He looked down and smiled.
The man who held the burning torch was walking with an unsteady gait, inebriated, and barely able to hold himself straight. A few steps and he stumbled and then he fell on the ground, unconscious. His son, ran up to him and shook him. He struggled to get on his feet but fell again. The boy tried to douse the burning fire by blowing on it and crushing its burning head into the wet ground. Just like the man who had held it a few moments ago, the flame flickered and started to faint. The crowd around him watched as if under the same hazy cloud, their heads swimming, they were looking for something to hold on to, to keep them from falling. They bumped into each other, their head swimming and the body refused to compromise with sense. It was not before long that the whole village fell into a hushed stupor, quiet as the night.
The effigies of Kumbhkaran and Meghdoot burnt brightly and Raavan stood, unburnt, forgotten.
The fire raged, feet upwards, its angry tongue reaching for the effigies’ eyes, dealing them the rage that they were known to possess. The crowd that had cheered on the victory of good over evil fell into a hushed silence. Who would burn the Raavan now? The farmers of Kaalbagh, infamous for their drunkenness had once again failed them. God only knew what they had consumed that night that had an effect, as deadly, and in minutes. The disgruntled women pulled their children, looking back over their shoulder at the ten headed effigy that stood unfazed, unburnt, as if mocking them. Some older children, especially boys, dragged their fathers, holding their legs together and pulling them by their dangly arms like cattle. The men mumbled, some snored and some just dead walked. Raavan smiled. Kumbhakaran and Meghnath crumbled into ashes as some stray buntings and coloured sticks remaining of the 20 feet tall effigies fell into the charred heap on the ground.
Raavan smiled. He stood there for as long as it took for the night to creep into another day. The midnight was slightly clouded, shrouding a dim moon and a few scattered stars. While the entire village of ‘Kaalbagh’ slept, the women stayed up, cursing the men who in their stupor had left the festivities and rituals unattended. The children had trudged home wearily, without any hope that the Raavan would burn that night. It was the cursed hooch, again!
Dussehra was over. And Raavan stood, just stood there. At midnight, it suddenly turned cold and clammy, as if a storm was closing in. His day of judgement relegated to past, Raavan stirred. The coloured sparkling paper that had covered his hollow within, in more ways than one, rustled against the fall chill. The calm, sleeping village was oblivious to the spirit that was coming alive, struggling against the myths that had shrouded it all along. The effigy swayed from side to side, as the harsh winds were raking up a storm, poking at its cover. It trembled, shook, now even more violently and then the paper sticks all started to give away. Falling like a pack of cards, the structure dismantled itself. He stepped out cagily. They had never seen him alive. Today he was free; free for a year, till they would gather to burn him again. And thus, Raavan was born, once again at the cusp between myth and reality.
The next morning was quiet, dismal and unusually dull. The men got up only after noon and that too with a nasty headache. Some threw up in the shallow muddy drains outside their huts. On spotting them, the women wasted no time and started yelling incessantly, with all the spite they had gathered over the night which had now grown like an oversized mould under the surface. Just what those drunkards deserved! The morose kids looked away as their fathers approached them to make small talk. The hooch they had fallen prey to, had done them in once again. They had passed out without burning the Raavan. Moreover it had started to rain out of the blue.
Atmaram called out to his son Raghu. “We will celebrate again today.” He stuttered.
His wife who was rubbing the pots just a few yards away, banged the utensils loudly to make her rancour known. “No need! We have had enough celebration last night.” She fumed.
“Drunkards roaming around like idle driftwood all day!” she muttered under her breath.
“Ahhhh…“ Atmaram clutched and rubbed his forehead with this palms. The woman wouldn’t stop ranting and his head was throbbing with heavy dull pain. He chose to maintain silence as she rattled on. It was understood that he was not to utter another word, least of all argue. Some mistakes don’t permit any clarification and this was one of those.
