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Winter 2007 [Issue No. 11]

FICTION

 

 

Ahalya's Valhalla ▪► Rumjhum Biswas

[Final Issue]  ▪  [Download PDF*]

 

Ahalya runs like a carefree deer towards the hilltop. She runs with the wind in her hair, undoing the neatness that her mother had earlier taken so much care to achieve. Ahalya has all but forgotten her mother’s irritation, her harsh words and the slap. It doesn’t take her long to forget things that don’t concern her for the moment. The wind, of course, helps her forget as it sings in her ear.

Kanai watches Ahalya as she scampers up the hill. His goats do not need any watching. They know the hills better than he. So he plays his flute, loiters with the other boys who are out with similar herds, or just spends his day idly looking at the passing clouds and dreaming. Dreaming of Ahalya mostly, and sometimes of the wedding that he secretly plans. But this is a dream that only he and his flute know about. Not even the wind knows what’s in his heart; such is the secrecy with which he hugs his desire. Years later, he will wish that he had revealed his secret to someone, anyone. If only he had (and the ‘ifs’ will stand out like little black-and-white milestones in his life), he could have gathered up a certain life, like a stray wind that picks up a little tangle of hair. But life has a way of picking its course like a river, skirting the rocks and boulders; sometimes cascading over; but always, always meeting the ocean.

Ahalya cannot be bothered with maidenly things. She prefers to play marbles and climb trees and go fishing with the boys. She is better at being a boy than the boys themselves. She can steal mangoes from right under Kartik Dadu’s nose; her skilful fingers can bring down any kite that dares to fly across her square of the sky; she can spin the fastest top and run the longest mile. But most of all (and this is what has always kept the boys in total awe of her), she can tolerate the limb-numbingly cold waters of the spring and its skin-wrenching astringent mud even during the winter months, the way none of them ever can.

The springs spout from the hill, not too far away from the temple of Jagadhartri on the hill’s peak. Ahalya's home at the foot of the hill is less than two miles away from the temple. This temple is several hundred years old, dating back to a time when Tantriks offered human sacrifices to an earlier deity – the Goddess Kali in her deadliest form. Shrines housing lesser deities surround the main temple. These deities are mostly female goddesses of unknown origin that have sprung up from time to time, literally spat out from the black clay roiling in the heart of the hill. Nobody knows when or how these black clay deities originated. They are not wrought by human hand; instead they are the handiwork of a strange and unknown force, which could either be earthly (few believe that) or divine. The deities have appeared from time to time in the temple precincts, squeezed out like black toothpaste from the thin cracks on the hill that run across its surface like a network of drains to meet the narrow pit flanking Ma Kali's shrine. They bear an eerie likeness to the human form, though grossly exaggerated in shape and size and with badly deformed facial features. However, the black–clay deities have mostly surrendered to weather and vandals till they look like eccentric but natural formations, and new ones have not appeared in the last hundred years.

The clay deities are far from Kanai’s mind as he watches the wind undo Ahalya’s braids. His heart twitches with love. He and Ahalya have practically grown up together. He reached manhood a few years ago, so he understood when Ahalya suddenly became a woman. But he cannot remember when he began to feel the way he does about her.

“Kanai, you dolt! Stop ogling me,” Ahalya throws a handful of dry earth at him. Then she says in the same breath, “Got some guavas on you?”

Kanai smiles. He finds it hard to do anything else in her presence. “I brought some coconut narus with me today. Have those if you like.”

“Thhoo! Who wants your sissy narus?” Ahalya runs off, flinging the words at him over her shoulder.

“Wait, Ahalya, wait for me!” cries Kanai. But she is either out of earshot or just does not bother to listen. Kanai runs after her. The wind sings in his ears as he runs up the hill and stirs the nerves below his navel. His eyes follow Ahalya’s lithe movements, and his heart aches for her.

They have come near the tourist lodge now. This is a government guesthouse run by a government-aided charity. The guesthouse overflows with pilgrims and tourists during the peak season, but now stands more or less empty. Just a few students of art are here to enjoy the cheap off-season rates and do paintings of the landscape and temple. The locals call these artists the sahari babus because that is what they are – city slicks come to the country for artistic reasons, real or pretended.

