There are photographers, there are story tellers, and then there is this man Arjun Kamath who through his heartbreaking pictures of social evils in India against women has left us speachless. This is by far one of the best photo stories I have ever came across in my life.. If I didn’t see this, I would have no idea that a photo story can tell a life so perfectly. Each photograph is a master piece of its own let alone the background… Location, costume, lighting, framing each and everything is next to perfect. This is a must see for all the photographers as well as story readers.
Here is her story of Avni revealing the curse of social evils in India against women:
Avani was the most beautiful and educated girl in Pravadh, a little hamlet in central India. She was the only daughter of the Mistla’s, a humble couple who owned a small sweetmeat shop. With a comely figure, saffron complexion, and kohl-black eyes, Avani was gorgeous, like a painting of a goddess brought to life. Avani was pure and kind hearted, and she had dreams of opening a school for girls inPravadh. Educating girls was not as important as educating boys, which had bothered her since childhood. Avani was home educated by her father, while boys had the privilege of going to the local school. The peace-loving Avani, although strong willed and intelligent, would never go against her parents’ wishes out of love for them. Their happiness meant the world to her, even if it meant crushing her own dreams.
Pravadh was known for its emerald-green fields, and one would often hear the yip of wolf cubs break the dawn quiet, from the woods bordering the town. Fluffy, white clouds would glide across amethyst skies, releasing warm, incessant rain that snapped and crackled like bracken pods in a bush fire. The rain descended as little drops of silver, to cleanse the land and banish the silence of winter. In the village, dirt pathways wound, providing direction, and travelers would often stand in awe at the beauty of such a scenic place.
A turquoise stream called the Vimala provided water and was the pride of Pravadh. It wound its merry way along the edge of the town, murmuring and gurgling as it sprang over pearly white rocks. Pebbles glittered, hurried along by the current made of water that tasted like the nectar of the gods. Most mornings, streaks of soft light beamed from the heavens, washing the stream in pure silver, while dragonflies glimmered and danced. The hedgerows along the dirt roads were pregnant with berries, engaging the inhabitants with their pleasant scent.
Despite its beauty, Pravadh was a primitive community, where the wealthy convinced the rest of the townspeople that a woman’s only job was to take care of her family and stay at home. Although Avani’s parents loved her dearly and wanted to support her dreams, they had succumbed to the extreme pressures of the village elders and had begun to search for a man to wed their daughter.
It was Avani’s big day. Her parents, the Mistla’s, had left no stone unturned in the search for a worthy groom for their beloved daughter. Although Avani was against marriage, she had never openly expressed her own feelings on the matter out of respect for her parents’ wishes. Secretly, she hoped to continue working towards her dream of opening a school for girls in Pravadh, even after her marriage, and she fervently hoped her future husband and his family would approve of the idea.
It was with a somewhat heavy heart that Avani finally agreed to marry, although she never expressed any displeasure. She wished her parents would come to understand her true feelings and her dreams; she would have preferred them to change their mind on their own, rather than going against their wishes. In Pravadhi culture, children were expected to respect their parents’ every word, even if it meant going against their wishes.
The Mistla’s were so pressured by the Pravadhi community that they wanted to arrange a marriage for Avani before people started gossiping. They forgot that marrying their only daughter to a man without her consent would mean sacrificing Avani’s happiness, just to maintain their own social status and dignity.
Meanwhile, Aadisesha, who was the son of the Sayan’s, was the most eligible bachelor in Pravadh. His parents were the wealthiest and most respected couple, and the children were expected to carry on the family name. The Sayan’s owned thousands of acres of farmland, several herds of cattle, an ancient temple, and lived in the most sacred and revered home in the community. A tulsi plant, in the center of their front yard, was said to have been planted by Lord Brahma himself, while he was disguised as a beggar to destroy a rakshasa in ancient Pravadh.
Many parents of young daughters wanted to arrange a marriage with Aadisesha, and dozens of families would line up daily outside the Sayan home to offer marriage proposals. Guru Tai, Aadisesha’s stepmother, was waiting for the largest dowry, and each day, hundreds of girls were humiliated and rejected when their dowries did not meet her expectations. Her insults were always subtle and only understood by the person whom she had insulted. Like a snake slithering in the grass, she would creep up on her victim without anyone else noticing. Money and pride were all Guru Tai cared about. Meanwhile, Aadisesha’s father, Sumedh Rara, was never at home and avoided the hustle of wedding proposals. He would often visit neighboring towns with his guards, to confront his brothers over ancestral land, which didn’t belong to him. While he was away, Guru Tai ran the Sayan household.
When the Mistla’s approached Guru Tai with Avani, they had very little hope that the marriage proposal would be accepted. Aadisesha had so many beautiful Pravadhi girls to choose from, and the Mistla’s were not wealthy enough to offer a dowry. However, when Aadisesha saw Avani, he was instantly infatuated by her radiant smile and deep black eyes. She was nursing a wounded puppy, and the sight of her caused a sharp pain in his heart. Without understanding why, he ran to Guru Tai and immediately expressed his desire to marry Avani.
He wanted to own her from the very instant he saw her because that was how he had been brought up—he had always been given everything he had ever wanted. Guru Tai had been a protective mother, who had constantly told him that everyone else was inferior. As a child, playtime for Aadisesha was sitting on the riverbank of the Vimala every evening and watching golden fish swim by, with guards standing watch. During the day, he attended the local school, under the supervision of Sumedh Rara’s guards, because his father feared that his stepbrothers might hurt his son. Due to Aadisesha’s protective upbringing, he had never fully understood how to share with or care about others. To him, love meant to own something and never let it go.
The way women were treated around Aadisesha had given him the impression that they were no more than pretty objects who took care of household chores, without any life of their own. When Aadisesha saw Avani, he wanted to own her and have her to himself, and he thought that, maybe, she could lend a hand in the Sayan household. Initially, Guru Tai rejected the Mistla’s proposal, but at Aadisesha’s request, she reconsidered. She had no children of her own, and Aadisesha was the son of Sumedh Rara’s mistress, Pushpini, who had went missing when Aadisesha was young. The village believed that Guru Tai had thrown Pushpini to a pack of wolves for refusing to stay away from her husband, but Pushpini’s body was never found, and there was no proof of murder. Guru Tai had maintained her innocence and had taken care of Aadisesha herself.
The Mistla’s expressed concern for what they could offer as a dowry. The amount was so little that it angered Guru Tai, who took the offer as an insult, throwing the family out of her home. Avani felt helpless and wished she could somehow make the humiliation easier for her parents, who pleaded with Guru Tai. It wasn’t until Guru Tai saw Aadisesha’s glowing face that she changed her mind and accepted the Mistla’s proposal, all the while cursing Avani for attracting her son despite the smile on her face. Jealous and hurt, she finally agreed with the stipulations that Avani must stay at home after the marriage, the Mistla’s must sell their cattle and sweetmeat shop, and they must provide 20 sacks of gold as a dowry. It wasn’t enough for Guru Tai that Avani was flawlessly beautiful and the most educated girl in Pravadh.
As Avani walked toward the mantap escorted by her parents, beautiful memories flooded her mind and heart. She recalled how when she was a little girl her father, Mr. Mistla, would return home from the sweetmeat shop, tired and sweaty. Even so, he never let it show on his face. Instead, he would freshen up immediately and then come out in the most energetic mood, ready to take Avani out.
Avani loved going on cycle rides with him, and her father knew it. They would travel on his bicycle every evening, Avani sitting in the front and Mr. Mistla sitting behind. They would navigate through the colorful bylanes of Pravadh and share beautiful conversations as they rode along. Mr. Mistla would tell Avani about funny encounters at his sweetmeat shop, and Avani would tell him what new things she had learned from Ma.
Each day as they cycled through the streets of Pravadh, little shops appeared along the sides of the streets, and Avani would ask for something new . On some days if it was cotton candy, and on other days it was a lollipop. Mr. Mistla wanted nothing more than to see his daughter happy, so he would buy her whatever she wanted.
Usually after cycling for an hour or so, they would go up to the Pravadh mountaintop and watch the glorious sunset. More often than not, the sky would adorn itself with brilliant reds and oranges. If there was enough light, Mr. Mistla would start a school lesson and teach Avani something new each day. Since Avani never went to school, Mr. Mistla made it a point to educate her himself.
On most days, they heard the grasses rustling behind them, as if they were whispering to one another, and watch the fishes in the Vimala River leap and sing in the golden, sun-dappled waters. Avani would enjoy her lollipop or cotton candy as Mr. Mistla read from the book.
When the birds huddled with their loved ones,anticipating the day’s end, and the sun had disappeared along with its light, the stars peeked out from the black night sky and lit their faces. It was time for hide and seek. They would play for a good half an hour before going back to the lesson. Her father would switch on the lantern he carried and start reading from the lesson book under the stars. Avani would listen intently but eventually fall asleep on his lap. Then her father would carry her home and put her to bed.
All of these beautiful memories came rushing back to Avani as she walked to the mantap. Time had flown by, and now it was time to say goodbye and start a new life. Avani wanted to hug her father tightly one last time, but seeing his smiling face, she held back her tears and continued walking toward the mantap.
The wedding was arranged to take place in the middle of the Kashyapi Forest, at the border of Pravadh and Bandhunagar. The forest was considered auspicious by the Sayans, because the sacred Vimala River had its origin there. It was believed that fairies often bathed in the Vimala at night, and that its blue color derived from their wings. Ancient myths claimed that ferocious beings, half-lion and half-wolf, guarded the birthplace of the Vimala. They were said to attack only if someone caused harm to the forest. Nobody had ever bothered members of the Sayan clan when they held their ceremonies there, and so if there was ever an auspicious event in the Sayan home, it was celebrated in the Kashyapi.
The Mistlas slowly escorted Avani, taking her up to a point and then stopping. Avani continued hesitantly, constantly looking back at her parents as she inched closer to the mantap. Anxiety twisted in her stomach, and she could feel her cheeks getting hot. Aadisesha, Guru Tai, and Sumedh Rara stood silently by the sacred fireplace, waiting for Avani to arrive. Aadisesha did not turn even once to look at the beautiful Avani. Now that she had agreed to the marriage, she would soon be under his control. He stood there like a stone pillar, expressionless, as if he had lost interest in her.
The mantap, which was decorated with deep red flower blossoms, had been erected right in the middle of the forest. All around, almond-brown trees stood serenely, awash with a tender glow from the first blush of the morning. Looms of light filtered down in beams of gold, chasing shadows and spilling into spaces where mist had earlier stalked. As Avani continued to walk, she arrived at a wide glade where the trees fell away, revealing the morning sky. It appeared like a child’s painting, overflowing with pinks and oranges, reflecting off low-hanging clouds, and filling the world below with wonder. The last of the morning’s stars were glinting like freshly-cut diamonds while the golden sun glowed in the distance, casting a honeyed sheen over the trees. Bags of gold and jewelry that were on offer as dowry to the Sayans surrounded the mantap area, as if a treasure chest had spilled its contents. Despite having sold their sweetmeat shop and cattle, the Mistlas were overjoyed that their only daughter would be married into the most reputable family in Pravadh. Little did they know that Avani wanted a different life, and that the marriage threatened to make her into a caged bird with clipped wings.