“We let this pass on other days but yesterday? It was Dussehra, we didn’t finish the rituals, bad omen! But then who are we talking to?” He was not going to hear the end of it today. Atmaram shook his head.
Raghu, who was sitting just a few steps away, didn’t really care much for the rituals. Festivals came few and far in between. For him and his friends it was just one day, to wear new clothes, eat delicious food and buy local toys. All through the year the women toiled day in and day out; collecting wood, lugging water, cooking and tending to the farm, milking the cattle and the men just sat under the huge banyan tree and played cards. Raghu and his friends had seen it all along but then the same trend on a festival had not gone down well with them. He cast his father an angry sideways glance, digging the loose earth with his big toe. It was a dark, muggy day and such days never helped anyone.
His father stuttered an empty apology under his breath, knowing fully well that it didn’t hold much water. They had heard it often and the men had seldom or in fact never followed up on it.
The vast opium fields that had sprung up had many a drought hit farmers succumb to the numb, amnesic relief it rendered. The debts forgotten, and the sleep that had evaded them for years now visited them frequently with ease. It started with one person who tried it, but the almost lethal concoction of opium paired with local liquor had taken the village by storm. It made both death and living easy. An overdose had brought many of them their last sleep and the others who had understood how to avoid the fatal fallacy had now mastered the perfect mix. All they got up with were weary, groggy faces, bloodshot eyes and abuses that they received with military precision as soon as they opened their eyes. Women and kids passed up no opportunity to let them know of their failing as the head of the family.
He sighed once again. The festival had gone unattended, uncelebrated. He was already lamenting the habit but there seemed no escape as their bodies were curled up in cramps so nasty if they tried to withdraw from it even for a day. The women and kids had a grouchy face; they grumbled all day and the dull overcast sky just added to the glumness.
“Chacha! Chacha! Baba is calling you.” Sia came running. He got to his feet as relief washed over him. In the garb of meeting Omkaar he could get away from the accusing eyes of his family. Sia looked at Raghu and nodded a greeting to his mother but thought it wise to keep it at that. It was the same everywhere. Atmaram got to his feet, and wearily trailed after the girl, all of 14, the village headman’s daughter. He nestled the dream of her marrying his son, Raghu when they grew up. On reaching their hut, he found Omkaar seated on the charpoy, surrounded by the village coterie, who sat squatting around him in a circle. Groggy, unwashed faces, just like his own.
“Ah yes, Atmaram!” Omkaar gurgled into his hookah one last time and put it away.
“You called for me?” Atmaram squatted on the floor next to the headman’s charpoy.
Omkaar nodded. He cleared his throat, uncertain if it would make any difference to the sullen lot at home, for they just couldn’t care any less now.
“It was very unfortunate what happened last night and we could not finish the rituals.” He said as sombrely as he could. Sia barely managed to hide her giggles. As if someone else had forced down liquor down their throats! She scoffed. ”This has caused enough displeasure amongst our families.” He continued, all the while ashamed of being overheard by the kids who he well knew were within hearing distance or perhaps even prying on the exchange between them.
“Displeasure?” some women scoffed. They had wanted to chew them out after all they had touched upon a raw nerve this time.
“Yes, no one is talking to us anymore.” Atmaram grumbled, daunted by the reaction he was dealt with.
“The children! They look forward to the day all year long.” Birija, their neighbour added ruefully.
“Now what?” Atmaram looked at the others. ”What is this leading to?”
Hope they weren’t looking at destroying the opium spread. He wondered. They would completely lose it if it were to happen. They were latched on to it for their survival now. One person had tried to withdraw and the family found him curled up like a ball, clenching at his stomach as if it would burst with spasms. He shouted and screamed till he died. Atmaram dreaded what was about to come.
There was no way out apart from an apology in the name of redemption and shy away from the nasty habit for a few days till the family’s memory faded a little.
Reading their thoughts, Omkaar added, “So we will do it today as the omen lasts till today evening.”
