Running with Wolves

2016-09-09-09-09-01

This story is pure fiction, but it is inspired by Finnish creation myths.

If ordinary people were interested in the problems of philosophy, wise men would be found wandering up and down the runways of modern culture eager to debate. But despite popular belief, in the beginning it was not the word, it was desire. And desire split the universe in half. And the air had a daughter. She was beautiful, of course, but lonely. So she drowned herself in the mighty ocean and had a child with him. But a bird came and stole her child away and made it into earth. The child stretched his hands towards the sky and made a bridge for his mother to cross. But from the bridge came darkness and sank its teeth into the child’s chest, and so a lake rose from the newly formed cavity, and now the child could be embraced by his father, and his mother went back to the air and kissed the child’s little cheek. But the darkness was still there, so soldiers were born from it, and tried desperately to fight it, but failed of course, and the different elements had to learn to live with each other. Not in harmony, no, that would have been impossible, but in quiet acceptance and defeat.

Mr. Lawrence folded his books away, lowered his glasses and stared directly into Gylfie’s eyes. Gylfie looked down, embarrassed. She was perhaps the most eager student, but far from the boldest. Mr. Lawrence cleared his throat and said unceremoniously, “Well, children, that’s all for today. You may read Chapter 16 about Finnish myths for next lecture.” He heaved his book bag unto his shoulder and trotted out of the lecture hall. Some of the other students got up quickly and followed him, but Gylfie remained in her fold-up seat. She had heard the story before of course (her grandmother was Finnish), but she couldn’t remember any darkness or soldiers or piercing of hearts in any of her granny’s stories. But Mr. Lawrence was a decorated professor of ancient myths and paganism, and there was no way she would ever question his knowledge or authority on the subject.

Gylfie waited until she was the only one left in the lecture hall, then slowly she got up, chucked her tablet in her backpack and left. It was a rainy day. Huge whitish droplets had settled on the Fiat’s windscreen, and the blackened concrete road was bordered with brown puddles. Gylfie unlocked her car and attempted to wipe off the rain, but as soon as the window was clear, a new shower scattered its discharge on the dry surface. It was impossible. Gylfie sighed. She hated driving in such low visibility. The roads were thankfully pretty empty of people. It was gray and gloomy outside and the few cars braving the weather were moving slowly and carefully. Gylfie followed behind a black Citroen, her tires splashing rainwater left and right. Then suddenly she heard a loud yelp! She looked to both sides to see where the sound was coming from, and there on the sidewalk stood a boy, or rather a young man, covered in muddy brown water. She had obviously splashed him. He looked so forlorn that Gylfie pulled over and got out of her car to apologize. The young man had a strange look about him. His hair was bluish black and shoulder length, his eyes were icy blue and almost fluorescent, and his skin was pallid, but with a soft glow that made Gylfie stare at it, mesmerized. “You didn’t have to do that,” said the man, in a surprisingly deep voice, “get out of the car, I mean,” he shrugged apologetically, “these things happen. It’s the rain.” Gylfie didn’t answer right away; she was too caught up in his glowing skin. Then she pulled herself together, and said to her own surprise and astonishment: “Do you need a ride somewhere?”

The blue eyed boy lifted his eyebrows in surprise; he stared at her, as though he was examining her intentions, but then nodded and smiled. “Alright, yes, I’m on my way to work, perhaps a ride would be good.” Gylfie opened to door on the passenger side for him, and walked around the car to let herself in. “I’m Ylv by the way,” said the young man and held out his hand for her to shake. “Gylfie,” replied Gylfie and they shook hands. His was wet and cold, hers warm and dry. Gylfie switched on the heating and pulled on to the road. “So, where is it you work?” Ylv smiled. “The circus,” he replied, “it’s just off Macon Street, by the old library.” Gylfie nodded, she knew the place well. “What is it that you do at the circus?” She asked. “I’m the Gorilla man!” Ylv threw back his head and laughed. Gylfie stared at him. His face changed when he laughed, it opened up more and she could see tiny wrinkles around his eyes. When he noticed her serious face he calmed down and studied her. “I’m a skin changer……a shape shifter…” He lifted his eyebrows and made a grimace, then he chuckled, “I’m joking, Gylfie, relax.” Gylfie smiled and nodded. Of course she knew that. They drove a while in silence. ” Heeeey,” said Ylv suddenly, “have you noticed that the weather has changed?” Gylfie looked outside the windows of the little Fiat. He was right; the heavy rain had turned to snow! Snow! It was only October, a bit early for snow, thought Gylfie to herself. “Well, at least it’s not settling,” responded Ylv, as though he had heard her thoughts. Macon Street was coming up, and Gylfie made a right turn towards the library. Then suddenly Ylv cried out: “Watch out!” Gylfie stared horrified into the snowy damp windshield and spotted a shadow crossing the road just in front of the car, she hit the brakes hard. The car skidded off the road and stopped abruptly before it landed in the ditch. Ylv struggled to open the door, finally got himself out and ran to see what it was that they had almost hit. Gylfie stayed frozen in her seat, shaking. What had just happened? Ylv came back to the car and opened the door on the driver’s side. “I think it was just some kind of animal.” He looked at Gylfie and added with concern in his voice: “Are you okay?” Gylfie nodded weakly. “You know, I can walk from here, if you’d rather just go home, I mean.” Gylfie nodded again. She seemed to have lost the ability to speak. Ylv shrugged. “Okay, thanks for the ride anyway, perhaps I’ll see you around.” And with that he shut the door and walked away.

Gylfie remained in her car seat for a while, staring out the darkened windshield. What had just happened? The snow had stopped and the coldness of the oncoming night had solidified the water on the windows into patterns of white shiny ice. The roads would freeze too, thought Gylfie to herself, and she started the Fiat. Better get off this increasingly slippery track before she had another almost accident.

