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The Caretaker
by Richard Rupnarain
Guyana Journal, July 2006


He never noticed the prismatic shafts of sunlight that beamed through the holes in the moth eaten cotton blind, or how they bounced off the vanity mirror unto the lacquered walls of his bedroom. He was too busy struggling to pull a white vest over his head. When he finally surfaced he was gasping like a man held for too long under water. He then unholstered his plastic comb from his back pocket, pulled it like a furrow through his long jet black hair, from forehead to nape, and then across, from part to right ear, to create a three-inch high muff, a simple but popular hairstyle among straight-haired teenagers and young adults in those days. The lavishly lathered Brylcream hair gel held the muff in place and gave it a sheen that only the brilliance of the noonday sun could rival. Now Harry Prasad was all dressed for the 8 a.m. service at the Hindu temple.

He looked at his Timex. It was 7:15 a.m. It was still too early. The temple was just three blocks down the street so he decided to make himself a cup of tea and scan the morning newspapers. The headlines were the same as the previous week. Public Service Union Seeks Wage Increase. PM to Meet with IMF. He turned to the second page. Obeah Man Jailed For Fraud. Another one, he muttered. Cutlass Wielder to Face Murder Charges. He then flipped the unwieldy newspaper over to Sports. When he saw the caption Kallicharran Leads Warwickshire to Victory, he pulled back his chair and spread the paper flat on the table, as he would normally do when he intends to read every word of an article. Alvin Kallicharran was the last of the Indian boys to do well in West Indies cricket and through the influence of Rohan Kanhai he was able to land a contract with Warwickshire, the English county league champions. It was his fifth century in seven matches and for the moment it put him atop the English County League for most runs scored.

Just as he was two-thirds of the way through the article he heard voices coming from the vicinity of the temple. The streets of the small village of five hundred residents were normally quiet at that time of the morning, so when he heard the din he, assumed he was late for the 8 a.m. service, dropped the newspapers on the floor and sped off to the temple. As he banked the corner of the crescent unto the main street he could see a small gathering of people, women in white dresses and men in kurtas, standing outside the locked gates in front of the temple. He looked at his watch. It was 7:30 a.m. It was still early for service. So what were these people doing here so early? As he drew closer to the red and white temple with its yellow and white flags flapping in the cool morning easterlies he recognized some of the people at the gate. They all looked bewildered and angry at the same time. Some of them were men who went to the temple early to prepare parsad and puri (a sweetmeat treat given to worshippers at the end of the service), and some were women who ensured that the sanctuary was ceremonially clean and set for the service. The women had their hands full of the fresh flowers they used to make garlands for the gods. But why were they locked out? He surmised that something was wrong, quickened his pace into a jog and headed straight for Mr. Ramgolie, the caretaker, who was visible from afar in his white kurta and dust covered sandals. Surprisingly, Mr. Ramgolie was consoling the distraught women.

Prasad, like most of the members of the temple, kept himself at arm's length from Ramgolie. Years ago his mother had warned him, "Be careful with that man. He got shifty eyes. I don't like him." Ramgolie was not like the common East Indian. He was tall and lanky, of fair complexion, and he sported a fully greyed moustache twirled into the shape of a handle bar. The bags under his eyes betrayed a man who stayed up late at night and who labored under the strain of self-imposed loneliness. Being as irascible as he was, people stayed away from him. No one ever spoke to him unless it was absolutely necessary. He on the other hand was taciturn and would never initiate a conversation. Whenever he broke the silence it was always with an order or a rebuke. Ramgolie was never married and with his choleric personality, the odds were that he would remain unmarried and celibate unless he was fortunate to find a deaf mute who was also blind.

Every day after work he would pedal his antiquated Hercules bicycle down the red brick tracks leading up to the temple. With his arms folded across the handlebar and head down low for aerodynamic efficiency he looked like a racer in motion – slow motion. No one could say with any degree of certainty what he did in the building during the week but it was common knowledge that he never left the temple until dark. On Sundays he arrived early and opened the doors and after services were over he turned the lights out and closed up the premises. Besides being the caretaker, Ramgolie was also the longest serving board member in the history of the church. During the fifteen years of his tenure he had amassed and consolidated a great deal of power and influence over the board. It was no secret that he made all the important decisions, down to the selection of a pandit when a vacancy arose. Naturally the pandits were made to feel obligated to him and sought to placate him with their decisions. Yet for some reason no one, not even the pandit was ever invited to the caretaker’s home. In fact most people were not even sure where he lived. Ramgolie was indeed a dark character, unknowable because he wanted to remain unknown.

