It seems like a long drive with not much scenery on the highway. Shekhar generally enjoys driving long distances in the weekends, especially when Anandi, his eight-year old daughter is with him. But today, he feels exhausted and at the same time, somewhat restless.
Anandi is seated right beside him in the car, enthusiastically eating her chocolates and looking out of the window. On any usual day, she loves spending some time with her Daddy. They always have a heart to heart talk when they go on a drive. But she too looks weak and tired. There is an unexpected wall of silence between the two.
Anandi breaks the silence in a while. “Daddy?” she says with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Yes, my sweetheart?” her Daddy replies in an indulgent tone as always.
“Where are we going?” she asks curiously.
Shekhar keeps quiet, not knowing what to say. The weather outside is hot and sultry and he feels bitter inside.
Anandi inundates him with every kind of question. “Are we going to your friend’s house Daddy? What are we going to eat there? How far is it from here?”
Shekhar looks at Anandi’s innocent face for a moment and averts her eyes. “Don’t worry my dear, we should be there in sometime,” Shekhar comforts her as he tries to wipe off the sweat beads on his forehead with his handkerchief. He turns on the car air conditioner for some respite and continues driving.
He knows where he is taking Anandi, rather compelled to take his little one. He couldn’t believe how after condemning this disease called superstition, he himself has fallen a victim to this malady – albeit under compulsion!
Shekhar would have never agreed to take Anandi to the village sorceress if Madhuri, his wife, had not pestered him every single day in recent months. It was just getting unbearable!
Anandi, their only daughter has been diagnosed with epilepsy.
Anandi was five years old then. It was her last working day in school before winter vacations. Shekhar was in Mumbai on an official tour. Madhuri had given her some milk and was in the kitchen doing her tiffin box.
When she strode into the living room, Madhuri found that instead of sitting straight, Anandi had kneeled down to one side, with her face in the cushion. For a second she thought Anandi was playing hide and seek, but soon she realised Anandi became rigid.
‘Anu!’ She yelled, in a panic to get a response. Her arms became utterly stiff and then she groaned… and then flopped like a soft toy into her mother’s arms.
With the help of a neighbour, Madhuri rushed her to the hospital. Shekhar returned home the next morning – that was the earliest flight he could avail in the busy Christmas season.
Doctor told Shekhar and Madhuri that their daughter has had an epileptic fit – a seizure!
This had come out of the blue and changed everything in the otherwise happy lives of the couple.
“The cause of epilepsy is often not known. Sometimes it begins in childhood, sometimes a little later. And while some grow out of it, others do not,” the neurologist told them with poise. But his words seemed like thorns to the couple.
Since then, Anandi has been living on antiepileptic medicines – two doses a day.
Three years had passed. Almost every second or third month, her body stiffens, then she jerks frenziedly for a few seconds and collapses. When severe, she’s taken to the hospital for urine and blood tests and therapy. However, in between the fits, Anandi is a completely normal child, happy and healthy, her parents’ darling little girl.
Madhuri had seen it all – much more than Shekhar, whose busy schedule as a senior consultant in an IT firm, mostly kept him away from his family.
But, of late, Shekhar noticed Madhuri had turned pale. She had stopped going out, talking to people, or doing things she liked. She was even restless in the nights, standing in the balcony – all alone, perhaps trying hard to solve her daughter’s debacle.
Shekhar too felt helpless, but he knew the only way to keep his Anandi fit was through constant medication, care and love – something they had never failed to give her in abundance.
And then… one evening, he was shocked to hear what Madhuri said. “You know, some things do not have reasons but they exist…” she paused and said with wonderment, “Our neighbour Chandra didi was saying there’s a sorceress who cures epilepsy and such disorders!”
Shekhar raised his eyebrows and promptly protested, “Come back to your senses Madhu. If the doctor cannot cure such things, nobody can.”
“Okay, listen to me, first,” Madhuri pleaded. “Not that I believed in all this, but it had worked wonder for so many people. Just once we have to take Anandi to her. The place is only a two-hour drive from our home…”
Shekhar interrupted. “Look Madhu, don’t try to tell me these things. I don’t believe these and you too stop listening to such stories. It’s not just meant for educated people like us!” He warned her and stood up to leave the room, feeling disgusted.
Madhuri looked at Shekhar helplessly for a while, her eyes became wet. She sighed. Then went and stood in the balcony, without saying a word.
After a few days, Anandi had another epileptic fit when she was happily sitting and watching cartoon. With her eyebrows quivering, she fell on Shekhar’s lap, unconscious. Doctor said an MRI scan should be done.
Madhuri broke into tears. “How long can this continue? How long will my child suffer like this?” Madhuri howled as she began to gulp for breath.