That night Gylfie repeated the incident over and over again in her sleep, only this time it was a child on the road, and she didn’t almost hit it, she ran right over it. Ylv was there too, but he just sat passively in his seat, giving a hint of a smile each time she hit the child, then vanishing into thin air as soon as she stopped the car. When morning finally came, Gylfie was exhausted. She went to the kitchen and made herself a cup of coffee. The weather had changed again; the sun was now piercing through a clouded sky, breaking apart the ice from yesterday’s chill. Gylfie shoved her tablet and books into her backpack and headed for the car, but as soon as she saw the battered Fiat, she knew she couldn’t drive. It would have to be the bus.

The central heating in the bus was turned uncomfortably high. The bus driver sat happily in his seat in a worn out t-shirt and sunnies, while the passengers struggled to keep from sweating in their winter coats and woolly hats. Gylfie started to feel a bit queasy. The heat was suffocating. She closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing to keep the nausea at bay. The bus was making a hopeless amount of stops. There were bus stands at every corner and the bus seemed to take every turn and sidetrack possible to look for new passengers to fill the empty seats. After ten more minutes Gylfie could not take it anymore, she pushed the stop button and waited for the next bus stand to appear. When she was finally back outside in the fresh cold air she realized that she had no idea where she was. She looked around for any clues, like a street name or a sign with a name on, but there was nothing. She just had to pick a direction and start walking. At least the fresh air cured her of the annoying nausea.
After walking for about twenty minutes Gylfie came to an abrupt halt. There was something familiar about this place. On intuition she made a right turn, and yes, she had been right, she was back, back on the scene of yesterday’s almost accident. Gylfie could feel her arm hair stand up. Why had she come here? Was it her subconscious mind telling her something? Maybe she actually had hit that animal and now it lay somewhere wounded and dying. And it was all her fault. Where would a wounded animal go? Gylfie examined the landscape. The road had dried up and was now back to the gray color of faded asphalt, on each side of the road there was a ditch, and on the other side of the ditch there was a scattering of trees. Gylfie recognized birch in their white barrenness and even dark green spruce and other evergreens she was not familiar with. Stillness emanated from the forest, as though there was a boundary of quiet between that green natural world and this gray asphalted nudity. Of course, thought Gylfie to herself, a wounded animal would have run into the sanctuary of the forest.

The trees were tall, hardly letting in the sunshine, and the path became a zigzag of shadows and withered leaves gleaming in rays of faded light. But at least there was a path. Gylfie stepped carefully over little rocks and puddles covered in black ice. It was so quiet she could hear herself breathe, only a couple of birds chanted wistfully in the trees. Soon the forest opened into a clearing and there was a lake. It was a small lake with still dark water, little flakes of sun-flecked ice floated on the surface. The banks were bordered with lean reaching grass indicating perhaps a swamp-like interior. Gylfie jumped as she suddenly heard a faint sound of water being moved sideways, not exactly a splashing, more of a quiet gliding. And then she spotted him, a man swimming gracefully in the lake. His black long hair floated behind him on the water surface making him look ethereal and otherworldly. Gylfie gave a little cough; she had to somehow indicate that he had an audience. The man, obviously taken by surprise, splashed around a bit, then turned and swam towards her. When he was quite close, Gylfie saw to her astonishment that it was Ylv.

Ylv rose from the black water and waded towards her. Gylfie was embarrassed to see that he was stark naked. But Ylv didn’t seem to mind her seeing him naked. He just smiled and came over to her, wrapping himself in a towel. “Isn’t it cold?” Asked Gylfie. Ylv shrugged. “You get used to it.” “What are you doing here, Gylfie?” Gylfie was taken aback by his obvious lack of manners, she cleared her throat and said, a bit annoyed: ” I-I came back to….to see if that animal from yesterday was hurt.” Ylv’s eyes softened. “Gylfie, we didn’t hit it, it got away, remember…” “Yes, but….but….I thought.” To her astonishment Gylfie started crying. Warm tears ran down her cold cheeks and landed on the ground. Ylv came up next to her and put his arm around her. “I could have hit it,” said Gylfie, sobbing. “I could have killed it. It could have been a child. I never thought…..I could do something like that…” “But Gylfie,” said Ylv soothingly, “it wouldn’t have been your fault. It was dark and raining and,” “It wouldn’t have mattered,” interrupted Gylfie. “I….I….am capable of taking a life….it wouldn’t have meant anything to that life if I meant to or not….” Ylv put his other arm around her and held her. She sobbed into his shoulder. “Gylfie….let me take you to your car. You need to go home.” “I don’t have my car,” whispered Gylfie, “I took the bus.” “But why?” Began Ylv, but stopped himself with a sigh. “Oh, Gylfie…” Gylfie thought she detected frustration in his voice. Who could blame him, she was being hysterical.

“Come for a swim with me,” whispered Ylv in her ear. “It will clear your head.” Gylfie sniffed and swallowed a sob. “But, but it’s so cold, Ylv, I’ll get sick.” “Nonsense!” Exclaimed Ylv loudly and smiled. “It’s just cold in the beginning, then you get used to it. It’s good for health, really. Come on! Give it a try!” Ylv looked so enthusiastic; Gylfie had to smile through her tears. These last two days had been pretty crazy, maybe she should add a little more madness to the already boiling over mishmash of temporary insanity. Ylv saw the change in her eyes, and his smile broadened. He discarded his towel and ran towards the lake, pulling her with him. He was like a naughty child let off the leash. “But I don’t have a swimsuit,” protested Gylfie. “Well, neither have I.” Ylv threw back his head and his laughter hit Gylfie right in the face. It was infectious. She hesitated. She could just wear her clothes, but then she would have to sit on the bus back home in soaking wet clothes. That did it, the thought of wet clothes gave her the audacity she needed to strip down, she had not planned to undress entirely, but when she started removing garment after garment, there was a freedom in it, an abandon that made her bold, and she followed the already splashing Ylv into the lake without a single piece of cover-up on her body. Ylv didn’t stare or make any sign of desiring her. He was more like a child, enticing her to wade deeper and deeper into the black water.