“Yes, once the weather clears.” Birija added as cheerfully as the guilty can, “The priest also says that the ‘mahurat’ permits this.”
“Only if this drizzle stops.” Sia, who was within hearing distance, pondered.
The crowd dispersed and as the day drew to a close, the villagers marched towards the open clearing where the effigies had stood a day before. It was separated from the village by thick woods, making them almost invisible from the village.
It was just this little leftover excitement that buffered their pace, although the day was still wet from the drizzle, and a few grey heavy clouds still dotted the skyline. A little over the horizon, an amber sunset had shot through the opening in the skies. It was clearing. The women, with little ones perched on their waists and hips and older children running ahead of them smiled at each other, the disappointment of the previous day dulling in the face of the hope. Sia carried with her roasted gram, puffed rice and sugared cardamom balls for her siblings to munch on. Her younger sister Urmi was munching onto a dried mango slice, drooling from the corner of her mouth. “What are you doing, Urmi?” Sia wiped her face affectionately as Urmi chuckled. They walked through the dense woods, clearing the twigs and branches that had fallen off after the storm.
On reaching the clearing they looked up excitedly. They faces fell. They looked at each other with their mouth agape. One after the other they all assembled together and were looking up at the effigies and a collective moan escaped them. The Raavan was now a mere caricature of torn coloured paper and rickety sticks rustling against the gusty wind. Rest of its covering lay in shards at its base. Wet from the rain, the coloured cellophane had bled colour and lay in a jelly like lump on the ground.
They drew in a long breath. The kids tried to muffle their sobs. The villagers hung their heads in shame or dread, one couldn’t say. Now this was going to be another long night and they wouldn’t hear the end of it. The children looked up at their mothers who stood, looking disturbed nonetheless managing a fake smile with pursed lips. They were up against their own fiercest and inflexible opponents, their own men. A wave of disappointment swept over them, yet again. Sia who was holding on to her father’s hand, yanked it away, her lips curled into an expression of anguished disbelief. Raghu ran back to his hut. The men just stood there as the crowd dispersed quietly. Even their angry spouses were too taken aback to react to another debacle. They had had enough. The men were the last people left in the open ground, too ashamed to even exchange looks amongst themselves. Shame, remorse and slavery to hooch had not left any room for apology and no amount of explanation was going to work this time. They were left to ponder over their fallacy and not that anyone seemed to care anymore. This was it. The last nail in the coffin.
They looked up at the leftover of the rickety effigy with defeated eyes. Making a new one was out of question. With minutes left of the mahurat, it was a futile thought. From atop the tree, Raavan sat and watched them with interest. Every year he lay in ashes and dust as a forgotten rubble of sin. Waiting for the next fall, to again live for an evening and then again be torched for the one sin he had committed. Conceit.
But not this year. He had a whole year to live. Amongst the people, who loathed him, who didn’t understand his pain? Who would never care to know why he did, what he did…
Sia entered their house and sat quietly for long, long time. And then it struck her. She climbed on her charpoy and stood as high on her toes as she could and pulled the end of the cloth that covered her ‘Veena’, a musical instrument she had mastered the art of playing. She had not used it for a while now. She called out to her mother. “Amma! Hold it tight when I hand it down. Don’t drop it.”
“Arre! Whats wrong with you? Why are you pulling this down now? As if there aren’t other things to look into,” Mother grumbled.
“Wait, I will tell you. We will celebrate still. Why stay forlorn on a day like this?” Sia looked down at her while Amma kept the veena safely on the cot.
Sia jumped down from the charpoy and removed the old cloth that covered it and dusted off the grime that covered the body of the musical instrument. It was a large puckered stringed instrument, ending into a lute-like body; with a gourd fitted to each end as a resonator. She carried it to the banyan tree a few steps from her home and without waiting for any audience started strumming the strings. Her mother followed her and in no time she started belting out bhajans and devotional hymns in tune with her daughter’s music. Slowly and hesitantly the villagers emerged from their huts and gathered around them. Soon all anger was forgotten, and the entire village was swaying to the euphoric hymns and chanting and beating their palms together softly, joining in, in devotion. The ambience cleared and the men too decided to forgo their evening of hooch for a moment of calmness. Not that anyone would have even thought of it on a day as sensitive as that.