The sweet scent of jasmine filled the forest, as Avani and Aadisesha stood opposite each other in complete silence. And as the pandit started chanting the mantras, the forest came alive with its own orchestra, playing one enchanting symphony after another. The leaves danced to an unheard beat, whispering their songs to the wind. The mantap sheltered by the mighty trees, glowing in the cascading light, as a brilliant white shaft illuminated Avani’s nervous face.
The tall trees of the Kashyapi had now become personal guests, almost like individuals with their various emotions, while one tree looked hunched over, with its branches hanging as though in dejection, partly covering the rest of it, the other one stood tall despite its great age, with every branch apparently alert, as though it is gazing into a distance that mere humans can’t see. The presence of the trees made Avani feel as though she wasn’t alone. But on the other hand, the thought of these ancient trees looking down at her ferociously, as though judging her every move, made her uncomfortable as well.
Although hesitant at first, Avani mustered the courage to surrender herself physically and emotionally to this auspicious moment, and as she did so, she felt like a huge load was removed from her chest and she could now breathe freely. She didn’t have to fight her inner fears anymore; this was going to be her new life, and she was going to make it beautiful, come what may.
Her future husband now stood before her, and she only wanted to entertain good thoughts in her mind and heart; she would love and respect Aadisesha dearly and serve him to the best of her ability. When she was a child Avani’s dad had always taught her to love unconditionally and never to have any ill feeling towards anyone, no matter the situation.
Mr. Mistla’s words echoed in Avani’s ears as she bowed her head down to Aadisesha in respect. The stone-faced Aadisesha leaned forward and tied the mangalsutra. Happiness filled the air as Avani’s mother pressed her fingers to her mouth, blinking glad tears away, while Mr. Mistla nodded his head, smiling broadly. Guru Tai and Sumedh Rara stood a few steps behind, calm and composed, as they watched young couple exchange vows.
She had mustered the courage to embrace her new life ahead, but the thought of leaving her parents and settling into a new home made her heart pound with anxiety and fear. Hot tears flooded Avani’s cheeks and dripped off her chin as she hugged her Dad one last time. She opened her mouth to say something, anything, but all that came out were deep, gut-wrenching sobs that tore through her chest and convulsed her small body.Meanwhile, Aadisesha had started walking towards her, emotionless, as if he wanted to separate her from her father. As he drew closer, Avani hugged her father tighter, not wanting to let go.
Above them all, the tall tress of the Kashyapi stood like mute spectators watching Avani’s tears wet the forest floor, almost like they were hiding some ghastly secret. Even the wind in their boughs sounded thin, sickly, and fearful. The golden sun hid beneath the clouds, and the wildlife was silent, as if they, too, felt Avani’s sorrow in their hearts.
As Mr. Mistla hugged Avani back, he looked up at the tall trees. Their starkness and immutability made him realize he had to be strong. Avani’s mother on the other hand hid herself behind a tall tree and cried her heart out. Avani was a part of her soul, and she was going away forever.
Mr. Mistla wiped furiously at his eyes as he watched Avani walking away.
Avani wanted to run back and throw her arms around him one last time, but Aadisesha had gripped her hand tightly, and Avani was afraid to free herself. She had to start a new life, and she was prepared, but the sight of her father sobbing inconsolably on her mother’s shoulder broke her heart. She had never seen him so frail, so weak.
“Will you write me a letter every week?” Mr. Mistla cried, his voice breaking.
Time flew. On her first morning at the Sayan home, Avani was up and about early, before anyone else. She took a hot bath and took a moment to pray to the Lord. Looking out at the dark, jagged mountains, Avani wondered what she would wear. The sun was rising, projecting brilliant colors through the trees. The Sayan home admired the shimmering shades of red, pink, orange, and yellow; and as the ancient house began to glow softly, Avani put on the lucky saree that was given to her by her mother and excitedly prepared the paraphernalia she needed to perform the Tulsi Puja.
Everyone in Pravadh knew about the sacred Tulsi plant in the front yard of the Sayan home; the site was considered extremely auspicious, so much so that on festive occasions, the locals would stand in line to offer their prayers to the plant. Avani, who had been brought up in a religious household, had performed the Tulsi Puja every morning with her mother in their own home, which had a Tulsi plant as well. The Mistlas believed that if the Tulsi Puja was performed in the morning, the entire day would go well and the evil spirits would keep their distance from the house and it’s occupants.
Just as Avani was about to enter the front yard with her aarti thali, her arm was grabbed from behind. Avani quickly turned her head, and realized it was Guru Tai, who reluctantly released her grip and stared at her. Avani felt it would anger Tai even if she moved an inch. Tai then seized Avani’s hand, forcing her to put the puja thali down, and a chill went down Avani’s spine.
Tai walked Avani through the shadows of the ancient arches, all the way to the front yard, in silence. She sat on the top stair at the entrance to the Sayan home, looked at Avani, and pointed to her legs. Avani understood what she wanted right away. She knelt down and started massaging Tai’s misshapen feet. Avani felt helpless, as though she was caught in the woman’s clutches, but she smiled weakly, as she progressed to her legs. Deep down, Avani did not feel comfortable; she felt that Tai didn’t like her. Nevertheless, Avani wanted to care for Guru Tai, as though she were her own mother, and she sincerely tried. Tai, on the other hand, seemed constantly displeased with her. Tai told Avani to massage her legs harder. Avani, pressed her flesh more vigorously as Guru Tai, her lips curving into a thin smirk, lounged on the stairs, studying her bright red toenails. The world was at her feet.
Avani continued pressing Guru Tai’s legs for over an hour without a break, and not once did Tai ask her to stop. Avani’s hands had started to ache, the pain now visible on her face. Searing fiery bursts pulsated through her hands, intensifying each time she pressed, jarring and brutal. With each movement, the pain amplified, her muscles quivered, and consciousness ebbed. Black mists swirled at the edges of her mind, but still Avani pressed away, not wanting to disappoint Tai.As the sun rose higher into the blue sky, powerful rays flooded the Sayan home, lighting every blade of grass, shining from each leaf. Avani started to sweat; she hadn’t eaten all morning, but she continued to press. The sun, now getting brighter and hotter, started to bother Tai, who was lounging on the stairs all this while. Tai stood up, almost pushing Avani aside. She gave Avani a cold, dirty stare before disappearing into the house, leaving Avani alone on the stairs.
Avani wondered if Tai was upset with her. Perhaps she hadn’t pressed Tai’s legs hard enough? Unsure and anxious, Avani stood up hesitantly and walked into the house to apologize to Tai.
She noticed the Aarti Thali, which she had earlier put down. She forgot about the apology and picked up the Thali instead. Seeing nobody around, she walked straight to the Tulsi plant in the front yard. She smiled as it glowed in the sun, its rays warming the soft green leaves, like kisses from the divine. She closed her eyes, bowed her head, and offered prayers to the sacred Tulsi plant.
Aadisesha had quietly observed Avani all morning; she accidentally woke him while getting dressed. Once awake, Aadisesha could not go back to sleep. He witnessed how his mother had prevented Avani from performing the Tulsi puja. Taking her to the front of the house, she asked her to massage her legs. Avani had agreed without the slightest hesitation, kneeling with a cheerful smile and massaging Guru Tai’s legs with vigor.
Aadisesha couldn’t help but notice how Avani, despite her exhaustion, wore a constant smile as she rubbed his mother’s legs. The beads of sweat forming on his wife’s forehead made him wonder if he had ever done anything as kind for his own mother. He had appraised Avani too quickly; he thought she was just a beautiful girl who could cook for the occupants of the Sayan home, please him in bed, and help his mother with everyday chores. As he watched her now, he felt guilty for once seeing her that way.
Avani was like no other woman he had ever met. She was selfless, polite, and charming. Most beautifully, despite his mother’s rude behavior, she carried herself with dignity and grace all morning. As Aadisesha stepped out of the Sayan home to visit the woods, he followed behind her. He watched as Avani prayed to the Tulsi plant with so much devotion that he could have watched all morning.
Within minutes of Aadiesha leaving for the forest, Avani finished the Tulsi Puja and bowed her head down one last time when a violent scream ripped through her heart and jolted her senses.
“How dare you?” the angry voice echoed.
Avani spun around, only to see Tai marching towards her hurriedly with piercing eyes. Avani stood there paralyzed as Tai grabbed her hand with her muscular fingers, almost crushing it.
“How dare you perform the Tusi Puja without my permission? This is the Sayan Home, not your father’s hut!” she fumed.
Tears welled up in Avani’s eyes hearing her father’s name. Her parents had sold pretty much everything they had to get her married, and the very thought of her family made her emotional. Tears streamed down Avani’s face as Guru Tai grabbed the Aarti Thali.
Aadisesha had left for the woods after watching Avani perform the puja for a few minutes. Although, there were numerous workers in the Sayan Home, Aadisesha enjoyed getting the firewood for the Home himself, a habit that he picked up from his father, Sumedh Rara. Each time Sumedh Rara was in town, he and Aadisesha would still go to the forest every morning, gather firewood, and share breakfast over a conversation. Growing up, Aadisesha watched his father chopping trees in the Kashyapi forest every morning; little Aadi would often struggle to pick up Rara’s big axe even. Each time Rara chuckled at the sight, Aadi shouted, “I will grow up to be a strong man, Bapu, and chop all the trees of the forest!” Rara would laugh loudly, pick Aadi up and throw him onto his shoulders before walking back home.
Aadisesha had now reached the forest, and ventured deeper and deeper into the woods in search of a big tree, unaware that his mother was creating discord back home, threatening his newly wed wife and making her cry.
A huffing wind rose, stirring the flags in the Sayan home as Guru Tai lunged for the Aarti Thali, taking Avani by surprise. Fatigued and emotionally drained, Avani, released the Thali, thinking that Tai had already grabbed it, but Tai, who was screaming furiously, hadn’t quite gotten her hands on it yet, which sent the Thali crashing to the ground.
Silence engulfed the Sayan home as Avani and Tai stared helplessly at the mess on the floor. Avani’s heart thudded against her chest as a deep sense of foreboding consumed her.
Tai, overcome by trepidation, took a few steps back. “What have you done?” She whispered.
Shell-shocked, Avani stared at the floor as large pillows of cloud formed in the sky, blotting out the old, gold color of the sun.
Adisesha, who had ventured deep into the woods, noticed a wall of clouds, grey and sad, standing over him as though in mourning. Ignoring it, he walked deeper into the Kashyapi, having no clue as to what had just happened back home.
The little mirror from the Aarti Thali crashed into the ground, shattering into shards and tinkling pieces. A dazed Avani turned towards the ground instantly, only to catch a glimpse of her face in one of the broken pieces of glass.
She gasped and stared at her face, disfigured by the broken mirror.
Overcome with a sense of foreboding, she closed her eyes and took a few steps back. Beads of sweat mushroomed on her face, while Guru Tai screamed at the servants in the background.
“Bring back Aadi Deva from Kashyapi!”
Avani’s heart started to pound as she opened her eyes; she began to put the pieces of the puzzle together slowly: Aadisesha, her husband, was in the middle of a dense forest, she just broke a mirror and accidentally saw herself in it, and sun had suddenly disappeared sending the Sayan home into darkness…
Avani clutched her Mangalsutra tightly and walked out of the Sayan home as she tried to make sense of everything. Scrutinizing the grey mountains in the distance, she walked briskly towards the forest. Within minutes, she had reached the edge of the Kashyapi. She took a deep breath, and with the Lord’s name on her lips she darted into the dense jungle, jumping over sharp stones and maneuvering through little streams with venomous snakes.
