It was a night when the masculine and the feminine forces of this world joined together to create a period of endless possibility. They say that, on these nights, Lord Shiva performs his cosmic dance- the Shiva Thandavam- a wild, mystical series of movements that enthralled beings of both the heavens and the earth. A night of abandon; a night of thrill.
I stepped in between the thin curtain that separated the world of the dead and the living and walked the earth again. It was a fitting night for the job to be done.
Pausing in front of the atrocity they called a 'building', I grimaced. My mind drifted back to the days of my youth- when even the lowliest peasant had a beautiful house. Strong mud walls, cooled with cow dung; decorated porches with rice flour kolams (decorative designs on front porches) - a ' building' was a structure where we made even a tiny being- the ant- feel welcome as it gorged on the flour.
This building before me was the stuff of nightmares - very tall, very dark, with gaudy pictures of men and women on display in its front porches- a soulless, flimsy structure.
After admiring the transparent doors, I floated serenely to my destination; vaguely taking in the surroundings around me. Bright yellow lights burned my eyes and there seemed to be more people here than in the entire village where I had once lived.
As I slipped into a huge, dark hall, I saw them. A young man and a woman. The young woman's eyes were glued to a big moving picture showing a girl wearing a variety of beautiful jewellery.
The girl in the picture wore a dress just like I used to wear when I was young. A beautiful red skirt, red blouse and an upper garment for modesty. Two or three necklaces, several rings, a pair of big, fat jhumki earrings, a headpiece, several bangles, thick anklets and a very pretty waistband completed her look. Even I was impressed. She looked like a princess.
As I looked at this moving picture, a perfect plan to complete my mission on earth popped into my mind.
The moving picture ended and the screen went dark. My darling descendant and her husband started chatting casually; as one by one, the people left the room. There were very few people left in the room now. It was the perfect time to put my plan into action.
I went near them and looked at her. This descendent of mine- she had my eyes. That alone for me, was a connection I will cherish. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. My soul is part of her, in a way.
I parted the air around them with my hands and by the next moment, they had drifted off into a magical sleep.
I'm sure this is a dream. Why, look at all these people around me! Dressed like people from an old historical play. I heard the sound of jingling anklets and smelt wafts of jasmine flower fragrance in the air. I pinched myself and felt a sharp pain.
To top it all, I am dressed like them. More specifically, like the actress I had just seen in the movie before intermission started. All decked up in heavy jewellery.
And the strangest part is this: Aaron is right here with me, wearing an expensive looking veshti and an upper shawl only. He's looking decidedly uncomfortable and it sounded like he was saying the rhyming words for 'luck' and 'hit' alternately in some kind of hysterical fashion.
I’m beginning to doubt that this is a dream.
People around us were staring pointedly. Some even bowed. I think they assumed that we were some kind of big shots. Nobility. Probably they even thought that we were royalty, I realized. After all, the actress whose costume I seemed to have stolen was playing a princess.
I suddenly realized that among the few people passing us by, one man had stood staring at us for a long time. Aaron seemed to have realized that too. He then spoke in Tamil.
"Enna aachu?" ( What happened?)
The man frowned for a while; then his brow cleared. He then said:
"You, my lord, speak like a commoner. Is this a new sport?"
Aaron blinked. Is this some kind of a movie set? Or have we jumped into the past, all of a sudden? I desperately hoped that this was a dream and I would wake up from it.
"Speak in archaic Tamil", I hissed to Aaron. My husband cleared his throat.
"Aen engalai utru paarthu kondu irukindreergal?"
(Why are you looking so keenly at us?)
I smiled. Aaron didn't disappoint.
The man bowed. He asked, "May I ask whether you are a prince from a neighbouring kingdom?"
"No", said Aaron quickly. "Mm-"
"We are visiting nobility from a very far off kingdom," I cut in, trying my best to sound polished and regal. The man bowed at me as soon as I spoke.
"My lady", he murmured, acknowledging me.
"The people of this village are in the middle of a great dilemma. I do not wish to bother you, but we would be greatly blessed if you could intervene and solve this puzzle for us. "
Aaron and I looked at each other. We hadn't expected this.
"Why do you think we can solve your problem?", I asked.
"You look like the Gods themselves, " the man said quietly. "Think of it as a blessing and bestow it on us."
Oh my goodness. Maybe this was a dream or something more sinister- but I had the sinking feeling that the only way to get out of this was to go through it. As Aaron looked at me, I gave a subtle nod.
"Of course. Please do tell us what the problem is", he said to the man.
The man cleared his throat and looked at us sorrowfully.
"Our village is guarded by a mother deity whom we all honour and worship. She wears a piece of very special and auspicious jewellery. It’s a gold pendant, shaped like a mango, with a ruby set in the middle. The problem is-", he paused, wiping his eyes.
