It feels like the first time. The friendly river that had belonged to her in her youth suddenly seems a lifetime away. In its place flows a Ganga so quiet and endless she can no longer impetuously claim it as her own. And the range upon range of brooding mountains that had once jutted their scarred, frowning faces and crooked elbows at her, now swirl around in a dream-like haze of cloud. Strange, she muses, how easily one outgrows one’s own story. Rishikesh today is nothing more than just another pretty hill-station, impervious to nostalgia. A sliver of relief laced with resentment slices through her, leaving her abruptly empty. She stops and peers into the river’s white-foamed rush. Their young brown faces are reflected in it. She is afraid of the mountains, and he, calm-lipped and creaseless, understands. Standing on the river’s shore seven years later, she remembers.
Her red bridal sari bordered with golden peacocks. An intricate design of sandalwood paste on her forehead, alta redly staining the soles of her feet, eyes lined with kohl. The marriage mandap, beautifully adorned with strand after strand of marigold. A gust of ululating, conch-shell blowing female relatives. The two glistening betel-leaves held up against her face so no one could see her just yet. Waiting, waiting. Then, when her husband-to-be was brought into the mandap, the parting of the leaves for shubho drishti, that auspicious first glance. This marriage had been arranged in some haste—Uma, such an educated, cultured Bengali boy who does not want any dowry will be impossible to find again, her mother had pronounced excitedly. So though Uma had met him once before, when he’d come for the bride-viewing with his widowed mother, and Uma had replied shyly to all their questions, now was when she really saw him. A man from other times, guileless and golden, with the most incredible eyes, luminous and lotus-shaped. And she fell in love.
Later that night, in their bridal chamber, he’d smiled kindly. At twenty-one and a full decade younger than him, she was too young of body and mind to be able to withstand the full force of intimacy, he said. And so he’d be sleeping alone, in the adjacent room. Uma didn’t know why his satin words should tighten around her and choke her so. Shouldn’t she be elated at her husband’s sensitivity? Why then did it seem like the sun had grimly set on Kailash, the colony they lived in? ‘Are you happy with this marriage?’ he continued solicitously. His calm, composed eyes cut deftly through her agitation even as it stirred up a new, inexplicable unquiet. She nodded. ‘And you?’ she wanted to ask, suddenly tearful. But her question was destined to dangle mid-air, unformed and unasked.
When an orange dawn crept in tiredly through the window, Uma finally dosed off. Through her sleep’s mist, she would hear the steady chanting of a Shiva stuti, followed by other invocations of distant gods. Something in her would listen, not understanding the Sanskrit words but spellbound by the sombre, faraway voice that uttered them. When she woke up, her mother-in-law would tell her that Manav had completed his morning prayers and left to teach. And yes, for dinner, he’d instructed his wife—what a strange new word, Uma thought—to cook the lentils with coconut that she’d cooked for them on the day of her bride-viewing. And oh, he had an evening seminar to attend, so he’d be late. Very late, in all likelihood, but he preferred to have dinner at home, so she was welcome to stay up and wait for him.
That first day of her marriage, Uma learnt her most important lesson about the man whom destiny had chosen for her. She learnt that he treaded the path of life lightly, and that any undue intensity or ardent display of emotion would bring forth a light rebuke, a shake of the head, a closure. She learnt that she would have to bend like a delicate fern to his windier will. Not because he was unkind—indeed, he was famed for his kindness and much loved by all who knew him—but because his kindness, much like the rest of him, followed a larger pattern. A precise, pre-ordained pattern of mind-moments, in which each moment had its place and could not be lived more or less momentously. That morning, while combing her hair in the mirror, she saw herself the way he saw her—as an unruly child who must be tamed till she could be his perfect consort and dance willingly to the controlled, calibrated rhythm of his own tandav. So during dinner that night, Uma focused on finding pleasure in her husband’s warm words of praise for her cooking, which he generously declared to be better than any he had ever tasted. Afterwards, she helped her mother-in-law clear the table while Manav retreated into his library. Then—waiting, waiting.
