Thursday, May 11, 2017

Akash Pradeep

 An excerpt from the novel in progress;



                                                                            Akash Pradeep 

Ashmani's  death shook me. Often she rambled in my thoughts. While I tried focusing on Geometry, my mind meandered somewhere else.  I saw Ashmani. She’d dance right in front of my desk,  swirling her canary yellow ghagra with burnt sienna polka dots. The tiny embroidered mirrors from her skirt reflected circles of light, spinning around,  making me dizzy.  Her body oscillated in chakkras and tatkars and stopped at precise beats. She’d  stretch her mehndi painted palm to me,  with a selam, touching her forehead, like a Mughal baiji court dancer, expecting me to applaud 'kya bath, kya bath'.

It was all illusion.
I tried to concentrate again. My tests were not too far away. This Matriculation examination would determine my future, I tried to remind myself.  But my mind drifted.  I could not help eavesdropping Ma and Sati’s conversation from the other room.

“Do you know the grocery store,  that Ma Tara store, is closed now, closed forever?”  Sati announced. 

“Really?  Why?  It was the biggest one in town. He was doing so well....  Just closed the store like that?” Ma was surprised. 

“ What else could he do, Didi? All that scandal with his son and that Muslim girl… after all he is a Hindu, na?  The neighborhood boys will tear him to pieces.  Chhire khabe je! “ Sati explained.

“ That girl messed it all up. What was she thinking?  A marriage between Hindu and  Musselman?  I’d be upset too if I find my son bringing a Muslim bride all of a sudden. See what she did to her family!  Who’ll marry her little sister, now?  She killed herself all right,  but what about the ones who are left?”  

I was shocked that my mother said all that.  Then I heard Sati’s response:

“ Yes, Didi, it is sad. Such a beautiful girl, so young and she had to commit a suicide? Such a sinful act! Then, on the other hand, what choice did she  have, Didi?”

I felt like screaming.  There was a choice.  There are choices, only if you respected their love. You all messed up things for no reason.  Hindus and Muslims lived together for a long time. It is possible. But I kept quiet. The nine-point-circle theorem revolved in front of me until I shoved the book away. Meaningless geometry.  I closed my eyes resting my head on my arms. 

Ayee Khuku!.”  Ashmani stood in front of my desk. 

“ You don’t feel scared that I come, do you?” She gave me a side glance. 

“ No. Of course not, Ashmani.”  I assured. “ At times I feel I have become you, we have merged. Believe me, I feel so sorry for you.  So sorry that you couldn’t dance that night for petty politics and I stole your show. I had never had a chance to tell you that. You inspired me.  You taught me dancing, kindled the love for dancing in me.  And now,  all that had happened to you, makes me  feel so so sad for you!” I tried to reach her arm. 

“I know that Khukumoni, I know.  And that is why I come to you.  Some people, even my loved ones, my own family, are scared.  They are scared of me,  but you are not.  You invite me in your thoughts. You are strong.  You are different.” She replied. 

“Ashmani, what strength you see in me, I don’t know. I feel frustrated that I cannot speak up. I cannot stand  up for all the injustice I see.  I cannot protest all these nonsenses.  It hurts me to hear the things they talk about you, that you have no room in heaven. I feel like screaming.  But in reality, I do nothing.”  I sniffled. 

“ Don’t worry for me, Khuku.  It’s over. I don’t know about heaven or hell, I just dance around, in nothingness, in the vast abundance of nothing. I don’t know how to explain it to you. But it is peaceful. “  Then with a pause, she continued:

“ And who said I have nowhere to go?  I go to those who cares for me. Who makes room in their heart for me, who are not scared of me, Khuku, That’s why I come to you. I will always be in your memory. I will never die, as long as you keep me alive.”

“ I know you are not an evil spirit,  Ashmani, There is nothing to be scared of you. I only wish that I were stronger.  I wish I could stand up to protest what is wrong”  I confided. 

“ I’ll help you, Khuku. I will.  I will stand beside you when you need me, I promise.  But don’t you forget to dance.  Promise?”  She glanced with a smile. 

“ Promise!” I nodded.
Ashmani disappeared.  I could hear the sound of ghungur from her ankles fading away.
I woke up.  It startled me.

That night I had a strange dream that  I had gone to a place up in the Himalayas. There, the river Ganga, young, swift,  ran fast. Tthe currents were strong. It was twilight time. The sun had gone down, a few stars were twinkling in the vast turquoise light. 

