(Deepavali & Kali Puja Special)
By Avik Chanda
The village had long forgotten its own name. Once, a culvert drawn from the holy river had brought water here, filling the land all around with rice-fields. Hutments came up swiftly, growing into a sizeable village along the fringe of the fields, and extended up to the edge of the forest. One day, deep inside the forest, someone discovered an ancient temple. How old it was, no one could tell. But the Goddess within, which was made of stone, was intact: fiery, naked and many-limbed, the tongue protruding like a weapon, thirsty for obedience and worship. And perhaps blood. The villagers cleared a thoroughfare through the woods. Each evening, as the moon rose, they would proceed to the temple, kneel before the idol fearfully and pray. Women washed the yard and decorated it with rows of flowers, and on the night of the feast, a goat was sacrificed, to appease the Goddess.
Then the stream dried out, and after two rainless monsoons, famine struck. For two years, the villagers relied on the forest. The trees were all cut down, wood for the fires, the leaves and berries roasted and consumed. When even that was gone, and there was still no sign of rain, they began to slowly starve to death. Those that still had strength loaded their meagre belongings onto their cattle, or their own backs, and journeyed to the big city, where it was said that the householders ate only fine rice and always had starch to spare for the beggars. No one gave any thought to the old temple they were leaving behind, and to its Goddess that for some reason would not – or could not – protect them any longer.
A phaeton clopped to a halt in front of the abandoned temple. The carved arch gateway that was supported by columns on either side had collapsed, its debris almost blocking the entry path. Over the rubble, he could see the way ahead covered with an undergrowth of brambles. On the outer walls of the temple, plaster and paint had shed away, revealing an unwelcoming structure of ribs, tanned dark by the sun. The entrance, too, was dark and opaque, so that from where he sat, he couldn’t see what lay beyond. The temple had no dome. Had the roof itself collapsed, shattering everything inside?
From the back of the carriage, Aslam leapt onto the dust-covered ground and scurried around to help his master, flapping open a stack of steps. The Rai Bahadur got down delicately, always the right foot forward, dragging the other one painfully behind him, supported by the long, stiff cane with its ivory handle. He treaded over the concrete rubble, and then, transferring the cane to his right hand, hacked a walking path as best he could through the high brambles, beating down on the thickets, wincing, as the thorns sprang back in retaliation. At the entrance, he stopped to catch his breath, but it seemed like a very long moment. His throat was parched, and he could feel his whole body trembling with trepidation. He ran a hand through his wavy white hair, sweat dripping down his temples, took a deep breath, and then stepped into the dark.
For successive days, there was this recurring dream that was troubling him. Each time, it was a female that appeared, each time in a different form. Even so, in the midst of his dream, he had the sense that they were all one and the same person, and so the experience of it was that of one single, unrelenting dream. On the first night, it was an old decrepit woman in tattered clothes, the sort one would associate with the casting and dispelling of spells, strange rituals and incantations in some alien, unknowable language. But in her eyes was a plea that went beyond the need for power.
“I have been on my own,” she protested, “for so long now. People were scared of me because of my appearance. They could have banished me from the village or taught their children to shout abuse from a distance, even pelt me with stones. Instead, all they did was to leave me alone, and that was far more hurtful. To be abandoned and forgotten, as if I had never existed. Can you begin to understand how that feels?” She sighed. “And I have been like this for ages, neglected and sad. There is no one who understands my misery and recognizes me, for who I really am. Will you not come to fetch me, and take me to your home?”
“But fetch you from where?” he asked in his sleep. Then he opened his eyes, and found himself alone in his widower’s bed, the old woman was gone.
In the second visitation, a child appeared before him, beautiful, with shining eyes and a face that glowed with goodness. But she also looked emaciated, as if she had gone without food for a long time.
“Who are you?” He asked the child, as she looked at him with her infinitely sad eyes. “Do I know you?”
But she wouldn’t answer. “I am hungry and thirsty,” – she said at last. “I have no one, no parents or siblings, to take care of me. Will you not help me? You are a kind-hearted man. Will you not seek me out, give me food and shelter, and bring me home with you?”
“Tell me where you live.” But she shook her head. “How else will I know where to find you?”
“You pride yourself on your learning, you plumb the depths of folklore and legend, night and day. So, it should be easy for you. How come you haven’t found me by now, given that you’ve chartered the maze of all those books for so many years?”
Even in his sleep, he felt tears of shame streaming down his cheeks. “I am ignorant, Ma. Old and ignorant. Forgive me! Tell me where you are… and I will come to you.”
The child remained silent, but the contours of her figure began to fade.