Today, Uma sighs as she shakes herself out of her reverie and starts walking down the banks of the Ganga again. Sanyasis hurry past, their soft saffron mumbles lost in the belligerent hawking of eagle-eyed shop-vendors. At twenty-eight, Uma is young and very attractive, and a group of men eye her appreciatively; one of them whispers something to the group, upon which they all burst out laughing, half-lewdly, half-apologetically. Dharma, artha, kama. And moksha, dancing far away like an enticing but elusive apsara. Hindu philosophy is a total philosophy, she thinks dryly, for it has space for both sex and sanyas. Then she smiles thinking that if Manav had been here, he would have shaken his head contritely at what he termed her unschooled impudence. Then he’d pick up his newest book on Hindu philosophy and explained to her the nuances of Sankhya-Yoga, and she’d listen, spellbound once again. Slowly, unwittingly, she’d find her way past his words and to the graceful turn of his neck, the ascetic set of his thin lips, the cheeks turned blue with a day’s stubble, and his forehead, so smooth and creaseless. A lonely, aching languor would sweep across her, like night-time in the mountains. She’d reach out, again and again, for the man who stood far beyond the shore of her songs. And each time, he’d be gone.
If Uma had hoped to find a companion in her mother-in-law, that fumbling, heart-shaped hope too had fallen apart soon enough, for the older woman’s strictly religious life left even lesser room for spontaneity than Manav’s. In worship, she was a woman without bias—any Hindu god is god, she would say with fevered finality—as she trudged patiently through all known fasts and rituals. Early each morning, she took an elaborate bath before sitting down to pray. That is, except on certain days of the month, when she insisted that menstrual blood had made her inauspicious for puja, worship. She fasted every Tuesday and Friday. And one festival she always celebrated—among several others, and with all their attendant rituals—was Neel puja, for the health and wellbeing of her son, whom she doted upon. ‘Every morning, you must bathe, wash your hair and wear a clean sari before entering the puja room to chant the mantras. Most importantly, don’t forget to recite from the punthi on appropriate days,’ she had instructed Uma on the latter’s first day in her new household.
Having grown up with parents whose simple, sparse lives left little room for elaborate religious rituals, Uma had been slightly bewildered. But her mother’s vivid bed-time tales had made sure that Uma was in no way a stranger to a million stories of gods and goddesses, the terrible, wondrous wars they fought and the magical ways in which they lived and loved. So being young and pliant, and by no means an atheist, Uma had adapted quickly to her mother-in-law’s more regimented rituals of faith, in time even looking forward to her daily recitation of punthis and vrata-kathas. And when she missed a companion, she chatted with their two maids Priti and Rati, Kailash colony’s famed teenage sisters bursting with giggles and gossip.
Priti was prettier and somewhat more docile, while Rati, dark and smouldering, had an impossibly irreverent tongue. ‘Didi, the man next door always stares at my breasts, and if I walk away, he will just stare at my ass instead.’
‘Shhhh,’ Uma would say. ‘That gentleman is old enough to be your father.’
‘He is no gentleman. Ask us,’ Rati would snort indignantly, and launch into yet another juicy narration of his or some other neighbour’s sexcapades while the rims of Uma’s ears turned red.
‘Anyone would think every single inhabitant of Kailash is steeped in sin,’ she once said exasperatedly to Rati.
For once, the latter’s expression softened. ‘Not every single one. Not your Manav. Your husband is a sadhu, a saint, a god! Why, in all these years, he’s never looked at any of the girls that way.’
Uma wanted to laugh wildly. He’s never looked at even his own wife that way, she wanted to say. But she bit her lip and carefully fashioned her mouth into a smile. Priti smiled back, but Rati, the sharp one, sensed the unsaid. She asked no questions, but from the next day, started bringing a little something for Uma every day—a delicate anklet that laughed and trilled silver, kohl as black and alluring as the night, perfumed jasmine braids to plait into her long black hair, a nose-pin that glittered like the ripples in a sun-dappled river, a chunri of gold threads so fine it fell over her like a spray of morning mist.
