Sacrifice – Short Story
By: Varsha Seshan
Outside the temple was a tall coconut tree that was generations old. In fact, it was so old that everyone paid respect to the tree before entering the temple. No one really separated the temple from the tree. The two necessarily went together, almost like the Ardhanaarishwara. The tree just outside the temple, just a little to the left, completed the idea of Shiva who was worshipped within.
Two priests had charge of the temple. One was, of course, senior to the other. The lineage of the priests had been preserved ever since the construction of the temple, years and years earlier. The priest blood was pure, uncorrupted by inferior strains, the epitome of holiness.
The senior priest had managed practically everything, down to the last detail. What could fall less under suspicion than the temple? The temple was ancient, pure and sacred.
The younger priest entered the temple and closed the door securely behind him. “It will be done tonight, panditji,” he said, his hands respectfully folded in front of him.
The senior priest looked at him, his eyes narrowed. “Are you absolutely sure nothing can go wrong?”
“As sure as I am that Lord Shiva here and Uma in the tree outside are one,” replied the younger, devoutly.
The elder one quickly muttered a Sanskrit prayer under his breath before questioning the younger one again. “What exactly have you told her?”
“Exactly what you instructed me to tell her, panditji,” replied the younger priest, his tone still respectful. “I have assured her that she will have a son to carry on her husband’s name if she sacrifices that which is most precious to the family.”
“And she confirmed that this most precious heirloom is the ancient ruby necklace?”
“Yes, panditji. She has promised to steal it at-”
“Steal?” snarled the senior priest. “What an ugly word!”
The younger priest’s knees trembled. “Forgive me, panditji, how can she steal what belongs to her by right? She will bring it to us at night when her husband is asleep.”
The elder priest was silent for a moment. “This temple has never been party to any corruption,” he said, finally.
“This is not corruption, panditji,” replied the younger, quickly. “It is not as if we will take the necklace without praying to the Ardhanaarishwara. We will, of course, pray devoutly. And your prayers always work, panditji, you know that. And if, for once, they don’t, it’s not our fault – for who can understand the ways of God?”
“Hmm.” A long silence followed. “Even so, I do not trust you to have checked all the loopholes.”
“But panditji -”
“And so,” interrupted the elder, “I will not be here when the actual handing over of the necklace takes place.”
The younger priest was silent.
“If someone comes to hear of this transfer, I shall not admit to any part of it,” continued the priest, smearing the holy ash on his forehead piously. “You will be here and will take the necklace from her while I am away. I shall be back before dawn – well in time for the morning prayers.”
The younger priest bowed his head respectfully, without a word. Nothing could go wrong. Absolutely nothing could go wrong.
When night fell, both priests were even more involved with evening rituals than usual. The elder priest lighted all the incense sticks. He himself poured oil in the lamps, prepared the wicks and prepared the garlands for the idol. The younger priest sat before the coconut tree, chanting ceaselessly.
The night was uncomfortably still and silent, but the young lady appeared as promised. The swish of her sari as she walked was unusually loud in the silent night. She fell at the priest’s feet and he blessed her, accepting the necklace. He promised to sacrifice it to Shiva and Parvati, with all the prayers to ensure that she bore a male child. Thanking him with tears in his eyes, she left quickly, her pallu covering her face.
The priest hid the necklace behind the statue and continued to pray. He chanted his slokas till the senior priest came back.
“Is it done?” asked the elder, tersely.
The younger nodded and moved towards the idol to hand over the necklace.
“No, don’t give it to me,” said the elder, hastily. “Let Lord Shiva guard it for us, for now.” The priest sighed. Inside the temple, there was an uncomfortable silence.
Outside, the lull had changed swiftly to howling winds – typical of the season. A shiver ran through the elder priest’s body and he clasped his cold hands in prayer.
The storm broke just before dawn. The rain came down in torrents and the wind roared as it had never roared before. The very earth seemed to tremble – as it had trembled once, long ago, when Lord Shiva performed the Ananda Tandava.
The priests, huddled inside the temple, prayed feverishly – the elder priest took out the ruby necklace, which now had taken on the sheen of blood. He clutched it, his teeth chattering.
And then, finally, the wrath of the gods found expression. The coconut tree, worshipped as the goddess Parvati, came crashing down onto the roof of the temple.
In the morning, there was nothing but rubble and branches.
Nine months later, the lady gave birth to her first son.