Jagganath Loses His ShitJuly 26, 2020
It’s 5 in the morning and Mrs. Kavya Malhotra is showered and dressed in a sari. Red kum kum powder is dried across her forehead and incense burns in front of the brass statues of Krishna and Radha at the makeshift temple on her bedroom dresser. On her knees below the statues, she captures the smoke of the incense, lets it slide over her graying, ash-colored hair. “I only want what is best for my children,” she whispers to the blue-eyed Krishna. “Please, help me to let them know that.”
A few minutes later in Hanuman’s bedroom, she bends over to pick up the laundry off his bedroom floor. Her younger son, half asleep, says, “Ma. What are you doing? It’s not even morning yet.”
“Go back to bed,” she says. “I am just trying to get the house in order.” Even though he’s a young man now, Mrs. Malhotra can’t resist tucking her son in, kissing his forehead. Tacked to the wall just above his bed is a poster of an American woman in a red bikini. The tiny cloth straps of the model’s bathing suit barely cover her overflowing cleavage but Mrs. Malhotra thinks, not of the lack of modesty of this young American woman, but instead of the wet nurses of her own youth. She remembers weekend mornings playing with her best friend, Madhu, at the river that snaked the border of her family’s village in Punjab. The two girls would spy on those servants as they washed their masters’ clothes against the rocks at the river’s shore. The women, nurses to their households’ children, had bosoms that pushed against the fabric of their cheap saris, breast milk staining their ancient clothes and the two young spies would stare in amazement, silently asking themselves if their tiny pecks too would one day look like theirs.
In the kitchen, Mrs. Malhotra shapes flour into small, thin patties, places them on a heated pan and rolls the atta with the course tips of her fingers. She hears the shower running upstairs, the sound of water snaking through the drain. Next to the stove is a picture of her two sons, Hanuman and his older brother, Jagganath. The photo was taken on Hanuman’s sixteenth birthday, nearly a decade ago. Jagganath, at the time, had purple hair shaped into two-foot tall spikes and his younger brother’s head was cut close except for one thin strip down the center. Those hairstyles, though, were trimmed from the photograph years ago in Mrs. Malhotra’s haphazard attempt to rewrite history, the jagged crop marks of the pair of scissors on full display just beneath the glass of the wooden frame.
Yesterday evening, Mrs. Malhotra was at a restaurant on ladies’ night out, her weekly ritual with her friends, Nalini and Jaya. At dinner at a steakhouse near the airport the three women ordered chicken. The conversation that evening centered on Nalini’s son, Vikesh, who had just returned from Delhi with the promise of an impending marriage. The girl was the daughter of Nalini’s best friend from the days when the two women were both wives of graduate students at the Indian Institute of Technology.
Vikesh was not handsome – he had the same hooked nose as his father – but he was an American and had a medical degree from NYU, both of which were enough to proffer him access to the beautiful young girl from Chandigarh. Nalini passed a photo of the bride-to-be around the table. The girl had long black curls and her skin was a light olive shade. Her petite hands and small, rounded nose implied to those three women eating grilled chicken with pineapples a possible end to ten generations of hooked noses. The friends shared words like, “A very pretty girl,” and “Such nice skin,” and “They’ll have beautiful children.”
But then Mrs. Malhotra saw her son. Jagganath was sitting at the bar. He was wearing his saffron robe, his single black tuft of hair matted down against an otherwise shaved head. “Excuse me, please,” Mrs. Malhotra said to her two friends. She walked to the bar, sat next to her first child. In front of him were a bloodied porterhouse steak and a tumbler of scotch.
“Baita, what are you doing?” she said. “Why are you eating such food?”
Jagganath didn’t reply to his mother’s question. He just smiled, took another bite of his steak. Mrs. Malhotra sat next to him and watched the sweat roll down his shaved head and across his flushed red cheeks and mix with the cow’s blood that he licked from his lips. Mrs. Malhotra looked back at her friends, saw them staring at her and her child. She said nothing. She simply stood up and walked out the front door of the restaurant and to her car. She closed the door, locked it and drove the five miles to her house.
In the living room, her husband was asleep on the couch, the whisper of a football game still on the television. She nudged him, sent him to bed. After he disappeared up the stairs, Mrs. Malhotra went to the kitchen and poured herself a tall glass of scotch – no mixer, no ice – and drank it down in one large sip. Then walked up the stairs, trailing the path her husband took just a few minutes before. Saw her husband nearly asleep in the bed and said to him before his eyes faded closed:
“Jagganath has lost his shit.”
