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A battle against the male ego that strives to “put women in their place.” It encompassed a greater rage. The rage of unbound, unbent and unburnt women, like herself.
The third winner of our November 2019 Muse of the Month contest is Vijayalakshmi Harish.
“Damn it!” Shyam cursed, “The bitch blocked me! Pisachini is the right word for these stuck up women.” With one hand he zipped up his fly again, after urinating, even as he scowled at the mobile he held in the other hand. To express his frustration, he kicked a plastic bottle that lay on the ground near his feet. The bottle bounced a few times, and came to a sudden rest after striking the trunk of the banyan tree nearby.
It hardly made any noise, but it was enough to wake up the pisachini resting among the branches. Shyam’s mention of pisachinis probably piqued her interest, or maybe it was just that it had been a long time since she had eaten. The tree was close to the main road, so it was always noisy –she never slept well anyway.
She swooped down as a black mist and swirled around Shyam, who looked bewildered at this new phenomenon. Slowly her form emerged –red haired, black tongued, sharp fanged. Shyam screamed. If he hadn’t just emptied his bladder, he’d have peed his pants. Instead he fainted.
When he came to, she was sitting on his chest, grinning.
“Wwww….what are you?” he stammered, “who are you?”
“I am what you call a pisachini,” she replied. “As for the who, I don’t know if my name applies to this form. But once, long, long ago, I was Aparajita.”
Aparajita had everything. A beauty that was rumoured to bring even the Gods knocking at her door. Wealth; that she gave freely to good causes and which filled the coffers of the royal treasury, whenever she paid her taxes and licensing fees. Power, that came from her ability to extract the secrets of all the men who visited her, without them even realizing that they were giving away important information. Even the King relied on her secret intelligence to keep tabs on his ministers and other prominent citizens. But most importantly, she had the love of the people.
She was a courtesan, but no one thought less of her for it. She had earned that love and respect with her kindness and generosity. Anyone who asked her a favour; who rang the bell in her courtyard and asked her for help, received more than they asked.
Which is why, as she wandered through the market today, the merchants bowed to her as they bowed to the Queen herself. They invited her into their shops and offered to show her the choicest of their goods. Aparajita excused herself from the bigger, richer merchants, but made sure to buy something from each of the smaller, struggling ones.
The screaming brought her to a sudden stop. She looked around for the source and soon found it. The sadhu who had recently come to town was shouting at a bedraggled, famished looking man. She moved closer to them.
“Nandini, doesn’t being a man of God mean that you have renounced all worldly passions, including emotions like anger and hatred?” she asked her companion, loudly enough that it fell on the ears of the sadhu.
He turned to her, his face contorted with disgust and hate. “You whore! Who are you to comment upon what religious men should and should not do? Do not interfere in matters of which you have no knowledge. This man is a thief. Not surprising –after all he is a dirty migrant. Luckily, I caught him.”
Aparajita smiled, “I’d rather be a whore than a sadhu filled with hate,” she said. The people who had gathered cheered. Turning to the cowering victim of the sadhu’s words, she said, “Come with me, dear sir. Tell me how I can help you.”
As they walked away, the sadhu sneered. He would teach that godless woman a lesson.
“So, who are these pisachinis you speak of?” she enquired of Shyam, who was curled up into a foetal position. “I’ve been lonely for a long time now, and would love to meet some of my sisters. Where are they?”
“N…nnn..not like you,” Shyam managed to say. “I was talking about the feminists.”
“Feminists…what are they? What sort of magic do they possess? Are they more powerful than I am? If so, I must meet them. Maybe I can learn from them.”
“Women. Just women,” he cried, “No magic.”
“If they are non-magical women, like you say, why are you calling them pisachinis?”
“They are ruining our lives by saying Me Too.”
“Me Too? What is that? Some mantra that melts your brains or curses you with bad luck?”
“No. They are saying that we men are all rapists and molesters. They are ruining our careers and family life. They just…talk too much.”
“Talk too much, eh? I’ve heard that before,” the pisachini said.
Speaking to the man, Aparajita discovered that he was part of a group of migrants from another village. An earthquake had destroyed their homes and livelihoods. They were here looking to start a new life, but so far, they had no luck. They were shunned because they were different.
Aparajita had taken them in. She gave them food and clothing. She let them stay in the courtyard of her palatial mansion. She gave them jobs in her household, or convinced her clients to hire them. All seemed fine, except that it wasn’t.
The sadhu had always hated the courtesan. He resented her wealth and popularity even before she spoke to him in the market that day. She had to be put in her place, he’d decided, and he had the perfect weapon –religion and superstition.
When the Prime Minister’s son fell ill, he blamed it on the migrants who brought bad luck. When the rains failed and the farmers complained, he said it was because the courtesan was allowing the migrants, who worshipped different gods, to stay at her home in the city center, too close to the temples, angering the gods. When the merchants were attacked by robbers, he asked, “don’t you bow and frequent the business of that godless courtesan? How then will God not punish you?” Slowly, but surely, he poisoned the minds or the people.