‘Where do you get money for these things?’ Uma would ask suspiciously.
‘Oh, they are not expensive,’ came Rati’s airy reply, as she applied milk and turmeric paste on Uma’s face to soften her skin.
Rati’s ruses worked their magic. Over dinner one night, Manav mentioned that he’d been able to get leave from university. Since he was just a poor professor, he couldn’t afford a fancy honeymoon, but would Uma like to accompany him to Rishikesh for the festival of Shivratri next week? Uma lowered her eyes and nodded shyly even as her mother-in-law started listing out the rituals necessary for shivratri’s vrata, the fast for one’s husband’s long life.
So next morning they left the city behind, with its precarious greenery and dubious traffic, and set out on the winding road to Rishikesh. After a few hours, mammoth mountains loomed up in the far distance, their green and brown patches glinting in the morning sun. Warm waters of the Ganga delicately lapped at pebbled shores, and the bridges that stretched across from one end of the river to the other swayed in the wind. Monkeys swung from the highest trees, their elfin faces looking down at the travelers as they passed. Tiny orange buds peeped out from their cases of green, the spring air turned sweet with birdsong, and Uma’s spirits soared.
Here, in this sleepy little town tucked away in the folds of the lower Himalayas, Uma and Manav stayed for seven days and seven nights. Mornings would dawn bright and clear, with the trills of a solitary cuckoo honeying the frosty air and a tingling breeze carrying with it the smell of past nights. As evening prayers started on the banks of the Ganga, the air would turn heavy with incense and sandalwood. Then at night, dim mists touched the town with moist fingers and Rishikesh slept.
In this magical place, where the mountains girdled them in a strong, sure embrace and the river gurgled past in a stream of laughter, everything changed. All Uma knew was how her body, once her own, had now treacherously turned into another’s instrument, for him to pluck and play to his heart’s desire. At the time, their togetherness was drowsy and long-limbed, and the stars in the sky were the glistening dreams of tomorrow. And whatever time they didn’t spend making love was spent on the banks of the Ganga, with Manav teaching her to meditate. For Uma, there had till now been two ways to pray and to believe: her parents’ way that coaxed the heart with its humanness, and her mother-in-law’s way that coaxed the body into rules and rituals, feasts and fasts. In Rishikesh, she learnt from Manav a third way, the way of the mind. That of stilling one’s body and heart, and letting the largesse of the universe seep into one’s soul. That of letting go.
Uma closes her eyes, letting the memories wash over her. Wasn’t this the very spot where she’d animatedly narrated to Manav the myth of the goddess Parvati, her favourite among all her mother’s bedtime tales? You can spout all your high philosophy with such ease and yet you don’t know these simple stories, Uma had sternly admonished Manav while he’d smiled indulgently. Yes, this was the spot where Uma had summoned the courage to ask a passing saffron-robed sanyasi the meaning of the name Rishikesh. ‘Some say it is another name for Lord Vishnu,’ he’d replied. ‘But it could just as well stand for the matted locks of Lord Shiva, from which the Ganga gushes out to water this holy town.’ Later, while walking back to their ashram set high on the hills, Uma had impulsively grabbed Manav’s hand and begged that they might return every year to Rishikesh for Shivratri.
Those were good times, lush with untold promises and unheard songs whose echoes lingered long after they had returned home. Manav’s laughter would ring out verdantly across what had once been Uma’s desert days, as he playfully matched Uma antic for foolish antic. Spring was back again, and Uma flowered. And then, the letter.
Seven years later, Uma flits her eyes around to take in this spot, that winding road, those hills, and of course, Muni ki Reti, that happy and bustling little bazaar from across the river. Once the bazaar, with its quirky shops and their colorful wares, its sizzling sounds and smells of snacks frying and of old men brewing mysterious medicinal concoctions, would have beckoned ceaselessly. Today the bazaar, like her, has grown older and calmer. But her journey is a jigsaw, and she must put all the pieces together and so she hauls herself up. I’m coming, she says, as she walks across the Lakshman Jhula. The bridge catches the rhythm of the breeze and lilts prettily, its familiar movements once again swaying her back into the years. Now as then, little boys selling plastic packets of little dough pellets pull grubbily at people’s clothes, urging them to feed the fishes. She stops to buy a packet and flings a fistful of pellets through the wires of the bridge into the streaming waters below. At once, hundreds of fish swim up, golden-brown, black, silver-grey, making the river come colourfully alive against the majestic mountain peaks shimmering in the far distance.
