I had just woken up from a slumber, when I heard the laughter of a child my age. I rushed to the jharokha to see the first visitor of the day. A family of four, with two children, had come to see the fort. “The girl looks to be my age; the boy is just a toddler. I hope they play with me!”
Back in the days, ministers, village folk, pujaris and servants would flock the fort for courts held by the king, disputes to be settled and pujas to be performed by the queens. The fort was the most majestic in its province when it was built and still reigns over its position. It was built on a rocky hill in the centre of the city and had several palaces, courtyards and temples.
Now, it houses a museum with paintings, armoury and other treasures belonging to the royal family. Thousands visit the fort daily and there are several hundred workers and guides who maintain the fort these days.
I live in a remote secluded corner of the fort, where no one can see me. My parents abandoned me when I was very young. They sent me with some man I did not know, then. They seemed to celebrate the day they left me. It was a big ceremony; I was dressed up and sent in a decorated doli. I cried, begged, but my parents did not listen. After the celebrations, I was packed off in a doli to the man’s house. Crying I fell asleep in the doli, and when I woke up I was in the midst of women all dressed up and making a fuss over me.
In the new house, I enjoyed the celebrations for a few days, but then I got lonely. I had left my friends behind at home, there was no one I knew in this new house and I could not understand the rules of this new place. “I don’t understand that day. All I know is, it was the day my parents left me, abandoned me or, perhaps, orphaned me.”
In my new house, there were a lot many women to help me and explain the many customs and practices of the house, but I was not interested. Every few days, a man they called “my husband” would inquire about me, but there was no one, here, whom I could call my own, my family; no one I could talk about my comforts; no one to whom I could voice my fears.
My husband was a big, powerful man. Most women in the house respected, revered and feared him. I too was scared of him. It seems he had more wives, but they were much older. I feared them, as well.
Within a few months, an accident killed my parents. After a few more months, my husband died of illness, and somehow I landed in this secret corner of the fort; abandoned, orphaned and alone.
I am okay here. There are no rules to follow; there are no customs or rituals to practice. I have the whole day to play, and enjoy myself in the crowd. There are so many visitors in this fort at any given time, that no one notices a little girl like me; I merge into the crowd. My needs are met by the leftovers in the fort.
Yes, I get excited when children my age come to see the fort. I get someone to play with! Seeing the family of four, I ran to the courtyard. The girl was already playing around the Anointment throne, her toddler brother babbling and following her every move. I stood at the door and smiled hoping to warm my way in, but she ignored. Then, I went close and tapped her on the shoulder, which startled her a little. She ran and hugged her mother. But, I had no mother to hug, so I stood awkwardly and gawked.
Then, she slowly peeped out from behind her mother’s pallu. As she looked, I realised, as always that I was oddly dressed, slightly old fashioned. She wore a pretty frock with frills and sashes, while I wore a lehenga with mirrors and bead work. But, that is what I can get my hands on in the fort. The vendors here sell traditional craft and clothing, and that’s what I can manage to steal.
Soon, the girl and her brother warmed up to me, and we began to play. By now, the crowd had started pouring in to the fort, and so their parents did not notice them playing with me. As they went around touring the various palaces in the fort, I followed. The three of us, Munni, Surya and I, were having fun playing together.
Munni told me that her father was a fruit vendor and had a stall outside the palace. Since it was her day off at school, her father had decided to bring the family on a tour to the fort. Her mother had grown up in another city and had never been to our fort earlier.
But, soon it was evening and Munni and Surya had to leave. As she left, Munni promised to come more often along with her father.
As days passed by, I started waiting for Munni to arrive. Each time I would hear children’s voices, I would run to the jharokha to look for Munni. Surya was too little to play independently; he would just tumble around following Munni. It was Munni who was my age and fun. She told me she was in the second grade in school, and while I felt pride at her achievements, I also felt envy at my loss. If only my parents had not forsaken me. "Were customs and cultures so important? Is it so easy for parents to let go of a child? Munni’s parents can’t seem to do it? Maybe, Munni is a good girl; her parents love her."
The following weekend, Munni arrived. I was ecstatic to see her. I rushed down to the courtyard, where we had promised to meet. She had come alone with her father, who was at his stall outside the fort and had sent Munni along with a helper boy.
While the helper boy went to the temple to offer prasad, Munni stayed behind to play with me. “A couple more days of guidance, and you will understand the layout of the fort in and out. You can then walk in alone” I said, and we started our play. When the helper boy came back from the temple, Munni urged me to follow her outside. I had not been outside the fort in a long while and was afraid, but Munni pressed on with her request. I did not agree, and Munni left resolving to take me out another time.
I would spend my days eagerly waiting for Munni. She would come every weekend. She was familiar with the fort, now, and would walk in alone. We would spend hours playing and since she would return back happy every time, her father was happy to send her in to play with a friend.
Munni often prodded me to venture out of the fort, but I was too scared. "Would I be caught by the guards outside? Would I fit in with the crowd outside? Would I be able to come back in? Was I stepping outside my boundaries?" After months of persuasion, one day, I reluctantly agreed and dragged myself out of the fort.
To my surprise, the world outside was just like it was inside. The same people, the same crowd; only there were no fort walls. Outside the fort, stood vendors selling water, fruits and toys. There were security guards manning the entrance to the fort. The fort, itself, was on top of a hill with a road meandering down the hill towards the city.
