The Funeral

I wasn’t supposed to be here. If anyone saw me peeking out from between these long wheat stalks, I would be dragged out, screaming and crying, and told off in front of everyone. But I couldn’t stay away. Not when it was Grandmother.

I watched as they lay the logs one above the other. Why were they doing this the traditional way? It feels barbaric. I felt uneasy as the pile of logs grew bigger. I pulled my eyes away from the funeral pyre to the people.

A group of men stood around trying to look stoic and unmoved. Where I come from, women aren’t allowed to attend funerals. At the head, stood Dad and Grandfather. I squinted at Dad. Was he going to cry? I had never seen my father cry. Ever. A hard, dry lump formed in my throat. I forced it down and turned my attention back to Grandmother.

She lay on a cotton bed to the side. She looked like she was sleeping. I had a wild thought. What if they had made a mistake? I imagined jumping out of the field and running into the crematorium, Grandmother waking up in the commotion, and everyone praising me for saving her life. I shook my head. They must have checked. She’s really dead.

My feet were tired from all the standing and waiting and peeping, so I decided to sit, cross-legged on the ground. I quickly realized that I had lost my vantage point of the funeral, but I decided it was okay.

I heard the grunt of men lifting Grandmother onto the pyre and thought of all the summers I had spent on her lap, listening to stories. She made me want to be a storyteller. I heard the crackle of a log catching on fire and thought of her soft voice as I fell asleep to the Kings being victorious. I heard the primal howl emanating from my father’s throat, the smell of charred wood and skin. I closed my eyes and thought of all the ways I would try to make Dad feel better back home. I realized nothing could.

I thought again of Grandmother and her peaceful smile. My chest felt tight. I decided I was okay with women not attending funerals. I never wanted to go to one ever again. I didn’t know then that the worst comes after the funeral.

(*I wrote this on assignment in an hour last night. My grandmother died when I was fifteen. I missed her funeral.)

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Dreamless Sleep

[Published here and on ashramswithinanut.tumblr.com for the terribleminds.com Flash Fiction Challenge.]

Do we wake up on the morning of our deaths and know that it is coming? Is there a sort of deep, animal, gut feeling, honed over years and years of Darwinian self-preservation, that wakes us with a jolt at perhaps five a.m. with the powerless knowledge that, “this is it, my life is over”?

She never had time for that kind of thought. Feelings of powerlessness never existed in her emotional knapsack. If you talked to her co-workers, the first thing they would say about her, after they have waxed eloquent about her thoughtfulness and righteousness, would be her unflinching, unwavering quest for power. She never questioned her goals. She was ambitious and she went for what she wanted.

If you’re thinking “ruthless ambition,” you would be wrong. Sarah O’Connor was determined in the dogged pursuit of her goal, but she was never ruthless. She was cool, never cold. “Thawed openness,” said a journalist once – one of those young Ivy League graduates that feel the need to speak in contradicting linguistic imagery to prove their intellectuality, as though the ability to write in simple but cohesive sentences was almost uncivilized – which she detested for its unabashed overreaching but respected for its accuracy. She was a woman who loved to love and cared for the well-being of her employees and friends, but on her terms.

But that morning, the morning of July 18th, that unseasonably cold and rainy morning, she woke up with a jolt almost an hour before her alarm normally went off. She wracked her brain for the dream she had been having, wondering if something in it had woken her. But it was almost as though she had had a completely dreamless sleep. This was strange, because for as long as she could remember, Sarah had always recollected her dreams. She knew this because the day she realized this, sometime in her mid-twenties, she had begun keeping a journal.

It was always the same journal. For the past fifteen years, she had bought the same moleskin notebook (in deep-red leather with a white string), once every few months when the previous journal run out of pages. It never occurred to her to buy more than one at a time; she wasn’t the kind of person who believed in planning that far in advance in her personal life.

But this morning was different. She woke up with a hum in her chest and a completely blank mind. She thought hard for a few minutes. Nothing. She finally gave up and got out of bed. “Ouch,” she yelped as she stubbed her toe on her bedside table. She crossed her right leg on her left knee and kneaded her big toe, brows furrowed. This was not a good start to the day. But then, she shook her head. She wasn’t one for superstitions. She gave a final massage to her toe, then headed towards the bathroom.

She didn’t think about her dreamless sleep again until she was in her car, driving to work. She wondered what it meant. That her mind had just decided to stop making up memories for her. Of course, dreams aren’t memories, she reminded herself. Yet, it bothered her. Most days, she drove to work thinking about her dreams. Thinking of ways they could have been more crazy, or more embarrassing, or more believable. But today, her mind was drawing a blank. She felt as though she had no thoughts left. She laughed at her own perceived silliness.

