. And her tongue, thought Mohan. That was the sharpest. She was the matriarch and the ruler of the Konnath family, even though her brother Krishnan Nair was the titular head, the karanavar.

"I have to do things," Mohan muttered evasively, and hurried down the porch steps to the little shelter over the gate to their yard.

His great-uncle Krishnan Nair said nothing. An old man with a long white beard, he never took any interest in family matters, being concerned solely with his poetry. "Visual poetry," the critics called it, and it seemed to just play on the peculiarities of the Malayalam language and the stringing together of syllables. But he was famous. Mohan sometimes reflected that he seemed to not live in this world. Although the Konnath family wealth had dwindled in the last few generations, there was still enough left to support the family, the income being eked out with the help of people like Mohan's father. Most of the paddy fields and fruit orchards were managed by Mohan's uncles and other grand-uncles, since Krishnan Nair did nothing as worldly as estate management. The world must have poets too, he would counter lamely in the rare moments when he chose to respond to his sister's criticism of his lack of interest in family affairs.

Mohan decided to take the long way to the temple, avoiding the potholed and dusty main road with its open lorries and horse-drawn carriages. His friends were loafing about outside their 'club', a tiny room which they had rented out from the shopowner Pillai in front. Pillai sold bananas, cigarettes and fresh lime juice, and bantered with the boys when he was between customers.

The club room was sparsely furnished, with a rough table with a surface covered with carved initials and doodles, a couple of benches and a chair or two. The club's recreational equipment consisted of a couple of worn packs of cards, a cricket set, and a soccer ball. The main entertainment value of the club lay in its members, however, who could always be assured of finding a friend to chat with if they managed to escape there from under the watchful eyes of their parents. In addition, the room was tucked away from prying eyes, and was thus the ideal getting-away place for teenage boys trying to assert their independence. Mohan looked around quickly to make sure that none of his relatives were on the street, and asked the shopkeeper for a cigarette.

"And a piece of peanut candy." The peanut candy was essential to remove the cigarette's smell before he reached home.

"Four annas," the shopkeeper said. "When are your exams?"

"In four weeks," said Mohan, putting his cigarette into his pocket. "Plenty of time to study," he added defensively, even though studying was the last thing that would have occurred to the shopkeeper, who had not even studied up to his 10th standard.

Mohan peered into the dim interior of the club room. His friends stopped their heated card game. "Come on over and join us for a while. We have some details to discuss about tomorrow's match. You are playing, aren't you?"

"Yes, of course," said Mohan, walking over. "I hear Velan's hand has healed, and he will be their goalie."

"I know," said one of the boys. "And we have to have a seven-a-side game. Many of the other fellows are studying for their high-school exams. Mug-pots," he said scathingly. "Can't rely on them."

"Going to the temple?" another boy asked with a sly smile. "Are you going to see your goddess?"

Mohan started, and the others roared with laughter. He hadn't known that they guessed his secret passion for Parvathi, and that he went to the temple every Friday morning to catch a glimpse of her. Friday was the day unmarried girls went to the temple of Siva and Parvathi, the gods who blessed marital bliss, and his beloved-from-afar dutifully went to pray to her namesake goddess for a good husband.

"She won't even turn around to look at him," the boy with the sly smile teased. "Poor Mohan".

"Oho?" Mohan replied, stung. "What do you know," he added, smiling mysteriously and squaring his shoulders.

"Well, if you two are such a hot item, prove it," his taunter challenged. "Bring back some jasmine flowers from her. After all, jasmine is the flower of 'love'". He imitated a coy girl as he said 'love', and all of them laughed again. Like jackasses, Mohan thought disgustedly.

"Bet!" he said aloud. "If I bring it back, you must pay for my cigarettes and peanut candy for a month. Otherwise I will pay."

"Agreed," nodded the other, grinning, and they shook hands, while another boy 'cut' their hands apart with his own to seal the wager.

I am a total fool, he thought moodily to himself. She will kill me if I ask her for jasmine flowers, and I will look like an idiot in front of my friends. Or worse, she will act surprised and tell me that she had always thought of me as a 'good friend' or a 'brother', and embarrass me. She might never speak to me afterwards. These thoughts occupied him until he reached the temple.

On arriving, Mohan took his sandals off, let down his folded loincloth and entered, just remembering to take his shirt off. He did not want to get caught by the temple manager for entering with a shirt. Men had to approach the god without vanity, with breast bared. Too bad women don't have to remove their blouses, he laughed inwardly.

