Shreya seemed to be in a trance, the drum beats reverberated, the temple bells chimed in symphony. She was part of the teeming crowd of women, huddled together, sticking leaning against each other. All of them were compulsorily dressed in saris, it was a prerequisite in the ashram rules. Their sweat seemed to have mingled in that confined space of the narrow room which was lost in the smoke emanating from the thousands of incense sticks that burnt there and vermillion being thrown in the air along with marigold petals. The scent, the aroma and the effluvium in the room gave the entire atmosphere a surreptitious aura. It was a special ritual after all; only fifteen women had been selected for it after spending a week in the ashram, for barrenness was their bane. Shreya had been dragged here by her husband and his family after not being able to provide an heir five years into marriage. Ironically baba’s ashram had specialized in curing these women of the curse. Hundreds of women had conceived after visiting the ashram and participating in the culminating ritual.
In that room Shreya was supposed to be the lucky one to be handpicked by baba himself. The trance seemed to be reaching its crescendo, the drum beats echoed inside her head, her eyes were half shut, she seemed to have been intoxicated by the smells and sounds; then she felt the hotness and complete and utter pleasure radiated from her body. The ritual was complete, she had attained ultimate state of bliss, claimed Baba to her in-laws, she’s sure to bear a child now.
Birthday in Marseille – France
Aahana wanted to make Shreya’s birthday a special one so she had reserved the best seat at the waterfront café at Vieuxport. Aahana shared her birthday with her mother and she was twenty today and she looked beautiful. Her blond hair fell in soft curls over her shoulders and her black eyes twinkled with nervous excitement as she had an important announcement to make.
Shreya lived in Marseille with her partner Frank. After two failed marriages she had called it quits and was happy to live with Frank, a decade her junior, who shared her love for museums and art. They had met discussing contemporary art. Aahana was fond of Frank too, he brought her mother happiness and she was happy with that. She had ordered Shreya’s favourite strawberry cake and bouillabaisse – her favourite fish stew.
Shreya and Frank arrived looking like a young couple in love. Aahana was getting more nervous, she did not want Shreya to feel sad or burdened by her decision, but this was that had been weighing on her mind for a while now and she had to do it.
Frank was ever charming and gifted her beautiful string of pearls and promised to take her Fete de le Musique, the greatest music festival in Marseille, set to happen every summer solstice, just two days from today. They looked a happy family.
“Happy birthday mom! You look absolutely stunning today.”
“Thank you for organizing this and now you should spill the beans.”
“You have something going on in your mind, don’t you? How long are you going to keep being quiet about it?”
“You sure know me well. Actually I’m going to India tomorrow.”
Shreya was taken aback but was not really shocked at her decision. Aahana had been asking questions about her biological father and his family for long now, but she did not know it was going to be this soon.
“June is hot in India, hotter than here in Marseille, plus your father’s family lives in Mumbai, which is one of the hottest cities in India.”
“Isn’t it a port town just like Marseille? I think I’ll like it there.”
“The city? Of course you’ll love the city, but don’t be too enthusiastic about your father or his family. They had rejected both of us twenty years ago. There is nothing of the metropolis blood of Mumbai in them.”
“I still want to see him once. I don’t know why, but it’s like a void, which however hard I try to forget I cannot. Not that my life with you is not happy or that I missed my father growing up. It’s just heat I want to give a face to the vacuum that shows up in my head when someone mentions the word father.”
“I understand, go by all means if you want to go, I’ll give you the address that I remember so vividly, but it has been two decades, everything could have changed.”
Aahana was so relieved; she was convinced that Shreya would never let her go after what she had suffered there. Keeping the address safe she set out, hoping to meet that man once who never stopped to look at her.
Shreya wished her luck as she saw her off the next day. “Just return, as soon as it gets too much for you; don’t get stuck in negative vibes. You do not deserve that. I’m warning you once more, this will leave you disappointed.”
As Aahana settled in her plane seat, inadvertently her mom’s life permeated her thoughts.
