The Independence Day of 2015 gave me more than one reason to celebrate!
On 15th August 2015 after a good gap of 24 months my work was published once again. This time my story was picked up for an E-mag named UNBOUND- compiled and edited by Neil D'Silva (author of Maya's New Husband fame) and Varun Vithaldas Prabhu (serial Authorpreneur).
Happy to also share that the logo/symbol design of UNBOUND was designed by me. :D
Here's the Smashwords link for the first issue of the UnBound E-Magazine where you can read numerous other fantastic short stories and poetry written on the theme- FREEDOM.
Rati arched her left eyebrow and brought both her palms up, gracefully bending her slender fingers, demonstrating the Sanjukta Hasta Mudra that was being taught. The light tapping on the tabla travelled to their ears from the adjacent hall, as the player delicately practiced the accompaniment for a khyal, then a thumri.
"Kathaakahe so Katthak!",the teacher continued. "We are storytellers. Every inch of your body, from your head to your toes, even your eyes, should emote in perfect synchronization."She instructed with a mouthful of betel nut and paan, taking intermittent breaks from the rhythmic chewing. She relaxed on the four-poster bed while their newest danseuse, a wispy brown girl stood on the Persian rug, listening attentively.
Rati went back to combing her lustrous length of wavy black hair, ten strokes at the minimum for each bunch of strands. Once done, she showed off her perfected pirouette, the gatherings of her embellished knee-length tunic swirling out and twirling back to hug her shapely legs.Then she struck a dynamic pose before the floor-length mirror, her hands raised taut above her head and studied the curves of her own body. The altha on her upturned palms was a richer red, especially that evening. Rati's cheeks blushed as she remembered his baritone voice calling her,"Jaise Ajanta ki murat koi!",in his heavily English accent.
The thought of being loved by a hopeless romantic sent a delicious quiver all over her. He had unabashedly lavished her with praises in a burgeoning mehfil —a hall packed with a motley crowd of local zamindars, British officers, and a stray poet or two as her audience. Rati peeredinto the mirror and retouched the dark kohl, enhancing the accent of the lines at the corner of her eyes which exaggerated its doe-like shape. Through the mirror, Rati noticed her teacher throwing an admiring glance towards her.
"Now, that's what you call ShringarRas!", she heard her exclaim, drawing the student's attention towards the preening Rati.
"Each of the nine emotions bring meaning to your performance. Understand them, feel them, and claim your freedom of expression through your naach. Be it the KrodhRas or the AdbhutRas, the BhayanakRas or the VatsalyaRas...", the teacher had visibly trailed off to a distant place in her thoughts, exactly after mentioning the emotion of mother's love.
Rudra stood stolid, on the topmost step along the waterfront, staring into oblivion, unperturbed by the drizzling rain. Dhoti clad, legs apart and rooted to the ground, hands akimbo, he could have easily been mistaken for a warrior right out of Hindu mythology. Like every year in August, the Ganga had swollen to its maximum height and showed no signs of calming down. The winds billowed and the waters raged, threatening to engulf the ghat.
Rudra was stirred by the floodwaters licking his feet and he acknowledged it as a gesture from the animated holy waters.
"I know, Ma! You can feel the rising fury in my soul, Rudra huffed under his breath.
"I'm told, I had been discarded at birth but you miraculously saved this orphan and let me live.So here I am. I will not let this life be wasted." He swore. "I know not who my parents are but I know I owe this to my motherland.I pledge my soul, in your freedom I will live!"With invigorated steps, the 20-something strapping lad headed for the Lahurabir police station, near the North-West end of Banares.
Nai Sarak was a narrow street but the busiest in the city, dotted with frail hawkers, passersby and the regular loafers. By nightfall, the city would have roughly 500 guards stationed at thenumerous gates of the different urban wards but it was only early evening, so all was mundane and casual. The only formal feature was the excellently proportioned, one-story high structure of the police station.A wide plain strip ran horizontally along the length of the building,effectively separating the base from its upper floor. Right in the middle of the first floor was a generously proportioned balcony supported by a fluted Doric six-column porch. The wall directly underneath the balcony had an unusual arched doorway which was the ground-floor entrance of the Lahurabir police station.
Rudra positioned himself across the street, exactly opposite the arch. He made himself less conspicuous by standing in the lee of the zamindar's haveli which was infamous as the harem of seductive nautch girls. A peeping tom lurking in the harem's vicinity wasn't an unusual sight, so getting caught wasn't a worry.
"How convenient!"Rudra fumed, imagining the lust-driven officers of the British Raj crossing over from the police station, making a beeline for the harem in the after-hours.
After the briefly distracting thought, he wiped the rain-water out of his eyes and returned his focus on the facade of the police station. Rudra gritted his teeth and fisted his palms, while he waited like a crouching tiger poised to prey.
"How dare they compel my brethren to go to war? Their slaves are we?"
Rudra's blood began to boil at the very thought, once again.
At half-past five with clockwork punctuality, the British officer would step out every evening onto the balcony. Rudra waited, his heart pounding while his ears turned a fiery red.
