The Sacrifice

He took a long drag from the chillum. He could feel the euphoria rising in him as the marijuana coursed through his veins. But instead of clearing his head like it usually did, he just found himself getting more muddled. Something was nagging him, but he wasn’t sure what. He knew he was angry. He just couldn’t place the reason. It was something to do with her. Her, her father… That man was always the bone of contention between the two of them. He pushed aside the picture of his father in law irritably. Not the time to think of it. He took another drag.

“Shiva!”

The urgency in the voice made him sit up suddenly. He looked around, but the smoke made it difficult to see.

“Shiva!”, the voice called out, more urgently.

He waved his hands to clear up the smoke. Eventually, he could make out the figure of his best friend, Nandi. He had a look of utter terror on his face. Shiva felt a sense of deep foreboding.

He leapt to his feet. “Nandi! What happened? Tell me!”

Nandi looked down at his feet. He seemed to hesitate. Shiva went up to him, held him by his shoulders and shook him. “What is wrong Nandi? Weren’t you with…”

“Yes,” said Nandi. “I was. Shiva… Shiva, something terrible has happened.”

***

She was at a loss. She couldn’t believe this was happening. A ceremony at her father’s house, and her husband was not even invited? She was sure this was because her father did not approve of the match. She considered the situation. At any other time, she would not have thought twice. She was an independent woman. She never let anyone dictate her actions. The decision to marry Shiva was hers, and hers alone. She hadn’t listened to anything her father had to say. She agreed it was impulsive and wild, but Sati always did what her heart said.

The first time Sati ever saw Shiva, she knew it was him she would be with for the rest of her life. She would never forget that moment. He had been sitting outside the town temple, lost in his own world, laughing and teasing his friends. There was a calmness on his face, and litheness in his stance that signified gentleness. But the hard lines of his face, the ripple of muscle when he flexed his arms and strong hands spoke otherwise. That same moment he had turned and looked at her. In that millisecond of shared glance, they both saw their future.

But now, Sati was lost. What should she do? The future that they both had seen did not include all the troubles they would have to endure in order to be together. Today, her father had refused to even invite them for the annual family sacrifice. But in her heart, she knew she had to go. Ever since she had been born, she had attended the sacrifice to the Mother Goddess. She knew she couldn’t miss it.

But Shiva? He wouldn’t come. He wouldn’t care for it. What could she say?

***

Shiva strode towards the temple, his thoughts storming in his mind. He knew he shouldn’t have let her go. Why, why did she have to plead thus, making him give in? If he had refused, this would never have happened. He had only himself to blame.

Nandi followed, knowing and fearing what was to come. He knew Shiva’s bull-like temper. He could only hope that Shiva did not do something he would later regret. “Shiva…,” he said, searching for words to try and make things better. “Shiva, please calm down. Please. You know that this won’t help. Getting angry won’t bring her ba-…,” he trailed off as Shiva turned on him with bloodshot eyes. As he looked at him, Nandi could sense the heart-wrenching pain that his best friend was going through. He could feel his helplessness, his loneliness, his despair wash over himself. In that moment, Nandi rushed forward and hugged Shiva. He held his friend by his shoulders, and looked deep into his eyes. “I am sorry, my friend,” he said. “I stand by you.” Saying this, Nandi strode ahead of Shiva, leading the way.

***

She entered the room apprehensively, toying with the large coral ring on her finger. He seemed to be in a good mood and was just preparing a chillum for himself.

“Shiva…,” she began softly.

He turned and smiled. His smile slowly turned to a frown as he saw the worried look in her eyes. He set his chillum  down and strode towards her. Holding her hands, he gently kissed her forehead and asked, “What is it, love? What is making you so worried?”

Looking into those eyes that held so much love for her, Sati for a moment, thought of abandoning her plans. The moment was so idyllic. It was rare to see Shiva so relaxed. She knew what would happen if she brought up the topic, and she feared it. She lightly rested her head against his chest, mustering up courage for what she knew she had to say.

“Shiva,” she began slowly. “There is a pooja at my father’s place today. It’s a -” , “a family sacrifice that your ancestors have been performing through generations, I know,” Shiva interrupted. He laughed as she tried to wipe away the astonished look on her face. He cradled her face in his hands, and said, “It must be painful, I agree. I am sorry you have been deliberately left out of family functions because of your ragamuffin of a husband.” he laughed. “But it is alright. The two of us are enough for each other, aren’t we? You and I. We don’t need anyone else, least of all your grouchy father!” He smiled and kissed her softly on the lips. But Sati had frozen. She didn’t know what to say. Shiva sensed it, too. He drew back, a look of puzzlement clouding his face. He looked into her eyes, questioning her.