The water was cold. Colder than anything Gylfie had ever felt against her body. Little silver needles pierced her skin all over, and penetrated deep into her. She had a hard time breathing. Her breath came in heaves, desperately being sucked in in an attempt to fill her lungs with something else than cold. Ylv seemed unaffected. He swam calmly around her, smiling and teasing. His skin was still white and pale. Gylfie watched her own skin turn from an irritated pink to a bluish red. “Come on!” Laughed Ylv, “Just do it. Just let go!” Gylfie released her body into the water, and the world disappeared. She could hear noises, water surging, closing in on her, a small ringing sound and something else….perhaps breaking of ice flakes. The ground under her feet was no longer there and she sank. But no, she couldn’t! She had to swim! Gylfie kicked off and rose to the surface, desperately battling the treacherous water. As her head broke free she managed to take one big breath and fill herself with air. She struggled to keep herself from drowning. Her eyes searched for Ylv. But when her gaze met the bank her eyes widened in disbelief. Someone was standing there, next to the pile of clothes she had left behind! Something small. Was it a child? Or….no….it was a cub, a wolf of some kind or maybe a husky. Gylfie went under again. The darkness of the lake swallowed her, and this time it would not let go. It was quiet now, almost peaceful. Gylfie relaxed her limbs and let herself sink. Then suddenly, a pole of light struck the water and travelled fast towards Gylfie. It spread like a bolt of lightning and shaded her face with soft yellow. It must be a ray of sun, or perhaps starlight or a torch. In her delirium Gylfie could not tell. But she had to follow it. She was drowning! She didn’t want to die! Gylfie forced her body to listen to her and slowly she ascended towards the source of the light.

The surface broke with a slow slurping sound. Gylfie gulped for breath. Her hair was pasted to her scalp and her nose was smarting from too much water intake. Rays of warm sun basked in her frozen face, and the water reluctantly released her to earth’s waiting embrace. Gylfie waded towards the bank and her pile of dry clothes. There was nobody there. No child, no cub. Only too much silence, a complete absence of life. Gylfie shivered. She no longer cared about the child; it must have been a figment of her delirious frost-shocked mind. She used her t-shirt as a towel and hurriedly dressed herself. There was not a single bird chanting now. But where was Ylv? Gylfie looked around. She let her eyes slowly fly over the water, but there was nobody. Only silence. The water didn’t even move and neither did the shadows nor the wind. Frankly, Gylfie was glad. She was tired of this strange blue eyed boy and his teasing and tricks. He was probably hiding somewhere in the forest, laughing at her. Then suddenly Gylfie detected a sound, it was an engine, the engine of a vehicle. The bus! Gylfie leaped to her feet and started running towards the road she had come from. She was not going to miss that bus! She paid no attention to the broken branches, the busy ants or the faint prints of paws under her feet. She just ran frantically, to catch up with the oncoming bus.

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The Moon-Faced Swami of Shakespeare Street

2016-09-11-17-05-57

This is a story in set in post-colonial Calcutta, India, about an Englishman who abandons his country to become a hermit in the Indian Himalayas, and then returns to the daughter, and lover he left in Calcutta 20 years before.

Even in the cluttered urbanity of a densely populated city you will still be run over by wild things if you sit still long enough. There are intruders, imposters carrying wilderness on their backs. Like big grey-whiskered monkeys they will make faces at you and pull at your coat, thinking you are harmless to them. In the evenings they will beg for your attention, they will stare at you with sorrowful eyes and croon and keen their misery, and in the morning they will stamp their feet, unspeakably wise in their persistent begging. But what will you do? Will you bow your head at them, and run alone into the night? Will you share in their fire, coming alive with curiosity, or will you swing off with rabbity ears, going with the shadows and low suspicious calls?

I lived under a white floor on Shakespeare Street, not far from the South Park Street Cemetery and St. Thomas Church. Mrs. Banerjee, the Landlady, was an old croon, but her daughter Rimpa and I had become good friends. Rimpa was fascinated by me, an English unmarried woman living alone in a foreign country! The idea held for her both fear and admiration. I travelled to India on a cargo ship two years before to join the Mother Theresa mission, but grew weary with the depressing work after falling ill with dysentery over and over again. I don’t know why I didn’t go home, perhaps because I had forgotten what home was or felt like. I loved walking around in the old city feeling its rich history and the many battles that had been fought here, I loved visiting the ghats to see the people gathering there to perform their sacred activities and conduct mundane business meetings after a cleanse in the muddy water. The ghats were also the mooring base for hundreds of fishing boats with colorful huts and dirty sails. I never bought any fish though; I never liked that salty taste of the sea.

