The last black strand of her mane turned grey the day Asha lost her youngest child to the cruel clutches of tuberculosis. For the first time in fifty years, the lamp in the village temple was not lit as soon as the sun hit the horizon. The sunlight left the sky and the sanity her mind. Muttering angrily to herself, Asha ran barefoot towards the river where they had strewn the ashes of her beloved son.
She stood knee-deep in the icy water for several hours, pulling out weeds in an attempt to catch one more glimpse of her baby’s face. She was finally broken out of her trance by the realization that there was a shimmering glow a few feet away. There he was with his innocent visage, cherubic smile, and half closed eyes. The reflection of the moon in the inky water provided her assurance that she still had a purpose, she was still a mother.
From that day, Asha became a nocturnal wanderer, who carried her son around in a bowl of water from the holy river. She sobbed uncontrollably when stormy clouds engulfed his cheeks or when he abandoned her for his monthly excursions. When the villagers brought over some food, she would drop it in the vessel. When the wind blew fiercely, she would cover him with her Sari. When thirsty birds attacked him, she would injure them with pebbles.
Many years passed, the memories of the clever village priestess slowly faded and the locals got accustomed to the feverish ramblings of a senile widow. Tales of the Mother of the Moon spread beyond the precincts of the village. Claims were made that she possessed mystical powers. A place previously unheard of became a popular tourist halt, where the moon shone with an unparalleled vibrancy. However, as with everything that garners public attention, the enigmatic woman soon became the subject of a national debate.
Various organizations battled for the custody of the poor victim of misfortune. A women’s welfare trust emerged victorious and immediately transported a reluctant Asha to their nearest shelter. The treatment and care restored her reasoning abilities and she led a healthy life until she was reunited with her real son at the ripe age of 90. The moon, on the other hand, still lives on as an insignificant orb, whose former glory was stifled by the dust of reality and despair.
The colonial mansion that had once been the residence of aristocratic families and wealthy merchants now offered cheap accommodation to scores of unfortunate souls. The grandeur of this former palace had been heavily diminished by the clotheslines in the corridors that were adorned with mismatched socks. Frame-shaped patches of nothingness had replaced the paintings on the wall; the artist had fed at least a dozen mouths.
The resourceful caretaker relied on the neglectful ownership of the heir to earn a few extra pennies and some blessings from the distressed seekers of shelter. These were not people who were poor from the lack of trying, the population comprised of failed businessmen and eloped lovers, rebellious daughters, and struggling writers. They were ashamed of their living conditions but proud of their lives. These determined warriors would rather live in this shoddy house than surrender themselves to societal norms.
Vibha was probably the youngest of the lot and most definitely the poorest. Her income from selling handcrafted toys was barely sufficient to pay for the makeshift bedroom that had been created in one of the kitchens. Not a single meal had been served here in over decades, yet everything from the walls to the pillows reeked of mustard oil. The smell, however, was a smaller distraction than the perpetual noises from the room next door.
The couple that occupied the adjoining dining room seemed to be suffering from a marriage gone sour. Thanks to the tiny wooden window that the architect had added for the expedited delivery of food, Vibha knew more about her neighbors than she would have preferred. The creaking of the bed, the dissatisfied groans and the slaps delivered on the poor bride’s cheek, Vibha bore witness to the gradual progression of the husband towards permanent drunkenness.
On being startled out of sleep by a particularly loud thud one night, Vibha broke the only rule of the house to never interfere in others’ private matters. She hesitantly peered through a crack in the window. The sight of a purplish black bruise on the woman’s face gave her enough courage to unlatch the bolt and gently tap on the rotting wood. The window was soon unlatched from the other end as well. Vibha lifted the flap as quietly as possible and quickly retreated after placing a jar of salve on the ledge.
Uma never returned the jar but did slip through some incense sticks to suppress the stench of oil. The window became a portal connecting two lives; several whispered words of hope were exchanged. Neither knew whether the hushed stories the other told were true or false but the love with which they held hands through the window, while the inebriated spouse snored away, was real.
