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And that was my mistake – she wanted to add. It wasn’t what the baby had asked for, after all. The baby would probably have loved a life of peace and quiet, of security and comfort. Instead, he got struggle.
People wanted many things. Jahnavi wanted just one. Just one thing, but she wanted it with every fiber, every vessel, every particle of her being. She wanted to be reborn.
She could have shed her skin, like a snake could, but that won’t be enough.
Maybe she could burn her flesh and bone, like a phoenix did, but that didn’t feel enough.
She needed more. She needed to shed the skin and melt the flesh and burn the bones of her being. And then throw the ash into the sea, to be tossed and turned and thrown and claimed back. To be cleansed. To be eroded.
Maybe, that would suffice. Just.
She envied the moon here, which shone bright and pure, untouched and aloof. And the waves, lined with silver, rising and falling and breaking upon the sands, unaffected in an inevitable way. And most of all, she envied the sand, which shone like stars in the moonlight. A sky in itself it was, the beach, a reflection of the sea, and yet, so real…
“I wish I had begun here.” She murmured.
“This is not the place for beginnings, sweetie.” replied her uncle. “This is where things end.”
They sat away from the waves, on a dry spot, a fire crackling away between them. It felt so blissful – silent, warm, beautiful, peaceful… Could such simple adjectives ever suffice?
They would have to. She wanted just that now. Simple adjectives for a simple life. She had had enough adventure for a lifetime.
“Jahnavi?” asked her uncle tentatively.
He would need his answers. Of course. But there were just so many questions…
“Jahnavi, I know you need some peace, but please… I need to know something… about this… situation.”
“I know.” She sighed. “I just don’t know where to begin, uncle.”
“You could begin with telling me why you are here at my doorstep, with a bunch of girls I have never known, in the dead of the night.”
“I don’t mean to be a burden, uncle. I will be gone soon-”
“You are not a burden, Jahnu. I just- I just need to know.”
“Its a long story.”
“We have a lot of time.”
For once, Jahnavi smiled. Her uncle was quite like the sea – large-hearted, accepting, but irresolute, unrelenting. He could listen.
“I guess,” she started, “it began the day Father fixed me up with Bhagirath.”
How long had it been? Ten years? More? A lifetime? It was a different time, a time when life had simpler pleasures, simpler problems. A time when she had been the rebel of the family. She had refused to marry Bhagirath.
Father had been shocked. “Bhagirath has been helping our family for the past 8 years, Jahnavi!” He had yelled. “We are honour-bound to accept his wish!”
“You are.” she had told him “I am not. I never asked for his help. You did. You-”
And then Mother had exploded. “How dare you talk to your father like that? Have you no sense of gratitude?”
“I have a sense of self-respect, Mother, which you seem to have lost! The man wants to- It is unthinkable Mother! You know his family!”
“You seem to have forgotten yours, daughter,” said Father, and walked away. That was to indicate that the discussion was over. There would be no further arguments.
“How could I not argue, Uncle? When Bhagirath asked for my hand, he stated, ever so pompously, that one girl like me could enliven the lives of all of his family. All of them, and their fathers, and their forefathers. That is how it is up there, where girls are so few, and men are so many… How could I… How could I go willingly, uncle? How could I say yes?”
“Unable to find any other way, I ran. In the dead of the night, I gathered as many provisions as I could, and I escaped. I had always been wily, and I had always prided my toughness, and so, gathering all of my will and all of my power, I ran as far as I could. I ran all night.”
“When morning came, I had crossed all boundaries I had known in my life. I was in an unknown territory, and I didn’t even know my way back.”
“You should have gone back, Jahnu,’ said Uncle. “Your Father was always the patriarch, but I know you mother – she would have calmed him…”
“Maybe I should have. All night, at every step, I wondered if I should go back. By going back, I could give a better life to two families. By going ahead, I could give a better life to myself. What is the the life of a girl against the happiness of two families, uncle? Maybe nothing. But maybe, everything.”
Her uncle listened open-mouthed. “Jahnu… you… I don’t know what to say. Weren’t… weren’t you scared?”