I had never met Rimpa’s father, he was a business man who lived somewhere in Delhi. I had my suspicions that Rimpa had never met him herself despite her twenty something years. How the two of them managed, I could never tell, perhaps it was my insignificant rent that paid for their meals. I could have lived ten lifetimes in Calcutta on an English monthly salary. Shakespeare Street was a quiet street compared to the neighboring Park Street, it was a street dedicated to the English families who had stayed behind after India’s separation from the English crown, and to the rich Anglo-Indians who now ran their offices. Rimpa, with her fair complexion and European eyes could have been one of them, but Mrs. Banerjee insisted that Mr. Banerjee was a Rajasthani high-born Hindu. Rimpa had an apt for the English language and never tired of talking to me. Sometimes I suspected I was her only source of entertainment, all cooped up in her mother’s quiet house as she was. When Rimpa asked her mother where babies come from, the answer was that they sprung out of Lord Vishnu’s navel. Mrs. Banerjee knew all there was to know about the gods, but had received very little formal education. She cooked, cleaned and prayed, that was her life. Rimpa was different, she wanted to learn, and she had an open curiosity that she poured out on me. “Didi, where does the water come from?” she asked me one day we were sitting under a Banyan tree in the courtyard, watching muddy channels of rain pouring from the leaves of the enormous tree. Mrs. Banerjee had just lit the incense sticks for the evening puja and the soft sweet fragrance wafted down from an open window.
The rain lasted for a week, and then the sun came out and dried up the foul-smelling holes in the cracked asphalt filled with filth and brown water. “Ohm, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti,” crooned Mrs. Banerjee from the open window, “Peace be with my moon-faced lover.”

On the first day of Sharad, as the expanse of paddy stalks bent with rich harvest and blue peacock feathers fell from the rooftops, the bookbinder’s wife, Mirza, died. “It is a good time to die,” said Mrs. Banerjee and gathered her best fruits to join in the funeral rites. People hurried into the street to pay their respect to the late woman. “Leave none behind!” A voiced called out. And then the wailing started. Rimpa and I sat on the floor in the kitchen sipping cardamom tea and laughing. “Is there really such a thing as a good day to die?” chuckled Rimpa.
But Mirza’s death was just an event in a series of what Mrs. Banerjee called bad omens. There was a sigh in the air that autumn. The cows stopped lactating, the flower beds dried up too quickly, water, stored for drinking, was declared contaminated by the municipality, a band of street dogs attacked a little girl and left her lame. And the city dwellers, one by one, crept out of their houses to pray before the mighty Kali, which only resulted in an increase of taxes imposed by the chief minister. The city was in an uproar. The pandits said: “It is a punishment. You have all lost your piety and made money your new god!” People rushed to the temples declaring their devotion with gifts of flowers, sweetmeats and incense. “It is not enough,” declared the priests, “you need to appease the wrath of Kali by raising a new temple in her honor.” Before the month was ended a new temple was raised. Then an earth quake struck the city, a mighty shrug from the Himalayas sent shivers down the spine of the entire country. Little makeshift huts collapsed in submission to the mountain god’s decree of anger, even sturdier brick houses bent in silent obedience. Business meetings at the ghat stopped and were replaced by intricate cleansing rituals involving a thorough mouth-rinse in the holy water. Contaminated water was gargled and spat out into the overcrowded river, followed by an outbreak of sickness and more despair. But it was the arrival of Rimpa’s father that stirred up the mightiest quake.

I had my suspicions of course, but seeing the white sahib walking along the red loopholed railway-line that hot afternoon, clad in dazzling white rags, made the hairs stand in the back of my neck. A swarm of hungry mosquitoes clung to the top of his head and his gray-spangled hair was matted and damp with sweat. “I shall hate him,” said Rimpa, full of spite and shock, and locked the door to her sleeping quarters. Mr. H.M Ford had once been a respectable English gentleman, a trader and businessman with such a wealth that even the prime minister of India would have envied him. But that was until he left his home turf and fell into the arms of Bharat. He swooned with desire, not for a woman, oh no, that would have been the making of the young reckless Mr. Ford, but it was the temperamental Maa Ganges who had lured and teased him out of his English shell. Such things can happen to a young inexperienced youth, they all knew it, but to an Englishman! How could he have heard the lustrous call of their life-giving goddess? The hermit, Mr. H.M Ford, now to be referred to as Sri Gora Shankar looked over the face of his old lover and saw that it had changed. In place of a young maiden was an old sour-faced hag wrinkled and weary with life’s many disappointments. He shrugged and opened the door to his house.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” said Sri Gora Shankar with a smile. “You were a beauty in your youth.” Mrs. Banerjee turned her back on him and cursed him. “I think we’ll go to the temple together.” Sri Gora Shankar put his hand on her brown fleshy shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

Once the secret of Rimpa’s mysterious father was out, people stopped visiting the tall white house on Shakespeare Street. I hardly ever heard the stomping of heavy feet against my ceiling. It was always quiet. Too quiet. Rimpa became a teenager again, throwing tantrums and shouting at her mother. I tried many times to talk to her, but she had come to see me as a foreigner, as her father’s accomplice. She was at war with the white race, at war with herself, and was no longer proud of her delicate fair complexion. The heart-breaking delay in the revelation of her father’s identity brought on an angry reckless fever, and put the fear of god into the neighbors. Or perhaps it was the fear of the white god-like man they refused to prostrate in front of. Sri Gora Shankar watched over his daughter with sorrow-filled eyes. Days were long and hot and the violent and awful rage of Kalika seemed to have no end. “All is well,” he finally told me one day. The fever had broken; the goddess had finally shown some mercy.
“He is a very holy man,” said Sondeep Goswami to me one day. “She has had so little.” He tilted his head and looked up at the kitchen window. Incense wafted the air and a white clad man was blowing a conch. “There is always time, but he could have given her a half-day warning.” Sondeep Goswami was not the only one to give his approval of the fair-faced swami, but they all still refused to give him the same reverence as they gave their darker skinned countrymen who had been touched by the river goddess. The swami himself just shrugged and smiled.
The weather had started cooling down when she finally came to see me. Rimpa wanted me to tell her about England. “Is it as far away as Darjeeling?” she asked. “It is hundred times further,” I replied. “That is alright, I am still young,” she smiled and looked out towards the setting sun with dazed dreamy eyes. Rimpa came to me often that winter.