She took a deep breath. “I have to go, Shiva,” she said. “I… I want to go.” She could sense her words pierce him, his ego. He let go of her shoulders slowly and turned away. She wanted to reach out, tell him that he will always be more important than anything to her. But she knew it was not for her to say. It was for him to know himself.

“So,” he said, his back still turned to her, “you would choose your father over me, is it? Don’t justify,” he raised his hand to stop her from talking. “I don’t need your petty reasons. I refuse to go for this pooja. Will you go without me? How will you face your family, all the guests, your father, when you arrive there as an unwanted guest?”

“I am going for myself, Shiva,” said Sati. “I am not concerned with any of the guests, members of my family or my father. I have been part of this since the day I was born. My father did not invite us. But I am his daughter. I am family. So are you. We don’t need to be invited. It is our duty to go.”

Shiva turned around in rage, his eyes flashing, “Duty? What duty? What duty do you have towards a man who refuses to acknowledge your presence anymore? Even when he sees how much it hurts you?” Sati stepped back in fear, but did not avert her gaze. She knew she was right. He took a deep breath, walked to the window and spoke calmly. “Fine. If you want to go, go. But remember. If you go today, don’t think of coming back to me.”

She was shocked into silence. She began to speak, but something told her to stop. She had to go. She knew it. As she turned to leave, she looked back at him. “I have to do this. I love you, Shiva,” she said, and left.

***

He kicked open the massive gates to the sacrificial hall. It was chaos all around. People were running about, trying to escape the huge stones crumbling down upon them. He scanned the hall. He could see people he considered his friends hiding from the destruction taking place. He felt like walking up to them and shaking them, demanding from them a reason, any reason as to why they hadn’t stopped it. How they could have let it happen.

Then he saw. In the middle of all the confusion, in front of the Idol. A man sitting down on the ground, cradling a charred body. Shiva felt the life go out of his legs. He shook his head. No, this must be someone else. He searched for any clue that would confirm that this wasn’t who it was. The man shifted, and a hand dislodged from the wrist. A hand wearing a huge coral ring. He felt the world come to a halt. For a moment, time seemed to stop. He stood transfixed as the man holding Sati, his own daughter, turned around and looked into his eyes. And then it came crashing down upon Shiva.

He saw in his mind Sati, as she walked, petite and graceful, into the ancient temple, her hands clasped in devotion. He saw her bewildered eyes as she looked at her father when she was stopped by his guards. He saw his father-in-law dismiss her pleas to allow her to participate, telling her to go home to her ‘junkie’. He saw his wife’s eyes flash with anger, as she defended Shiva. He saw her question the sabha as the spectators remained mute. He saw her turn upon his friends, who had borne this slight to him without a word. He saw her walk towards the pyre resolutely, announcing to the audience that she was the cause for this dishonour to her husband, and that she wished she would be reborn to a man whom she could respect. And he saw her, as she stepped into the fire in front of hundreds of people – who did nothing to stop her – and immolated herself. For him.

He roared.

He rushed towards Daksha, tearing at his face with his bare hands. Daksha didn’t fight back. Listless and powerless, he allowed himself to be shaken about as a puppet, finally dying of his own accord in Shiva’s hands. But Shiva wasn’t done. He ran around like a bull, crushing everyone and everything that came his way. He teared down pillars, threw men out of his way, clawed their heads from their torsos. It was almost as though something had taken over him. As he ran past a group of young women, he heard them chant the Mother Goddess’s name. His blood boiled. This Goddess was the reason Sati had fought with him, her Shiva – and killed herself. She was the reason all that remained of Sati was a pile of bones and charred flesh. Sati had chosen Her over him. He turned towards the idol. He would destroy it, the temple – everything that was related to Her. He ran towards it, but as he neared it, he found himself looking at Sati’s lifeless body.

He stopped. He felt the rage leave him, leaving only an acute, throbbing pain in its wake. He crumpled to the floor in a heap. He looked at her charred face. He remembered the times he had teased her about bring dark, his own fairness being the only thing she envied him for. He brushed her long burnt hair off her face. He know how much she hated it when that happened. As he looked into her face, so peaceful in death, it finally hit him. He realised the intensity of all that had happened, and its consequences. He saw the futility of it all, that he could not reverse time, that Sati was truly dead and nothing would bring her back. She was gone. He began laughing silently. It was deafening in its silence. The laughter of a mad man, a man who had lost everything, whose life could no longer have any tragedy – for there was nothing he cared about anymore.

He laughed until the tears stopped. Then he gently lifted her up in his arms, and stood up. He sensed Nandi move towards him, and stopped him with a shake of his head. This was his burden to carry, his sin to pay for, his guilt to assuage. He began walking. Again, he heard Nandi follow him, asking him where he was going. He didn’t reply. He didn’t know himself. All he knew now, were his wife’s remains that he was holding. He looked down at her, smiled and walked out of the gates.