Shaukya was both the head priest and the de-facto leader of Dhruvgiri, a remote village atop the mountains. One morning he called a meeting of the village elders, saying the goddess had spoken to his wife, Wagmani, once again, and she had an important announcement to make.
“The goddess told me of a way to save our women,” Wagmani proclaimed.
Puzzled, the villagers looked at one another.
“But what’s wrong with them?” one asked.
“Haven’t you noticed?” she said. “They look sick. Emaciated. As if something’s gnawing at them from inside.”
They thought of the women they knew—mothers, daughters, and wives. Yes, a few did look sickly, but…
“It’s because of the lack of pleasurable love in their lives,” Wagmani said.
They stared back at her, not understanding.
Shaukya interjected. “What she means is–thehe goddess thinks the men of the village don’t know how to keep their women happy, and that’s showing up in their health. This needs to be corrected.” And he told them how.
There was an uproar.
“This is preposterous.”
“What do you mean we need practice?”
“Where will we find the girls for such an enterprise?”
“It’s immoral to even talk about it.”
Shaukya tried to calm them down. “It’s the goddess’ wish,” he said.
“That’s impossible,” they protested.
“Goddess Barohi has spoken to my wife,” he said firmly. “And when she asks for something, we do it. Or there’s going to be a disaster.”
“What kind of disaster?”
He shrugged. “Drought. Famine. Mass childlessness.”
Shaukya was seventy years old. His wife, Wagmani, was twenty, and his fourth. She was the daughter of the richest man in the village and exquisitely beautiful. His earlier wives, equally beautiful and accomplished, had given him no children. With this one, though, he had hope. He was trying hard enough and if she failed to give him the progeny he so desperately wanted, he hoped this new plan might work. Luckily, beauty and money had not bred intelligence in her, and Wagmani had been easy to sway. Coming from her, the directive sounded almost innocent. He’d sometimes taken his people’s naivety for granted, and that hadn’t worked out so well in the past.
Now, infusing authority into his voice, he said, “I’ve already planned it out for us. First, we’ll build a temple for the goddess: bigger and grander than the one we have. For that, every household will need to donate some gold. Next, each of you will sacrifice one girl from your family for the service. It could be anyone!”
“But it’s immoral!” said the villagers.
“Not when the goddess decrees it,” Shaukya comforted.
“But why does the goddess speak to Wagmani alone?” a villager wondered aloud to his wife, later in the safety of his house.
His wife replied, “Shaukya and Wagmani serve the goddess, and so they have divine powers.”
“But what if we don’t need to do anything at all? Everything might still be fine.”
His wife took a step back, aghast.
“Don’t say things like that,” she begged. “You’ve little children. Have you forgotten the drought that happened three years ago? We refused to give gold to the temple. And the flood that came two years before that, and the fire that raged through the village the year I was born. All because we neglected the goddess..”
Her husband nodded ruefully. He did remember.
Thus, after some discussion and many threats, the village fell in line.
The temple was built—a stately edifice in white marble—at the centre of the village.Upon its altar was placed a stone idol of the goddess: sturdy, ten-feet-tall, her skin a muddy-puddle brown, her eyes red and fiery, her hair a matted ash-black that reached halfway down her back like a thousand caterpillars, a garland of nettles around her neck, her purple and gold sari hitched up to her knee, a gold crown on her head.
Then the women arrived: maids from the rich, daughters and wives from the poor, disobedient and unruly or quiet and submissive. Mostly the women were unattractive or had displeased their households. The temple maids—or Barohi’s angels as they were called—were trained by Shaukya and a few of his chosen men. A section of the temple had been cordoned off for the training period and no one was allowed to enter the area, not even the priest’s wife. The girls were sent to rooms around the altar. Each had a room of her own, with illustrations on the wall depicting her specialty. In their incense-filled, lamp-lit confines, the girls worked round-the-clock to teach the men of Dhruvgiri the art of love.
There was no dearth of devotees. Men came knocking at the very next day following the temple’s opening. The devotees had to give a donation to avail themselves of the angels’ services. Shaukya had convinced everyone that it was a divine act of love; both parties were cleansing themselves of their turpitudes. They served the women of the village by training the men, and encouraged their goddess to protect the village. More men and women arrived everyday. After a while, no one checked to see if the women in the village had grown healthier.
Then Selvi arrived.
The villagers later claimed the ground shivered and the river’s water roiled when Selvi was dragged into the temple. Her screaming was heard far and wide—the piteous screeching of a dying bird—as she struggled to free herself from the grasps of the two men holding her.
“This is wrong!” she cried. “Let me go.”
“Stop screaming,” Wagmani scolded. “You should be grateful. You’re the chosen one.”
“This is a lie,” Selvi spat. “A story concocted by that stupid old priest.”
The angels held their breath. Some looked nervously at the ceiling, dreading a shower of boulders. Others turned to look out the door, ducking their heads, as if fearing a flood.
“Shut your mouth, girl,” Wagmani hissed. “Are you calling us liars?”
Selvi glared back. “Why does the goddess speak to you only?” she demanded.
“Because I’m her divine messenger,” Wagmani replied.