Stacks of sugarcane covered the fields and seem to sweeten even the moody goddess. Dew fell thick on grassy river banks, and blue lotuses opened their cold hearts wide in appreciation of the chill sobering winds. The midnight queen rode her white camel over the pale sky and snow was reported to fall in the colonial hill stations. People were shivering in their thin cotton garments designed to let the mild breezes of summer caress hot sweaty skin. Bare-chested swamis pilgrimed to Gamukh to pray at the icy roots of the holy Ganges. But our own white-faced swami stayed. He had reluctantly shaved his long unkempt beard at his daughter’s request, and now, bare-faced and clean, everyone could see the resemblance between the two. Even Rimpa’s mother had softened a bit towards her old lover.
“Mohan Ghosh has taken his nephews and gone to the coal mines to look for work,” said Mrs. Banerjee matter-of-factly one cold morning when we are all sitting on the balcony waiting for the sun to rise and bless us with his warmth. “Maybe you should go too. Rimpa needs new clothes, and she doesn’t even have gold bangles for her dowry. You want her to wed don’t you?” Sri Gora Shankar looked fondly at his daughter and shrugged. “She will do what she wants.” Mrs. Banerjee examined the soft-eyed man sternly and changed her tactics. “What will she do when we are no more? Who will take care of her? Do you really want her to be all alone in the world? This country is not safe for unmarried women.” She could see in his eyes that she had succeeded.

The next morning Sri Gora Shankar shed his pious colorless garments and stepped into a pair of loose, somewhat oversized, black pressed pants. But he did not board the train to join the exemplified initiator; he crossed the street and headed for Park Street and the English Overseas Bank. By the end of the month Sri Gora Shankar was gone. In his place stood a tall lean Englishman with a clean shaven face and trimmed greying hair. Mr. H.M Ford, employee of the E.O.B, brought his first salary to his daughter with a proud smile that did not quite reach his eyes. Rimpa hugged him tightly, forgetting the old custom that duty-bound her to prostrate in front of the holy man. He hugged her back and his shoulders relaxed under his daughter’s warm touch. Soon everyone talked of the Banerjees’ good fortune. Room after empty room was furnished, and Rimpa acquired a dowry that had the young, and the not so young, suitors lining up at her door. But Mrs. Banerjee thought none of them were good enough for her rich, fair daughter. Rimpa was just as glad. She had other plans.

She told me on a Sunday afternoon while her parents were busy with guests. “I am going to England, Didi!” I lifted my eyebrows in surprise, but smiled quickly to hide my astonishment. “When are you leaving?” I asked. “Well, I don’t know, but papa has told me he will take me.” “Do you not want to marry, then?” Rimpa looked obstinately towards the ceiling. She frowned her forehead and tightened her jaw, like a proper Englishwoman. “I am not going to marry any of these dark round-faced lackeys! I am going to marry an English gentleman!” I was somewhat taken aback by her outburst, she seemed so full of spite for these people who, up till now, had been her family and friends.
I overheard them one day in a middle of a heated discussion. Rimpa, with a voice heavy with frustration and bitterness, was imploring, then threatening her father to take her with him to England. “You will leave me here in this godforsaken city and look for a proper mem-sahib to give you a white English daughter!” Mr. Ford sighed in resignation. He had grown tired of his daughter’s bantering and her mother’s endless demands. Rimpa cried her father into submission, but weeks went by and there was still no specific plan to leave for the longed for land of proper English gentlemen. Mrs. Banerjee was weary of her daughter too, she had become disrespectful and too audacious after her father’s arrival, and Mrs. Banerjee feared that it was the English in her that had finally come out and made her undesirable as a proper Indian bride.

“I don’t pretend to understand, Banerjee Madam” I told her one day as she was lamenting her sorrows to me one late afternoon. She had never come to me before, so I thought she must be desperate. “That is why I come here,” she said and sighed, “because you will never understand.” “Well, perhaps everything will be okay in the end, “I said and put my hand on hers. She stiffened a little, but welcomed the gesture.
Close to the verandah stood an old rocking chair made of polished wood from an unfortunate mango tree, and it was in the smooth seat of this chair Mr. H.M Ford left his pale blue oversized shirt and black freshly pressed pant, neatly folded. His dark brown patent leather shoes stood ownerless on the ground under the chair. It was a windy morning in April and the chair rocked gently in the much welcomed draft. He had taken nothing with him, except for the white rags he came in; even his razor and soap were left behind next to the new marble basin. It was such a hot day most of the inhabitants of Shakespeare Street stayed inside under their dust-laden ceiling fans, only the cows, who could not access such luxuries, prevented the Street from looking like a ghost town, relieved to find some shade beneath the trees they chewed lazily at some invisible grain or strand of grass with half-closed brown eyes. A hot fragrant wind from the sea had caused a few trees to bloom in vivid pink and orange, but most of the vegetation was completely parched by the summer heat. When the troubled call of the white conch lamented its longing for the sea, the reluctant devotees of the goddess, who was the namesake of their beloved city, opened the door to their houses to welcome their homesick deity with withering summer flowers and white grains of uncooked rice. Long before the last wail of the primitive instrument ceased the whole neighborhood had heard the warning. There was already talk of a drought, and a newlywed girl had collapsed from heat stroke near the cemetery, and the city dwellers shook their heads in fearful anticipation as they all observed the pile of clean clothes left on the rocking chair outside the Banerjee home.