The river had belonged to her, the mountains to him. This sharing had been done on their first visit to Rishikesh seven years ago. Manav was drawn to the mountain’s impassivity, obduracy, imperviousness. As for her, she liked the river, its gurgling gaieties and lissom laughter. The river is alive, she’d say. And no, I am not afraid of the mountains, she’d once blurted out to a bemused Manav. Seven years later, Uma halts her walk to look at the froth-capped waves of the Ganga as they break over rocks and boulders. Some waves ride the river’s breast for a while longer, but then they too merge further downstream, where the limitless expanse of the river bleeds bluely into a limitless expanse of sky. And with a start, Uma realizes what youth’s folly had once held back from her. She sees that the river, too, is impervious and invincible. It follows its own logic of spring beginnings and autumn’s end, flowing from mountain to sea in a pattern it is doomed to repeat over and over. Unlike the unmoving mountains, the river’s redemption lies in its flowing. The river and the mountain both know that their destiny cannot alter, yet this knowledge makes them brave and not brittle, for each knows that when all else is gone, they will still remain.
On an impulse, Uma decides to take the boat. The sun is slowly sliding into the edges of the sky now, and the water is deliciously dappled as the oar glides through. She closes her eyes. The boat is languid and the boatman hums a tune, and she is not in any great hurry. After what seems like a lifetime of crossings, from one bank to the other, she steps out of the boat and pays the boatman. Then she sits on the bank, her eyes a litany of loss.
It has been many years, but Uma can still see it flapping between the glass panes of their bedroom window. She remembers recognizing the creamy self-embossed paper that Manav liked to use. When she touches it, it is slightly moist from the morning dew. And, of course, she remembers the spidery crawl: ‘I cannot carry on anymore. I should never have married. I am travelling in search of greater meaning. Please take care of Ma, and don’t wait for me.’
What words can string together the few memories scattered around afterwards, like the dead leaves of fall? Beyond the stillness of that moment, the outlines of Uma’s memories are faint and smudgy. She does recall her mother-in-law’s vicious words blaming Uma for casting her inauspicious shadow over their household. She even recalls a neighbour’s restraining hand on the old lady’s shoulder, quietly reminding her that her son had always been inclined towards a life of asceticism and renunciation. Thereafter, a steady downpour of friends and relatives who sobbed and sighed and raved and ranted. Afterwards, they all wanted to know what had really happened. And once the crowds dispersed, the house was again handed back to the two women, for each one to haunt with the shadows of a different darkness.
Tears either glue people together or wash them completely apart. With Uma and her mother-in-law, it was the latter. Guilt-ridden at Uma’s stricken, sparrow-like fluttering in the darkest corners of Manav’s library, Uma’s mother-in-law had, after her initial outburst, never again been as careless. But it made no difference, for her swollen eyes and constant prayers incessantly ground into the unhappy Uma the fact of her loss in a way the harsh words had not.
On her part, her mother-in-law needed to believe in an invisible continuity, an afterwards. Much of her time was therefore spent chanting mantras in her tiny puja room from which a continuous ribbon of incense wafted out eerily. My prayers will bring him back home, she would say with a break in her voice. Once, after she had lit a candle for him, the electricity went off and just the one candle glowed, bright and incandescent. She sobbed loudly, saying it was her son’s way of telling her that her world may be dark from his absence, but his was bright from her faith.
