A TRAGEDY OF INDIAN SOCIAL EVILS TOLD THROUGH 48 HEARTBREAKING IMAGES - PART III./IV.
True to her word, since the day Mukh Baba visited the Sayan home, Tai stayed away from Avani. Before Baba’s warning, Tai would always find ways to keep Aadi and Avani apart. When Aadi returned from the woods, Tai would purposely send Avani to draw water from the large well. Or, if Aadi was due back home after a long absence, she would ask Avani to take the cattle to the woods to graze, so intent was Tai on preventing the young couple from enjoying a happy reunion. So, for Aadi and Avani, Mukh Baba’s instructions to Tai proved to be a blessing in disguise. The superstitious Tai stopped delegating needless chores to Avani and, to her great frustration, kept her distance from Avani in fear that something dreadful might happen to herself or others in the Sayan clan.
Tai’s absence meant that Avani and Aadi were finally getting a chance to spend time together. For the first time in weeks, Avani had stopped pressing Tai’s legs and washing vessels. Although Tai was more than unhappy that her son was so attentive to Avani, she had no choice but to maintain her silence. However, a quiet fire on the verge of erupting was burning inside of her that made her more restless with each passing day. After finishing all the daily chores, Aadi would spend the rest of the day with Avani. He would tell her jokes, recite poems, and talk about adventures from his childhood days, while Avani listened like a little schoolgirl, her eyes transfixed on his face. Aadi tended to Avani as he would a baby, Tai thought disdainfully, feeding her fruits and juices throughout the day and making sure that she got enough rest. His behavior, however, leaned towards being overly protective, so afraid was he to let Avani go outside, insisting that she stay indoors. Aadi seemed worried that something might happen to her and he was taking no chances, especially now that she was pregnant. Perhaps he saw Baba visit the house, Tai thought to herself, but she quickly brushed the concern aside so as not to be distracted from the business at hand. As for Avani, she easily accepted his protective nature as a natural response to becoming a father. To the rest of the world, he might have seemed possessive, but for her, he shone with an inner beauty all the same.
That’s why Avani loved him back equally if not more, a spark that nothing and nobody could ever extinguish. Aadi, on the other hand, would give up anything in the world for Avani and would do anything to keep her happy. He would lay down his life for her as she had done for him. He knew for certain that it was her love for him that had saved him from the dreaded Kashyapi wolf, and that very same love would now break him if anything ever happened to her. They were two halves that made a whole. He stroked her hand and told her the story of how he fell for her, how she had captured his heart, and how he had never regretted a single moment of his time with her.
He often recalled the first time he saw her; she was nurturing a wounded puppy on the side of the road. He told Avani that he finally understood what he had felt that day – it was like he had been let into the warmth after a lifetime of winter. He never wished to go back to even a day before that, for she was the greatest treasure of his life, the one, the only one. Kissing her forehead, he told her that he wanted to name the baby Surya, for their child was created from pure love and was sure to shine as brightly as the sun. It didn’t matter whether it was a boy or girl, the name would be the same. Aadi could tell from her blush that Avani agreed – their baby was the embodiment of love and light. She closed her eyes and embraced him.
The weeks passed, and Avani started to feel a light tickling sensation, as if someone was running a fingertip lightly over her skin...but on the inside. As Baby Surya grew, the light tickle began to feel like a finger flick. It was an exciting phase for Avani and Aadi; the constant kicking was a sign that Surya was getting healthier and stronger each day.
Avani would often joke with Aadi and say, “Look, bubbles are popping around in my belly!”
Aadi would respond by rushing to Avani, kneeling down before her, and resting his ear gently against her belly, saying, "I love you Surya. It's okay. I'm here. You're going to be okay. You're safe. I love you. Everything's going to be all right. I'm here now, I'm here."
On hearing Aadi’s gentle voice, the baby in Avani’s womb would stop kicking, relax, and become very quiet. Aadi could sense the baby straining its head towards his voice, and instinctively trying to reach out to the familiar voice.