Her mom was a hill girl totally, belonging to a small hill town in India. She was the eldest of five sisters and her parents married her as soon as she turned eighteen, to a family in Mumbai. Arranged marriages in India are not between the boy and the girl, they are between families, everyone gets involved and you just accept everything as part of the package. Shreya too accepted everything, moved from the hills to Mumbai and did her best to adjust to the sudden change in her life. Her husband was five years her senior and had just finished his law studies and joined the family firm. He never made her comfortable or helped her navigate through this new phase in her life. In fact, he made it clear to her that he had married under family pressure and he had no interest in a small town girl who wasn’t even educated enough.
“Aditya,” Shreya would manage to say, “I’m not uneducated, my father married me at eighteen as he has four more daughters to settle, you should treat me with respect.”
Aditya smirked, “Stay at home, do the chores, be satisfied.”
Shreya’s mother-in-law began pressing for a baby in the first year of marriage, but Shreya did not conceive for five years, much to the chagrin of her in-laws. “A barren girl they gave us. They must have known that is why they married her at eighteen.” The endless stinging comments left her in tears. Her mother in law took her to numerous doctors, but all reports came in fine. Then she began taking her to shamans, to priests, temples, dargahs, anything to get her daughter in law to conceive.
During this time someone told them about of a miracle baba in the suburbs. He had opened an ashram only a year back and he had special powers. Any barren woman visiting his ashram is cured of her condition and will conceive by his blessings. Even though Shreya had protested, “Please don’t send me to that ashram. The doctors have told you there is nothing wrong with me.”
“I want to see my grandson soon, just leave.” Shreya had been admonished. Aditya left her at the ashram and when she came back she did conceive and gave birth to a baby girl and that began the second ordeal, but by now Shreya had had enough. She picked her daughter and walked out of Aditya’s home.
Being a single mom was tough, but going to her parents’ home wasn’t even an option. Not only did she take care of her daughter, she enrolled to do a course in contemporary art, also picking up jobs to provide for both of them. She fought and won a divorce from Aditya. Five years she struggled and then she met a young American artist who she married and went to live in the United States. She worked in the art galleries, libraries and museums gaining experience, but a happy married like still eluded her. Her husband now was too eccentric to settle down as a married man. He called himself free spirited artist and wanted to travel to experience life, but Shreya worried about Aahana and separated from him and moved to Marseille, France. It was here that she finally found peace. She was happy working at Museum of Contemporary Art, bringing up Aahana.
The plane touched down in Mumbai and Aahana stepped on the hot tarmac with the hot humid air hitting her with full force, making her shiver at the step that she had decided to take.
Aahana checked into her hotel taking in the sights, sounds and smells of an alien land, though she was Indian by birth she did not connect to anything, she was un a foreign land with foreign customs and manners. She did understand a little Hindi, Shreya spoke to her in conversational Hindi, but she could not speak fluently. She decided to visit her father the first thing next morning. As she reached there the next day she developed cold feet. “How can I just show up? He must have a family. What if he has never mentioned us?” These questions had plagued her before too. She waited for an hour for someone to come out of the building, then left. Next day she decided firmly that today she had to meet him. She waited for someone to emerge from the building. A woman came out; she looked like she worked there. Aahana accosted her, “Is this vakil saab’s house?”
“Haanji,” she said politely.
“I wanted to meet Aditya saab.”
“Oh! But he doesn’t take cases now; he’s paralyzed and can’t walk.”
“I just need his advice on something.”
“They have an office on the first floor. It opens at ten. You could meet someone there. Maybe they can help you.”
At ten Aahana went up. There were five young men sitting looking listless and disinterested in their surroundings. One of them looked up surprised, as if they weren’t expecting a visitor.
“How may I help you?”
“I wanted to meet Aditya sir.”
“He doesn’t take visitors.”
“But this is really important; I’ve come all the way from France to meet him.”
“France!” They all said in unison.
“Ok. I’ll ask him. Who may I say has come?”
After waiting for what seemed eternity, Aditya wheeled into the office. He ordered all the others to leave, and then observed Aahana from head to toe, staring at her face with expressionless eyes, and stoic face. “Have you come to claim your parentage? You aren’t even my daughter.”