He did however get a chance to satisfy his curiosity in the mornings, when he went to the bigger Vishnu temple early every day, before sunrise. The red light of dawn would just be breaking, and he would walk to the nearby river, and swim in the men's kadavu by the red laterite stone steps. The water would be cool and quiet, and when he looked towards the women's side, he could often see them washing their clothes and bathing with their breasts bared. Of course, he was just curious, he would tell himself, suppressing a pang of guilt, as he dried off and put on clean clothes for the temple. It is because our society is so orthodox and sick that people gossipped even when I talked to a girl, he would think vehemently. This in the land of the Kama Sutra, the great treatise on sex and love! Look at the West, where boys and girls freely interact! He felt sure that the boys in the West did not constantly think of girls' bare bodies. Of course, he wouldn't want everyone to look at Parvathi's hidden charms.

The brief swim in the river always left him refreshed for the whole morning. His grandmother told him she was impressed by his dawn temple visits, even though she was an old woman and knew the ways of the world, and had guessed that piety was only one of the reasons he was so regular. Although she dominated him mercilessly, Mohan could in fact deal with his grandmother better than with the rest of his largely female family members.

The temple smelled of burning oil and camphor, and he heard the buzzing beat of the edakka drum showing that the main morning ritual had started. Mohan stepped over the high granite step into the inner courtyard and stood aside with folded hands, waiting for the door to the inner shrine to open. The temple was crowded, and he felt hot. In between muttering prayers, he let his eyes wander while he searched for 'her' in the crowd. Suddenly the door opened and displayed the statues of the god Shiva and the goddess Parvathi, decorated with flowers and illuminated with oil-lamps. A little boy rang the big bell furiously, just as he, Mohan, had as a little boy whenever he had managed to secure that privilege. The priest circled the image with a small plate with burning camphor, and passed the plate to the worshippers so that they might touch the flame to their eyes and pray. May our egos be burnt up like the camphor, leaving nothing behind but the brightness of true knowledge. Mohan closed his eyes and prayed to the Gods for success in exams, and then for strength, wisdom, and knowledge. He murmured the Sanskrit prayer asking their blessings as Parents of the universe, as inseparable from each other as Word and Meaning.

Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder. "What, Mohan? How are matters with you? We haven't seen you at our place for many days!" He looked around to see Parvathi's aunt, a kindly old woman who frequently came by to his place to gossip with his own grandmother and mother. Parvathi looked on and smiled agreement with her aunt.

"Uh, yes," he stammered, and looked at Parvathi. She was looking divine, he thought, in her cream muslin sari with the green border, and he continued to stare at her figure.

"Well?" the aunt asked again. "When are you coming?"

"I will come by this morning," he said, his chest constricting at the thought of the bet he had made. "Will you be home?"

"Where else can we be? Be sure to come. Leela has made some new sweets, and you must taste them. Take some prasadam," she added, referring to the sandal paste from the priest, and drew a mark on his forehead. She and Parvathi left to finish their worship. Parvathi paused to glance back at him, and their eyes met for a moment before she turned away.

Mohan's gaze followed her until she disappeared round the corner. He was about to leave too, when he remembered the coconut for the elephant-headed Lord Ganapathi, the remover of obstacles. He walked to the offerings counter, and asked for a coconut.

"One rupee," the dour man at the counter told him, and handed over the coconut. He had a thread crossing his chest, signifying that he was of a high caste.

Mohan took the coconut and went to the shrine of Ganapathi, where he paused a moment. He meant to pray for success in his exams, but another silent prayer came unbidden to his mind as he dashed the coconut against the granite stone. It broke into many pieces, which a little boy standing by picked up and took to one of the temple buildings. He himself picked up a couple of pieces, for his mother would be sure to ask him for a piece of the god's coconut.

On the way out, he saw the gray temple elephant swaying to and fro, and when he approached, the elephant held out its trunk to him. Mohan placed one of the pieces at the end of the trunk, which quickly disappeared into its cavernous mouth. The elephant blinked and held out its trunk again, but Mohan shook his head and walked out, putting on his shirt and sandals.

He walked to his father's house, his mind still on his last prayer. His father lived very near the temple, and visited his mother in the evenings after dinner, spending the night at her house. Mohan himself belonged to his mother's family, and his uncles were his father-figures, to train him and discipline him and guide him in the ways of men. Mohan was, however, very close to his own father, and went there almost every day.

