A TRAGEDY OF INDIAN SOCIAL EVILS TOLD THROUGH 48 HEARTBREAKING IMAGES - PART II./IV.
The little mirror from the Aarti Thali crashed into the ground, shattering into shards and tinkling pieces. A dazed Avani turned towards the ground instantly, only to catch a glimpse of her face in one of the broken pieces of glass.
She gasped and stared at her face, disfigured by the broken mirror.
Overcome with a sense of foreboding, she closed her eyes and took a few steps back. Beads of sweat mushroomed on her face, while Guru Tai screamed at the servants in the background.
"Bring back Aadi Deva from Kashyapi!"
Avani's heart started to pound as she opened her eyes; she began to put the pieces of the puzzle together slowly: Aadisesha, her husband, was in the middle of a dense forest, she just broke a mirror and accidentally saw herself in it, and sun had suddenly disappeared sending the Sayan home into darkness…
Avani clutched her Mangalsutra tightly and walked out of the Sayan home as she tried to make sense of everything. Scrutinizing the grey mountains in the distance, she walked briskly towards the forest. Within minutes, she had reached the edge of the Kashyapi. She took a deep breath, and with the Lord’s name on her lips she darted into the dense jungle, jumping over sharp stones and maneuvering through little streams with venomous snakes.
Avani, although delicate and sensitive in appearance, was a courageous woman. She would do anything to protect her family.
Oxblood-red toadstools littered Aadiesha’s path as he walked deeper and deeper into the Kashyapi in search of a tall tree. The ancient trees guarded the darkness with their sprawling limbs, smudging out any sunlight, while stealthy mist formations resembling serpents glided in silence and coiled around helpless limbs.
Little did Aadisesha know when entering this part of the forest, a hungry mother wolf was searching for its next prey.
The sun followed Avani like a lodestar through the tangled crowns of the trees as she scurried through the thick bushes, the clicking of her heels echoing through the forest as she searched for her husband, Aadisesha. Avani had reached the middle of the Kashyapi, but there was still no sign of him. Fear caught in the back of her throat as she quickened her pace, constantly wiping the beads of sweat from her brow. With all five senses heightened, she capitalized on her instincts as she rushed ahead with a dagger, which she carried from home, intermittently screaming Aadi’s name. Thwack! A loud noise pierced the silence of the forest. She spun around, eyes wide open, and moved briskly toward the sound.
Aadisesha, on the other hand, had seen something moving. His heart pounded like a drum and the muscles of his chest tightened with an incredible force; blood rushed down his veins in a single, swift movement. Was it there? He thought he had seen something huge moving behind the bushes, but it could have been his imagination; he was tired, hungry, and thirsty. There it was there again. He wiped the sweat from his eyes so he could see well. The hungry mother wolf had been stalking him for a while, treading behind him as silent as a wraith. Her large head poked out from behind a bush revealing a pair of smoldering, chatoyant eyes that peered at Aadisesha. Her feral gaze—two bright decayed blue orbs—revealed her implacable hatred of him. She emerged from the vegetation with a balletic grace, shoulders hunched and muscles rippling. Her grey fur blended perfectly with her surroundings, breaking up her silhouette. When she flashed her giant fangs at him, he immediately realized that it was the dreaded wolf of the Kashyapi. His breath quickened and he used every muscle in his body to stifle a scream. His feet remained rooted to the spot unwilling to move. The only thing he could hear was the shallow gasps of his own breath. Fear pierced his heart like a thousand thorns as the wolf peered deep into his soul, saw his panic; she flicked her tail and ventured closer.
Cresting the hill, Avani broke free of a dense patch of needle leaves as she rolled freely down the embankment, a natural landslide more effective now that it was covered in damp mud. Despite the thorns pricking the soles of her feet, Avani continued to run, even when she stumbled over the fallen branches on the forest floor. Occasionally, an odd low branch would block her path or hit her in the face, but she pushed on.