A few minutes after his father leaves for work, the younger son, Hanuman, strolls down the stairs and sits at the kitchen table. His mother puts a plate of parathas in front of him. With the back of a teaspoon, he spreads a small slab of butter over the fried flour stuffed with onions. His mother stands behind him; her hand lightly grazes his hair, which is matted into beaded dreads. She rubs his shoulders, straightens the collar of his shirt.
“I saw Jagganath last night,” she says.
“Good old Jagganath.”
“He was at the restaurant. Eating a steak.”
“I thought Krishnas couldn’t do that.”
Mrs. Malhotra’s grip tightens against his shoulders. “You must do something to help him,” she says. “Talk to him. You’re the only person he’ll listen to.”
“It’s just a steak, Ma. Don’t worry about it. Jagganath’s a free person. Let him do what he wants.”
Mrs. Malhotra reaches over her son, the flesh of her arm cold against his cheek. She grabs his plate and dumps the food on the ground. The parathas land in a single pile on the checkered tile floor. She throws the empty plate across the kitchen, the sound of china breaking against the tub of the sink. Tears begin to form in the woman’s eyes, but stop when she sees her son watching her. She composes herself. She walks to the sink and collects the broken pieces of porcelain in the palm of her hand.
“You will speak to your brother,” she says. “I must know that he is all right.”
Later in the morning, Hanuman rides in the passenger seat of a Volkswagen Bug, the rain nearly drowning the tin box of a car. The girl in the driver’s seat, Mary Anne, substitute teaches kindergarten at the local charter school and there have been so many times, Hanuman notes, when she has defaulted to treating him just like one of her students. Her bright green eyes would fill with unspoken understanding, the light touch of her hand on his shoulder, her voice no more than a whisper: the series of straightforward human interactions programmed into her during her years studying early childhood development. A simple method to calm him, soothe him and let him know that she empathizes with him, that he’s not alone in his minor suffering.
Mary Anne’s skin is a pale white. Years ago, after the first time Hanuman introduced her to his family, after she had gotten sick from his mother’s chicken korma and he had taken her home to recuperate, and after Mr. and Mrs. Malhotra had gone to bed without saying a word about Mary Anne with the exception of his mother’s comment that she was too thin, Hanuman’s brother said to him that Mary Anne’s ghostlike skin must have been what attracted him to her.
“She’s as far away from an Indian as you can get,” he said. “Everybody loves what’s exotic.”
At the intersection adjacent to the college where Hanuman’s father teaches engineering, Mary Anne tells him she saw his brother.
“It was on the way to your house,” she says. “He was dancing in the middle of the street.”
Mary Anne grabs Hanuman’s hand. Blue veins snake through her fingers. The car is stopped at a red light and she looks at him, her pupils opening up just enough to imply compassion.
“Is everything all right?” she asks.
“We all have our own problems, Hanuman says. “Jagganath can take care of himself.”
Less than half a mile away from the boy and the girl in the light blue Volkswagen Bug, Dr. Rajkumar Malhotra sits in his tiny cell of an office on the third floor of the Ronald McNair Hall of Engineering, and if he could hear the words of his younger son, he would respond,
“No. Jagganath cannot take care of himself. Never could.”
Mr. Malhotra, wasting time until his 11 am class, stares at the wall of his office, the cheap, particle board bookshelf filled with the academic journals in which he’s been published, and thinks of his elder son as a young boy, always and consistently in trouble. Each school year, it would be variations of the same behaviors: Jagganath talking back to teachers; Jagganath skipping school and smoking cigarettes under the bleachers; Jagganath lighting fires in bathroom stalls. If they were still in India, Dr. Malhotra could have planned ahead and brought envelopes filled with rupees of bribery for headmasters, but in the United States, there were reprimands from principals to the child and the parents of that child and opportunities dissipated. Suspensions and appointments with child psychiatrists and apologies repeated ad infinitum, again and again in those back offices of his elder son’s American childhood.
Here again is Mrs. Malhotra, sitting on the floor of her kitchen, tending to the tiny cuts on her hands from the broken plate, wondering what her eldest child is doing right now and how she can save him. There are tears on her cheeks, but those tears are generic, seen a billion times on the faces of a billion mothers. The tiny drops of blood on her hands; those, she knows, are the particular answers to this riddle. Being a mother is painful, she reminds herself, and she remembers her two childbirths. Both caesarian sections, both involving scalpels and blue hospital scrubs and antisepticised doctors tearing her children from her belly. Frightened cries from the children and her consciousness, doused in those moments with pain medication, interrupted forever by the shrieking voices of her two boys.
