The Christmas Eve by Lahari Mahalanabish
The bus Tushar had alighted from went on to cross a series of bumps before disappearing into another rugged lane. He had sat in that crammed vehicle for three hours, with a sack of vegetables encroaching on his feet. Many a time the passenger standing next to his seat had toppled over him, pushed by other jostling men.
Tushar looked around, hoping to spot one of the van rickshaws plying between Membagicha and Nimpur. The roads were muddy after a brief spell of rain and he was glad that he wore a pair of rubber soled, leather chappals instead of shoes. A warm sense of satisfaction oozed out of him as his eyes fell on the lush greenery on either side of the road. Few people of his age group could afford a second home and even fewer were lucky enough to own one in the countryside.
Again, it began to pour; this time heavily, accompanied by such strong winds that Tushar’s umbrella tilted and attempted to fly out of his hands, baring him to the rain’s battering. He scanned the rows of peepul, neem, arjun, amla and jujube trees for shelter, but their flexing branches and vigorously shaking leaves promised little to protect him from the downpour. The breeze gained in strength and with a cyclonic force it swept aside a couple of papaya trees, providing a glimpse of a man-made stone structure.
Tushar crossed the street cautiously so as not to trip on its wet surface. He made his way into the clump, avoiding the jutting branches and the twisting creepers that sought to entangle his feet. Two pillars, about seven feet high, stood supporting a patch of roof that was wide enough to shelter two humans at least. He stepped under it and turned his gaze to the carvings on the pillars; his eyes wandered to similar engravings on the ceiling. In many places, the forces of nature had flattened the carvings. Yet he could make out the tip of a petal, the mid-vein dividing a heart shaped leaf and the raised trunk of an elephant. As he looked more closely, he discerned the angle made by the elbow of a dancing maiden. Time had scraped her face and a film of moss provided an additional fold to the cloth wrapped around her spindle-shaped abdomen.
Wiping his hands with a black-bordered handkerchief, Tushar slipped his fingers inside a transparent waterproof folder and patted the documents. The folder was a good one as the papers were as dry as they had been within his steel cupboard. He glanced at his watch repeatedly, wishing he had brought his own car instead of opting for public transport.
Left with no choice, Tushar gazed at the incessant rain, often stamping his feet to ward off mosquitoes. He wondered how old the structure was and whether there were any more ruins hidden among the trees. The bristling grasses that encircled the pillars, were missing from the patch of ground between their feet. From here, a narrow path of brown earth went deep inside the clump. He overcame the itch to follow the track: it would be unwise to get drenched any further at the time of seasonal change, especially with a toddler and an infant back home. Once the downpour reduced to a drizzle, Tushar spotted a van rickshaw approach the main road from a lane on its right. He unfolded his umbrella, stepped out of the shelter of the ruin and elbowed his way through the intruding branches. Nearing the road, he waved his hands frantically and called out to the driver till he took notice of him and pedalled the vehicle to a stop.
The subsequent years saw Tushar and his family spend several weekends in their countryside cottage. It stood next to a bungalow built by his wife’s ancestor Samuel Silkenson. Instead of building a new house they had wished to buy the bungalow, which had already changed hands several times in the last century. But despite their persuasion, its current owner - a writer, famous for his spine-tingling fiction, had refused to part with it. The rumours circulating around Samuel’s mysterious death probably drew the novelist, who had earned the epithet ‘King of Horror’, to the house.
It was the first week of December. The mild sunlight trickled in through the grilled window, drawing scales on the chequered dining table. Grace was shelling peas, picking up bunches of pods from a water-filled bowl. Seven-year-old James bit into a toast splattered with butter. Swarnali, aged ten, sliced off a piece of golden-brown bacon and chewed it with relish. Tushar, who was brewing coffee in the kitchen, reached for the porcelain mugs upturned on a high, glass rack.
