This story takes place in India, the country I presently reside in. It is pure fiction, but is inspired by the cultural traditions I have encountered, and different the people I have met here in this diverse, complex and culturally rich country.
Behind the prayers and sacrifices there is a deity, a collector of souls, lurking in the river that flows from the Milky Way in the sky, down to the earth and the forests where it hides in wait of travelers. You can’t see it, but if you squeeze along by the banks during the Monsoon season, when the river spills over into the forest, you will hear the voices, sweet and treacherous, drawing you into the pit. You can’t help it then, you must answer. Even if you are just a little fellow, playing with peacock feathers and jarred fireflies.
Occasionally a postcard arrives from him. The postcards show rose-studded beach huts and blooming fig-trees, sometimes blue cornflowers by lavishly decorated marble fountains, or wooded hills bathed in amber and gold. I catch a glimpse then, of the child he was, a little thing waving from an open window, and I hear him laugh, making mischief deep in the thickness of our unkempt garden. “May I come to?” I asked him years ago when he left. “No, Janoo, they will like it better if you stay.”
“I think it is the most beautiful place I have ever seen,” said Ayan one cloudy afternoon in late August, while we were fishing for crab in the canal next to our houses. “So, tell me about it,” I urged him. “It is difficult to see, even in daydreams, I don’t think you can.” “Can you show me then?” I asked hopefully. Ayan shook his head, “it is too dangerous for you, you are just a girl, and you haven’t got the gift.” “What gift, Ayan?” The sun had dipped low on the horizon and the shadows were growing fast. The green turf we were sitting on was turning black. “I don’t know,” sighed Ayan. “Have you ever felt like just leaving, Janoo?” I shook my head. “Then you don’t have it. The gift.” “Let’s go home,” Ayan said abruptly and got up and brushed off his white grimy short-pant. “But it isn’t even dark yet, Ayan.” But Ayan had already started walking briskly towards our twin houses. I ran after him like I always did. “Promise me you will never leave me!” I called out. But there was no reply. Ayan had disappeared into the gray misty dusk.
“Remember beti,” said my mother that night as she put the soft cotton blankets around my little body, “nothing is forever.” Then she kissed me and left me in the dark.
Our houses, Ayan’s and mine, stood holding each other in a tight embrace, just beyond the government post office at the crossing between Mukherjee Street and Shankarpur. You could hardly see where one house ended and the other began. Both houses had white chipped paint with green moss growing in the cracks. Gray and blue pigeons lived under the eaves, flapping their wings constantly and diving in intervals to the flat muddy ground to feed. Ayan had been born three months before me, but I had always refused to call him by the respectful Dada, big brother. He was my friend, and none of us wanted to be restricted by family customs in our friendship. “You are still young, “said Mrs. Arora, Ayan’s mother, “I will allow it for now, little Janoo.”
Later that August, Ayan went to the river in the forest again. I wanted to come, but he had already left when I came looking for him. I was not allowed to go into the woods, there were snakes and tigers hiding behind wet overgrown grass, said my papa. But I went anyway. The jungle was full of noises, I listened for feet stepping on dead leaves, but I could only hear the wail of the peacocks and the eerie cry of restless foxes. I must have been stalking through the hot humid forest for an hour when I suddenly heard a voice behind a grove of tall coconut trees. “Ayan, is that you?” I called out hesitantly and quite afraid. No reply came. Perhaps it was the river deity trying to trap me, I thought to myself. But I still followed the voice further into the jungle. “Ayan!” I called out again, and then I saw him, standing very still next to the river, singing. It was his voice I had heard behind the coconut trees. The sequence of melodic sounds, produced by the little boy standing by the banks of the river, composed sentiments and moods I had, in my youthfulness, not yet experienced, but somehow still recognized and remembered.
“Did you hear the river?” he asked me later when he became aware of my presence. I shook my head. “I heard only you Ayan, but that was enough for me. You sing beautifully.” Ayan smiled and shrugged. “It is because of her,” he said, “the river goddess.” I felt a pang of jealousy at that, but soon checked myself and discarded the feeling. It was dangerous to be jealous of a god.
“I don’t want to be laughed at,” said Ayan when I asked him why he had not told anyone that he could sing. “It hurts.” Ayan was the Aroras’ only child, he was expected to pursue a formal education and become something respectable like a doctor or an engineer. He was not expected to sing. Even at eleven I could understand that. Boys carried the financial responsibility of their entire family, present and future, on their shoulders, and were told so from birth. “Nobody knows me,” said Ayan with rivers of sadness in his dark brown eyes, “ even parents can really hurt you, in your soul, even if they do love you, people forget that,” he continued and kicked a lost pebble on the bare road in front of his feet. The pebble flew back into the soft green wayside bed. “Don’t do that,” I said sternly, “it might hit something. There are so many chrysalises this time of year!” Ayan kicked his foot stubbornly again, but this time there was nothing to meet its harsh impact, only empty gray road.