Here again is Mrs. Malhotra in her silent suburban home miles away from her husband and her children, sitting on the floor of her kitchen, her two hands bandaged with cloth, her eyes closed, attempting to create a mental path for Jagganath to use to return to her. The clock above the stove ticks.
And now it is evening. The setting: a bar. The Red Dahlia. The smell of watered-down beer and sweat. A crowd of underage college students, skin pushing against each other, strangers sharing layers of microbes. Hanuman sits at a barstool, orders two shots of whiskeys and beer backs, then carries the drinks to a table where Mary Anne waits. She downs her shot, then drinks the beer in one long pull. She’s tiny, Hanuman thinks, but she can drink anyone under the table without ever appearing drunk. In a few hours, Hanuman will barely be standing up, will meander drunk out the doors of this bar and into the quiet downtown of this southern city, but Mary Anne will seem as sober as a schoolgirl. She’ll guide him to her car and drive him to her apartment and take care of him like the kind angel she is.
“Order us another round,” Mary Anne says and Hanuman gets up, skips to the bar. He grabs a stool and holds up two fingers to the bartender. On the television above the top-shelf liquor Americans in military fatigue crawl through the Vietnamese jungle. In the background, a song by Jefferson Airplane blares from a jukebox. The sound of ice crashing into glass, of bullets ricocheting in country, of wailing women from the sixties and then, cutting through all the noise, a familiar voice behind Hanuman, calling out to the bartender.
“Drinks are on me,” the man says.
Hanuman turns around and there is the saffron robe. Jagganath’s tuft of hair is matted; it’s filthy. He smells like he’s been drinking for days. He’s smiling as he sips from a pink-colored drink with a plastic umbrella sticking out of it. Jagganath pulls out a wad of bills from under his robe, gives the bartender a fifty, says to keep the change.
Hanuman point to his brother’s drink, says, “I don’t think you’re allowed to have that,” but Jagganath keeps on smiling. He pats his younger brother’s shoulder with his free hand and says, “Hanuman, Hanuman, protector of Ram,” then walks away and joins a group of sorority girls at a table by the Dahlia’s front window. Jagganath rubs the thigh of a blonde-haired girl, kisses her behind the ear and she giggles and he looks back at his younger brother, smiling, smiling as he drinks from his umbrella-laden glass.
It’s another day, early in the morning in the Malhotras’ neighborhood. Dew dampens the grasses of these suburban yards. Next to garages, men stare at lawnmowers, then up to the sun. These are decent people, waiting for the proper hour to pull these cords, rev these lawnmowers, hack these grasses. A Volkswagen Bug speeds through the neighborhood’s tiny roads, the sound of Siouxsie and the Banshees reverberating from the thin tin exterior of the German car. Mary Anne parks in front of the Malhotras’ home. Hanuman gets out of the car, waves goodbye to his girlfriend, then saunters into his parents’ kitchen.
The mother is making parathas again. The father, wearing a white kurta, reads the weekend newspaper.
“Morning,” the son says.
“Where is your girlfriend?” the father asks.
“Off to work.”
“You could invite her in,” the mother says. “That’s the least you could do for us.”
“She has to work,” the son says again.
The mother brings the breakfast to the kitchen table, places the plates in front of her husband and child, then pours herself a cup of tea and joins them. “It’s not right, baita,” she says. “Disappearing all night with a girl.”
“Mom,” the son says. “I’m 25 years old. I’m hardly living the life of a hedonist. Mary Anne and I have been with each other for two years. It’s completely normal.”
“This would have never happened at home,” the mother says. “A young man doesn’t spend the night with a woman. What would her parents think?”
“Mary Anne’s parents live in Ohio. I met them last Thanksgiving. They seemed to like me.”
“A lot of things wouldn’t have happened if we were in India,” the son says. “But you’re the ones that moved here. What did you expect? I mean, if we lived in Nigeria, I’d probably be hunting lions right now.”
The father puts his newspaper down. Stares at his youngest son. “There’s no lions in Nigeria,” he says.
Here, then, is the abbreviated story of Jagganath Malhotra’s brief rise, fall and rebirth into grace. Two years before he became a Krishna, Jagganath had his first break from reality. The elder Malhotra son, a card-carrying member of the Junior Anarchist League since he was a pre-teen, who had polluted the auditory space of his family’s home with the sonic industry of the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag, decided at the age of 26 that he was wasting his life away playing in a punk band and waiting tables at the local café. He wanted productivity, he announced to anyone who would take the time to listen. He wanted to create and not just take away from the world.