“Christmas is on a Friday. So, your father and I are getting an extended weekend. Let’s spend it in Nimpur,” Grace suggested.
“Mom, you know we love spending Christmas with Grandpa and Grandma,” Swarnali whined, looking up from her plate. “How nicely they deck up the Christmas tree!”
“Not Nimpur again,” James grunted through a mouthful of toast and bacon.
“They can stay at my parents’ place while we go to Nimpur,” Grace turned to Tushar, who had just arrived at the table with two mugs of coffee.
“That’s fine with me,” he replied, pulling a chair. Both of them believed in giving their children the freedom of choice in such matters; they also looked forward to luxuriating in each other’s company for three days after an uninterrupted schedule of meeting professional deadlines, steering the household and raising their children.
Tushar and Grace got into their car from the same office on Thursday evening. Tushar had to manoeuvre through a multitude of vehicles that headed towards the packed restaurants, reverberating discotheques and clubs. They curbed their boredom during the innumerable halts at traffic signals by gaping at the lights strung across the shop facades. Dazzling orbs winked from glass walled bars and little bulbs drew glittering perimeters around the colourful hoardings. Clad in Santa Claus coats and caps, youngsters huddled around the festoon draped Christmas trees, their faces patchily lit by the 'stars' twinkling between the needle-like leaves.
Even through the shortest route, the car took two hours to leave the precincts of the city.
"Aren't you missing the Christmas Eve get-together?" Tushar asked his wife, racing down a desolate road that connected a few isolated huts. Their inhabitants seemed to have crept onto their beds already after turning off the kerosene lamps.
Every year, Grace would wrap up her work early on Christmas Eve, pick up her kids and rush to her parents’ house in Swancross Street. Her husband would turn up later, armed with a bouquet of seasonal flowers and a bottle of wine. While the children ran about in the spacious three-bedroom flat, the adults would park themselves in the cosy living room with colour coordinated furniture and curtains, sipping their wine slowly and tapping their feet to the festive music. The dining table would be laden with purple tinted crystal bowls and plates, brought out of an old, mahogany closet. The merry group would gorge on roasted turkey and mashed potatoes with generous helpings of cakes and puddings. It was also the rare occasion when Grace would abandon all her worries about gaining unsightly bulges in her otherwise shapely figure.
“We have spent so many Christmas Eves with my parents, Aunty Martha and Uncle Derek. I adore them, but this time I needed a change,” Grace confessed, raising her hands to twist her long hair into a bun.
“We have been to the cottage so many times as well,” pointed out Tushar, flicking the indicator as they approached a turn. “And it won't be any different on Christmas. I don’t think the Nimpur villagers have even heard of it - at least going by the dilapidated condition of the church built by your ancestors.”
“True, a time comes when life stops throwing surprises at you,” Grace sighed, stroking a tiny teddy hung from a string that swung wildly as the car leapt over a bump.
“What about celebrating the next Christmas in London?” Tushar’s eyes glinted as he proposed the idea.
“That will be awesome! If there isn't another bout of recession, both of us should get our promotions by coming June. That will stop me from feeling guilty about such splurges.”
“You'll get to meet your Uncle Daniel.”
“And Tom and Rebecca,” she squealed in delight.
Grace, born in a struggling Anglo-Indian family thirty-five years after India’s independence, had never been to the country of her great-grandfather. But she carried faint memories of a visit by an uncle from England. From those few reminiscences and several photographs, she had built an entire world around him and his children like a palaeontologist relying on unearthed bones to decipher the habits of a species of dinosaur.
“But one year is too long to wait for a surprise,” Grace remarked, playfully resting her head on her husband's left shoulder.
“You want one now?”
Grace nodded and smiled, her eyes twinkling with anticipation.
“You will get one on the way, a few minutes before reaching our cottage.”
“Really. But a small one...”
“That doesn’t matter.”
