Vishwas R. Gaitonde
Photo credit: C. Anthony Huber
Vishwas R. Gaitonde spent his formative years in India and now resides in the United States. He has been published in literary magazines such as The Iowa Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Mid-American Review, Epiphany, Pembroke Magazine, and Santa Monica Review, among others. Literary awards include two writing residencies at The Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies (Minnesota), The Hawthornden Castle Fellowship (Scotland), and the Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers Conference. He was a finalist in The George Floyd Short Story Competition conducted in 2020 by the Nottingham Writers Studio, England, and his story was published in their anthology, Black Lives. He is on Twitter at: @weareji.
Nobody remembered when the saint first appeared at the temple. Everybody agreed that it was within the last six months or thereabouts; no one had set eyes on him before that. He materialized so silently and mysteriously that they could not pin a date on when it had happened. But he soon became a familiar sight at the temple: a dark young man sitting cross-legged, his back lightly leaning against one of the pillars, the hint of a beatific smile playing on his face. Tears glimmered in his eyes as he listened to the pujaris chanting mantras as they waved oil lamps in gentle, circular motions in front of the deity.
The sanctum sanctorum of the temple was a small windowless room with the coal-black statue of the deity occupying most of the space. Worshippers could view the deity through the room’s single large door from a long passageway in front of it. Two steel railings ran along the length of the passage, creating an aisle in the middle. The devout lined up behind the railing on either side, leaning over and craning their necks to view the deity and witness the puja ceremony, at the end of which the pujari walked down the aisle, offering them vermillion and sacred ash, and holding out the lamp so that they could shade their hands over the flame and receive blessings through the warmth. The passageway had a carved stone roof but no walls; its sides were open to the temple yard. The roof was supported by pillars on both sides. It was in front of one of these pillars that the saint always sat in the evenings.
Prakasam, one of the townsmen who came to the evening puja at least four times a week, was the first to notice the saint. In the beginning, Prakasam did not know that the young man was a saint, for nothing set him apart from hundreds of others like him. But then Prakasam noticed that the young man sat still for long periods of time, longer than most could sit, and that his face displayed fleeting expressions which came, went, and came back again, and all of them could be summed up in two words: dreamily divine.
And then there were the tears that trickled out of the saint’s eyes. There was a devout woman, a fine mezzo-soprano, and on some days she sang melodious bhajans during the half-hour prior to the evening puja. These songs never failed to move the saint; tears of joy and ecstasy glistened in his eyes when the woman sang, and the water especially rolled out when she was carried away by strong emotions as the devotion in her voice escalated to fever pitch.
“He truly is a saint,” the people whispered in wonder, looking with awe at the watery trails on his cheeks, “a saint who came to us out of the ether. Our temple and our town are truly blessed.”
“Let us pray that some day he does not also suddenly disappear into thin air,” one of them whispered back.
Prakasam’s stock rose after he brought the saint to the attention of others. To capitalize on his newfound stature, he had once spoken to the saint, addressing him in a voice respectful and low, but received no response. The saint’s eyelids were tightly shut, and a thread of fluid, so thin that it was barely visible, was streaming out of one eye and not from the other. He was, if not in heaven, then certainly in another world.
“Let the saint be.” Prakasam’s wife nudged him with her elbow. “To be in the presence of a saint is blessing enough. You don’t need to talk to him.”
“Yes, yes,” said the others. “Never disturb a saint when he is in meditation. Bad karma.”
Prakasam nodded, but more because he was afraid of losing face if the saint continued to ignore him.
Not everybody was ready to toe the line that the young man was a saint.
“If he’s a saint, why is he not wearing yellow or saffron robes like a swami or sadhu?”
“Most people in such robes are phony,” Prakasam shot back. He was both possessive and protective of “his” saint. “Don’t you know that? There’s nothing that says a saint can’t wear a three-piece suit. What has saintliness to do with clothes? Nothing.”
Somebody then pointed out that the saint always wore white—a white shirt over a white dhoti—which contrasted with his dark skin. He always had a sandalwood dot on his forehead at the point between the eyebrows.
The doubters accosted the pujari, demanding to know who the saint was. The priest answered curtly that he did not know. He was not too pleased at having a potential rival for attention. The saint never came to the railing when the puja was performed, or when the priest distributed prasadam, food offerings to the deity which were blessed during the puja and then distributed to the assembled devotees. But if the saint was present, the pujari, who usually never went beyond the aisle enclosed by the railings, sauntered to the spot where the saint sat and gave him his share of the prasadam. Rival or not, it wasn’t worth offending somebody who might, after all, be a saint.
When word got around that the pujari was serving the saint, more townsfolk than ever before herded to the temple and lowered themselves on the ground beside the saint as he meditated. The temple suddenly seemed cleaner, holier, more respectable.
“He just sits here with closed eyes.” They spoke in hushed tones. “All the time. Quite rare to see a saint who doesn’t belt out speeches.”