Much to Prasad’s surprise, he could hear Ramgolie consoling the women while simultaneously answering a barrage of questions being hurled by a loquacious woman named Betty.

"You mean to say them thieves stole all the utensils?"

"Down to puckie, belna and lota. But worse than that, gal," Ramgolie replied.

"Don’t tell me they stole the jewelry too," Betty interrupted.

A small fortune in gems hung around the necks of the gods. Many of the women felt they would secure divine favor with their charitable donations to the gods and crowned them with dear and precious jewelry. Betty herself had bestowed her mother's tillary on the goddess Lakshmi and tied an 18-carat gold chain around the neck of Vishnu. She almost fainted at the thought of losing the gifts she abnegated for the gods. "Yes, that too! But worse that that!"

"Don’t lie to my face now, Ramgolie! Don’t lie to me! I throw dhar this morning and I prayed to the sun. Tell me you are joking."

"No joke, sister Betty! This is not laugh story! They took more than the jewelry. They carried away all our Murtis."

"Oh Ganesh! Our Murti gone?"

"Come and see for yourself! They left only one picture of Ganesh. The one where he is riding the rat."

"The mouse."

"Whatever."

Pandit Jairam arrived just in time to grab Betty as she fainted after crying out, "Ow Panditji, all our murtis are gone."

"Limacol! Somebody bring Limacol!" the pandit kept shouting to the burgeoning crowd. For Prasad’s neighbors, Limacol was the alcohol-based palliative with healing virtues for every known sickness but death. Several bottles turned up in an instant. Pandit uncorked a bottle, slapped a handful of the cool liquid on Betty’s forehead, and the turned to Ramgolie, "What happened here Ramgolie?"

Ramgolie was very deliberate as he explained the burglary to the agitated pandit.

Without hesitation Pandit quietly dismissed the morning services and asked the people to go home and pray. Pandit also requested that all the able-bodied men stay back as they were going to launch a search for the missing Murtis. In the meanwhile the Limacol had added another success story to its resume. A few saps on the forehead were all it took to revive the distraught woman. Ramgolie consoled her as her son escorted her away, "Don't worry Betty, with Lord Ganesh as my witness, I tell you, we will find the thief."

After the crowd had dispersed Pandit Jairam surveyed the ravaged temple. He was a short and stocky man with a distended belly that rolled over his belt and put enormous pressure on his shirt buttons. When he took his lotus position at the altar he looked like a darker version of the Buddha. He was unusually young for a pandit. Prasad estimated him to be about twenty-seven years of age. It was hard to be more precise as he was really dark for an East Indian considering he was not of Madrasi heritage and that his parents and siblings were of much lighter complexion. The congregation, especially the boys, grew fond of him as he always found time to join them for a "scrubby" bumper ball match. But he was not a popular choice for the position as head pandit. The married women who comprised the largest segment of the congregation mostly felt that he was too young and too inexperienced for the role. The single women on the other hand were overtly blunt in their assessment. For them Pandit Jairam was just too "black and ugly."

But Pandit was by no means a grotesque ogre. In fact his facial features were quite normal and he boasted an extremely white set of dentures, visible from afar, and clearly identifiable at night. He was just dark, really dark, and darker than African people, dark enough to absorb light. A dark-skinned Caucasoid man! Devotees even joked that when he drove his jalopy along Vlissingen Road at night only his teeth were visible, prompting many to report sightings of a ghost rider. Unfortunately for Pandit beauty was left to the eye of East Indian beholders and their perception of beauty was based on the superficial element of skin pigmentation.

As far as Guyanese ‘coolies’ were concerned skin complexion was a big deal. Those who were fair, meaning light-skinned, were deemed pretty or good-looking. As Prasad's mother would say, "Even if them ugly like parasite or dunce for spite everybody still think them nice." But one could hardly blame them for thinking that way. All the girls in starring roles in Indian movies were of light complexion. There was no significant role for darkies.

Sadly, the fair skinned girls were taught to believe they were superior to others by virtue of their color and naturally did whatever was necessary to maintain their thin advantage. They hid from the sun unless they had an umbrella to prevent sunburn. Heaven forbid that someone should remark to them, "Is what happen to you. How you get so black?" And they layered their faces with talcum powder to look even whiter and fairer than their contemporaries. Darker skinned girls, on the contrary, were "black and ugly," the scorched remains of Hanuman's conflagration of Lanka. And when the misguided souls tried to upgrade their status from dark to lighter they wound up looking like powder-pooses.