He was watching. He slowly climbed down the tree and walked down the road that led to the gathering. He didn’t want to be recognised, his angst stayed undeterred. Yet the strings of the veena were tugging at him. He was beguiled. Charmed!
He stood at a little distance and slowly the enigma got the better of him. He elbowed through the crowd and stood facing Sia. She was startled.
“Who are y..y you?” she drew in a sharp breath as her strings fell into a tuneless note.
“Just a traveller. Was passing through your village. Heard the music and followed the sound….”
“Where from?” Omkaar asked, coming forward.
“F…from different states I crossed into yours. Sailed the seas of Bharatvarsha,” he said.
“Why should we believe you? You could be a thief, a rookie for all we know.”
“Me? A thief? My household has utensils made of pure gold and I travel to my heart’s delight. Why would and what would I steal from a village and that too like yours?” He scoffed.
The women smirked. Someone had taken up for them and yielded these men what they truly deserved. Insult. In a village, where they barely managed an insipid meal for a day, the headman still humoured himself with his false ego.
Sia stared at him. The man was sticking out like an oak tree in a desert amongst them. He had fire in his eyes, a fierce determination, ego or moral high ground, she couldn’t tell. But he was so different from the men in their village that she felt no one could connect with someone like him. They already seemed distrusting. The crowd fell into hushed whisper.
“Can I play this ‘Veena’ for you all?” he asked, turning towards Sia. She faltered, looking sideways for any sign of approval. No one moved, undecided. Their voice seemed to be stuck in their throats like a ball of puffed rice. He intimidated them. Sensing that there was no response coming, he grabbed the veena from Sia and sat himself comfortably on the porch while the entire village gaped at the man’s rancour. How smoothly he had taken charge without waiting to be heeded to!
And then he started playing. His fingers deftly moved over the instrument and with unbelievable dexterity, the strings shuddered and shivered and played up the most mesmerising rhapsody they had ever heard. His face bent to the left, eyes closed as if not to let any pleasure slip out of them, his lips curled gently upwards into a soft smile, a smile that didn’t need any more to add to the enigma the man was floating in. At that moment his spirit had floated into a plane that couldn’t be any more complete, more saturated, more satiated. Sia sensed it to be a blissful level of gratification and which she understood could only come from art.
They all watched him as he soaked them in, into an unachievable realm of music and melody. He played like a man possessed and they all listened, enraptured. No one could tell how much time had lapsed when he stopped. He slowly opened his eyes. They were blazing with a euphoric delight. He brought the veena to his forehead in reverence and then gently handed it back to Sia. He got up and looked down at them. The crowd cheered. He broke into a loud chuckle. And then without a word he strode off. They all turned to look at him but no one tried to stop him.
Raghu looked at Sia, it had been her moment of glory but this stranger had stolen it from her right under her nose. He did not like him. Who was he?
That night every household had no other topic to discuss apart from the stranger’s visit and his disappearance. He seemed aloof, his eyes bore into some faraway space, sometimes empty, sometimes forlorn, sometimes with a glint of purpose.
