The Great Ganesh Milk Miracle
Shankar’s rented room was one of five on the ground floor of an old bungalow. A couple rented the room next to his. Every night, Shankar left a small bowl outside his room and every morning, the couple would fill it with fresh milk which he used for his morning filter coffee. Today, the bowl stood empty. The couple had already left for work, their room locked with a bolt, but they had left a note. It read: NO MILK. BUT WHAT A MIRACLE!
Shankar went back inside his room and sat on his bed, reading and rereading the note. He could not make heads or tails of it. Resolving not to pay them that day, he shoved his small kerosene stove under the bed, slid into his chappals and headed out into the muggy September morning.
Shankar had grown up with the smell of coffee in the morning. Back in Chennai, his father would roast the beans, grind them to powder, and pack the powder firmly into the top of the steel filter. He then drizzled hot water slowly and evenly to yield an inky decoction while the milk on the stove ascended to scalding temperatures. In Chennai, coffee making was a hallowed ritual. Even the roadside bandis presented their steaming glasses with pride. Here, in the dusty lanes of Delhi, drinkable coffee was impossible to find.
Soon after moving into his room near the college campus, Shankar had persuaded his mother to mail him the coffee powder every month. Her special blend – eight-five percent peaberry, fifteen percent chicory – was finely ground, with a deep, rich aroma. Filter coffee needed fresh milk. Shankar had put forward the milk proposal to the next-door couple. Did the two of them really need a whole milk packet? By sharing one cup with him they could, he pointed out, save enough to buy ghee. Their eyes lit up.
Encouraged by his negotiating success, Shankar had knocked on his landlady’s door. She had immediately opened it wearing a bright orange sari printed with purple peacocks. She was tall and fleshy, with a red hibiscus pinned at the side of her bun. Gold-flecked purple glass bangles jingled on her forearm as she swung a handbag. It was apparent she was getting ready to go out. She greeted him with a small, polite smile. Shankar apologized for disturbing her and asked for permission to set up a stove in his room.
“A stove? In your room?” Her voice rose.
He nodded slowly.
She chuckled. “And what will you ask for next, young man? A foreign car in the front garden?”
“But Auntyji, it’s just a tiny stove.”
“No. Sorry.” The bangles clanked as waved her hand.
“It is not safe.”
“I’ll be very careful.”
“If I let you install a stove, what about the other renters?”
“We won’t tell them.”
“What a genius! No.”
“But the couple in the next room has a stove, Auntyji. You’ve given them permission.”
“Exactly what I’m saying. If I agree to one person, everyone comes running.”
“How will I have my coffee?”
“You’re in Delhi. Have chai, like everybody else.” She locked the door and headed down the stairs.
After weighing his options, Shankar had kept the stove. Since the couple had one, he reasoned, the no-stove rule was a guiding principle rather than constitutional law. Though the landlady rarely came down to the ground floor, he kept the stove hidden under his bed, just in case.
Shankar walked sleepily, his chappals dragging on the pavement. As he rounded the corner, his easy stride came to a halt. A noisy, restless mob encircled the milk booth. Housewives jostled. Schoolboys scuffled. Young men shoved aside curses and elbowed their way into the crowd. The two men manning the booth waved their hands in the air and shouted for order.
Shankar walked to the stall where newspapers hung on wires like folded clothes. Headlines roared out the news in Hindi, Urdu, and English. From Singapore to Birmingham, Chennai to New York, Ganpathi statue after Ganpathi statue had been vigorously siphoning off milk from the spoons of delighted devotees.
The man at the stall smoothed down his hair as Shankar approached. “Baba, when the news is so special, why restrict to only one newspaper? You’re a learned boy, buy two papers.”
Shankar pointed at the papers. “All this milk drinking must be great for newspaper sales.”
“It is all in God’s hands.”
Shankar scanned the papers. They reported that Ganesh temples everywhere were overrun, the faithful were ecstatic, and priests were triumphant. One of the dailies had dubbed it The Great Ganesh Milk Miracle. Shankar thought of his neighbours’ enigmatic note.