My heart sank. I guessed where this was leading toward. Was that pendant stolen? Lost? Is he expecting us to find it?
"-the problem is that someone has stolen from our dear mother. This beautiful mango pendant is gone. Days and months have gone by, and we cannot catch the culprit or find the pendant. It has engulfed us in endless misery and guilt, and as a result, we are suffering badly. Livestock have died in droves. There has been a epidemic of a fatal disease. The Goddess is angry. "
Oh, these people and their endless superstitions. But then, right then , I could not afford to air my modern beliefs.
I had to find that accursed pendant.
As I was mulling over all this, I suddenly noticed that Aaron was acting strangely. He kept standing in front and me and barring me from the view of the man before us. I felt an acute flash of irritation. Has enacting the role of a man from the past brought out flashes of latent sexism? What on earth is he doing?
"We'll find it for you," Aaron said quickly and bowed. The man in front of us bowed. He and my husband looked at each other. The man didn't move. Obviously he was waiting for us. Probably he wanted us to go with him.
Aaron suddenly started acting like a total maniac.
"Cynthia- my darling- are you all right? Oh no...sir, my wife is fainting...can you direct us to a room...thank you", Aaron said quickly, as the man nodded vigorously- looking at me. He then motioned for Aaron to follow him. I saw him walking swiftly towards a nearby house. I gaped at his retreating back, thinking that, if this was a dream, it sure was one of the most fantastical ones. Aaron enclosed his arms tightly around my waist, and marched me towards the house.
"Aaron, what on earth-"
"Shh, shhh...Shut up, Cynthia! Oh God, oh God, for God's sake- look at your ottiyaanam...look at your ottiyaanam!" (waistband)
I looked down and suddenly my mind went blank. Impossible. It was highly probably that I would have actually fainted right then.
Plump in the middle of the waist band, and holding my rich dress together, was the red mango pendant, looking exactly as the man had described it.
I looked up at Aaron. He encircled him arms around my waist again, hiding the shiny pendant. I dragged my feet alongside him, trying my best to look as if I was sick. Truth to be told, given the situation, 'twas not hard.
We limped to the handsome house the man was taking us to and bowed our heads as we went inside the short door. It was cool inside, and our acquaintance was standing there saying something to a young woman, who seemed to be his daughter . She was nodding her head and smiling. She glided towards me and said,
"Come, my lady, I will lead you into a room to rest."
She looked slightly familiar. Have I seen her before? I wondered.
"I'll go with her too," Aaron said quickly, still holding on to my waist. I noticed him staring at her a little.
The girl nodded and smiled gently. She motioned towards another door. We went inside and closed it; I immediately yanked off the ottiyaanam. Aaron looked at it as if he wanted to murder it.
"What do we do?", I asked hurriedly.
"Bury it...give it to me...", Aarom snatched the piece of jewellery and hid in the folds of his veshti. He then sauntered out back to our hosts. I could hear him talking pleasantly to them in pure, polished Tamil, consoling them about my imaginary fainting illness.
Then after exchanging pleasantries, he said:
"I'm sorry to be intrusive, but is there a place to relieve myself?" Atta boy. Surely, these people attended nature's call out in the open. I heard some murmuring and I supposed they had guided him into a private spot out in the open.
I waited. Those were some of the most nerve wracking moments of my life.
After sometime, Aaron opened the door and peeked in. " It's done", he said. "Come, let's go." He hesitated and looked at me.
"That girl looks a lot like you, you know."
"Yes...didn't you see the resemblance? Something around the eyes..."
"Stop staring at strange girls and think of a way out of this," I snapped. This was getting too much for my poor brain to handle.
"Ok, ok, come, let's go."
I ventured out with him and tried to put on a convincing performance of civility to our hosts. The sharp eyes of the girl's father darted back and forth, taking in everything. I suddenly wondered how he had missed the big , shiny, red stone hanging down from my waist.
He now bowed low towards me. "Is my lady feeling better?"
"Much better, thank you very much," I said politely.
"Would you be willing to find our mango pendant now?"
I looked at Aaron. He cleared his throat. "The Gods did give me the power of visions. Sometimes...they work. Let me... meditate awhile "
The man's face broke into a big smile. "Sir, you must be the incarnation of Lord Shiva himself!"
In spite of the unnerving situation, I smiled inwardly thinking of how Aaron, with his very Christian name, could ever be an incarnation of Lord Shiva.
"We never know," I quipped solemnly. Aaron kicked my leg.
"And you are Goddess Parvati herself", said the young women, looking at me. "Please bless us."
Wait a minute...
I looked more closely at her. Maybe Aaron was right. Maybe she looked a little bit like me. Coincidence, I thought firmly, and composed myself.