"God, please be with me!"he prayed, trying to steady his hand which was trembling with indignation. He tightened his hold on the square-butt, hard rubber grip andtacitly brought out the Smith & Wesson revolver from its perch at his waist. As his target came into the line of sight, Rudra pointed its barrel out.
Vismay Lal hollered in his sandpaper voice, "Aao, khao, sukhpao!",unaware that hisuncle had chosen the most appropriate words to anchor in the sales. The young costermonger was doing as instructed,happily sitting cross-legged on the groundwith five cane baskets of fresh produce from their farms. There was very little of it left in them now, so Vismay could relax a bit, twiddling with a small potato or jingling his bag of coins, now and then. He was busy staring at the procession of a palanquin, with his mouth agape, when one of his regular visitor's sprawling potbelly filled the frame, obstructing his view.
"Arre, silly boy!Why do you continue sitting here in the rains with the blanket on your head?"boomed the friendly havildar.
"Ram-Ram,Chachaji!"greeted Vismay, picking out the biggest, ripe yellow banana and handing it out,"Never mind the light drizzle; it will stop soon. It's a dream come true to get paid for just sitting around," he grinned while eyeing the gaudily dressed village belles who had stepped out of the zamindar's haveli, across the street. Vismay watched them intently as they walked past, his eyes growing larger and rounder than the ber fruit he was selling.
"You seem to have a better eye on the people than I do!"teased the policeman and chomped the banana down, all at the same time.
"No, no! Nothing like that, Vismay stuttered.
"You have full freedom to feast your eyes.You won't be charged for that!"jeered the policeman. "You'd better get going now. Enough for today!"he ordered, discarding the banana peel in one of Vismay's empty baskets.
"And remember, I am not your Chachaji!"he added blithely, turned his back, and set off down the road, rapping the ground twice with his long staff as he went.
"Achcha!",Vismay shouted out his agreement.
He gathered his baskets, piling them one on top of the other, covered them with his frayed blanket, and hoisted them up on his head. Raising himself to his feet, he had just started walking cautiously when a tonga arrived outside the Lahurabir police station and two English women stepped down, one after the other, onto the paved curb, a couple of feet away from him. Awestruck by the sight of the buxom white ladies dressed in the most beautiful colored satins he'd ever seen, Vismay stood transfixed at the spot.
"Aaha, Memsahib!"he made no qualms about exclaiming aloud.
The pretty frilly umbrellas held up in their white gloved hands, swished past him, leaving behind a trail of floral perfume in the air. The wonderment did not leave his senses, even as he circumvented the stationary tonga and crossed the street.
As he was wont to do, Vismay slowed his pace down and went as close to the haveli as possible, in the hope of getting a fleeting glimpse of the beautiful dancers inside. He had turned around the bend of the curving footpath when he sensed the presence of a figure in the lee of the dark- stoned exterior wall. Curiosity getting the better of him, Vismay stopped to find out who it was. The unexpected sight of a gun being cocked shocked Vismay out of his wits and he reeled backwards in utter panic.
Lord Ogelsby Freeman roared like a lion emerging out of his lair, when he stepped out onto the balcony.His regular agenda had been disturbed, as his elevated view of the locality was marred by a tonga parked right outside the gate, in the street. The sight of his daughter and wife approaching the police station premises had driven him wild.
"Didn't I tell you girls never to visit me here, however urgent your need might be?"he growled at the two fair ladies."Please leave a message with the gatekeeper and return now. I shall join you as soon as I'm done here." Lord Ogelsby had hardly finished shouting, when the women disappointedly performed an about-turn and scurried off like scared mice, back to the tonga, without a single word.
Lord Ogelsby's face was livid. A three-inch long scar which sliced his left eyebrow and ran down his cheek,past the corner of his eye made him look more like a convict than an officer of the British Raj. His bluish-green eyes flashed with a peculiar yellowish glint, like that of a fiercefeline. Every time he opened his mouth to speak, the upper lip shrouded in a butter-hewed mustache rose like a curtain, exposing his jutting canines which reminded one of brandished daggers. It was as if God had designed Ogelsby with the intention of frightening everybody. His tongue was sharper than a saw, his mind viler than a serpent but his eyesight had been failing him lately.
"Go! Fetch me my monocles," Lord Ogelsby ordered the sepoy who was waiting on him.
"Hurry, you fool!" he snapped again, sputtering some of the water he'd sipped from the glass held out to him on a platter.
As the tonga cleared off, Lord Ogelsby leaned a bit further out from the sill to see the horses trot away. To resume his usual survey of the area from his lookout point, he straightened up and just then realized there was a bit of a flurry, right across the street. In the bad light, he had a blurred view but he could see that a peasant had collapsed in the street and his baskets of vegetables and fruits were strewn on the curb. Obviously scared of something the peasant was trying to scamper to his feet.
A man had stepped out of the shadows of the zamindar's haveli with a resolute stance, head turned up he was staring straight back at him.
Devaki Bai had resignedly sunk back, throwing her head on the pillow, her upturned right forearm gracefully resting on the crest of her temple. To the naive new student, her teacher was apparently demonstrating a dramatic dance pose, so she patiently continued standing there. Devaki Bai shooed her away with a limp left hand.