Uma on the other hand found herself turning away from the brief metallic glimpses that shone through each time the door of the puja room hinged slightly open. Once in a while, when she did enter the room that housed the golden gods and goddesses who had once been so real to her, she found herself robbed of speech and came away empty, irresolute. Finally, she sought neither revenge nor resolution, and god became just a room in the house. It was a simple ending, so slow and ordinary that no one, not she and certainly not her grief-ensconced mother-in-law, even noticed. And seven years passed.
Then, another letter. Followed by yet another.
Shaking herself free of the sand in her sari, Uma begins to walk away from the boulders by the river’s banks. The last seven years have made her stronger in more ways than she had guessed, for she is not afraid of the mountains anymore. Indeed, as she walks uphill, they seem to stretch out their arms for her the way her father had when she was a little girl. And then there’s a blinding white light; she halts in her tracks, and can see.
It is another time, another place, and she sits praying in a forest. She is the Long-Haired Lass, the Initiator of Austerities, the Portent of Penance. She is Princess Dakshayini, daughter of the great king Dakshya-Prajapati. Yet her asana is made not of the opulent velvets that grace her father’s palace, but of grass, fallen leaves and dry twigs. She is clad not in the royal robes of a rani but in a single saffron cloth of homespun cotton, the garment of a yogini. As her incantations fill the forest air, snakes slither forth into the sun, eagles pause in mid-flight and wild tigers halt their chase to sit demurely by her side.
The shapes disintegrate and disappear like shards of broken glass, and others take their place. Now she is a young bride, adorned in red and gold and being borne along in a palanquin as light as the lilt of a breeze. Her penance has paid off, and she is married to the man of her dreams, that mighty Mahadeva of many names. He is Shiva, the destroyer who devastates, he is Neelkanth, the blue-throated one who holds the poison of the ocean in his throat, he is Bholenath, the child-like yogi who meditates on a tiger-skin mat atop the snowy summits of the Kailash mountains while the river Ganga gushes out of his unkempt hair. And she is Gauri, his fair bride who lives with him on Kailash.
But today she has descended from her heavenly abode and is being carried along to her father’s palace, to attend the most auspicious of all yagnas to which all gods, kings and their consorts have been invited. So what if King Dakshya forgot to invite his own daughter and her husband; it is a simple error that is easily amended. And so what if Shiva himself had forbidden her to undertake this journey? Her husband is, after all, a man, conscious of stature and quick to take offence at the actions of lesser men. Today Gauri will heal the breach between the two great men. On seeing his daughter so happy in her home, her arrogant father’s heart will soften and fill with joy even as her childhood companions swarm around her like black-eyed bees, wanting to know the stories of the famed Kailash.
The shapes change again. This time Gauri stands silent, her red eyes rimmed with rage. Her father has insulted Shiva beyond measure, calling him a dissolute drunkard, a waster and a vagabond in full hearing of all those attending the yagna. It is because of her that her husband’s name has been sullied thus, and she believes she must avenge his honor. Gauri summons Agni, the God of fire and instructs that he light a pyre so high its flames can consume the entire city. Then, praying that she might be reborn as wife to the same husband but as daughter to a different father, Gauri transforms into Sati, and jumps into the flames.
New shapes, a new vision. News of Sati’s sacrifice has reached Kailash, and Shiva is inconsolable. Striding into their midst, he picks up Sati’s limp, lifeless body and dances the terrible tandav. Within moments, there is mayhem as the universe stands poised on the brink of destruction. The gods shake in consternation, but Shiva has returned to Kailash to assume his intemperate, ascetic form. Then Brahma sends Kamadeva, the god of desire, to lure Shiva back to life so that the earth may be saved from annihilation. Kamadeva invokes akaal vasanta, untimely spring, to transform Shiva’s icy abode into a garden where flowers bloom and bees hum to the seductive scent of the southern breeze. Kamadeva shoots an arrow of flowers at Shiva, interrupting his austerities and awakening his third eye of destruction which burns Kamadeva to ashes. But Shiva’s desire has been rekindled, and his glance falls upon a woman of extraordinary beauty and unmatched allure. She is Parvati, the re-incarnation of Sati.