Naturally Prasad's black friends took offence at the analogical allusion of dark to ugliness. When their high school class was taken to Haathu Meera Sathi and afterwards were asked to render an assessment of the movie, Tommy Presley, a vocal black kid in support of Angela Davis and the Black Panthers was quick to point out that the star boy liked the girl because she was white and fair. When opposed by a defensive Balram he identified the lines of the song and where it was sung. "When they were running around those trees and flowers," he recalled.

"But in all coolie pictures the boy and gal a run around trees."

Poor Presley wasn't aware of that axiom in Indian movies. Haathi Meera Sathi was the first Indian movie he and the black kids had ever seen. Nevertheless, Presley made his point that Indians were shallow for thinking that just because someone was fair it made them attractive. Of course he invoked the ire of the coolie boys when he interjected the notion that the Indians wanted to be like white people and because fairness approximated to that goal, the lighter skinned people were deemed better looking than darker skinned people.

In any event, while Pandit Jairam did not have the popular vote or the adulation of the young girls, he was the only candidate for the job and the people reluctantly accepted him as their spiritual leader. They reasoned that despite his color and inexperience he could not be worse than his predecessor, the former pandit, Gurdesh Lal, more popularly known as Manbogh King.

Pandit Lal lived a celibate life, not by choice, but because of natural repulsion of the opposite sex. He was a heavy-set man who had perfected the art of superficial piety, bowing and clasping his hands whenever he intersected people on the street. But the community became wary of him, notably after he invited the young girls to learn Hindi after school on weekdays and the girls complained to their mothers that Pandit was "nasty." By that the mothers knew that Lal had attempted some form of sexual impropriety with the girls. The Hindi lessons came to an end before Pandit could say "Om."

But to be fair his popularity was on a gradual landslide even before that incident. Devotees noticed that the quality of his services deteriorated and while most of them did not understand Hindi they soon detected the similarity in sermons from week to week. A dissident named Ramjohn laid the first charge when he stood up to speak at the conference on ending Lal's tenure. "I tell all you," he said with passion, "that man knows only one sermon. He preaches the same thing every Sunday in temple, and I heard him preach the same message at Gobin’s funeral and at Manu son’s wedding. What kind of a pandit is that who will preach the same sermon at a wedding and a funeral? I know more than him."

After that Ramsingh Harriram felt courageous enough to attack pandit Lal for his voracious appetite for manbogh. "I am ashamed to say this, pandit. But as the pandit you should be setting the example. But instead you go to temple early and pack your bowl with the manbogh that belongs to the people so that a lot of them don't get any to carry home and now they stop coming to the temple. Why do you think they call you Manbogh King? You are too scraven."

With the harsh indictments stacked against him Pandit Lal had little choice but to hand in his resignation. Word had it that his few faithful followers still paid him regular visits with brown bags crammed full of his favorite food.

Immediately after Lal’s resignation rumors began to circulate that Ramgolie was campaigning for the position. But the people were wary of him and never gave him any consideration. As it turned out the incumbent Pandit Jairam proved to be the least of three evils. Pandit Lal was a proven evil and Ramgolie was potential evil.

Back in the temple pandit Jairam surveyed the floor and yard for evidence but found nothing. The burglars appeared to have taken care to secure their haul, as the temple was swept and garnished, extremely clean for a place that had been recently burglarized. Pandit Jairam bent down near his altar and picked up a fresh hibiscus, shook his head, took a deep breath and said, "Terrible! Terrible! How people can do things like this? Them rascals carried way our gods. How will we pray now?" He got up slowly and standing like Napoleon with arm tucked in dhoti he gave the orders to begin the search.

Ramgolie headed off in the direction of the sideline trench and Pandit Prasad and the other able bodied men combed the bushes behind the school. Twenty minutes had not yet expired when Ramgolie raised the cry of victory. "Pandit, I think I find something." Everyone rushed to see the find. Pandit looked at the piece of stone shaped like an arm and said, "I think this is Shiva's arm." The others begged to differ.

"No pandit. This is Ganesha foot."

"Its not a foot or hand! It’s the goad Ganesh used to push people to the eternal path."

"Search! Search! We might find the rest of them!"

The men continued their search and stumbled on a trail of broken pieces of stone and porcelain leading up to the sideline dam. Munniram came up with another piece that Lalo, the self-appointed crime scene investigator, determined to be a part of Shiva's torso. Prasad looked at the piece and pondered the irony that Siva, the god of destruction was himself being destroyed. Ramgolie took the recovered pieces and dropped them into a flour bag he had over his shoulder. They continued the search until noon but found nothing more of significance and one by one the disillusioned search party gave up and returned home, all except Prasad. He sat for a while on the banks of the sideline, his feet just a yard away from the water's edge, and contemplated the theft and its consequences.

