19 June 1968, Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh)
Please Maa, Rajendra is an honest man…meet him once, at least!
Pitaji, please don’t finalise my wedding elsewhere, I’ll die!
Open the door, Bhaiya, Maa…it’s so dark in here!
Ashapurna Devi sat up with a start, beads of sweat glistening on her glabella. Picking up the copper glass from beside her mattress, she glugged in a few mouthfuls of water. The cool water marginally calmed her frayed nerves. She almost thought her thumping heartbeat would awaken the five other women, sleeping peacefully in different corners of the room.
These voices, those dreams…why do they still hound me? It’s been a lifetime now, lugging this yoke of guilt and remorse! Wish I could turn the clock back, wish I could undo so many things!
Ashapurna could not figure out the time. Looking at the tenebrous sky outside, she concluded it was well past midnight…probably 2 am. Or even 3. Not that it mattered, really. Time had nothing to do with the cycle of events that unfolded with tedious uniformity, every single day in the lives of the thirty-six residents of Shanti Kunj, the widow haven of Varanasi. She gently pushed back the tendrils of grey that had encroached on her lined, weather-beaten face. Smoothening the dishevelled pallu of her stark white saree, she lay down again, waiting for daybreak. Waiting to spend another twenty-four hours in eager anticipation, like she had, for the past eighteen years! Hoping to court death in Varanasi at the feet of Lord Shiva, to attain moksh or ‘freedom’ from the cycle of birth and death! She was 65, and her patience was wearing thin.
Tossing and turning on the hard coir mattress laid out on the floor in an adjacent room, Akanksha stared at the ceiling above. The archaic, unadorned wooden beams, jutting out at odd places, seemed to tell a story of neglect, of utter waste. Of days dwindling in desolation; of long nights lost in loneliness. She spotted a solitary mouse scurrying across the beams, trying to find an escape route. In the darkness, Akanksha gave a wry smile – was the mouse’s story very different from hers? At 29, wasn’t she, too, leading a deadlocked life…stagnating in this cubbyhole for the past five years? And now that she had chanced upon a faint glimmer of hope, why was she so diffident to embrace it? Oscillating fitfully between her past and her present, Akanksha drifted off to a restive slumber.
The narrow lane leading to the famed Assi Ghat was long and winding, where numerous dingy shops and decrepit buildings vied for a toehold with tattered shanties and small, enclosed shrines. The uneven, cobbled pathway emanated a queer stench of stale paan spit mixed with that of crushed flowers, waste food, animal excreta, and the fumes of charcoal ovens. To an outsider, it might appear overwhelming…almost repugnant. But 34-year-old Abhilash Awasthi knew these lanes like the back of his palm. They filled him with a gratifying sense of belonging and comfort. Taking long, purposeful strides, the young priest headed out to the ghat steps, at 4 am sharp. Casting aside his russet shawl, he lowered his sinewy torso, draped minimally in a white dhoti, into the cool waters of the holy Ganges. The refreshing dip, followed by his early morning prayers, soused him in a blissful tranquility. It seemed to wash away the mounting restlessness that had been plaguing him of late. Was he straying from his chosen path of lifelong service to the Lord? Was he allowing his impetuous heart, instead of his erudite brain, to take control over his actions? The lines were blurring…and the well-respected Sanskrit scholar was fast losing the will to rein in his aspirations! And surprisingly, he seemed to quite enjoy this new, stirring emotion!
Later in the day…
“Akanksha, could you meet Abhilash yesterday? What did he say? How was his mood?”
Ashapurna Devi was panting lightly as she tried to keep pace with the much younger Akanksha. Both were headed towards the nearby Swayambhu temple for a marathon bhajan singing session. Some affluent merchant had organised an elaborate prayer meet for his departed father. Akanksha was blessed with a naturally mellifluous voice. That, coupled with her own joyless life, had infused a rapturous melancholy into her voice. And Asha Devi, with her robust religious fervour, made for a suitable co-singer.
“Yes Chachi, I managed to speak with him for a few minutes on the ghats. We discussed…things.” Akanksha’s tone was laced with trepidation. The walls of the Varanasi buildings were rumoured to have ears! “Abhilashji said he had casually dropped hints while talking to Mahantji. But Mahantji apparently got very agitated at the mere mention of it. A priest renouncing his religious order and embracing a domesticated life, was nothing short of blasphemy, he asserted! So, Abhilashji thought it best to let go of the matter for now, Chachi.”
The deep disappointment in her voice was not lost on Asha Devi. The two women were separated in age by decades, but their hearts were bound by a common thread of suffering and fortitude. In fact, for Asha Devi, Akanksha was like a daughter…the daughter she had birthed…and lost forever!
