Editor’s note: A new Saturday Story series by Gopi Chandroth
A short version of this story recently won the joint first prize in a competition held by the Society for Civil and Public Service Writers (SCPSW).
The SPCSW membership is open to civil and public servants, current or retired, including local government, NHS and the police. Contact Gopinath.firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
In Gorkha district of Nepal, halfway between Kathmandu and Pokhara, is a 17th century temple called Manakamana, which literally translates to heart’s desire. It was one of the scheduled stops in my itinerary. The cable car ride up the Himalayan mountain was famous for the spectacular views and the deity at the temple was believed to grant the wishes of those who visited her. Good value for money, I thought as I queued up to pay for my ride. I was tickled by the fares table that announced a two-way ticket for goats at 240 Rupees. I assumed it was a joke.
After boarding, I noticed that the car in front of mine was carrying several goats. So, it was no joke. Anyway, the scenery, as promised, was heavenly. The mountain range in its pristine glory cradled the fast flowing Trisuli river shimmering in the sun. As the cars ascended, the verdant flora changed rapidly. The icy peaks of the Himalayas, like sculpted crystal, refracted the sunlight into the azure sky. Little hutments clung on impossibly to vertical slopes.
As they stepped off the cable cars, people collected their goats and pulled them along with short lengths of ropes looped around their neck. The goats appeared reluctant. Some people carried large roosters in plastic bags. The birds poked their heads out and swivelled them left and right, observing the world with their unblinking eyes. The bright red cockscomb on their head, like antennae, perhaps received premonitions of imminent misfortune. The crowd trudged up the long flight of steps.
I followed them and finally reached the temple. In the courtyard outside, shops sold flowers, incense, oil lamps and other accoutrement of worship. Strangely, one of the shops offered a barbecue service. A large banyan tree with benches around its base, offered some respite from the sun. Those who couldn’t find a place under the banyan, sat on the pavement outside little makeshift food stalls.
Goats, big and small, their skins like patchwork quilts of black, brown and white, were tethered to lamp posts and the legs of plastic chairs. Children played on the cemented floor and the devotees wore a look of grim determination. I thought I saw on their face, fleeting shades of remorse. It was as if they wished the animals no harm but were about to harm them out of religious compulsions. A brown goat nestled its head in the crook of its owner’s arm.
The line inched ahead to gain access to the temple. It was only then that I saw another line emerging from the opposite end. Foreheads plastered with vermilion and turmeric, the devout clutched carrier bags containing the butchered remains of their animals. Fresh blood dripped from the bags. Four black hooves and a severed head stuck out of one, like a post-modern painting. They left a trail of blood in their wake as they made their way to the barbecue shop. The pious were strangely quiet and subdued, perhaps also carrying a mild sense of guilt.
The excited chatter of those waiting to go in competing with the noise of booming drums and wind instruments, desperate bleating of goats and the frantic cluck-cluck of roosters, together reached a crescendo. The smell of blood melded with that of incense, jasmine and marigold.
People waited patiently for their turn, wanting to pray for their own desires to come true. New arrivals rushed to take their position in the long queue as it inched forward. The goats, never eager to keep up with their owners, slowed their progress. Feeling nauseous, I left my place in the queue. I knew that my heart’s desire, to protect all living things, would not be fulfilled at this temple.
I went back down the hill to take the cable car down. A deep sadness clouded my view of the Himalayan scenery. I didn’t see the glorious ice peaks or the majestic picture postcard scenery. All I saw was a recalcitrant goat trying to brake with his hooves while the faithful dragged him to the sacrificial altar. Above the whirr of the cable car, I heard his trembling bleat. I hear it now.
Dear goat, I seek your forgiveness for the wicked foolishness of my species. I bid you farewell and caress your gentle forehead while you wait for your end. Why they charge you a two-way fare, confounds me.