Munni’s father was by his stall selling fruits, and nodded his head towards Munni in recognition. He cut a watermelon and handed it over to Munni. We ran around the fort eating the watermelon. Munni showed me around the fort, and I liked what I saw. As we sat down on a rock at another entrance to the fort, puffing and panting, I could not help but imagine how it would have been if my parents were alive. "Would they have taken me back after my husband died? Would they have loved me the way Munni’s parents loved her? Was I the black sheep of the family, and was that why they sent me with my husband as a child?"
The following weeks Munni did not come to the fort. I waited and waited with no news of her. Then, one day, something new happened in the fort. There were no visitors in the fort, instead there seemed to be a conclave of pujaris at the temple in the fort. The workers in the fort seemed to be working towards some religious ceremony, bringing in wood, water, puja items, setting up an agni kund, and hovering around the chief pujari for instructions.
By evening, the whole atmosphere was divine, the agni kund had been set up, water, iron, and cow dung lay next to the agni kund and kumkum, rice, til and other items lay on a plate beside the agni kund. There were two low sitting stools on opposite sides of the agni kund. Iron poles were set up on either side of one of the sitting stools with ropes tied to them. The other end of the ropes were lying lose, perhaps, to tie something during the puja. Beside the other sitting stool, lay a plate of some gray dust.
As dusk fell, an ominous silence enveloped the place. People spoke in hushed tones; a sign of something to come. A crowd of pujaris and fort workers started building up around the agni kund. The chief pujari took his place on the low stool, next to the plate of gray dust. Just as the full moon rose up in the sky, the chief pujari started reciting mantras for a yajna. I recognized the mantras were from the Atharva veda, though I can’t recall the mantra, I have a faint memory of having heard it as a child in gurukul. A strange sense of fear and déjà vu started building up in my belly. There was something familiar about my fear, I had felt this fear before.
“When my husband had died!”
The fear of pain, torture, helplessness, frustration; the fear of impending doom.
A commotion stirred the hushed omen that had overshadowed the yajna, I could sense the damnation I had felt when I was about to be thrown as a sati on my husband’s funeral pyre, centuries ago. I didn’t want to die then; and I don’t want to die again. I was just a child, I was just seven, I did not even know the man they called “our husband.” They took advantage of my helplessness, they took advantage of my being a child, they took advantage of my dead parents, of having no one to protect me. It was against my wishes; I was dragged, forced, tortured, killed, murdered!
They killed my body, but my spirit lived; lived in this fort where I was brought on the day of my marriage to the king, where I had once lived in flesh and blood along with the other queens much older than me, the real wives of the king who bore him sons. I was just a prized possession for the king; a reserve to be used when the time would be right.
As the realization of the events happening in the courtyard dawned on me, I understood the reason for the commotion. Munni was brought in, dragged, like I was on the day of my sati, to the vacant stool lying next to the agni kund. She was tied with the ropes to the iron poles so she would not run away from the fire, smoke, dust, lashes, hot iron rods, torture.
As I saw Munni, I ran down to the courtyard to do something, to help my friend. I could not let her go through agony, suffering, pain and torment in my name. I could not let her suffer like I suffered on my sati. As I struggled to help Munni, I realized the current state of my being...a spirit, an aatma.
At the agni kund, the pujari fervently chanted mantras, the entire temple of pujaris joined in on the mantras, the chants assuming escalating pitch. Fire, smoke, dust spewed from the kund in rage and vengeance. The pujari trying his best to capture me, the aatma; torturing Munni to call me from the corners of the fort. Munni in her daze and torment could not see or understand anything, she could only pray for me, for my moksha.
The poor child was suffering with every lash that cut through her childlike soft skin. With each unanswered question, Munni’s torture increased, hot iron rods thrust on her hands and body so she would call me and manifest me through her body, but I was right there, right beside her, invisible to all but Munni. I did not know what to do? How to help her? How to manifest myself through her body?
I had to do something. I could not let Munni become another me, another wandering aatma traversing Earth with unfinished business, for want of moksha! I had to help her. The pujari’s torment was doing nothing to me, but poor Munni was dying. I called out to Munni again, asking her to tell me how I could help her? How could I save her? I shook her violently to wake her up and respond, give me a hint.
Poor Munni did not gain consciousness, she was lying in a pool of blood, cuts, burning skin, but my shaking her made the pujari believe that I had manifested in Munni.
He asked me my name “Who are you?” I shook Munni again, that convinced him of my existence.
The pujari screamed, “Who are you? Leave Munni, go away from her body, leave her soul!”
I wanted to scream back, “I am the child you people burnt on the funeral pyre of a king, I am the body you crushed, the soul you defeated, and the aatma you left behind,” but like the day of my sati, I still didn’t have a voice.
The pujari torched Munni, again, with a hot iron rod.
I could not let this go on, I shook Munni violently.
“Leave Munni, go to rest, get out of this body.”
To show acceptance to his command, I shook Munni violently; and at the crescendo of the mantras, as the pujari threw ash and kumkum at Munni in his final blow, I picked Munni and dropped her to the floor. She fell with a thud, an indication of my exit from her body.
The pujari felt triumphant and declared that the aatma had left Munni. He gradually concluded the yajna. Munni was spared and was, finally, taken away by her crying parents.
My realization of Munni’s relief combined with the purity of her sacrifice and prayers, the sacred fire, holy mantras, kumkum and ash, gave me immense peace. I felt a strange sense of calm, thanks to Munni for her sacrifice for my soul, for my moksha.
In the distance, I could see a bright light blinding me. It engulfed me and pulled me towards it; I felt light and happy and calm as I was transported to the heavens. Through the light, I could see a silhouette of two people standing in the distance. The light slowly receded, I could now see clearly; waiting for me with open arms, dressed in white, my father and my mother!
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© 2015 by Donna Abraham
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