Just then, a thunderous roar rose from the milk booth. People were shouting. Fists waved in the air.
Shankar cocked his head. “Bhaiyya, what is going on there?”
“Everyone is buying milk for Ganesha. Milk booths are running out of milk and shutting down. The whole city is running out of milk.”
“If the gods want milk, what chance do we mortals have?” Shankar muttered.
“The newspapers will tell you.”
“Sorry, Bhaiyya. I stopped reading newspapers some time ago. I take no interest in the world’s affairs and the world takes no interest in mine. It’s a perfect arrangement.”
Shankar turned away and glanced at his watch. If he hurried, he might make it to his morning class. Yet he turned into the lane leading to the Ganesh temple, because it mattered exactly zero if he missed a class or two, or even all of them. Missed classes were nothing at BGHC College of Law. Named after the illustrious freedom fighter Bhimji Giridardas Harikishan Chandlal, BGHC College of Law had once been a well-regarded law college. His parents had celebrated his admission there with a special pooja and a lunch with relatives. However, they had not known that BGHC had undergone a recent overhaul. Now, future lawbreakers and rowdy sheeters made up at least half the student body. Shankar thought the name should be changed to Breeding Grounds for Hardened Criminals. While the most promising offenders held leadership positions, the uncrowned king was the President of the JP Party Students’ Union, or PJPPSU for short, and PSU for shorter.
PSU was a balding man on the verge of middle age who had assiduously failed all his exams so he could indefinitely extend his years in college-level political activities. PSU had been PSU for so long that most students had forgotten his real name (which Shankar thought should actually be Particularly Stupid and Useless).
A few months before, during the first-year final exam, PSU had sauntered into the exam hall sporting a flashing gold pendant. PSU began handing out answer sheets to select party supporters. The invigilator, a thin lady with enormous spectacles, became engrossed in some papers that anyone could see were blank.
“Hello! Bhaiyya! I could use some help too,” Shankar had called out.
Heads jerked up. Sniggers burst out. PSU snarled. The invigilator quickly began writing something on the blank sheet.
“I am here.” Shankar waved his hand making it impossible for the invigilator to ignore the events.
“Quiet! Quiet! What is this disturbance?” The invigilator shouted.
“Madam—” Shankar began.
“I will throw out the troublemaker!” She glared at him.
Shankar realised she was referring to him and not PSU, who was still handing out papers.
“Sorry, Madam,” Shankar mumbled and picked up his pen.
PSU finished his charitable distributions and slipped an envelope on the invigilator’s table as he walked out.
After the examination, Shankar confronted the invigilator. Unfazed, she explained that her actions were based on sound philosophical principles. Some people would say the students were cheating; others would say they were working on the undeniably worthy goal of securing their future. It was simply a matter of perspective. She pointed out that the whole country was in the grip of colossal problems such as caste-violence, criminals in politics, dowry deaths, and many others that she did not have time to expand on. What did it matter, in the greater scheme of things, if a few young people copied in exams? Shankar gaped at the invigilator. She adjusted her spectacles and marched out with the answer sheets.
In the weeks that followed, the conversation played endlessly in his head. The Greater Scheme of Things. Evaluated through that lens, there would always be something better or worse than one’s own actions. In a universe stretching infinitely across space and time, we are mere molecules in a vast ocean. Our actions are therefore pitifully fleeting and inconsequential. No action is right and, conversely, no action is wrong. What then was the point of striving? Thoughts like these circled within his mind.
When he tried to discuss these ideas with his college friends, they gawked at him like he was speaking Mandarin. How could they understand? These concepts were outside their rigid world of marks and examinations, the calculus of which slotted them into the boxes of their future lives.
As Shankar ruminated, his life appeared suddenly constricted, his friends shrivelled, his teachers insincere and ignorant, and his parents naïve in their belief in the order of the world.
The more he thought about it, the more Shankar felt like laughing. The Greater Scheme of Things. What a perfect and pithy phrase! It should be framed. It should be taught in philosophy, history and psychology classes all over the world. Exams should be administered on the subject where no answer was right or wrong, either. Both the PSU and the invigilator should receive honorary doctorates.
