Veerapandi: Between Heaven and Earth

Her mother was a dud and her dad was depressed. I suppose he had a right to be, four daughters and no money. They lived in a leaky hut in S.C. Colony, built by a government contractor who had lapped up half the cement and installed worm eaten coconut rafters. Sumathy was the eldest, which meant having to carry the younger girls around and haul the water from the communal tap. Then she would wash the clothes and cook the rice and go to school and fight the queues at the Ration Shop to get her family’s share of blue kerosene, sugar, and rice. And carry it home. And somehow try to do her homework by the light of candles. And lie awake at night wondering if she would ever escape this life of predictable disappointment.

Marriage was an impossible dream; without a dowry, her sorry mother and unmotivated father would never pull it off.

Sumathy managed to squeak through high school, but her marks were too low to get into college.  She got a job at our clinic and learned to give injections (the red kind which all the grannies want), and dress wounds (the deep, beefy chronic kind), and dispense little white  pills.

Veerpandi sumathy

About this time, I decided to go see the amazing Veerapandi temple festival, about an hour’s drive from our clinic. I had heard about the hundred thousand devotees who throng the place for eight straight days and nights in the month of Chithrai.  A thousand goats a day would be sacrificed and cooked into big pots for extended families to enjoy. Plus a huge amusement park with rides from Hindi land.


I asked the Trust’s electrician to drive me and invited Sumathy and two of her friends who were dying for some excitement. We got permission from their parents and off we went. It was 10:00 P.M., the time when things were just starting to get lively. We were like kids going to the zoo.

The crowds were so large that the national highway had been diverted. We parked several kilometers away from the festivities and joined the stream of pilgrims walking down the road lined with colored lights and shops selling cotton candy, puffed rice, dry roasted peanuts, balloons tied into monkeys, noise makers, and lasers.

We stopped a hundred meters from the temple at the holy river. Groups of pilgrims dressed in yellow  were gathering on the bank, lighting their fire pots. First a small pooja would be performed. Then a layer of neem leaves would be placed inside. Then neem twigs were doused with ghee and lit. The drummers who had been hired for the occasion began: urumis with their dirge-like growling and tavals with their deafening stacattos. The devotee who was fulfilling a vow by carrying a fire pot  would become ‘possessed’, lifting the flaming pot first with neem leaves, then in his or her bare hands.

We followed this midnight river of fire as pilgrims danced wild-haired with strange paroxysmal movements, swooning against family members who supported them. The drums seemed to charge the atmosphere with a strange power. Why weren’t these devotees palms being burnt by the intense fire? Why didn’t those who had pierced their cheeks and tongues with little spears seem to be experiencing pain?

In front of the temple, people threw their fire pots into a huge pit and suddenly were no longer ‘possessed’. They formed an orderly queue and entered to have darshan from the fearsome, powerful Gowmariammal, men on one side and women on the other.

“Can we ride the ferris wheel? No, I’m too scared!”  I could barely hear Sumathy over the tumult.

We formed a chain so none of us would get separated in the seething crowd and fought our way past the giant steel dome-like cage in which 3 daredevil motor cycle racers were roaring  upside down and all around. We passed the magic stall where a magician was packing them in for his five minute gigs, popping out flowers and doves from his silk hat, disappearing objects left and right, and cutting off arms. We purchased our tickets from a Hindi karan and climbed into our basket. This was no wooden village ferris wheel. It was the real thing, looming high above the coconut trees.

I loved watching the look of delighted terror on Sumathy’s face as the wheel hoisted us up towards the stars and rushed us down again. We were cycling faster now, zinging between fire and drums and the clear night sky, plunging back to the world of clay and up into the sparkling canopy of dreams…

ferris wheel

After a dozen years waiting in vain for her parents to arrange a marriage, Sumathy listened to the high promises of a neighbor boy, got pregnant, and was promptly dumped. Soon afterwards, she disappeared, never to be seen again. Even her family has no clue where she is. Or if they do, they’re not telling.

About the Author

Bruce DeJong

I am an Indian of American parentage who practices medicine in rural Tamil Nadu. After years of getting to know the local people, they have begun to open up their lives, allowing me to paint a portrait of their village one story at a time.