Thereafter he made himself visible every day in the village, sitting at the porch under the banyan tree. He never accepted food, they didn’t have any clue where he went at night, where he lived and when he ate. All they were privy to was his presence under the tree. He never seemed to invite much company or appreciate questions hence the villagers kept their distance. Once a few kids approached him and he didn’t seem to care much for their offer of friendship. He would look away disinterestedly. It was then that Sia and Raghu decided to go up to him, for Sia was the only one he had interacted with so far. She carried her Veena along. He didn’t look up even once till Sia whispered softly, “Would you like to play it again?” His face lit up. He had not expected them to come up with this. He smiled, a bare twitch of lips. For a man with sparse emotions it was enough. He ran his hand softly over the instrument for a few minutes as if treasuring, revering the moment. And then he started strumming the strings. Sia and Raghu were once again enraptured by the enigmatic music, oblivious to the others who had gathered behind them. Their reverie was broken only when he stopped. It was dark. It was like he transported them to another world, a trance, a drift they had no control over. They opened their eyes to the dusk that had settled, the night was not far. How much time had elapsed they didn’t know.
“That was so brilliant!” Sia murmured. He looked down at her. The girl was a prodigy with fine abilities. He smiled down at her. “You want to learn?” She was taken aback, not knowing how her parents or Raghu would react to this. She was dumbfounded.
“I will ask my father.” She answered timidly, not wanting to rub him the wrong way and not seeming too ready either. After all they had no idea who he was and he was not willing to divulge much information either. To Raghu, he seemed shady for they couldn’t tell with him.
He didn’t move as if waiting for her to go on and then suddenly got to his feet and without a word, strode off. Once he turned the corner, the kids heaved a sigh of relief. He intimidated them, there was an uncomfortable awe in his presence. He seemed commanding, yet he intrigued them. Their mouth went dry whenever his eyes rested on them for long and yet they still wanted him to stay longer.
Sia thought about it long and hard. She used to go to school as long as this remote hamlet had one. But now the school was closed for good as most children dropped out because of lack of money to pay fees. The fathers couldn’t care any less, the mothers found it difficult to eke out a living, barely managing to hold the family together. Worse still, the growing boys too were taking after their fathers hence adding to the woes. The womenfolk in the village suffered in silence. Boys like Raghu were difficult to come across. He had so far kept away from the vices that were handed down to the male members like an unsavoury inheritance. Sia was a pro at playing the veena, till she could attend school and had a teacher to refine her skill. That dream still nestled in heart but she had been helpless until now. She wanted to learn from him but how?
He came every day and the children would gather around him and he played for them. He had started opening up a bit although the soft moments were far and few in between. But they came nonetheless.
Sia stayed quiet on it for a long time and he never asked her again. Then one day, without waiting for Sia to announce her decision to him, he handed the veena back to her and started to instruct her. She looked at Raghu and he nodded. She couldn’t believe her luck. She had just escaped the embarrassment of denying his offer and wouldn’t meet her father’s wrath for accepting it. She was interested and he had not denied the chance to follow up on her wish. Her most ardent wish… to play the veena like him. She didn’t was to miss this opportunity that had befallen upon her. Pure luck! She held it gingerly and he started to teach her. He was generous with his praise as she caught on quickly. Her innate genius surprised him.
New melodies, the ragas unfolded and Sia was beyond ecstatic. It had been long since she had learnt anything new. Raghu smiled. Finally Sia was discovering herself, once again. The girl had a mind of her own but of late she had become subdued lugging the dead weight of responsibility on her shoulder. She had younger siblings and her mother didn’t keep so well. She could do it covertly. He knew she could have never coerced her father or persuaded her mother to give in to her wish to learn from a stranger. Raghu was sceptical about the stranger. He had even alluded at a trick but nothing could deter Sia, not now!
Now every day after that Sia sneaked out and learnt from him, knowing fully well that her family may not approve of her closeness to a stranger and that would fan a flame into fire; a million stories, rumour for the idle. Raghu coaxed her to learn, helped her get away from the daily chores to find her moment of peace. They sat under the giant Ashoka tree a little far from the prying eyes of the villagers and Sia bettered with each passing day.
Not much changed over the next few weeks but the stranger now waited for Sia to come over every day and relate to music with the same passion as he did. Other than that he often went and sat under the banyan tree, now talking to the kids in the village and teaching them from the scriptures that they were bewildered how smoothly he remembered every detail and meanings, there was practically nothing the man could not talk about. Hence the conceit, they thought, that shone in the glint of his eyes.