Aadi had become very protective of Avani, and discouraged her from going outside of the Sayan home. Although Avani understood Aadi’s reasoning, she was beginning to feel restless. She hadn’t seen anything but the walls of the ancient house in a long time. She wanted to run up the mountain or simply go for a walk in the woods. She longed to listen to the birds’ beautiful song, touch the glistening morning dew, or watch the fish dart in and out among the reeds. Her heart felt one with nature and she yearned to share her joy in the midst of its majesty. But much to her disappointment, Aadi always denied her wish.
Avani was just over eight months pregnant, and at Aadi’s insistence, she had been indoors the entire time. However, she needed a break from the dreary hallways and ancient arches of the Sayan Home. She wanted to be one with nature, even for a brief moment. Although not his intention, Aadi sensed his over-protectiveness was making Avani feel frustrated and caged. One fine morning, after Aadi had finished the chores, he entered their bedroom to find Avani sitting in a corner with tears streaming down her face. He rushed to her side, worried that something might be wrong with baby Surya. As he knelt down beside Avani, she turned to him, anger and frustration etched on her face. “I don’t care anymore, Aadi,” she pleaded, “I just need to leave this house! This is not healthy for me or Surya.” As her tears fell on his cheek, Aadi felt disgusted with himself for making Avani feel this way. Wiping the tears from Avani’s face, he promised that he would take her out, then left without saying another word.
Although she didn’t believe him at first, she jumped to her feet when Aadi returned a half-hour later and said, “Let’s go out!” Unaware that Aadi had some workers erect a swing in a safe area of the majestic Kashyapi forest, the doting Aadi carried Avani over a little hill; the trees at its edge were alive with birds and squirrels, and the lake in the valley below was abundant with fish. Avani, Aadi, and Surya weren’t alone at all, yet the solitude she felt in nature washed away her stress. Aadi walked slowly, as Avani dawdled behind, taking in everything around her. As the gentle wind moved through Avani’s long black hair, she closed her eyes, savoring the feel of tousled ribbons whipping about her face, the air as fresh as after a rainstorm. Taking several deep breaths, Avani admired the view; from this vantage point, the fields looked like one of her Appa’s quilts, but instead of his oranges and greens, they were the earthen colors of early spring. The ploughed fields were burnt umber, the pastures still dull, awaiting the bright hues of new growth. It was too early for this hill to have flowers, but she knew if she knelt on the wet blades, tightly folded petals in their green casings, swelling, ready to bloom would kiss her knees. This was her sanctuary from the dark rooms of the Sayan home, these long, lazy walks her therapy. Before she knew it, they had reached the edge of the Kashyapi forest, and as if on cue, the sun sent a bolt of light that split the trees, illuminating the lush beauty of the exquisite forest. The grass was like thick fur, each tuft dripping heavily with water and forming little puddles. Flowers sprouted in an amazing array of colors; beautiful tints, tones, and shades dazzled the senses, caressing the eyes and massaging the soul.
Aadi led Avani to the little area where the men had tied a wooden swing to a tree. Taken completely by surprise and overcome with emotion, tears welled up in Avani’s eyes, so taken was she by Aadi’s thoughtfulness. As she embraced Aadi, he walked her gently over to the swing. However, little did Aadi know that Avani’s tears that morning was a result of pain that she was experiencing. When Aadi had entered their room earlier that day, Avani had her face cupped in her hands in an attempt to hide it from her husband. What Aadi had assumed was anger and frustration because Avani wanted to leave the house, all the more because she had said so very frequently. Avani, with her usual strength of character, saw this as an opportunity to finally get outside into the fresh air and commune with nature. After all, Aadi had asked to take her out, and the pain wasn't very intense. Thus, she decided to keep quiet about the pain, jumping at the chance to spend time with her husband beyond the oppressive walls of the Sayan home.
