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Words by Suneet Paul
It was well past twelve thirty in the night. The sermon for tomorrow finally lay completed in front of father Jacob who removed his spectacle and put them in the case on the table. His fatigue showed in the reddish shade of his otherwise clear eyes. Yes, the day had been tiring. He had got up at six in the morning and fetched water from the well, a couple of furlongs away from his three-roomed mud-house. Having finished with the daily chores by eight, he had left for the church to return late in the evening. This way of life was now a routine for him. Personal convenience had never come in the way of his service for others. Being single, and having had practically no family life since the time he had started thinking for himself, it was his relationships with people based on a spirit of compassion and love that had compensated for the family-emotion quotient.
Five years ago, Father Jacob had come to this village in Maharashtra, India, to take charge of the only church here. The church was really a very old one, built during the initial period of the British Raj in India. Many a Father had spent their tenure here trying to propagate the necessity of believing and imbibing the sayings in the Bible. Father Jacob was not one of those men who believed in just talk, but took pains to see that the mission of the church was understood by his fellow-men in their everyday living. And indeed, he had achieved his task to a considerable extent. People loved him and always wanted to meet and talk to him when they visited the church. Without really making any efforts on his part, he enjoyed a very important position in the village, essentially because of the genuine affection and trust which the residents here had for him.
Tomorrow’s sermon, which lay written on the table, dealt with the sensitivity involved in human relationships. Father Jacob had tried to highlight the significance of the innocent and genuine love of animals like dogs, showing how humans were so hypocritical when it came to honestly display feelings.
No matter how simply he wrote, it was a task for him to penetrate the fixed daze of the villagers.
The Sermon was to be followed by the daily hour for confession. “The village folk may be simple, but their confessions were as complicated as of those anywhere,” mused Father Jacob. “Come to think of it,” he deliberated with himself, “these innocent people come out with such stunning things that would shock even the urban folks with their complex social norms.”
The lamp lying on the table caught his eye. The wick was diminishing in size. The shadows all around it were growing larger as if to merge into one another. Slowly the wick reached its end and the room was left in darkness.
Father Jacob felt too lazy to move and light the lamp. Instead, he stretched his legs forward to their full length and leaned back his head on the backrest of the chair. The chair was his own creation. Some of his hair got entangled in the cane web and he pulled them out with a soft jerk of the head and closed his eyes to become a part of his inner calm which he treasured so much.
The day’s fatigue was gradually seeping in and he changed his position slightly to a more comfortable one. As time passed, his muscles relaxed, and feeling lighter, he was carried away by the thoughts of his earlier years when he had come to this village. All enthusiastic about his new role, he had set upon his task with boyish energy. Soon he had been able to make a connect with the villagers. His predecessor had regarded the church more as a duty. Father Jacob’s attitude was different. Serving the church was a pleasure for him. It was his sincerity and devotion which attracted the simple folk towards him. His interpretation of God—the Almighty, always boosted the morale of the person who thought himself to be a sinner. But secretly, Father Jacob thought that there was someone stronger and more powerful than God. The thought scared him and he hurriedly knelt to ask for forgiveness.
It dawned on him that he was as susceptible to fear as any of the crude villagers who came to him with heavy consciences. Talking from a high pedestal and not actually participating personally in whatever they went through every day, left him with a feeling of hollowness in his self. It was as if he was a filling station where people came and pumped in, on easy terms, the moral courage they required for carrying on their way. Father Jacob felt he lived in a world of make-belief. A shiver went through his body, and he felt quite lonely. Slowly, his eyes opened. The room was in darkness except for the faint reflection of the moonlight which seeped in from the window. Father Jacob sensed the child in him calling for his mother in the frightening silence engulfing him.
The distant light of Ram Bahadur’s small hut could be seen through the window. What was Ram Bahadur doing at this late hour? Was there a quarrel going on in his house? Ram Bahadur’s fifteen-year-old son had come this morning- no yesterday, to ask for Father Jacob’s advice. Ram Bahadur was a drunkard and would frequently beat his wife. Father Jacob had promised the child that he would talk to his father about the matter.
