Pawning the Sacred Thread by Dr. Kolakaluri Enoch

The caste differences did not stop Sastry and Obilesu from becoming good friends. Sastry was a
Brahmin and Obilesu an untouchable. They had been friends since their childhood. They went to
the same school, and started working in the same junior college; both were confirmed in their jobs.
Sastry was teaching Telugu and Obilesu teaching English.

Obilesu was confused when Sastry asked him for a loan of ten thousand rupees. He did not look up
to see Sastry’s face; did not say yes or no. Sastry went to his class. Obilesu sat down in the staff
room without budging an inch.

Taking loans had been Sastry’s habit, not paying them back was common for him, dodging the
creditors his destiny, and forgetting his debts his rule.

Sastry had no bad habits, never smoked a cigarette or a beedi, never played cards, or gambled on
anything for that matter. He did not bet on horses, and never cheated on his wife; had been an
avowed monogamist all his life. He had only a couple of children and he did not have to incur huge
expenses on their education either.

Yet he could not live within his means. Nobody knew except Obilesu why Sastry was borrowing
money and what he was doing with it.

Obilesu was aware of Sastry’s habit of borrowing a ten or twenty and forgetting it. One thing for
sure, there had been times when Sastry asked for a hundred or two, but never thousands. He knew
that Sastry would ask for new loans without settling the old ones. And he kept borrowing from
whomsoever he could. Sometimes the creditors would remind him of the loan; then only he would
have a recollection of it, and he would assure them that he would get back to them on it.
Eventually, it became harder for Sastry to raise new loans. The pressure from his creditors to settle
the old debts was increasing. The loans taken in the past five years added up close to ten
thousand rupees. Obilesu wondered if Sastry wanted a new loan to pay off the old ones.
Sastry and Obilesu were drawing the same salary. Yet Obilesu could save some money from his
income whereas Sastry fell short always. The entire income of Obilesu’s wife went into savings. In
the past twenty-five years, each time a lecturer’s position opened up, Obilesu said that Sastry’s wife
should apply for the job.

In response, Sastry would go into a fit of rambling, “Work is slavery. I come from a highly esteemed
ancestry. I had no choice but degrade myself with this low life. Do I have to put my wife also through
this humiliation? In our families, women don’t go out to work; they don’t even step outside the front
door. For what anyways? To rule the country?”

Sastry and his wife Sarada had been classmates in the M.A. class. Sarada got first class and Sastry
finished in second class. Theirs was love marriage. It was performed like an arranged marriage
nevertheless. The horoscopes were checked, and the dowry and other gifts were paid per custom.
“Our ways matched,” Sastry said.

“Your mentalities should match,” Obilesu said. There was no change in Sastry’s family set up.
Sarada turned into a woman consigned to the kitchen and the delivery room odors as if God had
created her only for that purpose.

One day, Sastry invited Obilesu and his wife to dinner to his place. Sastry wanted to show off his
epicure. Obilesu felt sad as he noticed Sarada’s worn out sari and the sumptuous food served.

“Why so many items? For whom?” Obilesu said.

“Who else? For us only,” Sastry said.

“Tomato chutney and yogurt are enough to make me happy. Why so many items?”

“There is plenty to eat but I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Digestion problem.”

“How come?”

“In my childhood days, we didn’t have enough to eat. And so gotten used to not eating much.”

“And now?”

“Now I have plenty but just can’t eat.”

“That’s hard, isn’t it?”

“We don’t need to eat this much to live.”

“I need them.”

“Everyday?”

“Yes, each and every day.”

“So many items, just for one person?”

“Aha.”

“Isn’t that too much?”

“Just about enough.”

True it is a blessing to be able to eat so much. Obileseu understood the reasons underlying
Sarada’s filthy sari and Sastry’s borrowing spree.

Sastry wanted to show off his love of food. His wife took the day off from her sewing class, stayed
home, and spent the entire day in the kitchen making all these items—several varieties of sweet
and spicy dishes.

“Is that all?” Sastry belched loudly and asked his wife.

Obilesu was not surprised but Sarada was baffled. “I thought it would be nice to cut down for one
day,” she said.

Sastry gave Obilesu and his wife new clothes per tradition and sent them home.

After this experience, Obilesu could not decide whether we live to eat or eat to live. On his way to
the bank, he recalled the comments his fellow lecturers had made about Sastry. They would say,
“Sastry is a good eater; we can go to his house any day and have a feast.”