“Pah! Those who do that are usually godmen whose aim is to get as large a following as they can. A saint doesn’t go around giving lectures to beg for followers. They come to him.”
“Really? Can you name even one saint who never regularly gave talks to the faithful?”
“Yes I can. Ramana Maharshi. He occasionally had group sessions where he gave spiritual instruction to his disciples by answering their questions. But most of the time he was silent, even when performing his ashram duties like cooking and cleaning.”
The speaker knew he had scored when the faces in the crowd glowed like the lights decorating the houses on the night of the Deepavali festival. Ramana Maharshi, so it was said, had an intense religious experience in his sixteenth year that had eventually transformed him into the Sage of Tiruvannamalai. They looked at the face of their young saint, and a shiver of excitement passed through them at the unexpected thought that their backwater town now had the potential to become the next Tiruvannamalai.
“The tears flowing from his eyes are teertham,” said one of the ladies to her companion, who agreed without question. For what else could a saint’s tears be but holy water?
“Know what I’d like to do?” her companion responded. “I’d like to dab his tears with my finger and press them on my forehead.”
The first speaker giggled, knowing full well that her companion would not carry out the fantasy. All of them wanted to walk with the saint and talk to the saint, but they always ended up sitting mutely beside him, struggling to maintain silence, something that most were not accustomed to.
But then a little girl boldly invaded the territory on which the adults feared to tread—she spoke to the saint.
The little girl and her mother often came to the temple for the evening puja, and they always brought a simple jasmine garland, hand woven in a single strand, to offer to the deity. The girl loved the scent of jasmine and made frequent attempts to sniff the flowers through the flimsy, transparent plastic bag containing the garland. If her mother caught her in the act, she would rap out an angry admonition: “Don’t steal from what you intend to present to God.”
One day the little girl ran up to the saint and gave him the garland. He accepted it in puzzlement, looked into her face, and handed it back with a smile. Pointing to the sanctum sanctorum, he said, “Go on, offer them.”
“Can I smell them before I do that?” she asked.
“Why not?” he countered. “God lives within you. He smells what you smell, and He will enjoy it, my dear.”
Some of the assembled townspeople sighed, others gasped. This was the first time they had heard the saint speak, and even though he had only uttered a few words, they hung on to each one and told one another that the most extraordinary thing about the saint’s voice was that it sounded so ordinary.
The girl hopped-skipped back to her mother, widening her grin with each hop, and then inhaled the fragrance of the jasmine with long, deep breaths. Her mother, tight lipped, said nothing. A woman standing next to her sympathetically remarked, “Many a saint has gone against tradition. I think it’s to stop us as a society from becoming too rigid in our ways.” The mother, still mute, gripped her daughter by the arm and they moved forward rapidly.
But on their next visit, and thereafter, the little girl first proffered the garland to the saint for his blessing. And the saint always received it with a smile and handed it back, and sometimes said a few words: Always nice to see you, my dear. I hope you and your family are keeping well. Take care of yourself. God bless you always, chellakutti.
The crowd sighed with pleasure. So the saint did occasionally open his mouth to have conversations, however trite and brief.
“Ramakrishna Paramahamsa had a close relationship with a young man called Naren,” commented one of the townsmen. “And that man Naren later became Swami Vivekananda.”
“So that girl may become a saint, that’s what you’re saying?”
“No. Well . . . maybe. One never knows with such things. Only time will tell.”
Prakasam, who had basked in everybody’s attention for being the first to identify the saint, had lately been sulking. He did not enjoy being out of the limelight. And then he realized that he could regain it by discovering where the saint lived. How amazing that nobody had thought of that. The saint sat by the pillar until it became dark and lamps were lit in the temple and the lights came on in the windows of houses. Many worshippers left long before that, and those remaining just dispersed when the saint left.
But on this night, Prakasam followed the saint surreptitiously, making sure that he kept a safe distance between them in case the saint caught on that there was somebody on his tail. Then an uncomfortable thought surfaced: what if the saint was clairvoyant? He kicked the notion aside and kept up the dogged pursuit.
The saint sped down the narrow moonlit streets on winged ankles, sometimes taking shortcuts through dark and tortuous alleys—maybe deliberately? To throw off his pursuer if he had sensed his presence? Prakasam had a couple of bad moments when he thought the saint had shaken him off his track, but he found him both times and resumed the chase. They were now in the older, shabbier part of town. No surprise there, thought Prakasam, for saints dwell in humble surroundings, not in luxury.
The saint disappeared into a large house painted navy blue with windows only on the upper floor, many of which were lit by lights so feeble that they made the moon look like the sun. Prakasam hesitated on the front steps for several minutes then rapped on the door. When there was no response, he knocked louder but still nobody opened the door. He turned the doorknob. The door was unlocked and swung open noiselessly. After he had entered the house, it took several seconds for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. He was in a narrow chamber. In front of him was another door and, on either side, stairs leading to the upper floor.