Ahalya and other girls of a similar age are not encouraged to mix with these men - the students are mostly bearded youths with unkempt long hair and mouths reeking of cigarettes and liquor – though their presence does provide a bit of income for the boys. The sahari babus, an inept lot, need help with so many things - like getting their clothes washed and ironed, their food, which is mostly chicken or mutton curry, cooked and served, their cigarettes and booze bought and occasionally women brought in for a price, ostensibly to be models. But the townsfolk are not convinced about the innocence of these modeling assignments. So young girls are kept away and the sahari babus have to be content with the leathery-faced whores who are glad to earn something during the off-season’s drought of passion.

Ahalya has been strictly forbidden by her mother, Saroma, to hang around the place. Ahalya, for once, is not defiant. The sahari babus do not interest her. She does not understand why they splash pots of paint indiscriminately on stretches of canvas. She has not seen the paintings with her own eyes. Her opinion is based on hearsay, but it is potent enough to prejudice her against these strange men who indulge in sissy activities like painting. The tourist lodge, however, has a wild Indian plum tree with delicious sweet-sour fruits that are coveted by all the locals. Ahalya has tasted them before, mostly thanks to Kanai, who has access to the sahari babus off-season abode. Of course, Ahalya being Ahalya, she has never bothered to express her gratitude in any way other than to mock Kanai for being such a generous fool!

The month of Poush is over, so the plums would have started to ripen by now. But Saraswati Puja is still more than a fortnight away. Ahalya knows that eating plums is strictly forbidden before Saraswati Puja. But she does not care. The boys always manage to get and eat them by the handful, and they are the ones who need Ma Saraswati’s blessings the most if they want to finish school at all. So why should she, Ahalya make this sacrifice? Nobody is going to send her to school!

“Kanai, have you checked out the plum tree lately?”

Kanai looks at her in alarm. “You are not thinking of raiding the guesthouse tree, are you Ahalya?”

Ahalya turns on him defiantly. “What if I am?”

Kanai says nothing. He knows that it is of no use arguing with Ahalya once she gets an idea in her head. He is not comfortable being here with Ahalya. Kanai thinks she is too beautiful, eccentric and headstrong. He does not relish the prospect of any of the sahari babus getting to know her. Four or five of them are staying at the guesthouse right now. They are more likely to be inside, drinking their evening tea, and will certainly see Ahalya vigorously shaking the Indian plum tree and gathering the fallen fruits in the folds of her sari. Yet Kanai follows Ahalya helplessly through the open gate into the guesthouse garden. He even helps her shake the tree after she has finished inspecting its bounty from below. Ahalya is intent upon her spoils, but Kanai knows they are being watched. The silence underlying the clamor of homing birds has already warned him. But by now, it is already too late.

Kanai is not afraid of what the sahari babus will say or do when they catch him and Ahalya. The locals have as much right to the plums as the babus. The latter, however, enjoy the servile, simpering support of Haru Buro, the caretaker. That counts for a lot, because Haru Buro is more likely to chase the boys with stones and curses. (Despite Haru’s relative youth, the locals added “Buro” to his name because of his old-man’s crotchety nature, and it stuck.) Now Kanai’s heart gives a start as he hears the distinctly sibilant sound of air being swallowed through a half-open mouth. He turns around with a sinking feeling.

Ki re, Kanai?” Haru Buro grins at him through betel-nut stained teeth. “The plums are ripe for the plucking, eh?”

Haru Buro’s tone is not hostile. That is what makes Kanai more afraid and suspicious. Haru Buro is supposed to fly towards them with a stick. Instead, he stands there grinning like a goblin.

“Who is that with you? Is that Ahalya? Arey, Ahalya, you’ve grown so big! You’ll remember to invite me to your wedding won’t you?”

Ahalya looks at him balefully before spitting out a plum seed in his direction. The seed hits Haru’s toe with perfect accuracy. “Who said anything about me getting married!” says Ahalya disdainfully.

Haru Buro chuckles softly to himself. “So hot-tempered! But don’t mind me. Just help yourself to those plums. There’s plenty for everybody.”

