It's horror fest time at Write...Edit...Publish... this Halloween month but I, as is my usual practice, am giving the ghosties and ghoulies a miss. Here is another retelling of a beloved old tale...any resemblance to people and/or events is purely coincidental...
Life has been uberhectic - the wheels of relocation grind super slow and pay no attention to posting dates or writing time. Consequently my editing has been last minute rushed and the less said about word counts the better, for which I most sincerely apologise.
A gasp of collective anguish came from the confinement room. The whispers started in the women’s quarters and reached the outer room where the grandfather was waiting for news. The sound of his walking stick could be heard crossing the inner courtyard. He stopped opposite and demanded to see his eighth grandchild. The weeping women brought the baby out.
“Sir, there’s a wound on the forehead. And the eyes…”
The old man gave silver coins to the midwife. “Stop snivelling. That’s God’s own thumbprint on the child. The little one’s come with His blessings. Call him Rudraksh.”
My grandmother repeated the story often in the afternoons, the room darkened by the woven reed screens dropped over the great arches of the verandah, her voice raspy with age but still soothing, blending in with the birdcalls.
Not that I needed to be told. I’ve always known it. Because sometimes I am born as Abu, driven to a life of crime because I’ve voiced an inconvenient truth, sometimes I’m Rudraksh destined to witness evil, disguised as a divine plan. I am the match girl who froze to death on the streets of Copenhagen, I’m the child worker scarred for life in the fireworks factories of Sivakasi. I am the refugee toddler whose drowned body has washed up on an island beach time after time. There is no end to my suffering. And to my resilience. My mothers’ agonised screams echo down from the beginning of time.
The man wore nothing multicoloured, all a solid shade of cream from head to toe, only his scarf was tangerine - and he played upon the heartstrings of the crowd.
“Rats!” he thundered, ”Rats have riddled your society. Unless you do something now, they will eat you out of house and home, there’ll be nothing left for your children.”
The buntings on his vehicle fluttered in the breeze as he took up his tune again after a brief breather. “Come with me, brothers. This chariot takes the road to the Lord’s birthplace on the riverbank. Come with me and reclaim your pride, correct the wrongs of history.”
And so a thousand mile journey began, the chariot with its belligerent flag leading a rabble, converging - from Somnath and Samastipur, from Rohtak and Ramgarh - to the small hillock on the riverbank. Where history and legend and myth blended into one in the waters and lapped against the ancient steps of the ghats.
~ * ~
I was born with mismatched eyes, the right dark, the left an indeterminate blue-green-amber mix. No one had ever seen such a thing in our village before, and combined with the birthmark – I was a miracle or a freak, depending on who was looking. The doctor said it was a rare condition but he assured my parents my sight was perfectly fine.
My eyesight or colour didn’t bother me much. The thing that sometimes did was that I could see beyond the merely visible. That too, is something that carries over from birth to rebirth, this extra edge to perception.
~ * ~
“This vehicle has started out with a holy purpose, a sacred duty,” the man of the tangerine scarf shouted into the microphone. “Who will dare stop it? It has the Lord’s name on it, the people’s will fuels its journey, and our collective devotion will ensure its purpose is achieved. What the invaders tore down will be rebuilt, on that very same spot. The Lord’s temple will rise again."
The preparations had taken two years – many thousand avid volunteers had shaped and fired bricks for the dream temple, each one with the Lord’s name inscribed on it. The contributions from each neighbourhood, each town, each province had been taken in triumphal marches, often leading to sectarian clashes. For to build the temple on that very same spot meant the opening of ancient wounds. It meant the demolition of an existing structure, a huge conflict between two different communities that had lived together for more than a millennium.
But now everything had aligned for this new temple - the tune, the pipe, the piper and the route to the mountain. The chariot rolled on like a juggernaut squashing all in its path.
One December day, Shankar, Momo and I went to the riverbank. Momo was a crack shot but today his marbles kept leaping down the steps out of control. A green and white one fell. I lurched after it when it suddenly morphed into a wheel and magicked three others like itself and towered into a chariot.
I could hear Shankar muttering, “he’s off on one of his fits again, here - sit him down before he falls into the water or something.” I wanted to tell him that I was perfectly capable of staying clear of the river, but everything vanished before I could utter a word. I was standing in a huge crowd with my father.
An old, domed building was a little way behind a low dais. A man in a tangerine scarf was giving a speech about the wrongs of history.
He brandished a fierce trident, pointed it towards the central dome and roared, “We’ll build it here!” and the crowd roared back,” Build it here!”
A huge wave of people surged forward and started running towards the structure. My father too was running with the crowd. The noise was like an avalanche right inside my head – thudding feet on ground, metal on stone, stone on stone, metal on flesh. People fell and were trampled underfoot in the stampede, it was a struggle to keep upright. I was being inexorably borne towards the ancient monument by the momentum. Clouds of dust rose all around and obscured everything, but the trident flashed overhead, its three points now tipped red with blood. Father had vanished completely in the melee.
When the dust settled, there was nothing and no-one. Just a single white waterlily in small pool and Momo’s green glass marble on the edge of it. I picked it up and put it in my pocket.
“Hey. Hey, Rudy.” Someone was patting my cheek gently. “Rudy? Rudy!”
I blinked and said,” Take it easy, pal. I’m not dead or anything.”
Momo’s face, pinched with anxiety, relaxed a little. Shankar said, “You were out for ever so long. What happened?”
The memory of the event was already shredding away into a massed confusion.
“Chariot. Trident. An old domed building. A mob intent on building a temple. On a foundation of destruction. Father – I lost him in the crowd. A white waterlily in a pool. And this marble – yours.” I took the marble out of my pocket.
“What does it all mean?”
“Nothing good,” I said, standing up. “C’mon, I’ve got to find my father.”
I couldn’t find him so I took my apprehensions to Grandfather instead.
“I’ve just seen a building being destroyed. And Father disappeared into the crowd intent on razing it.”
He wasn't overly upset. “Yes, he’s going there, the journey of the chariot concludes the day after, it’s come a long way from Somnath. He’ll be witnessing history.”
“Stop him! The trident was blood tipped. There’s going to be violence. The white waterlily will bloom there for peace after much bloodshed.”
“Silence, child! You see but you don’t understand. The waterlily is the temple. It must be built.”
Grandfather, I saw, was wearing a tangerine scarf. I came away.
So my father went to the rally. And never came back. One of the hundreds killed that December.
Not all pipers are honest. Not all lead evils away, some lead it into the very heart of cities, and of men. Not all tunes are worth following. And a place of worship built on a foundation of hate is not acceptable in the sight of a just God, by whatever name He may be invoked.
WC - 1317
Tagline : Not all pipers lead evils away. Some lead it into the very heart of cities, and of men.
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