Next day, Obilesu was on his way to his class. Sastry stopped him and asked, “Where’s the money?”
Obilesu gave him one hundred rupee bill. Sastry did not take it.

“Ten thousand.”

“What for?”

:”To settle an old debt.”

“What about this debt?”

“I’ll take care of this too.”

“When?”

“Eventually.”

Sastry came to realize that he could not raise new loans any more. His creditors started squeezing
him for the outstanding debts. Obilesu was the only one not to do so. For that reason, Sastry
approached him again.

“Money,” Sastry said.

“That’s a big sum,” Obilesu said.

“Yes.”

“How do you think you’d pay off?”

“From my salary, on installments.”

“You know you don’t make enough.”

“I’ll manage.”

Obilesu was surprised and elated. “I’ll give you ten thousand rupees, if you pawn something.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you.”

“Pawn?”

“Yes.”

“I can give you an IOU.”

“I don’t want an IOU.”

“What do I have to pawn?”

“Think of something.”

Sastry had nothing worth pawning either on his person or at home. Whatever little he had, had
been burned away in the kitchen.

“What do I have worth pawning?”

“Whatever you have.”

“I’m telling you, I have nothing to pawn. Just say you won’t give me the money.”

“I will give you money.”

“What do you suggest I can pawn?”

“Your sacred thread.”

“The sacred thread?” Sastry was stunned, fingering the thread on his shoulder. He glared into his
friend’s face. He was excited that he did have something to pawn.

“Really? My sacred thread?”

“Yes.”

“What value this thread has?”

“Maybe nothing.”

“What’ll you do with it?”

“”Keep it as collateral.”

“What if I renege?”

“I’ll have your jandhyam.

“That’s a just thread, worth ten paise.”

“Maybe.”

“What do you think you can do with it? You’re not going to realize even the interest on the loan with
it.”

“Maybe.”

Sastry gaped at his friend, Is he out of his mind? The thread was sanctified with mantra. It was a
symbol of his status as twice-born, and that he had been through the ritual, upanayanam; it was a
reminder of his duty to protect the vedic traditon and secured by gayantri mantra; it was supposed
to bring about his nirvana, and help destroy his enemies. The more he thought about it, the worse
the turmoil he found himself in.

Obilesu sat there without uttering a word.

“What’s this for?” Sastry asked again.

“I need collateral.”

“What for?”

“I want something that you have and I don’t have, and the thing that is standing in the way of our
friendship.”

“You don’t need this.”

“This sacred thread—either we both have it or both don’t have it. It is preventing us from being
brothers, and creating a disparity between the two of us. We’re not on par because of this thread.
It’s separating us.”

“If I remove it and give it to you, will you wear it?”

“No, I won’t wear it.”

“So, what do you do with it?”

“I’ll keep it with me”

“And what do get out of it?”

“Neither of us will be wearing the sacred thread. That makes us equal; we can be brothers. That
makes us even and helps us to unite. No more conflicts between us, discrepancies, no social order,
or the inequalities.”

Sastry was quiet for a few seconds. Obilesu did not speak either. Suddenly Sastry said, “I can’t
pawn my sacred thread.”

“That’s up to you.”

“I can’t remove it.”

“That’s up to you.”

“Removing it throws away my status as a Brahmin into the Ganges.”

“No, that’s a sin.”

“No, that’s redemption.”

“No, it’s a fall out.”

“No.”

“No.”

“That’s up to you,” Obilesu said.

They both sat silently for a while. Sastry broke the silence, “Do you have the money with you?”

“I do.”

“Got it from where?”

“From the bank.”

“To give it to me?”

“Yes.”

“Then, give it to me.”

“Give me the collateral.”

“I can’t.”

“That’s up to you.”

Sastry looked around. It was past three and most of his colleagues had left. They had understood
that Sastry was asking Obilesu for a loan, and Obilesu was not willing to do so. Some of them left,
preempting any attempt by Sastry to approach them. And a few others left on other errands. They
all were scared of being caught in an unsavory situation. The remaining few did not notice Sastry
and Obilesu.
Sastry asked again, “This’s just a cotton thread. What’d you want to do with it?”

“Not just a thread, it’s jandhyam..”

“So, you’ll not give me the money until I pawn it?”

“Correct, I won’t give you the money.”

“You won’t return my jandhyam to me until I paid the entire amount and the interest?”

“Correct.”