The temple proceedings lasted about five hours. By the time Asha Devi had her frugal meal and finished cleaning up the congregation hall, it was late afternoon. Akanksha and a few other widows were still held up with the washing and stacking of the vessels and other pooja paraphernalia. Independence had reformed several aspects of the country, but the pitiable state of widows at Varanasi, somehow, escaped all administrative ardour.
Ashapurna came out and sat down slowly on the steps. Resting her elbows on her arthritic knees, she bent her head and cupped her face with her palms.
Death and mourning, the most intense experiences of one’s life! And here we witness it almost every day, either along the cremation ghats or in the temples. Strange, how death still eludes me! 18 long years and yet, it hasn’t come calling for me!
She always viewed these events with a certain cynicism. She had lost so much, and mourned so deeply, that now everything else seemed redundant, perfunctory. Involuntarily, her mind strayed back to those events of twenty-five years earlier, when she was the pretty, young wife of Dwarkanath Bharadwaj, a notable zamindar of Meerut in pre-independent India.
1943, Meerut (Uttar Pradesh)
“Latika, where are you going, my child? It’s too hot and sunny now!” Ashapurna said, casually glancing at her own reflection in the ornate, wall-mounted mirror in her sprawling bed chamber. Each movement of hers produced a tintinnabulation of her gold anklets and a dulcet jingle of gold bangles adorning her dainty wrists. The vermillion on her head blazed scarlet, matching the large, round bindi accentuating her spotless visage. Draped in a bright green and red tussar saree, Asha looked every inch the aristocratic lady that she was!
“Didn’t I ask you to stay home today, dear? The Mishras will be coming in the evening to see you. Now run to the kitchen and apply that cream-and-turmeric beauty paste that I prepared for you.”
On an impulse, Asha pulled her nineteen-year-old daughter close and petted her cheeks. To her surprise, she found them moist. Not one to dismiss such things casually, she demanded a truthful answer. And then it all came tumbling out, a deluge of raw, unfiltered emotions – Latika tearfully admitted to having a relationship with a young man, Rajendra, who held a supervisor’s job in a nearby factory. An honest, hardworking man, Rajendra was brought up in an obscure orphanage. His caste details, like his family background, were not too clear. The spate of socio-economic reforms undertaken by the British colonial rulers had ensured that he got a decent education and then, a job. Latika and Rajendra were madly in love with each other and wanted to get married.
To say that this disclosure had a shattering impact on the Bharadwaj household, would be an understatement. Dwarkanath exploded in an unbridled fury – how could his only daughter act against their family honour?! To have a clandestine liaison was shameful enough…but to select an unbefitting partner was nothing short of sacrilege! And Dwarkanath, as the proud patriarch, took it upon himself to make amends! What followed were days of confinement in a dark, dingy rooftop cubicle for young Latika. She was given only two meals a day, carried upstairs by a trusted man-servant. Communication with any family member was strictly forbidden, as her father began looking for a ‘suitable’ match for his daughter.
Ashapurna’s heart broke into smithereens. Being the only girl among her three offspring, Latika had always been special. She was endowed with the gifts of artistry, sensibility and compassion – rare qualities in the Bharadwaj lineage. Once Asha sneaked into the terrace in her husband’s absence and tried to speak with her from outside the closed door. The memory of that conversation remained etched in her heart for all her remaining years. Sobbing piteously, Latika begged her mother to let her out.
“Please Maa, times are changing…for once, rise above the shackles of caste, community and status. Why don’t you all meet Rajendra once and then take a decision? I’m sure you’ll approve of him.” Latika continued to speak, choking on her words, “I can’t marry anyone else, Maa, I’ll die…I swear I will!”
That same evening Dwarkanath returned triumphant, carrying sweets for everyone at home – Latika’s marriage had been fixed with an influential, rich widower. The gentleman fostered favourable ties with the British officers and hence, both families would eventually stand to benefit. There were glorious celebrations in the household – the entire mansion was decked up in fairy lights, firecrackers were burst, sweets were distributed, and the family priest was summoned for further consultations. The night ended on a happy note for almost everyone.
Morning dawned with the gruesome sight of Latika’s lithe frame lying broken and twisted at odd angles, on the rough, stone-hewn path behind the house. With all her hopes and dreams evaporating into wispy nothingness, she chose to set herself free by leaping off the terrace. The universe had connived with her only this one time when the man-servant forgot to lock her door properly.
The years that followed were punctuated by stark tonal shifts in Ashapurna Devi’s life. Her sons got married and settled down; the country emerged as an independent nation; and Dwarkanath left for his heavenly abode, leaving Ashapurna at crossroads in her life’s trajectory. Subsequently, she expressed her desire to dedicate her remaining years to the Lord’s service at Varanasi. Her sons felt relieved. On her part, the austere white garb and the white tilak smeared on her forehead were a far cry from her earlier resplendent self. But they also proved to be the calm to the storm raging within her, as she gradually started rewriting her life on a clean slate.
