Short Story 2018 Longlist, Akil Bakhshi

 Forsaken

I felt guilty but it felt good.

I wasn’t allowed to do this. This was impermissible.

Neither did it have the sanction of scriptures nor did it carry the force of law. Neither was it authorized by custom nor was it guided by precedent. And yet here I was – a widow who had dared to fall in love with another man.

I still remember the day my husband had died. It was murder, they said. Nobody knew how someone had been able to discreetly enter his chamber and sniff the life out of him. All they’d found was a body turning blue. They’d tried to revive him but his body, or whatever was left of it, had not responded. I’d been out in the gardens with my son. Since he’d grown five, he’d been asking a lot of questions. I liked spending time trying to answer them. When they’d come shouting for me, I’d rushed in to see what had happened. But none of our haste had helped. My husband was gone. As unfortunate as it sounds, it didn’t hurt.

It’s not that I didn’t love him. I did. And yet I did not understand him. He did things which were beyond my comprehension. There were times when he was so charming, that I’d be swept off my feet. We’d make love like there was no tomorrow. And then there were times when he was obnoxious. He’d bully me, speak rudely to me and even hit me. On occasions, I thought that I was nothing more than a sexual slave for him. Most of his accusations at these times hinged around how terrible my family was. How my father was not concerned with the ways of the world and had taken to sainthood. How my mother had chosen to follow his footsteps and had refused to involve herself with anything material. How my brother, despite infinite political power and money, had never thought of sharing it with his brother-in-law. As strange as it may sound, my husband hated everyone who’d brought me up. In fact, he probably hated them more than he loved me.

This wasn’t so when we’d got married. Back then, my husband had been a quiet and docile man. We’d met at the wedding of a common friend and had instantly hit it off. When I’d told my family about my choice, they hadn’t been very pleased. A different caste, they’d said. Untraditional and irresponsible, they’d objected. Much below our stature, they’d lamented. But my brother had stood firm. He had initiated a match and eventually brought everyone around. The marriage had been solemnized with great pomp, show and happiness.

It was only after a few months that the trouble had actually begun. My husband had lost a huge amount of money in gambling and had asked my brother for financial help. My brother, being the honest administrator that he was, had refused to help him outright. Wasting resources which could be used for the benefit of poor could not be squandered in order to cover the folly of the rich. And since then the trajectory of our love had nosedived into the unfathomable depths of a pitch-black ocean.

After my husband’s demise, I hadn’t stayed on in my matrimonial home for long. The place had begun to suffocate me. My in-laws did not usually interfere with what I did or where I went, but the mere fact that they drew breath in my presence had started to annoy me. So, one fine day, I packed my belongings, said my goodbyes and left. They didn’t bother to ask why. Neither did I care to explain. My time with them was over, for good. I went straight to my maternal home and spent a few days relishing the sounds of the ocean. Our house was located atop a hill from where I could hear the wind brushing against the waves as they crashed onto the shores. The silence relaxed me a little. However, I soon grew bored of the routine. The long days my brother spent listening to people’s grievances, the long nights my mother spent praying to life-sized idols, the long afternoons my father spent meditating with a beatific smile and the long evenings I spent wondering why none of them could ever spare enough time to speak with me, made my penchant to leave insurmountable.

Once again, I made an escape. Only this time, my brother asked me where I was going. I told him I wanted to travel, to see the world, to swim in the seas, to sleep under the starry skies, to dwell in the forest and to breathe the air of liberty. With a face, that could barely conceal his sorrow, he permitted me to go on the condition that I take a few servants with me. Despite all my resistance, I had to finally settle for one. She was a tall, dark woman with long, black tresses. Heavy in demeanor, she carried whatever little I wanted to carry and walked behind me like a shadow. The only difficulty was to leave my little son behind. But I knew my brother would take good care of him.

Coursing through unchartered terrain was rough at first, but gradually I began to enjoy it. We stopped by bustling cities, spent nights in taverns, had hot cooked meals and yet sought pleasure in the quiet of the villages.