“I was! So scared, and so lost, and so tired. My legs were dead, and my feet were bleeding. I… I wouldn’t have survived if I hadn’t met the hermit that day.”
“I told you – I was in a different territory. There were just vast, empty mountains all around me. Somehow, in all of that emptiness, I found this hermit. An old, old man, old beyond years, called Neelkanth.”
“And he took you in? How could you trust a strange man-”
“He just offered me some bandages, for my feet, and his food. But I didn’t know what to do with those bandages, uncle. Mother always did that at home…”
Even today, the memory gave her a lump in the throat. The anger, the doubts, the sense of loss, the pain of separation. And the kindness of strangers.
“He nursed my wounds.” She spoke, swallowing the lump. “I was so tired – I slept before he was finished. When I woke up, he gave me food and water. And then, he asked me my story.”
“Few people listen, uncle. He did. He heard all of it, told between sobs and tears and hiccups. I asked him which way I should go – ahead, or behind. He said that decision came later. He said I needed to change before I went either way.”
“Change?” Asked her uncle, incredulous.
“Change, yes. Or rather, evolve. You need to grow, Jahnavi, he said. Either way, your journey will be tough. You need to rein yourself in. You are wild and true and passionate, Jahnavi, but the civilisation abhors such wildness. I know this more than anyone else. Calm yourself, Jahnavi, before you are leashed.”
Oh how angry she had been! Hadn’t she run away from just this? To think that such a kindly old man would be the same as her father!
She had run away then, for true. Never to doubt, never to think, ever to look back. She would never put up with such nonsense. Never. Ever.
How angry she had been! How sure, how wilful!
How naive! How oh-very-naive!
“Looking back, uncle, I wish I had listened to him. It probably wouldn’t have changed my decision, but it would have made the journey easier. So much easier…”
“What happened, Jahnavi?” asked her uncle.
Nothing, she wanted to tell him, and everything.
“Jahnavi, tell me about the girls, at least.”
“The girls were a part of the journey.’ She said, her eyes closed. “We all met on the way. Everybody different, and everybody the same. We had all seen the same world, after all.”
“Yamuna, the big one, I met her in Prayag. She had been promised to a man, but the man had no interest in her. He had a new love interest every fortnight, and then, when he was of age, he went to the city. She waited, and waited, until one day, the man left the state, and went to the other coast, all the way to Dwarka. Rejected, she fled, thinking she had nothing left in life. We took her in, and brought her here.”
“And Kosi, the tiny, fair one, had come from the plains, all teary. She said she saw a beautiful, delicate woman raise her twin sons all alone in the forest. The woman, she gathered later, had been banished from her house because another man had kidnapped her for a night. And the poor woman, she still pined for man. Kosi said she was so angry that she decided never to love a man. She would fend for herself rather than suffer such torment. She is quite fiery, Kosi, though she doesn’t look it.”
“And there’s more. Alaknanda, and Tamsa, and Gomti, and… So many stories, uncle, the night won’t last so long.”
“Tell me yours then.”
Despite herself, she smiled. Her uncle wasn’t going to relent.
And maybe, it was easy this way. Spouting it out in one go. Peeling off the bandage in one swift motion. Wasn’t it supposed to help? She could give it a try.
“Like I said, I ran from the hermit too, downwards, into the plains. I saw the world, I lived and loved life. I helped people on my way, and in turn, they fed me. I never stayed at one place for long. I loved everybody, but I was never attached. People loved me back, but before they could say it, I moved on. All of that… all of that changed in Hastinapur.”
“You stopped in Hastinapur?”
“I didn’t. Time did. I saw him, and there it was, stopped, just for the both of us. I wanted to break the trance and move on, but something held me back. His eyes, maybe. They demanded my attention, and pleaded me to love him back. How can someone be demanding and pleading at the same time, uncle? That was when I went wrong. That was when everything went wrong.”
“Who was this man you… loved?” asked her uncle.
“A man called Shantanu. He was the stuff dreams were made of. Our story was the stuff dreams were made of.”
It truly was. She should have known that one day, there will be a rude awakening.