Sastry started thinking, Is it proper to remove the sacred thread, which he was required to wear until
his death? He did not remove it. But he needed the money, and for that reason, he must take it out.
… it was sanctified with mantra; he must not remove. While it was on his body, it might just be a
sacred thread. If he removed it, it would be worth ten thousand rupees. The thread had that kind of
value. The thread had its own value as jandhyam. While worn, the man had gotten such a
commanding value. If he removed it, it got cash value. And he needed cash.

“What if I give you my sacred thread as collateral, and buy another thread to wear?”

“That won’t be the same as the jandhyam pawned.”

“What if I do so without your knowledge?”

“You can’t.”

“They’re only a bunch of threads. I can get new ones.”

“You can’t find a jandhyam. I’ll have your it. No matter how many threads you get, they’re not going
to be the same. You’ll not wear them.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I have faith in you.”

Sastry was happy about his friend and the trust he had in him. And, also about the cash he was
going to get. The only problem was the sacred thread; it hurt him to think that he had to pawn it.
“Do you believe that I’ll pay you back?”

“I believe so”

“Why?”

“I trust your word.”

“What if I don’t pay you back?”

“You will.”

“What if I don’t?”

“You won’t get back your sacred thread.”

“What if I don’t get it back?”

“You won’t have a jandhyam for the rest of your life.”

“So?”

“You won’t have the Brahmin status?”

“So?”

“Then you’re like me, just another person.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll be my brother.”

“Now?”

“A Brahmin.”

“Meaning?”

“A friend.”

“Meaning?”

“Not a brother.”

“Meaning?”
“We’re unequal.”
“Meaning?”

“There’s no unity, no brotherhood.”

Sastry was quiet. Obilesu did not move. He did not pull out the money from his pocket, did not give
the money to Sastry.

You give me the money, and I’ll give you my sacred thread.”

“You put it down first, and then I’ll give you the money.”

“Wait here. I’ll get it,” Sastry said and stood up.

Obilesu also got up. Both of them proceeded towards the lavatory.

“Will you tell others that I pawned my sacred thread?”

“I won’t.”

“Promise?”

“Nobody will know except you and me.”

“Where’s the guarantee?”

“The sacred thread itself.”

There was no water in the lavatory, the stench was unbearable. Obilesu covered his nose but not
Sastry. Sastry removed his shirt. The stink. The toilet was not flushed for want of water. But people
didn’t care, they all were using it one after another; the choking stench did not stop them. … Sastry
removed his shirt and handed it to Obilesu. … the smell … no breeze … the smell would not go away
… no water … The people who came in would not go without stirring up more stench. … The bad
smell pervaded like a swarm of honeybees. They stung the nostrils, skewed their faces.
Sastry and Obilesu came into the lavatory for a reason; it had nothing to do with the lavatory. The
purpose for which they came there was not accomplished. … It was getting delayed because
Sastry’s hand was shaking. Jandhyam. … his hand shook. The odor was getting worse, spreading
all over. Nine threads. Nine was an absolute number, three times three, three-fold universe, three
million gods, three supreme deities—all pointing to the significance of the nine threads in the
sacred thread. Sastry’s hand shook.

Obilesu did not rush him but the odors were. His trust permitted Sastry to dilly-dally. People always
take off the sacred thread and put it back, but not like this, and not here … not for this reason.
History in the making. … Sastry’s hand was shaking. A person, who had not had the ritual of
upanayanam, and worn no sacred thread, would not be eligible to perform the vedic rituals. Should
he reject the vedic tradition or honor it? Sastry was shaking all over, from head to foot.
It is demeaning to pawn the sacred thread, and buy a piece of thread to wear from a store, a thread
that will be used for all kinds of things. He would not break his promise. But then, the times
changed. The practice of spinning the thread for making the sacred thread using takilil had gone.
dharma had strayed away. Everything had been changing rapidly. Only man had not changed. The
hunger he would have had not changed but on the rise.

Sastry held the sacred thread in his hand. He shut his eyes, with tears rolling down his face. His
hand shook; he moved it to the other hand. Still shaking, he leaned against the wall. … dirty smell.
Revolting walls. Sastry’s bare back propped up against the wall of the lavatory.

Tears fell on his bare stomach; did not roll down all the way but made the stomach wet. The sacred
thread rolled in his tears as he slowly removed it. The thread that had been accustomed to his
sweat until now embraced the tears. It slid all over his stomach, rolled on it, and bid a final farewell
from its native place. The sacred thread, which was a flower in his crown, an incense stick in the
puja room, a flag flying high on his stomach, traded places.

