The jingling sound of bells reverberated in the twilight sky and steered the silence of her heart. She sat on the banks of the river Ganga and stared listlessly towards the rippling waters of the sacred river. Unlike the other ghats*, this one was not thronging with devotees and a somber serenity hung in the air.

Sakshi was not coming to Varanasi for the first time. But, today it felt alien and she somehow missed the warmth which she had hitherto experienced. Gradually, as the seemingly intermittent echoes of the aarti* reached its culmination, it became eerily quiet.

Sakshi looked around. How long had it been since she had been sitting here? She had lost count of time. It seemed like an eternity.

Just then she heard faint footsteps. She turned back and their eyes met. The stranger looked at her and grinned sheepishly.

“Hey, sorry if I startled you. I was not expecting anyone at this hour. Can I sit here, if you don’t mind?” the stranger chimed.

Sakshi smiled which took a greater effort than she had anticipated. 

“Yes, you can sit here,” she found herself saying nevertheless.

“I am Mahima,” the woman who had just sauntered in, said beaming away.

“I am Sakshi.”

“So, what brings you here at this unearthly hour? I mean what brings you to Varanasi?” Mahima quipped.

Sakshi took a deep breath and contemplated on what to tell this unexpected companion. She looked at her clearly for the first time. Mahima was a woman in her late twenties. Dressed in a pale red salwar kameez, she seemed to have an ascetic look. Maybe she was one of those breed of individuals who are on a quest for life and are out there soul-searching. She had an unmistakable glint in her eyes and if you looked hard they seemed to be staring in the distant sky.

“Oh, nothing much. Just a spiritual escape I would say,” Sakshi exclaimed.

“Really, sounds interesting. Looks like we both are kind of on the same boat,” Mahima said animatedly.

Sakshi was intrigued. She had been on these ghats so many times, but all she saw were either devotees looking to cleanse their sins in the holy waters of the mighty Ganga or firangs* who were blowing away their days in the drowsy stupor of ganja*. Then of course, there were ghats like the Manikarnika, where pyres were lit and the dead ones were turned to ashes. Those made for the most heart-rending spectacles and when she witnessed it for the first time, tears trickled down her cheeks like hot embers and she was transported to another world. 

And here was this woman who seemed to be having a blithe disregard to the grim surroundings. Varanasi was intense and morbid at the same time. What could have brought her here, she wondered!

“Hey, I hope I did not disrupt your solitary sojourn?”Mahima looked at her, bringing Sakshi back from her reverie.

“No not really. I guess I have brooded alone enough for today. It would be good to have some company for a change,” she managed to blurt out.

As if on a cue, Mahima sprawled next to her on the stairs that led to the banks of the river. They sat there without saying a word savouring the stillness that hung in the air like a thick veil of fog. 

“So, what do you do Sakshi?”

Sakshi stretched her legs. God, she felt spent. 

“Well, I am an academician. I teach History to college students. Currently, I am pursuing a doctorate.”

“Wonderful. So, any interesting fact about this place, Miss Historian that you could share with me,” Mahima stared at her piqued with interest.

“One of the facts that come to my mind is that Tulsidas wrote Ramcharitmanas* sitting on these ghats.” 

“Is it? I did not know that. Ramayan has always fascinated me. It is an amalgamation of possibly everything- valour, love, separation, suffering, righteousness. There is so much to learn from the epic. And the most mind-numbing thing is that it is still relevant in this era. It has answers to all our questions, you know,” Mahima uttered almost breathlessly.

“Yes. I agree. It is a path-breaking scripture and I have enjoyed reading it thoroughly. In fact, I have written papers on many aspects of Ramayana. But, to say that it is relevant today, I am not sure. There are so many woes that wreck us today and life is much more complicated now. It is like a long ordeal…”

Sakshi paused and unwittingly closed her eyes.

Mahima looked puzzled and cleared her throat.

The river flowed beneath them, glistening under the moonlit sky. A streak of lightning almost jolted them. Sakshi looked at her companion with doleful eyes.

“I am devastated. My marriage is on the rocks. It is going to be over soon. I love him…but…”

Sakshi went on, “I loved my husband. We were so good together. But, then everything changed one fine day. He was offered a work opportunity abroad. He wanted me to come along with him leaving my work and life here. I did not want to go. We had constant fights and we were bitter and no more the happy couple we used to be. There was a rift in our relationship. We are separated now. Do you have a solution for my predicament in your Ramayana?” she grinned with a hint of sarcasm in her voice.

 Mahima smiled. “Well to start with, it is not my Ramayana or yours; it is for all those who want to reap benefits out of it. And to answer your question, I think you can draw parallels from Ram and Sita’s life and reassess your own life.” 

Sakshi was visibly miffed. “Those times were different and Ram and Sita set such unrealistic ideals especially for women. Why would a woman join her husband when he is ousted out of his kingdom to lead an exiled and arduous life in the forest?” 

“Why couldn’t she accompany him? She loved him deeply. And it was her choice. Why are you away from your husband, Sakshi? Well, it is your choice.”

Sakshi was stunned.

Mahima continued with gusto, “Tell me something, do you love him. Hmm…why am I even asking you such a warped up question? Of course, you do. Why on earth would you be sitting here, all alone, pining for him?”

Sakshi was dumbfounded.

“Ram and Sita’s story was fraught with enough thorns, Sakshi. And don’t you think Sita doubted Ram’s love for her when he paid heed to hearsay and she was sent away? But, you have to make a choice. At times the choice may be going with your husband on vanvaas* because you love him while at other times the choice may make you abandon everything and throw yourself in the chasms of the earth so as to uphold your dignity.”

Sakshi was listening to Mahima with rapt attention.

“So, what should I do?”she asked as her voice quivered with sobs.

Mahima smiled and held her hand.

“You will have to take the call Sakshi. It is about your choice. Nobody can make that decision for you.”

Sakshi broke down. She kept her head in her lap and bawled like a baby. The first rays of the sun emanated on the ghats and the soft murmurs of priests and tourists could be heard from a distance.

Sakshi stood up with a jerk and realized that she was a huge mess. 

Mahima was nowhere to be seen. 

Confounded and lost, she looked around. Just then a saint walked towards the ghat, muttering something. It must be time for the morning aarti, Sakshi suddenly realized.

“Baba, did you see a woman walk past the banks? She was with me a little while ago. She was here and now she isn’t,” Sakshi mumbled.

Beta, you were here the whole night? You arrived on an auspicious day. It is Sita Navami* today and the locals believe that mata Sita herself comes down on the banks of the river Ganga where Tulsidasa wrote the Ramcharitmanas,” the saint replied smiling mysteriously.

Sakshi was overwhelmed with emotions. She did not know who she was. But, she knew what she had to do.

Just then, the morning aarti began on the ghat. Sakshi unwittingly trotted towards the river Ganga. The chants of the mantras and the lights of the diyas* filled her with warmth and hope. 

 It was a new morning.

***

Glossary:

Ghat: a flight of steps leading down to a river.

Aarti: a Hindu religious ritual of worship, in which light is                                                            offered to one or more deities.

Firang: Foreigner

Ganja: marijuana used especially for smoking.

Ramcharitmanas: poetic retelling of the Sanskrit epic Ramayana.

Vanvaas: (here) fourteen years of exile in the forest.

Sita Navami: birth day of Sita.

Diyas: lamps

 ***

Photo By: Arushi Saini

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This is an entry from team Heads and Taes for ArttrA-3, A Game of  Writers co-sponsored by Diners Club International.

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Thanks for reading.

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