“I knew he would leave eventually,” said Mrs. Mitra, “I knew, but the goddess gives no warning. She takes back her own whenever she pleases.” “Well, at least the girl has a dowry now, and a name, Ford was it?” interjected Mrs. Bhaduri. From across the city came the whistling of a train, backed by the rumble of thunder. “God help us,” said Mrs. Mitra, “Our Kalika is awake.”
Before the thunder reached the city I left. I had booked the ticket months ago, the thought of another Bengali summer had finally made me give in. I was going back to good old England. Neither Rimpa nor her mother came to say goodbye. I left the last month’s rent on the table next to my bed; the bills were neatly folded in a brown paper envelope. Before I left, I caught myself whispering a prayer, there was nothing else to do, the goddess takes no account of time, only the river marks the passing of the seasons, and she takes what she pleases, and even though she sometimes returns what she takes, you will never know in which form it will be given back to you. You can either fight until you grow weary or give in to her, and let the wilderness take you.

The Five Gifts of the Goddess

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This is a romantic short story set in West Bengal, India, about a girl, destined to dance for the goddess, who does the one thing she is forbidden from doing: falling in love.

Have you ever heard the call of the Conch Blower, wailing deep and throaty from the eastern shore of infinity? It is heard by those who are called upon by the gods. It is a call to return to where the sun rises, where the sky stretches far into eternity, and the bells chime, not to awaken deities, not from blue painted minarets, but from old stars reborn from dead and gone generations who loved and lived under their light. You will dance then, in those gardens of Vrindavan, in communion with Akasha, unhampered by any restrictions of time or place. And when you do, the same old miracle takes place, the moment you set foot in these gardens, you are home.

The dance was part of my life from my earliest consciousness. I learned to know it and love it in every mood, as an expression of yearning, passion and submission, sometimes as a long gleaming sand shore, sometimes as a glorious smother of white foam, or a sunset drinking its beauty from a red horizon dotted with white sails. I seemed to be born from a be-winged creature able to lift its dancing feet into a rapturous ecstasy filling my soul with nameless exhilaration. I left the world and the cares of the world so far behind that they seemed like a forgotten dream. Even when I gradually grew into the understanding that beyond the gardens of Vrindavan was merely another garden just like it, it still held a mystery and fascination for me. I longed to dance on the furthest peak beyond the reach of the red and gray sunrise. But it was not to be.
The house of Prajapati, near the enclosure of the Bay of Bengal is a tall house, taller than that of the neighboring houses. It speaks of my father’s wealth. A lotus springs out of the black gates, the richness of the ambered pink stands out against the coiled iron rods. The Lotus is my father’s pride; he is named after the great Ishvara after all. Jatayu, the milk man, says the eggshell white paint covering the brick walls of the house reminds him of Lord Vishnu lying lifeless on the waters of a milky ocean, ready to give birth to the gods. But Jatayu is born to a poor family and has no schooling beyond that which his father has taught him. Jatayu’s father says I will be the greatest dancer in all of West Bengal.

I was given to the goddess at an early age, as soon as I showed aptitude for the dance. But because I was so young I was allowed to stay home with my mother and siblings. I am well beyond my teenage years now, but my father refuses to let me go and live in the temple. He is too fond of me, he always was. I go every day though, for darshan. I bring flowers and other offerings to the goddess and she lets me sit at her feet rapt in thoughts of Vrindavan. I take very little food and I only wear white, I am not of this world. I belong to the goddess.
Vamana’s cousin told me, one morning, that his uncle wanted to see me. I thought no more of it, I am often asked to perform the sacred dance at rituals or festivals, and Vamana’s uncle, Naradiya, is a very important man in our community. His wealth has raised many a temple, not only in our neighborhood, but also in Calcutta, our great capital, where Naradiya spent his boyhood flying kites in a never ending warfare above the flat laundry dotted roofs of the city of dreams. I asked my father’s permission and that of my Guru, my teacher, and they both gave it, along with their blessings. The festival of the goddess was coming up, it is the holiest time of year for us who live in West Bengal, and all families were busy preparing the offerings to the goddess. Naradiya Uncle had called me to come on the third day of the festival, the day we call Chandraghanta.
A pandit, a Hindu priest, was called to Naradiya Uncle’s house at the day of the Puja to see that everything was done decently and in order. My father and I went together, and on the way my father told me how proud he was of me, which was rare, my father is not a very expressive man. The diyas, the little lamps made of clay and earthenware, were all lit in front of the house when we arrived. I could hear music, the soft beat of the table and quivering long-tuned song of the sitar. I recognized the “Mayamalavagowla Tala”, the “Before Dawn Raga”, pouring into the dim graying sky. It was still dark, but the Goddess always liked the pre-dawn best, the blessings given as the sun rises is considered to be the most auspicious and bountiful ones. My father and I removed our footwear and found our way upstairs where the ritual had already begun. We sat together cross-legged on a sleeping matt in the back waiting our turn to be greeted and welcomed. After the ritual was over tea and sweet coconut biscuits were served to the guest. I refused, as I wanted to keep my body pure for the dance. “I see that you did not get any tea, should I fetch you some?” I looked up. A dark black-eyed boy, or perhaps more of a young man, stood before me, bowing his head to meet my eyes. For a moment our eyes met and my heart gave a jolt. His eyes, eyes that seemed to pierce into my very soul, had the exquisite depth and bluish blackness of the night sky, they seemed devoid of color, except for a strand of golden flecks around his irises taking on the form of tiny stars reflecting the dim dawn light of the room. I caught myself staring and quickly cast my eyes down to the floor. “She is fasting, son,” replied my father, “she will take nothing until evening.” The boy nodded his head and disappeared. My heart was racing, and I did not understand what had happened to me. My life was that of a dancer, and nothing, except the goddess herself, was supposed to make me feel like this.

