The Stepmother

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Shweta washed her hands repeatedly. Yet, she could not rinse off the stench of death. She had helped straighten the body, the body no one seemed to want to touch…the body of her great grandmother, Shamaboti…

Shamaboti had in her own way loved Shweta very much. She always encouraged Shweta to be an independent and free entity… ready to launch out on her own at any point. And that is exactly what Shweta had done. She had just started working as a journalist and did not want to marry or have a boy friend. She had big dreams, encouraged most of all by Shamaboti. Her dreams included walking on the Great Wall and writing a book on it! Perhaps, she would do a book on many ancient wonders of the world… go to Easter Island, check out the pyramids in Egypt, maybe also Macchu Pichhu… travel to the Arctic… And all the time she would write.

Shweta loved her great grandmother but not enough to weep broken-heartedly. Probably, out of all the great grandchildren, she loved Shamaboti the most. What most amazed her was Shamaboti’s life! Perhaps she could research and write about it eventually…

Shamaboti Devi was born just before the turn of the twentieth century into a Kulin Brahmin family, the creme-de-la- creme of the chosen ones, the most prized of all castes. Her father was a Kulin Brahmin. He had had more than a dozen wives and made a living by marrying as many women as were willing with a fees. Shamaboti saw her father once every two years, when he came to visit her mother, one of his umpteen wives. His job as a high caste Kulin Brahmin was to impregnate as many women as he could marry with seeds of high caste Brahminism to further propagate his clan and collect money from his in-laws for saving their daughters from the misfortune of spinsterhood. Her father never bought his wife or daughter a present but was always given presents by his in-laws, who maintained his wife and daughter for him.

There were many like him that progressives, such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the Tagore family and others, among them some belonging to Kulin clans too, were trying their best to oppose and reform. What had started as a mechanism to retain cultural integrity had been reduced to a corrupt ritual where a sixty-year-old man could be paid to marry a six-year-old girl!

Shamaboti’s mother was married a little late…when she was already past puberty and she had her daughter about four years later. Her father was of an undefined age, which was accepted, as he was a man.

Shamaboti was considered a pretty young girl. She was plump and fair. Youth had loaned her a supple grace.

Shamaboti didnot know her exact age or birthdate, which is why no one knew what her age was when she died. They estimated it was over ninety.

Shamaboti told her great (step) grandchildren stories of her childhood. Most of her stories were centered around how she had fun climbing trees but got scolded for ruining her sarees in the process. She also spoke of hiding raw mangoes in the folds of her saree and eating them on the sly.

When she related these stories, all her great grand children, with the exception of Shweta, reacted with giggles! They could not dream of climbing trees in sarees as such wear was old fashioned and cumbersome. It was the age of hot pants!

Shweta, always a dreamer, wondered what life was like then…a century ago…

Shamaboti played with her cousins till she reached the ripe old age of five or six. Then she was channeled to learn household chores and to work like a spare maid in her uncle’s home. She did wander off to climb trees and pluck a fruit or read a Bengali book hidden behind some furniture, when she had time. She used to read on the sly because it was given out by her aunts that if you read, you would lose your feminity and no man wanted a clever wife!

Shamaboti loved to hear or read a good story… She had learnt to read and write from her cousin and playmate, Dulal.

Life jogged on till one day she heard she was getting married. She thought it was a wonderful thing because at last she would leave her uncle’s home to go to that of her husband! She was so much luckier than her mother as her husband would be only hers and no other woman’s! She had never gone out of the village… now, she would live in Calcutta, the big city…

Oh what dreams the young girl had! She heard Anirvan was handsome and dashing.

At last, she would be a queen in her own home. How delighted was Shamaboti!

Anirvan married Shamaboti and brought her home. On the boat that took them away from her village, Anirvan told her that she had two step sons to care for and he expected her to be a good mother. Shamaboti merely inclined her head and accepted… She said nothing.

When they alighted at his home, he showed her a painting of a woman on a horse and said , “ That is your elder sister Ambalika. She had two sons. The boys lost their mother at a young age.”

Then he said, “Come I will show you the kitchen and your sons.”

He took her to an adjoining room where two young boys were playing with toy soldiers. “Come here boys,”said the father. “This is your new mother. And this is Rajkrishna and this is Shyamol. Look after them well.”Rajkrishna being the elder of the two came forward and paid his respects by touching her feet. Shyamol followed. But they did not smile at her once! She smiled but there was no response…

Anirvan turned to her and said, “I will stay in my room and pray. My prayers should not be disturbed. You can sleep with the children.”