Shekhar held her close to his chest. “We will try our best Madhu…”
She shrugged him off and pleaded, “Please take her to the lady, the sorceress, my child will be okay!”
“But I told you I don’t believe such things Madhu,” Shekhar walked out of his bedroom, tired of hearing her rants.
Madhuri was also determined. She followed him quickly to the lounge, squeezed his shoulders and said, “Are your beliefs, your views, more important than Anandi’s life?”
Shekhar was startled. He had never seen his soft-spoken wife turning so aggressive. He fell silent. No, nothing can be as important to Shekhar as his daughter’s life …. And Madhuri knew it too!
The road seems never ending and the red dirt has hugged the entire stretch. Anandi has dosed off already, her tiny morsel of a hand clinging onto his father’s shirt. A thousand memories flash in front of Shekhar’s eyes. He remembers his village, Kaligram, where he had spent his vivacious childhood – the yellow-green paddy fields, the mango gardens, his parents and the fish ponds. And he remembers Kamala…
Kamala was Shekhar’s childhood playmate, his best friend and his first love. They went to the same school, played in the hay barn and explored the creeks, fields and woods around their village together. They had stolen guavas and mangoes from Kanchan uncle’s garden and also sat outside their thatched hut under the stars sharing their dreams and exchanging witty banters.
Kamala’s house was only two houses away from Shekhar’s and their mothers were friends. She had lost his father when she was only three and dotted on her younger sister. Her mother, a widow, stayed in her husband’s ancestral house and depended on their poultry and agricultural land to make a living. They had few relatives, but visited their maternal grandfather’s house, once in a year, who lived in some remote village.
Once, when kamala came back from Kolkata for the first time, where she and her mother visited a distant aunt, she was completely thrilled. “The city life is so different, you know,” Kamala told Shekhar with sparkles in her eyes. “I just loved it!”
“What did you like about the city?” Shekhar, who went to the city quite often to meet his extended families, asked pursing his lips.
“Everything…,” she said. “Huge buildings, theatres, jostling traffic and yes, so many people… Of course it’s noisier and doesn’t have the space we have here. Mother didn’t like being there much, but it’s a lot of fun,” she said excitedly.
“When I get a job in the city, I’ll take you there. You can enjoy city life forever,” Shekhar said smiling, giving Kamala a light punch on her nose.
As years passed by, Kamala grew up to become a beautiful lady from the little tomboyish girl. Her gradual makeover amused Shekhar and got him more attracted to her like a bee to honey. When she performed her evening prayers after bath, she looked as pure as white lotus and Shekhar just couldn’t take his eyes off her.
Kamala’s love for Shekhar was selfless and undemanding. She was always there for him. When he lost his football match in school, Shekhar cried, his bruised soul needed some respite; Kamala was there to heal him. She said nothing but just allowed his tired head to rest on her shoulder.
Even when his father was hospitalised, and Shekhar was flustered with tension – he couldn’t eat or sleep – Kamala prepared his favourite coconut barfis and silently held a piece in front of his mouth to make him eat. While swallowing a sob, he broke down…Kamala quietly held his hand and sat beside him. Her silent eloquence always reassured him.
But nothing seemed to remain the same forever…
Once when Shekhar and his family came back from a South India tour, they were surprised to find, Kamala was nowhere. There was a discomforting silence at Kamala’s home.
“Where’s Kamala, she’s nowhere to be seen?” Shekhar’s mother asked Kamala’s mother.
She fell silent for a while. After coaxing she said, “Shhh Didi, do not discuss this with others in the village. Kamala’s grandfather had a revelation in a dream that his granddaughter is an incarnation of goddess Kali. He always insisted she should be worshiped. You know, earlier I’d never paid attention, but…”
She inched closer to Shekhar’s mother who was in a state of shock, “But this time, when we went to our village, a miracle happened… an ailing child was placed at Kamala’s feet and he was miraculously cured when she touched him.
Father always knew Kamu had magical power. He has kept her there, with him. He believes she has the power to cure hundreds of people who cannot afford expensive medicines. But in Kaligram we haven’t told this to anybody yet,” she said without a pause.
Shekhar’s mother albeit a religious woman, never believed in such fallacies, thanks to his father who worked as a school administrator and was a liberal person. She tried her best convincing Kamala’s mother that such things can never happen and that it will be harmful for the young girl. But her mother was determined.
On hearing this, Shekhar wanted to rescue Kamala. But something held him back. He was scared. He couldn’t voice his thoughts as he was never a very expressive person.
Meanwhile, Shekhar moved to the city at his uncle’s house to prepare for his engineering entrance exams, a wish his father wanted him to fulfill. But he remained restless within, often probing his mother on Kamala’s whereabouts.