It was in one such village that I met him. The man I’d fall in love with. The man who’d change my life forever. The first time I saw him, it almost felt like an illusion. Was it really possible for someone to be so beautiful? His skin sparkled in the light of the sun, his muscles flexing as he picked up a log of wood and placed it on a cart. His lovely eyes rested on a small man who asked him something, as a response to which he broke into a stunning smile. Standing around the corner I keenly watched his every move. At that moment, I wanted to be the sweat that started at his forehead and traced its path down his bare chest. I wanted to be the air that he breathed in. I wanted to be the sacred thread that clung around his torso. I wanted to be the piece of cloth hung loosely around his waist. I wanted to be everything that he was. I wanted to be one with him.

I don’t remember how I’d suddenly developed the courage to seek what I’d liked but I had decided to stay put in the village where I first saw him. For some time, I’d felt embarrassed about being physically attracted to a man. I hardly knew him. Even if we met and he liked me, this couldn’t go anywhere. I came with a powerful name and he was a mere commoner. I was a widow and the probability of him accepting me this way was as good as negligible. In any case, why would he want me? What could I give to him that other women couldn’t? But then, there was something about him which made me cast all my doubts away. Just because the man I’d married hadn’t turned out so well, didn’t mean that this one would be unkind too. There was a silent strength about him, an enigma- he simply wasn’t capable of cruelty. Somewhere in my heart, I knew that despite all the repercussions, he was worth a shot. And maybe, just maybe, this could be my only chance of happiness.

I’d spoken to my servant about it and as peculiar as it may appear, she’d readily agreed. Strangely, I’d increasingly started to like this woman. She wasn’t a great listener but was extremely talkative. More than that, she was the best possible attendant I could have asked for. She knew what I wanted and when I wanted it. She told me how attractive my face was, how perfectly shaped my body was and more importantly how gorgeous my nails were. In fact, it wasn’t just her. A lot of people seemed to have an odd fascination with my nails, an unusual obsession. They were long and shapely, not to mention a great weapon in hours of need but the issue, as it is, was too trivial to hold my interest.

It had been a couple of days since I’d first spotted him and it was time to find a way to speak to him. So today, despite all my inhibitions, I’d sent my servant off to find out more about the man. The rain had been lashing brutally against the windows, trying to drown out the sounds of a howling wind. As dusk approached, the clouds started to wither away but I could see no sign of her returning. It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back and rushed to open it. It was her. She was standing outside, wet and damp. Before I could ask anything, she started to talk in a hurried manner. I couldn’t understand a word.

“Slow down”, I said, “Come in and tell me what happened?” She rushed in with quick steps and sat on the ground. I could feel my heart throbbing in my chest, hoping that she had found what I had sent her looking for. I gave her a glass of water which she hastily devoured. When she was done, she looked up at me with tender eyes and said, “He is a Shudra. He doesn’t deserve you.”

I laughed out loud. Despite being a Brahmin, I’d married a Kshatriya the last time. What possible harm could someone a notch lower do that my husband had not already done to me. “How do you know about his caste?” I inquired with a smile on my face, “Did you ask someone? Not that it matters anyway.”

“He has a hut in the outskirts of the village. He just comes in to do menial work for people and earn some money. At times, he even begs. What else could he be!” she said, a little surprised with my obvious nonchalance at her big revelation.

Knowing full well that if I did not interrupt her, she would continue to harp on about how I should not chase a low-born, I asked again, “Is that all? Do you know anything else about him?” She cast her eyes down and said, “He came to live here only a few months ago. Nobody really knows where he has come from or what his name is. But…” she stopped mid-sentence. “But?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I followed him and found out where he lives,” she stated with a shrug. Suddenly I was so overwhelmed with joy that I hugged her. She continued to give me a blank look.

“You’ll take me there tomorrow,” I said, letting go of the embrace. “What if someone finds out?” she asked, astonished. I could understand her concern but having lived the past few months on my own terms, I just couldn’t sacrifice my freedom at the altar of family name, honour or even morality. “Nobody has to know for now,” I said, “Let me at least meet him and then see where this goes.” For a while, she continued to look at me unfazed. Then, she got up, nodded and walked off to her quarters.