Shamaboti was stunned. But she said nothing. She just accepted. It was a woman’s job to adapt to every situation, she had been taught well by her mother. She spent her wedding night with her two step sons. The boys were not too friendly. She spread a mat on the floor and slept.

What Shamaboti had not been told was Anirvan had a past and that is what he lived by…

His past was the delightful Ambalika, his first wife. Ambalika was a beautiful, talented woman who at the turn of the century rode horses and spoke, read and wrote in seven languages.

Anirvan was besotted by the clever Ambalika the first day he saw her riding with her father. Her father was a well-known intellectual who had leanings towards Brahmoism, a Hindu reformist movement started by Rammohan Roy in the eighteenth century. Ambalika played the piano and sang like a lark. She knew English ballads taught by her British governess.

Anirvan, an orphan but still a rich father’s son, had no difficulty in marrying the woman of his dreams. Ambalika’s father was liberal enough to overlook the fact that Anirvan was not a Brahmo. And Anirvan didnot care what the Hindu pundits said about marrying a Brahmo. Their married life was idyllic. The social ostracism they faced from the more conventional Brahmos and Hindus drew them closer to each other. They had more than enough to live like kings and have a wonderful life. Money rubbed away the edges of social criticism. After two idyllic years, Ambalika gave birth to a son, Rajkrishna.

Rajkrishna was Shweta’s grandfather. He had an affluent start in life but when he was four-years-old, not only was his mother expecting a new baby but his father’s fortunes collapsed. The two ships owned by him sank at sea with expensive cargo on board. He had to repay the traders. He lost a lot of money and had a tough time running his home. He had to sell off his horses and the expensive paintings from his walls. Lot of his staff who ran his home had to go. They were left with only an old man and the woman who looked after Rajkrishna. No one knows if it was the shock of becoming penurious or the travails of childbirth that took Ambalika to her heavenly abode two days after the birth of her younger son.

Anirvan was stunned with grief. He took to locking himself up in his room and praying all the time. He turned to religious rituals and the Almighty in his sorrow and forgot he had two little children to rear. For sometime, the two servants took care of the household and children but when money wore itself thin, they started finding it difficult to manage. The woman left. Anirvan hired a new man.

Anirvan’s distant cousin who saw his state of finances and inability to make ends meet or bring up children, recommended he rent out rooms to tenants to have enough to put food on the table and the children, through schooling. He also recommended a second marriage as a last resort. The wife could run the house, supervise the servants, cook and look after the children. Then, he could stay with his prayers all the time. For sometime, Anirvan refused to think of marriage. He just rented out some rooms to three families in his enormous family mansion. He found it trying to associate with these families, to collect rentals and to keep an eye on the children. Finally, irritated by having to interact with tenants, children and the needs of the new inefficient manservant, he realized the house needed managing. He agreed to marry.

He had not even seen Shamaboti once before the marriage. He was not interested in having a wife. He only needed someone to keep the house in order and to bring up his children.

Shamaboti’s husband hardly spoke to her. Eventually, after a few years, he faded to death. Shamaboti, in her twenties, wore the garb of a widow, managed the finances of the house, looked after the two boys and had a passion for books and cards. She played cards with the tenants’ wives every afternoon and bought a few books. She was there for the boys, though they resented the fact that she was their stepmother. Eventually, the boys completed their university, started working and got married.

Rajkrishna did well and had four children, two daughter and two sons. He sold his ancestral mansion and split the money with his brother and built a beautiful house in New Delhi, where he worked as a senior director in The Reserve Bank. His brother worked and built a house in Bombay.

Rajkrishna’s eldest son was Shweta’s father.

Rajkrishna took charge of looking after his stepmother though he did not like her much. Shyamol did not want to take charge as his wife hated the old woman. Everytime Shamaboti visited Bombay, her younger daughter-in-law would be rude and she returned early to Rajkrishna. Rajkrishna’s wife, Preeti, was loving and kind and felt sorry for the old woman, who for no fault of hers was criticised by others for being a stepmother… Preeti loved her husband very much and understood his obligations to his stepmother. But, for most others, Shamaboti remained quintessentially the stepmother, who was never loved by her husband or stepsons. She was criticised for being unloved!