Suddenly, Avani stopped. She heard heavy breathing. Avani walked ahead cautiously, making no sound, gently moving a thick bush in front of her with her dagger.
As Avani cleared the view, only a few feet away, she saw a ferocious huge wolf with razor sharp peg-like teeth, inching closer and closer toward a helpless Aadisesha. Her husband had frozen with fear, his axe dropped to the ground.
A surge of courage gripped Avani’s lean body when she saw her husband inches away from the foaming mouth of the hungry wolf. Disregarding the fact that a pack of wolves could be nearby, Avani let out a blood-curdling scream, her face contorted in an all-consuming anger. With nostrils flaring and eyes closing into slits, Avani lunged forward towards the wolf like a merciless animal bent on killing.
Avani’s eyes were wide. Wild. They found a mark on the wolf’s neck. Pushing Aadi aside, she leapt forward, sinking on her knees and then using her full might to stick the sharp edge of the dagger into the ferocious wolf’s thick neck, twisting it mercilessly back and forth. The wolf howled and foamed from its mouth, as it fell over writhing in pain. An expression of relief spread across Avani’s bloody face as she jerked her dagger free.
Lunging forward to come between Aadi and the hungry wolf, Avani selflessly put her own life at risk and attacked the beast’s head with the sharp dagger. So deeply had Avani lodged the dagger into the wolf’s neck, that as she freed the weapon with all her might, the head detached from the wolf’s body and fell to the ground with a loud thud. The otherwise gentle and timid Avani had turned protector, saving her husband from the clutches of the dreaded Kashyapi wolf.
Aadisesha, slightly taken aback at the turn of events, stared at Avani with tear-rimmed eyes as she smoothed his dishevelled hair and wiped the sweat off his face with her blood-stained sari. Tears flowing from his eyes, Aadi attempted to stifle his sobs, but he was soon overcome by the wave of emotions and he broke down entirely, all his defences washed away in those salty tears. Dazed and at a loss for words, he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around her. It was far more awkward than she could have ever imagined, but she loved the feeling nonetheless. Aadisesha was her husband and she loved to be with him and him hugging her was different – a good different. Aadi’s mind was at peace. How could he have never realized Avani’s worth for what it was before? Pure. Unselfish. Undemanding. Free. He felt her body pressed against his, soft and warm. This was a kind of love he’d never experienced before. He inwardly thanked God and hugged her all the tighter. Finally, he had realized that a love like this was to be cherished for life.
Avani returned Aadi’s embrace, and staring at the wolf’s lifeless head on the ground, she muttered under her breath, “Aadi deva killed the dreaded Kashyapi wolf. . .” Gently extricating herself from the hug, Avani walked towards the dead wolf and slowly bent down to pick up the bloody and surprisingly heavy head with her bare hands. Looking straight into Aadisesha’s eyes, she said with a twinkle in her eye, “Aadi deva killed the dreaded wolf, and Pravadh will celebrate!”
Come what may, Avani insisted that Aadisesha tell everyone that he beheaded the dreaded Kashyapi wolf to protect his pride in the conservative Pravadhi community. All she cared about was that her husband was safe. Initially, Aadi had disagreed; he had wanted to boast to everyone in Pravadh, including his mother, as to how blessed he was to have a wife like Avani, so courageous that she would risk her own life to save his. However, the selfless Avani had no intention of making her beloved husband look weak before the entire village. She pressured Aadi to walk back into Pravadh with the wolf’s head in one hand and the bloody dagger in the other so that everyone would assume he killed the wolf. She pleaded with Aadi, saying that it didn’t matter who killed the wolf – it was all the same. Aadi’s pride was her pride and she would protect it at any cost.