Then came Diwali. The entire village regaled in the air of festivity. The huts were being spruced up, the men folk repaired the thatch. The women made a watery paste of cow dung and camphor and painted the walls. The entrances bore the symbol of divinities. They made earthen lamps and baked them in the sharp sunlight. Sia got busy in lending a hand to her mother, missing her daily clandestine escape. The men had again taken to hooch in a big way and now nastier than ever because after all the festival permitted a little indulgence. What was worse was that the older boys were following in their father’s footsteps and Sia’s mother was forever scared of letting the girl out alone. Although Raghu accompanied her but still how would he stand up against the insanity of the rowdy group that roamed the streets?
As the festival drew nearer, Sia’s mother prepared sweets and savouries, whatever little they could muster. Sia wanted to offer some to her teacher but there was no way mother would let her out of her sight. But only till the festival, Sia thought. Later she could tell her all about it. Sia was sensible enough to avoid a showdown in her house.
“Raghu. Can you take some of this for him?” she had forked over some sweets for him. Raghu was none too pleased in the stranger‘s presence and he had never appealed to him much but she persuaded him and he unwillingly obliged. It was only for Sia’s sake that he accompanied her earlier. He knew the situation in the village had become murky lately. The drunkards were not limiting themselves to evening downtime anymore. A few young girls had complained of improper behaviour in broad daylight too.
Raghu gingerly walked towards the end of the village boundary that met up with the dense forest and found him sitting all by himself. His eyes bore into open space, Raghu couldn’t stop staring at him. For a homeless wanderer, he seemed majestic. Large almond shaped eyes, pert upturned nose and he bore air of royalty. There was something about him… that he couldn’t put his finger on.
A man so comfortable in his terrifying isolation. Who was he?
He walked up to him and cleared his throat. The stranger didn’t heed to him. Raghu called out to him.
“Ittt… it’s me. Raghu! I got you some sweets.”
He still didn’t deem it important to turn and look at him.
Raghu slowly kept the platter next to him. No sooner he had placed it beside him, he shoved it away, angrily.
“Why? What…?” Raghu was shocked. This was most unexpected.
He turned towards Raghu, enraged, his eyes burning with anger. He seemed livid.
“I don’t want your food. What do you think I am? A beggar?” he snarled.
Raghu was taken aback.
”No. that’s not why Sia has sent this for you. It’s ….it’s our festival.” Just as he said this he started shaking with anger.
“I don’t celebrate your festivals.” He screamed at Raghu.
Raghu wondered if it was wise to take this any further for he seemed to be in no mood to reconcile.
“Will you not go home on Diwali?” Raghu asked slowly.
There was silence for a long time.
“How can I? You didn’t let me…” he said, softly, like his mind was far away.
“We didn’t?” Raghu was flabbergasted. “What does it have to do with us?” he gathered all his courage to ask.
He remained silent. Enjoying Raghu’s nervousness like a lion eyes the nervy hare, enjoying the moment of his impending victory, enjoying the fear he had managed to invoke. He was asked for and that fuelled his ego.
“Go away!“ He shouted. Raghu walked away but not without a backward glance. He remained just the way he was. Unmoved and undeterred.
Once out of sight, Raghu ran back towards the village. Crackers and fireworks had begun to light up the sky. From this far, he could hear laughter, revelry, aroma of sweets and the food that was exchanged between families. He walked faster. He was scared of him. God only knew why. He always had his doubts and now he knew for sure that his fears were not unfounded. He had to stop Sia. Today he had sensed loathe, eyes filled with hatred, anger or did he perhaps also sense hurt?
“You didn’t let me?”
Why did he say that? Who was he? They had never seen him before. And how could they stop him?
