The sun had moved from over our heads and was making its journey westwards, towards the forests and she still hadn’t come. I had finished all my chores and was helping mother. But my mind was somewhere else, and my mother was going tut-tut at my distracted state. Though she pretended otherwise, I knew she looked forward to Nalini’s visit as much I did, possibly more. Why were we waiting for Nalini, you ask?
Nalini was one of the storytellers. She was one of them, those tellers and jesters, who traveled from place to place, village to village, telling stories, bringing news, providing a glimpse into the world outside our meager existence, offering relief. Storytellers’ tradition was such that they could tell a story to an audience of more than one, not less, ever. If you met a storyteller alone, and he or she, told you a story, it would not be a story, not a service, but something more and infinitely less. You could pay them whatever you owned, but even that would not be enough. They often held their sessions for a larger audience, where there was no chance of them breaking tradition. You could find the teller Prayag holding the villagers captive with his tales of battleships and kingdoms under the banyan tree near the temple. He was there once every week, and he would tell the same story, with the kings and places and the weapons changed, but the villagers all loved him. He was also very good-looking. And his demands in return for a story were thus proportionately extravagant. He once asked for a cow, would you believe that? Mother never liked him, and so neither did I.
But Nalini, she was different. She would come to your house, talk to you, tell you stories on a whim, ask you for your favorites and retell them, and she never asked for much in return. A few kind words, some food and on occasion if you had any clothes or other items to spare, Nalini would be more than content with that. Mother said that she did actually ask for a lot when she asked after us, when she enquired about our life and living, and you never knew if she was asking because she wanted to know, or because she was looking for a story. As the saying went, “A teller can only tell what has been taken; taken is always what is given.” One time, when I was telling Nalini about how our goat ate mother’s favorite ring, mother got very angry at me. “Would you want the people in the next village to know that a woman can afford to let her goat eat her ring and still stay in this hut? Do you want to be a joke in front of strangers?” she yelled at me. After that I kept everything that could be taken, safe and secret. Sometimes, even from mother because I knew she would not like what I was thinking.
But I’m digressing, this is not about me. This is about Nalini. And there she was, one could hear her anklets falling in rhyme with her steps. I could hear it the moment she entered the threshold, and leave whatever I was doing and would run outside to check. And there she would be, taking off her bundle from her shoulders and resting it on the porch, shaking her head and muttering to herself, those gentle calm eyes, sweeping the surroundings as if memorizing the color of mud and the number of steps leading to our door. She would settle her eyes on me after an eternity, exclaim “Kairavima, how you’ve grown!” and rush to pat my head and validate if I had in fact grown as much as she had imagined, since her last visit. Mother frowned upon this showering of affection, but I liked it. I felt special, for I knew she greeted none of the other children in the village this way. Mother would ask us to hurry inside, get refreshed and begin, for she had many other things to take care of apart from dilly dallying with pleasantries.
Nalini would come in and sit next to the only cot, on the floor, while mother would perch herself as comfortably as she could on the cot and I’ll be left to find a favorite spot between the wall and the cot. Though Nalini didn’t belong to lower, nor higher caste than ours, she would sit at a lower position, and mother, the owner of the house, above. I could sit with my mother, as I did when I was younger, on her lap or resting my head on her lap, but now that I was no longer a small child, I could sit wherever I wanted, but not too close to the storyteller. And I had to sit like a proper lady, or as proper a lady from a place like ours could. A concoction of crushed herbs and lemon juice would be kept in front of Nalini for refreshment; she would sip it from time to time, taking pause from her story. I wondered what story she would spin today. The last time she was here, she had told the story of the Prince who wanted to be married to a swan in the royal ponds, and how he took swimming lessons and I had burst into fits of laughter at odd times for days afterwards. I hoped she would tell something less funny today, for laughing without reason, or because of past reveries was also one of the things not much appreciated.