“Of course I will! As if anybody can stop me!” retorts Ahalya.

Kanai shifts his feet uneasily. “Come on Ahalya, let’s go. You’ve collected enough today.” Ahalya shrugs impatiently. Kanai, beginning to get angry, turns towards Haru Buro. “How come you’re so generous today, eh?” he says. “You’re never one to give things for free, even if they are! So speak up. What’s it that you want?”

“There’s no need to be so uptight, Kanai,” says Haru. “Can’t an old man like me give something without rousing your suspicion? Besides, I’ve seen Ahalya since she was a baby in her mother’s arms. Now, you tell me, why are you following her around? Eh?”

“Haru Buro! You mind your tongue! You think I am a fool!” Kanai turns towards Ahalya who is staring at him, startled by his temper. “Ahalya, come away. Right now!”

“Arey! Arey! I was just teasing,” says Haru. “Come, come inside, now. Your Kaki has made some lovely plum pickles.”

Ahalya’s eyes light up. “Plum pickles?”

“Ah yes. She was saying that she would give some to your mother, but now that you’re here, you might as well save your Kaki the trouble of going over. You know how her back troubles her. So come now,” says Haru Buro, extending a hand to Ahalya.

“Get the right bait and you’ll catch the best fish,” mutters Kanai under his breath, as he watches Ahalya skip towards Haru.

Haru Buro must be lying about the pickles. The whole community knows how inept his wife is at any kind of kitchen work. The standard joke about that couple is that Kaki is such a bad cook that everything she cooks turns bitter, but Haru Buro can’t tell the difference because his taste buds can only detect bitterness. Besides, even if by some quirk of fate her pickles turned out fine, why would these two bad-tempered people want to give Saroma Mashi any pickles? Haru Buro is up to something, of that Kanai is certain. But now, there is little that he can do, except follow them into the guesthouse kitchen. He believes Ahalya will be safer with him around. Haru Buro cannot shoo him away, for that would raise Ahalya’s suspicions.

The promised jar of pickles is really there, as if waiting for Ahalya on the kitchen counter, but Kaki is nowhere around. Someone else is there though, a stranger who stands quietly in the shadows. And if he has been looking at Ahalya, he is being so discreet that even Kanai doesn’t notice. Ahalya looks about her with idle curiosity.

Haru Buro watches her. “Ahalya, want to take a look around? You’ve never been in here before, right?”

Ahalya clutches her bundle of plums. This is alien territory, and Kanai can tell she’s uncertain. The embers from the coal stove in the corner of the kitchen cast a rosy glow on her face. She is not aware of it, but she looks beautiful. Kanai is aware, and the sibilant breath expelling into the dark room tells him that Haru Buro is also, acutely aware.

“Go on, don’t be shy,” says Haru. “See the guesthouse. Ei Kanai, why don’t you go with her? Our Ahalya’s feeling shy!”

“Who said anything about being shy?” says Ahalya, stung by Haru’s teasing. She marches out into the rooms beyond with a toss of her dark curls.

Kanai looks around the kitchen. The man he had barely noticed has melted into the guesthouse walls. Haru Buro grins at him vacantly and Kanai follows Ahalya reluctantly. Haru Buro follows a little later. The house is suspended in silence. Kanai does not like it at all. He senses something, lurking in the air. He is not really surprised when Ahalya gives a little scream. But his heart thuds wildly all the same.

O Ma! Look at this!” Ahalya stands in wonder before a black-and-white drawing propped up on a table.

A large oil lamp throws its amber light on the drawing. A neon tube perched against the ceiling is already dispersing pale light across the room, so the oil lamp isn’t really necessary. Kanai realizes with a shock that the lamp has been placed there purposely, to draw attention to the sketch. Kanai stares at the picture while a ball of ice grows in his heart. He has recognized the figure straightaway.

It is Ahalya. Caught in a moment of gleeful abandon under the wild Indian plum tree. The sketch is hasty, but it has captured Ahalya’s posture, her strands of untidy hair and her delighted eyes, perfectly. Kanai watches as Ahalya lifts the drawing with rare reverence. He can sense that she is already slipping away into another world.

