Friday 5 October 2018

Short Story 2018, First Prize, Rajshree Parthivv


Addled like a worm in a pea-pod, the traveller stopped at one of the nooks of the craggy crossroads. Before the querulous quadruped moved its muzzle to neigh, the equestrian keeled with a thud on the ground. Although the black alluvial had dried, it was still too soft to brace someone who had been totally exhausted by the day long horse-ride. The starless night was setting in like a consort, clad in a long, loosely draped, black silken garment, entering the ruttish bed. The softness of the soil was so inviting that the meander lay there on that not-much-trodden-road till the eye of the heaven smiled at the nascent day.

Five autumns are indeed, more than an epoch for a powada troupe to accumulate enough wealth for a luxurious subsistence. Silken and heavy, the pouch full of hons ruffled as Baisa turned her back on the heavy cotton mattress. “Ummm… a hundred of them? Including the ones received at the wedding in the Deshmukh family at Shirwal? Not sure, how generous are the nobles here, in Satara. Let’s wait for the performance tonight.”

She rose to put the pouch in a wooden trunk when a podgy mouse skedaddled past through the edge of the wall and jumped on her feet. Her anklets chinked while the mouse squeaked; she giggled at the ticklish feeling and wobbled for a while to push back her kinked feet. “Hheee… hheee…” The golden rui phool on the lower edge of the paithani uncoiled and then, got back into its shape. Nothing more than a mouse with her fearless movements had ever given her such a quaint sensation. In a chirpy tone, a song perched on her lips. She droned:
An ant flew to the sky
And she swallowed the sun
Another wonder …….
A fly gave birth to a kite.
Looking on, Muktabai laughed.
Aai used to love this abhanga. In the late afternoon, she would pestle the spices on the grinding stone and the beats amused the girl.
Thap thapaak… thak… thap… thapaak… thap…
“Wait… wait Aai! This certainly deserves a stint, doesn’t it?

Soon the kohl on her eyelids juddered slightly as if trying to peg itself away from those bushy ridges. And she moved forth, to and fro, to the rhythmical cadence of the grinding stone. Although the parkar polka was not the appropriate dress for the stint, the little girl swung forth, to and fro, with grace and charm. Slinging a dholki across her shoulder, Nirabai, would push aside all the domestic chores and join her daughter, tapping her feet with an effortless grace in her crumpled nauvari. How long the duo capered rhythmically on the tunes of the popular songs- sung one after the other- glorifying the freedom and fantasy flights to the unknown terrains, was a matter of imagination!
“Ago bai! Time to cook dinner… Let’s move to the kitchen,” Aai would stop abruptly and ask the twelve year old girl to run to the backyard and pluck a fresh snake gourd.

Upon entering the kitchen, Baisa’s first job was to shove the fat, squidgy rat that looked right into her eyes from the wooden shelf, above the earthen stove. No sooner did she take the rolling pin in her hand, it jumped right on her toes, leaving its spongy sensation behind.

“Last night, how it whizzed across the portico with the last piece of jaggery. Aai kept on frantically searching for it the whole evening,” she grunted. During the search, both of them had well imagined how angry Baba would be upon noisily sucking the first sip of the jaggery-less amti dal. The hysterical outburst would soon turn historical with Baba blabbering on and on and till he would hear Aai’s snores followed by her loud guttural sounds. When Baba stopped speaking, Aai, holding a bowl in her hand, rushed to Shyama maushi, the next door woman to borrow the life-saving piece of jaggery.

