As a college-going student, I had never bothered to learn about religious symbols until a priest, on a new moon day, shouted at me in anguish, Abishtu (numbskull)! In the case of Brahmin Iyers, they sport on their forehead vibhudhi or sacred ash (three stripes horizontally) and Brahmin Iyengars sport a namam (vertically) in white and ochre, in either U or Y type.
It was the pre-mobile era. My father (Mr. Venkatrama Iyer) was to proceed on an official tour and should at best leave home by 11 a.m. He would need two hours to catch his train departing from Chennai Central. Luckily, the sun was at its usual brilliance. With the itinerary on hand, he was fidgeting. It was half past eight and the priest was supposed to have arrived half-an-hour ago. There was no way to contact the family priest.
Dad was already in readiness, clad in an immaculate cotton dhothi worn in traditional divided style with central frontal pleats. A few hours before, he had ensured that the venue was tidy and materials for the ritual at hand. He was waiting for the priest to arrive to help him perform the amavasya ritual to be followed by his daily prayers, brunch and to rush to the railway station from the far off suburb. I wished all the best for his tour and started leaving for my college, MIT Chrompet (late ex-President Dr. Abdul Kalam studied here), whence dad told me in a soft tone that if time permits, I should hasten the priest by visiting the latter’s home. It was rush hour. I was riding to college on a ramshackle bicycle for writing the semester exam. While negotiating a sharp turn near a crowded temple, I spotted the family priest — a lanky, hairy chested man, with his ear lobes dangling with shining diamond studs, sporting three sparkling horizontal stripes of ash on his forehead and clad in an unbleached cotton dhoti worn in traditional style.
A feeling of satisfaction arose in me. I assumed the priest would go home and yes, dad will not be delayed. On his shining bicycle with a tiny saffron pennant fluttering on the silvery handle-bar, the priest darted towards me and stood on one foot across my path. In a harried tone, he told me that he was busy with some unscheduled contingency and it would not be proper for him to visit our home and therefore, I should immediately convey the same to my dad.
In a huff, I returned home and informed dad. He instructed me to fetch another priest and thus, my hunt for a priest just began. As luck would have it, in a few minutes, I could locate another priest, whose long shadow was just disappearing at the end of a narrow street. I rode fast and overtook him in a jiffy and stood across his path. From his attire, tummy and tuft of hair tied nicely with a black satin ribbon behind his head, I surmised that he would fit the bill.
I briefed him on the situation, exigency, dad’s benevolence etc., and to my great relief, he readily consented to accompany me. With him seated behind, I rode home. As I approached our compound, my college-going sister looked at us and in a cheerful loud voice, announced to dad (who was inside) of the priest’s arrival. As soon as the priest entered, to wash his feet, she offered him water in a large brass container. The robust stocky priest cleaned his feet wiping one over the other and shook off excess water and stepped into the house with a regal gait.
Squatting over a large rectangular plain wooden plank, my dad had just one glance at the priest’s forehead, looked shocked & said in Tamil in a distressed tone addressing me, “ennada idhu? Iyengar vadiyar!” (What is this son? You have brought an Iyengar priest!). The unfamiliar priest stared at me knitting his eye-brows; he angrily uttered through his clenched teeth, “Abishtu!” (numbskull), which is still ringing in my ears after all these years.