Monday, December 27, 2004

and further....

As Kaya got up to leave, he said, “But, there is one thing you have to be very careful about”
“That you do not interact with any more strangers”, the stress on the anymore was deliberate and there was no doubt that he referred to Kajri.
“Any particular reason for that advice?”, her tone was icy.
“No logical reason. Just caution. Caution arising from the fact that the death of all your family members was a potential murder”
To this Kaya had no answer. Even she had admitted the possibility of this being true. And even though Kajri was from her village, she knew nothing about her or her parents.
“I’ll be careful”
“And what do you plan to do about her?”
“Well, she wants to go to Benaras to learn music from Charulata Bhandari. I want to help her reach there.”
“Very well, I shall make the arrangements for her journey, and get in touch with Mrs Bhandari. You stay in the hotel. Don’t go about trying to make arrangements for her”, his tone was reprimanding.
“Am I supposed to be under house arrest?”
“Its for your own safety Kaya, that you remain low profile. In addition to your unseen enemy, there is also the wrath of the villages to consider”
“The wrath of the villagers?”
“Yes, they are bound to react when they learn that you will sell this place”
And it suddenly hit her. Something that she had not considered. If she were to sell the village, and a spa was to be built on the land, the villagers would be forced to move. They would have to leave their homes. The situation could turn messy. She now understood Kailash Pradhan’s intention in moving her out of Veena in such hurry, as well as his advice for a low profile. The man was only trying to shield her. It was at this moment that Kaya decided to place her complete trust in Kailash Pradhan, and do exactly as he said. But try as she might, she could not suppress the sensation in her stomach, which rose to a crescendo at this moment. Her head told her one thing, her instinct, the exact opposite.

Kaya reached her floor in a state of absolute confusion. As she approached her room, she heard voices inside. The manager of the hotel was present, along with another staff member. They were apparently talking to Kajri, who seemed hysterical. The party fell silent as Kaya entered. Kajri ran to her and declared the manager was trying to throw her out of the hotel. Kaya turned to the manager who explained that Kailash Pradhan had arranged for a separate room for Kajri. They were merely escorting her to her room. It was after ten whole minutes of coaxing that Kaya managed to convince Kajri to move to a separate room.
There was a nip in the October air, which turned into a chill as the evening came. Kaya looked out of her window and saw the streets shining with all the diyas and the sounds of prayers seemed to be emanating from every nook and corner of the holy city. The realization of her being all alone in the world hit her harder than ever, and she felt stifled. Suddenly, the room felt too small to hold her and her emotions. Kaya walked out of the room, and decided to go for a stroll in the garden. As soon as she stepped into the garden, the chilly air struck her, and she hugged herself. Living in Mumbai, she hadn’t needed any warm clothes. She only had a light travel jacket and a shawl that she had been wearing over her jeans since yesterday. During her walk, her thoughts ran to Kajri and she realized that Kajri had no warm clothes either. She was still wearing the light Salwar Kameez that Kaya had seen her in earlier that day. If the evening continued to grow colder, Kaya was sure she would fall ill. She abandoned her walk, went up to Kajri’s room and announced that they would go shopping. They had no warm clothes, and Kajri would need some decent everyday clothes as well if she were to go meet Charulata Bhandari. Kaya went to her room, collected her handbag, and they left for the market.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Kaya's story moves further..

The remainder of their journey was covered in silence, and Kaya reflected upon the happenings of the day, especially the incidents with Kajri. She now had an idea what had been going on around the lake when she had interrupted them. She could also perhaps understand the unwillingness of the villagers to let her in on a sensitive manner such as this, but what she could simply not comprehend was Kajri’s standing in the middle of the road. What was that girl doing, so far away from the village, in the middle of a deserted mountain road? Only one possibility came to Kaya’s mind, one that chilled her, one that she didn’t want to believe, and one that she hoped was not true.
Soon, they reached Kaya’s hotel, and when the car came to a halt, Kajri looked unsure of what to do. As Kaya began to alight, she noticed Kajri clutch a piece of paper that had been lying unnoticed on the seat of the car.
“What is that? “, inquired Kaya.
“This, nothing “, was Kajri’s timid reply. Her eyes were downcast and she put up little resistance when Kaya tried to take the paper from her hand. The paper was crumpled; the writing was smudged, but legible. As she read it, Kaya realized it was a letter – a letter written by her aunt to someone called Charulata. The name sounded familiar to Kaya, but she could not place it immediately. The letter was written in a very impersonal manner, and contained a recommendation. Kaya now remembered her aunt’s friend Charulata Bhandari who lived in Benaras. She was an accomplished singer, and discovering new talent was her passion. Kaya’s aunt had included in her letter, a generous praise of Kajri’s raw talent, and hoped that she would train under herself someday. Kaya handed the letter back to Kajri and persuaded her to join her in her room.