It was an ordinary day at work. Really, nothing different. The same people came by, smiled, made presentations, argued points, debated ideas, discussed strategies. She paid attention to most of it, but she also daydreamed through a lot of it. By daydream, of course, she tried to recollect her dream from the night before. Why did it bother her so much? It was just a silly dream, not like she had forgotten the name of her mother. Wait, what was her mom’s name? Oh yes, Helen. Phew. That was close. What’s he saying?

“Do you think this is the right way to go?”
She looked around for signs to help her know what he’s talking about. Nothing.

After a painstakingly long silence, she finally responded, “You know. I think I need to think that over.”

She noticed the mixture of relief and disappointment in his face, an expression well familiar to her. After preparing something for days, you want the response to be immediate or very delayed. You either want to be heralded as a genius right away, or be crushed much later. She gave him an encouraging smile. No point making him panic.

The drive back home, she saw all the twinkling streetlights whoosh by. She counted every single one of them. She didn’t know what else to do. Every few lights, she’d think of what she was doing and shake her head. What was wrong with her? But she continued anyway. Between her workplace and her office, she counted six hundred and two lights.

She watched a movie that night. She hadn’t watched one in years, and they said “Election” was finally on Netflix. So, she bought herself a subscription to Netflix and settled in to re-watch her favourite director’s best movie (in her opinion). She laughed at all the right moments. Shook her head at all the satirical ones. When it was over, she went to bed thinking how unexpectedly dark it had been.

As she got out of her robe that night, she thought about how fortunate she was. About all the people depending on her at work. About her mother, her best friends. She tried to cram as many thoughts in her mind as possible so she had a good dream that night.

Finally satisfied with all her thoughts, she carefully placed her dream journal right next to her head on the nightstand and went to sleep looking at it.

It was a few days before they finally found her.

[For the record, my “random phrase” was Thawed Openness.]

Brown Eyed Girl

(also published on www.shrutiswaminathan.com; written for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge on http://www.terribleminds.com)

The first time I saw him, “Brown Eyed Girl” was playing on the radio. I remember the day like it was yesterday.

I was at home. “Home” was a tiny 10 x 12 I shared with my roommate and sometimes lover at the time. Her name was Melinda. We were in California. Our room was littered with “peace” signs from the war protest that we had been attending all week. The Beatles had Guest of Honour status on our walls, looking down benevolently. The rest is a haze. Not because it has been so long since I lived in that cramped room. It was the sixties, you know?

That small transistor radio was my favourite, if not only, possession at the time. I listened to all my shows religiously. It wasn’t called classic rock in our time. We just called it popular music. Our parents called it the music of the devil. I remember the radio host – his name eludes me – going on a long, funny diatribe against the “old” generation. I used to think a lot of my parents in rural Minnesota. Religious churchgoers. Rule followers. They hadn’t been happy when I decided to come to California for college, but they never stopped me. When I listened to the host, I used to think of them.

My parents were High School sweethearts. They were married the day before he left for the War. My mother was among the first women in her town to start working when the men were gone. She was pregnant but she still drove ten miles every day to work at the factory. I was born eight months after they were married. I used to wonder if I was the reason they got married. I look at her fresh-faced smile in their wedding picture from time-to-time. Did she know then?

Mother was a pioneer. But she was also among the first women to drop out and stop working when the men came back. I asked her once why she stopped. She’d just shrugged. “I didn’t have to stay.” I think it bothered me a little. Maybe.

What would they think of my lifestyle? They might have been shocked. Most people were. But my parents were rocks. When father came back from the war, he used to wake up screaming at nights, drenched in sweat. I used to run to their room and stand in the open doorway. Watching my mother hold him and gently rock him back and forth until his breath slowed and he was ready to sleep again. In the morning, they betrayed no emotion; no signs of having seen me witness the scene. They were Immovable. Soon, they started sleeping with their doors closed. “What goes on behind closed doors…” was an opened-ended sentence my mother loved to leave hanging in the air.

The first time I saw him, I was sitting on the small ledge outside my window, smoking. It was a precarious ledge – only about a foot wide. A little miscalculation and I would go flying through the air ten storeys down. But that was part of the charm for me. Many a day was spent on that ledge, imagining what it would feel like to go hurtling through the air, no way to go but down. How long would it take? Would time stand still as I flashed back to my past and pictured every friend, every lover I had ever had? Or would it be over in a flash? Would it hurt? I used to look down at the concrete pavement and imagine my skull cracked open and people gathering around my lifeless body.

I had been enjoying an hour of listening to The Doors. I loved Jim Morrison. My friends and I had been planning a road trip to Los Angeles. I had heard that the man living in his old dorm room at UCLA had been letting people visit his room for a fee. I wondered if his room had a ledge like mine. I imagined him sitting on that ledge, the sharp L.A. sun blinding him as he thought of songs. I wondered how he came up with his songs.