The news of the dreaded wolf’s death had reached Pravadh and the mood in the Sayan home was festive and upbeat. As soon as Aadi and Avani arrived, Guru Tai emerged from the house’s ancient arches holding an elaborate, handmade aarti thali. Staring coolly at Avani and muttering curses under her breath, Tai pushed Avani aside like a worthless piece of junk, and walked straight to Aadisesha, convinced that her son had killed the wolf. And as the men threw colors up in the air and rejoiced the death of the wolf, Tai embraced Aadi, praising his bravery. From a distance and with a heavy heart, Avani observed the celebration, feeling like an outsider in her own home. She was happy for her husband; he was safe and his pride was intact. However, Tai had once again shunned her and showed no concern for her well-being – this hurt Avani deeply, more deeply than she could have imagined.
The dreaded Kashyapi wolf, responsible for the death of over a dozen villagers, had been slayed, and by no better man than Aadi of the illustrious Sayan clan - the most respected and revered family in Pravadh. However, it wasn’t for their wealth alone that they were celebrated; their courage and fearlessness ran deep in the veins of their men as well. The villagers never suspected that Aadi Deva would be dead by now if it wasn’t for his wife, Avani, who had selflessly risked her life to save her beloved husband by darting into the woods and beheading the ferocious beast.
The Pravadhi men danced, threw colors in the air, and drenched themselves in alcohol as Tai lovingly applied a tilak to her son’s forehead. Although happy for her husband, Avani left the celebrations midway, feeling disturbed and deeply hurt after Tai asked her not to stand next to Aadi. Bordering on despair, her head bowed down in sorrow, she walked past the Tulsi plant and straight into the Sayan home. Even as Avani entered the house, the foul-mouthed Tai continued to mutter abuse in her direction much to Aadi’s displeasure. However, he had never gone against his mother in the past, and staying true to his principles, tried to keep his emotions in check. He respected her deeply even if she was only his stepmother, and he was doing his utmost not to talk back to her.
From the very beginning, Tai had given Avani the cold shoulder; the Mistla’s hadn’t given the Sayan’s enough jewelry and land. This upset Tai, who felt that the Mistla clan was beneath them. As the men continued dancing with Aadi in the middle of the celebrations, he noticed Avani leaving. However, he retained his composure and didn’t let his concern show on his face. He was afraid that Avani would be deeply disappointed if people discovered the truth, especially Guru Tai. More importantly, he had made a promise to her to never reveal what had really happened in the woods. Avani wanted no praise; all she ever wanted was to build a happy life with her husband in their new home, and Tai wasn’t about to allow that to happen.
Days turned into months, and Tai still refused to allow Avani to perform the Tulsi Puja. While Avani attended to the regular household chores every morning, Tai performed the daily ritual. Most days when Tai wasn’t around, Aadi helped Avani with the household chores and this made her smile. Aadi didn’t want to upset his mother by taking Avani’s side, but at the same time, he didn’t want to neglect his wife. He did whatever he could to lessen Avani’s burden, while ensuring that both women in his life were kept happy. A man who once thought that his wife’s sole purpose was to feed him and satisfy him in bed, Aadi was now transformed. Aadisesha had learnt the real value of love through Avani.
Despite Aadi’s help, Avani was beginning to feel emotionally drained as she continued to endure Tai’s oppressive nature day after day. She missed her parents dearly and the ache of longing to see them echoed through the very marrow of her bones, as though a chill wind was trapped in the chambers of her heart. In her few but spare moments, her mind would rehearse a new letter to them. Little did she know that missing her parents would take over every fiber of her body, wringing her out like a wet sponge. She was unprepared for such torment, but Aadi’s constant support and love helped her stay cheerful and somewhat happy for the most part. She thanked God that she had found such a doting husband in Aadi.