“What went wrong then?” asked her uncle again, his curiosity piqued.
“At first, nothing seemed to. He was a prince, a real Prince – what could go wrong? And he had the heart of a King. Hoping against hope to discourage him, I told him never to ask where I came from. I told him never to stop me when I wanted to leave. Never to question, never to doubt, because I had seen too many men who did that to me. I hoped and feared that he would break it off then, but he said yes, just like that. And he stuck to that promise, day after day, month after month.”
“Until the stillbirths.”
She sighed, and closed her eyes. Could a man ever understand the pain of birthing a dead baby? Could a woman ever explain it?
Taking a deep breath, she continued. She had to keep talking, for she had no more tears to fill the pauses with.
“Our first baby was stillborn. And then the second. And the third…”
Her uncle shuddered. “Oh Jahnu!”
“And the seventh.” She continued ruthlessly. If she stopped, she would never finish.
“How did it feel, you might wonder? Heart-wrenchingly painful, and infinitely more. The first one left me numb. The second one left me enraged. The third one made me a criminal. Jahnavi, the monster who killed her own babies. And Shantanu never said it out loud, but I could hear his accusations. Three of my babies have died in you, Jahnavi. How many more?”
“And what of me? I prayed and I pleaded, I begged, I cried to the Gods to give me a baby, just one, and make me a mother. After long last, the Gods relented. My eighth was born alive, and healthy. He was beautiful beyond words, beyond all of my hopes and dreams. In the one moment I held him for the first time, he became the reason for my existence.”
“And then, just as quickly, he was wrenched away. A monster couldn’t be a mother, said my prince, out loud, at last. And I was more than a monster. I was a bad omen. I shouldn’t mar the life of the heir of a prince with my presence.”
“What is the future of the heir of a Prince against the existence of his mother, uncle? To my Prince, it was everything. To me, it was nothing. And so, I ran. This time with my baby.”
“We ran for a long time. The first year, when he understood nothing, it was easy to be on the move. To me, even as a mother, moving came naturally. And well, I did become a mother. I named my baby Devavrata. I called him Dev. I made him my everything.”
And that was my mistake – she wanted to add. It wasn’t what the baby had asked for, after all. The baby would probably have loved a life of peace and quiet, of security and comfort. Instead, he got struggle. She told herself that Dev had the best tutors in the whole wide world. Most princes had schools; her son had Hardship, Strife, Hunger, Need. And so did she. She had her own challenges now, and how bravely she faced them. How courageous she became, how resilient, how strong!
And how naive she remained!
Naive, to think that her son would stay after knowing his origins. Naive, to think that a ten-year old would understand pride and sacrifice. Naive, to make him so much more than what he really was – for he was just a boy with big bright eyes and no toys, and she had made him his life.
“He left.” She said, her eyes brimming with tears. “How could I stop him? Him, the son of a woman who never stopped herself? His father welcomed him back, but I was too proud to accept anyone’s kindness. Too true, too passionate, too wild. What was the pain of a childless mother against the pride of an honourless woman? Everything, uncle, and nothing.”
“So then, I did the only thing I was good at. I ran. This time, never to wait, never to stop, never to hope. I ran, relentless, till tonight, when I knocked at your doorstep in the dead of the night, with a bunch of girls.”
Her uncle fell silent. For a long time, they just listened to the wind, the fire, the waves. After what seemed like an eternity, Jahnavi spoke again.
“Even since Dev left, all I have wanted is to start over. To be recast, to be reborn. To rewrite this story. To follow Bhagirath meekly, to listen to the Neelkanth, to leash myself. I want to live so that I die feeling pure. Who knows, maybe I will be a mother again. Maybe I will have another name? Something womanly and motherly, maybe.”
“Rebirth is from within, Jahnavi. Slow down, now. Stop. Let go. Just be. And a new Jahnavi will be born. The one who has stopped running. Stop running, my dear, and embrace the peace that comes with it.”
Peace? That sounded like what she wanted.
“Come home, Jahnavi.”
Home? That sounded like where she wanted to be.
“The Sea welcomes you.”
The Sea? That sounded like where she was meant to be…
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