A glint caught my eye and I peered down through the gap between my feet at the ground. A small puddle of water had gathered on the pavement underneath. I wanted to crane my neck to see what was dripping, but some kind of self-preservative instinct didn’t let me. So I busied myself instead by staring at the slow, ripples spreading out evenly, only to be disturbed by the next drop, and then the next.

Suddenly, “Brown Eyed Girl” came on. I was briefly disappointed that The Doors hour was over. I blamed myself irrationally for a moment. I had gotten distracted from my Jim Morrison daydream so they’d stopped playing. Then I laughed at myself and continued watching the puddle, humming along with the song.

Out of nowhere, a foot stomped right in the middle of my puddle. Droplets scattered, spreading all over the pavement. I yelled out angrily, “Hey!” The foot froze. And he looked up.

Brown eyed girl. Lala la la la la la la la la lala.

He had the most beautiful brown eyes I had ever seen. A light coffee brown that when caught the sun in just the right angle, looked almost amber. I’d never seen eyes like his before. Honest, steadfast, with an infinite capacity to love. In the five seconds that I stared into his eyes, I imagined the next fifty years of my life waking up to those eyes every night.

Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the song ended. I broke eye contact and climbed back into my room, embarrassed.

Did he stay and wait for me to come back out? Did he keep walking? Does he remember that day just as clearly as I do? Does he think of me every time he listens to “Brown Eyed Girl?” Does he know me?

Dreamcatchers

I’ve walked this way many times before. Haven’t ever found you at the end of it. How do I then know that you are there? That, if I walked this road enough, I would find you someday?

I remember that day vividly. Like it was just yesterday – though it has been many sleepless nights since then. The same black and white meadow, the same path. The same unreal whisper of a world not complete. The same leaves whistling a windless song. The black, stoic in it’s all-knowing stands stark against the white, joyful in it’s disregard for knowledge. Me. Dressed in a cacophony of colours that shrink back to stand out. There is courage in cowardice too, they tell me. I’m puzzled, but I nod back. My feet move involuntarily on the tiles, my eyes take in everything. I sense a deja vu. Like, I’ve been here before, but can’t place it.

Something scurries across my tracks and I stop. It’s a tiny squirrel, almost like a black and white cartoon. Lost before I can find it. I notice something from the corner of my eye. Something amiss in the pure black and white-ness. A streak of red on the white tiles. Tracing out the path the squirrel took. I follow it gingerly, unsure of what I’ll find. I follow the red to the trunk of a tree, at the bottom of which lay a tiny bird. The red stopped here, but the bird has no traces of it. I consider going around the tree to see what the red leads to, but give up when I catch a closer look at the bird. It is a strange little thing, this bird. Black beak, white feathers, beady eyes. All normal. But it has the strangest claws. Almost, coloured. Somewhere between being and not being, he is caught in between worlds, probably wandering in from someone else’s. I softly hold him for a while, till he loses all colour and becomes a part of mine. Then I open my hands, blow a kiss and let him go.

I look back to my path, but it seems a long way off. I make my way back to it slowly, the bird having alerted me. Perhaps there were others that might have wandered here. I look for signs of company. Walking alone becomes tiring after awhile. I start noticing signs of encroachment. The leaves that seem to rustle to a hint of a wind. The path that loops to places I don’t recognise. I quicken my footsteps. I need to find the source before I get lost, or worse – wake up. I look under stones – it could be an insect. I look into mounds of earth – it could be a mole. I peep into windows – maybe it is another person? I hear a distant bell. My time is running out. I begin to run. I am struck by an urge to know. Suddenly, I trip and find myself catapulting through the air. As my eyes slowly focus to the world spinning, they see you upside down. Lying without a care in the world, grinning lopsidedly at the idiot who tripped into your dream. I begin to smile back, but by the time I finish, I’m facing the other way around. The next cycle, you aren’t there anymore, and before I can try and figure out where you could have possibly gone, I land.

And, I wake up.

Tightrope

She climbs the ladder, the crowd cheering her on with every step she takes higher. Her heart is pounding, she is sure everyone can hear it. She looks down, at the distance between her and the ground. It feels miles away. Something catches her eye. She looks closely. Its a white thread come loose from her sequinned leotard. It can barely be seen, but it nags her. Everything should be perfect. She tries to shrug it away. She’s too high up the ladder anyway. She’s getting tired, already. She knows that’s not a good sign. Getting to the top is just the beginning of the act.

