We lived on the ground floor in a rented place. I have lived in many rented houses. Each one has a different smell. This house had the smell of the old and new. The smell of the decaying ceiling mixed with a fresh coat of paint. Smell of moist green creepers running into new emulsion on windows.
The house stayed with me even after we had moved. Amma says we had to leave because of me. But Amma and I rarely agreed on these issues. She told me they were the best landlords we ever had. I agreed, but not because Yogesh Bhaiya bent his head when he saw Appa.
Amma liked people too easily. We never agreed completely on the list of good people around us. Even these days, as we sit to eat Amma will starts off about a relative, and adds, ‘Oh, he is such a good person, Krishna bless him.’ And my taste buds refuse to enjoy Amma’s fish curry. I have to put the spoon down and say cautiously, ‘Amma, he is not a good person.’ But before I can explain my reasons, Amma usually gives this smile, the smile mothers give when they are saying shut-up lovingly. Amma can never see people – I mean their hearts – beyond those stupid faces and meaningless words.
Coming back to this house, it almost seemed like our own. We only remembered that it wasn’t when Yogesh Bhaiya reminded Appa to hurry with the rent. This happened rarely. I think Yogesh Bhaiya was glad we took the house; we were perhaps the best tenants to inhabit the house. I mean, I could see what the earlier families had done. Some kids had made HB pencil drawings on the walls. Permanent red marks peeped through from the last green layer, there were dark yellow stains in the kitchen and nobody had bothered to fix the ceiling. Now Amma took care of the house.
Amma prayed daily. There was a tulsi plant she had in the open courtyard. We all shared the the plant. Amma prayed in the morning standing near the tulsi, looking at the sun. Just after her, Yogesh Bhaiya did the same, the sun a little brighter now. Yogesh Bhaiya’s tulsi ceremony was longer and more elaborate than Amma’s. In the end he actually stood on one leg and did some strange gymnastic-like gestures. Amma left the tulsi there, so that the house remembered and felt our presence always.
On weekends it was as if I had two mothers, Yogesh Bhaiya’s mother who I called Badi Amma and my Amma, two fathers and two courtyards. Two breakfasts, lunches and dinners, and a lot of space to play. There were days I wanted to copy myself so I could be upstairs and downstairs at the same time; at night I could sit with my double, and we could exchange detailed notes on what happened where.
There was a small iron staircase that snaked-up from the middle of our verandah. The cobra steps opened into the temple room. Small doll-like Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, Rama and Krishna sat in the temple room. Yogesh Bhaiya’s room was opposite the door. The temple room smelled like a forest of sandalwood trees even when the incense sticks were not lit. It was only dimly lit with lamps and a small orange bulb, as if it was night and some performance was about to begin. A small fan ran over the gods in summer. In winter it was never switched on unless Yogesh Bhaiya felt warm.
One night the orange bulb stopped working and Yogesh Bhaiya came running down the cobra staircase and almost fell into our house. Amma was making me brush my teeth in the bathroom when it happened. Amma ran to get her dupatta, although I don’t think Yogesh Bhaiya in his state would have noticed. Also, Yogesh bhaiya always looked at women’s feet when he talked to them. He only looked his own mother in the eyes. Don‘t think Amma noticed this ever.
We gave the gods the bulb from my room. Amma told this story for the next four years. She thought I did it for the gods. I never corrected her as I liked being called a good boy. But I often reminded myself that I did it for Yogesh Bhaiya.
On some days I ate, slept and studied in Yogesh Bhaiya’s house. His room was simple. A window. A bed. A small study table, a computer always covered with a turmeric stained blue bed-sheet and lots of books in book shelves. He read Stephen Hawking, C V Raman and Einstein. He also read the Ramacharitmanas every day in Sanskrit. I noticed the page never changed.
On some days he also chanted and narrated Krishna’s lessons from the Gita for all of us. Amma told him that he should teach professionally. She told me that if Yogesh Bhaiya had those god classes I would have to sit in them. So I swiftly took a promise from Yogesh Bhaiya, as we returned from the market he said aloud, ‘I will never give those classes, and if I do I will never tell your Amma’.’ As we were talking aloud a colleague of his passed us. Bhaiya became quiet and then said a swift ‘hello’ to her, as his eyes jumped and looked at his face in the puddle on the road.
Yogesh Bhaiya taught physics at the Central school. Sometimes we pretended that I had to leave Yogesh Bhaiya alone, so he could work. On those days I had to come down to my house.
Every morning around four in the morning Yogesh Bhaiya got up and tip toed to the temple room after a cold water bath. There, after taking off his slippers he sought permission from the gods and he and his mother, who would already be sitting, would remove the gods from the raised golden platform and bathe them. It was always done in the same order – Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, Rama and Krishna. Badi Amma looked hundred years old with the dim temple bulb shadowing her wrinkles. Her small body would bend gently under her nape like a banana. She sat in the centre with folded hands as Yogesh Bhaiya handed over the gods to her from the pedestal. One by one, slowly it became empty, lit only by the orange bulb. Yogesh Bhaiya would sit with folded hands as Badi Amma removed Shiva’s tiger print, Parvati’s green saree, Ganesha’s red wrap, Rama’s golden attire and Krishna’s yellow dhoti.
Gods naked looked different, almost like stone toys. I would not be scared of picking them up when they were naked.
