If things had been the way they normally were, Mother would have stopped by the old purohit and chatted with him. He would have greeted her with a namaskar, she would have taken both hands and clasped them in a prayer stance to show respect, and then the formalities would have ended. Mother would have asked the purohit how his family was doing, the purohit would have asked Mother how her son was managing. The purohit would have shared some shlokas for Mother to reflect on, Mother would have offered to bring him some of the gateau she was learning to make from the recipes on French television. They would have smiled at each other, shared an « au revoir » or an « à la prochaine. »
But now the purohit was no longer at the temple, and Mother stared dejectedly at the new purohit who chanted under the murti of Hanuman, not exchanging with him a single glance.
« C’est très dépressif. »
Mother took a far look to the other side of the pink wall to see that it was Deepika. Deepika, the wife of that vile dentist who often showed off his Chevrolet bought from Quebec. Deepika, that woman who wore a flower dress that revealed all her cleavage, yet had the nerve to put kum kum on her head after genuflecting to the murti, showing it off. Deepika, that sixty-something who swore like an Arab from Marseilles.
Of course Mother came towards her to exchange kisses on the cheeks.
« Bonsoir. »
« Bonsoir. »
« Comment vas-tu, mon amis? »
« Très bien. Et toi? »
It was all pleasantries, all niceties. It pained Mother to even fake a smile towards a woman who had done nothing but wrong her, and it pained her equally to see how well Deepika smiled in her direction. Did she not even feel guilt for the time after the Sankranti puja when she told everyone that Mother’s son was gay? No, this wasn’t a naive smile. No, there was a sense of justice and pride in her demeanour. Most likely she had felt like it was a rumour that had ought to be spread.
And then Deepika said, de nouveau « C’est très dépressif, what has happened to the pastor. »
Mother said « Oui, » only because she was not sure what to say. Mother and the purohit had had an exceptionally close relationship, and she still felt upset knowing that his life had since turned upside down, over a rumour, as well, about his supposed sexual involvement with an underage girl. But Mother did not trust Deepika, and she was not going to share her opinion on the circumstance.
Deepika pressed « Do you know what has happened to him? »
Mother said « Non. Do you? »
« Non. But it is all so sad. »
« Oui. »
Deepika looked left and right to see if anyone was coming from either sides of the wall. When she saw that it was only the two of them, Deepika came a little closer to whisper « You know he deserved it. »
Mother felt her muscles tense from her neck to her shoulders. Anger coursed through her body.
She felt like she could spit down Deepika’s blouse and get away with it.
Deepika went on « He was a paedophile. A paedophile! In our community, can you imagine? And you shared so many secrets of your life with him? I wondered what it was you said… »
Mother smiled, wrinkling her eyes so that her crow’s feet were like arrows pointing against her.
« It is ironic you are implying what you are implying. You know that our purohit was the first person I talked to when I found out about my son. Do you know what he did? No, he did not spread rumours or make fun of me behind my back, like you would have liked. He came to my home and held my hand as I sobbed uncontrollably for hours. He helped me control my breathing. He reminded me to repeat my shlokas. He did not pass judgement. He did not even talk until I was ready to speak. He is that kind of a man. He is calm and giving to everyone. It is not just me who feels this way. Vatsala has known the man since childhood and says he never behaved inappropriately with anyone. Our neighbour Naveen says that he loaned some money to his family and never accepted any payment back. If you came to the temple more often, you would know none of us believe these accusations. But you…yes, you certainly would believe in these rumours… »
Mother had to stop herself from saying more. The blood was pumping so hard in her neck that she could feel it twisting her muscles. Her back was so tense that any abrupt movement was causing it to ache.
And Deepika wasn’t worth it. Mother knew that Deepika had spread the rumours about Son’s sexuality because she was a bitter contentious woman, who never appreciated Mother even when she went out of her way to include her in her friend circle, and for many years.
Mother continued « I give my faith and trust to those who put in their time with me. I stand with the people who have stood up for me. If he says he never touched the girl, I believe him. It is as simple as that. »
Deepika said « That is fair. I personally believe in the girl and her parents, as I do in Viveka and Ananda, who said they were touched in the same way. But you are allowed to believe what you believe. » She tugged down at her blouse, liberating herself of some of the sweat of the heat.
Mother said « Oui. » A new bhajan was being sung. It prompted Mother to remember all the times she would listen to her purohit as these devotional songs played in the background. She could smell the incense just as she could smell the sweat that came off her purohit’s skin. She felt lost in the calm of prayer. She breathed, cleared her throat, and told herself that if she wanted to respect what her purohit had taught her, it was best to move on. For the sake of changing the topic, Mother asked « What are your plans for the rest of the day? »
Deepika’s response was interesting. Mother rarely initiated small talk with Deepika, and she certainly never asked her about her plans for the day. Deepika looked perplexed, her eyes calculating what it was that Mother was trying to get at. When Deepika couldn’t find an answer, her glance turned uncertain. She merely reversed the question to Mother. « Well, what are your plans for the rest of the day? »
« Nothing » Mother said without a pause. She had no shame in admitting it. It was the truth. Their house was just on the other side of this potholed bend of a road. Every day, she walked to the other side of it, did puja at the temple, came back, and spent the rest of the day at her window, cooking, cleaning, staring out into the sea.
Deepika looked like she was cooking up all sorts of things in her head. She probably wanted to tell Mother that her husband and her were off to Port Louis to have a fine five-star meal, or that she was going to be visited by loved ones, or even a youngster whom she was having an affair with.
Or, perhaps Deepika’s life was just as boring as Mother’s. She remembered how a few years ago Deepika would chase her to hang out, wanting to do just anything with anyone in a group of friends who were really just tolerating her.
Mother cleared her throat. « I know we haven’t talked much in a while. I didn’t like how you tried to drag my son’s name through the mud. »
Deepika was not responding, so Mother tilted her head and continued « You used to hang out with me and my friends. I remember this. Well, after what you said, my friends did not talk to me for some months. It was hard. But now, we are back to speaking. Time heals, as does friendship. It is quite nice. Do you have any friends like that? »
Mother smiled. It was not an intentional or put-on smile. It was one that arose naturally as she mused over the situation. She asked with genuine curiosity « Why did you want to start a rumour about me? Why did you want me to suffer so badly? »
Deepika was unable to form an answer. It would have been easy for Mother to keep going, to retaliate, to point out that Deepika was lonely and envious of Mother’s friends. But Mother had her smile, and she found it enough. She looked outside the door of the humble, pink cottage that the mandir was stored in. The clouds were pewter, the sea was grey, and it was quite windy.
Mother knew that Deepika lived in the same subdivision as her. She said « It is going to rain soon. I think I will get going. » She made no pretence of inviting her along.
Deepika faked a head bob, tilting her head back and forth the way an Indian from the subcontinent would, as Mother took her leave.
It was the first time Mother had allowed herself to finish a conversation with Deepika on her terms. And for that, despite the wind and the abnormal chill that the clouds had brought over the pavement, she found herself smiling on.