Tushar now felt like kicking himself. It could be the pleasure of driving through the uncongested road or the general hilarity of a holiday after three weeks of late-night office work or both that had relaxed his habitual cautiousness. How risky it would be to alight from the car with his wife at such a desolate spot? But Grace was a stubborn lady, and sure enough, when they were only half an hour away from reaching Nimpur, she reminded Tushar to reveal the surprise.
“It’s too late now. I’ll show it on our way back.”
“That won't do, Tushar. We will hit the roads late on Sunday as well. You have promised to take Rakhal’s sister to the hospital for her checkups, remember?”
“We will come here tomorrow. Or on Saturday.”
“If we can’t even spend two whole days in our cottage after such a long time, what’s the point in shelling out thousands of rupees for its maintenance? Besides, don’t you think it will do us good to reserve those couple of days for complete rest?” Grace argued, turning to her husband to catch his expression.
Tushar’s impassive face suddenly softened. “Can’t risk your safety. Love you too much,” he professed, resting his left hand on his wife’s thigh before grabbing the gear handle to negotiate a turn.
“Why do you think I carry a gun?” she retorted. Her gun was as dear to her as the car was to Tushar. Daughter of a policeman, Grace remembered fiddling with a pistol even when she was a kid; on attaining adulthood, she had been determined to possess one, despite the hassles of acquiring a license.
“I... can’t remember the exact place.”
“Don't lie. I’ll never speak to you again,” Grace threatened in mock anger and turned her head away with a sudden jerk that reminded Tushar of their courtship period. Those were the times when he would secretly spend an hour each day reading aloud English poems to improve his diction in the language. The reminiscence ushered in him an urge to impress her once again. He called to mind his training in Muay Thai and how he had practised it rigorously for years. Besides, his wife not only possessed a gun, but also the skills to put it to use in case they were confronted by armed miscreants.
With the decision firmly pegged in his mind, Tushar parked the car opposite to the second right lane after Membagicha Crossing. Locating the clump, he held his wife’s hand and slid himself through the gap between a papaya tree and a honeysuckle shrub. His elbow got scraped against the coarse bark of a babul and she dodged in time to avoid being blinded by a pointed branch. Their fingers unclasped as they navigated through the close-knit undergrowth, dived under the low branches and found themselves squeezed by the increasingly straggling vegetation.
“Look,” Tushar said, pointing at the ruins and watched, with satisfaction, the flash of delight brightening up her eyes.
“You didn’t tell me about them all these years,” Grace complained while admiring the carvings on the pillars. “There may be many more.” Grace brought out her mobile phone from the pocket of her tweed jacket, switched on the torch and focused the light on the trees ahead. The woods were silent except for the incessant drone of insects. Darkness layered the ground under their feet; shadows morphed into varied shapes between the contours of creepers. Grace halted next to a cluster of jujube trees, her eyes following the dots of light flitting between the ovate leaves. Beyond the swarm of fireflies, the uninterrupted darkness swallowed their footprints, sucked in the little trickle of their torchlight and almost crushed every trace of their presence under its overpowering sweep. A pack of jackals began to bark, their whistling cries carried across the woods through the covert paths beneath the arching stems of the undergrowth. Between the towering trunks of densely growing trees, threads of sky descended like strings tied to baits lowered into the den of beasts.
“Thank God, the phone has at least one utility even when the network does not work. Since there’s a path, there must be something...” Grace said.
“Listen darling, we can’t leave our car parked on an empty road for such a long time. The keys are secure in my pocket but car thieves find enterprising ways to pinch,” Tushar cautioned.
“You don’t think it’s a happy hunting ground for enterprising thieves! How many people park their cars in the middle of nowhere?” Grace turned to him, her smooth unwrinkled face thrust forward and her hands deep within her pockets.
“We can’t leave things to chance,” Tushar argued, his face puckering into a scowl as his feet sank in a patch of mud.
“Well, then please be in your car while I explore this place.” Grace’s firm tone meant that she was determined to resist his cajoling.