Today she looked a bit tired and seemed to be as lost in thought as I had been sometime back. Mother began shaking her foot impatiently and making the cot shiver, waking Nalini from whatever daydream she was chasing. She took the hint and began. “What tale do you want to listen to today? The story of the King who wanted to learn flying from Jatayu, or about the Princess from the mountains who could stop rivers from flowing? Or do you want to hear the legend of the King trapped inside a mango seed that was eaten by fish? Or should I tell you about the girl who was born from the earth?” Nalini would often ask us these, but would tell a story of her own choosing. I suspected this was just her way to let us know what stories she had and give us a tantalizing glimpse of them and nothing more. “You know the tradition Nalini, the stories and the rules. Tell us what you please.” Mother would parrot her favorite line as the answer to this question, as she did every time. The storytellers, with all the stories and the places they visited, were trapped with many rules. And only they knew what those were, but one always heard rumor. One of the rules was that they could not stay with their families for more than a quarter of the year. They had to leave them and had to move from place to place and make their living. I don’t know why that rule was there, it seemed more like a necessity than a rule, but then as mother kept saying, there’s more that you don’t know than that which you know and don’t understand. I’m not sure if I completely understood that, but it was enough to intimidate me into silence whenever I got boastful in front of her.
“Well then, let me tell you the story of the Curse of Minasmara. This one has never been told before, or maybe it has. You’d never know, but this is my story.” Sometimes she would tell the story from her own point of view, as if she was there, present, not just observing but also experiencing. I often felt that these were parts of her own life, and not some story passed down from tradition, and I also felt that it wasn’t just because she chose to tell it from her point of view. I’d see how her voice would go soft and slow and her eyes would dance with emotions when she told such stories, but I kept these observations of mine hidden, like the many other observations, from mother’s omniscient gaze.
“To begin, we’ll have to go back a long long way back in time. When I was just a girl as old as you are now,” she said, looking at me. I smiled at her, mother seemed to be suppressing something, but there was no time to look into that. “My father was a fisherman and I was the only daughter. My mother, they told me, had been taken by the lake’s deep waters, as a price for my father’s profession. My father took his living from the lake, the lake took my mother’s life in return. I was only a year old then. I don’t remember much of her, but father told me that she was very beautiful, like Ganga herself. It had been twelve years since my mother’s death. One night I got a dreadful nightmare. The lake, Minasmara, spoke to me, and told me that my father still had to pay his debt. I saw a woman thrashing and trapped at the centre of the lake, her silhouette in the sinking sun, her face invisible to my eyes. I didn’t know if it was my mother or me. But I saw her struggling to escape and was rooted helplessly at the banks all night, or was it all evening? The sun sank into the waters and dragged the woman with it. There was no dark figure against the sun, only the dark of the night descending in my dream. Daylight broke into my sleep and I woke up with a thudding heart and a very restless mind. I relayed my dream to father, as soon as I could. Now, when I think of it, it was perhaps not the best thing to do. Some things are best kept secret.” She looked at me, and I felt her eyes reading what I thought I had kept secret. This, fortunately, went unnoticed by mother, who seemed to be quite engrossed with the story.
“A few days later that dream left from my mind, for after unburdening myself of its weight, it seems I had passed on the nightmare to my father. Though he never admitted it to me, I knew he had not slept well at night. He would be distracted and lazy through the day, miss easy catch, get lowly prices for the fish and began to look like a defeated man. I’d try to help him, but being a girl, I couldn’t go and help him catch fish, nor could I go into the market myself and conduct the dealings. I was to stay home and look after the household chores. Summer was approaching and we needed to get whatever we could from the market, before the lake shrank. One evening, father returned from the market, with a woman. By what right was she to enter our house, I asked father. Her name is Harini, and as your new mother and my new wife, she had all right to enter our house and live with us, he said. I was deeply hurt. I felt rejected, a strong sense of betrayal was rising in my heart and up my throat and I threw a big tantrum, blocking the door and not letting them inside our house. Was the memory of my mother, as beautiful as Ganga, not enough for him? Was I not a good enough daughter to take care of him? I was myself nearing the age of marriage and he went and got married himself! What was he thinking? All my anger was directed at him. I didn’t know her, nor did I care. The way I saw it, she was here to take my place. And that was also how my father saw it. ‘You will be married soon, Nalima. Who will look after this old man, once you are gone? Do you want to leave your poor father, in his sick state while you start your new life with vigor and prosperity?’ That did it. He had put the guilt of selfishness on to me and my heart. What could I say to that? What choice did I have other than welcoming this woman into our house, our life and our world as we knew it?