Yogesh Bhaiya never touched the naked gods after he had passed them to Badi Amma. He closed his eyes as Badi Amma laid each god in soapy water. But Yogesh Bhaiya’s eyes did not close the way my eyes did when I am sleepy or bored in a class room. His eyes would close in an alert way. He would be chanting as he closed his eyes. And then just as Badi Amma finished bathing and dressing all the gods in new clothes his eyes would open. He would quickly stand-up, bend his head again, pick the gods one by one and put them back on the pedestal. Soon the room would fill with giant shadows made by lamps and sandalwood incense sticks.
After breakfast Yogesh Bhaiya sang stories for me, or we would go shopping for stationery – he always needed stamps and envelopes. He said he had to send money to friends of god so he had to have a ready stock always. Following the walk he always bought me something. Once he went all the way to the other end of the market place just because I asked him if I could get badminton rackets. I just had to ask and he would get it for me: Reebok shoes, Sabu comics, Diwali crackers, cricket bat. Amma said I was his son in the last birth and something between us was left incomplete. I do not agree with Amma. I think Yogesh Bhaiya was just a good person and he liked me a lot in this birth.
I only had to be careful of three things: Not to touch the Ramacharitmanas, no shoes in the temple room and never ever to touch the stamped envelopes kept on Yogesh Bhaiya’s desk.
Yogesh Bhaiya’s cell phone had these godly tunes; when I called him I heard a bhajan. One day when I went up the cobra staircase Badi Amma was sitting in the temple room. She was swaying her body feverishly and singing. I could also hear Yogesh Bhaiya’s voice, ‘How dare you do this to a respectable man? Do you know that everything in life is not about money? What about the people who called me over these four days and heard the song ?’ As Yogesh Bhaiya became louder Badi Amma’s shaking and chanting also did. Her bulging back traveled a few centimeters extra every time she moved in rhythm.
When Yogesh Bhaiya fell silent, I entered the room, he acted like he was fine, as if he had never been angry ever. But I knew, from standing on the cobra steps that the cell phone people had put a dirty song instead of the religious one he liked on the phone, and the dirty song played for four whole days.
Badi Amma had to go for a marriage in her family. Even as she sat in the cab, she kept giving instructions to Yogesh Bhaiya – the order of the dresses of the gods, how to dip them gently in the water. Yogesh Bhaiya listened with urgent attention and repeated with her – Shiva’s tiger print, Parvati’s green saree, Ganesha’s red wrap, Rama’s golden attire and Krishna’s yellow dhoti.
I slept upstairs on the night Badi Amma left for the marriage. Yogesh Bhaiya tip-toed to the temple room at four in the morning. Like always he bent his forehead to take permission. And slowly almost as if Badi Amma was there dictating each gentle movement Yogesh Bhaiya took off the clothes of the gods. Sitting under the red bulb he placed the marble bodies in water and soaped them as if they were made of flesh. The reflections of the bulb swam in the water over their naked bodies. He then wrapped and placed them on a towel to dry.
That evening Yogesh Bhaiya came home and locked himself in his room. He refused to open the door for anyone including me. Finally after waiting for many hours I went downstairs. Amma asked me to leave him alone, she thought he had been scolded by his school principal. Worried, I slept on the cobra steps.
I saw Yogesh Bhaiya in the morning. He was walking in a strange way, constantly looking around. He kept looking around as he took the gods off the pedestal. As he laid the naked gods on the white towel his hands trembled. The tremble increased as he picked up the clothes. Towards the end when he was tying the laces of Krishna’s small dress he forgot and put Krishna on the bare floor. His whole body was shivering by then.
That evening he returned late from school mumbling loudly. He passed me like I was transparent. He went straight to his room from the unused side steps. I heard him talking to himself, ‘How can the whole class come naked? How can they insult me like this? And the Principal he is also making fun of me. Walking naked into the class room.’ I heard windows closing and then opening. I lay there, outside, as he mumbled the same three sentences through the night.
When I got up the next morning the room was open and empty. The computer was covered with the same bed sheet. The Ramacharitmanas was lying open on the same page. Nothing had changed but his bed. The bed was crumpled and unruly. It seemed Yogesh Bhaiya had danced on it. I noticed that all the windows had been latched.
Downstairs Amma informed me that Yogesh Bhaiya had gone to the post office early. I saw something on Amma’s face, as she filled a jar of lemon pickles near the tulsi plant. I ran to the temple room and saw it was cloudy mass from the incense sticks and lamps. The gods had been bathed. A few days passed and somehow I could not even look at Yogesh Bhaiya. I was scared, it seemed I was forgetting his face.
One morning I was told that he came home early and was in his room. Amma said she would tie me to the steps if I went up. Finally, when Amma was busy I ran up the cobra steps and knocked at the door. I could hear loud mumbling. I kept knocking for many days.
Whenever I went up I heard him shouting and mumbling inside the room, ‘I can’t see Amma like that … what will happen when she comes back? Krishna, I can’t see Amma again. I can’t see Amma like that....’
Even before Badi Amma came back we left the house. Amma and Appa waited near the tulsi plant as I went up the cobra steps. I would have gone to his room but I saw Yogesh Bhaiya sitting in the temple. He was finishing the bathing ceremony as late as nine in the morning. I stood there waiting. Yogesh Bhaiya picked up each god and gently placed them on the raised platform. My orange bulb lit the gods. The incense sticks made flying shapes. The lamps flickered. He stood and bent his head as he forgot all the clothes on the floor. For the first time even naked gods looked godly to me.
That is the last time I saw Yogesh Bhaiya. He is still in my good people list.
Anubha Yadav is an academic, writer and filmmaker based in Delhi, India. She teaches media studies at Delhi University. Her research papers, non-fiction pieces and fiction work have been published in various journals, anthologies and newspapers and may be accessed through