In his silk kurta, and smooth long hair, the wise man looked a picture of elegance, perched atop a raised platform. Open before him was the holiest of the holy books. Eyes gliding fast through the pages, lips moving inaudibly, he was reading the message of God for the benefit of all the rich, unenlightened beings sitting in front of him on the floor.
The people gathered for this three-day long holy event had duly marked their presence to the almighty with drops of currency notes, and now sat folding their hands, and closing their eyes, in anticipation of divine rewards. A huge speaker behind them blared pious chants up into the morning sky making sure the God heard.
Amid all this, no one, except the man reading, noticed when a small curly-haired boy walked stealthily in. Excitement rippling across his face, his eyes were searching all around the decorated courtyard, until they fell on the table at the foot of the platform. The table on top of which sat the tray piled high with money. His eyes lit up, and he immediately started towards it, tiptoeing on his small feet, increasing, with each of his steps, the furrows on the wise man’s shining forehead.
Once there, the boy looked at the tray, and then up into the eyes glaring down at him, signalling him to go away. But he remained unmoved. He stuck his tongue out at the man, unafraid, and plunged behind the table to hide.
The man watched him huddled there for some time, mumbling his verses distractedly, until the kid finally got restless, and sprang back up suddenly, banging his shoulder into the table. The ornate oil lamp at the corner lurched and toppled straight into the kindling of crisp notes, and with a whoosh the whole pile went up in flames.
Everyone jumped to their feet, and began running around. One sari-clad old woman tripped badly over the amplifier cord, killing the music in the process. Only shouts were heard now. Of fear, and of commands. Someone with the presence of mind yanked up a strip of the thick rug from the floor and dashed towards the fire, as another did with a bottle of water. But before anyone could reach, the wise man himself had jumped down from his high seat, and was already swatting the burning notes with his bare hands.
Others took over, thanking him profusely, as he stepped back, eyes glued to the smouldering treasure littered all around the table. He was watching, flexing his singed fingers when the owner of the house rushed up to him and whisked him away to an adjoining room for first aid. The crowd stood behind, part horrified at this ominous disruption and part amazed at the brave act of the man.
An hour or so later, the owner went back to the man who seemed to have slipped into a meditative trance, oblivious of the anxious people waiting outside. Touching his feet, he apologized yet again, and requested him to resume the holy proceedings.
The man slowly opened his eyes.
“Did you find the boy?” he asked, a muscle twitching almost imperceptibly in his jaws.
“No, guruji. The poor child must be scared. Hiding somewhere. Let’s forget about him,” the owner said. “I have something else for you.” He leaned closer, and whispered into his ear.
Moments later, to everyone’s relief, the man came back and took his seat behind the holy book. A new gilded tray had been placed, this time nearer his feet, and people had been instructed to call out their attendance again.
The crowd began moving in a single file, clutching the currency notes of even higher denominations to quickly pacify the God, as the man recommenced his mute recitation, looking pleased. The diamond ring on the middle finger of his right hand, acquired just recently, caught the light from the chandelier above, as he turned over another sacred page glorifying detachment and renunciation.
The boy stood in the back of the yard, unseen, watching it all, as people bowed before the man, touched his feet, and deposited the money in the tray. Someone behind him replugged the cord, and the song of invocation burst out again, chanting the hundred-and-eight names of the God.
But the boy was no longer there.
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