☛ Submission for October, 2024 issue (Vol. 5, No. 2) is going on. The last date for submission is 30 September, 2024.




-         Anuradha Bhattacharyya (India)

Balaji was upset that too many people came crowding around him every day. He wanted his peace. The idea of being famous did not appeal to him as much as it did before, a thousand years ago when people had just heard his name for the first time.

But Balaji had no other public life. If he retreated to his cave in the Himalayas, changed his name and attire and shooed away the milling crowd by an avalanche, he would have nothing much to do. He would just laze in the snow and feel the shivers.

Balaji wanted a compromise. There should be just about a few visitors in a day. That would keep him busy enough, fulfilling their wishes in a year or two. It required a lot of planning and a lot of scheduling of events to make each wish come true. So he wanted just a few deserving clients to serve. That way, he could do a better job, remaining in the forefront among the deities and also snatching a few hours of respite.

But again, Balaji soon figured out, there was this massive temple built around him. He enjoyed the adulations. He was almost walled up and had no route of escape. The people would be shocked if he really disappeared one night. There would be large search parties and many people would be unnecessarily bothered and insulted. He could not want that.

So Balaji worried his head out over this problem, long and hard, day and night and viewed the increasing throng of people coming up to him with their petty wishes and hoping that if not in a month, perhaps in a few years he would have time to fulfil each one of them.

There was Raghu living in Tirupati, contemplating a visit to Balaji, just in case he could finally improve his condition. Raghu had two sons. They went to school daily. He helped them with their homework every night after work. Each boy had his own level of problems with his homework. Raghu was dealing with two standards of learning at the same time. Sometimes, on a night after a long day, he mixed up the texts and taught the younger one something from the elder boy’s syllabus. And when he failed to follow, rapped his knuckles on his head. Then he reluctantly turned to the elder boy and the homework before him only to discover that it was no fault of the son if he could not follow his father.

Raghu’s wife was very pretty. She was small and kind and wobbly on her feet, a mix of cute things that often made Raghu want another son. But she could not teach her boys. And Raghu had no money to spare for a tutor.

Raghu often thought of how close Balaji was. He was almost next door. He only had to knock at his door and pop in his head and make a wish. He thought of the wish and tried to frame a sentence. He tried to combine many wishes in one sentence. Sometimes it ran though his head like this: I want a house of my own with private rooms for each one of us and tutors for all my sons – it was important not to give a number – and a kitchen large enough to accommodate a cook and servants to sleep in the night. He could not think of anything else. It was always the house.

Balaji was famous for giving away wealth in dollops. Raghu figured out long ago that like fairy tales, he should actually wish for a dollop of gold. But he always hesitated to ask for such a wish. He could not figure out where to dig for it and then whom to sell it to. He was pretty sure that he could not feed his family with a dollop of gold.

It has to be something more sensible, Raghu thought and the more he thought, the more he postponed his visit to Balaji.

One day he thought of asking for endless food. That would be a good choice, he thought. He was already living in a two-room set, paying a paltry rent to an old widow and it did not matter if a big house did not materialize. Soon his sons grow up and leave and then only he and his wife would remain home. The old widow would die and her son might take pity on them and let them continue to live there. The big house was not all that important. It should be food.

He framed his wish for food: dear Balaji, give us endless food so that none of us should starve and death cannot touch any of us.

On second revision, he realized that he was actually asking for a protection from death. Food and no death and was that enough?

Raghu went about his routine of selling medicines in the shop where he worked as an assistant. It crossed his mind that instead of being an employee, he could ask Balaji to make him a shop owner. He could continue selling medicines and earn all the profit. Maybe if he made such a wish, his employer, who had no sons, would one day be pleased with his services and bequeath him the shop. But perhaps that would happen only on his deathbed.

Raghu felt sad that he could not decide on a proper wish. He knew it would be once and for ever. He found it terribly shameful to go on making wishes frequently. So he continued to postpone his visit to Balaji.

But one day he was neck deep in trouble. His cute little wife, who always quietly wobbled about in the little home doing chores, slipped in the rain beaten terrace and broke her hip joint.

When she screamed out, the old widow came out of her room and joined her in chorus. The women in the neighbourhood gathered together and carried her into the house and put her on a bed. By then, with the deafening screaming going on, everyone was assured that there was a fracture.

Raghu rushed home and fondly carried his little wife in his arms and took a rickshaw to the dispensary. The long and short of the story is that she did break her hip joint and let out a scream every time anyone touched her.

The doctor directed Raghu to several places and finally he was seated in front of the surgeon who volunteered to operate on her joint free of cost except that he would have to bear the rest of the expenditure.