As the two of them made their way to the hotel reception, Kaya was more than ever aware of her familiar sensation. She looked around the lobby and was surprised to find Kailash Pradhan waiting for her in the lobby. He covered the distance between them with rapid steps and asked her what kept her so long. He had been in the lobby, waiting for her arrival for almost 30 minutes. This information surprised Kaya. Kailash Pradhan had always displayed the impatience of a busy man. He had always carried himself with the air of a successful and important man. This was supported by the fact that he had in one evening lined up a prospective buyer for the village. Why he should be waiting in a hotel lobby for Kaya’s arrival was lost out to her. Kaya said that she had not been aware of any particular urgency to get to the hotel, and had taken her time leaving Veena. This reply seemed to irritate the man, and he began to usher her towards the elevator. Kaya turned and called out to Kajri, who had been standing a few feet away while the exchange between her and her lawyer took place.

Kailash Pradhan immediately looked at the slightly disheveled girl and inquired who she was. On being told so, his irritation increased, and Kaya even detected a hint of anger on his face. He demanded to know her entire story once they reached upto Kaya’s room. That had been Kaya’s intention since reading the letter, but she did not like Kailash Pradhan’s highhanded manner.

There was an uncomfortable silence in the elevator that took them to Kaya’s fourth floor room, and it prevailed even after they had entered and settled down. Kajri’s story came out in a steady stream of words, Kailash Pradhan grim all the while.
“How did you meet Kaya?”, he asked when she had finished.
“She came near the pond when everyone was…”
“No, how did you meet her afterwards?”
“I hid in a truck, and got down when the driver stopped. I hid behind some bushes till they were gone, and then waited on the road for a vehicle to come by.”
“And if none had? That is not a well-traveled road. What would you have done alone on that mountain road?”
“I… I didn’t think of that…”
“You didn’t?”, the scowl on his face deepened, and with that, Kaya’s dislike for him. It was clear that the man did not believe her story. What he wanted to imply though, was lost out to Kaya. He would have gone on in his ridicule, had Kaya not declared time for lunch. She asked Kailash Pradhan to brief her about the meeting with his friend, and how they should go about will the deal. Her trick worked, over lunch, all they discussed was business. The lawyer was still vary of Kajri, and did not reveal any names or the amount of money involved.
After lunch, he asked for a private conversation with Kaya, and outlined the specifics of the deal. Apparently, the procedure would take three days, and Kaya would be required only at the time of the actual signing of papers.
As Kaya got up to leave, he said, “But, there is one thing you have to be very careful about”

Saturday, December 04, 2004

The story continues....

“ What would happen to the trust if I were to die now?”
“Your living relatives would become the direct benefactors “
“ But I have no living relatives!”
He smiled, “The Kumars”, he said and left the room. Kaya sat there; numb from all the information she had just received. Her family member’s deaths, the Kumars being in Veena, the villagers’ fear of being cursed, the large family fortune, and the selling off of her home was too much to handle at one go. She sat in the office till it was very dark outside, and the sounds of the night became prominent. She reached her aunt’s cottage and settled on the sofa. She had taken a circuitous route to avoid meeting anyone, and had succeeded. She had especially wanted to avoid the Kumars. Such hypocrisy! They were barely acquainted, yet in the afternoon Nalini had made such a spectacle of herself. There hadn’t been the barest glimpse of grief in her eyes. She was clearly putting on an act. For whose benefit? Kailash Pradhan? Could they know that they would be the direct benefactors of the trust, if anything happened to her? With these and a hundred other thoughts spinning in her head, she fell asleep on the Sofa.