She’s reached. She sees the long rope stretched taut across the wide circular theatre. The audience has finally quietened. She knows they are looking at her now, holding their breaths, waiting for her next move. She lifts her right leg, hovering over the tightrope for just a bit. She can feel the expectations of the people rise around her like an invisible cloud. She gently lowers her foot on to the rope, spreading her hands out like wings on either side, and lifts the other leg. She pretends to lose her balance, a carefully choreographed move designed to shock the spectators. She achieves her motive, a woman gasps loudly in the crowd. She smiles slightly, and continues moving. The thread is still fluttering, distracting her. She is annoyed. This isn’t alright. Not today.

She reaches the centre of the rope and stops. The spectators are distracted by now, looking at the acrobats cartwheeling in the air. She raises one foot, standing in a ballet pose. One child notices her and shouts out. Instantly, the attention is back on her. She can feel eyes boring into her. The acrobats have also stopped their antics, confused. This wasn’t part of the choreography. She gently bends her knees and jumps.

In an instant she is hurtling through the air at breakneck speed, the wind hitting her face and eyes, her hair billowing out behind her. She loves the feeling, the liberation that comes from the free fall. She thinks of all the times she had walked the tightrope in the past, focussing only on the rope, on the restriction placed on her, on the way that was laid out for her. How she used to wish that she would find a loose knot and fall through it, be free, if only for the few seconds that would take for her to hit the ground. The fluttering thread distracts her from her thoughts, and she reaches out to rip it out once and for all. She smiles as she breaks the thread, just as she hits the safety net, softly bouncing on its sturdy material. She knows she won’t be allowed to work at the circus anymore, they will say they cannot depend on her. But she doesn’t mind. In the free fall, she has discovered what it was that she had always wanted to be, explained her deep-seated urge to run away from everything and everyone, and found out what she really wanted. Liberation.

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.

Forbidden

Lajo kept nodding off during the speech. She knew she shouldn’t. It was some sort of important event, apparently. She didn’t understand it fully though. She knew it had something to do with the new Independence thing Gandhiji had begun. He was a strange man, this Gandhi. From what she understood, he had been all over the world. England, South Africa, all these places she kept hearing about. But here he came to India, wearing but a loincloth and a shawl, a scrawny bag of bones.

The baby stirred in her arms and whimpered. It was feeding time. Lajo looked around. There was no way of getting out. People were sitting for miles on either side. Besides, getting up and leaving would be disrespectful. So she shushed the baby and gently rocked her in her arms. She smiled as the tiny hands searched through her pallo and jewellery and made their way to her earlobe. Lajo gently ran her hand through the soft brown curls, so similar to her father’s. She looked up and searched him out in the crowd. There he was, standing off to one side in the distance, looking smart in his uniform and holding a big rifle. She looked at his handsome features, his shining skin, those brilliant blue eyes with their piercing gaze, her pulse racing with the secret she knew only they shared. He turned abruptly and looked directly into her eyes, as though he had sensed her looking. She blushed furiously, but held his gaze defiantly. He smiled, his eyes crinkling at the side, and her heart melted.

Suddenly, a stone flew through the air and hit him on the forehead and he crumpled to the floor. She screamed, but her screams were lost in the instant fire his comrades opened fire against the crowd. The enraged crowd ran against the and began to assault them. She ran in the direction she had seen him, the baby rudely awakened and crying in her arms. It was mayhem. She saw people, friends, relatives falling and getting trampled all around her. But she didn’t stop. She kept running, screaming gibberish, for she didn’t know his name. She felt bodies and arms and legs under her feet, as she ran without a care for their lives – without a care for her own.

She reached him finally, writhing on the ground with blood streaming down his face. The baby was shrieking now, but she couldn’t hear any of it. She yelled, tried to get him to move. She began to pull at his clothes, his limbs, his face. But he was too weak to move. All of a sudden a hand grabbed her baby roughly from her arms and pulled her away. She looked up to see her husband’s face, red with fury. She struggled to get away from him and screamed at him to let her go. He dragged her away forcefully till he couldn’t listen to her anymore and turned around and slapped her so hard that she turned and fell.

‘Do you think you are some great freedom fighter, that you can kill these firang men with your bare hands? You are a mother! Get away from them!’

But she didn’t hear a word. She was looking at the eyes. The eyes that she had grown to respect. She eyes she had learnt to not fear. She eyes she had fallen in love with. She felt herself being picked up and pulled away. But she didn’t resist. She thought of their clandestine meetings when her husband was in the fields, or away at some protest – meetings that were all the more exciting because they were forbidden. She thought of their long, one-sided conversations while neither understood the other. She thought of the first time she knew she had fallen in love. The eyes were lifeless now. Staring at her, staring through her. The eyes of the stranger, who was her lover.