Faith is a strange thing. And when you are sitting on a rickety chair that the shopkeeper lent in a narrow lane in Varanasi, faith takes on a stranger-than-fiction hue. A bunch of Italians, awkwardly draped in dhotis, passed me by. They were followed by an amused pair of kids who had decided tailing them was more interesting than begging for now. The shop I sat next to was more of a three feet long table that doubled up as lockers for the devotees. You could remove your slippers, cram your purse in the locker, and take the prayer basket from him. ‘The locker has only a single key, madam. Your things are safe here. They are like mud to us. Mahadev gives us plenty so we don’t need the visitors’ money. That’ll be ₹150 for the basket and an additional ₹20 if you want more milk.’ She grabbed the basket, and slowly made her way down the steps.
My granny’s faith had brought us to Varanasi. She had at some point of time promised her attendance at the Kashi Vishwanath temple in exchange of her prayers being answered. God sometimes gets bribed it seems, for here we were to keep her end of the deal. Another horde of barefoot visitors passed me by. They seemed unmindful of the muck they were stepping in – a mix of the milk being offered in the temple, poor drainage, residual colours from yesterday’s Holi, and the tobacco laced betel leaves that had been chewed and spat out on the walls lining the narrow alley.
I sat there waiting, since grandma thankfully isn’t much of a believer when it comes to single key lockers. I had volunteered to stand guard a little too quickly. I was relieved. The idea of jostling for space, pouring milk on the deity, feeding the overfed priest only to get thrown out by the fresh surge of devotees, doesn’t stir my faith. The closed space overwrought with sweet fragrance of incense and flowers, mixed with body odour and the smell of spoilt milk, interspersed with whiffs of jasmine hair oil, proves to be more of a test of my faith. So I sent her in with a muffled reassurance that I’ll go once she returns.
Faith is a strange thing. A lady who had been roaring at the rickshaw puller for looting her by asking for ₹15 for ‘barely a ride,’ bowed at the first step leading to the temple, and eagerly gave my shopkeeper ₹150 as if it was her ticket to nirvana. The rickshaw puller carefully folded the ten-rupee note, snuck it in the folds of his lungi, all the while muttering under his breath. His faith made him quickly bow in the general direction of the temple before he rode off with two Japanese tourists trying to balance themselves. Yes, they had chandan smeared on their forehead, a garland masking the camera slung around their necks, and had been happily waved off by a grinning man in a dhoti. Going by the thick wad of notes that he was now counting, he seemed to have played an important role in getting their prayers heard on a priority basis.
Nani finally returned after an anxious forty minutes. I had been contemplating using the one-key only locker before going in to look for her, when another dhoti clad, pot-bellied man came running to me, ‘she is just about to reach! Everything went very well!’ He answered to queries that I had not put. The chandan smeared on his forehead, mixed with bright vermilion meant that he was the middleman between her and the resident God, and his enthusiasm to report the completion of the mission meant that he had made a hefty sum off her. And soon enough, Nani climbed up the stairs, clutching the two packets of parsad and beaming a tired, breathless but a satisfied smile. The pot-bellied man lingered on in the hope that I would now go and strike up my share of deal with the almighty. He promised a longer puja, which was supposed to ensure that God pays more attention to me, and less to the rest of the human mass nudging and shoving to get blessed.
It was a small alley, flanked by shops on both sides offering everything holy that you could ever dream of. It was narrow enough to come to a shocked halt when I politely declined the pot-bellied man’s offer. I almost felt guilty, being weighed down by so many glares. ‘It is world famous baba’s mandir, madam. Everyone goes in!’ The almost guilt evaporated at the site of his pan-stained smile, neck hidden under layers of fat, and the outline of a thick bunch of notes in his waistband. I shook my head and repeated, ‘I am good here. Thanks!’
The crestfallen man retreated, and the alley went back to its business of religion. Nani shook her head and mumbled, ‘Comes all the way to Benaras and doesn’t step inside the temple.’ I smiled and helped her in the taxi. She was back to her cheerful, devout self in no time and wasted no time in trying to convince the driver that a trip to another temple was doable since God would ensure that we do not miss the evening flight. She also seemed to have erased my refusal to go in the temple from her memory because just as the car pulled away, she said, ‘You just tell baba that you will come here, and also go to Sankatmochan temple if your work gets done. I will come with you.’
I opened my mouth to protest but then decided against it. She was driven by her faith, I was by mine. She believes in temples, promises to God, and prayers offered on her behalf for a fee. I, on the other hand, do not believe that God could be bribed, or that he chose to exclusively reside in a dingy, damp, chamber whose floors were never clean. So I let her faith win. I let her make that promise on my behalf. Whether or not I fulfill it, remains to be seen. Faith after all is a strange thing.