The septuagenarian priest who sat cross legged on the floor of his modest house smiled heartily, amply showing his solitary upper tooth as he welcomed Rajiv and his parents. The topless priest wore only a white cotton dhoti, his hairless brown chest sagged lightly on either side of his perfectly round pot-belly as if to hold it from rolling over like football. He sat straight without any back support, a posture that came naturally to him from decades long practice of performing ceremonial Hindu prayers.
Rajiv’s family was one of his many regular clients. The priest had for years performed many ritualistic prayers in their house and the family believed that prayers conducted by him bore the desired result most of the time. They had faith that he will be able to help this time as well.
“Rajiv is not getting married,” said the concerned mother after the pleasantries were exchanged. She sat on the cot next to the priest’s wife.
“You worry too much,” said the priest, laughing her off.
“He is already thirty.” She snapped like a typical Indian mother who feels justified in worrying for a son who has yet to settle after three decades on wandering on the planet.
“Thirty! So I’m seeing him after many years.” The priest smiled at Rajiv who hesitantly nodded with a half, perfunctory smile. “He doesn’t even remember. He was very young when I met him last.”
“Please check his horoscope.” The mother handed over a small booklet to the priest who eyeballed it for a while, turned pages and made some notes.
Rajiv’s mother anxiously looked at the priest while she subconsciously wrapped the loose end of her sari around her finger. Her eyes fell on the idol of Goddess Durga behind the priest so she bowed, closed her eyes and said a silent prayer. Rajiv’s father looked on but was more composed. He sat on the solitary chair in the room as his knee problem prevented him from sitting cross legged on the floor.
Rajiv who sat on the floor opposite the priest observed the sparsely furnished room. The small idol of Durga was nicely draped in a red sari brocaded in gold design and placed in the shelf dug within the wall. Packet of incense sticks, match box, cotton, metal and earthen lamps along with camphor were placed on the floor between the priest and the idol. Dhotis and shirts were hung on the hanger of the other wall behind his mother. Behind him was a small cycle for the grand children of the priest, the kids who were peeping sheepishly through the door. The room was redolent of camphor and incense.
“There is a ‘shani dasha’ (negative influence of Saturn), we will need to perform a ‘gupt vidhi’ (secret ritual) on him.”
“Sure. Anything to get him married,” assured Rajiv’s mother, smiling excitedly and believing that her son will get married after the rituals. Rajiv glared at her and gestured to her to reign in her overdrive.
“When do we start?” enquired Rajiv’s father.
“On the next full moon day.”
On their way back home, a languid Rajiv sat quietly in the back seat of their car while his parents discussed their mundane stuff. He reminisced about the day when he had last seen the priest years ago, when all his teeth were intact.
Rajiv was fifteen then and had just returned from school a little earlier for the ceremonial prayer. The priest was to perform a special ‘pitru dosha puja’ (prayer to appease ancestors) on Rajiv. He was asked to finish his ablutions and join in wearing a new pair of cream coloured Kurta-pyjama bought specially for the occasion.
A controlled ceremonial fire was lit in a small metallic vessel called ‘agnihotra’ and placed in the centre of their drawing room. Various materials required for the rituals were carefully placed in small quantities around the fire. Rajiv mechanically followed the instructions of the priest who recited the Vedic chants with finesse. The room was filled with smoke by the time the first part of the ritual was over. The priest then gestured to Rajiv’s father who then asked Rajiv to go to the bedroom and asked him to follow the priest’s instructions.
The priest entered and latched the door behind him. He told Rajiv that as a part of the ritual, he needed to count all the moles on his body. Rajiv was startled; he was not too young to miss the implication of what the priest said.
“Sure? Every mole?”
“Yes, I have spoken to your parents.”
Rajiv didn’t react though he realized that there was no need for the priest to explain.
“Why don’t you sit down comfortably? Let me start with your head.”
Rajiv sat on the floor hesitantly and crossed his feet. The priest sat cross legged in front of him and gently pulled Rajiv’s head forward. His fingers started working on Rajiv’s hair like a monkey looking for lice on the hairy body of another. He incremented the count as and when he found a mole. The scalp was followed by nape, neck, ears (twisted around from all sides), forehead, temples, brows, eyes, nose, cheeks, chin, jaw, lips and philtrum which showed the sprouting of first few strands of moustache.
“Remove your kurta,” asked the priest gently.
Rajiv removed it followed by his vest and sat topless in front of the priest, knowing where it was going, not liking where it was going and praying that somehow he be saved from the impending shame.
The priest started from his shoulder and touched every inch of Rajiv’s torso as he looked for a mole. It didn’t take him long though to run through his naturally clean teenager chest, belly, back, hands, fingers, palms, webbings and elbows. He had to work a little more on the armpits where a small tuft of hair had grown.
The priest then started with Rajiv’s bare feet, his toes, soles, ankles and pulled the pyjama upwards as he scanned his shin and knees. When he couldn’t pull it up any further, he undid Rajiv’s pyjamas without looking at him, asked him to stand up and then pulled it down and out of his feet. Rajiv stood there wearing nothing but his underwear. He closed his eyes, unable to bear the shame or make sense of what relation moles may have with his Pitru Dosh and how would it go away by just counting them.
The room was filled with smoke by the time the first part of the ritual was over. The priest then gestured to Rajiv’s father who then asked Rajiv to go to the bedroom and asked him to follow the priest’s instructions.