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When a predatory co-actor in a cherished play messes with Swati’s mind, help arrives in the form of her grandmother’s wise words, and an heirloom bangle.
Swati studied the kada in her palm. It glistened in the morning sun that stole inside through the chiffon drapes in her father’s room. Her senses shut down for a while and then slowly began to bloom. Her eyes widened, brows raised, and jaw dropped on observing the masterpiece that she knew was a proud part of her family heirloom.
Gold leaves and creepers were intertwined so intimately they appeared to be in a perpetual state of ecstatic coupling. Scarlet-hued rubies embellished on the creepers appeared as tempting and beguiling as Eve’s apple. Small ornate gold buds and flowers bloomed hither and thither. Petite diamonds laced the minuscule pistils of the flowers, making the jewel appear rather enticing.
They all seemed to bow in reverence to the twin grand elephants that ruled the two ends of the magnificent kada, as though guarding the fortress gates of their mighty kingdom. The elephants had their trunks raised upward as though engaged in a battle cry signifying power, strength, might and more.
If one could actually wear poetry, this was it!
“So, what do you think?” asked Shantanu. Swati somehow found her voice that lay frozen in her vocal cords and managed a husky reply.
“It…it’s magical, Pa!”
“I knew you would like it! It belonged to your great grandmother. I had totally forgotten about it until I stumbled upon it in the old safe this morning.”
Swati admired it one final time before returning it to its velvet sheath in the case. Lost in the kada, she had forgotten all about her college for a while.
As she entered her college gate, dark clouds loomed over her head as she remembered her pending assignments, her cross Business Laws professor, the librarian angry over her overdue books, and worst of the lot, her theatre rehearsals…
Swati thought she had somehow dodged everyone but couldn’t get past Pradyuman, her theatre in-charge, who intercepted her near the gate itself.
“Where do you think you are going? It’s been five days since you turned up for the rehearsals!”
Swati bent her head in obvious guilt while tucking stray tendrils of hair behind her ear and weakly muttered, “I’m sorry, am not keeping well.”
“Who do you think is going to fill your place at this nth hour? The play goes live in two days! Look, Swati, you are doing a good job and you need to understand it’s impossible to find another replacement for you at this point.”
Swati loved being a part of her college’s theatre group. She had got into many acting workshops for her passion’s sake and had slowly risen to be the leading lady in her theatre group, much to the chagrin of the other women who were vying for the same spot.
Swati’s heart had pirouetted when she heard the title of the proposed play. Playing the role of Binodhini was no joke. It was a remarkable one, crafted to perfection by Rabindranath Tagore. Swati tried to reflect on Tagore’s creation that defied society’s norms, ethics and oozed societal metamorphosis.
Dressed as Binodhini, Swati resembled a water nymph with her draped ‘Thaan’, her white saree seductively cascading down her delicate contours. Her thick waist-high hair billowing in the evening breeze resembled black serpents with their hoods up. The white bindi smeared with fresh sandalwood paste added more allure to the look and brought out an angelic aura that left everyone, including a few women, in a mystical trance.
Swati moved as Binodhini. She spoke as Binodhini. Should Tagore have seen his creation come alive, he would no doubt have been entranced, just like the rest.
“I am here!”
Akhil strode inside the mini amphitheatre. The play’s leading man yanked his Bvlgari glasses off, tossed them carelessly on a bench and began to swiftly tie his dhoti.
“If you are late one more day, you will be ousted from the play! I do not care if you are the VC’s son, or the MP’s nephew, or even if your stinking veins scream of your blue blood!”, yelled Adil, the play’s director.
Akhil wordlessly stomped to the stage and the lights came alive. As Mahendra Babu, he seemed to tower over Swati, who avoided his piercing eyes. Akhil’s touch was even more toxic than his gaze, and Swati felt tremors shake her every time he touched her under the pretext of acting. His touch burnt her skin like acid and she felt uncomfortable to her core.
Each day of rehearsal seemed like an ordeal to her. So much so that Swati purposely avoided college and sat at home, ignoring the repeated calls of her friends and the theatre group.
It was on her grandmother’s insistence that she left for college finally.
“Win over your inner demons Swati, there will then remain none outside”, Shyama advised her granddaughter as she dotingly cupped her chin. Swati had the habit of lying on her grandmother’s lap during her bad hair days. Shyama would gently stroke her locks and pat her head whilst Swati closed her eyes and found solace in her grandmother’s lap, briefly throwing the evil world into oblivion.