Avani, although delicate and sensitive in appearance, was a courageous woman. She would do anything to protect her family.
Oxblood-red toadstools littered Aadiesha’s path as he walked deeper and deeper into the Kashyapi in search of a tall tree. The ancient trees guarded the darkness with their sprawling limbs, smudging out any sunlight, while stealthy mist formations resembling serpents glided in silence and coiled around helpless limbs.
Little did Aadisesha know when entering this part of the forest, a hungry mother wolf was searching for its next prey.
The sun followed Avani like a lodestar through the tangled crowns of the trees as she scurried through the thick bushes, the clicking of her heels echoing through the forest as she searched for her husband, Aadisesha. Avani had reached the middle of the Kashyapi, but there was still no sign of him. Fear caught in the back of her throat as she quickened her pace, constantly wiping the beads of sweat from her brow. With all five senses heightened, she capitalized on her instincts as she rushed ahead with a dagger, which she carried from home, intermittently screaming Aadi’s name. Thwack! A loud noise pierced the silence of the forest. She spun around, eyes wide open, and moved briskly toward the sound.
Aadisesha, on the other hand, had seen something moving. His heart pounded like a drum and the muscles of his chest tightened with an incredible force; blood rushed down his veins in a single, swift movement. Was it there? He thought he had seen something huge moving behind the bushes, but it could have been his imagination; he was tired, hungry, and thirsty. There it was there again. He wiped the sweat from his eyes so he could see well. The hungry mother wolf had been stalking him for a while, treading behind him as silent as a wraith. Her large head poked out from behind a bush revealing a pair of smoldering, chatoyant eyes that peered at Aadisesha. Her feral gaze—two bright decayed blue orbs—revealed her implacable hatred of him. She emerged from the vegetation with a balletic grace, shoulders hunched and muscles rippling. Her grey fur blended perfectly with her surroundings, breaking up her silhouette. When she flashed her giant fangs at him, he immediately realized that it was the dreaded wolf of the Kashyapi. His breath quickened and he used every muscle in his body to stifle a scream. His feet remained rooted to the spot unwilling to move. The only thing he could hear was the shallow gasps of his own breath. Fear pierced his heart like a thousand thorns as the wolf peered deep into his soul, saw his panic; she flicked her tail and ventured closer.
Cresting the hill, Avani broke free of a dense patch of needle leaves as she rolled freely down the embankment, a natural landslide more effective now that it was covered in damp mud. Despite the thorns pricking the soles of her feet, Avani continued to run, even when she stumbled over the fallen branches on the forest floor. Occasionally, an odd low branch would block her path or hit her in the face, but she pushed on.
Suddenly, Avani stopped. She heard heavy breathing. Avani walked ahead cautiously, making no sound, gently moving a thick bush in front of her with her dagger.
As Avani cleared the view, only a few feet away, she saw a ferocious huge wolf with razor sharp peg-like teeth, inching closer and closer toward a helpless Aadisesha. Her husband had frozen with fear, his axe dropped to the ground.
A surge of courage gripped Avani’s lean body when she saw her husband inches away from the foaming mouth of the hungry wolf. Disregarding the fact that a pack of wolves could be nearby, Avani let out a blood-curdling scream, her face contorted in an all-consuming anger. With nostrils flaring and eyes closing into slits, Avani lunged forward towards the wolf like a merciless animal bent on killing.
Lunging forward to come between Aadi and the hungry wolf, Avani selflessly put her own life at risk and attacked the beast’s head with the sharp dagger. So deeply had Avani lodged the dagger into the wolf’s neck, that as she freed the weapon with all her might, the head detached from the wolf’s body and fell to the ground with a loud thud. The otherwise gentle and timid Avani had turned protector, saving her husband from the clutches of the dreaded Kashyapi wolf.
Aadisesha, slightly taken aback at the turn of events, stared at Avani with tear-rimmed eyes as she smoothed his dishevelled hair and wiped the sweat off his face with her blood-stained sari. Tears flowing from his eyes, Aadi attempted to stifle his sobs, but he was soon overcome by the wave of emotions and he broke down entirely, all his defences washed away in those salty tears. Dazed and at a loss for words, he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around her. It was far more awkward than she could have ever imagined, but she loved the feeling nonetheless. Aadisesha was her husband and she loved to be with him and him hugging her was different – a good different. Aadi’s mind was at peace. How could he have never realized Avani’s worth for what it was before? Pure. Unselfish. Undemanding. Free. He felt her body pressed against his, soft and warm. This was a kind of love he’d never experienced before. He inwardly thanked God and hugged her all the tighter. Finally, he had realized that a love like this was to be cherished for life.
Avani returned Aadi’s embrace, and staring at the wolf’s lifeless head on the ground, she muttered under her breath, “Aadi deva killed the dreaded Kashyapi wolf. . .” Gently extricating herself from the hug, Avani walked towards the dead wolf and slowly bent down to pick up the bloody and surprisingly heavy head with her bare hands. Looking straight into Aadisesha’s eyes, she said with a twinkle in her eye, “Aadi deva killed the dreaded wolf, and Pravadh will celebrate!”
Come what may, Avani insisted that Aadisesha tell everyone that he beheaded the dreaded Kashyapi wolf to protect his pride in the conservative Pravadhi community. All she cared about was that her husband was safe. Initially, Aadi had disagreed; he had wanted to boast to everyone in Pravadh, including his mother, as to how blessed he was to have a wife like Avani, so courageous that she would risk her own life to save his. However, the selfless Avani had no intention of making her beloved husband look weak before the entire village. She pressured Aadi to walk back into Pravadh with the wolf’s head in one hand and the bloody dagger in the other so that everyone would assume he killed the wolf. She pleaded with Aadi, saying that it didn’t matter who killed the wolf – it was all the same. Aadi’s pride was her pride and she would protect it at any cost.
The news of the dreaded wolf’s death had reached Pravadh and the mood in the Sayan home was festive and upbeat. As soon as Aadi and Avani arrived, Guru Tai emerged from the house’s ancient arches holding an elaborate, handmade aarti thali. Staring coolly at Avani and muttering curses under her breath, Tai pushed Avani aside like a worthless piece of junk, and walked straight to Aadisesha, convinced that her son had killed the wolf. And as the men threw colors up in the air and rejoiced the death of the wolf, Tai embraced Aadi, praising his bravery. From a distance and with a heavy heart, Avani observed the celebration, feeling like an outsider in her own home. She was happy for her husband; he was safe and his pride was intact. However, Tai had once again shunned her and showed no concern for her well-being – this hurt Avani deeply, more deeply than she could have imagined.
The dreaded Kashyapi wolf, responsible for the death of over a dozen villagers, had been slayed, and by no better man than Aadi of the illustrious Sayan clan – the most respected and revered family in Pravadh. However, it wasn’t for their wealth alone that they were celebrated; their courage and fearlessness ran deep in the veins of their men as well. The villagers never suspected that Aadi Deva would be dead by now if it wasn’t for his wife, Avani, who had selflessly risked her life to save her beloved husband by darting into the woods and beheading the ferocious beast.
The Pravadhi men danced, threw colors in the air, and drenched themselves in alcohol as Tai lovingly applied a tilak to her son’s forehead. Although happy for her husband, Avani left the celebrations midway, feeling disturbed and deeply hurt after Tai asked her not to stand next to Aadi. Bordering on despair, her head bowed down in sorrow, she walked past the Tulsi plant and straight into the Sayan home. Even as Avani entered the house, the foul-mouthed Tai continued to mutter abuse in her direction much to Aadi’s displeasure. However, he had never gone against his mother in the past, and staying true to his principles, tried to keep his emotions in check. He respected her deeply even if she was only his stepmother, and he was doing his utmost not to talk back to her.
From the very beginning, Tai had given Avani the cold shoulder; the Mistla’s hadn’t given the Sayan’s enough jewelry and land. This upset Tai, who felt that the Mistla clan was beneath them. As the men continued dancing with Aadi in the middle of the celebrations, he noticed Avani leaving. However, he retained his composure and didn’t let his concern show on his face. He was afraid that Avani would be deeply disappointed if people discovered the truth, especially Guru Tai. More importantly, he had made a promise to her to never reveal what had really happened in the woods. Avani wanted no praise; all she ever wanted was to build a happy life with her husband in their new home, and Tai wasn’t about to allow that to happen.
Days turned into months, and Tai still refused to allow Avani to perform the Tulsi Puja. While Avani attended to the regular household chores every morning, Tai performed the daily ritual. Most days when Tai wasn’t around, Aadi helped Avani with the household chores and this made her smile. Aadi didn’t want to upset his mother by taking Avani’s side, but at the same time, he didn’t want to neglecthis wife. He did whatever he could to lessen Avani’s burden, while ensuring that both women in his life were kept happy. A man who once thought that his wife’s sole purpose was to feed him and satisfy him in bed, Aadi was now transformed. Aadisesha had learnt the real value of love through Avani.
Despite Aadi’s help, Avani was beginning to feel emotionally drained as she continued to endure Tai’s oppressive nature day after day. She missed her parents dearly and the ache of longing to see them echoed through the very marrow of her bones, as though a chill wind was trapped in the chambers of her heart. In her few but spare moments, her mind would rehearse a new letter to them. Little did she know that missing her parents would take over every fiber of her body, wringing her out like a wet sponge. She was unprepared for such torment, but Aadi’s constant support and love helped her stay cheerful and somewhat happy for the most part. She thanked God that she had found such a doting husband in Aadi.
Every morning, was the same routine –wake up, wash the dishes, press Tai’s legs, prepare the meals for the Sayan household, and complete whatever other chores Tai had delegated. However, deep within her heart, it pained her immensely that she had abandoned her dream of starting a school for girls in Pravadh. She had hoped to win Tai over with her love and respect and work towards her dream, but Tai’s cold and heartless demeanor made her feel like she was fighting a losing battle. Despite it all, Avani remained a brave and resilient woman; she had slayed the most ferocious wolf in the Kashyapi within minutes, without any fear for her own life. If she was enduring Tai’s atrocities silently, it was only because she was a strong woman who wanted to see her husband happy at any cost. It would take her only a second to answer back to Tai, but instead, she chose to bow her head in respect to keep the peace in the Sayan home.
It was a new day and the birds were flitting above the Sayan home, singing their sweet melody while joyfully hopping from branch to branch. The house was drenched in the pinkish glow of the sunrise spreading across the sky that tinted the clouds with oranges and reds as if painted by a celestial hand. Tai was feeling unwell that morning and in no condition to perform the Tulsi Puja, so she ordered Avani to perform the ritual. Avani hesitantly agreed; the last time she held the Aarti Thali to perform the Puja a few months earlier, Tai had become furious and threatened Avani, almost crushing her arm on the pretext that she wasn’t worthy enough to offer prayers to the auspicious Tulsi plant of the Sayan home. However, feeling weak and nauseous, Tai had no other option but to ask Avani to perform the Puja that morning. As Tai started to arrange the Aarti Thali in the clinical fashion that she did every morning, Avani sat on the ground and pressed Tai’s legs with vigor. Once Tai was done arranging the items on the Aarti Thali, she pulled in her legs in and thrust the Aarti Thali into Avani’s hand. Staring at her face coldly, she said, “Leave!” Avani left the room silently and walked to the Tulsi plant, as a fatigued Tai lounged in her gloomy room.
