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All that murk and dirt of course is long gone now and the sharpness of its memory has dulled. But I know Lolark will never go. For it scarred me forever.
The vacation was supposed to be only to Sikkim. And till we arrived back at the New Jalpaiguri railway station, it been just that. Only Sikkim. And Sikkim was glorious, nestled high in the heart of the Himalayas. A mist-cooled, pine-green Shangri La. Crisscrossed with thin, high roads lined with hundreds of waterfalls, wild foaming mountain rivers tumbling headlong towards the plains below. The sharp blue skies, the majestic snow clad Kanchenjunga. And the gentle people whose eyes crinkled in the cutest manner as they smiled.
Sikkim’s beauty was so absolute, so pure, that, to me, it seemed if God chose to live here on Earth, this would be the best place for Him (Her). This feeling was strengthened by the million or so tiny cloth flags inscribed with Buddhist prayers and flutters atop every mountain and home.
Add to this, there was the colossal golden statue of the Buddhist Guru, Padmasambhava, sitting peacefully atop a mountain, visible from hundreds of kilometres below. Right opposite him, on another mountain top, sits another enormous statue. This one of Lord Shiva with his matted locks cascading down with his back, his face tranquil in meditation. Like the other statue, this one too, is visible from several kilometres away.
As our vehicle wound its way slowly, down the curved roads, the words to High Flight came to my mind.
“ … And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod,
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God!”
But the vacation was not to end with this beautiful epilogue. We were now en route Varanasi. This was to take a dip in the Lolark Kund on the auspicious day of the Bhadrapad Shukla Shashthi. When I, ever the atheist, questioned why, the entourage of the extended family automatically went into evasive mode. They did not give any clear answers.
So, I consulted with the Internet Baba, then went on to fume to the Other Half with my discovery. Now, according to Internet Baba, it is believed that if a childless couple (point of reference: us) took a dip in the Kund on that particular day, they would beget a child.
I would NOT go, I told the Other Half petulantly. How ridiculous, I fumed to him, to think that a dip in a silly pond would help a woman spawn? But, with a look of infinite patience and understanding, Other Half reasoned with me, “It’s just a dip in a pond, sweetheart. If this dip makes the Family happy, let’s go and dip. Where’s the harm?” He generally seems to have this reasonable attitude and patience at all these crucial periods of our lives.
It was a completely sensible response, but my mind was afire with mutiny. Thus, in a militant mood, I embarked on the journey to Sikkim- the first part of the vacation. The second one being this Lolark thing.
Sikkim, with its untrammelled beauty and sanctity, did a good job of calming the restless militant inside me. But once we were back in the plain, the irritation began creeping back in. I kept my peace, if only in deference to Other Half’s calm reasoning.
And so here we were, at the entrance to the Lolark Kund on a hot, humid, and dusty Varanasi dawn. I felt empty. There was nothing around me, nothing even remotely divine that would inspire me to believe in whatever ritual we were to perform.
It was a typical North Indian city, crowded, dusty, with piles of rotting rubbish, people spitting with elan and a strong smell of cow dung. The auto-rickshaw wallah who drove us to the Kund gave me the once over when he was informed that we wanted to visit the Lolark Kund.
I could read his mind, ‘This must be the childless woman.’ Pity flitted across his early morning rheumy eyes. “Very famous, Lolark Kund,” he informed us, his tone strangely kind, eyes still on me. “Many couples have been blessed with children after taking a dip here!” My insides cringed at his pity, like in a bad stomach flu.
The belief at Lolark says that a childless woman should offer a fruit of her choice into the Kund. Then for the rest of her life, forgo that particular fruit from her diet.
To me, it meant that the gesture was a kind of a sacrifice to be made by the woman in return for a child in her womb. I was on my best ‘go along with the crowd’ mood,’ so I reasoned, fair enough and went looking for a suitable fruit to but.
A number of elderly women sat lining the street leading up to the Kund with fruits displayed for sale for just this purpose. Several of them were calling out to me and when I went to take a closer look at their wares, my insides trebled up with a lethal combo of amusement, exasperation and derision.
None of the fruits they had for sale were any of the ones commonly eaten and relished in our country. No apples, bananas, oranges, guavas, litchis, mangoes, tender coconuts or even the odd ber! Nothing. Instead what they did have on sale were fruits I had never seen in my life. Wild berry like things, an odd shrivelled lauki, and in plenty, the spiky evil looking fruit of the datura- poisonous and completely unfit for human consumption.
The irony of this ritual of ‘sacrifice’ was not lost on Other Half also. I saw his face wrinkle up in pure disgust. Happy, that my thoughts on the subject had been vindicated, at least to him, I finally selected a palm fruit (after much searching). My reasoning was that since I loved jaggery made out of this fruit, my ‘sacrifice’ would have some ‘meaning.’
