It was not supposed to be called Shiva Park.
Mani, the councillor responsible for the park’s creation, was a rational man who pretended to be religious because most of his constituents were religious. So, he showed his face at the neighbourhood temple once a week, and donated an agreeable amount to the yearly chariot festival. He was a practical atheist who kept his views on religion to himself. His rise to councillor had come about, after all, because he was a genial man who didn’t offend public sentiment. He knew that he had to pick his battles to survive in public service.
His battle was the construction of a new park. He had wanted one in his locality for over twenty-five years, ever since he had seen as a kid, a half-hour special on Doordarshan about a park in Darjeeling. Sitting in front of the TV one Sunday afternoon, he had watched the grainy footage of kids his age playing cricket on grass so lush they could dive on it and get up unscathed. The programme ended with the shot of a young boy, his hair cropped short for the summer, leaning against an enormous tree. The boy held a tennis ball in one hand, and gave a thumbs-up with the other. A joyous smile lit up his face. Mani had never seen a purer expression of happiness.
So, when the time came, it was obvious what the central theme of his campaign to become councillor would be.
“Don’t you want wide, open spaces for your children to play in?” he had asked young parents as he went door-to-door.
“Don’t you want your aging lungs to breathe fresh air?” he had asked senior citizens on their morning walks.
“Don’t you want my constituents to vote for the party in the next election?” he had asked the deputy mayor in charge of approving his plan.
He had even increased his temple visits, discretely handing out pamphlets describing his park manifesto. The pamphlet had pictures of swings and slides, of a garden with colourful flowers, of laughing senior citizens on a dedicated walking path, and young men and women stretching their limbs in a swanky Yoga & Meditation Centre. There was already government owned land in the locality, the pamphlet said, that was rotting away under mounds of garbage. The manifesto prodded the reader to imagine this neglected space becoming Green Park.
Why 'Green Park'? Well, because parks are green. Mani was a rational man.
His opponent’s campaign didn’t get off the ground in the face of such initiative, and before long the constituents were clear that what they lacked most in their lives was a park. Even before all the votes were counted, it was clear that Mani had earned the people’s trust and so the authorities called it a landslide victory and took an early lunch.
But as is common in public service, Mani’s plan hit a snag when it came to execution. With the construction of the park half-complete, the deputy mayor released the rest of the funds to another project.
“You’ve already won the election,” the deputy mayor reasoned. “Just tell your people the park is under construction, and they’ll soon forget you even promised it.”
Mani felt anger bubble up but restrained himself. If he let his temper get the better of him, the deputy mayor would badmouth him to the rest of the party. All his years of service would come to naught. So he tried flattery, and when that failed, he shook the deputy mayor’s hand and returned home devastated.
He stayed cooped up at home, avoiding his constituents who wanted to know when the Green Park would be opened. He soon became a shadow of his former self, vacantly staring for hours at the park manifesto he had framed and hung up in the living room.
But then, an unexpected visitor turned up at the councillor’s house. He was a movie producer who was having trouble getting approval from the municipality for a couple of weeks of uninterrupted shooting at one of the city’s major parks. The producer had heard rumours that Green Park’s construction was halted due to lack of funds.
“I’ll pay for the completion of your park if you’ll let me shoot my movie there,” the producer said.
Mani’s wife and kids came running into the living room, startled by the joyous squeal of a grown man. A broken councillor and a dead project were thus revived. After the construction was completed and the final dab of polish was applied to the tile floors of the Yoga & Meditation Centre, Mani handed the park keys to his angel investor. A couple of weeks later, the producer handed the keys back and said, “We are done. You can open the Green Park now.”
On hearing the news of the opening, a few residents stopped by Mani’s house to volunteer their time and services. “You’ve done so much,” they told him. “We’ll take care of the rest.”
The next morning, one of the volunteers handed Mani a pair of scissors. To the sound of applause and shouts of his name, he neatly snipped a red ribbon and declared Green Park open. As he gazed at the colourful swings and slides, and at the trimmed grass that held the satisfying scent of lawn mower petrol, he wiped away a tear. Dreams could come true in public service.
His triumphant gaze followed the crowd of people streaming in. He wondered what facilities they would find most impressive. Would the young adults flock to the fitness equipment? Would the joggers line up to try out the thoughtfully placed drinking water fountains? Would the senior citizens indulge their childlike nature and sit on the swings? But the various facilities stayed unused for the moment as people formed a beeline towards a most unexpected fixture. Were Mani’s eyes betraying him? He felt his stomach churn as he heard a priest loudly chant incantations. No, he wasn’t hallucinating. There stood, a few yards from the volleyball courts, a 20-foot statue of Lord Shiva, the god’s placid expression, a stark contrast to the councillor’s.
“Super idea, sir,” a volunteer said pointing at the statue. “I saw it yesterday and called up the priest to come this morning.”
The volunteer then took Mani’s limp hand and shook it. “Thank you, sir,” he said and bowed, as if Mani had congratulated him for making the call to the priest. The councillor politely excused himself and walked out of the park.
“Why is there a Shiva statue in my park?” Mani asked on the phone, tamping down the fury rising within him.
“Oh, we were shooting a temple sequence. Didn’t my people move the statue out?” the producer replied. “I’ll send my crew there immediately to take care of it.”
But two weeks went by with no sign of the producer’s crew, and the producer stopped taking Mani’s calls as well. In the meantime, a local newspaper carried a front-page story with the headline, “Shiva Park Now Open,” and a photograph capturing the enormity of the Lord in relation to His people.