Father Jacob stretched his tired body and thought of the bundle of advice that he had given to the villagers with so much apparent confidence. Was he making a fool of himself? He talked about so many issues of life, but did he really understand them? He dropped his head in confusion, betraying a lack of confidence.
The sudden knock at the door surprised him. It was very rare that he had a visitor at this time of the night. He sat up on the chair. The knock was repeated, this time a bit urgently. Father Jacob remembered that the front door was not latched, and feeling lazy to go to the outer room, he called out casually. “Come in—the door is not latched. Just push it.”
There was a creaking sound as the door opened slowly. Father Jacob could not clearly see who had entered the room. But the noise of the payal, the common footwear ornament worn on the ankles by the village women, made him get up. He spoke rather loudly, “Who is it? Speak out please.” For a while there was only the silence of the night in the room. Then, a soft voice of a women said, “It’s me, Malti, Father Jacob.”
Father Jacob immediately stood up, and spoke with recognition in his voice. “Why Malti, what brings you here now at this hour? Wait, I’ll light the lamp. I’ve misplaced the matchbox.”
“Oh—no, Father—please let it be as it is, if it is okay for you. I’ll rather talk to you in the dark. Nobody knows I am here.” She sounded frightened. Father Jacob sat back and said after a pause. “Well, come and sit down on this chair.” She came and sat down on the chair next to his. They looked like silhouettes in the darkness of the room. Father Jacob looked at the door that had been left open. Anxiously, he quickly went to close it and then came back and sat on his favorite chair, “Now, what’s the matter?”
Malti was in sobs. “Father, my life is ruined." She wiped the abundant flow of tears with her saree. Father Jacob placed his hand gently on her shoulder and pressed it softly, “Now, now—take it easy.” He felt the wise man awakening in him. But surprisingly, the feeling vanished as fast as it had come.
Malti’s sobs gradually became milder, and she spoke in a whisper. “My husband is planning to murder me. I am going to commit suicide before that.”
Taken aback by this revelation, Father Jacob spontaneously said in a shocked tone, “What? What are you talking about?”
The room was very still expect for the whimpering sounds from Malti. She calmed herself. “Father Jacob, I speak the truth, trust me.” Her voice was heavy and laden with the burden of self-pity. “I heard him talking to this woman—his mistress, Shamli—who lives five huts away from mine.” She pulled his hand from her shoulder into both of hers, “Father, he—they both are planning to poison me.”
Father Jacob, with his hand tightly held by Malti, felt a loss of words. Strangely, the sayings from the Bible did not come to him. He placed his other hand on top of hers, and said encouragingly, “Be calm. I do understand your problem.”
Malti was again in sobs, this time the intensity was greater. Father Jacob felt the pressure on his hands increasing. She spoke with desperation in her tone, “Oh Father! I’ll jump into the well before he brings me to shame. What have I not done to please him that he should do this to me? And that bitch! I’ll kill her! He is not the first one she has been playing tricks with.”
The next moment Malti was leaning on Father Jacob with her head pressing against his shoulder. Her crying was endless. Father Jacob embraced her with his left arm which was free and said with strength in his voice, “Don’t worry. Things will be all right.” Somehow the words were not coming to him. He felt a numbness and clutched Malti closer.
Malti continued pleadingly, “Please, please save me or—” She was suddenly quiet and stared into Father Jacob’s eyes. There was a revengeful meaning in her look. She gathered his face in her hands, and pressed it to hers. Father Jacob was taken aback by this sudden display of emotion. A shiver ran through his body. Malti was not herself. Pulling him by his hand, she led him silently to the adjoining room—his bedroom.
It was three o’clock in the morning. The stony pathway to the church stood out boldly in contrast to the bushes on either side of it. A lone man with his head held down was treading the pathway. It was Father Jacob on his way to church for a confession—his first confession. Somehow, he felt very relaxed, very human.