Haru Buro asks, “Who is that girl in the picture, Ahalya, can you guess?”

Ahalya shakes her head.

“Why, it’s you! You crazy girl!” Haru gives Ahalya a friendly push. Ahalya is too caught up with the drawing to notice this impertinence.

“Who drew it?” she finally asks.

“One of the artists staying here,” says Haru Buro. “I’m not sure which one. This bunch of sahari babus seems to be very good at figure drawing. You want to see some of their paintings?”

Haru propels Ahalya towards a door the moment she nods her head. Kanai does not get a chance to react. He trails like a nimbus, not knowing what else to do. They examine a dozen paintings in various stages of completion stacked around the room. The paintings are good. They are not abstract art, but realistic figures of men and women. Kanai recognizes Haru Buro’s wife in one of them, cutting fish on a rusty bonthi by the tap in the courtyard.

“They can make paintings like this of you,” hisses Haru Buro. Ahalya listens with her head to one side; Kanai watches closely, as she looks at the picture of Haru Buro’s wife. “Like they make paintings of queens and princesses. Yes, like that!”

Ahalya turns towards Haru with mesmerized eyes. A tiny smile of wonder turns up the corners of her lips. “Really? Haru Kaka, they can do drawings of me like that?” And, then she turns to admire the paintings once more. Kanai watches and watches her, despair chilling his heart. He knows that there is no turning back now.

Back home, Saroma, is furious. “Are you so stupid? You’re wicked and stupid! You are not going there back again. As for these pickles,” she screams, picking up the jar with a vicious swipe, “I won’t have them in my house!”

Ahalya says nothing. But her face has a dreamy look. In the distance, a little beyond the bucktooth verandah, the pickle jar tinkles into shards as it spills its contents onto the cobbled lane. The tiny house sinks back into an uneasy silence. Saroma sniffles into a corner of her sari. Ahalya is quiet. She does not seem to be aware of anything amiss. Kanai, standing outside in the shadows, has heard it all, the words and the silences. A dim moon strokes the tears on his cheeks, making them glisten like the shards on the cobbles.

Saroma does not confine Ahalya to the house. She tells Kanai that it will be enough to keep a close watch on her movements, and she enlists his help, on oath of secrecy. Saroma does not want any gossip. She will have to tell Kanai that once the biddies of their locality get hold of a juicy morsel like this, it will kill any chance of marriage for Ahalya. She has to be very careful. They have to be careful. Very, very careful.

Kanai is glad to be included in her plans. But he cannot say the one thing that could get him his heart’s desire, and perhaps save them all. The words are in his throat. Every time Saroma talks to him, mainly to find out what Ahalya has been doing while she has been away at work, Kanai feels the words clotting up deep inside his thorax like phlegm, too far down for him to spit out. Kanai is also ashamed to tell her, that Ahalya always finds ways to escape without being detected. Ahalya has acquired the determined skills of the desperately obsessed. Worse, Kanai finds himself being drawn closer and tighter into her net of deception, till he eventually becomes Ahalya’s accomplice, instead of the custodian he had promised Saroma he would be.

How could he possibly not? Ahalya is so sweet now, her newfound gentleness wrapping around Kanai like a muslin sari, pulling him along a painfully sweet path. It is impossible not to believe her, trust her and love her. Kanai does not know whether the babus are really painting her portrait or not. Ahalya has only shown him a few charcoal sketches on scraps of rough drawing paper. That is all. Haru Buro whispers sibilantly that Ahalya will be famous; she will bring pride and prosperity to their town. Old Haru seems to be full of whispers and ideas nowadays.

“You know Kanai, this is art. Art!” he says. “There is nothing sinful about art. And Ahalya is a natural model.” Haru Buro rubs his hands together, as if he is expecting a windfall himself. Perhaps he is.

“I want to be there when they are painting her,” says Kanai, finally.

Haru’s pale brown eyes glint at him in the afternoon sun. “Alright,” he says slowly, “I’ll ask them and let you know.”

Kanai does not get to see the sahari babus painting Ahalya right away. He has to remind Haru Buro a number of times before he is let inside. When he finally does get in, the sahari babus are nowhere to be seen. There is only Ahalya in the room, looking slightly disheveled. She has a sullen look on her face. Kanai looks at her closely. He feels shy in her presence, as if he has suddenly chanced upon her when she is changing her clothes.