The door suddenly opened and a burly man stepped out, recoiling at the unexpected sight of Prakasam.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
“I’ve come to seek darshan from the saint who lives here.”
“Wrong house. There’s no saint here. Come to think of it, none on this street either. Plenty of sinners, though.”
“But I saw the saint enter.”
“This is not an ashram, this is my house.” The burly man looked at Prakasam as if he thought him mad. “I live downstairs. The rooms upstairs are rented out to a few tenants. I know them all, I know them well. And none of them is a saint. Now will you kindly leave?”
Prakasam did not belabor the point. The burly man could easily toss him out on the street if he wanted. So he left. But he cheered up as he walked home. He had done it. He knew where the saint lived. Tomorrow he would talk to some of the big names in the town as well as to the temple trustees and the editors of newspapers and magazines. And then, in a few days, they would come in a delegation to enlighten the landlord that he had a saint as a tenant although he had not known about it until now, and that the town was going to officially acknowledge and celebrate its divine resident.
As Prakasam sorted out his meandering thoughts, a young man stood before a mirror in the smallest room of the navy blue house. The fluctuating voltage had dimmed every light bulb in the building and he saw his shadow, not his image, in the mirror. Electricity was always a problem in this town—if it wasn’t the flickering light bulbs, it was the repeated unscheduled power outages that ushered in the darkness and the heat, or both, with no way of predicting when the electricity would return to enliven the lights and fans again.
How nice that he would no longer have to put up with it. He had graduated and was now a proud Bachelor of Agriculture, the first in his family to go to college. A half-hour after sunrise, he would board the bus to his village to work on the family farm, using his new knowledge to grow crops in ways that yielded a better harvest. His childhood sweetheart was waiting for his permanent return, and he hoped they could marry within a couple of years.
He had missed her, missed all his family and friends in the village. In this town he had become a loner, doing his college coursework and, on rare occasions, getting together with a few classmates for short conversations over snacks or meals. But he, a village boy in a town indifferent to those they did not consider their own, had no close friends. It made his days lonely and long, and he eagerly awaited the semester breaks to visit his village. But, he consoled himself, it had given him more time to study, to delve into the various little ins and outs of his subjects and clear the examinations with distinction.
But toward the end of the last year, he had taken ill. It wasn’t serious, not like cancer or a heart ailment or anything like that, but it was something that could derail his ability to graduate on schedule. His family had saved up for years to send him to college, and the money, which they could have spent on their farm, had almost run out. Now, almost every day (or so it seemed), he had a runny nose, a scratchy throat, and red, itchy, watery eyes. Each time he bought medicines from the pharmacy his wallet was lighter by a few rupees. The medicines stopped his nasal drip and relieved his sore throat. But while they almost removed the redness from his eyes, they did little for the itch.
When he visited the temple just before his final examination to offer flowers and fruit along with a fervent prayer, he noticed that the itch in his eyes had reduced, though they still produced tears. The doctor had told him that his allergy was very likely due to the pollen carried by the wind from some plant or tree. But perhaps the architecture of the temple regulated the wind. There was a walled corridor without a ceiling that ran along the perimeter of the grounds, through which the devotees could perambulate around the temple. Perhaps that was a wind tunnel as well, keeping much of the pollen-laden breeze away from the inner parts of the temple.
So he came to the temple almost every evening for a couple or more hours of relief from the itch. He sat discreetly by a pillar at a little distance from the sanctum sanctorum but from where he could see the statue of the deity.
Gradually, people began to sit a little ways beside him, and this gathering grew bigger as the days passed. They kept their voices low; he could hear the sounds but could not make out the words. Whenever such a thing happened, the speakers were usually talking about a person who was within hearing range, someone they wanted to exclude from hearing their conversation. But they couldn’t possibly be having a discussion about him, a nobody, unknown to anybody here. Their countenances held a level of reverence he had never seen on the faces of anybody in any temple, and he felt too shy to ask them why they had started this practice of grouping alongside where he sat when they had so much space all over the temple yard. So he sat with closed eyes to avoid looking at them; the darkness of shuttered eyelids was also soothing and reduced the watering.
But today he had made his last trip to the temple. Tomorrow he would be back in his village for good. He pulled out his suitcase and started packing it. He hoped that the species of tree or bush or plant that was causing his allergy was absent from his village, for as a farmer he would be spending the greater part of his workday outdoors. But if his allergy continued, divine intervention wouldn’t hurt. He wondered if he should seek out a saint to intercede with God on his behalf.
Many saints, belonging to different religions and hailing from different lands, were often first considered saints by the people in their communities, with formal recognition by religious authorities coming much later. What are the characteristics of a person that make other people decide that he or she is a saint? That question intrigued me and was the starting point for 'The Saint.'
The opening music in the audio recording is excerpted from the Tamil devotional song “Āyarpādi Māligaiyil” (ஆயர்பாடி மாளிகையில்), played on the piano by Lydian Nadhaswaram, who has also provided the background music. ”