The moment she muffled the inner cries of past regrets, even the most mundane objects started speaking to her. They had some fascinating tales to tell. Wind chimes sang about the clandestine meetings of forbidden lovers while statues complained of neglect at the hands of heartbroken owners. The abandoned slipper of a drunken reveller felt as worthless as the chandeliers that lit deserted hallways.
The whimsical wind beckoned her to travel to places unseen and to challenge the invisible boundaries that were holding her back. She set out on an unusual journey, hitchhiking her way to an undecided destination. She traversed several miles sitting beside a jovial truck driver, whose humanity suppressed the stench of alcohol that accompanied his laughter. At every hairpin bend of the road, she prayed that her luck would shield them from the ill effects of the perilous liquid.
She chose not to spend the fortune that she had undeservingly inherited and instead found comfort in the strangest of shelters. On one occasion, a kind priest offered her refuge in the abode of the local deity, whereas another night was spent in the veranda of a village hospital. Curious, wrinkled faces stared at her through the windows while the less energetic patients made their presence felt with intermittent groans. The solitary compounder eventually got tired of chiding her for this irresponsible behaviour and dozed off on the steps in an attempt to keep her safe till dawn. She, on the other hand, stayed wide awake until the night was defeated by the sunshine that spread impartially over the youthful and the dying.
Not all the encounters with strangers were as pleasant. One evening she found herself walking down a hilly section of the highway with no vehicle in sight. A flickering bulb, hanging by a bare wire over the doorway of a closed Dhaba, was her only hope. The caretaker reluctantly offered her some insipid food along with unsolicited advice on how to mend her ways. He claimed to be blessed with clairvoyance and declared that she was born to ruin the life of a man. She remained undeterred as this was not the first time that someone had refused to look beyond her daring nature and undeniable beauty, an unfortunate mix for any woman to possess.
After a week of venturing into the exhilarating unknown, she found herself tracing back her footsteps to the concrete confines that she had once wanted to demolish. Only when she branched out was she able to appreciate her roots. She had blossomed like the Parijat tree but was still attached to the soil of a former prison that was now a retreat to rest her weary wings.
The stain on the window pane had been irking her since morning. When her pleas to wash it off fell on Rakesh’s deaf ears, she dragged out the creaky ladder from the store room and got down to the task herself. Her warm breath turned the glass misty and several visages appeared in the fine droplets – a hurting mother, a neglected friend, an absent father. Memories that she had carefully closeted away were unleashed along with the dust from the store room.
She could see her living room through the now spotless glass but her faint reflection was also visible, just like the ghost of her present self that sauntered aimlessly through the lanes of an imperfect past. She took shelter in one of the rare happy memories from childhood, the comfort of her grandmother’s lap and the pleasant scent of the Parijat flowers.
Grandma had taught her how to arrange the orange and white blossoms into the beautiful patterns of a Rangoli. Even at that tender age, she had experienced a unique sense of content in providing a purpose to these fallen flowers that were discarded by their parent.
As she flipped through the chapters of her untold history, she was jolted back to reality by the pink gloom that had settled over the sky. It would soon be time for Rakesh’s dinner. She chuckled at the irony of her worries regarding her cook’s eating schedule. The clanging of the utensils assured her that Rakesh was on time for a change. But what about the time that was slipping away while she fretted over the upkeep of a house that was seldom occupied by someone other than her dejected self?
A sense of determination overtook her and she decided to ignore the smell of burnt milk that was wafting from the kitchen. Without a look at the mirror, she stepped out into the white noise of the city. Today was different, amidst the clutter and chaos, there was a distinct whiff of something inviting. She followed it with intrigue to the corner of the block, where stood a Parijat tree, with hundreds of unnoticed blooms lying crushed at its feet.
Perhaps it was again time to give meaning to some shattered dreams.