Ahalya looks at him irritably. “Don’t you have anything better to do than spy on me?”

“Ahalya, Saroma Mashi told me …”

“Saroma Mashi told me!” mimics Ahalya, without even letting him finish. “Stupid goat! Herding goats is what you are good for! If your Saroma Mashi tells you to eat dung, you’ll eat it?”

Kanai keeps quiet. He feels like an intruder. He does not quite understand why. He looks about the room searching for the easel and canvas. There are several canvasses stacked against the wall.

“Where’s the painting?” he says at last. “You’re here because they wanted to paint you …”

Ahalya snorts and gets up to leave. She is wearing silver anklets. They look very pretty on her slender ankles, and they make a seductive tinkling sound when she moves. Ahalya is different now. She used to disdain anklets and other pretty girly things before.

“The painting’s there, right under your nose,” she says over her shoulder. “I’m going home now, goatherd!”

Kanai stares at the painting before him. It is Ahalya, alright. But he hadn’t noticed that before. She doesn’t look like herself. In the painting, she is leaning against some kind of a leafy branch that turns into a snake near her head in the picture. She has a satiated smile on her face. She looks older, worldlier. Kanai recognizes the look. He shudders as he desperately tries to shut out the thought.

But he cannot escape it. Days pass into weeks, and still Kanai cannot escape it. Even when he’s stretched out on the hill, under the stars, it sneaks up on him. Kanai feels exhausted and saddened. A chilly wind creeps down from the hill, pinching his skin with thin twiggy fingers. In the distance, he hears a woman laugh. The sound brings back memories of stories heard when he was a boy, of she-ghosts and witches and black deities that some said were Ma Kali’s Joginis, sent down by her to keep an eye on the temple and its neighborhood. For even though Ma Jagadhartri has replaced the original, bloodthirsty Ma Kali, the Goddess has not really left the temple. An inner shrine, a sort of sanctum sanctorum, still houses a small bronze figure of the Goddess. Few, a very select few, are allowed into this shrine to worship and grovel at her bronze feet, which are, it is said, always moist and dank, with a sickly-sweet odor rising up from the ever-growing heap of offerings of incense, fruit and flowers.

The legends surrounding the temple and its deities have never been allowed to dwindle into obscurity. The town after all owes its existence to the temple. Pilgrims and tourists, and even the painters, provide much needed employment and business to the locals, apart from adding color to their otherwise humdrum lives. Even though some of the sahari babus are godless louts, the temple draws them to her bosom every year. But surprisingly, the priests do not seem to mind their lack of faith. Some of the younger priests even share cigarettes with them. The town comes alive during the tourist season and the annual festival of Jagadhartri. Ahalya used to love the festivities, the fairs near the temple, and the crowds that gathered. Kanai used to love to watch her lose herself in that heady melee of people. But now Ahalya seems to love something else, and Kanai is no longer allowed to watch her.

The woman laughs again. Kanai sits up and looks about wildly. The laugh sounds familiar. He flees down the hill. But the thought that he is about to be haunted by something worse follows him all the way down.

Saroma corners him the next day. “Kanai! You’re not keeping an eye on her!” He shuffles his feet, not daring to look at her. “Kanai! Tell me! I know you’re keeping something from me!” she hisses. “Ahalya’s my daughter. I can tell something’s wrong with her. Kanai, please …”

“Saroma Mashi,” says Kanai, clearing his throat, “Saroma Mashi, Ahalya’s … I mean she is old enough to be married, isn’t she?”

“What are you trying to tell me, Kanai? Speak up!”

Kanai’s heart thuds painfully against his ribcage. “I can marry her, Saroma Mashi. I swear I can! Before it’s too late.”

“What! You wretch!” Saroma spits the words out at him. “What do we have here, now? A wolf to tend the lamb? I’ll break your legs. I’ll pull out your tongue! Too late? What have you been doing to my Ahalya?”

“Saroma Mashi. Oh, Saroma Mashi!” Tears roll down Kanai cheeks. “Please don’t misunderstand me. Please, Mashi, hear me out.”