“Are you mad? I’ll leave you inside this forest alone!”
Without exchanging another word, Grace trotted along the path and Tushar reluctantly followed her deeper into the woods. So vast appeared the area now that Tushar realized he had been right in calling it a ‘forest’ rather than a mere ‘clump of trees’. With a shudder, he came to an abrupt halt on glimpsing something long and narrow a few inches away from his toes. He stepped across it after ascertaining it was a winding branch and not a snake as he had feared, although a sense of dread continued to tingle his calf muscles. Glared at by a pair of blazing yellow eyes, he gave a start; Grace too had stopped in her tracks. The wild cat bared its fangs to let out a raspy cry and leapt onto a knotted branch.
“There it is.” Grace pointed at a dilapidated pillar overlooking a lemon tree.
“There’s another one,” said Tushar. A pair of gnarled trunks with crooked, bare branches flanked the column he had spotted. There were many more pillars, screened from each other by dense, prickly bushes and separated by the moss coated fragments chipped off from them by the vagaries of nature. They were reduced to different sizes, depending upon their degrees of vulnerability before the wind, rain and sun. Climbers with thick stems and spiny leaves wreathed around them and lengthening roots from the neighbouring trees inched towards their precarious bases. There was not a scrap of roof on them unlike the first couple of pillars they had encountered.
“That must have been some kind of a hall.” Tushar remarked since these pillars were arranged across a huge rectangular space.
Staring upwards, Grace nudged her husband.
Tushar looked up to see a ball of fire shoot into the sky and burst into a hundred golden streaks.
“It’s like the rockets we release during Diwali!” he exclaimed, an amazed expression animating his face.
A trail of light snaked its way through the sky with a loud hiss followed by a white blaze that went zigzagging, sputtering out rings of violet flames. Soon the forest sky erupted with many more fireworks but the couple’s joy was short lived. An unending bout of cough seized Grace, who was allergic to the smell of crackers. In a matter of minutes, the escalating acridity defeated the smell that pervades the air during the festival of lights. Her pupils slid upwards, her head spun, and she slumped against a crumbling, termite ridden pillar. Before Tushar could hold her in his arms, she slipped further, grazed by the uneven surface of the ruin and whipped by the hair from her loosening bun. Her head thrashed against a hard tree-stump as she fell with her eyes closing shut, and then she rolled over a carpet of crackling, dried leaves. Gripped by a surge of panic, Tushar shook her vigorously, calling out her name again and again; she lied spread-eagled, still as a corpse though he could feel her heartbeat, when he pressed his sweaty palm a little below the round collars of her buttoned-up blouse. No allergic reactions before had affected his wife to this extent. With trembling fingers, he clutched the loose strands of her hair and threw them to one side of her face; he inspected, with an urgency he had never sensed before, her head and neck for signs of injury, but luckily there were none.
Seeped into Tushar a little bit of hope as he noticed Grace cross her left foot with her right. Then she brought her arms down to her sides. But before he could conclude that the scare was over and that she was back to normal again, scarlet-red eruptions burst out on every patch of her exposed skin. They inundated her stock-still face, ridged her slender neck and swelled her recently manicured fingers. Her dry lips parted, but only to express a feeble-voiced defiance against the malaise invading her diligently maintained body. While lying at the same spot she floundered like a trapped fish, the devilish pain doggedly challenging her endurance. Determined not to waste another minute, he proceeded to lift her and carry her upon his broad shoulders. There was a bottle of drinking water in the car and also a small, white container full of anti-allergic medicines.
To Tushar’s utter astonishment and despair, he failed to raise his wife by as much as an inch. How did she suddenly become so heavy? He gasped for breath and realized that he was perspiring heavily on a December night.
“My mistress will have a cure for her,” a female voice whispered in his ear, causing him to jump out of his woollens. He swerved to find a young girl, no more than fourteen, observing him with limpid eyes. Her assuring smile, like a lamp, burnt away his fears in an instant and he recoiled a bit with shame for being so visibly startled by her.