Since Tai wasn’t around, Aadi decided to help Avani with her morning chores. So, while Avani bowed her head down in prayer to the Tulsi plant, Aadi swept the front yard to lessen Avani’s burden. However, within minutes of Avani starting the Puja, her vision grew blurry, her head started to swim, and a darkness descended over her, clouding her eyes.
Anxiously, Aadi sprinkled water on Avani’s face from the water pot resting next to the Tulsi plant. When Avani didn’t open her eyes, Aadi began to panic; he frantically sprinkled more water while patting her face. As the cool droplets flowed across Avani’s face, her eyelids started to flutter. On seeing her eyelids move, Aadi breathed in deeply and sat back, letting the relief soak right into hisbones. Holding her gently, he closed his eyes and thanked God for Avani, who was just beginning to open her eyes. Aadi’s relief and happiness were infectious. It started as a tingle in Avani’s fingers and toes, much like the feeling she got when anxious, but instead of worrisome it was warm and fuzzy. She felt it wash over her, like a soothing ray of sunshine, relieving the stress of the morning and leaving her refreshed.
As the warm feeling faded away, Avani stood up with a gentle smile pasted across her face, savoring the memory of Aadi’s care and gentle touch. The feeling was a blissful reminder of the love that had grown between them. Avani loved when Aadi and she simply talked, laughed, and made silly jokes. Aadi, who was still concerned that Avani had fainted, tucked Avani’s hair behind her ear and tried to make eye contact with her to see if she was okay. However, Avani refused to look up at Aadi; Avani’s blush seared through her cheeks, and for a minute, she thought her face was on fire. She suddenly felt awkward, demure, and coy, even going so far as attempting to hide her delicate features behind her elegant fingers. Avani knew that Aadi’s eyes were glued to her – eagerly awaiting a response, or even a glance. Aadi held his breath as Avani leaned up against his shoulders, and raising her lips to his ear.
What Avani whispered in Aadi’s ear was insurmountably beautiful and something he’d never expected to hear in his wildest dreams. As Avani’s words started to sink in, Aadi’s lips slowly stretched wider into a gaping grin, his eyebrows arching for the sky. Avani was surprised that he could hold this expression for as long as he did while he gazed at her. The look on his face was so ecstatic that Avani cupped her face in her palms; she had never seen him so gobsmacked and elated. Aadi jumped to his feet at once, and breathing heavily, he walked backwards to an earthen pot filled with crimson. He immersed his hand in it, almost toppling it over, and grabbing a fistful of color, Aadi chucked it forcefully into the air, screaming at the top of his lungs with joy. A surprised Avani giggled like a little girl as she looked at Aadi’s smiling face. Her bright eyes followed Aadi as he leaped with joy repeatedly, just how a mother’s observant eyes would watch her child in a playground; she had never seen him this happy and free. There was something about the way he smiled, as if tiny butterflies seemed to escape from the pit of his stomach and the sun had somehow slipped from the sky to make a home right there in his heart.
“You’re going to be a daddy soon!” Avani had softly whispered in Aadi’s ear, much to his joy. As the young couple hugged, soaking in each other’s happiness, Guru Tai peered furtively from the window above like a cobra seeking its prey. Avani’s heart was filled with joy and the dulcet tones of her laughter echoed through the hallways of the Sayan home. Guru Tai’s face slid into an insincere smile as she lurked in the shadows of the ancient structure. As Tai continued to watch the young couple’s jubilant celebrations, she silently gestured to the worker at her side for a slip of paper and a pen. After calmly writing something down on the thick sheet of paper, she rolled it up, tied it with a saffron thread, handed it to the worker, and said, “Call him.” The worker respectfully bowed his head, and then slipped through the back door of the Sayan home, darting surreptitiously into the woods.
Guru Tai had shrewdly sensed what was transpiring in the front yard of the Sayan home the moment Aadi and Avani embraced. Quickly realizing that Avani was pregnant, Tai sent a messenger to Mukaddeswar, Pravadh’s chief astrologer, requesting that he grace the Sayan home with his holy presence. Mukaddeswar, or Mukh Baba as he was affectionately known by those closest to him, never visited anyone; people usually had to go to his ashram in the Pravadh foothills to seek his blessings or his advice. However, this was the illustrious home of the Sayan clan, and for them, he would make an exception.
Perhaps more importantly, Mukh Baba cared deeply about Tai for he had seen her grow up in Pravadh before his very own eyes, and he nearly felt as though he had raised her. Orphaned as a child, Tai would often play in front of Baba’s ashram, and he would always invite her in for fruits and milk. Mukh Baba knew Tai inside out, how darkness lurked deep inside her heart, but he also knew how she could cunningly conceal that darkness with a gentle gaze or a soft smile. Whether she asked for it or not, Baba always offered his advice, just as a father would, and Tai had always obeyed him. Years later, it would be Mukh Baba who informed Tai that her husband, Sumedh Rara, had a mistress, Pushpini. A week later, Pushpini was mysteriously found dead in the Kashyapi. Those who knew Tai well and her evil propensity were convinced that she had killed her husband’s lover, while the locals believed that Mukaddeshwar, unwavering in his devotion to the disturbed Tai, had cast a spell which led to Pushpini’s untimely death.
No one knew very much about Mukh Baba’s origins and background. He had a mysterious, dark presence, a body that never seemed to age and at almost six feet tall, he was a giant amongst the young disciples in his ashram in earlier days. However, he was now in the tidewater of his fifth decade and a slight hunchback was beginning to show under his garments. Whilst his lips were large and leathery and his nose a bumpy collection of warts, his mind remained deceptively sharp and ahead of time. There were many clairvoyant people in the neighboring villages who sought to displace him as chief astrologer, but none had bested him in predictions or political posturing. He was quite adept at knowing people’s intentions before they knew of them themselves. Then, it was simply a matter of planting new ideas or thwarting them directly to set them on the right path.
Baba looked up at the sky with his deep-set eyes as he walked into the Sayan home; the clouds wispy and white that morning were now dense and darker. He quickened his pace; this was not the day to be caught in a downpour. The sky was awash with various shades of grey, but somehow, chinks of sunlight managed to force their way through the clouds, randomly illuminating small sections of the Sayan’s front garden. Otherwise, it was almost as dark as pre-dawn. The air was humid and smelt of an impending storm as Tai welcomed Baba into the home by touching his feet. Leading him quietly to a little thicket of bushes at the side of house, Tai whispered, “She’s pregnant.” Baba stared at Tai for a brief moment before peering through the bushes to catch a glimpse of Avani’s glowing face. There she was washing vessels in the Sayan backyard with a smile on her face and lightness in her movements, despite the sweat dripping down her face. As Baba continued to gaze at Avani, his all-seeing eyes taking in the magenta and gold aura that enveloped the crown of her head, Tai mumbled, “I need to know if . . . ,” but before she could even finish her sentence, Baba spun around on his heels, casting wild eyes to the horizon. Behind the empty look he wore on his face, there was sadness and shock. Tai anxiously looked at Baba and then back at Avani as an ominous flock of ravens flew overhead. As Baba started walking briskly towards the front yard, Tai followed him anxiously wondering what was wrong. Sitting heavily down on the steps, Baba squinted at Tai through hardened eyes and said firmly, “I know what you’re thinking, but the stars are not in your favor at this moment!” “You will wait for a few months, and then you will have your answer,” he gasped. Tai was shocked by Baba’s firm words, but bowed her head in respect, to which Baba responded, saying with a hint of sadness, “I have known you since you were a little girl . . . a little girl, Tai.” Baba’s wise eyes stared straight into Tai’s fierce and proud eyes, before he stood up and turned to leave. For the first time in her life, Tai had felt anxious in his presence. She had never seen Baba so vulnerable, but as always, she would listen to him and wait. She looked at Baba’s hunched shoulders as he stopped on his way out and said a prayer to the Tulsi plant before slowly walking away from the Sayan home.
The pregnancy had brought joy and nervous anticipation. Days turned into weeks, and with Avani now a few months pregnant, Aadi had new responsibilities. As far as he was concerned, Avani was the focal point of his life and she deserved love, nourishment, warmth, and protection. There would be days when Avani felt tired and sometimes apprehensive and nervous; however, Aadi never left her side, constantly giving her support, encouragement, and love. The enormity of soon becoming a father was a bit overwhelming, but Aadi faced it like a man. After all, this is what he had always wanted – a family with the love of his life. Nothing else mattered. He stopped making long trips into the woods; instead, against all norms and cultural traditions, he performed Avani’s household chores each morning. Later in the day, he and Avani would spend as much time together as possible, simply enjoying being together.
They were inseparable, while Tai, a silent observer to all of this, burned with jealousy, consumed by thoughts of malicious intent. Mukh Baba had asked her to wait and she was going to obey his orders come what may. Most days, Tai lounged in her gloomy room, plotting her next move, while Avani and Aadi relaxed in each other’s company. Each was the center of the other’s universe; love radiated from them, spreading positive energy all around. This was the love Avani had dreamed about, prayed for. She inwardly thanked God for helping her become the mother of Aadi’s child. She promised to cherish this love all the days of her life for she was finally home.
True to her word, since the day Mukh Baba visited the Sayan home, Tai stayed away from Avani. Before Baba’s warning, Tai would always find ways to keep Aadi and Avani apart. When Aadi returned from the woods, Tai would purposely send Avani to draw water from the large well. Or, if Aadi was due back home after a long absence, she would ask Avani to take the cattle to the woods to graze, so intent was Tai on preventing the young couple from enjoying a happy reunion. So, for Aadi and Avani, Mukh Baba’s instructions to Tai proved to be a blessing in disguise. The superstitious Tai stopped delegating needless chores to Avani and, to her great frustration, kept her distance from Avani in fear that something dreadful might happen to herself or others in the Sayan clan.
Tai’s absence meant that Avani and Aadi were finally getting a chance to spend time together. For the first time in weeks, Avani had stopped pressing Tai’s legs and washing vessels. Although Tai was more than unhappy that her son was so attentive to Avani, she had no choice but to maintain her silence. However, a quiet fire on the verge of erupting was burning inside of her that made her more restless with each passing day. After finishing all the daily chores, Aadi would spend the rest of the day with Avani. He would tell her jokes, recite poems, and talk about adventures from his childhood days, while Avani listened like a little schoolgirl, her eyes transfixed on his face. Aadi tended to Avani as he would a baby, Tai thought disdainfully, feeding her fruits and juices throughout the day and making sure that she got enough rest. His behavior, however, leaned towards being overly protective, so afraid was he to let Avani go outside, insisting that she stay indoors. Aadi seemed worried that something might happen to her and he was taking no chances, especially now that she was pregnant. Perhaps he saw Baba visit the house, Tai thought to herself, but she quickly brushed the concern aside so as not to be distracted from the business at hand. As for Avani, she easily accepted his protective nature as a natural response to becoming a father. To the rest of the world, he might have seemed possessive, but for her, he shone with an inner beauty all the same.
That’s why Avani loved him back equally if not more, a spark that nothing and nobody could ever extinguish. Aadi, on the other hand, would give up anything in the world for Avani and would do anything to keep her happy. He would lay down his life for her as she had done for him. He knew for certain that it was her love for him that had saved him from the dreaded Kashyapi wolf, and that very same love would now break him if anything ever happened to her. They were two halves that made a whole. He stroked her hand and told her the story of how he fell for her, how she had captured his heart, and how he had never regretted a single moment of his time with her.