That was the part Shweta could not figure out, had she been given a chance to be anything else other than an unwanted stepmother? Would anyone in the current day ever accept the role as placidly as Shamaboti had?

Shamaboti Devi grew old and started withering in front of Shweta’s eyes after her stepsons died of cancer and heart attack, respectively. She did not weep for her stepsons but just started shrinking… She lay on her bed, had to be fed and bathed. A nurse was maintained for her by Shweta’s father. Shamaboti did not want to die. She could still read. She was in the middle of an exciting new thriller and there were more to come… She hung on. She grew frailer and wheezed while breathing. She found it difficult to read. The nurse, Shweta and her mother took turns to read to her.

One day, she died while listening to a story.

Shweta helped straighten her corpse and could not forget the sensation. It was cold and rigid. The smell of death haunted her nostrils for days.

Her relatives had no time for the funeral.

Her father, grandmother, mother and Shweta conducted the rituals for the dead. It was all rather muted. No one had the time to mourn.

After a fortnight, Shweta was told by the family lawyer that Shamaboti had left behind a will of which she was the sole beneficiary. Everyone was amazed, except Preeti who had helped call in the lawyer and witnessed the will that was made. In it, Shamaboti had left behind all her jewellery and a diary that she maintained when she got married and while she was bringing up the boys for Shweta! Her heavy gold jewellery was worth more than twenty lakhs… Shweta had no use for it but she kept it in a locker in the bank for sentimental reasons…

The diary was a real gem for her. She sat and read the diary of the woman who was mourned by none… In it she found a woman of passions who, despite all her docile training, yearned to explore the world outside as much as her step great grand daughter…Here was a woman who had fallen in love , even if the love was never requited, a woman who did her best for her step sons and a woman who married her elder step son to an educated girl… one who had finished higher secondary in days when girls were married, having passed just grade eight. Preeti confirmed she finished school before she married and her mother-in-law had insisted on that!

Shweta, the inheritor of the diary, wrote a book and published it with the help of her editor. It became a prize winning best seller.

As Shweta stepped down from the dias after receiving the Sahitya Akademi award, she pondered over the strange life of her great grandmother…

She wondered if she would have got this award or would she herself  have existed if Shamaboti did not come into her great grandfather’s life…Was it a life wasted, thrown away or lived to the full? Did anyone ever love her? Did she ever feel the lack of love in her life?

A tear formed at the edge of Shweta’s eyes.

 

 

The Story of a Doe-eyed Jinn

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Thousands of years ago, when mankind was still young and believed in magic, there was a tiny green island peopled by simple, god-fearing fisher folk. In the little village by the seaside, there lived a beautiful girl with pale white skin, pomegranate red lips, jet-black hair. She flit from home to home through the day, bringing happiness with her good nature and helpful attitude. She would play with the children and do little tricks that kept their tears at bay. She would climb tall trees and pluck fruit for the little ones. She would help mothers and wives with household chores and she would listen to the old folks’ tales of glory till they were filled with blessings for her kind heart. She was a winsome little soul and everyone agreed that the man who won her heart would be a lucky one.

One day, a great magician came to the village in a fabulous flying carpet made of gold and silver. He glowed with a magical aura and no one could touch him. He wore a strange robe made of glistening orange and black. He had a long beard and long hair and spoke in a deep, drowning voice. He was like a king from heaven. No one in the village had seen anyone like him. No one knew why he had come to their village and no one asked. He went to the village elder and demanded shelter. The village elder fell under his spell and gave him what he wanted without any questions. In fact, the whole village fell under his spell.

They were stunned by the magic he performed for them. He could stop the rain from wetting the village. It would fall all around but not into the village. It seemed like he had built a dome to keep off the thunder and lightening. He could extend night and day for the village.

The young doe-eyed girl watched him with fascination. The magician saw her from the corner of his eyes and followed her with interest. It would be nice for him to have someone like her around, he thought to himself. In any case, he was tiring off the village and the time had come for him to move on…

The magician came from beyond the stars and the moon. He had travelled around the world in quest of a special magic that would make him more powerful than the men who ruled his home. He wanted to be a king. He was a man who loved power and lived for only his own needs. This young girl could ward away his loneliness and help him find the magic. The magician approached the village elder and asked for the girl’s hand. The village elder was totally under the magician’s mind spell. He would do whatever the magician asked. He agreed. The young girl agreed. Only her mother worried. But the magician put a spell on her mouth so that she could not utter her protests.