1968, Varanasi (continued)
It had not been easy for Abhilash and Akanksha to connect. Hailing from a middle-class family of Itarsi, Akanksha had lost her newly wedded husband to a tragic motor accident. Blamed savagely for this tragedy by her kin on both sides, the young widow was promptly packed off to Varanasi, condemned to a life of austerity and deprivation.
Abhilash, on the other hand, was born to his orthodox brahmin parents after years of penance and prayers. As a mark of gratitude, they pledged him to the service of God, right after he turned twelve. Both his parents died early. He studied to become a priest, besides attending college and specialising in Sanskrit. Having been sworn to celibacy, Abhilash’s daily routine had only two engagements – the Swayambhu temple where he was the head priest, and the local P.U. College where he taught as a part-time lecturer.
Their paths had crossed about a year earlier when Abhilash was summoned to Shanti Kunj to chant the holy verses to a nonagenarian resident, gasping in the throes of death. Between reading out the sermons and pouring drops of holy water into the lady’s quivering mouth, Abhilash’s eyes fell on Akanksha for the first time – a vision in white, gently holding the shrunken hands of the lady, whispering words of comfort into her unresponsive ears, patiently wiping the drool dripping from the corners of her mouth. This unusual sight at a place that was known for its apathy towards human life, warmed the cockles of his heart. By evening, this nameless lady had completed her ephemeral journey, but she managed to change Abhilash’s life forever! Defying all the rigid religious diktats shackling his heart, Abhilash realised that he was completely smitten by Akanksha. He wanted to know her better, he wanted to spend time with her. It aroused entirely new emotions in him that needed time to process.
Akanksha took a long time to be convinced. Widowed at an age when women often embark on their marital journey, Akanksha wasn’t aware of Abhilash’s existence until the day he introduced himself at the Swayambhu temple, on the pretext of offering her prashad. Even though some years had passed since she came to Shanti Kunj, she had not been able to tide over her tag of a ‘cursed, inauspicious woman’ who had wreaked death upon her husband of two months! She found it strange when she chanced upon Abhilash regularly – be it on the ghats at the wee hours of dawn, or at various shrines that dotted the temple town, or even when he came to perform Satyanarayana puja at Shanti Kunj. He would find some pretext of speaking to her privately for a few minutes. Beneath his composed demeanour, Akanksha could intuitively sense an intensely charged persona, an electrifying magnetism, that she found hard to either resist or ignore.
The human heart has its strange ways – the more we try to rein it in, the harder it struggles to break free. It’s rightly said that love happens among the most unlikely partners, in the most improbable circumstances. The nascent chemistry brewing between Abhilash and Akanksha soon assumed a tangible form as they both owned up their feelings for each other. Theirs, however, was an alliance fraught with uncertainty and societal censure, if it were to get exposed.
14 September, 1968
Sitting on the steps in a secluded corner of Tulsi Ghat, shielded from prying eyes and myopic judgements, Akanksha and Abhilash looked out at the vast volume of water flowing past in an unchanging natural rhythm. In the distant horizon, the sky scintillated in a riot of colours. A tangerine, gold and fuchsia mosaic reflected on the waters below, suffusing Akanksha’s supple face with a warm glow. The evening breeze caressed her dark silken tresses which threatened to break loose from the confines of her tight braid. Abhilash felt a sudden desire to reach out and touch her, to cocoon her from the vagaries of the world in his broad, dependable arms. He wished to gift her all the happiness that she so rightly deserved. In the past one year, he had come to know almost everything about her – her likes, dislikes, experiences, her innermost conflicts, and above all, her hope to start afresh.
Akanksha was the first to break the silence.
“Abhilashji, I’ve spoken to Chachi. She insists that we finalise the date for Deepavali. Should we do that?”
Abhilash nodded in agreement.
“Yes, I think we can zero in on 21 October, it’s an auspicious day. I tried convincing Mahantji one last time but you know him. His views are extremely orthodox and he refuses to budge.” Abhilash’s face darkened as he spoke. “Mahantji has been the only family I’ve had in the past so many years. I really wish we had his blessings on our big day!”
Akanksha understood. The pain and disappointment clouding his face reminded her of the emotional whiplash she had experienced on the demise of her husband.
“Abhilashji, why don’t we leave this place? Do you think anybody here will ever accept us or support our decision? If anything, they’ll make life miserable for us with all their barbs and sanctions.” Akanksha’s eyes welled up as she spoke. “I’m so tired of all this…I just wish to have some peace and stability in my life now. Is it too much to hope for?”