I felt guilty but it felt good.

________________________________________

As we passed through the dirt track which led towards the outer edge of the village, we came across a grove of five trees. Going by the red and yellow threads which had been tied to them from one end to the other, I knew they were consecrated. For one, I had never been able to understand how people could look for God in trees without first trying to find him in their hearts. I could see a bunch of offerings kept around the sacred wood – things which could have been put to a much better use. Pots, which women could have used to cook food; Rice- which could feed poor men for days; Milk- which children could happily relish. But such were the ways of the world! Those who existed in imagination were mightier than those who existed in reality – for the known could be controlled but the unknown could only be worshipped.

My servant was leading the way, pushing through high bushes to make way for us. After walking for about an hour, we came across a segregated little hut located towards the end of the path. She turned back and pointed towards it. I stopped. We’d come this far and now when it was time to face him, I didn’t quite know what to say. Should I simply tell him that I liked him? Should I tell him I was a widow? How would he react? What if he got angry and sent me packing? Should I even be here? My reverie was broken by the sounds of someone approaching. It was the small man I’d seen with him in the village the other day. Did they live together? He was carrying a bundle of sticks on his shoulder. My servant quietly got out of the way and moved behind me. He looked at us and halted.

“Who are you?” he asked, clearly curious.

Before I could utter a word, I spotted the man I had come to meet. My beloved! He was walking towards us, with his characteristic gorgeous smile. I wondered if the quick thumping of my heart could be heard outside. For a while, I froze. “When you have such a beautiful woman at your door, you ask her to come in brother, you don’t ask who she is,” he said naughtily, patting the small man on his back and turning towards us. “I am sorry. My brother isn’t too familiar with niceties. Do come in,” he said and gestured us to follow him. There was no way I wouldn’t. I’d follow him to hell.

With firm steps he moved around and pulled out a mattress for me to sit on. His brother went off to a side, dumped the sticks and began to smoothen their rough edges with a knife. My servant kept standing while I sat down. He sat by me and looked at me straight in the eyes.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, the glorious smile never leaving his face. You can do a lot, I wanted to say. Marry me, for instance. But I knew I had to tread cautiously. “I saw you in the village a few days ago”, I started, wondering how I should bring up the subject of my true intentions.

“I hope you liked what you saw,” he said mischievously. Was he flirting with me?

“I did,” I answered, “And that is why I am here.” “You are very attractive,” he suddenly said, “Has someone told you that?”

As abrupt as it was, I was pleasantly surprised. This was unexpected. He sure was flirting. I smiled. My confidence was at a high now. Maybe it was time for me to speak up as well. “Thank you”, I began, “You are quite handsome as well. In fact, I’d like to know you better. I like you.”

In the fraction of a second, his smile vanished. His brother stopped what he was doing and began to stare at me with anger writ large on his face. Were they offended with a woman expressing her feelings? Should I not have said what I did? Was this a mistake? Just then, I felt two strong hands pulling my hair. Caught by surprise, I stood up and turned back. It was a woman. Where had she come from? Why hadn’t I seen her before? She looked fiercely at me and her eyes glared with rage.

“He is my husband”, she shouted and slapped me right across my face.

“What the…” I started but before I could finish my sentence, she slapped me again. As a reflex, I scratched her face with my nails.

“She attacked me!” she began to scream,

“The demoness attacked me!”

Demoness? I tried to call out for my servant but saw her being beaten up by his brother.

And then, what I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams, happened. His brother came charging towards me and with one full swoop of his knife, cut off my nose. I fell. My servant, despite her injuries rushed towards me and put my head on her lap.

“Surpanakha, my princess,” she shouted.

I couldn’t breathe. She pressed my cheeks together and pushed my mouth open. As air began to refill my lungs, I looked sideways at the man I thought I’d loved. He stood there silently with crossed arms. Still smiling. Almost Godly.

As we left, I realised that no travel, no quiet and no man could ever satisfy me now. Only one thing could.

Revenge.

And one way or the other, I would have it.

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