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  • Waiting for the Dance of the Dawn

    Rooster crowing wearily rolled to my right to get up. Hope Subudu has come into the cowshed. Gingerly slipped from the majestic rosewood bed my father gifted for our wedding, winced as my feet touched the handmade tile floor. Must remind myself to ask Venkamma, the dhobi, to come in the evening to rub some oil into my weary feet.

    As I made my way to the kitchen-side of the house, heard Subudu coming in to collect milk cans, with the five cows and ten buffalos. A large part of my life is tied to milk, buttermilk, butter, ghee along with the animals’ health and deliveries. Prarabdha I suppose.

    ‘Get Sita’s milk in for the house; need another 2 liters extra’, I informed him; ‘Amma, Janaki is not well, Ayya asked me to inform you’. ‘OK, come after milking, you can light the stove; will get the medicinal kashayam ready. See to it that she is tied in the corner today, she needs rest’. All our cows and buffalos have names, Sita, Janaki, Lakshmi, all Goddess names, all giving…..

    As I brush my teeth, quickly changed the date in the calendar: 10th of January 1940. Milk-can with Sita’s milk arrived, went in to make two cups of frothing filter coffee with thick decoction using the fresh milk. The house was filled with the wafting aroma of freshly brewed coffee infusing energy and hope. A new dawn, many possibilities. He sipped and nodded, looking like he was happy; should I broach the topic?

    Sky is just opening up, warm orange hues spreading ever so gently, fresh breeze carrying the smell of lingering jasmines and sampangis from yesterday’s blooms, birds flapping their wings; clock struck five times, another day has just begun.

    ‘Yesterday the crow was cawing continuously, am sure some relative will come visiting. Cousin Nagesghwarao is discussing a marriage proposal for his granddaughter, it might have been finalized. He might come, so have asked for some extra milk’, I informed him, knowing he would realize extra milk had come into the house.

    ‘Your cousin is one useless fellow, took money for his daughter’s wedding, never returned; don’t tell me he is coming with his granddaughter’s invite! Do what you want, with extra milk for home. With Janaki sick, less milk is going to cooperative society’;

    Can there ever be a day when he agrees to something without a snide remark about my side of the family or my relatives?! A pinch of salt more in a curry or cows falling sick or clothes not folded or oil lamps not being lit at the right time – all will invariably trigger a scathing attack or a rant about my relatives or my lineage. Deep seeded assumption that we are not equals. As if I come from a lower breed. The hidden hierarchy of marriage!

    Am I thinking too much? He always says that all my imagination comes from my reading of novels. Maybe, but wondered many times through the chores of the day – are men and women equal in a marriage?

  • Meandering the Mirage

    Mythreyi dabbed the rose water dipped cotton wool delicately on her cheeks and then splashed moisturizer on her face. The phone rang; she ignored as she slowly applied the primer with her fingers. The soft music from her living room music system was wafting towards her.

    The phone rang again. She looked at it with mild irritation. It was Prakash, he would not stop until she responded. So, she picked the call, swallowing her exasperation. ‘Hellooo dear what’s up?’ she asked as she focused on the brush and applied nude foundation over her face, deftly blending it onto the neck. He invited her to come to the hotel for a dinner and a little bit of flirting after that. He was married and was known in his circles as the doting ideal husband, as if such a creature exists?! For her this worked fine as he had no guts to go beyond flirting; even if it pinched him. She rolled the concealer below her eyes, picked up the lip-liner to draw a line on her full lips, while pondering what to do. She has promised Ranjeet she will spend some time with him. He was the deep intellectual thinker, heavy on philosophy with a lazy accent. He was ok, but stupid enough in wanting to convert his boring wife into some cerebral creature.

    All these married men are a good bet, they won’t bug her about marriage, coming home, staying over or cooking.  She picked a delicate rose blush lip colour and applied it on her lips. They looked moist and full, she was happy. Over the years, she had mastered the art of applying makeup in a jiffy. The art was in making it look natural.

    She nudged Prakash to move their rendezvous to the next day. ‘Helps to make it difficult for them’, she thought sagely. There are cheap thrills of faking, teasing and playing, but beyond that is the deep joy of controlling the men and their cluelessness. As she slipped into her dress, she felt a faint ache. She quickly killed it with a gulp of wine. As she slipped into her gold toned shimmery pointed-toe pumps, she applied single spritz of her favorite perfume. Quickly she pull her car out, and was on her way to meet Rajesh.