“Days went by and I became friends with Harini. I couldn’t bring myself to call her mother. But I couldn’t call her by her name either. In my mind, she was always Harini. She was quiet and had the most beautiful eyes. I always thought she was quiet because her eyes said so much more than what could be said. It was difficult not to like her. She would help me with the household chores and tell me stories about her childhood in the forests, and how she had never seen the lake or the ocean and how scared she was of the fierce flowing rivers that winded around the forests. I used to make fun of her because of this, but she would take it well. I promised to teach her how to swim once the lake was filled with water again. She was more friend, and sister than my new mother, or my father’s new wife. That was something we never talked about, and never wanted to either.
“With the arrival of the monsoons, came the time for my wedding. I was going to be married to Iravan, who was the strongest and most handsome fisherman you would ever see. Despite the stern exterior, he was as gentle and large-hearted as the ocean. How we fell in love and how he got to ask my father for my hand is a thrilling story in itself, but I will keep that for some other time.” Her eyes had that brightness which convinced me that this was no mere story being recounted for the hundredth time in front of an audience.
“We were going to be married at the temple at the centre of the lake. That was where all our weddings took place. We would be married in the temple and then there would be a big feast at the bank of the lake, which was already decorated. As per our customs, we would get married at noon, when the sun was over our head and showered us with light and blessings in its full capacity. Since the temple was not very large and it was difficult journey and also because the monsoons had made it all the more difficult, only family members and the priest were to be present for the actual ceremony. It was an overcast day and we had no idea how we’d know if noon came and went. Thus we got married under a hidden sun, and it seemed our feast would take place under a storm. But nothing could dampen my spirits, I was getting married to the man I loved, everyone I loved was around me and healthy. Harini had a glow around her face and a smile that spoke of fulfillment. I had asked her about it, but she had said that she would tell me after the wedding. In her words, she didn’t want me to go giddy with all the good news. The clouds above had started gathering force and we began our hurried departure from the temple towards the bank. We were still a good mile or two away from the bank when it started raining. And such a gale it was! The likes of it I’ve never seen since. The lake and the clouds seemed equally angry and at war. Our boat dipped and rose dangerously with the waves. Iravan held me in his arms and I clutched on to him for dear life. My heart was beating with excitement and somewhere uneasiness was creeping in, but it got swept under the raging rainstorm that surrounded us. Harini was sitting scared, across me. I wished father would hold her, the way my husband held me and protect her. I wanted to say something to that effect, but didn’t know if my in-laws would find it appropriate for a daughter to speak to her father like that. I was just going to tell Harini to hold the flank of the boat tightly, when our boat gave a mighty heave and it seemed like the heavens and oceans had switched their places. There was utter chaos for moments and nothing could be seen or heard under the thunder and lightning. With another giant lurch, our boat settled back on a wave and seemed stable. And just as it had started, the storm was fading away. The clouds were fleeing as if a giant wind was erasing them away. The sun was making its descent into the lake, it was already evening and none of us realized. Neither did anyone of us realize that Harini was missing. I couldn’t believe how I didn’t notice immediately and then the creeping fear inside my heart exploded. I looked at the helpless figure thrashing about in the middle of the lake, against the dying sun. I wanted to jump in and swim across and drag her out. I had risen up and was screaming her name, but strong arms were holding me back. I beseeched my father to go in and save her, but he looked helplessly on. I begged and pleaded with others, for someone to go and save my mother, my sister and my friend. No one wanted to displease the lake. No one would interfere; no one would save its victim. ‘Why don’t you save her, she’s your wife? It’s your duty!’ I bawled at my father again and again. ‘I could only save you’ was all he said and as I saw Harini drown and sink into that bottomless depth from where there was no rescue, no respite, another truth sank into my heart. The heavy truth of betrayal. My father hadn’t betrayed me by bringing her into our life, he had betrayed her. And she had trusted him, she had trusted me. And what did we give her for her trust and care? We gave her to the lake, as a price, as our payback for its gifts. We sold a life for a living, with treachery. My father had not just tainted his life, but mine too. For I had shared the burden of my nightmare with him, and now he would share the burden of this crime with me.”