Kaya woke up to the sound of the phone ringing. It was early morning and her head felt heavy. On the line was Kailash Pradhan, with the name and address of her hotel room. He had sent a car for her, and she was to leave right away. Kaya moved out of the cottage, and started toward Leela’s to collect her bag. She was glad for the early morning fresh air, which helped clear her brain. Veena looked so beautiful in the early morning, when the sunlight caressed the mountaintops, reflected off the shimmering pond, and cast long shadows about the trees. She looked around ruefully, a hundred happy memories of her childhood flooding to her mind. She saw the smiling faces of her parents, aunt and uncle, heard the morning ragas, that filled the air at sunrise, the early morning Aradhana was a daily ritual at Veena. Her reverie was broken by a muted scream of anguish. She looked around to discover a group of people at the other side of the pond. Kaya could hear angry, animated voices speak as she approached the group. But they fell silent as they spotted her.

A young girl was standing at the centre of the group, apparently being reprimanded by the others. Though no one said anything anymore, the tension in the air was electric.
“What is going on here?”, she demanded to know.
“Kaya beti, this is a matter of the village folk. We will handle it ourselves. God knows, you have enough problems of your own to take care of”, the speaker was an elderly man, whom Kaya recognized as the supposed chieftain of the village. She was taken aback at his words, for had her aunt asked the same question, it would have never met such a reply. She nodded at the old man and turned away.

Another tie to Veena had been severed. The people of the village did not consider her as one of their own. This should lessen the pain of leaving forever. But would it? Kaya mentioned the incident to Leela, and was again met with silence. She silently went about serving breakfast to Kaya, and then continued with her chores. Kaya’s mind went back o the happenings of the day before, and she realized with a jolt that today was Diwali. For the past seven years, she had never been home for Diwali, and each time had wondered what it would be like. She had wanted to be home for the last seven years, but something or the other had kept her from coming. This year too, she had been denied leave. But now that she was in Veena, she wished for things to be back to before.

Silently, she picked her bag and told Leela of her plan. Leela surprised her by saying that the Kumars had moved out too. Good riddance, thought Kaya, and walked to the school building where the car would arrive. As she waited up for her transportation, she realized that the sinking sensation had never left her. It was pushed to the far recesses of her conscious self, but it was always there. And that puzzled and scared her at the same time. When her pick up arrived, Kaya was more than ready to leave. With a last wistful glance at the place she called home, she sat down in the car.

Soon, the vehicle was snaking down the winding mountain road, and Kaya was apprehensive of what was to come. She wondered if her life would ever been the same again. Though she was not particularly close to Kaya, her aunt’s death had left a void that she already began to feel.
“Now I have no family, and soon I will have no place I can call home”, she tried to push this thought out of her mind, but it kept coming back to trouble her.
Suddenly the car lurched forward, and Kaya’s head banged against the dashboard. She looked up to see why the driver braked so hard, and she saw the girl standing in the middle of the road. The girl wore a forlorn look on her face, and both the girl and her expression seemed familiar to Kaya. It was a while before she recognized her as the same girl who had been the centre of attention of the group at Veena.
“What is she doing here standing in the middle of the road, so far away from home?”
The car’s driver had moved out and was screaming at her for being so careless. The girl was close to tears and seeing the expression on her face, Kaya’s heart melted. She stepped out of the car and motioned for the driver to be quiet. She then beckoned the girl and sat her down in the car.
“You are from Veena, right?”
The girl nodded.
“And you were standing near the pond in the morning?”
She nodded again.
“You ran away from there?”
A slight nod followed.
“You want to go back?”
She looked up at Kaya with moist red eyes and spoke for the first time. “ No, please no”
Her voice was tearful, and her tone pleading. Kaya asked the driver to continue to the hotel and turned her attention back to the girl. She gave her a drink of water, which the girl gladly accepted.
“Whats your name?”
As the journey continued, Kaya learnt that Kajri was the granddaughter of the village vaid. Her mother had died at childbirth, and her father moved to a nearby town and re-married. After that, she had come to Veena to live with her grandparents. Now, her stepmother wanted to marry her off to a widower, and her alcoholic father did not object. Even her grandparents, and all the villagers wanted her to agree to the proposal.
“But why do they want you to marry an old man?”
“Because I told them I wanted to learn music and be a singer like Shakuntala Mausi. She has taught me ever since I came back”
Kaya was surprised to learn this. Her aunt was particularly choosy about the quality of students admitted to Veena, and teaching one of the village children was unheard of. Kajri must be really good. The very next moment her surprise turned into anger at the villager’s behavior. They wanted to ruin this girl’s life just because she wanted to learn music! Preposterous!