Jagganath started in the university’s MBA program a few months later, on the path, he said, to a long career as an investment banker. His father, of course, thought Jagganath’s decision was completely normal, that Jagganath was finally learning what it meant to be a man. It was a fulfillment of Mr. Malhotra’s sacrifices as an immigrant, a realization of the true first-generation dream. A better life for your children.
But Jagganath’s decision to go to business school wasn’t the strangest part of this break from reality. Instead, and what was most odd to those who knew him best (and were also not his parents), was that Jagganath, who had barely graduated from college and had the work ethic of a garden variety sloth, did amazing in graduate school. He was on the Dean’s list, he received a handful of scholarships, and the chair of his department was a regular guest at the Malhotra house for dinner.
But Jagganath never made it the full two years. He had a change of heart two weeks before graduation. At a symposium led by the CEOs of Syngenta and Monsanto (now Bayer), Jagganath lost his shit for the second time. During the Q&A period, the elder Malhotra boy stood up and asked the executives how they slept at night knowing that they were poisoning the air of their own communities with toxic chemicals just to make a profit. He then proceeded to take of all his clothes and run naked through the university auditorium, screaming “You’re all lemurs. You’re all the children of the devil.”
Within 24 hours, Jagganath had shaved his head and donned the now familiar saffron robe. He moved into a trailer behind the Krishna temple in the county, stopped smoking and drinking and woke up every morning at four am to pray to the temple’s golden statues of Krishna and Radha.
But his parents weren’t upset that their elder son threw away their corporate dreams; They were, instead, just as proud as they were when Jagganath first started graduate school, if not more proud. The Malhotras would drag their younger son to the temple every Sunday afternoon for the Krishnas’ weekly feast and they would dance and chant with Jagganath, their pride and joy, the prodigal son returned to the Hindu pantheon like Rama revisited. Gopal, the 55-year old de facto head of the temple, became the new guest at the Malhotra dinner table, with Wednesday nights reserved for long conversations about the importance of maintaining tradition in the corrupt West.
It’s early on a Sunday morning and, per his father’s orders, Hanuman is at the Krishna temple, helping get ready for the day’s prayers. He vacuums the carpet and sweeps the front steps of the temple. He sets up trays of fresh fruit at the base of the statues. He tunes the dholkis and opens the windows of the large prayer room. When he’s done, he walks back to the statues and kneels down. Krishna’s ever watching brown eyes look back at him.
When Hanuman looks back up, there’s Gopal, standing in front of the statue. The old man’s robe is spotless and his head is freshly shaved. He smells like soap and mouthwash and if it weren’t for the Krishna garb he’d easily pass for a car salesman.
“Good morning, Hanuman,” he says. “It’s nice of you to help.”
“Hi, Gopal,” Hanuman says. “How is everything?”
“Not wonderful, but Krishna willing, things will start to get better soon. We’ve been having some problems lately. It’s been hard to keep this place going with just a small handful of devotees.”
“I’m sure things will work out,” Hanuman says. “Where’s Jagganath? He’s usually here helping.”
“Your brother has been going through some changes,” Gopal says. “He no longer comes to the morning prayers.”
Inside the trailer that Jagganath shares with Gopal, the large living room slash bedroom is a dichotomy of aesthetics. Gopal’s side is pristinely clean; his bed is made and the floor shines. But on Jagganath’s half of the room, there are empty beer bottles, and overflowing ashtrays. Lying on the ground next to the bed are Jagannath and the sorority girl from the other night. Both of them are naked. Jagganath’s hand cups the girl’s breast. Hanuman nudges his brother’s leg with a shoe and the older brother moans, says, “Not now, Gopal. Give me a few more minutes.” The girl opens her eyes, feigns a smile. Hanuman grabs Jagganath’s robe from the bed and tosses it to her and she half covers her body, whispers “Thanks.” She gets up and ties the robe around her waist, then disappears into the bathroom.
Hanuman kicks his brother again and he opens his eyes. “Oh, it’s you little bro,” he says. “Give me a break, okay.”
“Come on,” Hanuman says. “We need to talk.”
Jagganath sits up. His hair’s a mess. He looks like a diseased peacock. “Okay,” he says. “Just give me a minute. Last night was a rough one.”
Jagganath goes to the bathroom, closes the door behind him. The shower turns on and there is the high pitched sound of a woman laughing. A few minutes later and Jagganath and the girl reappear. She’s dressed in her clothes from the night before and he’s donned his robe. Jagganath opens a dresser drawer and pulls out a hundred dollar bill, tells the girl to get a cab home.
