The coals glowed red, pulsing in unison to the rhythm of the frenzied drums. The mob was an entity of its own, a mass of condensed humanity, swaying to the same beats, hearts beating to the same pulse, and all breathing the same smell of stale sweat and wet earth. Hariharan stood separate from that sweaty ocean of humanity – It had been fifteen years since he had last come here. He looked towards the temple, as the harsh Indian summer sun’s rays crept over its towers, and saw the old stone structure glisten, as though it had been scrubbed clean by the early morning shower. When he was a boy, he would imagine each of the demons sculpted into the stone walls spring to life as the rays crept over them, but now, all he noticed was that the plaster was crumbling, and that the new paint was garishly colored.
The drums were faster now, louder. He could feel the electricity in the air, and it filled him with a nameless feeling of dread. The smell of sweat and smoke was almost something tangible now, something that he could taste, and it made him gag as it went down his throat. He took a deep breath, and looked upwards, towards the sky, trying to shake off the feeling of claustrophobia. His vision blurred out of focus, and old memories that he had suppressed for far too long started to surface. A forgotten smile crept to his lips as he remembered the very last time he had been here –
It was on that day that his life had taken another of the several turns that lead away from the small village he had used to call ‘home,’ and towards the life he lead now – an anonymous urban citizen, lost in the state capital. The details now felt hazy, fifteen years were a long time, but he remembered that feeling – it had been a wild cocktail of intense emotions, insomnia and a strange condition of the human mind called, ‘Love.’ When he had stood there with her, in a world of their own- shoulder to shoulder, watching the dawn break over the temple, he had felt himself swept away by a sudden wave of unadulterated happiness and Harinharan in one of the few instances of his life was left grinning like a complete idiot. And in that moment, she had turned, her eyes laughing as much as his did – and they understood.
Today, watching the light creep over the temple walls only increased that feeling of intense longing. Hariharan brushed away the moisture from the corner of his eye self-consciously. It was tough coming back, but it was necessary. He needed to make a statement – to tell them that he was not afraid, not afraid of their judgment, not afraid of the decisions he had made so many years ago, he needed to tell them that no matter what, he did not regret.
Hariharan’s eyes once more wandered towards the fire pit. In Tamizh, the ‘Pookkuli’ literally translated meant ‘flower pit.’ But in fact, it was approximately ten meters of burning coals over which devotees would walk, run and dance across to prove their devotion to the Goddess, and the Goddess in turn would protect them from any harm. He had read several scientific explanations for how such a feat is possible, the Liedenfrost Effect and Placebo Effect, but all scientific rules have exceptions, and sometimes things do go horribly wrong.
He had seen it once, when he had been just a child and had come to the festival for the very first time, and his grandfather had made sure he had a front row seat to the fire walking ceremony. A kid no older than himself had slipped on the coals, and as Hariharan watched horrified, numbed by the sound of the screams, the next devotee picked the boy up, and carried him to safety. But one side of his body had been severely burnt, and it was later said that the child was not immediately taken to the hospital and was left with scars that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Ever since then Hariharan had had a morbid dread for the entire festival and the walking on coals ceremony. It was also then, though he never told anyone, that he had started believing in science and science alone. Where was the benign Goddess when the boy fell? If the ritual was a form of mutual testing, the Goddess had failed miserably.
Hariharan found his mind dragged back to the present as the brown ocean of sweaty bodies in front of him suddenly parted and he found himself face to face with a woman wearing the yellow sarree, a mark of a devotee. Her long hair was let loose, and a skewer was pierced through both her cheeks, yellow and green pastes smeared generously all over body, and yet, amongst the frenzy of the drums and the crowd, her eyes were calm. For a moment they stood, looking at each other, completely alone in a world of their own, and Hariharan had a surreal feeling that she could look into the very depths of his soul. As he was about to take a step back, and melt away with the crowd, a voice of sudden authority spoke.
He looked up startled. The lady walked forward, her eyes holding him in his place. He stood frozen as she approached him; it was several moments before he consciously reminded himself to breathe. He could see her lips move, he was sure she was saying something to him, but the adrenaline did not let the information come through. He saw the priests beside her gesticulating wildly, worried frowns on their faces contrasting with the respect they showed with their bodies, some speaking while prostrating themselves in front of her, but she remained resolute. Her eyes continued to bore into his.
The initial shock slowly began to wear off, and Hariharan realized what she wanted him to do. She wanted him to walk across the coals with him. His mind felt too numb even for his old fears to surface, his entire body turned into lead and he only half listened to the murmurs of the worried crowd around him.
The priests explained that the woman was ‘possessed’ by an ethereal spirit, and it was the spirit that was talking through her. He added with a fearful look that it could be the Goddess herself. He explained that the spirit assured his safety, even though he was not prepared through the ritualistic fast and bath. An awkward silence followed, a strongly emphasized ellipsis in the conversation.
Through the cacophony of the drums, Hariharan could hear the murmurs of the crowds,
“She wants him to do the fire walk!”
“She is possessed!”
“It’s the Goddess!”
“This is not right!”
“Where’s the police?”
He looked towards the pit, pulsing red under the morning sun, and back towards those enigmatic eyes. Something in those eyes stirred something at the back of his mind, a churning of pot of memories and emotions… But no it could not be! His wife was dead! She had died three months back and he did not believe in ghosts! He is a rationalist! The voice at the back of his head bleated on, but Hariharan paid it no regard. He was no longer in the rationalist’s world; he was in a much different one; a world that only the two of them knew – a world in which hearts beat to the sound of drums. And even before he nodded, he felt a warm sense of assurance blanket over him.
Hariharan realized with a slight start that he could move his feet.
According the report of a police officer present that day, Mr. Hariharan had given his full consent to attempt to walk on the Pookkuli that day, and hence the police had not interfered in the incident. He had been dressed in yellow, and smeared with turmeric and sandalwood paste, and walked across the coals, lead by the hand of a possessed woman. He crossed the pit with no signs of any physical harm. The woman fainted a few moments after crossing the pit. According to the priests it was the spirit leaving the body.
Asked afterwards in an interview about what it felt like, Mr. Hariharan very simply said, “It was like walking across a bed of flowers.” Asked about his belief in God, he refused to comment.
Hariharan looked at the inanimate form on the floor that was now being surrounded by a mixture of priests and devotees. He considered staying back to at least say farewell or perhaps a thank you, but he never was one for good byes. He took a step backwards, and melted into the crowd.