We grew up, like all children have to do eventually, and by tenth standard, Mrs. Arora’s suspicions were confirmed; she had given birth to a prodigy. Ayan received the best marks of his whole batch in his final exams. “My son will grow up to be a very fine doctor,” informed Mrs. Arora anyone who cared to listen, and even those who didn’t. Ayan had become a handsome young man, and already then, at only fifteen years old, the proposals had started pouring in. Mrs. Arora was beaming with pride. “Goodness! No!” she cried when someone asked her if she was planning to send her son abroad for his further education. “I will never give my beta to foreigners!” she stated sternly, “he is to marry a good Indian girl and stay here with us. We are so proud of our little man!”
“How did it go for you, Janoo?” asked Ayan me as we were having tea together at a little roadside stall on our way home from school. “Okay,” I replied nonchalantly, “I got 71% marks, but that is enough, nothing is expected of me. I am just to marry, preferably someone richer than my father, and then go and live with his family and be the housewife there. Ma says boys don’t like too smart girls, it makes them feel smaller somehow.” Ayan sighed. “Janoo, you shouldn’t listen to all that cultural rubbish, you should be free to make your own choices, to live the life you want,” he looked at me with concern and compassion, then his eyes went to the white clouds above and grew dreamy, spotting something up there I could not see.” Have you never heard your soul whisper to you in your sleep, Janoo, showing you places, real places, waiting for you to explore?” “Ayan, you are a boy, but even you are not free to make your own choices, perhaps even less so than I am.” He nodded and the light that had been there in his eyes when he mentioned his dream went out.
“But you can at least see the girl, beta! Her father has offered us a big dowry, a car and one lakh rupees!” Mrs. Arora couldn’t hide her excitement as she beamed proudly at the young man who was her heart’s joy. “But Ma, I’m only eighteen! How can I marry, I am still in college?” “Ayan dear, it will just be an engagement, to finalize everything; you won’t actually marry and live together until after you get a job. She is so pretty, the girl, sweet and respectful and so fair!” “I don’t care about those things, Ma, I don’t know her, how can I fall in love with a girl I have never seen!” “ Love is not important now, beta, it will come later, if you like her looks you will fall in love soon, that is how it is for everyone.”
“She doesn’t understand, Janoo, no one does. No one.” I had never seen Ayan so frustrated before. But there was a resignation in his voice too, like he had given up. I felt sorry for this enormously gifted young man who was too duty-bound by culture and family to be allowed to follow the voice he interpreted as his real creator, the mother of his soul: the river goddess. “Ayan, what will you do?” Ayan looked around at the dimming landscape, the twinkling diyas of his home, the narrow paths of the familiar garden stripped bare by the heat, and the old fields that had once kept him company as he was allowed to be whisked away into regions of wonderful childhood adventures, free from duties and obligations threatening to take him away from himself. “I will leave,” he said then, but there was no trace of sadness in his voice. “I will leave it all behind and go to her whom I have loved my whole life.” “May I come to?” I asked him, even if I already knew the answer. “No, Janoo, they will like it better if you stay.” Ayan started walking briskly towards the darkening horizon. I ran after him like I always did. “Promise me you will never forget me!” I called out. But there was no reply. Ayan had disappeared into the gray misty dusk.
I didn’t hear from him in years, none of us did. People called it a scandal, but I knew better. Then one day, three years later in a café in Park Street, I saw him. It was just after my marriage had been fixed, my mother and I were shopping for my wedding sari, but she had left me with a coffee and a cake while she looked for bangles. “Hello Janoo,” he said, as though no time had passed at all. He told me that he had saved up enough money to go to London; there he would try his luck as a singer in renowned venues I had never heard about. I wished him luck and we parted. Five years later the postcards started coming. From London, Paris, New York, Sidney, he traveled the world as a much sought after singer. The postcards were signed: From your friend, River Song.
I see them occasionally, his parents; they have aged with sorrow and loneliness. I feel sorry for them, I see how they suffer, but then I remember a boy, who suffered for eighteen years until he was finally free to listen to the song of the river. I am a married woman now, I love my husband and find my own purpose in the day-to-day chores, they leave me free to laugh and talk and dream as I please. But sometimes I miss him, my Ayan, and then I go to the river, and sometimes, if I squeeze along by the banks during the Monsoon season, when the river spills over into the forest, I hear the voice, but it is my Ayan’s voice I hear, sweet and clear and child-like, and I hope he is happy, with the companion that is as much a part of him as his own flesh and blood: the River Song.