But Saroma hurries into her house and slams the door.

Arati Mashi comes hobbling towards Kanai. “Ki re Kanai, what’s happened? Why are you crying outside?”

Kanai turns and walks quickly away. He hears Arati Mashi knocking on Saroma’s door. Kanai is certain that Ahalya’s days are numbered. She will be ostracized. Saroma Mashi will be shamed. His certainty weighs his shoulders down. He must find Ahalya, make a last plea. But days walk past without even allowing him a glimpse of the girl.

Kanai continues to look for Ahalya. She does not go to the guesthouse these days. Haru Buro does not seem to have any clue where she is. He is once again his usual, cantankerous self. Ahalya is nowhere to be found. Sometimes, Kanai believes, he can hear the unmistakable sound of her laughter when he passes by the temple. But that cannot be true. The priests would not tolerate a low-caste girl, however beautiful, inside their temple, would they?

Late one afternoon, Kanai creeps by Saroma’s house. Snatches of a heated but whispered conversation float out. Arati Mashi and a few others like her are pressing against the house walls, straining their ears to listen. When they spot him, they look at him with curious, beady eyes, not unlike a bunch of crows ogling a tidbit. The sun’s baleful stare does not bother them. It bothers Kanai. He can feel the beginnings of a bad headache throbbing in his temples. But he is determined to get to Ahalya. Kanai slinks away to the rear of the house.

An unpaved open drain runs parallel to Saroma’s house. Feces, rotten food and ashes from coal stoves have all but choked the drain as it snakes its narrow way behind the row of houses. The back doors of these houses are rarely opened, mostly only at night when some hapless resident is suffering from acute diarrhea. Kanai picks his way among the cats and stray dogs that always gather along the edges of the drain, and climbs over the little wall with the wooden gate separating the drain from Saroma’s house. He stands cowering under the latch of the back door, waiting for an opportunity.

He waits for a long time. The sun is almost down when he finally musters up the courage to scratch lightly on the door. He pokes the door with his index finger. It creaks slightly and opens, just a little bit. Kanai is shocked. The door is open! What is wrong with Saroma Mashi? Anybody could get in and do whatever they liked! Kanai pushes the door a little more, and then some more. He stands in the gloom, squinting to see clearly. Neither Saroma nor Ahalya have seen him enter.

“Saroma Mashi. Saroma Mashi,” he calls softly, not daring to raise his voice.

Saroma peers at him. “Kanai! How did you get in?”

“The back door was open Mashi, didn’t you know?”

“Know? What do I know? Oh Kanai, the witch has ruined me …” Saroma’s voice breaks down as she sobs.

Kanai waits, not knowing what to say.

“I have not ruined anybody,” hisses Ahalya. Kanai can see her quite clearly now, leaning against the wall. “I am getting married!”

Kanai’s heart jumps at the words.

“Married! Married she says! Girls like you who …who … do stupid things that no respectable girls would do can never get married,” sobs Saroma. “They have a different sort of life. Oh God, why don’t you kill me now!”

“He said he’d marry me. He said he’ll take me to the city, and I will be happy there. What’s there for me here anyway? I am sick of this stupid life here in this stupid place.”

“Keep quiet, shameless hussy!” Saroma slaps Ahalya hard across the face. Kanai winces. Ahalya does not even flinch.

Saroma turns towards Kanai. “Did you know all this? Did you know what she was doing and who she was mixing with all this time?”

“I … I wasn’t sure. Mashi when I thought that things were getting out of hand, I … I tried to tell you … Mashi, I would never let Ahalya down.” Kanai trembles with emotion. “Saroma Mashi, nobody need know anything more. I’ll marry Ahalya; I’ll marry her, Saroma Mashi. I will, no matter what!”

The two women look at him in silence, one in gratitude and the other in shock.

“Kanai, are you sure?” Saroma walks softly towards him. “Are you sure of what you’re saying? I am a very poor woman, Kanai. And, after all that’s happened, you still want …”

“Yes, Saroma Mashi, yes, yes! It makes no difference to me. None of it.”