The girl went off with the magician on his flying carpet…

For the first few days, the girl lived as if in a dream. They soared among the stars and the moon. From the carpet, which turned invisible and became like a big home, she could see the aurora borealis, fabulous sunrises and sunsets, even the whole Earth as she flew further towards the moon with her magician. Oh! How the girl loved the magician as she saw the wonders of the universe soar past her…the fabulous nebulae, the distant suns, the stars with their swirls of gas and fire…oh! She was fascinated!

At last, they landed on the snowbound ice-cap of the polar region. The magician said, “Now, I will train you and then will begin our real work.”

First, he created a home for them under a warm glowing dome where the temperature was as warm as that of the doe-eyed damsel’s island. It was like a little oasis of warmth in the cold desert of ice and snow. There, he started training her. Sometimes, they would step out into the cold and create a fire with a powder. Sometimes, they would create illusory landscapes, like a volcano or a flower garden. The magician taught the maiden how to keep her body temperature constant in cold and warm weather. He taught her to change into a bird and soar the skies. He taught her how to control her and others’ minds, how to move objects from a distance. She learned fast.

After six months of intensive training, the magician told her it was time to start work…to look for a new magic…

They set sail on the magic carpet and soared the world, visiting deep caverns, river and sea-beds for ancient magic. And the doe-eyed winsome girl became an expert magician. She could turn to dust a predator lurking in the deeps of the sea, swim like a mermaid into underwater caverns, create light and darkness…just like her magician. In addition she had a pure heart, a necessity that the bearded magician for all his charm lacked. It was with the echoes of her heart that she would be able to feel the pure magic. Unfortunately for the magician, his heart was tainted by personal ambition and greed. It could not sense the echoes of magic that needed a pure heart. He had searched everywhere on Earth for the magic but it was lost to him.

Another six months passed. The magic was still concealed from them. Then, one day as they delved deep into a dark cave on a mountainside, they found the magic in a rock. It echoed in the doe eyed girl’s heart. She heard the echoes and told her magician. The magician took out a ring and put a halo around the rock. It floated up, became tiny and swept into an empty socket of the ring. It was strange magic. The magician was very happy. He said, “I know this is the right magic because it responded to the call of the ring.” That day they went to a nearby village and partied with the villagers. They had visited the village earlier and the villagers knew them as a devoted couple. They had fireworks and fancy food. They sang and danced late into he night.

That night they all went to bed late.

The sun caressed the doe-eyed damsel with its morning rays. The doe-eyed damsel woke up to an empty bed. Her magician had left with the ancient magic, ring and carpet. He left a note bidding her farewell forever. The doe-eyed damsel wept till her eyes were swollen and red.

When the villagers heard of her plight, they condemned her as an abandoned woman. Her husband left her because she was flawed, they said. The doe-eyed girl cried and cried and then decided to return home. She took to the skies like a swallow, alighted at her village and returned to her original form. When she returned without the magician and wept out her tale, people turned their faces away. Her mother hung her head in shame for an abandoned wife was considered a valueless and shameless commodity in the world of men. Her mother could not take in the shame and died of a broken heart. The doe-eyed one no longer brought smiles to the villagers but, in their opinion, only bad luck.

She lived in the outskirts of the village and perfected her magic. One day, embittered by a sense of rejection, she took the form of a black crane and flew all the way to the desert sands. There she haunted caravanserais for a few years hoping her magician would return at some point and find her. When the bearded one did not return and men jeered at her and wounded her self-respect, she started turning them into lizards and cockroaches. People began to regard her as a woman with a black heart. Only the wicked came to her for magical help and she obliged. She was a woman who had lost her senses in a battle to survive with honour.

Sometimes, she would turn herself into a whirlwind and baffle men who had jeered at her. Sometimes, she descended like black smoke on unsuspecting wayfarers and frightened them with ugly faces.

One day when she descended on a group of travellers as a whirlwind and started making frightening faces at them, a clever trader outwitted her. He said, he did not believe that she was a powerful magician. The doe-eyed one wanted to convince him. She asked, “What can I do to convince you? Should I turn you into a worm?”

He replied,“ I will believe you are a really powerful magician if you can get into this tiny jar” and he waved an empty wine bottle under her nose.