Shyama noticed Swati’s sullen look, could only decipher that her delicate grandchild seemed disturbed and in some kind of distress, these past few days. Though she could not fathom the reason, she knew things would get sorted soon. She too had experienced college life and knew all about the complexities associated with it.
But that day too had been no better. Akhil had taken advantage of her youth, mocked her femininity, and tested her forbearance. Her predator was gaining more ground by the day, growing stronger with her silence. Swati felt ashamed of herself. She cursed her weak soul, despised her cowardly being. Much as she wanted to scream in agony and butcher the devilish marauder ravaging her soul, her fear conspired against her. It was her biggest traitor, she realised. It silenced her screams, abandoned her pleas, tamed her spirit and sent her to her emotional gallows.
Swati’s pillows were damp with tears when Shyama rolled her head over.
“My! My! Is my child upset again? Did you miss out on your scores? Was it your grumpy professor? Or did Chetna fight with you again? Or… is it about a b..boy? Did someone break my baby’s heart?”
Swati buried her head in her grandmother’s chest and wailed her anguish and torment to her.
Shyama’s face grew ashen. She remained silent for a long time. Her stony silence baffled even Swati, who composed herself and looked beseechingly at her grandmother seemingly lost in her own world.
Shyama straightened up after a minute and spoke in a low voice.
“When is your play going live?”
Swati replied meekly.
“Day after tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry, you will be equipped this time!” Saying so, Shyama retired to her room for the night.
The following morning, the continuous chirping of the pesky mynahs woke Swati up, and she realised her grandmother was already next to her, gazing intently. Swati had no idea since when she had been sitting beside her.
Shyama brought out a familiar velvet pouch, and the giant elephant kada.
“This is no ordinary kada, Swati. It belonged to your great-grandmother, Annamma Bai. She was one of the mighty feudal lords who ruled this province in the pre-Independence era. Legend says that, on one rainy night, she single-handedly slew dozens of enemy soldiers who dared to scale the walls of her fortress. Our ancestors believed a part of her soul and energy rests in this kada and hence, none of us ever dared to wear it. We even dread to take it out!
But, I feel you need to now. It’s time you hold Annamma’s hand, raise your head high, and your resolve higher, to do what has to be done!”
Swati believed more in science than in her grandma’s folklore and bed-time stories. Still, she did not want to miss out on her last chance to find a solution. Swati wore the kada. It was heavier than she expected. As she stood up she felt slightly queer. A different, unexplainable energy seemed to reverberate in her veins. Within a quarter of an hour, she was off to college.
There was too much activity and bustle in the amphitheatre as it was the eve of their live performance. The Props in-charge was shrieking in a corner with his assistants, the Lights team were checking and rechecking the lights and setting them up at the required places. Pradyuman and Adil were having a heated discussion about the shortage of VIP passes. Everyone seemed too busy to notice Swati, the perpetual late comer.
The final rehearsal began. Akhil was leering at her shamelessly, when Pradyuman signalled her to go onstage for her dreaded scene next.
Swati adjusted the folds of her saree and paced up to the waiting Akhil. As he placed his hand on her waist and gave it a lecherous rub, she rose up in fury and brought out the kada in full force on his face, chest and groin! Akhil yelped in pain and buckled to the floor.
The team stood stunned for a minute. Then slowly one could hear whistles and clapping of hands from the girls and then, even the still-stunned boys joined in the jubilation.
Huge banners hung across the city. Colourful posters flooded the college grounds and the college website was full of spoiler reviews. The amphitheatre was jam-packed and people were getting impatient.
The play was to premiere in 15 minutes!
As Swati sat in the green room, looking at her reflection in the mirror, she felt like she had reached for the moon and brought it down along with her.
She felt euphoric, not because she had hit Akhil but because she was able to free her spirit, long chained by her strongest inner demon.
As Swati got ready for her scene, she noticed Akhil, crestfallen, naked without his vanity.
As the play ended and the curtains fell, Swati glanced at the kada in her hand. The elephants looked as though they were trumpeting in royal triumph. She knew her grandmother would have clapped the hardest. Her applause after all was very special to Swati.
As Shyama got up from her seat, Shantanu asked her. “Was it true, ma? The story you were telling Swati? Does Annamma really reside in the kada?”
Shyama gave a mischievous grin and replied animatedly, “She resides in all those who decide to rise, braving all odds!”
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