Much as he wanted to stay in denial, the men in their village were a spineless lot. They wouldn’t care any less who came and settled or left the village, as long as the opium laced liquor quenched the unending craving.
He went back to Sia’s house. How lovely she looked! He couldn’t help staring at her. Pristine, pretty and innocent like a flower. She was clever too but probably couldn’t see through this conniving man. She longed for her lessons every day.
“Did you give the sweets to him?” She asked excitedly.” Did you tell him that I sent them?”
“Did you tell him that we will resume the lessons after 2 days?” she peppered her questions.
He tried to avoid her.
“Yes. I did.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing.” Raghu answered in a flat tone.
“Nothing at all?” she seemed crestfallen. He knew she had started looking up to him. His opinion of her acumen mattered.
“He didn’t ask for me, Raghu?”
“No.” he answered bluntly.
“Fine.” She said softly, a mere murmur. She went about helping her mother as if it didn’t matter to her. But Raghu had not missed her expression.
No sooner they all got busy with the celebrations. The children ran from one house to another; the women laughed, exchanging their specialities but it was Raghu and Sia who seemed listless.
A few days later Sia asked Raghu to accompany her to their clandestine lessons. He shrugged his shoulders.
”I am busy.”
“Raghu?” she seemed hurt. Where was this coming from?
“You also try to keep away from him.” He added ruefully.
“Arre! All along you would come with me… and now suddenly?”
She was exasperated. He had not even bothered to tell her as to what had he said for her sweets. Perhaps he didn’t like him or was he jealous. That was not like Raghu. It was very unlike of him to behave like this.
“I want to learn from him. No one has taught me like this ever since the school was shut.” She pleaded with him.
“I know Sia. But what do we know of him? What if all this is alluding at some trick?”
“Why didn’t you think of this earlier?” She shot back at him.
She got up and left in a huff. Raghu went and sat under the banyan tree, where they had first spotted him.
” You didn’t let me go.” His words rang in Raghu’s ears.
“Who was he? Who was not allowed to go?” Raghu kept thinking, tossing and turning all through the night. It was close to dawn when his eyes grew weary with sleep and he dozed off.
The next morning he was rudely woken up by a group of errant village bumpkins, still tipsy from last night, mouthing obscenities and hurling abuses. There were growing instances of such misbehaviour. As if the older men were not enough headaches already.
He got up rubbing his eyes. He chose to keep quiet against their shamefulness and trundled back home.
Sia on the other hand grew restless when she didn’t see Raghu the next day. So he had been pretty much serious about not helping her. She went about the daily chores, helping her mother and taking care of her younger siblings. She kept looking towards the pathway that led to their house. There was no sign of Raghu.
A few days passed. Sia could not decide whether to go up to him on her own or wait for Raghu to change his mind. She had never crossed the line. Always did whatever her mother had told her, whatever Raghu had advised. But her good faith in her teacher was the pull that was lending her the courage to go up to him. It was the golden chance to learn from him. She could grow up and earn from her talent, and help pull her family out of this rut.
Months passed. Winters came and spring followed. The fall came again not skipping its turn. No one saw him again. Sia never had the courage to go into the woods to look for him and Raghu always evaded any question. Life started following the same mundane pattern and they struggled through their days. Over the year, the village had grown more and more difficult to live in.
One day Sia was walked down from the local market. God knows what came over her as she changed her direction and looked over her shoulder to see if anyone was looking. The road was deserted except for the few drunk village bumpkins, who seemed too sozzled to notice her. They were playing cards under a tree. She quickened her pace and took to another direction, where she had last seen him.
Her mother wouldn’t miss her delay. So she pulled up pace and looked in all directions. She knew Raghu would be very, very angry if he found out. But today Sia had crossed the line…..
She followed her hunch and looked around. She didn’t see him. Her heart fell. “It’s been a year,” she thought aloud. “He must have left.”