Every morning, was the same routine –wake up, wash the dishes, press Tai’s legs, prepare the meals for the Sayan household, and complete whatever other chores Tai had delegated. However, deep within her heart, it pained her immensely that she had abandoned her dream of starting a school for girls in Pravadh. She had hoped to win Tai over with her love and respect and work towards her dream, but Tai’s cold and heartless demeanor made her feel like she was fighting a losing battle. Despite it all, Avani remained a brave and resilient woman; she had slayed the most ferocious wolf in the Kashyapi within minutes, without any fear for her own life. If she was enduring Tai’s atrocities silently, it was only because she was a strong woman who wanted to see her husband happy at any cost. It would take her only a second to answer back to Tai, but instead, she chose to bow her head in respect to keep the peace in the Sayan home.
It was a new day and the birds were flitting above the Sayan home, singing their sweet melody while joyfully hopping from branch to branch. The house was drenched in the pinkish glow of the sunrise spreading across the sky that tinted the clouds with oranges and reds as if painted by a celestial hand. Tai was feeling unwell that morning and in no condition to perform the Tulsi Puja, so she ordered Avani to perform the ritual. Avani hesitantly agreed; the last time she held the Aarti Thali to perform the Puja a few months earlier, Tai had become furious and threatened Avani, almost crushing her arm on the pretext that she wasn’t worthy enough to offer prayers to the auspicious Tulsi plant of the Sayan home. However, feeling weak and nauseous, Tai had no other option but to ask Avani to perform the Puja that morning. As Tai started to arrange the Aarti Thali in the clinical fashion that she did every morning, Avani sat on the ground and pressed Tai’s legs with vigor. Once Tai was done arranging the items on the Aarti Thali, she pulled in her legs in and thrust the Aarti Thali into Avani’s hand. Staring at her face coldly, she said, “Leave!” Avani left the room silently and walked to the Tulsi plant, as a fatigued Tai lounged in her gloomy room.
Since Tai wasn’t around, Aadi decided to help Avani with her morning chores. So, while Avani bowed her head down in prayer to the Tulsi plant, Aadi swept the front yard to lessen Avani’s burden. However, within minutes of Avani starting the Puja, her vision grew blurry, her head started to swim, and a darkness descended over her, clouding her eyes.
Aadi’s frazzled nerves jumped all at once as he saw Avani staggering backwards with the Aarti Thali in her hand. Dropping the broom he was holding, Aadi bolted towards her, his head bobbing from side to side with each footfall and his eyes enlarged in their sockets. Before Avani could hit the ground, Aadi caught her, holding onto her gently, as if she were his baby. Avani wasn’t moving and a panic-stricken Aadi looked around helplessly, trying to make sense of what was happening. His watery eyes widened and the hairs on the nape of his neck bristled, as he held onto a lifeless Avani. Avani’s delicate naked skin was covered in goose bumps, as Aadi patted her face repeatedly, pleading with her to wake up. Fear seemed to rise behind his eyes as the tragic feeling of helplessness paralyzed him; he closed his eyes and gazed into fields of nothingness as the tears streamed down his face and onto Avani’s cheek.
Anxiously, Aadi sprinkled water on Avani’s face from the water pot resting next to the Tulsi plant. When Avani didn’t open her eyes, Aadi began to panic; he frantically sprinkled more water while patting her face. As the cool droplets flowed across Avani’s face, her eyelids started to flutter. On seeing her eyelids move, Aadi breathed in deeply and sat back, letting the relief soak right into his bones. Holding her gently, he closed his eyes and thanked God for Avani, who was just beginning to open her eyes. Aadi’s relief and happiness were infectious. It started as a tingle in Avani’s fingers and toes, much like the feeling she got when anxious, but instead of worrisome it was warm and fuzzy. She felt it wash over her, like a soothing ray of sunshine, relieving the stress of the morning and leaving her refreshed.
