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I’ve taken the most important decision of my life here which became a turning point of my life and from that experience onwards, my visit to this place has become more like a homage.
It was dusk already. The setting sun had created magical streaks of crimson and gold on its canvas.
Ananya looked at the glimmering water soaking up the last of the sun’s rays. A cool breeze played through her curly long tresses. Sitting on the stairs of the ghat, she looked at the divine beauty of Hardwar under the gilded sky. She was born and brought up here, yet with each dawn, nature surprised her by unfolding a different visual.
She vividly remembered the countless evenings she had spent with her friends, playing near the ghat, helping the pilgrims, like a perfect host, and sometimes even becoming their tourist guide and camera person. She used to attend the daily aarti with her parents. The blowing of the conch and chimes of temple bells with the unanimous chant of mantras by priests sent shivers down her spine.
The Ganga river was a splendor. How she had giggled when its cold water swirled around her ankle.
People say that its water washes off all our sins. She didn’t know to what extent it was correct, but yes, the pristine river water had some magical power. Whenever she was entangled in the affairs of life, she would just sit on the steps by the banks of Ganges for hours, staring at the ripples and listening to the music of the gushing water. Either the solution or the strength to handle it came miraculously.
Today too, she sat here in the hope of a solution.
Life had put her into great confusion, and she had to choose between two options. She tried to look at her reflection in the water but could not see it. Quite difficult to look distinctly through teary eyes!
“I must have lost that connection with you,” she said to the flowing water. “It has been 5 years since I had a hearty talk with you.”
She had come here for the first time after marriage.
How could she? Her sad eyes and pale face could have played mischief and told everything to her parents; about her disease, about her relationship.
Her rising thoughts were interrupted by the sudden ringing of temple bells.
Ganga aarti had started on the other side of the ghat. It was the perfect time to wail high and pour out the burden of her heart through her eyes. The sound would be lost in the resonating sound of the chants. She looked up and let her tears flow out with the song.
Kuch pa kar khona hai ..kuch kho kar paana hai
Jeevan ka matlab toh aana aur jana hai..
Zindagi aur kuch bhi nahi..teri meri kahaani hai.
“Oh, you have such a soulful voice dear.”
Ananya didn’t remember when she had started singing. The voice suddenly made her aware of her surroundings.
She saw a middle aged lady over 50, sitting two steps ahead of Ananya. The lady put her feet into the water and giggled when it came in contact with the icy water.
A smile came to Ananya’s face. The lady turned her face towards Ananya and gave a bright angelic smile. “Why did you stop? Please sing. You sing beautifully.”
“You know, I just love this place. The serene water and everything on this soil reflects a simply magical aura. Whenever I come here, I sit for hours talking to the ripples, the waves,” the lady said.
“Where have you come from?” Ananya asked.
“Delhi.” Running her hands through the water, she replied.
“Do you come here often?”
“Oh yes… quite often. Hardwar is my native place but I work in Delhi. Whenever I have a problem, I take time out and come here. Somehow I find the solution to all my problems here. Moreover, the auspiciousness and strength of the Ganges give me the power to attain calmness, to enjoy life and to survive in this big world alone.”
Ignoring Ananya’s question, the lady continued. “I’ve rediscovered myself here. I’ve taken the most important decision of my life here which became a turning point of my life and from that experience onwards, my visit to this place has become more like a homage. I owe so much to this place.”
Till now, Ananya’s curiosity has increased. Looking constantly into her eyes Ananya said, “My name is Ananya. What’s yours?” She didn’t know why, but she felt a strange and strong connection towards her.
“Your name is as beautiful as your voice Ananya. My name is Chhaya. You know na… what Chhaya means? Kisi ki Parchhai! (Someone’s shadow)” She gazed into Ananya’s eyes as if to hint something to her.
Chhaya was an attractive lady and looked quite young for her age; fit and distinctly happy, which made her sharp features look more beautiful. Her eyes spoke a thousand words and were so deep as to have treasured all the answers to all the covert questions of the soul.
The sky had turned from red to grey to black. The stars, like silvery speckles, had come in millions to accompany the lone moon. Underneath it, the gorgeous Ganga flowed. Thousands of Diyas were lit and set afloat on its tranquil waters. It seemed as if the river reflected the star-lit sky.