After cracking the exams and getting into IIT-Kharagpur, Shekhar returned home during his first semester break, a much confident young man, and rushed to rescue Kamala with two of his friends in that remote village where she was held captive at his grandfather’s house. But they soon found out it was not easy to get near her anymore.
Shekhar and his friends sneaked through the backdoor and to their delight found Kamala seated dressed in a white saree with red border. She looked pale, her hair was in a frenzied mess. She looked up, surprised, and gazed at him for a few seconds. There was a fleeting comfort.
Shekhar inched closer to her and held her hand; her eyes were filled with tears. “Let’s run away from here. Nobody will come to know,” he whispered, looking straight into her startled eyes. There was a few seconds of silence. Then Kamala became wary… She seethed and shrugged off his hands from her body.
“Stay away from me… I am the embodiment of Goddess Kali… I’m Shakti!” she said abruptly. “Go away from here! Go away!” She repeated those words.
“No, that’s not true; you are my Kamala, the sweet village belle. Please trust me, I will take you away from here,” he said fervently.
But Kamala screamed, “No, go away! Go away from here,” she cried out as she ran away, disappearing somewhere inside the darkness of the hut.
Just then two dark, muscular men holding a baton came from nowhere came and stood beside Shekhar. His friends Gopal and Himanshu, who were hiding behind the bush until then, quickly stood beside him.
“What are you doing here?” One of the men asked him in a harsh tone.
“She’s my… she’s from our village,” Shekhar fumbled, couldn’t get the right words.
“This is not the way to meet Maa Shakti. Don’t you know, so many sick and poor come to seek her blessings for cures and comfort,” said the other one.
Before Shekhar said something the first fellow said, “Better stay out from her, if your life is precious! We do not want to see you here any day…” he yelled. “Do not come here ever!” they said loudly.
Shekhar was in a state of shock. His friends quickly pulled him away and together they sat on their scooter and moved out from the place. It was not easy for Shekhar to believe Kamala too had changed, though he knew she was nothing more than a pawn of her grandfather’s fanaticism.
He wanted to take the help of police to rescue Kamala the next day. But Gopal informed that there is a gang working behind this and the police and Sarpanch are also quite aware. “Kamala’s grandfather is influential and he can go to any extent to thrash your entire family,” his friends warned him.
Shekhar was in distraught. In a matter of a few months, the news of Kamala, as “Shakti Maa” and “the magic healer” spread to his village and the neighbouring villages. Many started saying her magic worked like miracle.
A defeated Shekhar went back to his college after his semester break. He never returned to his village. He knew the battle was lost. Shekhar’s parents too later moved to the city to stay with him. Kamala’s thought haunted him for months, and for years, till he got busy with his job and life.
Some years ago, Shekhar’s mother said after much hesitation, she heard from an old neighbour Kamala has died. She was sick, her condition deteriorated day by day and then she eventually died. “Poor girl!” sobbed mother. “May her soul rest in peace,” Shekhar noticed she was naturally upset over the incident for some days.
Shekhar did not cry. He kept looking at his mother, with a blank expression on his face. Shekhar didn’t know why the news of Kamala’s death did not move him much. What disillusioned him was what he had last seen of Kamala, her conjured looks and the last few words she uttered, “Go away! Stay away from me!” It was almost unimaginable for him that Kamala could no longer be his.
Suddenly the car stops with a screeching sound. Shekhar brakes hard and swerves to the left side of the road. His car was about to collide with a looming truck on the highway. Anandi who was sleeping silently jumps up and cries out loudly. It took some time for Shekhar to come out of the trauma. Thank God, they were safe.
“Are you fine, sweetheart?” an anxious Shekhar asks Anandi, parking the car in a safe corner.
“I’m fine Daddy, are you okay? What happened just now?” she asks him naively.
He gets off the car to see if there has been any damage anywhere. He could not see anything. “Nothing happened dear, we are safe! Let’s go home…” he breathes a sigh of relief.
“What about going to that friend’s house, Daddy?” Anandi asks with a curious expression on her face.
“No Anu, let’s go home, we are not going there anymore.” He pulls out a bottle of water from inside the car and gulps down the water.
Anandi’s illness can be cured with love and medication, he reassures himself, as he promises to give her child more care, just the way Madhu does. He gets a new courage to fight for what he believes in. He will go to any extent to fight this disease, superstition, which has been plaguing the society for years. He will not fail this time! Not again!
A flock of birds cross the sky above his head sending shrill whistles which echoed through the shimmering green paddy fields … and then there’s calm – a comforting silence. He gets into the car, as Anandi happily sits beside him, now excited to go back home with Daddy. He starts driving towards home, reassured, with a new hope in his heart and says to himself: “All is not lost!”