Just when Avani thought she couldn’t be any happier, Aadi surprised her yet again. Asking her to close her eyes for a brief moment, he disappeared into the woods, quickly returning with baskets heaped with marigold petals. “Keep your eyes closed for just one more minute,” Aadi gasped. He quickly decorated the Kashyapi forest floor with the bright orange flower petals. Walking towards the swing, Aadi leaned close to her ear and whispered, “Open your eyes in 5, 4, 3…!” as he pulled the swing backwards towards him to make it move faster, and then forward and backwards again. As the swing started to move quicker, Avani gently opened her eyes. With the warm sun kissing her soft skin and the cool breeze massaging her silken hair, Avani was in for a visual treat. She felt like a princess as the swing floated in the fragrant air, with the ground below covered in liquid gold. Overcome with emotion, Avani screamed, “Why do you love me so much?” Aadi smiled and screamed back, “Because you’re like the mother I never had, the best friend I’ve always wanted, and the lover I always dreamt of being with. That’s why!” Avani’s heart melted as she heard Aadi’s genuine words. With a big smile and moist eyes, Avani pushed the swing into the air to make it go higher, all the while noticing the fresh green grass all around, interspersed with daffodils that bobbed delightfully. The branches of the tall Kashyapi trees swayed in the wind as if they were hands waving at the young couple. And as the swing moved faster in the air, Avani put her head back and looked at the fluffy clouds in the pale blue sky. The early morning rain had now stopped, but the moisture in the air and the sunshine had left a beautiful rainbow arching through the sky, past the clouds and trailing off towards Pravadh, which was visible in the distance. Sensing that Avani was continuing to enjoy every moment, Aadi continued to push the swing cautiously, making sure he was holding onto her safely. Avani smiled delightedly as she breathed the fragrant air that filled the Kashyapi forest. Just as she was about to close her eyes, she saw something moving by the tree. It looked like a deer… yes, it was a deer… its body curved over, with a smooth dome of fur across its back. It looked up at Avani, then twitched its nose before darting back into the woods. Watching the deer disappear among the swaying trees, beneath the rainbowed sky, Avani laughed with joy for the beauty of nature and for the love of the man who had brought her this magical moment.
Little did Avani know, the pain she had ignored to escape the dark hallways of the Sayan home would come back to bite her hard. As Aadi continued to push the swing, Avani’s stomach started to tighten.
“Aadi STOP!” she screamed at the top of her lungs.
Aadi stopped pushing the swing, grabbed onto it and brought it to a halt immediately using both hands, holding onto Avani. She staggered from the swing and, before it could even stop fully, she lay on the ground, clutching her tummy with both hands, scrunching the fabric of her clothing.
“My t-tummy… been hurting all morning, Aadi, ah…!” she gasped. “I-I’m sorry… I didn’t know it would get so b-bad…”
A worried Aadi took a moment to compose himself and said with a reassuring smile, “It’s okay, Ma… Is it hurting a lot?”
Before Avani could even hear what he said, she heard a scream, unaware even that it had been wrenched from herself. Within minutes the pain had shot up substantially, more intense than anything Avani had ever imagined. Nothing could be more brutal—not the cutting sting of a whip, not the constricted choking of chains. All she could feel of the forest now was the hard stony ground and tall ominous trees lurking above. Her beloved husband melted into the background as if he wasn’t even there.
An acute pain, lancing through her, crushing her, squeezing her, like an implosion of bones and muscle engulfed her. Tears welled up in her eyes. Her insides hurt so much that it made her take leave of herself, totally stripping away her modesty and embarrassment. Avani felt like a wave had taken her under before she could even breathe. Like a wrench around the spine. A tiny body proclaiming itself far louder than it had any right to; a tiny body needing her so much it was wringing her dry; a tiny body taking her head in its hands from inside her body and saying, ‘I’m here, Amma; love me, love me until your heart breaks, love me until there's nothing left; I am, Amma, I'm here now, I'm here… Where are you?’
Avani screamed with pain and Aadi looked at her face reassuringly; realizing there was not much he could do, he tried to be the calm, confident, hand-holder as he lay beside her like a rock. Moving his face closer to Avani’s he whispered, “It’ll be okay Ma, I’m right here…”
Avani held onto Aadi’s hand tightly. She felt a pop, like a knuckle crack, and then a gush.
Aadi heard the pop too and he knew he couldn’t take a chance now; it was too late to carry her home or to the local doctor who lived on the Pravadh outskirts, far away from where they now were. He looked deep into Avani’s eyes.
“Avani, look at me,” he urged. “Focus… Surya will be with us soon.”
A piercing pain engulfed Avani as she felt Surya’s head press against her pelvis. Sweating profusely and in distress, Avani continued to push while Aadi offered his comfort and support as best he could. Pushing was the worst, but it somehow seemed to ease her pain slightly. She could feel every stretch, pull, and tear, the burning unlike anything she had ever experienced. Then, suddenly, she heard a gentle cry and looked down to see Aadi cradling his little girl in his outstretched arms.