“Careful Nalini, be careful. Kairavi, you too.” Mother’s voice interrupted us. I was sitting open-mouthed at the unfolding of events in Nalini’s story. I had expected this turn of events when the nightmare was mentioned, but to see it, to imagine it happening as expected was still a blow. Mother got up from the cot and went into our kitchen. Though I was almost on the verge, I didn’t dare to cry in front of the storyteller, and even worse, in my mother’s presence. The look that mother gave me when she got up promised flaying if I broke the rule. This was one of the most confusing, yet strictest tenets of the storytellers. They were not allowed to make you cry. That’s putting it too simply. They weren’t allowed to affect you too deeply. They could entertain you, inform you, even preach, but there was a line and that was not to be crossed. They could not evoke emotions that would have no way to be paid for. They can make us laugh, make us angry, keep us in awe, keep us confused and questioning, but to make your audience cry, shed a drop of tear, was the gravest crime. They had no right upon that personal and private feeling. Allowing that brought upon heavy punishment from the Keepers of Tradition of the tellers and there was gossip about storytellers who had been banished from their faction and used their storytelling skills for black magicians. I wasn’t worried about that, I was more worried about what mother would say and do, if I broke it. For it was a rule binding on both the teller and the listener. Both had to know their place and be aware of the boundaries. As mother had once tried to explain, when you let that innermost emotion be shown, be shown to a storyteller, it puts you in a bond and gives the storyteller powers over you. They would know what your innermost fears and desires are and would play with them to his or her advantage. The storyteller then could control you, your mind and your heart, for what lay inside was now for everyone to see, and exploit. I thought that rule about storytellers never seeking audience with one person was probably created to enforce this complex rule, but I wasn’t too sure. For now, I was primarily concerned with avoiding the wrath of my mother. Then to see if there was more to the story.
Mother came out and kept a plate of rice, some lemon pickle, and water in front of Nalini. She asked me if I wanted to eat, it was too early, but I didn’t want to refuse. She kept another plate of rice and pickle for me. “Eat and continue with the story, if there is anything left to it.” She went on to light lamps around the house, and after a while I heard her sitting further inside in the house, next to the pots that had been made in the morning. I didn’t know if she was going to begin working on them now, it was already dark and she could hardly see in this dim light. But I didn’t enquire, and sat and ate my meal quietly. Nalini was eating as if she had not eaten for days. The rice and pickle had disappeared even before I had finished my third morsel. I kept my eyes to her plate, not wishing to go and meet her eyes. I wanted to tell mother that maybe we should give her more, but mother seemed to have read my mind and asked me to offer her some more. I gave her some more rice and extra pickle, she seemed to like that. I also gave her some more of the lemon juice concoction. I was going to sit and begin eating again, but I had no stomach for it, so I went in and emptied the rice back into the pot and ate up all the pickle. With all the scurrying around, I figured mother would not notice. I sat down, and for a minute there was no sound other than that of Nalini eating.
I went back to what mother had warned about, it seemed Nalini would continue only when she had finished. I looked at her and didn’t think she would take advantage of me, or bind me with her powers. It was hard to believe that she would make you cry, just to get some sense of control over you and your destiny. I sometimes felt that she could look inside my heart and tell me the stories that it wanted to listen to with furious longing. Her stories had brought peace and hope to my restless mind so often, had enlivened a bleak day so easily. How could that ever be a bad thing?