“Don’t go!” he cried.
“I am waiting for you. But it is hard for me here, alone, with food or a drop of water. Do not make me suffer more. Come soon?”
“Please tell me where you are, and I shall come. I promise.”
There was a long pause before she answered. And by the time she spoke again, none of her image remained, she was all voice, a voice that echoed about the place, speaking only to itself.
“Look for me in the place that has forgotten its name.”
The Rai Bahadur woke up, sullen and anxious, full of the urgency of some great task. He called for his daughter-in-law and instructed her to gather all the poor people in the neighbourhood, especially the women-folk.
“Make sure they’re all here by evening, and when they arrive, conduct them into the courtyard with all courtesy,” – he said, as she nodded silently, the sari hooded over her head. “Arrange for adequate food and clothing. Tonight, none shall go back hungry and unclothed. I will serve them myself.”
He then bathed, drank his customary glass of milk, and drove the phaeton over to the university, where he was at the helm of things. But even in the middle of his work at the office, and his daily lecture with the students, which he otherwise enjoyed so much, he could feel that singular unattended task, gnawing at him. He finished his lecture somewhat hurriedly, told the staff he was going home, and steered his horse along unfamiliar, cobbled roads, till he came to a large government building.
The Sahib officials knew him by sight, and reputation. He wrote out an application, obtained a letter of consent, signed and stamped, and went down a stairwell into the vast, cavernous, poorly ventilated archive in the basement, where all the official papers were kept. There were records of all kinds, not only major happenings across the district, but registrations of births and deaths, the opening of new schools and office buildings, and the migration of people from their villages, due to flood and famine.
He took out his writing materials from his attaché case and set to work. Dusty files began to be stacked on his left, then they were perused, and transferred to a growing pile on his right. Occasionally, a loose piece of paper floated to the ground. The sunlight that streamed through a skylight in the ceiling began to wane, and then the harsh electricity lights came on. Finally, he began to tidy up the desk, collect the inkpot, blotter and pen, and the several sheaves of paper, covered in his dense, cursive hand, the letters streaming upwards left to right, across the page. There were a number of villages that had been abandoned over the previous century, but by the end of the evening’s work, he had narrowed the range of possibilities down to just two. That night, when the woman surfaced once again in his dream, he was prepared.
“I know where you are,”, he said, even as she slowly shaped into form, “it’s at one of two places. Tomorrow at first light, I will begin my search.”
This time, she was a young yogini*, clothed only in the bark of a tree draped around her, her hair long and matted, and her skin had attained the colour of the tree-bark. Even as he slept, the Rai Bahadur could sense that he was questioning himself. It was natural to see and hear things in one’s dreams, but did one ever have the sense of smell? For, as the figure of the woman drew close, he realized that she smelt of leaves and tree-bark, wilted flowers, fresh rain and the earth.
“For two nights, you have been asking for my name. Now, I shall tell you my story.” And she smiled.
“I will build a temple for you, Ma. But in the meantime, you will be near me, I have cleared a space in the room next to my library, where the only ancient, holy manuscripts are preserved.” The Rai Bahadur folded his hands and bowed low before her. “By what name shall I pray to you?”
“You shall know me as Kalika. In my previous life, Shiva, the most ancient and powerful of the Gods was my husband. But my father had a deep-rooted hatred for him and missed no opportunity to insult him. Once, he went too far. In anger and shame, I drove the spirit out of my body, killing myself. But in that final moment, I vowed that Shiva would be my husband in my next birth. Now, I am that woman again, reborn. At first, I could not recall all the events from my previous life. But then, a great sage came to our house. He told me that I must not accept anybody but Shiva as my husband, and that I must meditate on him for a long time, till he appeared in person before me. When the sage left, I told my mother what he had said, and she in turn told my father. I’m going to the forest, I said, to meditate on Shiva. And though they were sad and worried, I remained adamant, and they had to reluctantly accept my decision.
So, I went into the forest, and began to meditate. Seasons came and went like days. During summer, I sat in the midst of the five sacred fires, and in winter, submerged upto the shoulders in cold water. Ages passed, and now I can feel the time is near when my Lord will appear before me. But the forest itself is gone, with all its birds and animals, and even the villagers, who from time to time would place an offering of fruit in front of me. Will you come to me, and bring me home?”