He often recalled the first time he saw her; she was nurturing a wounded puppy on the side of the road. He told Avani that he finally understood what he had felt that day – it was like he had been let into the warmth after a lifetime of winter. He never wished to go back to even a day before that, for she was the greatest treasure of his life, the one, the only one. Kissing her forehead, he told her that he wanted to name the baby Surya, for their child was created from pure love and was sure to shine as brightly as the sun. It didn’t matter whether it was a boy or girl, the name would be the same. Aadi could tell from her blush that Avani agreed – their baby was the embodiment of love and light. She closed her eyes and embraced him.
The weeks passed, and Avani started to feel a light tickling sensation, as if someone was running a fingertip lightly over her skin…but on the inside. As Baby Surya grew, the light tickle began to feel like a finger flick. It was an exciting phase for Avani and Aadi; the constant kicking was a sign that Surya was getting healthier and stronger each day.
Avani would often joke with Aadi and say, “Look, bubbles are popping around in my belly!”
Aadi would respond by rushing to Avani, kneeling down before her, and resting his ear gently against her belly, saying, “I love you Surya. It’s okay. I’m here. You’re going to be okay. You’re safe. I love you. Everything’s going to be all right. I’m here now, I’m here.”
On hearing Aadi’s gentle voice, the baby in Avani’s womb would stop kicking, relax, and become very quiet. Aadi could sense the baby straining its head towards his voice, and instinctively trying to reach out to the familiar voice.
Aadi had become very protective of Avani, and discouraged her from going outside of the Sayan home. Although Avani understood Aadi’s reasoning, she was beginning to feel restless. She hadn’t seen anything but the walls of the ancient house in a long time. She wanted to run up the mountain or simply go for a walk in the woods. She longed to listen to the birds’ beautiful song, touch the glistening morning dew, or watch the fish dart in and out among the reeds. Her heart felt one with nature and she yearned to share her joy in the midst of its majesty. But much to her disappointment, Aadi always denied her wish.
Avani was just over eight months pregnant, and at Aadi’s insistence, she had been indoors the entire time. However, she needed a break from the dreary hallways and ancient arches of the Sayan Home. She wanted to be one with nature, even for a brief moment. Although not his intention, Aadi sensed his over-protectiveness was making Avani feel frustrated and caged. One fine morning, after Aadi had finished the chores, he entered their bedroom to find Avani sitting in a corner with tears streaming down her face. He rushed to her side, worried that something might be wrong with baby Surya. As he knelt down beside Avani, she turned to him, anger and frustration etched on her face. “I don’t care anymore, Aadi,” she pleaded, “I just need to leave this house! This is not healthy for me or Surya.” As her tears fell on his cheek, Aadi felt disgusted with himself for making Avani feel this way. Wiping the tears from Avani’s face, he promised that he would take her out, then left without saying another word.
Although she didn’t believe him at first, she jumped to her feet when Aadi returned a half-hour later and said, “Let’s go out!” Unaware that Aadi had some workers erect a swing in a safe area of the majestic Kashyapi forest, the doting Aadi carried Avani over a little hill; the trees at its edge were alive with birds and squirrels, and the lake in the valley below was abundant with fish. Avani, Aadi, and Surya weren’t alone at all, yet the solitude she felt in nature washed away her stress. Aadi walked slowly, as Avani dawdled behind, taking in everything around her. As the gentle wind moved through Avani’s long black hair, she closed her eyes, savoring the feel of tousled ribbons whipping about her face, the air as fresh as after a rainstorm. Taking several deep breaths, Avani admired the view; from this vantage point, the fields looked like one of her Appa’s quilts, but instead of his oranges and greens, they were the earthen colors of early spring. The ploughed fields were burnt umber, the pastures still dull, awaiting the bright hues of new growth. It was too early for this hill to have flowers, but she knew if she knelt on the wet blades, tightly folded petals in their green casings, swelling, ready to bloom would kiss her knees. This was her sanctuary from the dark rooms of the Sayan home, these long, lazy walks her therapy. Before she knew it, they had reached the edge of the Kashyapi forest, and as if on cue, the sun sent a bolt of light that split the trees, illuminating the lush beauty of the exquisite forest. The grass was like thick fur, each tuft dripping heavily with water and forming little puddles. Flowers sprouted in an amazing array of colors; beautiful tints, tones, and shades dazzled the senses, caressing the eyes and massaging the soul.
Aadi led Avani to the little area where the men had tied a wooden swing to a tree. Taken completely by surprise and overcome with emotion, tears welled up in Avani’s eyes, so taken was she by Aadi’s thoughtfulness. As she embraced Aadi, he walked her gently over to the swing. However, little did Aadi know that Avani’s tears that morning was a result of pain that she was experiencing. When Aadi had entered their room earlier that day, Avani had her face cupped in her hands in an attempt to hide it from her husband. What Aadi had assumed was anger and frustration because Avani wanted to leave the house, all the more because she had said so very frequently. Avani, with her usual strength of character, saw this as an opportunity to finally get outside into the fresh air and commune with nature. After all, Aadi had asked to take her out, and the pain wasn’t very intense. Thus, she decided to keep quiet about the pain, jumping at the chance to spend time with her husband beyond the oppressive walls of the Sayan home.
Just when Avani thought she couldn’t be any happier, Aadi surprised her yet again. Asking her to close her eyes for a brief moment, he disappeared into the woods, quickly returning with baskets heaped with marigold petals. “Keep your eyes closed for just one more minute,” Aadi gasped. He quickly decorated the Kashyapi forest floor with the bright orange flower petals. Walking towards the swing, Aadi leaned close to her ear and whispered, “Open your eyes in 5, 4, 3…!” as he pulled the swing backwards towards him to make it move faster, and then forward and backwards again. As the swing started to move quicker, Avani gently opened her eyes. With the warm sun kissing her soft skin and the cool breeze massaging her silken hair, Avani was in for a visual treat. She felt like a princess as the swing floated in the fragrant air, with the ground below covered in liquid gold. Overcome with emotion, Avani screamed, “Why do you love me so much?” Aadi smiled and screamed back, “Because you’re like the mother I never had, the best friend I’ve always wanted, and the lover I always dreamt of being with. That’s why!” Avani’s heart melted as she heard Aadi’s genuine words. With a big smile and moist eyes, Avani pushed the swing into the air to make it go higher, all the while noticing the fresh green grass all around, interspersed with daffodils that bobbed delightfully. The branches of the tall Kashyapi trees swayed in the wind as if they were hands waving at the young couple. And as the swing moved faster in the air, Avani put her head back and looked at the fluffy clouds in the pale blue sky. The early morning rain had now stopped, but the moisture in the air and the sunshine had left a beautiful rainbow arching through the sky, past the clouds and trailing off towards Pravadh, which was visible in the distance. Sensing that Avani was continuing to enjoy every moment, Aadi continued to push the swing cautiously, making sure he was holding onto her safely. Avani smiled delightedly as she breathed the fragrant air that filled the Kashyapi forest. Just as she was about to close her eyes, she saw something moving by the tree. It looked like a deer… yes, it was a deer… its body curved over, with a smooth dome of fur across its back. It looked up at Avani, then twitched its nose before darting back into the woods. Watching the deer disappear among the swaying trees, beneath the rainbowed sky, Avani laughed with joy for the beauty of nature and for the love of the man who had brought her this magical moment.
Little did Avani know, the pain she had ignored to escape the dark hallways of the Sayan home would come back to bite her hard. As Aadi continued to push the swing, Avani’s stomach started to tighten.
“Aadi STOP!” she screamed at the top of her lungs.
Aadi stopped pushing the swing, grabbed onto it and brought it to a halt immediately using both hands, holding onto Avani. She staggered from theswing and, before it could even stop fully, she lay on the ground, clutching her tummy with both hands, scrunching the fabric of her clothing.
“My t-tummy… been hurting all morning, Aadi, ah…!” she gasped. “I-I’m sorry… I didn’t know it would get so b-bad…”
A worried Aadi took a moment to compose himself and said with a reassuring smile, “It’s okay, Ma… Is it hurting a lot?”
Before Avani could even hear what he said, she heard a scream, unaware even that it had been wrenched from herself. Within minutes the pain had shot up substantially, more intense than anything Avani had ever imagined. Nothing could be more brutal—not the cutting sting of a whip, not the constricted choking of chains. All she could feel of the forest now was the hard stony ground and tall ominous trees lurking above. Her beloved husband melted into the background as if he wasn’t even there.
An acute pain, lancing through her, crushing her, squeezing her, like an implosion of bones and muscle engulfed her. Tears welled up in her eyes. Her insides hurt so much that it made her take leave of herself, totally stripping away her modesty and embarrassment. Avani felt like a wave had taken her under before she could even breathe. Like a wrench around the spine. A tiny body proclaiming itself far louder than it had any right to; a tiny body needing her so much it was wringing her dry; a tiny body taking her head in its hands from inside her body and saying, ‘I’m here, Amma; love me, love me until your heart breaks, love me until there’s nothing left; I am, Amma, I’m here now, I’m here… Where are you?’
Avani screamed with pain and Aadi looked at her face reassuringly; realizing there was not much he could do, he tried to be the calm, confident, hand-holder as he lay beside her like a rock. Moving his face closer to Avani’s he whispered, “It’ll be okay Ma, I’m right here…”
Avani held onto Aadi’s hand tightly. She felt a pop, like a knuckle crack, and then a gush.
Aadi heard the pop too and he knew he couldn’t take a chance now; it was too late to carry her home or to the local doctor who lived on the Pravadh outskirts, far away from where they now were. He looked deep into Avani’s eyes.
“Avani, look at me,” he urged. “Focus… Surya will be with us soon.”
A piercing pain engulfed Avani as she felt Surya’s head press against her pelvis. Sweating profusely and in distress, Avani continued to push while Aadi offered his comfort and support as best he could. Pushing was the worst, but it somehow seemed to ease her pain slightly. She could feel every stretch, pull, and tear, the burning unlike anything she had ever experienced. Then, suddenly, she heard a gentle cry and looked down to see Aadi cradling his little girl in his outstretched arms.
As she peered through brand new eyes at what must have seemed like such a strange world after life in the womb, Surya curled her tiny fingers around Aadi’s, already seeking her father’s protection. Kicking her legs in tiny, jerked movements, she searched for Amma’s belly, which she was so used to, but only felt fresh air. Aadi burst into tears of relief and joy as Surya’s gentle cries floated through the Kashyapi forest. Turning his glossy eyes to Avani, he whispered in a broken voice, “We have a beautiful baby girl. . .” Avani smiled through her exhaustion, her eyes drifting from Aadi to Surya, as he lay their baby on her stomach, bare skin to bare skin. Overwhelmed by emotions, Avani cried the sweetest tears she’s ever known, all the pain of the past moments melting away. Surya was only minutes old but had already begun to root, mouth wide, her instincts strong. Avani had been madly in love with her little princess since the day she knew she was pregnant, but seeing her child for the very first time, she was awestruck by the overwhelming feelings of pure unconditional love that she was now experiencing. Nothing and no one could have prepared her for this. Surya’s cries made it all the more real. Avani looked into Surya’s gentle eyes and whispered, “This is my baby, my beautiful miracle,” as Aadi embraced his wife and daughter, wrapping his arms around them both. In that instant, Avani knew she would do anything to protect her child, that her love was as vast as the universe yet solid as rock. She was a mother and would always be.