Before I could answer, Nalini indicated that she had finished. I took her bowl and plate outside, where it would be washed with the other vessels and gave her some water to clean up. She returned and sat down just beyond the doorstep. She spoke softly, I don’t know if mother could hear her or see me and I inched closer.
“Following that incident, I could never go back to speaking with my father. People told me I should be thankful to him for saving my life. When I asked them, ‘At what price?’ they would say nothing. I was resolute and didn’t talk to him till he was on his deathbed. Weakened by age and grief, he died just months after my marriage. I sat next to him like a dutiful daughter, but could provide no calm, nor comfort, nor peace in his last moments. His last words to me were, ‘I hope I saved you’. I don’t know what he meant by that, and even if I did know somewhere in the back of my mind what it meant, I refused to go there, for it brought back the memory and guilt of betrayal. Something within me had died with Harini’s death.
“It had been three years since I had been married and yet we had no child. His parents blamed me, and I too blamed myself. There were sacrifices and ceremonies made, but to no avail. Iravan’s spirits were low and it seemed as if he cared for nothing but a child. Was I of no value to him? Perhaps I wasn’t but that thought still rankled in my mind. I feared he might leave me, or get another wife. That was nothing new; one could always get another wife to bear your child. I put all my heart into prayer and visited the temple in the lake every day. I prayed for one and only thing, for a child.
“One day, Iravan came home excited and gave me the most exquisitely beautiful white lotus. He said they had found it stuck in a fish’s mouth and that it must have come from the temple. Yet it looked as if it had grown from the fish itself. He instructed me to eat the seeds of that lotus; it was bound to have magical properties. It might just help us conceive a child.” Magical lotus from a fish’s mouth? White lotus in a lake first of all? My belief that this was indeed Nalini’s story began to falter, but another part of me remained stubbornly faithful.
“I believed in prayers, but I was always wary of miracles. Though I didn’t really believe that the lotus was magical, to humor him, I did as instructed.” This time, she definitely gave me the most fleeting of glances and I was glad we were safely hidden from mother’s gaze. “The thought of this magical lotus left my mind after some days. I had immersed myself in prayer again and would spend hours sitting at the temple, sometimes just sitting on its steps and looking for answers from the lake, the lake that held all the answers to all the problems in my life. One evening, after prayers, I was sitting on the steps when I heard Harini’s voice. I first thought I was just hearing voices inside my head. Then it came again, and again, and it seemed to be coming from the lake itself. And I looked down and there she was, looking up at me, with those eyes of hers. I thought the steps would vanish from under me and I’d fall into those waters, never to breathe air again. I was feeling breathless. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was, how foolish I was, how I had never realized. I wanted to hold her and cry with her. But she kept asking me to take something from her. I didn’t know what to make of it. All I wanted was for her to come back and be with me, or that I could go and be with her. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I kept walking down the steps into the lake. Before I knew it, it was cold and dark and everything seemed empty. I didn’t know if the lake had swallowed me, or if the lake was inside me.
“When I woke up, I was back inside our house. Iravan was sitting next to me looking worried and excited at the same time. He told me how some fishermen had seen me and had rescued me. They had seen me floating. ‘Floating on what?’ I asked. He said they didn’t know. They just saw me floating near the temple steps and had hauled me up and brought me home. And that I had been unconscious for hours. All this while, there was a bright spark in his eyes, as if he was very happy. I felt a rush of affection for him, imagining that he was happy to see me alive. Before I could say anything to that effect, he burst out with the news that was making him so happy. ‘And you are going to be a mother Nalini. And I’m going to be a father. Everyone is so delighted. We are going to hold a ceremony soon.’ I should have been happy, I think I was very happy, but I was more worried than ever. I felt slighted by the importance given to the news of me being with child and not that that I was saved, but I decided I was being too self-indulgent. It was my child, and he or she, too had been saved along with me. I had no recollection of what had actually happened at the temple steps. I sometimes tried to recall, but I would be left blank and restless. I decided to instead be happy for my child, and for my husband.