"May you ever be prosperous and...find a good husband," I said, thinking furiously. Aaron pointedly looked away from me. I could tell he was struggling to hold back his mirth.
As they looked at us, Aaron closed his eyes for awhile. Exactly two awkward minutes later, he opened them and said with a flourish:
"I know where the ruby pendant is."
Aaron led us through a back door and across a small garden. A young man was standing in a corner, brushing a beautiful brown horse. He stared at us, as we passed by. As we walked across the garden, and into a small clump of thick trees, I saw the girl lagging behind.
Call it a woman's instinct. I turned my head slightly, and just as I had suspected, I saw her sneaking glances at the boy. He was smiling at her. Ah ha.
As I turned back to the front , grinning slightly- suddenly, the world started spinning round and round. I smelt incense and something else...was it popcorn? As the world dissolved into blackness, I glimpsed Aaron turning around in front of me, a fearful look on his face, trying to get hold of my hands.
I woke up and it was darkness all around. We were back in the movie theatre and people were starting to file back in, after intermission. Bringing popcorn back with them.
I looked at Aaron beside me.
"Cynthia- did you doze off as well... how....see, I had the most fantastical dream-"
I stared at him.
"Mango pendant?", I asked.
He stared back at me, astonished.
The movie resumed soon after that, and as it progressed, Aaron and I became more and more agitated. In the movie, a princess and a peasant fall secretly in love with each other. But it seemed to be ill fated due to their differences in wealth and class. The princess' marriage was fixed and just as she was about to get married, a knight in shining armour (the peasant hero) appears and whisks her away.
The reason he was able to marry her was because: He had found a ruby mango pendant in the ground, while ploughing the land, which brought him riches and luck.
Grim silence accompanied us in our drive back home. Then-
I suddenly had the feeling as if I had seen the pendant somewhere else, as well.
As soon as I reached home, based on my hunch, I hauled out all our old photo albums and went through it. Several sleepless hours later, I came across a photo.
It was my grandmother's wedding photo. And she was wearing a necklace with a similar mango pendant. Since it was a black and white photo , I wasn't sure about the colour.
Dizzy, tired, and feeling very confused, I went to sleep.
That evening, Aaron listened to my plans quietly, after seeing the photo. He then said very briefly-
"Cici..if you find it, for God's sake, don't bring it here. I don't think I can look at it ever again. "
I telephoned my grandmother. She then started insisting that she had given the mango pendant to me, of all people! Deciding that she had gotten slightly confused after talking to me, her beloved grandchild, I called my mother. My mom had the answer.
"That red mango? Course, it's with my akka (elder sister). Hey, why do you ask? You know what? There's some story or the other attached to it.."
"I forgot, dearie. Why don't you ask your aunt?"
My aunt then told me that she had given it to her daughter, my eldest cousin sister. This search was taking me through quite a matriarchal line, I thought wryly.
My cousin was quite chatty about it. She brought it out and showed it to me through a video call.
"Cici- there's quite a wonderful story regarding this, just listen no...see, our great great great something grandmother was a rich girl who married a poor boy. It made quite a sensational news at that time, it seems. Apparently, she challenged him to steal a piece of jewellery from the village deity. The young guy, upright person that he was, refused to do it. She had gotten very angry, and agreed to marry someone else. Then, during that period, someone else actually stole the jewel. As the wedding preparations were going on, our guy appeared to her holding the mango pendant in his hands. He told her that he had found it buried, beneath the ground, and now, would she be willing to marry him? He was adamant that he was not the thief. She was confused, but decided to marry him anyway. They eloped. "
"Hey, that's not how it was, right? This movie that has just come out...there the ruby brought him wealth...and that's why he married her.."
"Ya, and the movie also says she's a princess. She was not, Cici. By the way...you're right, this is absolutely our family's story right? How did that director get hold of it? There must be some copyright issues...I wonder if we can sue him..." My cousin continued to chatter, but I was not listening.
My mind went back to the strange night at the movie theatre. I thought of the young woman whom Aaron said looked like me. The young man brushing a horse. The ottiyaanam which magically appeared around my waist, only after the man had mentioned it and we had decided to find it.
I wondered what mysterious forces were acting in this world to play out the past again, in some way or the other, even in our present world.
Were they the same forces that led my great great great something grandfather to find that pendant?
But, we had been that force, I told myself, feeling confused. Aaron and I. We had hidden that pendant, hadn’t we?
“Seems like you had fun on earth the other night,” a voice said, looking down at the scene. Sithara turned towards the speaker and grinned.
“So, you were not the thief after all”, she said to him.
“No, but it seems like you are the one."
“We’ll never know,” said Sithara, looking down at her descendant and smiling.