Guru Tai had kept her silence all these many months as Mukh Baba had advised, but she was growing more restless with each passing minute. The news of Avani and Aadi’s newborn baby girl had spread across Pravadh like wildfire, and while the elated young couple were rejoicing in the birth of baby Surya, a distraught Guru Tai was, yet again, sending one of her trusted aides to summon Mukh Baba. However, the mysterious Baba had set out on a pilgrimage and was nowhere to be found. Sensing that it might be too late if she waited for Baba’s return, Guru Tai decided that she couldn’t stay away from Avani any longer. This ill-chosen woman had given birth to a baby girl, after all, and a boy is what the family wanted, someone who could take the Sayan legacy forward. Surely her son could see this for himself, the infuriated Tai thought. However, to Tai’s dismay, her son stood beaming at Avani’s side, seemingly euphoric over the birth of a girl child, while oblivious to his mother’s distress.
Having locked in her hatred and disdain for Avani for months on end, Tai was in no mood to feign happiness for their baby daughter. So when the jubilant couple approached Tai to seek her blessings, to Avani’s utter shock, her response was to curse her, calling her an evil witch. Tai simply could not contain herself any longer; she was the matriarch of the Sayan home and it was time that someone had the nerve to speak the truth, or so she thought. Since Mukh Baba wasn’t around, maybe that was a sign from the universe for her to act upon her instincts, Tai justified to herself. A hapless and dispirited Aadi stood at the front door of the ancient house, pleading with his mother to bless his child, but Tai refused to even look at baby Surya. Instead, she leaned forward and with a devious smile, she whispered into Avani’s ears, “You just made the biggest mistake of your life . . .” Avani’s heart froze in her chest as she looked into Tai’s eyes, for they held a darkness that day resembling the very barren wintery night where hope seemed galaxies away. Aadi who was horrified to hear his mother’s words, was so distraught and hurt that he immediately grabbed Avani’s hand and rushed out, trying with all his might to hold back his tears.
As Aadi walked Avani away from the Sayan home, Tai’s loathsome words echoed in his ears, making him feel weak and powerless. He couldn’t believe his own mother had just called Avani a witch and refused to bless his newborn child, her grandchild, a pure and innocent blessing that she had heartlessly called a “mistake.” Hurt and distraught, Aadi walked Avani into the nearby woods; knowing her fondness for nature, he hoped this would distract her from what had just happened. With sadness flowing through his veins and deadening his mind, he held Avani’s hand as she followed him through the narrow pathway. Avani, who had remained silent all this time, could not hold back her anguish any longer. Hot tears streamed from her eyes as she thought about the pain her husband must be feeling. How could one’s own mother be so cold-hearted towards her own grandchild?
Avani knew Aadi was like a little child on the inside – naïve, innocent, and blessed with the purest of hearts. It wasn’t as though he didn’t want to speak up for his child and wife. He would if he could, but he simply didn’t know how to. Nor did he have the courage to do so, because Tai had always told him what to do and he was never allowed to make his own decisions. Of course, Avani could have put Tai in her place in a second; for that matter, she could have even given her a right slap across her face, and deservedly so for the venom she spewed. But no, Avani would never do that – she was too strong for that. She would not go against her elders, and certainly not against her husband’s mother whom she considered like her own under the circumstances. How could she fight or hurt her?
What was most important was Aadi, the love of her life, and anything that belonged to Aadi belonged to her. She could have run away from the Sayan home to escape Tai’s clutches, or poisoned Aadi’s mind against his own mother, but Avani had principles, and more importantly, she was a loyal wife and dutiful daughter-in-law. She might have killed the wolf to protect her husband, but she wasn’t willing to kill any relationships. In Avani’s silence lay her strength, and in that strength her love, and in that love was Aadi and Surya. As the young couple stepped deeper into the woods, his eyes misty and feeling emotionally spent, Aadi murmured, “Amma doesn’t mean it. I’m sorry about her . . .” But before he could even finish the sentence, Avani gently placed her palm on his mouth. “I have you, I have Surya, there’s nothing more I want in this world,” she whispered softly, the full weight of her love in her words as she embraced Surya to her bosom and leaned her head on her husband’s shoulder.
As worried as Avani was about Aadi, he was equally upset about the way his wife had been treated by his mother. Tai had made Avani feel like an outsider in her own house. Instead of embracing her grandchild, she spewed venom, refusing to even look at Surya’s face. Aadi’s heart bled as he thought about how Avani must be feeling; she hadn’t seen her parents in the longest time, and instead of showing her affection and gratitude, Tai had nearly threatened her. Of course, Guru Tai was too small-minded to realize that such selfish and uncharitable acts would only bring Aadi and Avani closer together, so strong was their love for each other and their precious child.
Aadi had to pull himself together and fast, for his own sake and that of his little family’s, for he was quickly descending into a state of self-loathing. What kind of man stands by helplessly and watches his own mother treat his wife so horrifically, he wondered. For a fleeting moment, he thought that, perhaps, everyone would have been better off if the wolf had succeeded in killing him, since he wasn’t doing much while he was alive and breathing. Tormenting himself even further, he then thought if he had lost his life, who would take care of Avani and Surya. As much as he didn’t want to face the truth, he believed that Tai was capable of destroying his wife and daughter if anything ever happened to him. A thought too ugly to say out loud, it made his heart shudder and twisted his mind into a hot, murky mess.
Despite being emotionally and mentally exhausted, he took a deep breath, and glancing at beautiful little Surya nestled against Avani’s chest, he immediately made up his mind to rid himself of this negativity that was consuming his mind and heart. How could he be so selfish and wallow in his misery, when he had so much to be thankful for? This should be the happiest time of their life, and he was going to make Avani smile again no matter what it took. She had just become a mother, she should always be smiling, he thought to himself.
As they walked further into the Kashyapi, Aadi suddenly bounded ahead of Avani, leaving her a few steps behind. Confused, she watched in surprise as Aadi suddenly spun around and broke into dance. With tears streaming from his eyes, he laughed through it as he stared at the most beautiful woman in the world, noticing that a smile was beginning to form on her face. Born with two left feet, Aadi was inventing moves all his own, which made him laugh even more. His laughter was contagious and soon Avani was laughing, too. With a silly grin on his face and his arms outstretched, he made the most awkward of moves as he approached his wife as if to ask her to dance. Before Avani knew it, Aadi had scooped her and Surya up in his arms, and the three of them were swaying around in circles. Aadi and Avani’s faces were turned towards the sun, laughing together with joy and relief, remembering how wonderful it is to just be silly. Even Surya, to their delight, was reveling in the moment, gurgling sweetly with subtlest of smiles on her face. Aadi was, indeed, a child at heart and he would do anything to see Avani smile. His love for Avani made him dance like his life was on the line, and against all odds, alive and happy was exactly how they both were feeling at that very moment. Aadi knew then that he would do anything, as long as it brought Avani and Surya happiness.
It was now high noon and the sun beat down with unrestrained brutality, as a few withering trees cast patches of pathetic shade onto the smoldering Kashyapi floor. Aware of the encroaching heat, Aadi released Avani, worried that the dancing would be too much for her and little Surya. Inwardly, Aadi was breathing a sigh of relief for Avani had stopped crying as soon as he had started to dance. A big smile was now spread across Avani’s face as she embraced Surya and watched Aadi continue to entertain them with his funny dance moves and clownish gestures. However, the unrelenting heat licked at their sunburned faces, coiling around their limbs like a serpent. Surprisingly, Surya wasn’t showing any signs of dehydration or heat exhaustion. In fact, Aadi and Avani noted that she was smiling. “Surya was a most fitting name, Aadi. The heat doesn’t take a feather off this little one,” Avani said. “She has her mother’s strength,” Aadi lovingly replied. Still, taking no chances, Aadi and Avani quickly moved under a tall tree to protect little Surya from the burning sun.
So upset were they by Tai’s behavior that they had walked further and further into the Kashyapi without realizing how deeply they had ventured. The ground was now sizzling, sending up a disorientating haze; not a blade of grass swayed nor did the birds make a sound, as if all of nature was too hot to move. Avani, who hadn’t eaten all morning, felt hollowness in the pit of her stomach, while her eyes were burning, somewhat from the searing heat but more so from the tears she shed since leaving the Sayan home. Aadi was also exhausted, but he was used to the heat since he ventured into the Kashyapi regularly to gather firewood. As the sultry heat pressed in on Avani, she began to feel woozy and lightheaded. Her mouth was parched and her palms were no longer sweating. Every lungful of hot air robbed more water from Avani’s body. Unable to bear the thirst any longer, Avani turned to Aadi, but before she even had a chance to ask him to bring her some water from the nearby pond, Aadi kissed Avani on her forehead and said gently, “I’ll fetch some water from the Vimala. Rest here under tree until I get back. I don’t want you to waste any more energy, okay?” Avani nodded as she held onto little Surya protectively and watched Aadi as he walked away.
Her eyes stayed glued on Aadi from the moment he kissed her goodbye, hoping that he would turn around one last time before completely disappearing, but he didn’t. She watched until he fell from her sight behind the green hillock in the distance. For his part, Aadi was of two minds; he hated leaving Avani and Surya alone in the forest, but with Avani completely dehydrated and aching for something to drink, he didn’t have any other choice but to go fetch some water. As a reluctant Aadi walked away from Avani and Surya, he felt like the world was slowly disappearing in front of him. Or maybe it was he who was fading away. Banishing this dark thought, Aadi picked up his pace to get to Vimala and back as soon as possible. He felt his lungs burning and his heart hitting his chest so hard that he thought it would break his ribs and rip apart his skin. He knew they had ventured too deeply into the Kashyapi and the Vimala River was a fair distance away. But they couldn’t return to the Sayan home either, he thought. Avani was dangerously dehydrated and wouldn’t be able to walk that far without water, and he couldn’t risk exposing little Surya to the burning afternoon Sun on the long route back.
Avani wished he had looked back, smiled, and reassured her that he would return soon. She knew he had already said it once, but it wouldn’t have hurt to say it again, Avani thought to herself. Suddenly, Avani felt very alone and vulnerable – it was just her and little Surya in the Kashyapi, and Aadi was nowhere in sight. Because of the recent dry spell, the grass crackled beneath her feet as she stepped forward. There was no sound of a tree’s swaying movements in the breeze, for it was replaced by the snapping sound of twigs being crushed behind her. For a second, she could have sworn someone was following her, like her crunching footsteps were not alone. Avani jerked her head to get a quick glimpse of what she thought was a tall woman towering over her, but soon realized it was just a thin tree, bending close to the path. Wary of her surroundings, Avani quickened her pace, making her way to a huge tree in front of her, the eerie, dark green forest passing in a blur beside her. For a brief moment, she felt betrayed, like the sweet, welcoming Kashyapi had tricked her, lured her into sending Aadi away. At exactly that same moment, Aadi was tormented by thoughts of wild animals prowling the forest as day moved towards dusk. Although awash with a yellow glow, the sky was quickly being engulfed by deep gray, smoky clouds. Avani sat down gently on the dry ground and rested her back against the knobby trunk of a tree, her head leaning against the cool, thick mossy bark. The Kashyapi had started to feel different from the very moment Aadi had left them. Surya had begun to fuss almost as soon as Aadi was gone, her agitated cries reverberating in the dense forest. As Avani studied her surroundings and looked above, she was overwhelmed by the size and majesty of the trees. Their knotted arms rose ever upwards, as far as her head could lift. They were hoary fortresses and stood like messengers of death with their heads hanging down. An anxious Avani hugged Surya to her bosom to calm her, and then closed her eyes; the Lord’s name on her lips, she secretly prayed that Aadi would return soon.