As afternoon approached, I prepared myself. I draped the red and white sari of the goddess artistically around my slim body and dotted my forehead with the red vermillion, marking the spot of the Ajna, the spiritual eye through which the soul communes with its maker. I tied the well-worn silver bells around my anklets and bowed my head in reverence before the clay representation of the goddess, and with my palms clasped together in greeting and respect I entered the makeshift stage. Age-old traditions of preservation of the holy principles and that of natural harmony and creativity pulsated through my body, and I had to force it to stay still until the Natrani, the Queen of the Dance, sounded out from the musical duo. My feet and hands acted on their own accord. Years of training had given me the freedom to give myself over to the devotion of the dance, rather than focus on the steps. I surrendered my body to the divine relationship between man and eternity, a relationship not of opposition, but of mutual dependence. Life begins when eternity enters into creation, into man and forms the soul. This secret connection, this link between the obvious and the mystery is a symbiotic relationship in which the partnering of life and divinity exists. I shaped my hands into that of the Lotus, the symbol of the cradle of the soul, I showed with further hand movements how it rose out of the black water, and gave birth to the light, to order, and gave form to the formless. I stamped my feet to give life to the bells, to the sound of the first sound that broke the great silence and made the strings on which rested the potential of creation quiver and vibrate so that the great movement could begin.

My audience was held in complete rapture, caught up in the sensuality of the dance, lost in the grace of the movements and the story they told, spiritual truths they had been told since they were children, but could not quite comprehend. When I finished, by stamping my heel musically on the floor, the audience broke out into a roar of appreciation and awe. I bowed my head and again clasped my palms together and left the stage with the same graceful steps as I had shown in the dance.
“That was beautiful. You are a very gifted dancer.” The black-eyed boy who had offered to fetch me tea stood before me. His eyes were filled with wonder and admiration. I looked down, hoping my father would see me and come to my rescue, but he was talking animatedly with Naradiya Uncle in the other corner of the room. “Please, may I ask your name?” “Mine is Gopal,” he added hurriedly. I had no choice, but to answer, refusing to speak would be both rude and disrespectful. I lifted my head an inch higher and looked at him. “I am Savitri.” He smiled. “Savitri. What a beautiful name. It suits you. You dance like the goddess herself.” I couldn’t help but smile at such praise. Then suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Savitri, it is time to leave,” my father said, and I nodded. “But, what about the tea?” interrupted Gopal. “She must be hungry if she’s not had anything to eat the whole day.” “She will eat at home,” said my father brusquely. I followed him outside and into the darkness of the night. I thought I would never see my black-eyed boy again, but I was wrong.

“Savitri Didi! Savitri Didi! Older sister! There is someone to see you! It’s a boy!” My younger sister, Devaki, looked at me, I could see mischief, but also fear in her eyes, she knew I had been given to the Goddess and could not take a husband. It was only because of the sentiments of my father I didn’t already live in a temple with the other devotees. “Where is father?” I asked spontaneously, I knew he would never allow me to talk to a boy. “He’s out.” Devaki’s eyes glimmered with teasing excitement. It had been two days since I had met Gopal. Could it be him? How had he found me? I walked on unsteady feet out into the courtyard and the entrance hall, and there he was. My black-eyed boy. His skin looked even darker now in broad daylight. But there was something about it that made it glow, even without an external source of light. “Hello, Savitri.” He used the informal greeting, used only between family and close friends. “Hello,” I stammered and looked down, unable to meet those starry pools of night piercing into my soul. “May I take you for a walk?” To my astonishment, I nodded my head. He was courteous and kind, making well-mannered small talk as we strolled around the dried up rice paddies with the scorching autumn sun burning our necks and exposed arms. I found myself drawn to him, to his kindness, his audacity in seeking me out, and to his obvious masculinity. I knew I shouldn’t have these feelings. But there was no denial. I did.

After several such walks, always clandestine, sheltered by groves of evergreen Aaksha trees, I found myself, against all sense of duty, sacred and familiar, falling in love. “Savitri,” said Gopal solemnly one late afternoon while my family was sound asleep after a heavy midday meal, “I have loved you since the moment I first saw you. I need to be with you, Savitri, for the rest of my life. I can’t bear to live it without you. I know you have been chosen by the Goddess, but I can’t help it, I have fallen for you, irrevocably and unabashedly. I know I have no right to, but I want to ask you to marry me. To become my wife, so that we can be together always.” I sighed heavily. I had prepared myself for this. I had come to know Gopal, and his intentions were always honorable. He had never touched me, not even my hands, only the one place in which his touch could not be removed or grow faint: my heart. “Gopal, I don’t know…I can’t deny that I have come to love you too,” his eyes lit up like the starriest sky I had even seen at the sound of those words coming from my mouth, “but Gopal, my duty lies with the Goddess. I will not do anything against her will. I just can’t. The bond I have with her…it cannot be broken. It is woven by the thread that binds the sun to the earth, the moon to the sea, it is…a rhythm…please try to understand.” Gopal’s eyes had gone dark, the lights had gone out. His face was marked with disappointment. He didn’t say anything. His head was lowered to the ground. “I will ask the Goddess for guidance,” I told him, “She will know what to do.” I could see a glimmer of hope in his eyes, but his body language still showed his utter disappointment.

The next morning I rose early and climbed the hundred and one steps up the hill to the temple of the supreme Goddess. I prostrated before her feet and gave her an offering of sandalwood incense and freshly picked jasmine flowers. Then I sat down cross-legged before her soft smiling face and clasped my palms together in prayer. “Dear Goddess, “ I whispered, “ I have met a man, a man I wish to marry, and he wants to marry me too, but the promise I have given you forbids it. I have given myself to you wholeheartedly, my love, my heart was born to hold only you, but now it is not so anymore. Beloved Goddess, I will keep this vow and honor it if that is your wish. I will forget about Gopal, let him go, he will find a new mate.” My eyes welled up at the thought of Gopal with another woman and tears started falling like little salty rivulets down my face and onto the cool mud floor. I opened my eyes to dry them, and saw to my utter astonishment that a small pale pink flower had emerged on the floor on the spot where my tears had fallen. I picked up the flower and examined it. It was a rose. My eyes flew to the alter of offerings before the Goddess, there were several such pale pink roses placed there, a soft wind blew in through a small window in the wall and another rose took flight and landed in my lap. I closed my eyes again and a sudden inspiration came to me. “Dear Goddess, if it is so that you will grant me permission to marry this man I have fallen in love with I want you to give me a sign,” I paused and looked at the roses and an idea sprung to my mind. I closed my eyes again and cupped one of the roses in my hand. “Goddess, if you are willing to let me marry this man, please present me with a rose each day for five days, but on the fifth day the rose should be presented in the form of a ring. If you give me these five gifts, then I will take it as a sign that it is your wish that I marry Gopal.”