As she peered through brand new eyes at what must have seemed like such a strange world after life in the womb, Surya curled her tiny fingers around Aadi’s, already seeking her father’s protection. Kicking her legs in tiny, jerked movements, she searched for Amma’s belly, which she was so used to, but only felt fresh air. Aadi burst into tears of relief and joy as Surya’s gentle cries floated through the Kashyapi forest. Turning his glossy eyes to Avani, he whispered in a broken voice, “We have a beautiful baby girl. . .” Avani smiled through her exhaustion, her eyes drifting from Aadi to Surya, as he lay their baby on her stomach, bare skin to bare skin. Overwhelmed by emotions, Avani cried the sweetest tears she’s ever known, all the pain of the past moments melting away. Surya was only minutes old but had already begun to root, mouth wide, her instincts strong. Avani had been madly in love with her little princess since the day she knew she was pregnant, but seeing her child for the very first time, she was awestruck by the overwhelming feelings of pure unconditional love that she was now experiencing. Nothing and no one could have prepared her for this. Surya’s cries made it all the more real. Avani looked into Surya’s gentle eyes and whispered, “This is my baby, my beautiful miracle,” as Aadi embraced his wife and daughter, wrapping his arms around them both. In that instant, Avani knew she would do anything to protect her child, that her love was as vast as the universe yet solid as rock. She was a mother and would always be.
Guru Tai had kept her silence all these many months as Mukh Baba had advised, but she was growing more restless with each passing minute. The news of Avani and Aadi’s newborn baby girl had spread across Pravadh like wildfire, and while the elated young couple were rejoicing in the birth of baby Surya, a distraught Guru Tai was, yet again, sending one of her trusted aides to summon Mukh Baba. However, the mysterious Baba had set out on a pilgrimage and was nowhere to be found. Sensing that it might be too late if she waited for Baba’s return, Guru Tai decided that she couldn’t stay away from Avani any longer. This ill-chosen woman had given birth to a baby girl, after all, and a boy is what the family wanted, someone who could take the Sayan legacy forward. Surely her son could see this for himself, the infuriated Tai thought. However, to Tai’s dismay, her son stood beaming at Avani’s side, seemingly euphoric over the birth of a girl child, while oblivious to his mother’s distress.
Having locked in her hatred and disdain for Avani for months on end, Tai was in no mood to feign happiness for their baby daughter. So when the jubilant couple approached Tai to seek her blessings, to Avani’s utter shock, her response was to curse her, calling her an evil witch. Tai simply could not contain herself any longer; she was the matriarch of the Sayan home and it was time that someone had the nerve to speak the truth, or so she thought. Since Mukh Baba wasn’t around, maybe that was a sign from the universe for her to act upon her instincts, Tai justified to herself. A hapless and dispirited Aadi stood at the front door of the ancient house, pleading with his mother to bless his child, but Tai refused to even look at baby Surya. Instead, she leaned forward and with a devious smile, she whispered into Avani’s ears, “You just made the biggest mistake of your life . . .” Avani’s heart froze in her chest as she looked into Tai’s eyes, for they held a darkness that day resembling the very barren wintery night where hope seemed galaxies away. Aadi who was horrified to hear his mother’s words, was so distraught and hurt that he immediately grabbed Avani’s hand and rushed out, trying with all his might to hold back his tears.
As Aadi walked Avani away from the Sayan home, Tai’s loathsome words echoed in his ears, making him feel weak and powerless. He couldn’t believe his own mother had just called Avani a witch and refused to bless his newborn child, her grandchild, a pure and innocent blessing that she had heartlessly called a “mistake.” Hurt and distraught, Aadi walked Avani into the nearby woods; knowing her fondness for nature, he hoped this would distract her from what had just happened. With sadness flowing through his veins and deadening his mind, he held Avani’s hand as she followed him through the narrow pathway. Avani, who had remained silent all this time, could not hold back her anguish any longer. Hot tears streamed from her eyes as she thought about the pain her husband must be feeling. How could one’s own mother be so cold-hearted towards her own grandchild?