    The evening was breezy, interluding with intellectual sound bites. As the evening rolled into night, she felt the familiar ache in her stomach, somewhere deep in. After all the wine and dine, there was no completeness. But, does another human complete us?  The makeup slowly started to fell heavy and tardy. She kissed him on the cheek, closer to his lips and took her leave. She wanted to reach home before the dryness settled in. Once in her room, she removed her make-up swiftly. A haunting ache started wallowing her, a feeling of drowning in the now familiar black pit, dull and empty.

    As her tired eyes started to sink into a disturbed sleep, her mind was wandering beyond sleep………can you lose in a game even when you control the play and outcomes? Can you? is it possible? can you fail while you win?

  • Dotting the Blemish

    I was standing in front of the dark wooden door, it was heavy; the silence in the room and the nervous glances from women in the room making the door swollen and sullen; we were in the long hallway connecting the dining area and the drawing room; a few chairs and cots were strewn around; the women were sitting on them and the floor, occasionally throwing a glance at the door. They were anticipating wails exploding or muffled cries coming from the room behind the door; but there was no noise, just stillness. Outside, the heat was smouldering, the dry desert winds were blowing. Somewhere far off I could hear the chitter of the Plum Headed Parakeet;

    With a jerk the door opened, and she stepped out in a white saree. Round and big on her forehead like a drop of blood, dried and hardened was the dark red bindi for everyone’s shock and disbelief; the thirty odd women sitting and gossiping in the crowded hallway were stunned. She lost her husband and today is his funeral.  She was taken into the room to discard the marriage markers like sindoor and bindi (vermillion) on the forehead, mangalsutra (black beaded necklace), bichia (toe ring) and chooda (glass bangles); the removal of the marriage markers is done in a harsh way, as if to scar the psyche;  after that she is given a white saree to wear; this is the ritual for woman who loses her husband, in many parts of India. As far as I know no such event marks a man’s life if he were to lose his wife; once this event is over, the woman is officially moving into the state of widowhood; white saree symbolizing the vacant emptiness – a ghost going over life as dead; In some parts of India they even shave the widow’s head, for some reason that has been spared in this dry land.

    As for her, for the last ten years she worked hard, taking care of her ailing husband. In pink of health he was a pain in the wrong place, grumpy and complaining. Illness ensured he became more of it and it also legitimized his demands for attention. Nothing was enough nor anything fine. Everything is bad and never to his liking. Whatever she cooked was not to his taste. He had the illness to fall back on for his nastiness.

    Every move of her was scrutinized. She hardly spoke to anyone; she was never allowed to read a book or watch a movie on that old television. It was never mentioned but the moment she sat down and started sipping tea from the glass tumbler or started talking to someone, he used to call or spill something and the next one hour was sheer physical work. Intuitively knowing his thought, she never ventured into anything other than taking care of him. Those of us who visited him felt pity for her. She got up early in the morning to prepare his food, massage his body with warm oil, give him a bath, prepare his meals, administer medicines, call the doctor when things went south. She hardly thought of anything except his health.

    While everyone looked at his heartless behavior as sadistic pleasures, I felt there is something more eating his soul; Behind all the sadistic pleasure of troubling her is his anger that she will outlive him. Despite the psychological pain he was inflicting, she is going to last and breathe longer, in a way survive his torture. At times he talked of being cheated by life and how some people have it all, giving her a sly look. As days moved and he became closer to death, his anger escalated to a rage, burning and scalding her; often I wondered – how deep is she scaring from all the taunts? She concealed the searing pain by routines like washing and cleaning that kept her occupied.

    All her relatives, neighbors, folks around her home on the outskirts of Bikaner talked of her care-giving and selflessness. She was referred to in awe and equated to Sati Savitri for her sense of duty to her husband; With the bindi on her forehead she is risking throwing all that recognition to winds; Why throw everything out of the window ‘now’ with that burning red-hot dot on her forehead, the marker that is loud and obvious?

    The murmurs brought me back to the present, I looked at her as she walked out and sat on a chair with grace and a trace of indifference; A tiny smile played around her lustrous lips, so tiny I could have missed. Behind the fleeting smile I could sense a woman claiming her space and declaring her freedom; the dot on her forehead screaming out loud her intentions and desires, scaring the populace; the silence in the room was screeching along with the prattle from the Parakeet on some far off tower. Slowly the worried folks walked home with loads of agitated gossip. The one question on everyone’s mind was whether is she going to stop with the ‘Bindi’ , a dot on her forehead or is there something else playing on her mind? where is her mind taking her to? No one knows the answer, and that was terrifying them………..

  • The Awakening at an Avalanche

    Slowly she climbed up the steps of the Mandap to clean the old lamp; Mandap, the temple porch with pillars holding an engraved roof, appeared tranquil, a place that held stillness. The mandap was attached to the temple of Lord Chenna Kesavulu, who is all smiles. The intricately carved pillars depicted the story of Rama; should it be called story of Sita?

