First Published in SETU, July 2020
The spider was spinning its web. Sonya watched fascinated. The web grew bigger and bigger and was perfect in shape. Finally, the spider suspended itself from a long thread and Sonya moved towards the fishpond that was the pride of her garden. It had twenty-four coloured koi in it.
Ayi called out to her, “Tai, tai, ni lai.”*
Sonya, who had been living in China for six years, went into the house and into her kitchen to talk to her housekeeper or Ayi. Her Mandarin was not great, but she managed to communicate to the Ayi. Sonya’s kitchen overlooked the patio at the back of her rented home. It was a huge double storied bungalow. She loved to spend springtime in the garden on unpolluted days. On smoggy days, she was forced to stay indoors with air purifiers running.
That was just five years ago but it felt like an era now. Her children, Adi and Anmol, had been small and they went to an international school for the whole day and her husband, Surya, was at work. Sonya had time. Time to think. Time to read. Time to meet people from all over the world for where she stayed in Suzhou, there were people from many countries. It was like a mini United Nations. People had no sense of nationality when they interacted. The only thing that mattered was they were all united in being laowai or foreigners in China. It had been such a wonderful experience for her — such an eye opener. She discovered that people all over the world were united in their common needs for friendship, food, home, education and family.
Now as she looked out at the incessant rain falling outside her home in Singapore, she missed that world and sighed. The rain fell in sheets like a woman’s straight hair and the dark clouds were reflected in the distant sea waves which surrounded the island at a distance. To her, that island was an unnamed mass of land. Her sons and husband were at home. COVID 19 and lockdown had set in.
How different things had been even one year ago when they could travel freely! They had gone and seen the Mount Merapi in Yogyakarta on a family holiday. It had been such an unusual experience and they had said the volcano would not erupt for another four years. But it had erupted again recently, most untimely, in the middle of the pandemic. She had never thought COVID 19 would turn their lives topsy-turvy. Her aunt had declared that God was cursing mankind for all the evil they indulged in. So many dark prophecies. A friend had even predicted the evolution of a new race of sapiens and end of the current race of men! That had made her laugh because he spoke of the evolution taking place in the forest fires of Brazil!
Other than COVID 19, what was a matter of concern was the conflict that had started at the border of India and China. One country had born and nurtured her and her husband. The other had helped them sustain themselves well. They had such wonderful memories of China. And yet, now she wept that her brother battled to secure the border for India on the cold, inhospitable hills that housed the McMahon line drawn by the receding vestiges of the colonial empire more than more than sixty years ago. How dreadful it all was!
Ceasefire had been called but some soldiers would continue living at the border. Still it was a relief to know there would be no war, no more deaths hopefully. And then, un-lockdown mode had set in in Singapore. Her sons did well in their exams. Perhaps time to bring in some cheer. Sonya wanted to celebrate.
The whole family went down to the beach to have a picnic that evening. It was a cloudy day, but un-lockdown mode allowed them to visit restaurants and eat out. They picked up burgers and went to the seaside. As they sat on a mat and ate watching the rush of the waves on the sand and the ships in the distance, the brilliant orange-gold dusk gave way to lights dotting the vastness of a mysterious, dark ocean murmuring whispers in an incomprehensible antiquated language. The night should have painted the sky with stars. But it was windy, and clouds blew in. Now only patches of stars pushed for a view of the Earth hidden from them by a thick cover of slate grey tinged with white and a veiled moon flitted and played hide and seek with mankind.
Despite the growing threat of another downpour, the four of them continued sitting on the jetty made of stones. They enjoyed the strong sea breeze scented with the smell of wetness. They sat listening to the swish of sea waves till Anmol after finishing the last bite of his second burger and milk shake, burped and said, “Hey! Let us make a story.”
Adi also wiped his mouth and sipped the last dregs of his iced-milo and nodded his head. “Yes, let’s play the game we invented on the way to Malaysia…”
Sonya’s sons just for fun had devised a game to make a long story together. They had played it two years ago when they went to Malaysia by road. They had created such a story that all of them collapsed in hysterical laughter. They had not been able to not stop till it reached the point of hilarious absurdity.
Sonya took the lead: “I always believe in strong women. And I will start it rolling because I am the only woman.”
Adi, now 20, laughed: “Of course Mama. So, who is your heroine?”
Surya, and seventeen-year-old Anmol, smiled and waited. Anmol added, “Mama and her passion for women beating up men – I bet it will be like one of those women from Marvel movies.”
Sonya started, “Yes. I love strength in women. My heroine is a strong woman. She is called Gayatri. She is brave and comes riding, riding on a white horse. Do you see that island? That distant misty island —it is called Avalon — the island where Arthur healed. As the moonlight shimmered on the sea, Gayatri came riding on her horse, wearing an armour. She had an appointment with a strange hooded creature who was waiting for her on the island…” And she paused.
Surya started: “Gayatri was late as usual because it took her time to dress…”
And he and his sons started to guffaw.
Sonya made a face. “And now you have spoilt it all!” She made a pouting angry face.