“I misjudged you Kanai,” says Saroma. “I had not imagined …” But the rest of her words are cut off by a short crisp laugh.

Saroma spins around as if she has been stung. Kanai stares at Ahalya. Her hair floats around her face in waves of black rebellion. Her eyes go dark with passion.

“Marry me! Oh. He wants to marry me! Oh! My saintly goatherd!” Ahalya shoves both Saroma and Kanai out of the way as she lets herself out the back door.

“Stop her! Oh stop that wretch,” screams Saroma.

Her scream is immediately followed by a pounding on her front door, Arati Mashi and her friends have waited long enough, and now they want in. There is nothing to be done. Both doors are open. Ahalya is lost through one, beyond Kanai’s reach. And the women of practically the whole locality pour in through the other, sealing off the possibility of Ahalya’s return, forever.

They spend the night searching for her among the hills, with hurricane lamps to light their way. The men from Ahalya’s locality grill Haru Buro while the women question his wife. The sahari babus are gone and even beating up old Haru does not yield any clue. They prowl around the temple walls, until the priests come out to curse them. Some of them even walk to the little railway station at the other end of town. Still nothing. Saroma weeps continuously. The women try to comfort her as best as they can. But their words cut her like whiplashes. They cannot get her to eat. For days afterwards, Saroma roams the hills like a mad woman, searching. Long after everybody has given up hope. Every rumor brings Saroma running out. She does not mind the gossip any more. She has nothing else to lose.

Months pass. Ahalya’s misdeeds pass into afternoon gossip. The sahari babus do not return to sketch the temple. Mothers are relieved, but they never stop warning their daughters of the consequences of mixing with bad men from the cities. Stray rumors still circulate, adding fuel to the terror in the mothers’ hearts. Some tell of Ahalya running up the hill towards her paramour, when the dreaded Goddess pulled her underneath by her hair; others warn of a band of roaming Tantriks that sacrificed her; yet others whisper that she was murdered after she refused money, insisting that she get married. Other stories are less gory, but no less frightening. Old Shibu at the ration shop claims that his mother’s cousin’s brother’s son-in-law’s friend had seen a dancing girl who looked like Ahalya entertaining a group of drunkards. Someone else says that a beggar woman looking suspiciously like Ahalya was last seen at a nearby railway station. The stories continue. Saroma seems to live for these stories, whether they are true or not, and the sympathy of her neighbors. But Kanai stays away from the stories. And he still searches for Ahalya, hoping against hope that she will turn up someday, somehow.

The months roll into years. And the years pick their way through time, single file. Ahalya’s story gets buried in the dump yard of old gossip. Ahalya’s name no longer has the power to frighten the little girls of the town into submission. The town itself grows thin as the younger denizens leave to find better lives in the cities, and then grows fat again as new people creep in from the surrounding villages, where even poverty feels like a queen. By this time, Saroma has died, clutching her bitterness like a quilt to her rheumatic heart, her funeral pyre lit by Kanai, who had been her last source of sustenance after Ahalya left. Now it is Kanai who lives in her house, with his small children and the wife he has dutifully taken to provide heirs for his father.

Kanai no longer chews puffed rice while his goats romp up and down the hills. He works at the railway station, doing odd jobs for the stationmaster. His work is uncomplicated and steady; and though his salary is little more than a pittance, it is a regular source of income and covers his family’s basic needs. Indeed, Kanai is better off than many men his age, some of whom have returned embittered from the cities, for he also owns a house, and those who envy him suck on the lemon drops of their gossip.

Kanai, however, is past all that; quieter than before, he is fiercely loyal to his family and even more protective about his daughters. He treats his wife with an aloof kindness that keeps her forever in wonder of the kind of man her husband really is. She is a little afraid of his quiet ways and does not demand more than he feels obligated to give her.

The old guesthouse is greatly changed. Haru Buro, too, has died. His widow blossomed into a benign matron soon after her widowhood. She put on weight and her features softened; she also acquired a nephew who looks after the premises with such gusto that the townspeople, ever on the lookout for possibilities, tell each other that this nephew is none other than the son she hid away before her marriage to that rascal Haru, and that way, triumphed in the end.