With this new insight, Shankar began skipping classes. He outsourced all of his assignments to studious classmates. He gifted PSU a photograph of Madhuri Dixit posing on a set of the previous year’s blockbuster, Hum Aap Ke Hain Kaun. On the photo, he had forged her signature and drawn a small heart. With this masterstroke, Shankar had propelled himself into the inner orbital.
At the Ganesh temple, devotional songs and mantras blared from loudspeakers. Swarms of people sang and chanted and clapped along. The crowd spilled onto the road and cars honked, auto-rickshaws ascended onto pavement, scooters squeezed through gaps in the traffic. A policeman frantically blew his whistle but no one paid any attention.
People shouted out Ganesha’s name. A man rushed out, frenzied. A few women, overcome with the devotion, began sobbing. Shankar wondered what Ganesh, God of discernment and intellect, would have made of this frenetic activity. As he turned to leave, he saw an imposing figure. Even in the crowded temple yard, the landlady stood out, due to her dazzling yellow sari and the two marigolds in her plait. She spotted him, and they both froze. Shankar winced at the memory of the last time he had seen her.
A week earlier, he had run out of buttermilk for his rice. None of the other tenants were at home. He knocked on the landlady’s door. She opened it, dressed in a bright blue kaftan, yawning and scratching her dishevelled hair.
“Sorry, did I wake you? Shall I come back?”
“What’s the point? I’m awake now. What is it?”
“Auntyji, I just wondered if you happen to have—”
She waved a hand. “Absolutely not.”
“You don’t even know what I want.”
“It’s a matter of principle. I did not become what I am by giving things away. When my husband died, I was left with no income, no family to help me, and I had two daughters to bring up.” She went on to say that she had supported them with sari sales, catering, tuitions, taking on renters, and by saving, saving, saving. All her tenants had heard this story countless times, particularly when they were late with the rent. It was considered an informal part of the rental contract.
As she spoke, Shankar’s eyes wandered. In the living room behind her, dark wooden beams ran across the ceiling. Walls shone with limestone paint. Rectangles of sunlight fell on side tables. On the wall opposite stood a wooden desk. Above it hung a large, elaborately framed picture of a thin man. White flowers garlanded the frame.
“Auntyji,” Shankar said, pointing to the picture, “who is that?”
“On the wall.”
She cleared her throat. “Well, if you must know, it is my late husband.”
“Can I see?” He pointed to the picture.
She hesitated, then moved aside.
Shankar walked to the picture. The man sported a proud moustache and a stern expression. “He looks very strict, Auntyji.”
“But he was very gentle. He died in a car accident when my older daughter was twelve.”
From the study table, he picked up a colour photograph of two plump beauties with saucy eyes. They both appeared to be around his age. “Who are they?”
“My daughters.” The landlady grazed her fingers over each girl’s face. “This was taken a few years back. The elder one, this one, is an accountant, like her father had been. And the younger one is a lawyer.”
He picked up another photograph. “Who’s this?” he asked, though he already knew. The face was younger and softer, the mouth less wide, but they were hers. She looked directly at the camera, a shy, uncertain smile playing on her lips. She looked almost pretty.
“This must be the actress Madhubala,” he said.
The landlady burst out laughing. “Badmash! You know it is me.”
Shankar looked again at the picture. She had not aged well.
“Really, Auntyji! You used to look like Madhubala!”
She grinned as they both peered at the photograph.
“I wanted just some buttermilk. That’s all.”
Her eyes dimmed and the smile disappeared. “Oh, so that is why all this buttering up. Auntyji this, Auntyji that. Everyone wants something. No. Sorry.”
“Strict policy.” She shook her head. “Once I say yes to something, people will start asking for more and more. Asking is easy, working for it is hard.”
“Everything,” she said, motioning him towards the door.
After that, whenever she saw Shankar, she narrowed her eyes.
Now she was waving at him. Bracing himself, he walked through the temple yard, littered with trampled flowers and discarded plastic bags half ground into the dirt. Someone rang the large bronze bell at the entrance. Shankar sidestepped a devotee who, with an impassioned cry, prostrated himself on the ground.