“Let’s float our Diyas too,” Chhaya said excitedly like a teenage girl. She got up quickly, rushed towards a man sitting on the porch of the temple with a display of colourful Diyas, bought two Diyas, paid the man Rs 50 and came down the stairs.
They stood on the lowermost step holding the iron chain in one hand and having the lit diyas on the other. Then they put the diyas softly on the water and waved water away from themselves from to float them away.
They came back to their seats; Ananya sat on the upper one and Chhaya one step below.
“You know, every individual here is just a speck of a being in the millions floating aimlessly. How can one know which direction he should go?” Ananya said looking at the floating diyas.
“Do you see, Ananya, I have bought two diyas of different colours; mine is white and your is yellow. Why? so that we can distinguish ours amongst all others. Similar is our life, walking with the crowd but keeping your own identity. It is okay to feel confused sometimes and it is also okay to cry our heart out sometimes.” Chhaya said the last line looking at Ananya.
Ananya felt as if someone had caught her by her nerves.
“Because everyone, at least once in their lifetime, passes through some difficult phase when they feel stuck and lost.” Chhaya completed her sentence.
“Have you ever…?” Ananya asked hesitantly and looked at her curiously. “If you could share…umm… I mean your part of the story with…?”
“If my story can help you come out with a decision, my purpose will be solved.” Chhaya smiled.
What purpose was she talking about? Ananya didn’t understand, but she didn’t say anything. She wanted to know more about her.
“I was married at a very young age- at 18. I wanted to complete my graduation but..,” Chhaya sighed and continued, “The starting phase of this new life was like a fairy tale to me. So much love, attention, and care. But whenever you are at the epitome of happiness, LIFE happens. I was diagnosed with endometriosis and the reports suggested that I could never bear a child.” She stopped and took a deep breath and glanced at Ananya.
Ananya’s face had become white. She was sitting like a statue staring wide-eyed at Chhaya.
“My husband said he loved me and didn’t want to leave me. But then he wanted his descendants too, so he would have to remarry. I was given two choices; either to stay there with dignity as a second wife, or leave the place.”
Was it a coincidence? No…no…this can’t be. How is this possible?
Who was telling the story? And whose story was it anyway? How can Chhaya have the very same life-story as Ananya?
This was exactly what had happened to her, and she could not decide what to do because she loved her husband so much. How she had tried to convince him to adopt a child, but in vain; because it would not be his own flesh and blood. She could not think of the other option too, as she was the only child of her poor parents. Moreover, she was not educated enough to enable her to live a respectable life.
She had not come here but was sent to her parents’ place to think it over earnestly and then give her decision.
She looked with a puzzled expression towards Chhaya. She wanted to ask so much, but was overwhelmed with emotion.
Chhaya understood what her eyes asked. She put her hands upon the cold hands of Ananya, pressed warmly with a sense of empathy and continued. “I know you want to know what had I decided. I would only say Ananya that self-respect is a priority, not an option. I could never give up on my self-esteem in my choice. And so I decided that, which was right.”
“But how can I decide this? I have never lived alone. This is so difficult.” Ananya cried, assuming that Chhaya already knew her story.
Chhaya stood up and a mysterious smile came on her lips. “This is your story. You will have to complete it. You will have to find the way. But I can assure that destiny has decided to evolve you. You can never imagine what heaven has planned for you.” said Chhaya and started climbing up the stairs of the ghat.
“What should I do?” Ananya muttered to herself.
“By the way, Ananya,” Chhaya turned to say, “you sing very well.” She winked at her, smiled and left the place.
Ananya kept looking in that direction for long. She could not believe what had happened just now. Was it a dream or a coincidence? How could she have the same version of life-story? Who was that lady? Had she just met her future-self? Or had her guardian angel come to help her? So many questions inter-tangled with each other but she could not fathom any valid answer.
However, the answer to the dilemma of her life was now with her. She had decided.
She turned her face towards the river with a smile. The two Diyas still floated on the river. The white one ahead of the yellow one as if guiding its path.
Editor’s note: This short story was shortlisted for the August 2019 Muse of the Month contest. We are honoured to publish it, even though it wasn’t one of the winners.
Image source: Taz [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
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