Fruit bought, we made our way ahead towards the Kund. There was a queue. And little did we know, this was a really long one made of thousands of people. These people who came from all over the country, some of whom even camped there the night before.
As we inched forward, at snail’s pace, I had time to study the teeming crowds around me. It was mainly made up of women, and most them, by their attire, language and demeanour, to me, seemed like they were from the poorer parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and probably Madhya Pradesh. I did spot a few city folk, like myself, young women in salwar suits surrounded by anxious family members (in-laws?) They looked, like myself, I am assuming, completely out of place in the largely rural crowd.
The wait was long and the queue moved at the rate of a centimeter every half an hour. I felt the bile rise up my throat again and in order to distract my mind, I began studying the women around me. They were mostly young, sickly and malnourished, and had probably been married at the most five or six years. Dressed in cheap, brightly coloured synthetic sarees, rendered transparent and sticky with sweat, and clung to their bodies like a second skin.
Burdened by the unforgivable crime of barrenness, most had no expression on their faces and no will in their limbs, were automatically pushed along forward by the crowd like rag dolls. Some, with a little more spirit, studied me as I studied them.
I know they wondered about my ‘childless’ life as I wondered about theirs. A few of the women even smiled at me, empathic smiles of the sister-in-arm, smiles that said, ‘I know what you go through sister, for I do the same!’
And so the crowd surged forward, very slowly though. We moved from the open street onto narrow claustrophobic gullies bound on both sides by naked brick walls built high like the walls of jails. The day wore on and with it, the heat and the humidity rose to unbearable levels.
In that narrow confined space, with thousands of bodies crushed against each other, the heat was agonising. Sweat trickled uselessly down my back as there was no air flow to allow for it evaporate and cool my body. It also dripped down Other Half’s forehead, mingling with the large beads of sweat on his chin around his lips and down his back. His T-shirt now sopping wet. But he stood firm, towering over that generally short population, stoic, expressionless. I wondered what he was thinking, but got no clue from his unreadable face.
Then, the women began to collapse. ‘Heat exhaustion,’ ‘heat syncope,’ the diagnoses began running through our minds as we both returned to being doctors, tending to the fainting women. Family began handing over water, salt and sugar as we made improvised ORS solutions and fed the women.
Those who had already fainted, we placed in the recovery position, head down, feet elevated, torso left lateral. In the narrow confines between the two walls, it was a difficult task. But at least it gave me something to do and prevented the militant from rising again within my mind. Some people from beyond the walls now began dropping water from buckets over the crowds below. Though a trifle irritating it was cooling and helped ease the heat. Bottles of drinking water also began to be passed around much to the relief of the fainting women.
However, this relief was short lived. For in spite of having fainted, most of these women were dragged back into the queue by their inflexible Family. In the beginning, I protested with the Family. ‘Let her rest, she will die if you keep her here,’ I begged and pleaded at times, and at times tried to impose. But no one listened.
The desire for a progeny to carry their name forward into the dim future. To place the sacred fire at their dead mouths was so great that no one paid heed, ignoring me completely as if they did not hear my voice. Other Half seeing my distress placed his hands over my shoulders both to calm and stall me. So I gave up, beaten both by the rising heat and the indescribable apathy.
By now we had progressed to the main entrance of the Kund. It was teeming with people and through the gaps in the bodies around me, I glimpsed what this whole Kund thing was all about.
Bound by a towering naked brick wall on one side was a water tank which I guessed must be the fabled Kund. About fifty to sixty concrete steps ran down to it from one side and the other two sides were ringed by a steel railing.
The typical Indian habit of pushing and shoving that until now had been absent, commenced with vengeance as we neared the Kund. And so Other Half gripped my arm in his strong grasp to prevent me from falling.
As we descended the steps, I realised that there was no place to put your foot down without slipping since women had discarded their clothes everywhere on the Kund. There were clothes on the steps, in the water, on the porch. And all these nylon sarees, soggy with water, formed some kind of a slide on the stairs. So one careless step and you were in danger of sliding headlong into the Kund.
Grasping onto Other Half for dear life, I gingerly made my way down. As they neared the Kund, something maniacal seemed to happen to the women as they needlessly pushed and shoved their way to the water’s edge.
Over that short span of about fifty steps, I must have slipped about five times and twice the number, been pushed by the women themselves. Twice I had my feet pricked by broken glass bangles that lay surreptitiously in wait, covered by the discarded sarees.