Inside the crevice, the rat too, cribbed.  
Hhhh, you ‘camphor-smelling girl,’ always opening the kitchen door when I am about to pounce upon that jar of jaggery; do you think you can bang that rolling pin on my body? Aye, you are wrong, baby. You will never be able to overcome my smartness. I am the king of all what I want. How mightily I held that piece of the rich, brown candy that I munched for almost half of the day. You barmy girl, I smell the jar today. It seems to be refilled.
With a rustling tot in her cradled hand, Queen Tarabai bade a quiet farewell to her husband. Silent and intriguing, the Fort of Vishalagarh foretold itself about the coming events. She knew it wasn’t the enemy but the co-wives who were the greatest challenges, especially, Rajasbai, since, she had also birthed a son. But nothing could dampen her spirits from taking over the charge of the affairs.
Tarabai’s dawn began with the sacred rituals followed by a long, tiring drilling session at the tableland. Being the only daughter of a commander-in-chief in the royal army, she had been trained by her father in almost all the warfare activities. After her husband’s planned truancy, the immediate need was to develop a solid strategy – appointing new subadars, kamaishdars and rahdars in the region who would be responsible for collecting more taxes. “This should buttress the dwindling economy in the present times,” she conceptualised. “Also, I need to visit Panhala regularly if I want to put things back into order.” Her frequent round trips of Vishalgarh and Panhala were devoted to energise her commanders, mobilise resources and coordinate attacks on the enemies so as to bring her husband back to the Panhala Fort. In front of the idol of Maa Tulaja Bhawani, she had vowed she would fulfil her mission before the end of the seventeenth century. At nineteen, she had hardly five years on hand, to carry out her plans. She had a long way to go. And she knew she was going ahead in the right direction.
The morning was beautiful with the refracted golden and silver rays splaying on the surface of the river waters. A small boat danced sprightly on the low waters and perambulated each time a gush of strong wind passed through the river. Deeply engrossed in watching the opulent display of nature’s wealth, Baisa stirred for a while upon hearing an outlandish voice. Much to her surprise, at this hour when the menfolk was busy harvesting cotton at the farms, she saw a stranger approaching her. His horse trotted behind him.  

“Aho, is there something to eat? I am terribly hungry. Can I get something immediately?”
“Errr… I don’t have my food-box here. It’s at the farm, a long walk from here… I mean more than a mile or so.”

“If you don’t mind, Krushna can carry both of us on her back…”
“Why should I ride on a horse with a stranger?”
“I am Tukoji. I came here last night. From Khuldabad… I am on my way to Sajjangarh. Lost my way. My troupe must have gone ahead.”

“Yes, we are going to perform at the Sajjangarh Fort after a fortnight. It’s an important assignment. The Crown Prince’s coronation. Besides, this is for the first time I am taking the sole responsibility of the show – have to prove my worth. As soon as I have a meal, I shall leave. A long way to go…”
Hardly had she conversed with an unknown man, at such a length in her life span of eighteen years. On and on the horse galloped, trying to catch the meaning of the words she had never been used to. Fresh and energetic, the horse too was amused to have the company of a woman on its back. So amused it was to hear her master talk to the equestrienne in a low, husky tone that it did not stray for a moment from the slinky conversation.
More than the five hons and hundreds of kavadis in Satara, Baisa enjoyed the thunderous applauses from the womenfolk of the household on her gondhal and vag movements.
How horrified Tukoji was when she had then put forth to him her plan of engineering a separate performance for the women of the noble or royal families. His response was not only unwelcoming but also discouraging. It took her exactly a month to convince him to try out this innovative scheme for the female folks of the royal household who were otherwise allowed to watch the powdas or tamashas from the other side of the thin curtain.

So while the male performers were entertaining the general crowd in the open courtyard of the host family, she and her female troupe performed for the women of the household in the interior precincts of the women’s chamber.

Experimenting with lavani, a two-hundred year old dance form she had learnt from Tukoji was also well applauded in Satara. Of course, it required a lot of further research, since the dance form was not so popular among the other powada troupes. Nonetheless, she was sure she would gradually train herself in mastering the pulsating dance form; the truth was she had started loving it. “Haven’t I always achieved, whatever I desired? Couldn’t I convince Tukoji of my plans in our first meeting itself?” Musing over the past, she slipped into a song:
My duty is to serve my husband
For he is God to me.
My husband himself is
The Supreme Brahma
I want my thoughts
Concentrated on my husband.

That night, when Baisa visited Tukoji’s tent, she looked as radiant as the majestic pink-red hibiscus flower that smiled from among the weeds. Having offered her a seat, he informed her about their forthcoming performances. The bullock-carts were ready and they were required to leave for Panhala the day after at the early dawn.

On her way back to her tent at midnight, she started humming the same song. Never had she loved this composition but she had been inadvertently humming it since evening. For Aai, it had always been a morning hymn. “Why does Aai keep on visiting my memory shades; is it to remind me perfunctorily about his goodness, his- Keshoji‘s? No guilt. No shame. No. No self-infliction is going to stop me from what I have been enjoying- doing-dancing. There isn’t any feeling of delinquency. Yet, somewhere he rules my psyche, my existence, my soul…”

On the sixth day, Tukoji, Baisa and the troupe had already erected tents before noon in the outskirts of the Panhala village. By evening, all the six women were to gather behind Baisa’s tent to rehearse for the maiden song she had composed and choreographed:
O proud peacock,
Will you not take your peahen?
To the dense, inviting forest
And drench yourself with her
In the crystal drops of the rains?
O my pretty peahen,
I will surely drench myself
In the dense, inviting forest,
But do you promise to dance
Under the crystal drops of the rains?