Aadi, now a fair distance away, was frantically running to get to the Vimala River and back before sundown, while Avani was still trying to comfort Surya, whose cries pierced the silence of the Kashyapi. Her eyes still closed from sheer exhaustion, Avani instinctively kept her ears wide open and alert, ready to fend off any unwanted intruders. But her exhaustion and dehydration were getting the better of her, and she fought the urge to drift off into a deep sleep. Unbeknownst to Aadi and Avani, there were greater dangers than wild animals to fear for; Tai and her men were quickly descending on them. Tai went into a rage when Aadi left the Sayan home holding Avani’s hand, all for the sake of that damned child, she thought, and damned it will be after I get my hands on the little piece of muck. She angrily directed her men to still themselves as she listened for the slightest sound, her eyes darting in all directions, a scowl on her face as she sniffed the air like a wild beast.
While Avani and Aadi were dancing with little Surya in the Kashyapi, Tai had been planning murder, a slaughter more likely, as she gathered her men and ordered them to sharpen their swords for the attack. Tai’s plan was to sever baby Surya’s head from her little torso and feed it to the vultures to scavenge upon while Avani watched. “This woman must suffer as much as much as she’s made me suffer, stealing my son and wrecking the sanctity of the Sayan home!” she hissed at the men, who stood frozen in their places, in fear for their own lives should they cross Guru Tai. Mukh Baba’s absence had made it somewhat easier for Tai to unleash her revenge on Avani and the child. If Baba ever questioned Tai, she would say that he wasn’t in Pravadh, which is why she couldn’t seek his advice. Mukh Baba had seen this horror coming many months earlier when he had visited the Sayan home and had implored Tai to stay away from Avani. In his heart, Baba believed that what was destined to happen would happen but chose to remain silent. He held Tai back for as long as he could, but destiny had different plans. Hatred spewed like bile from every pore of Tai’s towering body as she scanned the Kashyapi with her men, suddenly realizing she could see no sign of Avani. She ordered half the men to search the forest down to the Vimala River, while the rest followed her in the other direction. As she moved past the thick bushes, her eyes darting more wildly with each passing second, she scanned the thick brush for pale orange, the color of the sari Avani was wearing when she last saw her. She began screaming at her men, her cries getting ever louder, until the men shuddered with fear. They had their hearts in their mouths; they knew she wouldn’t spare them if they didn’t find Avani soon. She threw her sinewy arms in the air and howled, “Bring me the head of that damned baby!” her voice almost cracking. “She’s about this high,” she gestured wickedly, her hands approximating the height of a newborn baby, and her face suddenly changing from an evil grimace to a sinister smile. A sea of cold and heartless faces stared back at her, nodding in agreement before darting ahead. Tai’s henchman, who had stayed back, suddenly appeared at her side and whispered, “Do you hear that, Guru Mai?” Tai peered into the man’s eyes, a vicious smile forming on her face as her eyes widened. It was the sound of a baby crying. The men quickly moved in the direction of the sound, clearing bushes and tall spiky grass with their swords to make a path for Tai. Suddenly, they saw Avani sleeping like a baby herself against a tree in the distance. Tai turned a cold stare to her men, and raising a bony finger to her lips, she signaled them to be silent as she walked ahead. As they closed in on Avani, she gestured to her men to surround Avani from all sides. But, as soon as Avani heard the sound of a branch breaking underfoot, she opened her eyes at once and clutched Surya to her chest. In her worst nightmares she could not have imagined the site before her, for towering over her was none other than Tai, with an an evil grin on her face, and her men behind her, their swords at the ready.
Avani jumped to her feet the moment she saw the swords in the men’s hands. Holding Surya tightly to her chest, Avani stood perfectly still in fight mode, assessing her next move. An adrenaline injection had replaced her sheer exhaustion; her heart thudded against her chest, and beads of sweat formed on her forehead. Tai took a menacing step forward, her eyes transfixed on Avani’s pale face, and pointing to her own feet, she bellowed, “This is where you belong, down here with the rest of the dirt!” With a sinister grin plastered across her face, she gestured to her men and roared, “Take that damned baby away from her and bring it to me!” Tai’s words echoed in Avani’s ears and a hideous chill ran up her spine, while a fury she didn’t know she possessed consumed her psyche. They will have to kill me before they can take my child away from me, Avani thought. Her eyes flashed with anger, as she looked from Tai to the two men closest to her. At Tai’s order, the two men flung their swords to the ground and lunged at Avani, as if they were hungry wolves and baby Surya their prey. The men grabbed Avani’s slender arms with full force, their nails piercing her flesh and causing her to howl in agony. Almost frothing at the mouth with animalistic rage, a mother protecting her young, she would not loosen her grip on Surya, not now, not ever. Avani would die a million deaths before she would let go of her child, her entire world. Although just a little baby, a little life, Surya had instilled in Avani the faith and courage to fight a hundred Tai’s!
The men pulled and grabbed Avani’s shoulders, trying in vain to release her clutches from her child, while Tai stood there grinning like an evil ogre, relishing the pain and horror she was inflicting. She could have easily taken the baby with more men, but she was enjoying watching Avani’s tormented struggling far too much for that. Of course, Tai did not know what Avani was capable of when it came to protecting those she loved. Had she known the truth about the wolf slaying, she may have considered her strategy more carefully, rather than thinking that the time was rife to strike with Mukh Baba and Aadi out of the picture. Surya was now crying convulsively; the feral smell of the attacking men and the sounds of her mother’s screams and grunts instinctively filled the infant with fear. As Tai and the rest of the men danced in ecstasy at the scene before them, the two men threw punches in Avani’s face every now and then, hoping she would succumb to the pain and let go. But Avani’s hands were firmly gripped around Surya, protecting her little head by pressing it against her chest. She would take another million punches but her fingers around her baby would never loosen. In fact, as Avani suddenly felt her body fill with an overwhelming, almost spiritual strength, the men’s grip on her weakened. Inexplicably, they were tiring and Avani was ready to make her move.
The revolting sound of Tai and her men shook Avani to her very core. She knew they would soon be upon her if she didn’t pull herself together quickly. Wounded and terrified, Avani collected herself, and scrambling to her feet with Surya in her arms, she began to run through the Kashyapi as fast as her torn bloody legs could take her. As she ran through the thick forest, limping painfully from the deep gash in her foot, her eyes remained fixated on the horizon, as if an oasis awaited her. The sky was ablaze with hues of reds, purples, and oranges, reminding her all at once of brighter, happier times in the past and the deep emotional and physical wounds of the present. Little did she know that Tai had spread her men throughout the forest with strict orders not to leave a single stone unturned.
Avani had run so far that she could actually see the Vimala River in the distance. Fatigued and hurting from all her wounds, she crouched behind a wall of thick bushes to catch her breath for a brief moment. Overcome by emotion and completely exhausted, Avani looked at baby Surya’s smiling face, and kissing her on the forehead, she whispered, “I’m sorry.” Hot tears streamed down her bloody face and fell onto Surya’s cheek, staining the infant’s face with tawny reminders of the danger they were in. Immediately, as if responding to her mother’s tears and fears, she let out a gentle cry, “Maaa . . . aaaa . . . waaaa!” Surya was just a few days old and she definitely couldn’t speak, but Avani clutched her to her bosom as tightly as she could and wept silently and helplessly. She just called me “Amma!” Avani thought to herself. Aadi would be so happy if I told him, a gentle smile now appearing on her blood-stained face. However, before she could feel grateful for having such a beautiful and miraculous baby who just called her Amma, she heard the ominous hissing of Tai’s men. Fearing for Surya’s life, with her heart in her mouth, Avani wrapped the cloth around Surya even more tightly so she could secure her as she continued evade the men.
The sun was now a fiery red orb of light slowly tip-toeing at the edge of the horizon. Threads of sunlight lingered in the sky, mingling with the rolling clouds and dyeing the heavens first orange and then red. As the sounds of Tai’s men’s footsteps grew louder, Avani darted in the direction of the Vimala, hoping to find Aadi by taking a narrow path that she saw in front of her. Within minutes of Avani emerging from the thicket of bushes, Tai’s evil men, who were hiding behind thick trees and huge rocks throughout the Kashyapi, saw Avani’s orange sari pop against the deep brown bark of the trunks. Immediately, and as if on cue, they slithered out of their hiding places like venomous serpents, creeping across the Kashyapi at lightning speed, their eyes glued on their wounded prey. Avani’s heart was racing and her ears were ringing with the pounding of blood through her veins. Nearly blinded by her tears, she ran aimlessly in the direction of the river, her blood curdling from the sound of Tai’s command, “Get her now!!”
As the panic-stricken Avani darted in the direction of the river, she suddenly had a flashback to her childhood when, as a little girl, she would often aim at a little mango tree in the Mistla’s backyard. Blessed with a natural athleticism, a good eye, and a strong arm, she would hurl stones in the direction of the fat juicy mangoes that dangled from the tree’s limbs. This was her way of killing time as she waited for her Dad to return from his shop and take her for a ride on his cycle. This habit carried forth, even into young adulthood. Thus, with Surya secure in cloth wrapped around her, Avani started to bend down while running, scooping up sharp heavy stones, until she had gathered a substantial handful. Realizing that the only way to fight back was to attack, Avani spun around and aimed a sharp stone in the direction of one of Tai’s men. As the stone hit the man’s eye dead on and with full force, he slumped to the ground, wailing, “My eye, I’ve lost my eye! I can’t see!” The men at his back heartlessly trampled over him; they had no time to waste on their comrade. Gaining confidence from that shot, Avani pelted several stones in their direction, catching one on the forehead and knocking him out cold, while the others struck mouths, chests, and limbs, shattering teeth and hemorrhaging blood in the process. As the men tumbled to the ground in a heap, wailing and screaming in various levels of distress and pain, Avani took advantage of the distraction and turned sharply to hide behind a huge boulder.
For a brief interlude, there was silence; not a man to be seen. However, Avani could still hear the distant screams and wails of Tai’s men. Glancing at Surya quickly and sensing that she was thirsty, Avani hugged her tightly, gathered a few more stones and sticks, and then emerged from her hiding place to run in the direction of the Vimala. Upon reaching the riverbank, she knelt down quickly, and dipping her fingers in the cool water, she put a few droplets of fresh water first in Surya’s mouth and then her own. She looked around for Aadi frantically, but he was nowhere to be seen. “Aadi, Aadi! Where are you?” she screamed at the top of her lungs as tears streamed down her face. She did not care if Tai and her men could hear her; most important to her at this point was to be reunited with her husband. With each passing minute, the sound of Tai’s men grew louder and louder as they closed in on her. Taking a deep breath and with the Lord’s name on her lips, Avani hugged Surya protectively, before wrapping the cloth securely around herself and gathering a few more sticks and stones. She wondered if Aadi was in trouble; confused and scared, she ran up and down the river’s edge, but before she could decide on her next move, Tai’s men, who had been standing on a little hillock, spotted her. Avani ran a few hundred meters, but Tai’s men descended the hillock from various directions, capturing her like a pack of wolves after their prey. As they dragged her to Guru Tai, the men punched and beat her until the headstrong Avani was bleeding from head to toe. Throwing her down with great force at Tai’s feet, Avani held onto Surya securely and protectively, cursing her own fate and praying that her husband was safe.