She stood there for some time. There was no one. It was getting dark. As the village fell away behind her, she wondered if she had done the right thing by meandering into the forest, alone. Her mother must be getting worried. Clouds had gathered in the sky and it became overcast, blocking all sunlight in the woods. Sia grew nervous. She turned to go back but wondered if she was following the right direction. Which side had she come in from?
“Don’t cross the line Sia!” Raghu’s words rang in her ears.
She looked all around and then stopped. There was something. She turned, there was a hustle of leaves. No one.
She turned and took to her heels. Again the same sound. “Was it a creature of the shadows or just trees buffeted by the rains? Who was there? Was someone following her? This is going to cost you dear Sia.” She thought aloud. “Mother is going to kill you.”
Into the forest and that too alone? And what would she tell Raghu?
What came upon you Sia? A bird squealed, a wheezy hoarse cry some far away. The hair on her neck prickled and the biting chill added to her fear.
She broke into a run. And the sound behind her too pulled up in speed. She turned but there was no one. Till she saw him. She stopped. He was a little far behind …. But this sound was closer. She was scared. He seemed like an animal, a predator following his prey. The look in those eyes …like he would rip her apart. A lump rose in her throat and she ran for her life. He too ran and then she heard them closer. Footsteps.
Closer. They were closing in and they were more than one.
“Sia!” he shouted.
Sia stopped in her track and slowly turned. They had surrounded her. The village bumpkins she had taken to be engrossed in their stupor. But they had not missed her. They had followed her. And he had not missed them either. He knew what was on their mind. He didn’t look gaunt or haggard. In fact, the uptight conceit and insolence seemed just as strong and stubborn.
He snarled and charged towards them.
“Leave her alone. Or I will rip you into a million pieces!” he warned. They stopped as if struck.
He came towards them and raised his fist, anger darting from his eyes, as he lashed out on them with all he had.
They fell on the ground, groaning with pain. Their mouth bleeding from the side, doubling up, clenching their stomach and begging to be forgiven.
He shouted, crying hoarsely at them, drowning their pleas in his thunderous shouts.
Till they fell unconscious.
Sia stood their trembling with fear.
He turned towards her, but his expression never softened. His eyes were blazing fire.
“You! What are you doing here?” He shouted.
She trembled, her lips dry. She looked up at him, he was standing close looking down at her.
“I… I came to look for you.” She murmured, not sure if she heard herself or not. Tears were trickling down her cheeks.
“As always late, Sia.” He said.
“Why …w…why didn’t you visit us again, in the village?” she managed a question.
“Visit you again? Did you ever defend me?”
“Defend you?” she was perplexed. What was he talking about?
“I never let any harm come to you.” He whispered, his mind was far, far away.
“When?” she couldn’t understand what he was talking about. This seemed like a past, she didn’t remember.
Had they met before?
He remained silent.
Anger, hurt or apology. So many emotions fleeted across his face in a bare second.
“I have to go back now. It’s Dusshera!“ he said softly.
“Go back home, Sia. Your world is not safe. Too many failings as humans, huh? “
“The followers of Rama, the sacred ones, who celebrated good over evil. The lessor mortals of this world you live in are more dangerous than …” he stopped. And then he turned away from her.
She ran after him.
“Who are you?” she shouted after him. He stopped and turned to look at her.
“Raavan!” he said.
// ‘The Mistaken’ by Mona Verma (The Clown of White Fields & Other Stories)
Rāvana or Dashagriva or Dashanana is the primary antagonist in the Hindu epic Ramayana, where he is depicted as the king of Lanka. Rāvana is depicted and described as having ten heads. He is described as a follower of Shiva, a great scholar, a capable ruler and a maestro of the veena, but someone who wished to overpower the devas. His ten heads represent his knowledge of the six shastras and the four Vedas. In the Ramayana, Rāvana is the antagonist, kidnapping Rama’s wife Sita to exact vengeance on Rama and his brother Lakshmana for having cut off the nose of his sister Surpanakha.