The sahari babus who had stopped coming have returned once more. Except that these new babus are a new breed altogether. Some of them are not even babus, but serious-looking bespectacled women in jeans and kurtas who paint ferociously within the temple precincts, detailing the architectural nuances on their canvas with a sharpness that defies photography. Sometimes whole groups arrive along with their teachers and bring a different kind of prosperity for a short time. This new breed of artists needs good food like their predecessors, but little else. The women painters smoke intensely and incessantly. But the men rarely touch tobacco. Drinking is almost nonexistent, except for the occasional celebratory bash, which takes place near the end of their stay and only when the group is large enough. They mostly speak amongst themselves in English, and treat the townspeople with casual courtesy. They do not ask for live models; instead, some of them take random and candid photographs which they use later in their paintings.

The temple stands like an eternal monument, unabashed by the wear and tear on its façade. The number of priests has dwindled. Now there are just three or four of them left. The lamps have diminished into small fuzzy balls, feebly trying to command the night over the temple. The sound of the priests’ chanting has receded into whispers of echoes. The number of worshipers has grown smaller and smaller.

Then, one day something happens that brings in the promise of old glory. There is great excitement at the temple.

“A miracle! A miracle has occurred,” gushes the head priest. “The Goddess has spoken. Oh a miracle. It’s a miracle!”

The whole town rushes up to the temple. The news spreads like wild fire. More and more people pour in, even though the annual festival of Jagadhartri and the tourist season is still a month away. The little town begins to bear a festive air. Special prayer services are held almost daily. Vendors gather around the temple, selling all kinds of things from puja offerings to sweets, toys and balloons. The hill slope begins to look like fairgrounds when some enterprising people from a traveling show put up their tents. Shortly afterwards, Ferris wheels and swing boats bring variety for the temple visitors.

Kanai’s community is also caught by the excitement. They have not yet seen the miracle, but they have heard that a black clay deity has sprung up near the inner shrine. The temple priests, in a rare gesture of generosity, have promised to let them have a glimpse, if they can hoist themselves up on the walls of the temple – the untouchables are still not allowed inside the temple. Hundreds have started to throng the temple grounds.

 

Everybody is excited and eager to see the new deity. Kanai is curious too. So he goes along with his family, everyone in their Sunday best. He finds a good place for himself and his wife, and hoists the children on the lower branch of a shaggy pipul tree just outside the west wall. His wife passes up salted peanuts and roasted grams to her children, for this is an outing for the family. She is hopeful that after catching a glimpse of the new deity, Kanai will take them to the impromptu fairgrounds, where the children can ride the wheels and swings, and she can admire the bangles on sale.

They gaze in wonder at the deity, glistening black, freshly sprung from the innards of the hill. The deity’s head is thrown back as if she is looking at something or someone above. Snake-like ropes of black clay uncoil in a petrified cascade down her back, reaching below the waist. Black breasts heave like a pair of frozen peaks. Two arms are extended upwards as if in supplication. She stands there as if cast in the very clay she had been trying desperately to shake free. Priests start to chant and the worshipers walk up to touch the base of the deity, where the feet are supposed to be. The line of worshipers is more than a mile long, winding round and round, till it covers the whole of the temple grounds. Worshipers and the untouchables alike seem to be struck dumb by this divine manifestation, gazing in wonder and reverence.

Kanai too gazes, but neither in wonder nor reverence. Old sorrows and a half digested lump of anguish heaves in his breast. The pain grows intolerable after a while and the bitter tears roll down his cheeks. He knows her. How can he not? Has he not been carrying her inside him like a touchstone that must be kept hidden at all costs, for all these years? How can he not recognize this new deity for who she really is, when the fresh memory of her face touches him into wakefulness every morning and squeezes back into his innards every time he does his husbandly duty towards his wife? Kanai trembles. The pain stabs his heart and whips his loins.

 

Watching the terrible emotions chasing around Kanai’s face, his wife too weeps, quietly into the edge of her sari, so that nobody can see her shame, for the farce of her marriage is suddenly brightly clear to her, as clear as the deity that stands there glistening under the bright sun, defying nature, defying time, defying convention.

  © Rumjhum Biswas

 

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