“ 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!