“Mmm,” she says. She reaches a hand under his robe and rubs his crotch. Jagganath’s wearing a pair of red panties. “Am I going to see you again?” she asks.
“Yeah, sure,” Jagganath says. “Why not. I’ll stop by your house sometime later this week. We’ll bake a cake.”
After the girl leaves, Hanuman starts picking up the trash off of the floor of the trailer, but Jagganath stops him. “Don’t worry about that,” he says. “It adds to the ambience.”
Twenty minutes later, the two brothers are in their father’s Lexus. Jagganath, in the passenger seat, stares at his younger brother, smiling.
“You know, Mom and Dad are worried about you,” Hanuman says.
“They’re always worried, aren’t they? Remember when I moved into the punk house. That day I brought them to see it and Mom spent the entire afternoon cleaning the kitchen.”
“Well, it was a wreck.”
“Don’t worry about Mom and Dad,” Jagganath says. “They’ll be all right.”
“What about you?” Hanuman asks. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Jagganath says. “You know me. I’m a 100 percent.”
The brothers are sitting at a café table outside Mama Juice, a breakfast joint near the university. Jagganath chugs a mimosa, the orange juice and champagne streaming down his face and dripping onto his saffron robe. Hanuman takes a sip of his coffee, stares at the menu. Everything seems to be going well, he thinks. But then Jagganath starts screaming at the waiter:
“Another drink,” he says. “And no half pours.”
Hanuman stares at Jagganath’s hands; they’re shaking. “You really need a vocation, Hanuman,” Jagganath says. “I mean, you’re getting older. How long do you plan on living on Dad’s handouts?”
“As long as he keeps on handing them out to me.”
“We could use you. You could help us out. Recruitment’s been low, you know. Gopal wants to get at least ten more Krishnas this year.”
“Why don’t you guys go dance in an airport or something,” Hanuman says.
“You know we don’t do that anymore. But that’s not our problem. Ours is a problem of marketing. Everybody has this image of the Krishnas, that we’re boring. That we’re teetotalers. But there’s room for all kinds of people in Krishna’s gaze. What does God care if you have a drink or two here and there. Or women. Being a Hari Krishna is about your personal relationship with God, not your high moral standing. None of that stuff matters.”
“What matters, then?” Hanuman asks. “How much money your parents are willing to donate to the temple?”
Jagganath is standing up now, towering above his little brother. “The temple’s rent doesn’t pay itself,” he says. “Someone has to pay the bills. The times are changing, little brother. And the truth is that we either have to change with these times or fade into the history books.”
Jagganath pulls out his wad of bills from under his robe, tosses a 20 on the table. He winks at Hanuman, says, “There are perks to working in marketing, you know,” then walks right into the middle of the street. The elder Malhotra son holds his hand up and cars on both sides of the street slam on their brakes.
“All you citizens of this miniscule village,” he screams. “Now is the time to bring back meaning into your pathetic lives. Let Krishna protect you. Let the Godhead bring you happiness.”
People are honking their horns at Jagganath. Stragglers on the sidewalks stop and stare at him. Jagganath climbs into the bed of a pickup truck and says: “I am one with God. I am beyond all karma,” and for a second, just a second, Hanuman thinks that maybe it’s time to get his brother committed. But that brief thought fades away quick when the pickup’s driver, a short white man in a pair of yellow paint-stained overalls, gets out of his car. He decks the older brother and in seconds, Hanuman is out of his cafe chair. His fist slams against the back of the painter’s head, but the guy’s barely fazed. The painter turns around, grabs Hanuman with both of his hands and head butts him and Hanuman goes down.
The painter is above the younger brother now, ready to finish the job, but he gets interrupted by a tap on his shoulder. He turns around just in time to receive Jagganath’s fist to his face.
He stumbles, but gets his balance back just in time for a left hook to the side of his head and he falls onto the hood of his car. Jagganath pulls him up, knees him in the stomach and the painter collapses.
Jagganath then kicks off his sandals, starts kicking the guy in the ribs and the face. The poor soul has pulled his body into fetal position and, as Jagganath pummels him, the elder Malhotra brother says again and again: “Krishna loves you, you son of a bitch.” Jagganath’s robe rises and falls with his movements, his eyes are on fire, they’re two red orbs of flames, and with every kick, he smiles, and this, Hanuman thinks, this is the brother that we all know and love and everything is going to be just fine.