    Lamp at the mandap was burning, almost as if it held someone’s breath – long, steady and bright, with little twists and turns. Is it possible for one to breathe through a lamp? how stupid can one get, she winced, as she pulled the cotton saree’s thick pallu around her shoulders.

    The December winds were gaining strength and the village was waking up to a chilly morning. But she was already in the mandap to fill the lamp, the fear that the oil would run out and would leave the lamp breathless made her shiver.

    In her slow walk is a long story of karma and its cosmic dance. She drew the water from the temple’s well, washed her legs, carried the water and went in to say her prayers to the Lord and master. The temple was quiet except for the priest who was getting the Lord ready for the long day. She sat, her tired eyes looked at the beautiful Lord and wondered, how long??

    In the tiny hamlet of the lush green village, on the banks of back waters of Krishna river, tucked under layers of devotion and surrender, is the story of Seshamma.

    Married into the village some seven decades ago, Seshamma, then Seshu, was beautiful and benevolent; she grew up in a family full of piousness. She walked into this village, married to a learned and taller man, Kesavaiah, who was known even then for his deep sense of devotion and a thirst to know what lay beyond the mundane. Many days and nights he explored his devotion to Lord Chenna Kesavulu, for He being the only guiding force.

    The village was awed by the devotion of Keshaviah, why they called him that instead of just Keshav, was not understood by Seshu at the beginning. Born into a farmer’s family, he already was well-read by fourteen. His faith to scriptures and God seemed a bit strange, but his mother was proud of him. Seshu gradually unraveled the bundle called Keshaviah and realized he was too wise and too devoted to Lord Chenna Kesavulu. His surrender to the Lord deep, something she struggled to comprehend, but was willing to be with it.

    Slowly she got used to the routine of being Keshavaiah’s wife. Everyday, he woke up at 3 am, finished his bath at the well, and lit the lamp in the puja room in his wet clothes. At the break of dawn, he started his journey into the village through the mud lanes. After he completed the rounds in his own village, he went to four more villages on foot. Some of these villages were just two streets, but they have to be walked – around lakes, across streams, and in between fields. Singing the glory of the Lord and inviting his blessings, these journeys became everyday pilgrimage for him. In his own way, he spread the message of the Lord and the glory of devotion. While everyone came to visit Lord Chenna Kesavulu in the village, he used to be on the mission of seeing Lord in others out there. Years rolled by and Seshu slowly settled into her role and inched into being Seshamma.

    But her life turned upside down when he shared his ‘plan’ with her; she felt shattered and lifeless as he detailed what he wanted to do. His explanation was not even worth being heard; she felt numb, confused and afraid  all at the same time.

    When did the thought come to him, she had no idea. Do such startling thoughts come to you in a flash or grow on you over time? She wondered. One evening, he shared his decision with her in a casual way. She was sitting in the courtyard binding Jasmine flowers with a banana fibre thread. The thread, made from the banana tree stem, is soft and does not hurt the soft stem of the jasmine flower. A cotton thread can cut into the stem and snap the flower if one is careless. Why am I rambling off about the thread when the most shocking news was given as an afterthought, she mused,  the news snapping the life force out of her.

    In his soft persuasive way, Keshaviah told her his decision to embrace Lord Chenna Kesavulu in absoluteness and go for ‘Jeeva samadhi’; it took her many moments to realize what he is saying and more importantly what he was going to do. She was shattered and did not understand how one can be so cruel to oneself and his loved ones, while embracing almighty? Can life force be muffled to reach a divine force? What happens to our son? What happens to me? Countless questions swirled in her head.

    Jeeva Samadhi means at a decided day and time the saint or devotee sit in meditation and enter a state of stillness called ‘nirvana’ or ‘samadhi’. At that point they become one with the universal consciousness and the body comes to absolute rest. Then around the physical body people construct temple or mandap. The belief being that the body of the saint will remain undeteriorated for hundreds and thousands of years.

    It is painful when death comes and snatches away your dear one, but how do we deal with it when the dear one chooses to part. It is not unhappiness, not loneliness, but a chasm so deep and so painful.

    What happens to me at the site of the act? she thought, a ghastly act celebrated and revered. She can’t cry for it is a divine journey, a macabre act of self-realization. Keshaviah needed her permission before he began his pilgrimage to moksha. As she released him from the bondage of love and shared life, she got entrapped in lighting the lamp thinking it will continue to hold his breadth;

    Then God smiled,

    And the light broke,

    And the darkness rolled up on one side,

    And the light stood shining on the other,

    And God said: That’s good!

    -James Weldon Johnson 1871 – 1938

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