Aparajita’s clients too were put off by her crowded courtyard, teeming with the migrants. Her mansion was a place where they went seeking pleasure. But now, going there reminded them of the inequalities in the world. They wanted things to go back to how they were.
The same people who had loved her, now complained about her to the King.
The King summoned her, and ordered her to throw the migrants out, but Aparajita stood her ground. “I have sworn to protect them,” she claimed, “and I will do so even if I have to give my life.” Her response made him angrier. How dare this mere woman defy him?
The sadhu took advantage of this anger and he whispered to the King, “The woman talks too much, your Majesty. She dares challenge you. You must show her what you are capable of. Kill the migrants and punish her.”
The King nodded thoughtfully.
“Let me show you,” Shyam said, opening up Twitter on his smartphone, and handed it to the pisachini. Surely, she would be able to see that he was telling the truth. Maybe then she would let him go.
#MeToo. She read the countless stories of women, and saw that they were repeated, even across the centuries. Hadn’t she known men like this in her time, who believed that they were entitled to a woman’s body? Men intoxicated by power; men so privileged that they treated those they considered “lesser” as things and not people. Men so selfish, that they chose to intentionally ignore, even dismiss, the truth and pain in others lives, because it caused them unpleasantness.
One hashtag led to another. One story to the next. Me Too was indeed a mantra, she realized. An incantation, not just against sexual harassment, but against the silencing of women as a whole. A battle against the male ego that strives to “put women in their place.” It encompassed a greater rage. The rage of unbound, unbent and unburnt women, like herself.
She understood this. She nodded.
She felt uneasy. She hadn’t wanted to accompany the King on this hunt, far away from the city, but had come because she thought it indicated that the King wanted a truce. Now that she was here, something felt wrong.
She hadn’t slept a wink last night, her sleep interrupted by terrifying dreams. In one, she had seen a black limbed woman covered with ashes. Wearing a necklace of skulls and a skirt of severed limbs, she danced like a typhoon. Her eyes bored into Aparajita’s soul as she said, “You shall not burn. Deck yourself with the ashes daughter, and rise.”
In another vision, a woman stood alone in a battlefield, at the end of a Great War. She was surrounded by the dead, and her hair was heavy and wet with the blood of those who had wronged her. The woman had looked at Aparajita with her strangely peaceful eyes and stroked her red hair.
“Let us go back, your Majesty,” she requested. The shifty look in his eyes, and the hesitation in his speech told her everything. She had been betrayed. She turned her horse around and raced back to the city.
Her mansion was burning. Her companions and the migrants –all inside! Without a care for herself she rushed in. Everyone was gathered in the courtyard –screaming, begging for their lives. Fighting the smoke that choked her, she led them to a secret door that led to an underground tunnel, which in turn led to a cave in the mountains. She waited until the last person escaped.
But it was too late for her. Just as she was to step through the door, a flaming pillar collapsed, knocking her away and blocking the doorway. She could not breathe anymore, and she fell, wordlessly into the fire.
That was the end of Aparajita the courtesan. But not of her essence. When she woke, she was a red haired, black tongued, sharp fanged pisachini. And she was hungry.
Shyam mistook her nodding for agreement with him.
“Do you see now?” he asked. “I was just trying to knock some sense into one of these feminist bitches, but she refused to listen to me. Who wants to talk to them anyway? We will show them who we are. We are doing a yagna to rid ourselves of these feminist pisachinis.”
“Are you now? And where is this yagna?”
Shyam told her, and she grinned and licked her lips. He realized, too late, what he had done.
She swept through the town, sating her hunger, which only seemed to grow the more she ate. People ran helter-skelter terrified.
She ate the merchants and the ministers. She ate the priests in the temples. She ate the soldiers who shot at her with arrows and brandished swords at her. They all melted in her mouth like spun sugar.
She ate the King, who knew he was beaten.
The sadhu screamed mantras at her. “You fool!” she roared “Your mantras won’t work! Don’t you know that the Gods side with the oppressed and not the oppressor? I am not the Evil here, you are.” She swallowed him whole.
When the city became an abandoned ghost town, she slept, satisfied.
Shyam’s heart raced as he stuttered the mantras he had heard the priest reciting at the yagna. The pisachini guffawed. This time she wouldn’t bother educating the man.
He tasted like ashes in her mouth. Her hunger was aflame, once again.
She turned her feet towards the yagna. A feast was waiting.
Editor’s note: In 2019 our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month got bigger and better (find out how here) and also takes the cue from the words of women who inspire with their poetry.
The writing cue for November 2019 is this quote from the poem Lady Lazarus by poet and author Sylvia Plath, whose 87th birth anniversary on 27th October 2019 had a Google doodle, and who was once described in the New York Times Book Review as “one of the most celebrated and controversial of postwar poets writing in English.” Her semi-autobiographical book, The Bell Jar, is a must read for any student of literature and feminism.
“Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.”
Vijayalakshmi Harish wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: pixabay
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