It amounted to a figure Raghu could not afford. After providing for food, home and education, he barely saved a rupee. He could think of hardly anything else so he never dreamt of asking Balaji to provide money in excess.

Now it was high time Balaji thought of Raghu. After all what are good neighbours for? Here he was, sitting prim in his abode of gold and receiving daily gifts from visitors. His attendants lead a life of luxury and never asked to take away his throne. They were the first to come to his temple in the morning and chant Jai Govinda and scrub the floor for him.

Balaji had heard the screams in the neighbourhood. He felt very sorry for Raghu. For long he had been dreading the day when he would knock at his door, pop his head in and wish for wealth. He was afraid of letting people wish for all the wealth in the world. What if really everyone cocked his head in and mumbled, ‘make me rich’? What would Balaji do with scores of thousands of rich people? They would be a nuisance. They would never work for a living.

But finally, seeing Raghu’s misery, Balaji decided to invite him on this day. He meditated hard and finally managed to approach the busy Raghu’s head with his invitation. He said, ‘Raghu, please visit me and make a wish’.

Raghu woke up from his deep slumber and quickly took a bus towards Balaji’stemple. He just had to walk 5 kms uphill to reach him. He drank a bottle of water and proceeded with his trudge uphill.

Once inside the compound of Balaji’s big abode, Raghu revised his wish several times. There was a slow march of visitors for 2 kms, moving shoulder to shoulder, taking one step at a time and there was that loud but pacifying speaker that reminded them all to have patience. If I am here, Raghu said to himself, I’d better make the best of it. I must not let this opportunity go cheap. There should be a house, plenty of food, a cook and servants and proper education for my sons, another son too and of course, a hidden treasure for emergencies.

He memorized his long sentence thoroughly.

On the way, he noticed a baby crying. He felt sorry for her. Her father had taken off her frock so that she may not feel hot. There were others, a sea of clean shaven heads that made Raghu wonder if they came here after their wishes had been fulfilled. There were two short and fat women who blocked everybody’s way as they clung to the railing and did not move ahead fast enough. He tried to persuade them to leave the railing saying that there was no room to fall to the ground if at all they stumbled anywhere.

But again there was a huge roar of Jai Govinda from the huge crowd of visitors and Balaji was shaken awake. He quickly reminded Raghu that he had to make a wish. So Raghu refrained from saying Jai Govinda like the others, for fear of forgetting his long sentence and mumbled it over and over.

It seemed a long time before Raghu could see the procession turning into the huge gates of Balaji’s room. He tried to repeat his wish, remembering not to leave out any clause. Then he suddenly shrugged his shoulder and reasoned. Whoever dictated that I should make my wish in only one sentence? I can rattle off a list of things. Where is the limit? As long as I am in Balaji’s presence, I can go on with one wish after another.

So at the doorsteps, Raghu dropped his sentence. He could now see how dark the room was and how sparkling Balaji’sjewellery was. He saw that the entrance was actually a gate of gold and the inside was clean and fragrant. He could not help admiring the beauty of Balaji’s clear visage and as the crowd cheered up with a huge Jai Govinda, Raghu too opened his mouth with a loud cry. Then he quickly mumbled his first wish, “please cure my wife of her fracture” and lunged forward to touch the gate with his forehead.

But no. It was not allowed. Balaji had forbidden his visitors to touch his gates of gold with their dirty hands. There stood two strict matrons guarding it and dragging and pushing every visitor onto the way out. He was allowed one glimpse of Balaji sitting prim in the middle of his room and then ushered away.

Outside, it was still crowded and he was sweating. He went out in the open compound and sat down on a stone. From there he saw several thrust-out visitors touching the walls of Balaji’s room with their foreheads and mumbling wishes. He remembered his own list. He had barely made one and the rest were left unspoken. Would Balaji know them all by himself? If Balaji was really capable of granting everyone’s wishes, why couldn’t I ask for an extraordinary thing? I could have asked to be the Prime Minister.

He shook his head and got up. He walked out of the temple compound. He hurried back home and decided to fend for himself.

He decided not to tell his wife about his escapade with Balaji. He was afraid of losing her. He had heard somewhere that you should not tell anyone what you have wished for. So when his wife asked him where he was all the while, he answered, “I went to look for money”.

“Money?” she said, “Is it for my operation?”

“Yes. I need to borrow from someone.”

“Look, don’t borrow from others. It will be a huge burden later on. I have a little amount tucked away in my cupboard for an emergency. Take that and let’s hope it would be sufficient.”