Selvi laughed. “Wake up, woman. Your husband only wants to avoid the dark road to the brothel.”
Wagmani covered her ears in alarm.
“Shut your foul mouth,” she yelled. Then, turning to Shaukya, “Let’s take her to a brothel and leave her there. She doesn’t deserve to be even the temple’s maid.”
But Shaukya was looking at Selvi with interest rather than anger. A strange gleam had come into his eyes.
Selvi was anything but beautiful—or what they considered beautiful in Dhruvgiri. Her dark brown face was uneven and gleamed like fish scales. Her cherry red lips were fixed in a grotesque grin, even, when she wasn’t smiling. Long, grizzled hair framed her round face. She was thick all over: thick waist, thick wrists, thick calves. Plentiful gold jewellery sat on her skin like yellow bugs wallowing in mud. Her father was rich, but had wanted to rid himself of the burden of marrying her off gettingoffgetting her married.
Shaukya thought Selvi was fascinating. He’d never known anyone so repulsive to be so fiery. The priest hadn’t been challenged for a while, and this could be interesting. The gold he’d take. The girl he’d tame.
So, when Wagmani raised a hand to slap Selvi, he stopped her.
“No,” he commanded. “She’s going to be my personal servant.”
“What?” Wagmani protested. “But you’re married to me.”
He looked at her with barely controlled rage. Wagmani averted her eyes. Shaukya gestured for his men to take a screaming Selvi to the training area and ordered that no other girl was to be taken in until her lessons were complete.
And so began Selvi’s time at the temple of Barohi.
At first, no one dared to venture close to the training area, but after three weeks, when the first of the maids did sneak past—more out of curiosity than pity—they heard silence. hen giggles… soft chatter… laughter? They stopped in surprisesurpriset. Had the poor girl been terrified into madness?
Wagmani heard the news with trepidation. She’d noticed the changes herself. Her husband was a transformed man: more composed, dreamy-eyed, almost kind. A strange smile played on his lips. He scarcely heard her when she spoke and rarely called her to bed anymore. She grew increasingly bitter, until one day, after a fiery argument with Shaukya, in which the maids kept hearing the words “you told me to,” Wagmani rushed to the terrace and hurled herself off. Some would claim she was pushed a hand’s shadow was seen before she fell—but Shaukya quelled all rumors.
“She has sacrificed herself to the goddess,” he said.
And now Selvi was to take her place.
The wedding celebrations lasted three days. The village had seen nothing like it before. More remarkably, they’d never seen Shaukya so happy.
A month later, Shaukya called another meeting of the villager elders.
“Congratulations.” They clapped.
His face fell for a minute, then brightened again. “That good news will come soon. The goddess is benevolent,” he said.
“Then what did you call us for?”
“My wife has a wish.”
There was faint murmuring. That Shaukya was heeding his wife’s wishes was unusual. He was indeed smitten.
“What is it?” they asked warily.
“She says the temple angels have been working too hard and deserve a day off. A day of celebration.”
Well, no one had a problem with that. The girls were doing the goddess’ work after all, and some eating and merrymakingmerry-making never harmed anyone.
A grand feast was held in a large open space right outside the village, with dancing, drinking, music, all in excess. And within the hour, there was enough debauchery to churn an ocean.
Then, in the midst of all the delirious cheering and music…
“What’s that?” a voice from the crowd asked in wonder.
Everyone stopped. Turned to look.
Their mouths fell open.
The temple was up in flames. Great tongues of fire leapt up from it, greedy and unstoppable. The evening sky blazed red.
“What’s happening?” the villagers gasped, too shocked to move.
Then, as if an invisible hand had turned all their faces to look in one direction, they saw her, emerging out of the shadows, hair flying, wrapped in an eerie orange glow, mouth agape in a silent scream.
They ran to her.
“Where’s the priest?” they asked.
“Dead,” she whispered.
“He’d displeased me,” she murmured. “He’d lied.”
“What? What do you mean?”
But she didn’t reply. Merely stood still, a flaming rock, her eyes unblinking, a soft, mad chant on her lips.
A strange calm overtook the villagers as they gazed at her, as if a puzzle they’d wanted to solve all their lives was going to finally unravel. No one thought to run to the burning temple to rescue the priest or save their houses.
Then, an angel spoke, breaking the hush.
“But… don’t you see?”
“What?” a mumble from the crowd, as if held in a shared dream.
“The goddess!” the angels said together.
The bloodshot eyes, the knotted hair, the bronzed face and nettles around the neck. The crown of gold, the purple sari, it was she!
The temple angels fell to their knees first, followed by the rest of the village, one after another.
They all looked up to the goddess, and listened.
Smita Bhattacharya is an award winning short story writer based out of Mumbai. She has published two books: He Knew a Firefly and Vengeful. Though, seeking to write the next big novel, she considers short stories her pièce de résistance. Her short stories have appeared in several Indian and international publications (The Statesman, DNA-Me, Fiction Magazines, Chicago Literati, Eastlit, Elsewherelit, Earthen Lamp Journal, Tall Tales, The Pomegranate Anthology).