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?”