Subramanya Sankara Sastry had been living in Boston for the last seven years with his eldest son, a neurologist who had a roaring practice. He had been living there with some degree of discomfort but since the last week his discomfort had multiplied thanks to a painful lump under his left nipple. The lump chafed him, especially when his sacred thread rubbed over it repeatedly whenever he moved or laughed or sneezed. An ill-informed black American GP had suggested taking the thread off for a while till the lump healed. SSS had cursed the doctor's ignorance under his breath and stopped visiting the GP.
He proudly remembered and wholeheartedly agreed with what his 13 year old grandson had said at a school cultural day. "We are brahmins, a category of people who are very intelligent. Most of us become engineers and doctors. I am proud to belong to this group of intelligent people. We are also responsible for education so we can also become teachers." This had raised some eyebrows but had made SSS immensely proud. If the Americans had been equally discerning about who they gave their teacher and doctor jobs to, America would probably have been a nicer place for brahmins like him to live in.
Anyway, coming back to his lump, SSS felt he had to consult his spiritual guru on the cause and best solution for the bothersome protrusion. The spiritual guru would have a soothing and satisfactory solution.
Having thus consoled himself, SSS headed towards the Waterfront where his guru had taken up temporary abode with his most ardent devotees, the Berstowsky family. The Berstowsky family sometimes let the guru's other devotees meet him in their parlour – but only those devotees that the guru had explicitly given permission to.
The guru looked at the lump from a safe distance and withdrew into a ponderous silence. During that time he stared at SSS with different degrees of disapproval. SSS squirmed a little under the disapproval but knew that ultimately it would be for his own gain – a solution to the vexing issue of the annoying lump below his left nipple.
The guru then raised four fingers. This, as any devotee would understand, could mean one of several things. It could mean that the guru would speak for four minutes or four hours or four days. It could mean that the guru had identified four issues or that he had four solutions. It could mean that the guru dakshina was four rupees or four coconuts or four bananas or four thousand rupees (or four hundred rupees). It could mean there were four villains in this problem or four saviors.
SSS, in all humility, didn't even try to interpret the raised four fingers as he knew he wouldn't anyway be able to. The only understanding he chose to make of the raised four fingers was that it was a clear demonstration of the guru's greatness and the guru's ability to communicate without words. This understanding usually left SSS speechless, but this time he felt a sharp and sudden spark of irritation that he quickly suppressed. The irritation, he told himself, stemmed from the fact that his sacred thread was rubbing against his lump in a most annoying fashion. He waited for the guru to throw more light on the four fingers.
The guru finally spoke."Your first problem' he said slowly and deliberately "is the pollution in your heart. Your second problem is the pollution in your body. The third problem is the pollution in your house. The fourth problem is the pollution in your community."
SSS couldn't help but agree that pollution was generally all around him in ways he was losing hope of avoiding.
Still, if the lump had to go, he would have to do something about it. He gestulated wildly at the guru. "Swamiji" he moaned. "You are right as usual. Tell me how I can get rid of all this pollution? I feel helpless with the way the world is. It is getting beyond my control. Our people are not able to manage in this world. We need your help. Help us swamiji. Help us." Thus pleading, he prostrated himself at the guru's feet. He lay like this in the vain hope that the guru would lift him up gently and whisper the anti-pollution secret in his ear. When he raised his head a few seconds later, he realized the guru had disappeared – as though into thin smoke, so to speak.
He wearily raised himself up and trudged home.
He felt that the guru wasn't talking about physical dirt and pollution but a metaphorical one. How was he to get rid of that kind of pollution? Gone were the days when the polluted could be kept away and when one's brahminhood conferred on one an automatic purity. Gone were the days when the polluted could be segregated, pushed away to the edge, away from the edge. Gone were the days when the polluted trembled to even sully the pure with their shadows.
His wife was frying McCain finger chips at home. This infuriated SSS. He yelled at her using some vague, incoherent terms because he knew his grandson was staring at him askance. He couldn't explain to his grandson the concept of pollution but he knew he would have to get down to it soon enough. His grandson played with all kinds of children. This was a taxing thought. This was probably the physical pollution that the guru was talking about - the pollution in his house and body. Still technically the house did not belong to him and his daughter-in-law who wasn't brahmin had no qualms about bringing any kind into the house.
SSS had to make a decision. It was a tough one but had to be made nevertheless. That evening he declared to his neurologist son that he was going back to India, to his village.