“I know you rejected me long back. I just…”
“I am not your father. I can prove it with any DNA test you want. You are a result of the licentious life your mother led. I hate your existence.”
“How dare you call my mother promiscuous and deny being my father?”
“I cannot be your father because doctors had told me I could never have children, yet you were born. So am I wrong? I hated you and the woman who bore you. Leave and never return.”
Aahana stood absolutely still, numb, confused. A cold shiver went through her body. She was so flabbergasted and stunned at what she had heard she didn’t know how to react. She walked down the stairs in a kind of stupor when she saw an old lady who told her to follow her to the park nearby. Aahana followed.
“You are Shreya’s daughter?”
“I am Aditya’s mother. Listen carefully. There was nothing wrong with your mother, but I had to protect my son so I let everyone believe that Shreya was at fault. Shreya had visited the ashram of miracle baba like many others. The baba is no longer here, but some people in the nearby slum still follow him. You can ask there. Maybe you get some answers. Tell Shreya I am sorry.”
Aahana called her mom. “Do you remember what happened in the ashram?” she asked gingerly.
“The entire scene was murky,” said Shreya. “All I remember was the loud beating of drums, but nothing significant happened there. Are you ok?”
Aahana began gathering news of this baba. He had fled to the hills of Himachal, the Himalayas. She began skimming the area around where the ashram used to be. She began asking random people about the ashram. After about two days she saw a girl who looked just like her, the resemblance was so striking that the girl stopped to stare at her too. Aahana went up to her and asked about the baba. “Yes, my mom prays to one baba, she even has his picture.” Aahana’s heart skipped a beat as she entered a small ramshackle of a home.
SUB ROSA: HILLS REVEAL THE SECRET
The train moved ever so slowly on the narrow gauge line meandering through the deepest pine forests she had ever seen. The railway line seemed to be wrapped around the mountain like the legendary Vasuki in Samudra Manthan. The pristine beauty and untamed nature left her totally awed. Lush mountains, rustle of the wind and bird songs seemed to remove her worries even temporarily.
She reached the small village of Kiari, as the lady had told her that’s where baba resides now. At the bus stop she saw a sweet mart vendor and she showed him a worn out faded picture inquiring if he recognized the man in the picture. He took the photograph in his hand and strained his eyes to see, “Yes, that is Manohar, but why is he wearing these robes of a sadhu?”
“Where does he live?”
“There is a government school about six kilometers from here. You will have to walk uphill. His house his next to the school. And yes, avoid taking the track in the forest, go along the cobbled path.”
Aahana followed the instructions and by the time she reached up she was out of breath and sweaty. She saw the most picturesque school ever and a hut close by. She walked in measured steps and saw the silhouette of a man working in the field.
“Excuse me,” she shouted, her voice trembling.
He turned to look at her.
“May I speak to you?”
Manohar had a look of bewilderment on his face as he walked upto the girl.
“Is that you?” she showed him the picture.
“Have you come to arrest me? Let’s talk inside,” he said almost in a whisper.
He took her inside his mud house, with small windows and slate roof. “Sit,” he said, pointing to a single string bed near the window and he sat on his haunches on the floor.
“What do you want to know, I’ve left everything and trying to live in ignominy, I don’t want any attention.”
“Were you the owner of the ashram?”
“Yes, me along with four other boys. What fun we had!”
“I’m looking for my father, obviously there weren’t any miracles.”
“That was our revenge on all those rich people who lived in bungalows and think people working for them are scum of the earth. Its easiest to exploit and beguile people. They still give into superstitions and miracles. We built an ashram that gave boon of children. Stupid men hiding their incapabilities behind their wives. I don’t even remember how many children we fathered after drugging those women with the smoke from the incense sticks. I can’t tell you who your father might be. I don’t even remember where the rest of them are. We ran away after those stupid people realized there was no miracle.”
He laughed a laugh that sounded vile and nasty.
Unable to control her anger anymore she smacked Manohar right across his face. The vileness of his actions, his misplaced notion of revenge and his unapologetic tone disgusted her so much that she ran from there promising to keep it a secret forever.