Finally, we reached the last step to the Kund and as we paused to catch our breath I finally saw the water the brought fruit to the womb. (Bad metaphor, I know but couldn’t help it).
And I was transfixed with horror at what I saw. A fifty feet by fifty feet stone tank (I may be wrong about the dimensions, though), it was a seething mass of brownish black water. But very little of the water was visible.
What you did see was masses upon masses of discarded clothes that clogged the pool. And each time someone dipped herself in it, set the pool seething like a live animal. Piles and piles of fruit, all those datura, palm and lauki bobbed on the water surface. The movement reminded me of the nodding of decapitated skulls from a particularly vile Ramsey Brother flick.
At one end stood a man, goon-like who ostensibly was the Panditji. He began haggling with Other Half while I looked around me. I realised that the whole enclosure was now covered every inch in clothes discarded by the devotees. No floor, no wall, no railing was visible, only wet trails of clothing covered everything in a ragtag of mismatched colours.
Oh, I haven’t told you about the clothes, have I? Sorry, I forgot. You see, the ritual is only considered complete when the couple, after taking a dip, leave their wet clothing as offering to the Kund.
By now the haggle complete with the priest, Other Half gently pulled me down into the water. As I gingerly lowered my foot into the water, looking for a firm foothold below, something brushed against my leg. I ignored it initially but as I placed my other foot into the water, something sinewy wound itself against my foot. Now I screamed and grasped onto Other Half, yanking my foot out the water.
A saree had wound itself against my leg. Relieved and a bit shamefaced, I lowered myself into that murky water again. Even now I could feel things, creepy things move against my legs, but I steadfastly held onto to Other Half, trying to stem that rising head of panic.
Now, to ‘Dip!’ To allay my anxiety, Other Half went first, easily dipping his torso into the muddy water without a qualm. And as his head disappeared for a second into that dark depth, a prickle of fear caught my throat. But he emerged immediately, unscathed and gestured me to follow suit.
I began dithering, and seeing me dither thus, that goon of a priest put his paw like palm over my head and unceremoniously dunked me into the depths. What happened next is still unclear to me, all I remember is the rush of unadulterated fear that filled my entire being.
The water was muddy, a sickening brownish black. It was completely opaque and reeked of the sweat, salt and dirt from thousands of bodies that had bathed there that day before me. As I submerged my head into it, I felt like I would never be able to come out of it. That something utterly vile would drag me into the dark, shivery depths and I would never see the light of day again.
However, the ritual was not yet over. Two more dips had to be taken. But this time, I placed myself well away from the hands of the goon priest. Then with the force of all the courage and self control I could summon, I managed two quick dips in the water. The moment I completed my third dip, I turned around and literally fled. I ran up the same steps, unmindful of both their slippery-ness and all the sharp shards of broken bangles that viciously lay in wait.
But wait, the ordeal wasn’t over yet. The clothes we had worn, now needed to be discarded. And there was no place to change. No arrangements made by the temple authorities. As I looked around me, I saw women taking off their wet clothes, right there, out in the open. They’d slip into fresh ones behind makeshift curtains made from sarees and towels held aloft by female relatives.
Seeing me dither again, Family now began insisting, “Change, change, you have to leave these clothes here!” Again the panic gripped me: change here in front of these thousands of people?
But there was no escape, the ritual had to be completed. Family made a ring around me. And just like those thousands of wretched women that day, I too undressed in public, shielded only by a flimsy towel ‘curtain.’
The wretchedness did not end there, “Discard your undergarments too!” screamed Family. And that was the last straw. The sheer ignominy of the whole situation descended upon me like a ton of bricks. And I felt those tell tale tears begin to blur my vision.
As I took off and threw away the gentle yellow cotton kameez that had been with me for so many years and had been a special favourite, I had a glimpse of the sky above me. The sky has always been my friend, wide, open and welcoming. But today in her incandescent gray colour, featureless, expressionless and unforgiving, she too gave me no respite.
As we returned to the hotel, I rushed almost headlong into the bathroom to take a bath and get that muck from the Kund off me. At first I scrubbed myself with my own bar of scented toilet soap. But it seemed to me as if I could not remove that murk from the pool that still appeared to tenaciously cling to my skin.
So I took a bar of Rin sitting on the sink and began scrubbing myself with it. It was almost after five full minutes of scrubbing like a madwoman with that caustic bar of soap, that I came to my senses. I quickly washed it off me, composed myself and emerged from the bathroom to return to my own familiar comfortable world.
Lolark had happened to me quite some time back and all that murk and dirt of course is long gone now and the sharpness of its memory too has dulled. But deep inside, I know Lolark will never go. For it has scarred me for ever, branding with red hot tongs my childlessness onto my consciousness for life!
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