“No Akankshaji, we shall not run away from here! At least, not now! I just received word from Calcutta…next month I’ll be joining a reputed college there as faculty. Till then, we shall continue in Varanasi with pride and dignity, as man and wife!”
For the first time, Abhilash took Akanksha’s hands in his own. And strangely, she did not wrest them away.
21 October, 1968
It was 8 pm. In spite of the new moon, the town looked like a bejewelled bride, with oil lamps illuminating every house, the temples dazzling with strands of marigold and the radiant flame from large brass lamps.
Akanksha, too, looked resplendent in a red benarasi saree, purchased by Abhilash, and some minimal jewellery, a parting gift from Asha Devi. The latter had personally created her bridal look, the way most mothers do. But as Akanksha emerged from her room in Shanti Kunj, she was shocked to see a hundred faces peering at her in varying degrees of disbelief and disgust. Cries of ‘fallen woman…harlot…gold-digger’ rent the air. It looked like all the widows of Varanasi had joined hands to decry her decision and label her a sinner! As her eyes misted and her steps faltered, Ashapurna firmly caught her by the arm and led her out of the entrance where Abhilash was waiting for them.
Together, they reached the Durga Kund temple, to solemnise their union. The cymbals inside the temple jangled till they reached a crescendo, while the robust chanting of hymns added to the religious zeal. But as they were about to step inside, the Head Priest came forward and blocked their way. Arms crossed and anathema writ large on his face, he was soon joined by his brethren and a rank of devotees who, collectively, ousted them from the premises, but not before they had hurled the choicest abuses and curses on the trio!
Appalled, Asha Devi, Abhilash and Akanksha turned towards some of the other revered temples. Everywhere, it was the same animosity and ostracization that greeted them…as if, the whole town had conspired to dash their dreams and send them hurtling back into those very abysmal depths that were known to consume the long-suffering widows of Varanasi!
Abhilash clenched his jaws as a cold anger swept over him.
“Chachi, Akanksha, I’ve had enough! It’s our life…our choice…and no one has the right to trample over our cherished dreams! Let’s go!” Abhilash spoke with such an air of finality and conviction that both the women followed him, without demurring.
They walked past the temples and houses, the markets and the riverfront, till they reached the farthest corner of Manikarnika Ghat – the holy cremation ground alongside River Ganga. Taking some fresh firewood lying nearby, Abhilash lit a bonfire. Within minutes, the fire crackled and flared. Akanksha’s heart raced, her eyes glistened, as Abhilash lovingly held her hand and led her around their makeshift holy flame, all the while chanting the sacred wedding vows that had, all this while, been his bread and butter! Thereafter, he daubed a dash of crimson on her hair parting and tied a simple, gold-and-black mangalsutra around her neck.
The starless sky glowed with the sparkle of iridescent firecrackers, as if, to bless this unlikely union. Beside them, the holy river flowed, pregnant with its zen energy. At a distance, the tangerine flames of the Ganga Aarti could be seen licking the caliginous skies, accompanied by frenzied prayer chants. The night air carried a scent of funerary ingredients as a couple of pyres blazed nearby. It was a surreal surrounding where divinity and hope walked hand in hand with death and squalor; where fresh dreams took flight from the bedrock of agony and torment.
Tears cascaded down Ashapurna Devi’s face. She was happy that Akanksha had not become another Latika. She felt marginally unburdened…as if a virulent lightness had been injected into her woebegone veins. Looking heavenwards, she wondered if her Latika was watching! She refused Abhilash’s repeated requests to move in with them in his modest tenement. Varanasi was, after all, her spiritual lodestar – and staying on at Shanti Kunj, braving sundry adversities, was her ultimate litmus test. And it was only through this ordeal by fire that Asha Devi hoped to purge her soul and inch closer towards her coveted vision of moksh!
Disclaimer: This is a fictional story. Any resemblance with any person or place, living or dead, is purely coincidental and unintentional.
Maa, Pitaji, Bhaiya – Mother, Father, Brother
Pallu – the loose end of a saree
Paan – a preparation combining betel leaf with areca nut
Bhajan – devotional song
Chachi – aunty
Mahantji – a religious superior in Hindu temples
Pooja – prayer or worship
Bindi – a decorative dot worn on the forehead by Indian women
Tussar, Benarasi – types of silken fabric
Tilak – a mark worn on the forehead by a Hindu to indicate caste, sect, status etc
Prashad – a food offering made to a Hindu god
Mangalsutra – an auspicious, ornamental thread symbolising marriage
Ganga Arti – prayer for River Ganga
This story was first published on Penmancy In April 2022.