As the warm feeling faded away, Avani stood up with a gentle smile pasted across her face, savoring the memory of Aadi’s care and gentle touch. The feeling was a blissful reminder of the love that had grown between them. Avani loved when Aadi and she simply talked, laughed, and made silly jokes. Aadi, who was still concerned that Avani had fainted, tucked Avani’s hair behind her ear and tried to make eye contact with her to see if she was okay. However, Avani refused to look up at Aadi; Avani’s blush seared through her cheeks, and for a minute, she thought her face was on fire. She suddenly felt awkward, demure, and coy, even going so far as attempting to hide her delicate features behind her elegant fingers. Avani knew that Aadi’s eyes were glued to her – eagerly awaiting a response, or even a glance. Aadi held his breath as Avani leaned up against his shoulders, and raising her lips to his ear.
What Avani whispered in Aadi’s ear was insurmountably beautiful and something he’d never expected to hear in his wildest dreams. As Avani’s words started to sink in, Aadi’s lips slowly stretched wider into a gaping grin, his eyebrows arching for the sky. Avani was surprised that he could hold this expression for as long as he did while he gazed at her. The look on his face was so ecstatic that Avani cupped her face in her palms; she had never seen him so gobsmacked and elated. Aadi jumped to his feet at once, and breathing heavily, he walked backwards to an earthen pot filled with crimson. He immersed his hand in it, almost toppling it over, and grabbing a fistful of color, Aadi chucked it forcefully into the air, screaming at the top of his lungs with joy. A surprised Avani giggled like a little girl as she looked at Aadi’s smiling face. Her bright eyes followed Aadi as he leaped with joy repeatedly, just how a mother’s observant eyes would watch her child in a playground; she had never seen him this happy and free. There was something about the way he smiled, as if tiny butterflies seemed to escape from the pit of his stomach and the sun had somehow slipped from the sky to make a home right there in his heart.
“You’re going to be a daddy soon!” Avani had softly whispered in Aadi’s ear, much to his joy. As the young couple hugged, soaking in each other’s happiness, Guru Tai peered furtively from the window above like a cobra seeking its prey. Avani’s heart was filled with joy and the dulcet tones of her laughter echoed through the hallways of the Sayan home. Guru Tai’s face slid into an insincere smile as she lurked in the shadows of the ancient structure. As Tai continued to watch the young couple’s jubilant celebrations, she silently gestured to the worker at her side for a slip of paper and a pen. After calmly writing something down on the thick sheet of paper, she rolled it up, tied it with a saffron thread, handed it to the worker, and said, “Call him.” The worker respectfully bowed his head, and then slipped through the back door of the Sayan home, darting surreptitiously into the woods.
Guru Tai had shrewdly sensed what was transpiring in the front yard of the Sayan home the moment Aadi and Avani embraced. Quickly realizing that Avani was pregnant, Tai sent a messenger to Mukaddeswar, Pravadh’s chief astrologer, requesting that he grace the Sayan home with his holy presence. Mukaddeswar, or Mukh Baba as he was affectionately known by those closest to him, never visited anyone; people usually had to go to his ashram in the Pravadh foothills to seek his blessings or his advice. However, this was the illustrious home of the Sayan clan, and for them, he would make an exception.
Perhaps more importantly, Mukh Baba cared deeply about Tai for he had seen her grow up in Pravadh before his very own eyes, and he nearly felt as though he had raised her. Orphaned as a child, Tai would often play in front of Baba’s ashram, and he would always invite her in for fruits and milk. Mukh Baba knew Tai inside out, how darkness lurked deep inside her heart, but he also knew how she could cunningly conceal that darkness with a gentle gaze or a soft smile. Whether she asked for it or not, Baba always offered his advice, just as a father would, and Tai had always obeyed him. Years later, it would be Mukh Baba who informed Tai that her husband, Sumedh Rara, had a mistress, Pushpini. A week later, Pushpini was mysteriously found dead in the Kashyapi. Those who knew Tai well and her evil propensity were convinced that she had killed her husband’s lover, while the locals believed that Mukaddeshwar, unwavering in his devotion to the disturbed Tai, had cast a spell which led to Pushpini’s untimely death.