The landlady shuffled forward. “Have you ever been to this temple before?”
Shankar shuffled with her. “No, Auntyji. But I occasionally go to the Ganesh temple in Chennai. With my family.”
“Good, good!” The landlady began to sing. She clapped to the rhythm, her head swaying from side to side, gold earrings dancing against her cheeks. She smiled at him, her eyes glowing. Shankar could see hints of the young woman in the photograph.
“So, did you offer milk to Ganesh?”
“Auntyji, do you really believe the Ganesha-milk story?”
“Of course, I believe it. Which fool does not believe the evidence in front of him?”
“How did all start, Auntyji?”
“A man dreamt that the Ganesha in his temple wanted milk. The next morning, he convinced the priest to let him hold a teaspoon of milk to Ganesha. And the milk disappeared. Disappeared! Tell me, how to explain it? Naturally, the news exploded. Everyone started feeding milk to the Ganeshas. Ganeshas drinking milk! How to explain it!”
“But why are the Ganeshas drinking packet milk? I’m sure Ganesha can get the best milk straight from the holiest of cows.”
“What has happened to your brains? Of course, God can get whatever he wants. He is drinking milk for us. It is a sign. For people, to give them strength. To fortify their faith.”
The temple line continued to inch forward.
“I can’t believe that I am alive to see it!” The landlady lifted her folded hands towards the main temple, the plastic bag on her arm rattling. Inside it, two packets of milk quivered and bulged. Shankar’s stomach started to rumble. He could almost smell the coffee.
“Well, I don’t know.” Shankar shrugged. “Till I see it for myself, till I see the Ganeshas drinking milk, I refuse to believe it.”
“You young men are such sceptics. Alright, you can feed the Ganesha with me.”
“Auntyji, I have a class starting soon.” Shankar tapped his wristwatch.
“Okay. Do it when you get back from class.”
“But the milk in the city is all sold out.” He sighed deeply. “I really wanted to believe. But now I will never see the miracle.”
“Don’t say that!”
“It is my fate. Unless, of course, someone gives me milk to feed the Ganesha. Maybe you can give me some milk?”
She glared at him. “Why should I?”
“True, true. Why should you? Anyway, I’m sure this whole miracle business is probably fake.”
“Don’t be so hasty. I suppose I can give you a bit of milk.”
“One glass should be enough, Auntyji.”
“You need just one teaspoon, young man.”
“I want to test a lot of temples,” Shankar said firmly. “I’ll need a lot of milk.”
“Hmmph.” Slowly, she reached into the bag. Her hand hesitated for a few seconds, then dipped further inside. She pulled out a thick packet of milk and quickly thrust it into Shankar’s hands. It was still cool.
Shankar stood in the temple yard a few minutes longer, watching her sing and clap. He bounced the milk packet in his palm.
That morning, Shankar had not one but two tumblers of excellent coffee. As he started to pour the leftover milk into the sink, he imagined the stories he would tell his landlady about one Ganesh statue after the other, in temples all over Delhi, chugging the milk with divine enthusiasm. How would she react? He remembered her wide, eager eyes looking at him. He stopped pouring. He stood before the sink, hesitating, then picked up a small bottle and filled it with the remaining milk. He stuffed the bottle, along with a teaspoon, into his book bag.
Shankar made it in time to college for his test on customary law in India. When the bell rang, he gathered his papers. As Shankar swung his bag on his shoulder, PSU slapped his back and announced that he had free tickets to a new film. The highlight was a dreamy dance sequence by Rosie, the latest industry sensation.
“Sorry, boss! I can’t make it.”
PSU looked at him sharply. “You’ve become a big man or what, refusing to go with me?”
“I just have some work.”
“Suddenly what work, yaar?”
“More important than Rosie’s thunder thighs?” PSU guffawed.
When a horde of PSU’s followers engulfed their President, Shankar quickly slipped away.
The Ganesha temple near Shankar’s college was a compact, whitewashed structure. It was now strangely empty. There were no crowds, no loudspeakers, no songs. An old couple circled the yard. A family ate prasadam on the bench under a peepal tree that shaded half the temple yard.