His community was up in arms over the stolen murti. The congregants could not worship without their gods forcing pandit to cancel services. If the murtis were just idols of stone why were they so expensive? Worse, if the murtis were just symbols of deity, an aid to worship, why was everyone so cut up about the loss? And why were the devotees required to ransom their murtis from the kidnappers? These were gods who should be saving their devotees from evildoers and not vice-versa. Anger burned in his chest, not against the thieves, but against his community. It was evident from their reaction to the stolen murtis that the idols had a greater significance for them than they cared to admit. He vowed to address the problem the following week.

The following Sunday he arrived at the temple, with his speech, written on a sheet of exercise book paper and tucked tightly in his fist. Earlier in the week he had asked Pandit Jairam for permission to address the congregation but never disclosed the nature of his message. Pandit had agreed on the grounds that he made it very short. When everyone was seated Pandit Jairam announced that Prasad had something to say and that everyone should give him his or her undivided attention for the next few minutes. With trembling lips and fingers he began to read.

"Brothers and sisters, the past week has been very hard for many of us. Some wicked people stole our expensive murtis and I understand we had to borrow money from lots of people to replace the murtis with these new ones we have here today. Thankfully, Mr. Ramgolie was able to find replacements at a reasonable cost.... But when we started the manhunt for the murtis it struck me as odd that we should be looking for our gods and trying to save them from thieves, and then I asked myself, ‘Do we really need these murtis?’”

Before he could say another word, Mr. Ramgolie pounced on him like a hungry tiger on a hapless wildebeest and belched out expletives from the back of the room. "A wah dis me a hear," he bellowed in his usual guttural voice, "Pandit, is how you sit there and allow this jackass to talk such foolishness. Them young people this don't know any culture and have no respect for religion. Besides, we are not the only people with statue. Dem Catalic people got Mary and Peter and Jesus in them church and does pray to them too. We have to have our murti. No two ways about that. Right people?"

The crowd agreed with Ramgolie and in a second the sanctimonious gathering was transformed into a frenzied mob baying for Prasad's blood. At that moment he felt like Jesus as he stood before Pontius Pilate. Sensing the rising hostility he realized that he was getting nowhere and held his silence. Quietly he folded his speech, tucked it in his pocket and left the church. Prasad never returned to the temple.

Ramgolie on the other hand was pleased with his successful defense of the need for murtis. After the meeting was over the people formed a line to examine the refurbished murtis and to place colorful garlands of fresh flowers around their necks. Pandit announced that those who could afford it should bring jewelry to adorn the gods. After everyone had departed Ramgolie locked up the doors and pedaled away from the temple. A soon as he arrived home he chained his bicycle to the stairs and headed for the wallaba shed in the backyard. He opened the doors, looked around, and then went inside and locked the doors behind him. He experienced a sense of euphoria every time he inspected his inventory of religious articles.

On the uppermost shelf he stacked the prime deities – Durga, Surya, Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesha. He had two of each. Some were the recent arrivals from his temple. On the middle tier he lined up the mother gods – Kali, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ambika and Parvati. The bottom shelf was reserved for framed pictures of Krishna, Radha and Sita. He also had a cardboard box full of unframed pictures of Indra and Prajapati, the gods of heaven and earth, and one of Bali the monkey king. Bali gained popularity when he helped Vishnu defeat the evildoers. Ramgoli had pawned the jewelry at a store on King Street and banked the proceeds.

On the floor he kept the fragments of the statue of Queen Victoria in a box. The statue in front of the Supreme Court building was pulled down when the country gained independence. When the effigy crashed to the ground it broke into a thousand pieces and many onlookers, Ramgolie included, were on hand and had picked up bits and pieces of the fallen monarch for posterity. Ramgolie never dreamed at that time that his collection would be anything more than a souvenir of a colonial past, and most certainly he did not see it as something by which he could become rich. But Victoria was now his secret. Carefully, he emptied the fragments of the old queen from the flour bag into the cardboard box. Someday another unfortunate temple would be vandalized and the leg would come in handy. Of that he was sure.

The Writer

Note: This story contains names of people, places and events. Any resemblance to actual persons – living or dead – places, things or events is unintentional and purely coincidental, or intended as a parody.
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