Lent by innumerable torches inserted in the hollows of the thick stony walls, the Rang Mahal at the Panhala Fort was sparkling with illuminations and the colourful paithanis, himroos and lugades. Greetings, giggles and glitterati swarmed across the gallery with the womenfolk of the noble families who had never earlier seen such a splendid gathering. Femininity had as if resolved not to step out of the gallery and be a part of the world outside. Of course, Queen Tarabai was the celebutante spectator of the evening. Baisa and her troupe took their positions in the green room waiting for the disc-bell to ring so that they could start the performance.

As soon as the queen arrived, the spectators cheered their favourite leader and greeted her with lauds and approbations. The uproar settled when the disc-bell sounded. One after the other the dance and drama sequences were presented with an artistic fervour and enthusiasm. Little had Baisa thought about the nervousness that would grip her before the last item- the lavani. Assiduously, she came onto the centre stage followed by her dancing girls in a pirouetting movement and in no time captured the stage, transforming it into a dense, rainy forest. The peacock song and the dance stole the heart of everyone present in the gallery. At the end of the dance, she was almost in a state of swoon when she heard the reverberating claps and the soaring rahs of admiration.

It was the most glorious moment of her life, the one that she had awaited all her life. The dream that had no shape, no silhouette, no sketch was being fulfilled right here, in front of her, and she stood there, dumbstruck. The queen herself rose from the royal seat and gifted Baisa with the golden three-layered bakuri haar, the necklace from the royal treasury.
“So you have finally decided not to join us.” Tukoji was apparently calm but emotionally too disturbed to convince Baisa for anything that could happen hereafter.
“You will repent…”
“We are artists. Performers. Wanderers. We don’t have permanent homes.”
“I had one… in the past.”

“Our relationship could have had come to a fruition. I had thought so for more than five years…”
“I made no promises, Tukoji. At the same time, let me admit – you made a woman attain her womanhood. However, my journey doesn’t end with the identity, respect, love and contentment that you gave me in these five years. I have found my way to my further encampment. Good bye.”

The troupe could not leave Panhala for more than a month because the Fort had been mourning the death of the truant King Raja Ram. Tarabai was trying to muster all the courage that she could in order to resume her stately duties but in vain. She refused to come out of her chamber to meet any of the officials. It was Rajasbai’s idea to send for Baisa to start the kirtanas in the Kalyani Mahal where all the three wives were mourning.

At the break of the dawn, Baisa would quietly enter the queens’ chamber and start the kirtana. The abhangas talked about the immortality of the soul, the importance of the dharma, and the duties of the householder. Gradually, the queen started finding solace in the abhangas sung melodiously by Baisa and her girls. Tarabai had as if found an empathiser in a woman who was almost of her age. But more than that, it was Baisa who underwent a slow transformation in the process of composing new abhangas. Each time she sat in front of the Lord Vitthala’s idol, she experienced strange spells of epiphanic revelations. The past that haunted her – her father’s debts, the requital marriage to the wealthy Keshoji (a man twenty years older than her,) the conjugal insipidity, her runaways to the river bank, her elopement with Tukoji (the stranger,) and now the separation from him – was as if releasing her from all the painful ties. Dancing in front of the Lord’s idol was becoming a ritual, a celebration of life, even as she witnessed Queen Tarabai once again resuming her duties of taking care of the state affairs. From the decision of not going back but going within, and on to the realm unknown, she continued to sing, dance and praise her Lord.

Set in the 17th century Maratha Confederacy, the story revolves around the transformation of a plain, unassuming girl into a woman of substance who treads on an unknown path in search of her true self.
Rajshree Parthivv pens flash and short fictions. She writes poems and has published them in national and international journals and magazines. She received the “Outstanding Poet of the Year” in 2013 at the 2nd Rabindranath Tagore International Poetry Contest. Born in 1966 in Ahmedabad, she has been an Indian citizen and currently resides in Mumbai with her family.

1 comment:

  1. Feminist in its perspective, the story is well told...Congratulations!