“Who are you, dear?” Tushar spoke in the manner he often adopted to speak to his children’s friends.
“I am Kamini, the princess’s maid,” she replied.
“Which princess?” he asked, gaping at her in further astonishment.
“Princess Kumudini of Pakshipur.”
“But I haven’t heard of any place called Pakshipur.” His eyes crinkled as he tried to recall the names of all the nearby towns and sub-districts.
The teenager laughed, displaying her pearly white teeth. “This forest and the adjoining villages were all part of the kingdom of Pakshipur. The ruins you see are the remnants of splendid palaces. My mistress is the daughter of the last king.”
“What are these fireworks for?” Tushar inquired, as another shower of light sprayed down in huge arcs behind a distant eucalyptus.
“It's the first week in the month of Nauri. The people of Pakshipur celebrated it with a lot of grandeur. They worshipped Goddess Bhulakshmi, the reigning deity, with all the flowers that grew in the gardens. Even though my mistress’s noble ancestors had left this world, she keeps alive the tradition of lighting fireworks and taking a dip in the pool before midnight,” Kamini explained.
Grace let out another groan, threshed towards a flowerless shrub and fell silent, the gap between her lips altering to release the surfacing cries that got aborted before they could be strengthened with sound.
“But where does she stay?”
“Oh, the kingdom ceased to exist before she could inherit it, but there’s still a lot of wealth in her name. She has many houses, and she inhabits them as and when she pleases.”
“You are saying she will know a cure for my wife’s condition?” He scrutinized her face, wondering whether he could rely on her words, and her smooth, calm visage conveyed only a picture of compassion and innocence.
“Of course.” The path forked and Kamini pointed to the left. “If you walk straight for about half-an-hour in this direction, you will find a clearing marked by two mango trees. Their trunks are creased with age and one of them has a hole. The princess’s great-great-grandparents had planted the trees. She is there, preparing herself for the Goddess’s worship.”
“But I’m not able to lift my wife....”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll look after her while you meet the princess. You are lucky in fact. She stopped interacting with men after her husband’s demise. She makes an exception to her rule only during the first night of the festival which is tonight.”
Tushar hesitated, but he had no options. He needed the princess’s help to cure his wife of the painful symptoms, at least to make her fit enough to accompany him to their car. Curiosity chipped in: he wanted to see the woman, who had stepped into the forest at night, accompanied by a teenage maid, to preserve the tradition of her defunct kingdom.
A sudden question cropped up in Tushar’s mind. “Why are you here while your mistress is all alone deep inside the forest?”
“She has sent me to look for injured animals. Whenever I find a wounded bird or a rabbit, I take it to her. She has learnt the healing powers of a thousand herbs from her father’s late guru and she never misses a chance to make use of her knowledge for the benefit of others.” Kamini paused to watch the flicker of hope in Tushar’s eyes spread to his face, shrinking the creases that had grown prominent in the last few minutes following the allergy attack on Grace. Then she continued, “But I must say, in this forest, it’s the first time I am coming across a human in need of her help. We rarely see anyone in these woods and that too at such a late hour.”
Tushar sighed, wondering whether Kamini had ever met anyone as obstinate as Grace. He stuck to the path, carefully choosing his steps to avoid trampling on the creepers lest there were snakes intertwined with them. The fireworks stopped and his mobile phone ran out of charge, hurling him into the darkness of the moonless night. His cell phone’s behaviour bewildered him as he had taken care to charge it while driving. Tushar trudged along, beating the ground with a picked-up branch to ward off poisonous creatures, his fear of the forest overpowered by his anxiety about his wife’s condition. Ardently hoping that the princess would know how to heal his wife, he wanted to believe the girl, though whatever she said sounded incredulous to some extent. The strike of the branch added a strange beat to the quiet night. In a short while, a woman’s melodious vocals came flowing to accompany his unintentional, random percussion. He took a step back, caught unawares by the latest surprise, though he had to admit that it was an exceptionally pleasant one. He stared as far ahead as his sight could carry him and then drew back his gaze to a thorny thicket obtruding his path. Skirting it with quick steps, he resumed his gait, but after a while, he paused from time to time to turn here and there and pry through the leaves for a glimpse of the singer.