“As the days turned into months, the memory of that evening faded. I was busy making arrangements for the child, busy getting pampered by Iravan. Monsoons arrived and the baby started kicking. Just another month the elders told me. Iravan would spend all his evenings by my side. He would rush home even before the sun had set, and would talk about his plans and dreams for his son. He was convinced it was going to be a boy. I disagreed, but didn’t express my disagreement. Any day now, the mid-wife who came to look after me told me. She was a young woman called Prakshi and she came from a far-away village. Though she wasn’t old like the other midwives were, I knew she would take good care of me. I would get horrible cramps every night. Prakshi would give me a potion of juices made from herbs every night to help the pain, but those attacks still persisted. One night, I had the same dream that I had once, a long time back. The lake wasn’t satisfied. This time it would be my husband’s debt. And I saw the woman again, thrashing and screaming against the sun. I didn’t know if it was my mother, Harini, myself or my daughter. Or was it going to be another hoodwinked stranger. I woke up with terror in my heart. Even though it was as dark as night, I knew it was nearly morning. My heart beat rapidly with fear and my body was convulsing with pains. Prakshi, who was staying with us now, came to check on me hearing my screams. Iravan was out, preparing for the day, as he did every day, before the sun rose. It was only me and Prakshi. I hoped she knew what was to be done. I had no idea what was to be done and I wondered if I could survive the night. White light was blinding my eyes and I feared I would cry myself to death. She helped me control my breathing and got everything ready. She held my hand in one hand and asked me to put all my strength and willpower in helping my child come out. After what felt like days of torment, we heard the first cry. It was a boy she said. He was to be named Divit, as decided beforehand. Iravan was right, it was a boy. It could also mean that my nightmare might never come to be true. I was happier than I could imagine. I just wanted to sleep, the ordeal was over. We all might live happily ever after. Prakshi shook me and woke me up from my drowsy state. ‘There’s another baby’ she said. I couldn’t believe it. There were two babies? I had been carrying twins and I had never realized. What was this supposed to mean? Before I could ponder upon this question, the pains returned. I was to go through that process once more. Again, I pushed and panted and a shrill cry broke out in the air.
“It was a girl, Prakshi said. I didn’t know what to call her. Though I had imagined from time to time that I might have a girl child, we had never decided upon a name. Worse, I was gripped by the fear of that curse following her. But what could I do? I asked Prakshi to help clean up the babies and set everything to order. I told Prakshi that she can put the babies to sleep and that I needed to rest a while. While she did that, I looked carefully at her. She was gentle and caring with them. I knew she would take good care of them. I pretended to be asleep. I wish I had forgiven my father. I got up before the sun was properly up. I dressed hurriedly; even though I felt weak, I knew there would be no other opportunity. I bundled up the girl, I had named her Saumyi in my head. I took her into my arms, and she was there, looking at me with those eyes and already speaking to my mind. I looked at Divit, resting peacefully, calm and confident like his father, and I knew he would be safe. The price had been paid for their lives. I left the threshold knowing I’d never return, I left the only place that could have been home. I knew Iravan would marry Prakshi after appropriate time had passed and they would live happily, for as long as it was possible. I understood that the curse was not of the Minasmara Lake, but of human heart. Who was going to pay the next price?”
I never knew Nalini had a daughter. What happened of her? Or was this really her story? Why did she tell us this story, to what purpose? What was she getting at? I knew maybe, but I didn’t like the answer one bit. I had a feeling everything had changed in the house. My mother came out of the darkness, and gave Nalini a pot to take with her and walked out with her. My mother asked her something, and she replied, though I couldn’t catch any part of that exchange. I watched as Nalini left and my mother returned home, having broken the rule and broken, otherwise.
As I looked at those gathered around me, I suspected one of them was about to break today. It wasn’t going to be easy, but it was necessary. And they never really understood the rule, their heart betrayed them much before their eyes, or their face, did. I knew there was going to be another storyteller joining us soon.