“No mama,” responded Adi. “See nothing is wrong. I will continue with the story — Gayatri rode up to the edge of the sea. The thick forest was silent except for an occasional animal sound. Gayatri got off her horse and a …”
Anmol caught the thread, “A magical boat appeared out of nowhere. Gayatri tied her horse to the tree and stepped into the boat. A strange mystical looking boatman with an ornamented, glittering beard that shone like stars in the night sky rowed Gayatri towards the island. He was such a bizarre sight that Gayatri stared spell bound. He also had a crown on his head. His hair and beard were dark as midnight and the beads were like diamante stars. And the sea rose in big waves around them.”
Sonya continued: “Strange mists surrounded the island. The island drew closer. The fog grew denser. There was a cloudy opacity around the island — as if a thick dun white curtain had been drawn on the landing. Gayatri realised the boat had reached the island because it rocked to a halt. She carefully rose from the boat and stepped on a brown wet rock.”
Surya continued: “A disembodied hand emerged out of the mist. As Gayatri clasped it for support, it drew her into the clouds. For a second, she felt herself asphyxiated. The cloud seemed to seep into her innards, and she was smothered by excruciating pain, sorrow and angst.”
Adi said: “She emerged as if purged on the other side into a roofless hall with strange glowing fires hovering in the air. It was not a courtyard but really a hall. A hooded figure wearing a cowl and the robes of a monk stood before her. She could only see an empty darkness in place of his face. A pair of reddish lights glinted where his eyes should have been. Could he be an android — one of those organic robots that were being developed?”
Anmol, who shared his family’s passion for classics, said: “Then a deep, loud, masculine voice floated to her from the open skies. ‘Welcome Milady to our world. You are very late. We have waited an eternity… but welcome…’
“And suddenly there was a neigh and knights who materialised out of thin air descended from the skies on horses, dragging a wretched looking man in a tattered robe behind them. His hand and feet were tied, and he was dragged by the horses in the deep of night, bloody, dusty, besmeared. It was a horrific site — but a reality in Camelot as reported by the Yankee in Mark Twain’s tale.
“Following the Arthurian phantasm was an army of some wild men — bloodied, smeared with gore and celebrating with a dead man’s head on a pole! They were shouting strange words. Were they Huns, she thought? They looked like the Attila in the Night at the Museum, a movie she had immensely enjoyed. But this was different. Their shouts and the claustrophobic smells of blood and fire made Gayatri feel faint…”
Anmol paused for breath and the story passed into Sonya’s hands who tried to tone down the gore. “The strange creature in the hood gave her a chair which appeared out of nowhere. She sat down with her eyes shut against the horrors. Her throat felt parched. She was very thirsty — she opened her eyes to look for water or ask for it if she could.”
Surya gave a wink and continued, “Again, the mysterious disembodied hand appeared with a copper tumbler of water. She drank thirstily and felt her insides on fire and fell into a kind of trance.”
Adi started: “Gayatri could hear shouts. She could see — peasants were being pulled out and their homes set on fire. Then there were rustics marching and breaking homes of the rich — the homes looked like the restored ones of the rich she had seen in China, homes that had been destroyed by the mobs of the Red Guards.
“This scene gave way to mobs who were shouting ‘Har Har Mahadev’ and ‘Allah hu Akbar’. They were fighting with each other and killing ruthlessly. Houses were burning. Another mob that grew larger than life had people dressed in modern day clothes. They were beating a young boy with sticks — he was accused of carrying beef. The sounds of weeping and pain were annihilated by the loud clicking of sticks and stones and shouts of rage. Another horde armed with sticks, arrows and stones was attacking statues and burning buildings… ‘Down with white supremist! Down with racists!’ There was a burnt black head of a statue dripping blood and repeating and crying — ‘History cannot change! Time past is unredeemable! History cannot change! Time past is unredeemable…’”
Anmol continued: “All these strange phantoms invaded her consciousness and Gayatri started screaming in fear. Was she at a ‘futuristic feelie’ envisioned by Huxley in the Brave New World? Where was she? The spectral figures seem to rush in and out of her. She was screaming in agony and fear… holding her head and screaming. They ripped through her with lances and spears and sticks and danced around her. And she was terrified with the sensations of angst and hatred and wounds — the pain of all the world…”
Sonya picked up the thread again: “The hooded figure had disappeared and given way to the Grim Reaper with his medieval axe. Enormous images of fleshy blobs of green and pink Corona virus drifted around the hall. Gayatri was held back and tied to the chair. Confused sounds of mobs, marching, shooting, beating, lynching and the Requeim in D minor, the unfinished symphony by Mozart, invaded her jangled senses. She could not stop seeing or listening. She could not get out. She shouted — shouted oh so loud and so shrill — that the sound cut through the fabric of the time-space continuum and Gayatri was pushed back to Arthurian England.
“There she met the Connecticut Yankee out of Mark Twain’s novel. He was trying to stop King Arthur’s sister from chasing the prisoners he had tricked her into freeing with an axe! The nineteenth century Yankee, who had also been punched into the past, had asked for a photograph of the innocent wretches who were tottering into light after decades of incarceration in dark dungeons and the uninitiated Milady thought that photography could be done with an axe!”…
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