Soon Tushar realized the sonorous voice was wafting exactly from the direction of his destination: it impishly tickled his senses, implored him to pick up speed, to leap onto the clearing and blend into the source of the magical song. Pulping tender flowers with the tread of his feet, he kicked through the rows of tall slender grasses, often finding himself hopping over fallen, many-branched offshoots. He frisked about the knobby tree trunks lying in his way and skidded across the wet patches of earth, somehow preventing a nosedive into the treacherous soil. The distance separating him and the singer seemed to have burnt out like the fuse of a firecracker by the flame dancing within him. He neared the tree with the hollow at a pace that far surpassed his own expectations.
Tushar’s heart sank as he saw no one. He scratched his clean-shaven chin, shifted his now weary feet, turned about and attempted to pierce the darkness with his eyes, which still shone, in anticipation, like polished metal. An entire minute passed before a splash of water scattered away his doubts as if they were teensy seashells on a sandy shore: he realized, with a sigh of relief, that he would not return disappointed. A female figure waded out of a pool so small it could be mistaken for a bathtub. Tushar’s heart stopped beating as she approached him, slowly, one step at a time, her jewellery tinkling from different parts of her wet body. He blinked in disbelief when she stood before him, a drenched sari loosely coiled around her. A diamond ring sparkled on her long, sharp nose and a pair peeped like enchanted lotuses from her dark, wavy tresses. Tushar regretted that he had never ventured into these forests before and silently lamented he had brought along his wife when he did finally come. What if Grace was now in the city, running around the Christmas tree with their kids, or in the cottage, tucked under the blanket with an engaging book? Alas, even the unparalleled beauty of the woman, swathing him in her layers of unrevealed surprises, failed to obliterate the marring stains of reality.
“My wife is in great pain. Please help,” Tushar spoke at last, trying hard to cling on to the role of a dutiful husband.
“Of course, I will. But I left my bath abruptly on hearing your footsteps. It is inauspicious not to rinse oneself before the start of the festival. Please bring my soap from that vault in the tree bark and join me in my bath,” she requested. Tushar’s eyes fell on the dainty pimple above her bow-shaped upper lip as the words cascaded out of her delicate mouth.
Tushar stood transfixed, unable to utter a single word. He could no longer hear the drone of insects, nor whiff the fuming ashes of burnt fireworks, nor discern the tapering leaves dangling from a branch that almost brushed his cheeks. She siphoned his gaze into her large, piscine eyes with her steady, contemplative stare.
“I’ll perish in a fever if I have to remain wet so long. But I promise to help you once I have bathed and dried myself. I am hungry and thirsty but even those needs can wait.”
Unable to bear the thought of her illness and death, Tushar skipped across the grass to reach the scarred tree trunks. Without thinking twice, he thrust his right hand into the hollow. When he glanced at his open palm, there was a round soap, dotted with bubbles, pervading the forest with the fragrance of sandalwood.
“Now follow me to the pool,” beckoned the woman, displaying her long fingers, tipped by painted nails.
There was a loud scream and a frenzied rush among the leaves as Grace appeared out of the dense vegetation, closely chased by Kamini, and threw herself at Tushar. Without pausing for breath, she directed the light from her mobile phone's torch towards the pool. The liquid brimming in it was not water but dark, viscous blood.
It was Tushar’s turn to collapse on the forest floor, striking against a mound of earth near the princess’s feet and crushing a tangle of frilly herbs. Grace aimed her pistol at the woman’s forehead and pressed the trigger.