As the number of visitors increased, the Shiva statue created a cottage industry for flower and coconut sellers by the park entrance. The volleyball nets were taken down and a shamiyana (tent) was put up under which puliyodharai (tamarind rice) and payasam (rice pudding) was distributed. The Yoga & Meditation Centre became an afternoon siesta spot for the priests and cleaners who took care of the statue. Bhajans were held on the lawn that children were supposed to play cricket on. Early morning walkers – it had to be early morning because the jogging path was cordoned off to hold a snaking line of devotees later in the day – would pause in front of the statue every time they crossed it, closing their eyes and touching their lips. Mani had never understood the meaning of this gesture, his pragmatism coming in the way of asking a potentially inflammatory question: “Why?”
“Don’t get used to the statue, it’ll be removed soon,” he told anyone who would listen. But his claims were mistaken for unfunny witticisms. When someone replaced the entrance sign with one that read, “Shiva Park,” Mani knew his park’s identity had been hijacked. Shiva had stolen the councillor’s thunder.
And not for the first time.
On his thirteenth birthday, Mani’s parents had dragged him to a Shiva temple a few hours from town. “We’ll be back before sunset. You’ll have plenty of time to celebrate with your friends,” they had promised him. But when they got to the temple, the priest informed them about a special poojai (prayer ritual) that had been organised for later in the day. Would they stay back for it? “Of course!” said his ecstatic parents.
“But my party,” Mani reminded them.
“Don’t be so self-centred,” his mother chastised him. “Feel grateful that there is a poojai on your birthday.”
“It means God is looking after you. We’ll go home as soon as the poojai is over.”
As the sun set during their bus ride home, an upset Mani peppered his parents with questions, a nasal whine underlining each one.
“Why did we have to stay back for the poojai?”
“Why did the priest pour so many vessels of milk on a lingam?”
“Why were people pushing each other in the line?”
“Why do we need to pray?”
His mother smacked him on the back of his head, exhausted by the ridiculous questions of a teenager who knew nothing about life. Mani, hurt and confused, burst into tears. But he didn’t dare ask another question. By the time they reached home, it was too late for a party, and “too late for cake,” his father said. Mani went to bed without protest and his dreams that night were inhabited by images of a Shiva lingam coming to life and repeatedly asking him if he would like some Black Forest cake. “Yes!” Mani yelled, only for the Shiva lingam to repeat the question, unable to hear Mani’s increasingly loud pleas for cake.
Mani now woke up in a sweat, just like he did on the night of that dream. His phone was ringing.
“Sir, there’s a problem at Shiva Park. Come fast!”
“It’s Green Park!” yelled Mani, but the Good Samaritan had already cut the call.
Mani spotted the problem as soon as he entered the park. A group of men had disassembled the statue and a massive bunch of devotees had surrounded them, unwilling to let the miscreants steal their Lord. He was not one to condone theft, but the sudden absence of the statue warmed his heart. The park was finally looking like… a park.
“Make way for the councillor! Make way!” shouted a young man ushering the councillor in.
“What is going on here?” Mani asked.
“WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?” the young man repeated.
“I can take care of this,” Mani said, angered by the insinuation that he could not be heard.
“HE CAN TAKE CARE OF—”
Mani shoved the young man into the crowd and turned to face the thieves.
“Where are you from?” he asked a hulk of a man who easily held Shiva’s feet on his shoulder. The statue had been clearly put together by a set designer, an interlocked system of parts, each one coming apart neatly to aid transportation.
“The producer told us you wanted the statue moved out,” the hulk said.
A hush fell over the crowd, and then cacophony, as people shouted over each another and got threateningly close to the councillor. An old woman then raised her hand and requested silence.
“What is the meaning of this?” she asked in a quivering voice, introducing a dash of pathos to the escalating scenes.
“Councillor, get your people out of our way!” the hulk thundered. “Don’t waste our time.”
“What is he talking about?” the old woman asked.
“Is this a fake idol? Have you tricked us with a fake idol?” the old woman asked.
The crowd organized itself into chants of “Councillor! Answer us! Councillor! Answer us!”
“Is this a fake idol?” the old woman repeated.
“Aren’t they all fake!” Mani raged. “What does it matter if it’s a Shiva made for a movie or for a temple?”
In the ensuing chaos, the hulk landed tactical punches and cleared a path to get his men and the statue out of the park. One punch struck Mani on the back of his head and knocked him out. A few members of the mob then carried him on their shoulders and dropped him on the tile floor of the Yoga & Meditation Centre, but not before stripping him of his watch and clearing his pockets – a necessary, if insufficient, compensation for the emotional trauma they had been put through.
When Mani finally regained consciousness, he found himself next to a snoring priest immersed in a divine sleep. He took a sip of water from the drinking fountain, and trudged home, insults tossed at him every step of the way until he shut the front door behind him. When the deputy mayor heard the news, he called Mani and blasted him. He then asked the councillor to stay out of sight of his constituents for a month.
“They’ll soon forget this even happened.”
A month later, a visibly aged Mani with dark circles under his eyes and an unkempt beard framing his face stepped out of the house. The sun was yet to rise, but street vendors and shopkeepers were up and ready for the day’s business. None of them paid him any attention as he walked the streets; he had earned his constituents’ apathy by following the deputy mayor’s advice.
As he stepped into the park, his eyes fell upon a statue of Shiva that stood a few yards from the volleyball court. It was taller than the previous one, and the expression on the Lord’s face was calmer too. Right beside the statue was a big granite slab with an inscription that confirmed the councillor’s suspicion; his opponent had donated the new statue.
And in front of the new statue paused the early morning walkers who closed their eyes, touched their lips, and proceeded along the jogging path the councillor had built.