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.