It’s not only the gods but the devils too have specific religions, Maria realised when she saw the devil appearing on her husband’s face fifteen years after she had seen it the last time.
Fifteen years ago, one nondescript autumn afternoon in Shillong, Philip came back from the school where he worked as a mathematics teacher and declared that he had resigned from his job. Maria was stunned though she had known deep within her all the time that this was coming. Reverend Father Joseph Potthukandathil, the Headmaster of Saint Joseph’s School where Philip taught, had been rubbing up Philip in the wrong way for a long time, years in fact, assuming that it was every Catholic priest’s canonical burden to bring the lost sheep back to the fold. Philip not only refused to accept the priest’s gospel but also cocked a snook at it by guzzling peg after peg of brandy sitting in the Marbaniang Bar that stood just a hundred metres away from the church where the priest who dreamt of himself as the Saviour of all the lost sheep in his parish was celebrating the Sunday evening mass.
When Father Joseph did not succeed in his pastoral efforts vis-a-vis Philip-the-black-sheep, he enlisted the support of the entire parish. He got them to treat Philip with contempt. ‘Make him realise that the devil has conquered his soul,’ preached Father Joseph to his faithful flock, ‘and treat him like a street dog so that he will feel the thirst for Our Lord’s grace in his fiendish soul.’
‘Praise the Lord! Alleluia!’ responded the faithful flock.
The more Father Joseph and his faithful sheep tried to induce in Philip the thirst for their Lord’s grace, the more Philip drank brandy slouching in Marbaniang Bar. The efforts of the priest and his parishioners eventually succeeded and the lost sheep became a street dog before evolving into a devil. Devil, for Maria. Not for the people in the parish.
‘When you lose in the marketplace, you come home and boost your ego by beating your wife.’ Maria whimpered first, sulked later, shrieked in the end. ‘You are a devil. Father Joseph is right. The devil has conquered your soul.’
The drunken Philip staggered near to his shrieking wife and raised his flaccid hand which fell on Maria’s cheek with a force that surprised even Philip. The new strength sent some blood rushing to his brandy-sodden cheeks. Maria saw an apparition of Father Joseph’s devil on her husband’s face and ran away in terror.
Father Joseph’s devil had left Philip’s soul by the time he woke up the next morning. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said to Maria planting a gentle kiss on the cheek that borne the brunt of his devil the previous evening.
‘Why do you drink?’ asked Maria with fond longing. ‘When you don’t drink you’re such a nice person.’
Philip didn’t know what to say. How do you survive in the world of Potthukandathils without some defence mechanism such as brandy? He didn’t articulate the thought, however.
In the evening he came home from Saint Joseph’s School and declared, “We’re going to Shimla next week. Start packing.”
Maria shrieked, sulked and whimpered.
They had very little possessions. One thing that the ascetics and the alcoholics have in common is paucity of material possessions. It was not hard for Maria to pack up the possessions. What was hard was thinking about the future that lay ahead. Shillong to Shimla. What difference will that make? One hill to another. The conversion had to take place within, inside the soul, she remembered Father Joseph’s refrain. Nothing had changed inside Philip. The faithful flock continued to sing alleluias to the Lord.
An old friend of Philip had arranged a teaching post for Philip in Shimla. Life carried on. Not just as usual. Much better. Far better, realised Maria. She did not feel the need to go to any church. There was peace in their home. Joy came trickling down in the simple forms of an ordinary life uninterfered by priests and their gods.
Maria’s contentment received the most brutal shock when Philip came home one day from school reeking of whisky. He used to drink a peg or two occasionally and Maria had no objection to it. But this was different.
‘He’s here,’ mumbled Philip when she asked what made him drink like a fool.
‘Potthu-kandathil.’ Father Joseph had been transferred as the parish priest in the church near to the place where Philip and Maria lived.
‘So what? Why should we bother?’
‘Why bother?’ Philip looked at her. She saw the fury that was rising to his face from somewhere deep within. The fury darkened his face. It replaced the soddenness of the whisky. ‘Why bother?’ he asked again. ‘Do you think I have forgotten it all? The damned priest and his faithful flock running after the lost sheep?’
Maria watched in terror Philip’s face contorting fiendishly with hatred.