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

My first blog - the beginning of a story

Here I begin with a story:

Kaya was walking home from work one evening, when she suddenly became aware of the familiar sinking sensation in her stomach. Familiar because she had experienced it numerous times in her life. It was her intuition, a forewarning of something to come. Something big. Something important. Sometimes happy, sometimes not, but each time this sinking sensation had accompanied an event that would impact her life in a major way. And this one was to be the biggest of them all.... but she didn’t know it, yet.

She continued down the busy street, winding her way forward through the throng of Diwali shoppers, the vegetable and fruit vendors, slum kids who were selling diyas and lanterns and calling out to each passer-by to attract attention to their colourful wares. On any other day she’d have loved the hustle bustle of the market, stopped by to gaze at the lovely sarees and dresses in the display windows, picked up a fruit or vegetable, admired the colourful wares of the slum kids. But today, she did none of that. The spirit of Diwali that she would have reveled in was lost out to her and the festive air failed to buoy her drowning mood. She was in a hurry to get to her place and call her aunt.

Her aunt was the only living relative she had now, and she was anxious about her safety. Her aunt’s name was Shakuntala Sharma, and she was a music teacher. Not a music teacher in a small municipal school, but a music teacher in a music village. A village built by her and her sister Sharmila, who was Kaya’s mother. The two sisters had devoted their lives to this music village, which they built on their ancestral land in Ranipur. Set admits the lush hills, a few hours away from Haridwar, this music village was as sacred to music lovers as the holy town itself. They called it Veena, after Goddess Sarawati’s favorite instrument. Veena was Kaya’s birthplace and had been her home for the first sixteen years of her life.

A month after her fourteenth birthday, Kaya felt a strange feeling in her stomach. She thought she was hungry and scampered off to her favorite guava tree in the village. She picked out a hard green one and a soft ripe one and ate them on the treetop. She looked out at the road that snaked around the hills, the guardians of Veena. Kaya loved to do this, sit on a tree with a fruit in hand, and stare at all that she could. The hillocks, the village pond, the fruit orchard, the vegetable garden, the dairy farm and the little cottages which were home to the students and faculty of the music school. She liked to look at all these places, but the one sight she loved most was that of the school building. The sprawling structure, with a large open courtyard and a number of balconies and classrooms was always reverberating with the sounds of music. A close second came the cluster of huts inhabited by the local villagers. These people took care of the village’s farms and animals, and the village trust took care of them. Kaya knew that her great grandfather had been a revered landowner in these parts, and a man of great wealth and compassion. Today, the village and a few hundred acres of farming land was all that was left with his daughters. She had once heard her parents discuss about the value of the village trust and even at that little age, she knew it was good money. She recalled that conversation as she looked at a black van approach Veena, and realized that her stomach still rumbled. This not hunger, she said to herself, this is something else. Wondering the cause, she traced her path back home. She arrived home just in time to see a solemn looking man alight from the vehicle and ask for her mother. She led them to the school building wondering who he was, and why her stomach sank lower than ever.

She had answers to all these questions before the hour had passed. The solemn looking man was a policeman, and had brought news of an accident. An accident that had taken away Kaya’s father and uncle.

Another accident a few years later was the cause of her mother’s demise.

By this time, Kaya had moved out of Veena. She had inherited her parent’s talent but not their undying love for music. She completed her education in Delhi and did a variety of jobs over the next ten years. Two years ago, she had joined a radio station as a jingle writer and moved on to host her own show. And this evening the familiar sensation was back. Though not always the bearer of bad news, it filled Kaya with dread. She tried to console herself that she had this feeling the day she topped her college, the day she got her new job and the day she became a radio jockey. But the dread would not leave her.

