The woods were dark and deep. And she had lost her way once again. The thorny thickets, the cluster of bushes, the wild shrubs and the untamed weeds conspired together to make way for an ominous atmosphere. The twined under-growths, the inextricable creepers and climbers parasitically hugging the herd of undisciplined trees made it impossible to find the slim serpentine pathway running through the dense vegetation. The tower-clock had announced midnight long back. Suddenly the clouds cooked up a frenzy and the Bohemian breeze joined hands in the fracas. An outpour was imminent. The star-less sky hunted the moon but in vain. Films of opaque fog conjured up from the ground beneath swallowing her up in tantalizingly slow but steady motion.
She had to find her way out of this mazy miles of copses before the deluge washed her off to a destination unknown. But her legs did not listen to her brain. Fear paralyzed her. She could feel the demonic presence lurking behind those sky scraping Pines and Deodars – creepy crawlers, man-eaters, half humans, head hunters, ghastly creatures and harmful spirits. She prayed fervently but her quivering lips could not form the words of the prayers. Her hands clasped together shook involuntarily. She wanted to cry out for her mother but her voice froze.
Suddenly a streak of blaze halved the sky in two with a thunderous uproar. In that split second, she saw the castle half hidden behind the smog of menacing clouds and unruly clump of greens. It’s grey turrets shooting up to the sky in a great rush as though wanting to tear it apart.
No! No! She didn’t want to go back to those cold, desolate, winding corridors talking to her in scary whispers. Those marbled floors, gilded mirrors, draped rooms and vaulted ceilings – dark and dismal. She could hear her father’s grim voice admonishing her to behave and Naani-Ma looking at her piercingly through her pince-nez. Her curt commands echoing in the high ceilinged, half-lit ‘Darbar Hall’, “Have a hold on yourself girl! Soon you’ll have to stay all alone in the hostel without me, your father and Dai Ma. You should learn how to take care of yourself.”
She didn’t want to go to the hostel either. Manna, the kitchen maid, had told her that they tortured the little girls there who refused to drink milk during breakfast or before retiring to bed at night. Oh! She wanted to go back to her mother and hide in her pallu inhaling deeply the sweet fragrances of Jasmine and Rose which emanated from her body and listen to the tinkle of her bangles when she held her tight to her bosom and cooed into her ears in musical notes, “No Kusum, don’t be scared. Maa is here for you, darling. She’ll keep you safe.”
“Maa! Maa!”, she suddenly found her voice back – hoarse and breaking intermittently in loud, raspy hiccups – she sobbed uncontrollably. Somebody rushed in and engulfed her in a warm embrace. Broad arms shoved her head into a large, heavy chest which heaved an enormous sigh of hopelessness mixed with pity. The folds of her saree smelled of boiling milk and freshly baked bread. She clucked sympathetically and patted and soothed her saying that she understood what a little girl went through whose mother left her at the mercy of ‘others’ and eloped with a stranger. Dai Ma in her own simple, rustic ways tried to fill in the gap in the life of a mother-less child. But she was not her mother. She couldn’t be.
Now eighteen years later, in an elegantly decorated studio apartment, a scared and screaming Kusum sat on her bed sweating profusely. Why again? She asked herself as her heart palpitated with the fright of the unforeseen and the formidable. She had an important meeting tomorrow and did not want to spoil the show with a hangover from a nightmare. She would have to find out the reason why before every important turn of event in her life her childhood fears stalked her so. Next time when she visited her shrink she would make it a point to discuss it out with her threadbare. Had she not wisely forgotten her past and forgiven her mother for opting out of a dungeon-like existence even if that meant disowning her only child? Though the ugly divorce was quite unnecessary. But for her father it was a prestige issue. And Naani-Ma had taken it as a slight upon the family name.
Kusum could now evaluate her past unemotionally and reason out the mental abrasions which had over a period of time graduated to being shadows of gaping wounds with the initial stab of unbearable pain receding measure by measure in some distant horizon. Yet, somewhere the little girl in her was still haunted by an overbearing emptiness which could never be compensated even by her loving, caring Dai Ma, who had followed her like a faithful dog wherever life’s meandering ways took her till one day a massive coronary attack sucked the last breath out of her.
Kusum felt lonely and forlorn, estranged from her roots, however, sorrowful and fearsome they were. Though Ashish, her fiancé, was quite understanding and stood by her like the Rock of Gibraltar. But Kusum invariably teetered on the brink of a life-long commitment. After her enforced engagement, she had asked for six months from Ashish to make up her mind before tying the knot. She had to be absolutely convinced before taking the final plunge. Ashish had quietly given his consent to her unusual request. Her father was obviously furious at her indecision. It was not just a marriage. It was a fusion of two illustrious, noble families. With such calculated industry he had brought about the alliance!And now his daughter was spoiling it all with her meaningless dwadling.
Kusum braced her shivering body. The agreed six months was going to end soon. She had to finally confirm to Ashish whether it was a yes or a no. But how could she take a decision on such a life-making (or breaking) issue when her sub conscious wreaked havoc on her conscious mind? She touched the cold sheets with shaking hands – the cool softness of the textile a balm to her jarred nerves. She felt slightly better. Extending her arms towards the head board she caught hold of the toy lying next to her pillow. It always lay there – the untethered umbilical chord to a long lost bond that she clung to even against the advice of her shrink. The last toy, a soft pink teddy bear, that her mother had parceled from some place down South and Dai Ma had managed to hand it over to her sneaking past Naani-Mas’s prying eyes and making excuses to her father that she had herself bought it for missy baby from her hard earned savings. Perhaps her father could guess the truth but she wasn’t quite sure of that.
Kusum clutched the toy to her heart and folded her legs up to her chest in a fetal pose and closed her eyes. The fluffy, furry tactile connect made her feel safe, wanted, loved and relieved. Soon she was snoring softly.
When the sun peeped in from the window on day break Kusum was still asleep peacefully smiling to herself, happy and secured in the warm, wooly fold of belongingness and comfort, no more scared by agonizing yesterdays or anxious by unsettling tomorrows. She basked in the presence of the now – the truth of the moment – like an adorable little girl in her innocent, playful world of precious toys and merry dreams.