Shankar entered the small, dark inner room, bending his head at the low entrance. A marble Ganesh murthi, clad in a cream dhoti and a red shawl, rested at the centre. The priest stood to one side, letting him feed the Ganesha. Shankar tentatively offered the milk to the god. It ran down Ganesha’s neck in a white streak and disappeared into the red shawl.
Later, Shankar sat on the temple steps eating the coconut prasadam. He had come to this temple with his father over a year ago, just after he had started college. They had sat on these steps with the prasadam as birds chirped in the enormous peepal tree.
His father had asked, “Who do we have but ourselves and God?”
Shankar hadn’t known what to say.
His father had motioned at the tree. “It’s the same with those birds in that peepul tree. Who do they have but each other and Lord Ganesha and this tree in his temple? I will wait for you at home. However far apart we are, we are never distant.”
Now, Shankar sat alone on the steps. The chirping birds were calling to him like old friends. He thought of the flower market that he had visited with his mother on festival days, the rows of marigolds, chrysanthemums, and jasmine. Near his family home was a road on which he’d played street cricket with the boys from the neighbourhood. He thought of walking in the park with friends, his stick grazing the trunks of trees. He remembered his relatives visiting during Duseera, the crush of people at mealtimes. The food was served on rows of banana leaves and the children ate outside on the veranda, chattering as they ate. He remembered the fighting, the laughter, the body presence of his cousins. He remembered visits to the seaside, the peanut sellers on the shore, his parents holding his hands as he gazed at the endless sea crooning against the sands.
The family rang the bell and walked out through the gates. The old couple had already left. Shankar was alone in the yard. A breeze cooled his brow. It seemed to blow away a hardness in his shoulders he hadn’t known was there. The smell of incense, the brass temple bell shining in the sunlight, the flowers around the Ganesha statue filled him with deep contentment. Shankar remained sitting on the temple steps as the sun set and the stars began to glow in the sky.
The next day, the news of the Great Ganesh Milk Miracle was dissected in every newspaper and every household. Hindus said it was irrefutable evidence of the existence of God. Rationalists declared it a hoax. Scientists explained that it was a fine example of capillary action, using coloured liquids to demonstrate. A Union Minister denounced it as a brazen scheme hatched by Hindu right-wing groups to win votes for the upcoming election. No one could talk of anything else.
In the evening, the landlady visited Shankar’s room. She told him the rent was due in a few days.
“On the first of every month. How can I forget it?” Shankar replied.
The landlady nodded but did not leave.
“So,” she said looking at her fingernails, “Did you just take off with the milk? Or did you give any of it to Ganesha?”
“What do you think, Auntyji?”
“I think you are quite a scoundrel.”
“You’re absolutely right!”
Her lips tightened. “I knew it!”
“But, Auntyji, this scoundrel did give some milk to Ganesha.”
“Really?” Her eyes lit up.
“After my class, I went to the temple near college. There I fed milk to the Ganesha.”
“And? Did you see the miracle with your own eyes?”
Shankar smiled at her. “Auntyji, in the temple, it really was a wonder.”
The landlady beamed, raising both her hands to the air. “I knew it! I knew it! When I offered the milk to Ganesh, I too saw the miracle. So now, young man, how can you explain it?”
“Exactly.” She lingered as if she wanted to say more. Then her eyes fell on Shankar’s kerosene stove under the bed. Her eyebrows rose.
Shankar straightened. “Is there anything else, Auntyji?”
“You’ve been late with rent for the last four months. Don’t forget to pay the rent on time.”
“Rent on time? How many miracles can you expect in one shot, Auntyji?”
“Badmash!” She laughed as she walked out the door. “I won’t stand for your nakras.”
She went slowly up the stairs, pausing at each step, her breath growing faster as she climbed. It took her a while to reach the top. Shankar heard the door to her room close with a creak.
Kavitha Yaga Buggana is the author of the spiritual travel memoir, Walking in Clouds: A Journey to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar (HarperCollins, India). In previous avatars, she was a software engineer in Chicago and a developmental economist doing field work in Angallu village, South India.