His father was on the porch reading the paper, and put it down when Mohan came. Mohan fell into a reclining canvas chair, and his father called out to his sister to bring some water. Mohan greeted his aunt and gulped down the warm ginger water, and proceeded to tell his father all about his trouble with his class notes and the difficulty of getting books from the library at exam time.

"I may be able to send for books from Madras, if you give me a list of what you need," his father said. "And if you get good marks in your high-school exam, you know that I want you to go to Madras and study for your degree."

"Oh, no father, it is too much trouble to get books from Madras," Mohan protested. "And I don't know whether I want to go all the way there to study. I don't know anybody there, and Madras is even hotter than here."

"Nonsense. You must get your degree in a good university. You are a good student, if somewhat easily distracted, and you must make the most of your life when you are young. Have you been practicing yoga like I asked you to improve your concentration?"

Mohan did not like the idea of leaving his soccer friends, and especially Parvathi, he told himself. Who knows what would happen if he left? She might marry someone else, and even though she was only fifteen now, he would be away for three years, and she was sure to get a hundred marriage proposals by then. And he felt happy where he was: his parents were nearby, he had his friends for company, and he led a carefree life, punctuated only occasionally by the intrusion of any conflicts or responsibilities.

Neither did he want to broaden his mind. After all, everything there was to learn by traveling could be learned in his own town. He supposed that he took after his great-uncle Krishnan Nair in that respect. But there was a sense of inevitability at the whole thing. His life was beginning to move with a momentum that he could not stop or even direct.

He left his father's house and made his way to Parvathi's, stopping on the way to buy some flowers. He decided that he was going to give her some flowers, even if he couldn't get her to give him any. She was in the garden when he reached there. Barefoot and reaching high, she was pruning twigs from a hibiscus bush, while her blouse stretched over her figure. The sunlight falling on her bare midriff highlighted the fine downy hair on her skin and blurred its outline. Mohan stared as long as he was able, and then called, "Parvathi!"

"Mohan!" she exclaimed. "So you finally made it here. You haven't forgotten me after all!"

Mohan flushed in confusion, and felt sweat breaking out on his palms and under his arms. He tightened his grip on the flowers in his hand. Parvathi laughed, and Mohan flushed again.

"You know my father wants me to go to Madras to study at the University," he said. "I don't want to go for three years."

"Of course you should go. You will do very well," she said encouragingly. "And won't you be back for vacations?"

"I suppose so. But ...," he stammered. "What will you do in that time?" The pressure of his yearnings propelled the question from him. It floated in the air between them like a piece of thistledown, and Mohan willed his mind to blow on it and urge it towards her.

"I will wait for you," she said suddenly. Her tone held a faint surprise, as if he should have known that already.

Mohan's bewilderment at this set his mind spinning. What does she mean, he wondered? She was even a minute ago laughing at him. For a moment he wondered whether she was teasing him. But he shook off his racing thoughts and, seizing the moment, walked up to her.

"You must wait," he said mustering up all his confidence.

With that, the knot in his stomach unraveled itself and his anxious sweat dried up. All the fears and doubts that he had been living with disappeared like a pinch of dust would in a puff of her breath. It was suddenly as if he had known her to be his for years, or maybe through many past lives.

"Give me the flowers from your hair as a symbol of your commitment. I will give you these." He handed over the yellow marigold flowers he had just bought, still damp in their banana leaf wrapping. They were slightly crushed and their scent was strong, and he wasn't sure whether they were the type girls wore in their hair, but he didn't care about all that any more.

Without a word, Parvathi removed the flowers from her hair and held them out to Mohan. She seemed to hold her face out to him along with the flowers, and suddenly Mohan felt a madness come over him. He gripped Parvathi by her shoulders, and planted a kiss clumsily on her nose and lips. It was his first kiss. Then, snatching the jasmine flowers from her, he turned around and walked away without waiting to see her expression.

Outside he pulled out a single flower and stuck it behind his ear, tossing the rest away. He only needed one.

His friends saw his jaunty walk when he passed them, although they did not notice his flower.

"So, did you get the flowers? I don't see any," his betting friend called out.

"No, I didn't get anything," Mohan said. "Cigarettes and candy on me for the next month." He then lit his own cigarette openly, and with Paradise in his stride, sauntered home.

(Vallath Nandakumar was born and brought up in India. At the age of 21, he came to the United States for graduate studies. He now works as an electrical engineer in Silicon Valley, where he writes short stories in his spare time. Inspiration for many of his stories is drawn from his experiences in the state of Kerala, South India. email: vallath.nandakumar@amd.com)