"How am I to expound the Navras in Katthak when the single most important emotion eludes me?" she lamented. An old memory had come sneaking around once again and raked up a forgotten emotion in Devaki Bai's heart. Tears dropped out of the corner of her eyes, quietly. There was unexplainable,excruciating pain when the biggest tragedy of her life, caught up with her!
Visions from her childhood flashed before her eyes — a DevaDasi performing in a temple, her shrill narrative of the mythological tragic tale of Vasudeva and Devaki — imprisoned by the evil Kamsa and forced to sacrifice their children. Even the eighth child, the newborn baby Krishna, had been immediately separated from the mother. Devaki Bai remembered how she had begun to hate her given name ever since that evening. She imagined her name was a curse! Therefore, as an adolescent danseuse, she readily took to the nickname given by her regular patrons—ChulbuleeBai —in the hope of shedding the curse of her original nomenclature but that was not to be!
The very mention of the VatsalyaRas while teaching her student had roused her maternal instincts. Devaki Bai felt a gnawing at the core of her heart.
"Crying again, Bai Ma? Why do you do this to yourself?"Rati enquired, sitting down beside her on the edge of the bed. Devaki Bai reluctantly rose from her reclining position and took a swig from the glass of cool water, poured out for her.
"You are the only one who calls me 'Ma' and gives more meaning to my life, Rati," Devaki Bai confessed through her ebbing tears. "I haven't shared my story with many but I think you deserve to know because you have loved melike my own daughter would have."
"Tell me everything. You can trust me!" Rati took Devaki Bai's trembling hands in her own."What has been bothering you?"Rati asked, looking her in the eyes.
"I am guilty. It is not a rumor but the truth!"DevakiBai stuttered, emotions rife in her voice.
She rose from the bed and left Rati's side, hurriedly walking the length of the room, to stand by the window that granted a view of the Nai Sarak Street below.
"Like most danseuse, in my heydays I was blessed with abundant beauty and a silly heart full of love."Rati was all ears to each word uttered."There was no dearth of attention from men but little did I know the ways of the world! One particular admirer laid a trap and, unsuspecting, I walked right in and fell for him, so hard that I was soon with his baby," Devaki Bai's face crumpled in remorse but she continued in a voice, husky and low.
"I secretly gave birth to a beautiful boy and it was I who orphaned him too. I cold-bloodedly abandoned him in the wee hours of that fateful day,on the banks of the holy Ganga. It's been more than twenty years since, can you believe that?"Devaki Bai shut her eyes and pursed her lips."Rati, now I know it was a grave mistakeand I'm repenting but is there anything I can do about it?"Devaki Bai's voice trembled, distinctly pained by the memory. She buried her face in her own palms and began sobbing profusely.
Rati was at a loss for words. She only stood there with her arms wrapped around Devaki Bai in a warm embrace, unable to find a voice to console the grieving mother.
"If it is death that will give me freedom from my misery, so be it!"Devaki Bai howled and precariously leaned against the window sill, as if she was contemplating jumping out the window.
"Nonsense!"Rati pulled her back and tried to shush her."Why should you bear this burden on your conscience alone? The father was equally responsible for the baby," Rati protested.
"Over the past few months, every day at half past five in the evening, we have been seeing each other but continue to act like strangers. Every day, the father of my son stands there, right before my eyes; while over here, I wonder and worry, how and where our child must be. Such is my wretched life!" DevakiBai complained.
Just then, Rati noticed a sudden glimmer of hope in her teacher's eyes as they steadied,like they'd found what they were looking for. She intuitively followed Devaki Bai's gaze and there was a catch in Rati's breath when she saw that DevakiBai was staring fixedly at thefigure that had emerged at the balcony of the Lahurabir police station, across the street.
His finger had triggered the shot involuntarily, but the bullet went whizzing through the air, right on target. The sudden loud, sharp crack of the gunfire rent the humdrum noises on the Nai Sarak Street. The surface of the bullet was blazing hot with friction but at the core it must have been as cold as a piece of metal, for it went shooting ahead free from any guilt of its intent. Within a blink, the bullet had mercilessly pierced through coarse cloth and lodged itself in Lord Ogelsby Freeman's heart.
While they were startled by the sound of the gunfire right beneath their window, Devaki Bai and Rati screamed in unison as they saw the famously dreadful Lord Freeman,powerlessly doubling up and falling like a cloth doll over the balustrade of the balcony, down to the ground.
Rudra had not expected a vegetable vendor to come around and create a scene like that but destiny had made up its mind as much as he had. Uncaring about the result, the armed Smith & Wesson had emotionlessly fired and miraculously hit the target. Rudra's heart thumped crazily when he realized that his mission was successful. He took off from the scene of the crime and as his feet carried him away, he was suffused with an overwhelming feeling of happiness and sense of liberation.
There had been a great flutter of wings at the disturbing sound and the birds that were calmly perched along the roof terraces took flight, in fright. For the numerous hapless souls on the street down below, wrapped in their own emotional upheaval and weighed down by the British Raj, the sight of the freely flying wings was an omen of sorts!