At first, it was so dark inside the temple that he couldn’t even tell if his own eyes were open or closed. He stood transfixed for several moments, bowing to the invisible Goddess, praying softly, accepting the dank, black aura of the chamber, the smell of dust and dirt and bats. Then, gradually, his eyes grew used to the dark, and he began to progress softly, one careful step at a time, till he was within touching distance of the small stone idol at the far end. In the gloom, he could barely gauge its outline, its many limbs. He reached out and lovingly wiped away the cobwebs that had gathered on it. He’d have now have to carry the idol back to his carriage. Aslam, despite his age and scrawny figure, was as strong as a young labourer, and could easily carry a heavy object weighing much more than he himself did. But on account of his faith, even an old temple building, twice abandoned, let alone touching an idol, was out of bounds for him.
The Rai Bahadur took off his shawl, and wrapped it around his waist, tying the ends in a knot. His cane was squeezed into it, pressing against his side, like a sword. He then bent down, curled his fingers around the idol, gripped it firmly and pulled. The idol would not budge. Then he began to drag it along the plinth, the stone grated and spread its echoes in the chamber, and suddenly, the idol slid off the platform into his hands. He grunted under the weight of it, sweat poured down his face, and his heart thudded violently against his chest. The carved stone pressed through its edges, cutting deep into his skin. Bearing the pain, he came out of the temple into the blinding sun. Squinting, and wheezing from the weight of the idol, he somehow maneuvered his steps back to the phaeton, and placed the statue on a rug behind the driver’s seat and wrapped the idol in it quickly. He had still not taken a proper look at it – that morning, he had promised himself he would lay eyes on the Goddess only once she was in the safety of his own home.
Mounting the carriage, he looked for a moment at his hurt hands. Then he spurred the horse homewards, clasping the reins tight, covering both hands with his shawl, its fine cloth darkening, dampening with the blood that was now flowing freely over his fingers. From time to time, he turned and peered down behind him, to check the idol was in place. When he reached home, abandoning his customary care when getting off the carriage, without even waiting for Aslam to help him, he leapt off the carriage as if he were still a youth. At once, the pain shot up like a spark through his ailing leg, so that the vision before his eyes swayed and wobbled. He could sense that his body had given way, that he was sinking.
And then everything around him went black.
When the Rai Bahadur came around, there were anxious faces peering down at him, Aslam, the gateman, two other servants, his eldest son, even his daughter-in-law, her head bare for that careless moment — so close and so many of them — that for an instant he felt as if he were being choked. He coughed violently and the faces receded. He sat up, his heart pounding, and the morning sun streamed into his face. Was it still morning then? But how could that be? He looked at them in confusion, his mind going blank. And then suddenly he remembered.
“Where is she? The idol?” He sat up abruptly. “Is it safe?”
“Baba… come inside, you must rest,”said the son. “You fell down while trying to get onto the phaeton. You may have hurt yourself…”
“We cannot let you go out, in this state, Baba!” The daughter-in-law interjected, the ghomta** back in place, her fingers pulling down the hem firmly over her head. “You will have to rest today, at home. In a little while, the doctor will arrive… word has been sent to him.”
“I don’t need a doctor! Where’s the idol? Where’s she?” He shouted as he rose to his feet, sweeping back the hands that were clutching at his arms and elbows, and hurried to the phaeton. The idol wasn’t there where he had kept it. Around him, the same unknowing, alarmed faces reappeared.
“Where have you put it?” He turned on Aslam. “What have you done with it? It was right here, when we got back!” The anger rose in him, and he began to yell. “After all the trouble, after striving all the day, going to the village… to that old temple, retrieving it… She’s not just some child or an old beggar — but a Goddess! Don’t you see? What is wrong with you? What’s wrong with all of you?”
“Korta***…,” the old servant lapsed into dialect, his eyes welling over, “what idol, what Goddess are you speaking of? It is only morning now, and you haven’t left the house since…”
“What nonsense!” He stared at his servant, then at the others, and he could see the same incomprehension in their eyes. Then he looked down at his own hands, and they were clean and soft, without so much as a scratch on them. He shuddered, as a wave of panic went through him, like electricity. What was happening to him? Was he losing his mind? As he struggled with his own heaving breath, and the pain that shot down anew through the length of his leg, something struck him.
Extricating himself from the others, he went into the house, past the library, till he reached that ante-room made sacred with his ancient, musty, holy books, and he stared at the clearing where he had meant to install the statue.
The Goddess was there, where she had always been, in her rightful place. And in that clear morning light, refracted only softly through the windows, she looked at peace.
*A female mendicant
**head covered with saree
Avik Chanda is a business adviser, entrepreneur and a speaker at the Outstanding Speaker’s Bureau. He is the author of a novel, Anchor, a business book, From Command To Empathy: Using EQ in the Age of Disruption, and most recently a biography, Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King — all published by Harper Collins.
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