She reached home just in time to hear the phone ring. She picked up the phone with trembling fingers. The voice at the other end was familiar. It was Leela, her aunt’s maid. She confirmed Kaya’s worst fears. Her aunt was dead. Kaya was an orphan now.

She did not relay the details of her death, nor did Kaya ask. She was required at the village now; the village trust’s solicitor had requested a meeting with the last living member of the family. Kaya said she would leave right away. The next few hours were spent in making arrangements. She got the tickets for a late night flight to Delhi, and it was not until she was airborne, that the tears began to flow.

Kaya cried through the whole flight. Tears punctuated by muted sobs were all she remembered of the flight. She was picked up at the airport by a taxi, which would take her all the way up to Veena. She thought about the last few hours and realized her sinking sensation hadn’t left her. It had perhaps been with her all through the flight, but in her grief Kaya had felt nothing else. And now as she saw the passing countryside from her taxi window, she wondered why it was so. Is there still more to come? Leela hadn’t told her anything else about her aunt’s death. She had been healthy, so a natural death was out of question. Perhaps an illness, or another accident? Or a murder? No it couldn’t be. That was too far fetched to believe.

Kaya reached Veena in the afternoon, and headed straight to Leela’s cottage. Leela looked pale and weary, and made Kaya eat something before meeting the lawyer. But she was very quiet. All of Kaya’s attempts to learn the cause of her aunt’s death had been futile. Each time she broached the subject, she was met with nothing but a stoned silence. Exasperated, she left for the school administrative building, where she was to meet Kailash Pradhan, the lawyer.

She was intercepted on the way by the Kumar family – Paras, his wife Nalini and their son Vaibhav. They broke into loud sobs upon her sight and Nalini crushed her in a bear hug. Paras Kumar was her father’s cousin and Kaya was most surprised to see them in Veena. She had first met at her father’s funeral, and disliked them instantly. She despised their excessive show of concern and over the top affection display. She began to ask them what they were doing in Veena, when a portly man emerged from the school building. He introduced himself as Kailash Pradhan and ushered Kaya in the building for the meeting. She was thankful to be rescued, but did not miss out the scowl on the faces of the Kumars at the sight of the solicitor.

Kailash Pradhan told Kaya that he had been managing their family’s finances for 40 years now, and even though had never met Kaya in person, he knew a great deal about her. He told her that her aunt’s death was a result of an accident. She had been on the way back to Veena after meeting him at his office three days ago, when her car was crushed by a landslide in the hills. Kaya wondered why Leela would not tell her as much, and she nearly missed Kailash Pradhan’s last remark. “It seems strange indeed that each one of your family members have died in the same way” Kaya’s gaped at that remark. The possibility of foul play in the sudden death of each of her family members had never occurred to her until now. And now she began to wonder if a decade old scheme was brewing to wipe out her entire family.
Kailsh Pradhan echoed her thoughts, and said that her own life might be in danger. The villagers thought the family cursed, and that perhaps explained Leela’s behavior. They apparently did not want to associate with her, afraid that she carried the curse like a disease, and would pass it on to them. He asked if she was interested in running the school now. If not, he advised her to sell the property and live comfortably with the money. But who would but so much land? And here in this remote area? Kailash Pradhan told her that several ayurvedic spas had opened up in the area, around Haridwar and Rishikesh. Selling this property would not be very difficult. He estimated the worth of this land, and combined with the trust, he named a sum that made Kaya’s jaw drop. She had no idea how rich her family had been. And in spite of all that, they had never lived in luxury. The meeting ended with Kaya consenting to put the property on the market and moving to a hotel in Haridwar for ease of communication between Kailash Pradhan and herself. He was to make all the arrangements and send for Kaya the next morning. By then, he advised her to be careful. It was then that Kaya asked him, “ What would happen to the trust if I were to die now?”
“Your living relatives would become the direct benefactors “
“ But I have no living relatives!”
He smiled, “The Kumars”, he said and left the room. Kaya sat there; numb from all the information she had just received. Her family member’s deaths, the Kumars being in Veena, the villagers’ fear of being cursed, the large family fortune, and the selling off of her home was too much to handle at one go.