Avani knew Aadi was like a little child on the inside – naïve, innocent, and blessed with the purest of hearts. It wasn’t as though he didn’t want to speak up for his child and wife. He would if he could, but he simply didn’t know how to. Nor did he have the courage to do so, because Tai had always told him what to do and he was never allowed to make his own decisions. Of course, Avani could have put Tai in her place in a second; for that matter, she could have even given her a right slap across her face, and deservedly so for the venom she spewed. But no, Avani would never do that – she was too strong for that. She would not go against her elders, and certainly not against her husband’s mother whom she considered like her own under the circumstances. How could she fight or hurt her?
What was most important was Aadi, the love of her life, and anything that belonged to Aadi belonged to her. She could have run away from the Sayan home to escape Tai’s clutches, or poisoned Aadi’s mind against his own mother, but Avani had principles, and more importantly, she was a loyal wife and dutiful daughter-in-law. She might have killed the wolf to protect her husband, but she wasn’t willing to kill any relationships. In Avani’s silence lay her strength, and in that strength her love, and in that love was Aadi and Surya. As the young couple stepped deeper into the woods, his eyes misty and feeling emotionally spent, Aadi murmured, “Amma doesn’t mean it. I’m sorry about her . . .” But before he could even finish the sentence, Avani gently placed her palm on his mouth. “I have you, I have Surya, there’s nothing more I want in this world,” she whispered softly, the full weight of her love in her words as she embraced Surya to her bosom and leaned her head on her husband’s shoulder.
As worried as Avani was about Aadi, he was equally upset about the way his wife had been treated by his mother. Tai had made Avani feel like an outsider in her own house. Instead of embracing her grandchild, she spewed venom, refusing to even look at Surya’s face. Aadi’s heart bled as he thought about how Avani must be feeling; she hadn’t seen her parents in the longest time, and instead of showing her affection and gratitude, Tai had nearly threatened her. Of course, Guru Tai was too small-minded to realize that such selfish and uncharitable acts would only bring Aadi and Avani closer together, so strong was their love for each other and their precious child.
Aadi had to pull himself together and fast, for his own sake and that of his little family’s, for he was quickly descending into a state of self-loathing. What kind of man stands by helplessly and watches his own mother treat his wife so horrifically, he wondered. For a fleeting moment, he thought that, perhaps, everyone would have been better off if the wolf had succeeded in killing him, since he wasn’t doing much while he was alive and breathing. Tormenting himself even further, he then thought if he had lost his life, who would take care of Avani and Surya. As much as he didn’t want to face the truth, he believed that Tai was capable of destroying his wife and daughter if anything ever happened to him. A thought too ugly to say out loud, it made his heart shudder and twisted his mind into a hot, murky mess.
Despite being emotionally and mentally exhausted, he took a deep breath, and glancing at beautiful little Surya nestled against Avani’s chest, he immediately made up his mind to rid himself of this negativity that was consuming his mind and heart. How could he be so selfish and wallow in his misery, when he had so much to be thankful for? This should be the happiest time of their life, and he was going to make Avani smile again no matter what it took. She had just become a mother, she should always be smiling, he thought to himself.
As they walked further into the Kashyapi, Aadi suddenly bounded ahead of Avani, leaving her a few steps behind. Confused, she watched in surprise as Aadi suddenly spun around and broke into dance. With tears streaming from his eyes, he laughed through it as he stared at the most beautiful woman in the world, noticing that a smile was beginning to form on her face. Born with two left feet, Aadi was inventing moves all his own, which made him laugh even more. His laughter was contagious and soon Avani was laughing, too. With a silly grin on his face and his arms outstretched, he made the most awkward of moves as he approached his wife as if to ask her to dance. Before Avani knew it, Aadi had scooped her and Surya up in his arms, and the three of them were swaying around in circles. Aadi and Avani’s faces were turned towards the sun, laughing together with joy and relief, remembering how wonderful it is to just be silly. Even Surya, to their delight, was reveling in the moment, gurgling sweetly with subtlest of smiles on her face. Aadi was, indeed, a child at heart and he would do anything to see Avani smile. His love for Avani made him dance like his life was on the line, and against all odds, alive and happy was exactly how they both were feeling at that very moment. Aadi knew then that he would do anything, as long as it brought Avani and Surya happiness.
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