Tiny boats were floating  in the river.  They were made of leaves. Some had tiny lamps inside. The lighted little boats sailed with the current, dancing on the water.  Some drowned, some went further floating until they were out of my sight. 

A woman was preparing her lamp. She was muttering something with folded hands, like a prayer; then she gently stooped down  to float it on the river. Her head was covered in a shawl. 

I knelt down, asked her what was she doing, what was this all about. 

Akash pradeep ( lamp to the sky) “ She answered. 

“It is a way to connect with the souls that are gone, who left for the other world. This is a way to remember them, honor them, thank them for what they have done for you. This is a way to pray for them so that they are peaceful in heaven. It is a Hindu ritual, don’t you know that, girl?” She looked at me. Her veil dropped.  It was Ashmani!

A rooster cackled. I jerked at that harsh call, threw away my cover and jumped out of bed. I remembered that I had my Math test today. 


That day after school I took the shortcut path through the woods, behind the broken mashjit. This was the path that Ashmini used to take, and I had never known.  This was my first time. 

Strange insects and bats made eerie sounds. There was a constant susurrus, a hissing sh sh, probably the wind through the bushes and leaves made it.  A gray bodied lizard with warty skin blocked my path, lunging,  its front arms stretched,  its huge head raised,  it stared with bulging eyes.  Then it started croaking tuck -too tuck- too ballooning its throat.  I thought this must be a takkhok, which I had never seen before.  

A doel swung by, low enough scaring the creature to run away.  The indigo bird with her eggshell white belly sat on a branch nearby and started to chirp. Doyel- her English name is the Oriental magpie. Babu had taught me from his book, I remembered.  

While I was preoccupied with these thoughts of birds, a thin slate colored snake zigzagged right in front of my toes and crossed the path hiding inside a hole.  I shrieked.  

 With wider strides I started marching faster and found that the wood thinned gradually,  I could see the light better, now.  The path had gone up to a hillock and there stood a lonely bokul tree at the top. No other trees were around. 

 I stood under it, panting, thinking this was where Ashmani had her first kiss that morning. This was where she was tied and whipped at the end of the day.  This was the tree that had witnessed it all in silence. 

Further down,  a set of steps descended and merged to the river bank. It was high tide time. Water splashed and thrust on the steps, whirling and swirling, drowning the steps with bubbles and gushes. 

I opened my school bag, took out my journal and snatched a page out. I folded the paper and made a paper boat.  Then I lit a candle striking a match and crouched down to float it  in the river with a prayer:

Ashmini, we never met while you were alive, but I meet you every day after you are dead. I feel guilty, very guilty that I stole your show and was happy with the glory and admiration I got. You gave me a lot, you inspired me.  But I never gave you anything.  And  I am sorry for what you had to pay for this Hindu-Musselman clash.  You were innocent, you didn’t deserve it. You shouldn’t have died.  But it happened. Now, my friend, I am here to wish you peace, so that you find a place in heaven.

I stood up.  Wiping my tears with the back of my hand I started to climb. 

I lost balance and missed a step on that slippery stone and found myself bobbing in the water, pulled by the current. 

“What are you doing here, in this dangerous place? “ A voice shrilled.  A hand pulled me up. 

“ It’s not needed.  I am fine, I can do it myself”  I shrugged him off.

It was Mahim, that monda maker. He looked so different with a beard and a musselman tupi,  I couldn't recognize him.  Rahamat, his friend came forward, and the lathial Aziz. 

Abhisar (tryst) eh!”  Aziz simpered.“ Tell your father to go back to your country.  Go to India.”  He scoffed. 

“Now your Gandhi is gone too. And he was not killed by any Musselman, mind you.  Your own people murdered him, that nanga fakir ( naked poor ). Did you hear what his killer, that Hindu murderer say?  What was his name? Nathuram or whatever!” He added.

“Arre thikachhey (Oh let go). Ayee meye ( hey girl), don’t you ever come here.  Understand! And yes, tell your brahmin father to clutch his paita (sacred thread) and go to your own land, not here.” Mahim shouted mocking my father clutching his thread. 

I couldn’t believe my ears that it was Mahim who was telling all these. Just a few years ago he was a Hindu himself, he told us the story how his father named him  Aswini!

I turned and started to run as fast as I could until I reached home. I thought I should tell this to Babu.  But I didn’t.  At the end of the day, at mealtime when he asked how my day went, inside I was churning, but  I pretended it was just a normal day. I kept it all to myself.