“Oh that is easy,” she replied and turned into black smoke and entered the jar. The trader promptly closed the jar. However much she shouted, he would not let her out. He took the jar to the next caravanserai and threw it among all the empty bottles that littered the garbage area.

The doe-eyed one waited patiently for someone to open the bottle. She turned herself invisible and made a home in the old wine jar, waiting for more than ten centuries to be let out…

 

 

Vanda, Ms Joaquim

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First there was a name. Then there was a flower. Then there was a story… and a new story.

In the garden stood a maiden, a young woman in the first bloom of her youth… olive skin, dark-eyed, with a soft fringe and a pert nose. She wore a red dress and had red lips…then came a tall stranger from beyond the seas and swept her off in a whirlwind of romance…

That is how the story should have gone, but it did not. There was a garden and in the garden were many flowers. There was a young woman and she had scratches and cuts all over her knees, which she ignored. She was walking through the bushes and the thorns and twigs had left harsh imprints on her soft flesh. She was wearing a pair of shorts and a blue t-shirt. On her head was a straw hat. She was dusky, short and had hazel hair and eyes.   She was looking for something…

As she peered into the bushes, a football came and hit her, hard on the back. She fell. A group of boys playing football nearby had sent the ball flying into the bushes, unintentionally. But the young lady was angry, her dignity being injured. She started getting up from amid the bushes and shouting, “How dare you?! You vandals! You nitwits!”

A strong arm came and helped her up and a deep voice said, “Come! Come! It was not intentional… what were you doing in the bushes anyway?”

“ I had a keychain. It had orchids in it. I was taking my landlord’s dog, Chester, for a walk and had a ball in my hand too. As I flung the ball for Chester to fetch, the keychain with it’s bundle of keys flew out too and I could not find the keychain anymore. I dropped Chester back and came to look for my keychain. It has the national orchid of Singapore in it, Vanda Ms Joachim, but actually, of the Papilionanthe family.” She nodded her head fiercely trying hard to look dignified and offended.

The owner of the strong arm and deep voice started to smile and almost laughed for the spectacle she provided was funny. She had a smut of dirt on her nose of which she was oblivious and dry leaves from the bushes in her hair. He threw back the ball at the group of boys playing football and dug his hands into his pockets.

“Would this be it?” said the deep voice dangling a keychain in front of her. “I found it lying under a bench near these bushes and had picked it up hoping to drop it off at the nearest police post.”

“Yes. Thank God. Thank you so much!” said the owner of the keychain.

She smiled and stretched out her arms to get it. The owner of the deep voice was a young man in his late twenties. He gave her the chain and smiled.

“ My name is Michael,” he said.

“I am Madhu. I am a botanist and have come to research orchid hybrids in Singapore. This keychain holds my favourite. It is pretty and the flowers are resilient and sturdy. I love the colour. So, this was very important to me.”

“How long have you lived here?” asked Michael.

“Oh! For almost a year…”

“And do you like it?”

“Well. Yes. I miss my family though…”

“I live in the houses across the road,” said Michael.

“I need to run home now. Bye,” said Madhu. She had become a bit wary… a stranger in Botanical Gardens. He did make her feel shy though.

Michael looked at her receding figure, shook his head and smiled. She disappeared.

The next day he saw her at the bus stop. She was waiting for a bus. Michael was driving past, returning from work. He slowed down but the bus came before he could halt and she was gone. He smiled when he thought of her. She was like a whiff of fresh  spring breeze.

Michael had grown up in Singapore. His family was an old Pernakan one. Pernakans were Chinese immigrants who had intermingled with the local population of the Malay Archipelago during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Over the decades they had developed a Westernised culture and converted to Christianity. Michael’s family had a few Indians and Westerners too. They celebrated every festival and were culturally very open. They accepted all people, all customs. They were rich traders who had the money to acquire the best in the world. They owned real estate firms in Singapore and China and gold mines in South Africa.

Michael had studied in Singapore and USA. He was a businessman too, like his father, and contributed to the family business. He was in the habit of getting what he wanted but always with a smile and graciously. So, now when he found himself thinking more than necessary of the hazel-eyed girl who popped out of a hedge in Botanical Gardens, he really wanted to know her better.