“Savitri Didi! Savitri Didi! Look what mother brought us from the market!” Devaki stood in the door of my sleeping quarters cupping something in her little brown hands. I went over to see what it was she was holding and gasped! “Look, Savitri Didi, red roses! And look how big and full they are. Let’s braid them into our hair. It will look so beautiful!” Devaki examined me suspiciously, “Didi, why aren’t you happy?” I pulled myself together and smiled at her, “Of course I am little sister. I am very happy. Come; let me make the braid for you.”
The next day, while my aunty and I were watching over our maids doing the laundry in the lake, a beautiful yellow rose was caught in one of my dancing saris, it had floated on a lily pad from the Shiva temple, probably an offering to the austere god of meditation, and had, by what the maid called coincidence ended up entwined in my sari, I knew better though. I accepted the rose from her outstretched hands and did what Devaki would have done, fastened in my long black braid. On the third day our milk man, Jatayu, picked up a soft purple rose from the field outside our garden and offered it to the first lady who happened to pass him by: me. On the fourth day, my Guru; Saraswati Madam, brought a whole basket of white roses for all her students as a token of our bond as student and teacher. But it was the fifth day that offered the greatest surprise of all. It was early, not even dawn, and I was still sleeping after a late night the day before, helping my mother plan the meals and the necessary purchases for the coming week, when Devaki jumped excitedly onto my bed. “Didi! Didi! Dadi, grandmother, has come to visit!” I opened my eyes in surprise. Dadi was old and rarely traveled anymore, my uncle, my mother’s brother’s house where she lived, was far away, and the badly flooded roads were hard to travel on, especially this time of year so close after the ending of the Monsoon. I rose quickly and followed Devaki into the sitting room. “Dadi, it’s really you!” I embraced the old frail woman and kissed her soft cheeks affectionately. Dadi smiled and cupped my face with her wrinkled hands. “Granddaughter, how you have grown, and that face of yours keeps getting more and more beautiful every time I come.” I smiled at her sweet compliment, shared only between grandmothers and granddaughters. “Here, I brought you something.” Dadi put a small parcel in my hands. I undid the brown paper wrappings and found a small velvet box inside. “Go ahead,” encouraged my smiling grandmother, “open it!” My fingers lifted the lid carefully and my eyes widened in surprise. It was a small silver ring set with a perfect ruby in the middle. The ruby was exquisite, and when I examined it closer I could see that the stone had shapes resembling petals unfolding themselves unto the silver stem of the ring. Petals! I stiffened, could it really be…? I looked at the stone closer, the petals were indeed flower petals, and when I held the ring up in front of me from a distance I discovered, gasping for breath, that together the petals made the shape of perfect rose, a red rose! It was the sign I asked for, the fifth gift of the goddess, finally granting me permission to marry my beloved Gopal. Dadi was delighted at my reaction, thinking it was the gift itself, the silver of the ring and the exquisite ruby that had caused such a stunned reaction in me. I hugged her tightly and expressed my gratitude by prostrating before her feet.
There was no longer any doubt left, it was the Goddess’ will, the signs were clear and could not be mistaken. I was, with the blessing of the supreme Goddess, to wed my beloved black-eyed boy. With a throbbing heart I sent one of the maids with a message for Gopal. He was to meet me in the Goddess temple on the hill the next morning.

I woke before dawn, full of excitement I dressed in my best sari, combed out my black silken hair and put the silver ring on my finger. I already knew it was to be my wedding ring. I saw him before he arrived. I stood on the furthest peak of the hill surrounded by the temple garden, waves of dimming shadows rolled over a sky ripe with the new birth of yet another day filled with life, it inspired in me feelings too deep even for comprehension or tears, and there was the sun, as red and fresh as the ruby on my finger set in the silvery ripples of a trembling sky, for a moment it filled me with such awe inspired passion that I felt my very soul stirring. But nothing touched me as deeply as the sight of my black-eyes boy, his muscles straining as he climbed the steep steps. In my childhood I never worried or speculated on what might be hidden in the secrets between man and woman, but today this mysterious union represented to me a very realm of enchantment, a garden of such delight it seemed to me to hold the only life-affirming music in the vastness of silence. I never thought I could pierce into this great mystery, but that I would forever wander on the outer frame of it, but here, panting hard to climb the peak to reach me, was my passport to the land of lost sunsets. My black-eyed boy, come to wed me. And I lifted my hands and shaped them into the form of a lotus, while my silver belled feet stamped to the beat of the rising sun.

Have you ever heard the call of the Conch Blower, wailing deep and throaty from the eastern shore of infinity? It is heard by those who are called upon by the gods. It is a call to return to where the sun rises, where the sky stretches far into eternity, and the bells chime, not to awaken deities, not from blue painted minarets, but from old stars reborn from dead and gone generations who lived and loved under their light. We will dance then, in those gardens of Vrindavan, in communion with Akasha, unhampered by any restrictions of time or place. And when we do, the same old miracle takes place, the moment we set foot in these gardens; we know that we have come home.