His son was aghast. His daughter-in-law was secretly happy. His wife just went ahead and packed both their bags.
SSS flew back stoically tolerating the innumerable pollutants that he inevitably came in contact with till he left the country. On arrival at his village, he organized an elaborate ceremony to initiate the purification process and put to good use the dollars his son had tearfully handed him at the airport. He got together the ascending line of his father's relatives and brahmins who had reached a 100 years to plan the purification ceremony. He prepared powdered vermilion, saffron and sandal wood to attract purity into his household. At the ceremony he pronounced the secret monosyllable which 'was to be kept from the knowledge of the multitude'. Rice, ghee and bananas were distributed to the select and august gathering at the purification ceremony after which everyone disappeared.
After this, SSS rested in his purified house for a day and then called his household together. He discussed with them in detail what the guru had indicated. "Purity" he declared, "is vital to the wellbeing of our household". Everyone agreed with him.
Two days later, SSS noticed two more lumps – one under his right nipple and the other on his back. By the sixth day, he had painful lumps all over his body. He toyed with the idea of asking his neurologist son to send more dollars for a more elaborate purification ceremony, but opted against it. He hated the way his non-brahmin daughter-in-law's eyebrow moved up a fraction of an inch whenever he mentioned some traditional practice. He had never quite forgiven his son for this deviant behavior.
SSS panicked. Out of sheer desperation he took off the sacred thread as advised by the black GP in Boston. To his amazement, not only did the pain stop, all the lumps disappeared as well. He mailed the GP – a curt message asking why the GP had thought the sacred thread had been the cause of the lump.
The black GP replied:
Thank you for writing to me. I am indeed glad that your lump(s) has/have disappeared. I also thank you for your interest in understanding the logic behind my treatment option. I am happy to share this information with you.
Over the last few years we had noticed some peculiar case studies of lumps along the course of a thread worn by Indian males who have always belonged to a certain community. The thread is usually worn diagonally from the left shoulder but placed on the right shoulder during funerals and performance of ablutions. Owing to the frequency of occurrence of these lumps in men of this community of thread wearers, we undertook a large scale study supported by the University of Racial Intolerance. Study findings have shown a highly significant (P<0.00001) association between the thread and a particular virus that we have tentatively called the CTInd virus. The virus has been found in significant amounts in the homes of these thread wearing males as well as on their objects of daily use such as clothing, utensils, cosmetics etc. Cultures from the thread and biopsies of the lumps have also shown a rapid growth of the virus. We also have evidence of replication of the virus in heart muscles of the affected individuals. The effect of this virus on the heart will be documented in the third phase of the study. We will keep you posted about the outcome of our study findings.
Dr. Jocelyn Durant.
Subramanya Sankara Sastry read and re-read the letter several times. . He didn't know what the study would throw up. SSS was confused. Should he go back to wearing the thread? Should he wait for the study findings?
The choice seemed to be for him to not wear his beloved cross thread or to suffer from a heart affliction. The words of his grandson echoed through his head. "We are brahmins, a category of people who are very intelligent. Most of us become engineers and doctors. I am proud to belong to this group of intelligent people. We are also responsible for education so we can also become teachers."
SSS felt that he had a moral obligation to wear the thread, lump or no lump, heart or no heart. He felt that he owed this much to his grandson.
Five years later, SSS passed away. Post mortem reports showed the CTInd virus had eaten into his heart muscles.
In recognition of the stoicism of Subramanya Sankara Sastry and his contribution to science the Institute of Racial Intolerance named the virus CTInd-SSS virus at a glittering ceremony attended by renowned scientists and celebrities.
Amid resounding and thunderous applause, his grandson, now a young man of 18 years declared between sobs and with a distinct American accent "My grandfather faced even the threat of death but never gave up on our traditional cross thread. I promise my grandfather that I will continue this tradition and will share this message to all young men of my community so that the fight fought by my brave grandfather would not have been fought in vain". This was picked up by the media and gained enough momentum to start a movement of young men who positively reaffirmed their commitment to wearing the cross thread.
SSS had not suffered in vain.
He had indeed made a difference.
He was a true hero.....of sorts.
Dr Sylvia Karpagam is a public health doctor and researcher. She is born from an inter-caste marriage between an adi - dravida father and naidu mother. Her own experiences of pervasive and insidious brahmanical discrimination informs her critique and she would like to use all the skills she possesses to fight caste and its manifestations as part of the larger movement of dalit bahujan friends and family.
Cartoon by Unnamati Syam Sundar.