Every now and then he saw her at the bus stop in the evening but could never catch her. One day, he returned home early and went walking to the bus stop at the time he normally returned home. He saw her coming at a distance and pretended to look at his mobile. When Madhu reached the stop, Michael felt very nervous.

With his heart in his hand, he said, “Hi! Do you recognize me?”

Madhu looked at him surprised, “Oh! You are the one who found my keychain! I did not know you came to this stop.”

“Yes. I live very close. Do you research at the Botany Centre in the Botanical Gardens? ” Michael asked.

“I do. What about you? Where do you work?” Asked Madhu.

“I am a businessman. My head office is in Clark Quay.”

Madhu saw her bus coming, “My bus is here. Bye!”

She got onto the bus and so did Michael.

“So, where are you going?” asked Michael taking the seat next to her.

“I am going to the national library at Bras Basah. I normally get a book from there and have dinner and return to my room every night.”

“What a coincidence, I am going there too…I want to pick some reading material too…”said Michael.

They chatted on the way to the library. They talked like old friends. Somehow, Madhu felt she could trust him and liked him.

Madhu borrowed a couple o Agatha Christies and Michael borrowed a Dan Brown. They ate dinner at the cafe outside the library and took the bus back home. Madhu had rented a room in a bungalow at a little distance from the Botanical Gardens.

The next day Michael was there again. Madhu accepted his presence naturally. This went on for almost a couple of months with a few breaks on weekends. Then one day, Michael invited her home to meet his family.

It seemed the most natural thing to do. Madhu bought some chocolates and flowers and went over one Saturday afternoon. The family was very nice to her. Aliya, Michael’s mother, gifted her a hand painted white silk scarf with Vanda Ms Joachim on it. Madhu loved it. They even had the hybrid in their garden. Michael’s father, Alvin, was very nice to talk to. He knew many things about plants because he loved collecting rare ones. Michael’s younger brother, Melvin, came in for lunch and went back to study. He was a final year student in medicine and had exams to face. They had Nonya chicken curry in honour of Madhu for lunch. The food was really nice. Madhu loved it. She ate with gusto.

The next Monday, Michael took her to the library in his car. Madhu was gracious about it. Then, they walked to an Italian restaurant for dinner. And as they waited for the food to arrive, Michael took out a tiny box from his pocket and opened it. In it was a beautiful ring with an orchid holding a cluster of diamonds. The orchid was of pink and purple gold. It was beautiful and exotic!

He held the ring up to Madhu and said, “Marry me!” in a pleading whisper…

“What?!” exclaimed Madhu.

“Will you marry me?” asked Michael.

“I have not thought about it at all,” said Madhu. “Can you give me some time, please?”

Michael nodded and tried to look understanding. Then he said, “You mean, you did not figure out even when I invited you home?”

“I have not thought about marriage as yet because I have my work and I am away from home. I know my parents want me to marry … an Indian boy and settle down in India… I have been running away from this whole thing… just give me some time… and then I will have to break it to my parents too… Can we just continue friends for some time…I do not want to lose you…”

“All right. I will wait and we will continue as before. Will you keep the ring?”

“No. I will accept it after I work out things with my parents. In India, marriages are between families,” said Madhu.

“I got the ring made for you. I ordered it at the jewelers a month ago and I received it yesterday… It is also a Vanda Ms Joaquim… only for you… no one else can wear it…”said Michael.

“I promise you I will wear it… but give me a little time. I have to go for a cousin’s wedding in a fortnight. We will talk after I return again. I will be back in ten days,” said Madhu. “I will be leaving in a week.”

Michael and Madhu met everyday of the week and tried to continue like old friends but there was an element of conciousness in their interactions. On Friday, Madhu told Michael she would be taking a flight on Sunday. Michael insisted on seeing her off at the airport. He took her address in New Delhi from her. She told him she would not be wirelessly connected outside her home… and during the wedding she might be unreachable… Michael felt a little apprehensive but he had to let her go to get her back…

Ten days turned to a fortnight, Madhu was still not back. Michael was now really anxious. He called but no one answered. After the first few days, Madhu had stopped responding to his messages. She was not active on Facebook… When he contacted the botany institute, they said that Madhu had extended her leave and would return at some point. They did not know when.

Enough was enough. Michael flew down to New Delhi. He had booked into Taj Mansingh Hotel. He took a car from the hotel and drove down to the address Madhu had given. He got off outside the bungalow in Hauz Khas and walked in through the gate. There was a lawn outside the front door. A little child of about eight was playing in the garden bouncing a ball. Michael rang the bell. The door was opened by a plump, middle-aged woman in a sari. Michael asked if Madhu lived there.