The sacred thread that had come in handy to scratch his back was being torn from his back and the
itch. The jandhyam that was a symbol of his Brahminical tradition now turned him in to an ordinary
human. The thing shifted its position from his shoulder to his palm.

A piece of thread that had not cost him even ten paise had the power to earn ten thousand rupees.
Sastry was surprised. He crammed it into his fist, picked up his shirt, and put it on.

“Here,” he said. No shivering, no tears. As he said it, there was a little quiver in his tone, and the
hand seemed to have shaken slightly.

“Keep it.”

“Why?”

“I’ll tell you.”

They both returned to the staff room. It was nearly empty. A couple of staff members sat there in
the room with their legs stretched on to the tables in front of them.

“Take it,” Sastry said.

“I will.”

“Give me the cash.”

“I will.”

Obilesu did not give him the money nor did he take the sacred thread.

“Take it,” Sastry said again.

“I don’t want it”

“Why?”

“I’ll not touch it.”

“Why?”

“It’s untouchable for me. I will not touch it.”

Sastry was shocked.

Obilesu said, “Nobody touches you or your sacred thread. That’s untouchable. I’ll not touch it.”
“But we two hang around, have always been together, aren’t we?”

“That’s true. But not with the sacred thread.”

Sastry was hurt. “Did I ever say that you’re an untouchable?” he said.

“You didn’t say that.”

“Then?”

“I’m saying it.”

“Saying what?”

“That it should not be touched.”

“Who should not touch it—you or me?”

“Me.”

“”Why?”

“That’s untouchable.”

“I never said you’re an untouchable.”

“No, you did not. I came to your home.”

“Yes.”

“I ate in your home.”

“I invited you to my home.”

“Yes.”

“Then, why can’t you touch this?”

“For your sake.”

“For my sake? You mean to save my sanctity and the sanctity of this sacred thread?”

“Maybe.”

“So, you’re keeping me at a distance in the name of sanctity.”

“That’s not it.”

“Then, why don’t you take it?”

“That’s dirty.”

“Dirty how?”

“Because of your body.”
“The sacred thread did not become dirty because of my body; it was sanctified. An ordinary thread
turns into a jandhyam when I wear it. The thread is sanctified. That’s the reason you valued it so
high.”

“Your jandhyam may be sacred and valuable but to me it is a dirty piece.”

“In what way?”

“Think about it. You change your shirt and underwear regularly. But you never change that sacred
thread, except on rare occasions.”

“”So what?”

“Look at that; smelling of sweat and soil.”

“What do you mean?”

“Probably it was like jasmine flower when you first put it on but now it looks like a worn out rag.”

Sastry did not reply.

Obilesu said again, “Smell it, the smell of urine.”

“That’s because I removed it there.”

“It’s the same wherever you remove it.”

Obilesu told him to put it in an envelope and seal it. Sastry did so.

“Sign it.” Sastry did so. It felt like an encore for his brahmin existence. He put the envelope on the
table in front of him. The tears in his eyes dried up and his vision was foggy.

The envelope with the money was sitting on the envelope with his sacred thread. If the envelopes
were removed, money on top and the sacred thread below. Sacred thread was the thing pawned off
and the stack of cash was the cash for the thread.

“Take it,” said Obilesu. His voice was calm, tender, and amiable.

Sastry picked up the envelope containing the cash.

“Check it” Obilesu said.

“Not necessary,” Sastry put the envelope in his pocket.

Obilesu pushed the other envelope toward Sastry and said, “Take it.”

“I won’t.”

Obilesu said, speaking clearly, “Why not?”

“I don’t want it.”

“You keep it with you.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s yours.”

“But I put it down as collateral.”

“True.”

“Shouldn’t you be keeping the item as security?”

“What difference does it make whether I keep it or you keep it?”

“Are you asking me to keep the sacred thread with me?”

“Yes.”

“Can I wear it?”

“No, you must not wear it.”

“Why not?”

“Because that’s a pawned item.”

“But I have it with me.”

“Yes, you have it.”

“What if I wear it?”

“You won’t.”

“For how long?”

“Until the debt has been paid off.”

“What if I never paid it”

“You’ll never wear it.”

They left the staff room and walked towards the crossroads. As they approached the junction where
they were going to go their separate ways.

The tower clock as his witness, Obilesu said, “Sastry, I will not be distressed even if you don’t pay
back the loan.” He stopped for a second, and said, speaking clearly, “I’ll be happy still.”

[End]

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, July 2006.

(The Telugu original taakatu was published in an anthology entitled Asprusyaganga. 1999.)