From childhood, Parvati, daughter of Himavan the king of the Himalayas, has been performing the severest of penances in order to cure the ascetic Shiva of his inconsolable grief and bring him back to the life of the householder. Having undertaken the most austere of fasts for her future husband, Parvati neither eats nor sleeps, halting her tapasya only to serve the oblivious Shiva, sweeping his barren cave and lining it each night with fragrant strands of champa and chameli. A million yugas have passed. Yet she persists, and her penances are paying off, for Shiva has at last consented to take her as his bride. She will make home with him once again on mount Kailash, calming his dark, destructive urges with her gentle love, subduing his ominous anger with her equanimity.
The shapes shift again, and this time Uma blinks in disbelief…
When the first letter came, Uma’s mother-in-law had fainted. The letter was from a distant cousin who was just back from a trip to Rishikesh, and thought she’d spotted Manav in the ashram where she’d stayed. ‘I cannot be sure, for I last saw him at his wedding almost seven years ago when he was clean-shaven and lean,’ she wrote. ‘This sanyasi—yes, a religious man in saffron drapes and rosary beads—had a long beard and looked more portly. But there was an uncanny resemblance. When I enquired about him, they told me he was Swami Jivanand.’ The letter mentioned the ashram’s address and telephone number. With shaking hands, Uma’s mother-in-law had dialled the number, only to be told that Swamiji had travelled on to Mansarovar and his exact whereabouts were unknown. But of course, the faceless voice had intoned, they would inform him on his return that his family had called.
The next few months vacillated between absolute elation and tired, tentative waiting. Then a second letter had arrived, this time from the swami. Yes, he was indeed Manav! He’d written that he was in good health, and hoped his mother and his wife were healthy and happy too. He’d even invited them to his ashram at Rishikesh, for Shivratri which was only a week away. In fact, the letter was so pleasant it may have been written by a passing acquaintance rather than a beloved son who’d gone missing for seven years. Seven years of lodging reports at police stations, of being summoned to inspect unidentified dead bodies in hospitals and morgues, of being sickened by the telephone’s silence, of waiting tip-toed for the doorbell to ring.
‘We will go to Rishikesh at once,’ Uma’s mother-in-law proclaimed, still red-nosed and sniffling. ‘Uma, you must perform Shivratri’s fast again. Remember how the goddess Parvati was able to win Shiva over with her penance? Your devotion too will surely bring Manav back to you.’
…yes, Uma blinks in disbelief because the shapes have changed again, and now she sees herself. She is Dakshayani, Gauri, Sati, Parvati, their shapes and sounds blurring into one blue form. The shankha-pala around her wrists and the sindoor in the parting of her hair, symbols of her marriage, suddenly weigh more than the universe itself. Uma shrugs them off and wipes herself clean, as clean as Manav has always been. Her parents, her mother-in-law and a bunch of other relatives are waiting impatiently for her to return, after offering her prayers to the river, so that they can go to Manav and implore him to return. But Uma walks uphill, away from the direction of their ashram, and towards the mountains. As a pinkish glow bathes the hillside and little birds, nest bound, fly home in straight black lines, the mountain rises up to meet her.
Later the police would put down Uma’s disappearance to the suicide of a woman long abandoned by her husband. Conversations with the family doctor would suggest clinical depression, and her relatives would also confirm Uma’s intermittent spells of sadness and subsequent withdrawal into solitude. And as to her body not being found—why, there was always the unfortunate possibility of wild animals having dragged the body away into the jungles. In any case, the range upon range of jutting ravines held many secrets in their bosom, secrets that could never be found and told. Satisfied, the police would close their files.
Only those who were eye-witnesses to the event would continue to claim otherwise. Agitated and awe-struck, they would for years narrate to their children and grand-children the magic of that moment when the Ganga slowed down, and the Himalayas opened to let in a young woman with flowing hair, closing in again after her. No, she was no mortal woman, they’d say, for she had ten arms, held a trishul and burned like white fire from within. Her head high, she sailed serenely into the mountains. Yes, it was like the goddess’ last journey home.