The woman cocked her head to one side.

“Who are you to enquire?” she asked in a gruff manner.

“I am Michael, Madhu’s friend from Singapore,” he answered. He could hear voices inside.

“Why can’t you leave her alone? She will be married to a nice Indian boy. His family is visiting. Go now. I don’t want them to see you,” saying this, she banged the door shut on his face.

Michael’s head was reeling. He had to see Madhu once at least and hear from her that she was marrying another man. He sat on the steps of the front porch. After sometime, the little boy with the ball came to him.

“Who are you and why are you sitting here?” he asked.

“I am Michael. I want to see Madhu. I have a present for her,” he said. Michael had decided that he would in any case give her the ring as a keepsake… it was only for her, for his lover of Vanda…

“Oh! I see,” said the little boy. “You want to meet Madhu and she is not at home. But don’t feel sad for that. She has just gone to the Rose Garden with the man with huge moustaches. She is my cousin. And that was my mother! You can go there in your car.”

Michael thanked the little boy and asked his driver if he knew the way to the Rose Garden. The driver said, “It is very close.” And took him there.

Michael saw a huge garden full of roses and bordered by tall, slender Eucayptus trees. It crowded with people. He got off… how would he find Madhu? There were so many people. Groups of picknickers and then, there was an avenue going into a wooded area. What if she had gone off to the wooded area? What if he missed her? Suddenly, at a distance, he saw a scarf. The scarf was white and spread in a triangle on the woman’s back. It had the orchid Vanda painted on it… Madhu’s scarf! He had found her…She was sitting on a bench with her back to Michael with a muscular owner of fine moustaches… Her voice floated to him, “….my favourite orchid…Ms Vanda, is resilient and a hybrid… it is very unique because…” Her companion seemed a little restive and tried to put his arms around her shoulder and sidled closer on the bench. Madhu moved away. “I love orchids and my work.”

Moustaches and Muscles said, “You can have a garden to grow your flowers in our new home.”

“But I want to be back in Singapore… I can’t marry you,” said Madhu.

“Your parents said you could. Girls are shy, they say and always run away initially. So, I understand,” said her companion and sidled closer. Madhu jumped off the bench.

“Don’t you understand? I don’t want to marry,” said Madhu in a loud voice.

Michael felt it was time to announce his presence. He cleared his throat and put his hand on Madhu’s shoulder. She jumped up with a scream. Muscles and moustaches also jumped up and said, “Hey Mister! What do you think you are doing? That is my fiancee!”

Michael said, “Sounded more like she does not want you…”

Madhu turned towards Michael and hugged him, “Oh! I am so glad to see you!”

Michael held her to his bosom and said, “I will never let you go, Ms Vanda.”

He kissed her on her face, on her lips. He poured all his love into that hug and Madhu clung to him.

Moustaches and Muscles was angry, “You shameless girl, I will never marry you. Fancy, having a boy friend! Shame on you!” And he went off…

But never was a shamed woman happier than Madhu!

The owner of the Vanda Ms Joaquim scarf had accepted the exquisite orchid ring of pink and purple gold.

 

 

 

 

 

The Bride

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Detail from portrait of Radha, painting from 1760C.E., Kishangarh, Rajasthan

Wrapped in five yards of gold and silk

The young bride steps into the ilk

Of others of her kind.

What does she have on her mind?

Does she dream of the man who will help her fly

To the distant realms of the unbidden sky?

Or, does she stare with fear

At the stranger so near,

Who will share her bed,

To whom she is wed?

Does she cringe from his touch?

Or, does she want to say I love you so much….

Wrapped in five yards of gold and silk,

A doll who has barely started to think,

Was she asked to marry

Or allowed to choose and tarry?

Was she sold

For the weight of gold?

Was the boy bought with money

Into the knots of matrimony?

Did she have the courage to say,

“This is the only man for me any way!”

Or, did she cry and cringe and give in

To an unwanted fate, which to oppose would be a sin?

Or,

Is she stepping in to the role

Thinking only of the silk and gold?

Another woman trapped by five yards of gold and silk….