No one knew very much about Mukh Baba’s origins and background. He had a mysterious, dark presence, a body that never seemed to age and at almost six feet tall, he was a giant amongst the young disciples in his ashram in earlier days. However, he was now in the tidewater of his fifth decade and a slight hunchback was beginning to show under his garments. Whilst his lips were large and leathery and his nose a bumpy collection of warts, his mind remained deceptively sharp and ahead of time. There were many clairvoyant people in the neighboring villages who sought to displace him as chief astrologer, but none had bested him in predictions or political posturing. He was quite adept at knowing people’s intentions before they knew of them themselves. Then, it was simply a matter of planting new ideas or thwarting them directly to set them on the right path.
Baba looked up at the sky with his deep-set eyes as he walked into the Sayan home; the clouds wispy and white that morning were now dense and darker. He quickened his pace; this was not the day to be caught in a downpour. The sky was awash with various shades of grey, but somehow, chinks of sunlight managed to force their way through the clouds, randomly illuminating small sections of the Sayan’s front garden. Otherwise, it was almost as dark as pre-dawn. The air was humid and smelt of an impending storm as Tai welcomed Baba into the home by touching his feet. Leading him quietly to a little thicket of bushes at the side of house, Tai whispered, “She’s pregnant.” Baba stared at Tai for a brief moment before peering through the bushes to catch a glimpse of Avani’s glowing face. There she was washing vessels in the Sayan backyard with a smile on her face and lightness in her movements, despite the sweat dripping down her face. As Baba continued to gaze at Avani, his all-seeing eyes taking in the magenta and gold aura that enveloped the crown of her head, Tai mumbled, “I need to know if . . . ,” but before she could even finish her sentence, Baba spun around on his heels, casting wild eyes to the horizon. Behind the empty look he wore on his face, there was sadness and shock. Tai anxiously looked at Baba and then back at Avani as an ominous flock of ravens flew overhead. As Baba started walking briskly towards the front yard, Tai followed him anxiously wondering what was wrong. Sitting heavily down on the steps, Baba squinted at Tai through hardened eyes and said firmly, “I know what you’re thinking, but the stars are not in your favor at this moment!” “You will wait for a few months, and then you will have your answer,” he gasped. Tai was shocked by Baba’s firm words, but bowed her head in respect, to which Baba responded, saying with a hint of sadness, “I have known you since you were a little girl . . . a little girl, Tai.” Baba’s wise eyes stared straight into Tai’s fierce and proud eyes, before he stood up and turned to leave. For the first time in her life, Tai had felt anxious in his presence. She had never seen Baba so vulnerable, but as always, she would listen to him and wait. She looked at Baba’s hunched shoulders as he stopped on his way out and said a prayer to the Tulsi plant before slowly walking away from the Sayan home.
The pregnancy had brought joy and nervous anticipation. Days turned into weeks, and with Avani now a few months pregnant, Aadi had new responsibilities. As far as he was concerned, Avani was the focal point of his life and she deserved love, nourishment, warmth, and protection. There would be days when Avani felt tired and sometimes apprehensive and nervous; however, Aadi never left her side, constantly giving her support, encouragement, and love. The enormity of soon becoming a father was a bit overwhelming, but Aadi faced it like a man. After all, this is what he had always wanted – a family with the love of his life. Nothing else mattered. He stopped making long trips into the woods; instead, against all norms and cultural traditions, he performed Avani’s household chores each morning. Later in the day, he and Avani would spend as much time together as possible, simply enjoying being together.
They were inseparable, while Tai, a silent observer to all of this, burned with jealousy, consumed by thoughts of malicious intent. Mukh Baba had asked her to wait and she was going to obey his orders come what may. Most days, Tai lounged in her gloomy room, plotting her next move, while Avani and Aadi relaxed in each other’s company. Each was the center of the other’s universe; love radiated from them, spreading positive energy all around. This was the love Avani had dreamed about, prayed for. She inwardly thanked God for helping her become the mother of Aadi’s child. She promised to cherish this love all the days of her life for she was finally home.
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