Tai marched ahead, looking down at Avani as if she was a piece of dirt. With her powerful arms, she grabbed Surya from Avani’s arms, not caring for even a moment that it was a little child. Avani, now severely weak and feeling powerless and helpless, could do nothing but let go of her baby. Tai’s men stood there with sharp swords; had she held onto Surya for even a second longer, she was certain they would have severed the head of the baby within seconds. Fearing for Surya’s life, Avani begged, “I will leave Pravadh with my child. I will never show you my face again, Mai. Just please don’t hurt my child!” Tai looked down at Avani scornfully and growled, “You should have thought about that before giving birth to this piece of muck!” Holding onto Surya who was now securely wrapped in the cloth, Tai looked at the orange sun, which was now a sallow shadow of its daytime self, almost hidden beneath the hills. Then, she laughed loudly and wickedly, the menacing sound of which echoed through the Kashyapi. “Please don’t do anything, please, Mai. . .” begged Avani, as blood and tears streamed down her face. The more Avani cried, the more Tai smiled as she held onto Surya with one hand as if it was a piece of meat waiting to be stewed.
Despite all that was happening, Avani still had a prayer for Aadi on her lips. Where can he be? she wondered. Did a wild animal attack him? Had he lost his way? Her mind ran in a million places, but never could she have imagined that Aadi had been captured by Tai’s men hours ago. Aadisesha was Tai’s stepson; she had never considered him her own despite her outward show of affection. When Aadi had held Avani’s hand and walked out of the Sayan home, Tai had felt disgraced. Is this what I get for having brought up this boy with so much affection and love throughout my life? she fumed. This is a different Aadi from what I know, that evil witch Avani has cast a spell on him! I must get rid of the evil spirit residing in him, Tai thought to herself. She immediately ordered her men to capture Aadi and lock him in Kaal Kutir, a dungeon on the outskirts of Pravadh where people who were possessed by evil spirits were thrown. Each day, the inmates were tortured, beaten, and whipped until they were rid of the evil spirits. Sadly, Aadi was not possessed, nor had Avani cast a spell on him. All he had done was to stand up for his beloved wife and child.
Little did Avani know that as she begged and pleaded Tai to spare the life of her child, Aadi was tied to an iron cot and on the verge of death from being beaten repeatedly until he lost consciousness. His face was unrecognizable and his breathing shallow. He was certain all his ribs had been broken. He wept silently, fading in and out of sleep, questioning why and how such a fate could befall a man who had tried to lead a pure and honest life. Each time Aadi woke, he would mutter only two words, Avani and Surya. Yet again he would be beaten until he lost consciousness.
Looking town at Surya with an evil smile plastered across her face, Tai raised one heavy leg and moved it right above Surya’s little head. “Why don’t you stop me?” she asked mockingly.
Avani winced in pain as she raised her head and looked at her child on the ground. As Tai raised her fleshy leg above the baby’s head, the look of agony on Avani’s face melted into a harsh smile that etched itself across her battered face. Much to Tai’s surprise, Avani’s smile turned into laughter, which was like ripples in a still pond after a stone had been thrown in. It radiated outwards through the Kashyapi, which had, until that moment, been quite silent. Now the birds and trees too started to titter, and soon the sound of laughter filled the ancient forest.
The more Avani laughed, the more it angered Tai, who wondered why Avani was laughing despite the fact that her child was about to be crushed under her foot.
“Let me see how you laugh now!” Tai roared, engulfed with rage. Then she pounded her foot straight into the little baby’s skull.
“How dare you?” Tai hissed. In truth, she had sensed something was wrong the moment Avani started to laugh. Beads of sweat formed on Tai’s head as she bent down and opened the cloth, expecting to see Surya’s bloody, distorted face. To her surprise, instead of baby Surya, there were only sticks and stones, the same kind of stones Avani had used earlier to attack Tai’s men.
Tai’s eyes turned red with anger as she turned towards Avani. “Where is the baby?” she growled, her eyes protruding from their sockets.
Avani’s laughter vanished, and with the anger of a thousand scorned goddesses, she screamed, blood and saliva oozing from her injured mouth. “How dare you even think about killing my child? How dare you?” Her voice echoed through the Kashyapi, sending a chill down everyone’s spine.
Tai stood still, her body trembling with anger as she stared at Avani’s livid face. She had never seen this side of her.
“You will never find my child, so don’t even try!” Avani gasped, spitting out blood as she spoke.
Tai glanced at the bundle of stones and sticks one more time in utter disbelief, and then she turned to Avani. Avani was naïve and innocent. How had she managed to do this?
Avani had protected her child, and that’s all she cared about. As she looked at Tai’s shell-shocked face, her anger melted away, her lips curling into a mocking smile. “Ask your men to hold me tight,” she said in a serious tone, her eyes locked on Tai’s face. “Should they let go, I will break your neck with my bare hands, crack your skull, and feed your body to the wolves!”
Tai’s anger skyrocketed. Not only had Avani hidden the baby, she had just insulted her in front of her men.
“How dare you speak to me like that?” howled Tai as she stomped towards Avani with a sword in her hand.
Tai’s men wouldn’t hear a word against their Mai, and before Tai could even reach Avani, they had already punched Avani several times in the face, breaking her teeth and cutting her head open in several places. Avani was now bleeding profusely from her head; she was struggling for breath and slowly losing consciousness. The entire forest seemed blurry, and Avani could barely see anything clearly.
Tai stood in front of Avani, and looking down at her face she asked harshly, “Where’s the baby?”
Before the exhausted Avani could respond, Tai’s men struck her in the face again, shouting: “Answer Mai, or we will skin you alive!”
Tai’s eyes widened, a crazed look coming over her, as she looked down at Avani’s bloody face. “Where’s the baby?” she continued, “I’m asking you for the last time…”
Avani, despite her painful injuries and her broken teeth, refused to answer. Instead, she looked slowly up at Tai, gathered the masses of blood and saliva in her mouth, and, in a final act of defiance, spat on Tai’s face with determined force. “You will never find Surya!” she shouted, “Not you, not your men, nobody!”
Tai, in utter disbelief, reached up and touched the bloody spit on her face. Then, in a fit of rage, she raised her sword above her head and brought it down hard against Avani’s slender neck. The sword made a deep gash that exposed Avani’s veins and cartilage; cascades of blood rushed in every direction. Avani collapsed to the floor, mumbling Aadi’s name as blood pooled around her head on the ground.
Tai’s lips widened, her mouth twisting into a sickening smile as she looked at Avani before turning to her men. “The Kashyapi vultures will have a feast today! Let us go find that piece of muck!” she cried.
Tai’s men bowed their heads and followed Tai as she marched away, leaving Avani and her blood behind. As Tai walked farther and farther, Avani’s breathing became slower and slower. Within minutes, she stopped breathing completely. There she lay, completely still, her hands still clinging tightly to her mangalsutra.
After Avani had attacked Tai’s men with the sharp stones, they had tumbled to the ground in a heap, wailing and screaming in distress and pain. That was when Avani had taken advantage of the distraction and turned sharply to hide behind a huge boulder. For a brief interlude, there was not a man to be seen. But Avani could still hear the distant screams and wails of Tai’s men. In panic, and fearing for the life of her child, Avani hugged Surya to her bosom with one hand and then quickly filled the cloth in which Surya had been wrapped with sticks and stones so that it would seem as if a child was still in it.
Once she had filled the cloth, she emerged from her hiding place and ran in the direction of the Vimala. Upon reaching the riverbank, she knelt down quickly and, dipping her fingers in the cool water, placed a few droplets of fresh water first into Surya’s mouth and then into her own. As the sound of Tai’s men’s footsteps grew louder, Avani quickly made a makeshift raft out of the midrib of a dried coconut leaf. She placed baby Surya on this as securely as she could.
Before setting Surya afloat, Avani had frantically looked around for Aadi, but he was nowhere to be seen. “Aadi, Aadi! Where are you?” she had screamed at the top of her lungs as tears streamed down her face. With each passing minute, the sound of Tai’s men grew louder and louder as they began to close in on her. Taking a deep breath and with the Lord’s name on her lips, the helpless Avani kissed Surya several times before gently setting her afloat on the little raft, praying again and again that little Surya would safely reach the neighboring village of Bandhumati. Avani then ran away from the Vimala, holding the bundle she had made from the sticks and stones as if it were a baby in order to distract Tai’s men. The men found Avani and began to chase her, not realizing that the baby they were looking for was no longer with her.
As the sun sank behind the Pravadh roof tops, its color deepened from orange to crimson red, making it seem as if heaven itself was in mourning. As baby Surya floated away quietly down the Vimala, a furious Tai had walked away from Avani’s body that lay bleeding on the ground, hoping that the vultures would feed on her flesh and destroy her very existence. And with each struggling breath that Avani took, the calm waters of the Vimala gently caressed Surya’s raft, as if it were reassuring Avani, asking her not to worry about her child.
Tai and her men frantically searched the Kashyapi for hours on end, but Surya was nowhere to be found. Not long afterwards, the clouds above parted to reveal a large opal orb enveloping Tai and her men in its silent moonlight. The Vimala’ surface shimmered with stars like floating diamonds and the moon like a single pearl mercilessly stealing all attention for itself. Furious that the light had faded away so quickly, a frustrated Tai screamed at her men, blaming them for their incompetency and lack of effort. However, deep within, Tai was overjoyed that she had gotten rid of Avani in such a brutal manner.
Aadisesha was brought back into the Sayan home on the next day in accordance with Tai’s orders. He had been tortured so much that he no longer remembered his own name or that he had a child or wife. The blows he had received on his head had taken a toll on his memory and speech, almost turning him into a vegetable. He could barely walk or even speak as he sat on a chair outside the Sayan entrance, staring blankly at the Tulsi plant. Tai hoped that Aadi would recover soon, so that she could get him married to a new girl from a rich family, hoping that this would allow her to rake in another huge dowry from the marriage.
Nobody knew what happened to Avani once Tai left the Kashyapi forest with her men, nor did anybody care enough to find out. Tai lied to Avani’s parents, telling them that Avani had left the Sayan Home a month ago saying that she was going to visit them, but she had then gone missing. Tai concocted a story that something must have happened to her while crossing the forest on the way to their house. The parents were devastated; they searched the Kashyapi for days on end but found no trace of Avani. They were too scared to question Tai and succumbed to her evil ways.
As Avani breathed her last on the Kashyapi floor, Surya safely reached the banks of Bandhumati where she was picked up by a fisherman and his wife. They were a childless couple, overjoyed to find Surya on the riverbank; they welcomed her into their lives, thinking that she was a blessing from God. Avani, a woman of substance and power, had faded away. But hope comes to those who see beyond the suffering of the present. The stars above encourage us to carry on through the darkness. And Surya, a new life brimming with sunlight, after surviving an epic journey across the endless Vimala, now brought happiness and hope to a childless couple.