How the lotus came into being

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Once there was a girl who fell in love. She fell in love with the green undulating, grass swaying on the riverbank. She fell in love with the ripples that lapped the wet shore, with the lovely golden oriole, with the open blue skies and the soft clouds floating by. She fell in love with the tall Jacaranda tree and the lonely koel that sang its song every morning and evening.

And then came a breeze laden with the moisture of verses that garlanded her very soul. Her being danced to the rhythm of the trees that swayed, to the waves that swished, to the bees that buzzed and to the colourful wings of the butterfly that flit silently past her. She had the magic to weave silence into her words…an amazing gift as words normally destroy quietness.

She spun a world of magic around herself with her simplicity and imagination. She lived dreaming of rainbows and unicorns till a strange steed flew to her from the skies and turned into a young traveller from a distant land where wild blew the golden sands. He had travelled through desserts and snows in search of his soul mate and at long last the lilting songs of the girl had touched his soul and he became again a man from a stallion. He had a story to tell too….

As he travelled through the Arabian sands, he was followed by a beautiful creature, winsome, doe-eyed with pale skin and jet-black hair. She had a perfect figure and a sinuous walk. She followed the young traveller from one caravanserai to another till he, who was still untouched by the wiles of the young damsel, noticed her. When she threw herself on him and declared her undying love, he turned his face away from her. For, in his soul, he did not love her. There was something in her kohl-blackened eyes that seemed to rankle in his pure heart. And he was right, for the beautiful, sensuous creature was a wicked Jinn who had escaped the confines of her bottle when a drunk looking for free wine in a caravanserai uncorked the ancient jar that had been her home for a thousand years. She had been tricked into the bottle by a clever magician when mankind believed in magic and magicians roamed the world. The first man the wily Jinn saw was our young traveller. He was so young, pure and handsome that she fell in love with him and started following him.

She was infuriated with the young traveller for turning her down. She turned him into a winged stallion who was forced to fly till the strains of his soul mate’s melody bought him back to his original form and life…

He had flown for a decade in the clouds, living on dewdrops and rainbows, till he suddenly heard the melody riding on the waves and touching his heart and soul. A strong draft of breeze came and carried him down to the young, innocent girl in love. Her song and innocence reached out to the purer and rare air where magic had led the winged stallion. This time the magic that had been woven by her song was stronger than the magic that imprisoned the traveller in the body of a stallion. As his hooves touched the ground, the winged stallion transformed back to his original self.

The maiden saw the young man and fell in love with him too. The two of them twirled and danced amidst the trees, sipping nectar of flowers, eating fruit and drinking from young springs.

Then came the mists of the night. They whispered through the forest as the young couple slept on the soft grass. The mists of the night were minions of the doe-eyed Jinn. She had cast a spell on them. They spied the young couple and saw that the stallion had turned back to the young man. They whispered the story to the Jinn when they visited the desert sands. The Jinn was furious. She turned herself into a crane and flew to the tropical paradise where dwelt her heart throb. She did not want anyone to have what she aspired and could not get.

She descended to a branch of an Angsana tree.

“Look, a crane!”cried the young girl in surprise. “How beautiful it is! Pure and black. I have never seen anything like it!”

The young traveller started. He had seen the worst of black magic in his travels and he wondered if it could be…the Jinn. As he thought, she transformed herself back into a beautiful woman with cloudy, wavy jet-black hair, red lips, a pale skin. The boy recognized the Jinn as she shouted, “What I cannot possess, neither can she. I will destroy her and you if you do not come away with me.”

The young man, with a downcast face walked over to the Jinn, to save his loved one. The loved one looked on startled and said, “Where do you go?” As she spoke, the Jinn cursed her to turn to ashes and dust and dissolve  into the marshes near the river. The spell flew out of her mouth and where the young girl fell sprouted a beautiful flower, so clean and pure that none of the mud or slush from the marsh could stick to it. The boy, astounded and stunned, fell to his death as he ran to catch his beloved. He fell right where the flower was sprouting and he turned into it’s leaves, which remained as unsullied in the marshes as the flower. As for the Jinn, she was so angry that she dissolved into ashes and mud and the marsh swallowed her up.

The daytime breeze that watched the whole drama carried the story to the village of the fisher folk. The fisher folk came to see the new flower and named it after the girl who fell in love, Lotus.

People from far and wide came to see the flower and said, “How beautiful is the Lotus with her unsullied purity and lush, clean leaves!”