My mind wanders in the dark abyss
The chasm stings with a hiss
And I make my last wish….
“Jai Bhawani!” It was almost like a war cry. The fervent chanting reached the crescendo.
The knife slashed and the blood-curdling scream culminated the ritual. Blood splattered everywhere on the filthy cemented floor.
“Mubarak.” Everyone shouted as he soaked his thumb in fresh blood adorning the forehead of each of the ragged dolls.
Sometimes the truth is not what one sees so obviously. It may lurk in the corner sitting quietly though it stares hard at others to acknowledge it. Ironically, they choose to look everywhere else but not where they must and where lie, all the answers.
That yellow dupatta was fluttering one last time reminding of the saga of bitter truth but no one cared.
No one ever cared to know the truth in that quaint little hamlet of Rajasthan called Tond, located in a remote, corner of Marwar region. That was where I was born, a boy. So happy was my grandma, Lali, that she pranced around the entire village, distributing jaggery to all. In her ecstatic state she forgot, not many would accept from her hand.
Caste system’s rigid walls still created divisions, ironically giving importance to that on which we have no control: where we are born.
My grandma’s happiness, that day couldn’t be clouded by such matters which she believed, were decided by divinity.
There was no denying that we Tori Bhats, the puppeteers of Rajasthan, can be called the spicy flavour of its rich lineage. We had been performing genealogy for our jajmans or lords since times unknown.
I was named Shankar Bhat. My entire life, my surname was to define my destiny but unaware at that moment, I lay beside my mother hungrily suckling milk, comforted by her warmth.
Six years had passed and I was familiar with many things. There had been three more additions in the family. Two boys and a girl, but being the firstborn male, I still was my grandma’s favourite. Her toothless wicked smile, that tugged at my heart, lasted till the day she came to know my truth.
“You have to take it ahead. You belong to the tribe who received puppetry as a magical boon by Maharaja Vikramaditya. These stringed marionette’s are worshipped as Goddesses. Understood, child?”
I would hear this very often, his stern voice booming in my ears. I was terrified of him. This tall, dark skinny man, who was my father. His belief that puppets possessed supernatural powers reflected in all the tales that he shared in his inebriated state. I had learnt that I was only to nod my head in agreement to whatever he said, otherwise, he wouldn’t consider me too young to give me a sound beating.
We had been traditionally nomadic. As I grew up, I adapted well to the changes around me. For me, it was of the least consequence that our dilapidated thatched roof would be so often replaced by the torn fabric tent. Grandma and some old folks would stay back in the village, taking care of that small patch of land, gifted to us many centuries back by our lords, the Meghwals.
“Get me something from Pardes, dear.” Grandma would tell me.
“ A beautiful bride.” She would laugh.
Every morning, a strange cacophony of vessels served as my alarm to wake me up. For women folk, be it the tent, or the village, their life went through the same rigmarole. Waking up much earlier than others to wash, clean, cook and there were always small babies to tend to. Getting ready for the evening show was an additional responsibility.
Evenings before the show, I would be the most excited, watching my mother and other women wear their traditional clothes. Heavily embellished ghaghra choli that they so laboriously sew with needle and thread was a treat to the eyes. An odhani must be worn over the head. It was like a fantasy tale unfolding, transforming them into queens. Their kohl rich eyes and black dots applied so aesthetically on the chin and forehead, accentuated their beauty. The oxidized metal jewelry included thick round anklets and a heavy necklace. Their arms were adorned with white plastic bangles from wrist and till shoulders. All this would stir some undefined desire in me. I wanted to be one of them.
Men folk would go around the villages, seeking permission from the village head to perform. If permitted, a central place was chosen. Twilight was the perfect time for the puppet show to begin. ‘Amar Singh Rathore ka Khel’ had won the hearts of millions as it was the most popular show.
In its bright and vibrant hues, puppet theatre was set. The front proscenium arches were covered by jhalar. A black cloth, called Kanath was placed between the puppets and puppeteer covering the rear of the stage. The arches through which the puppets were seen were called tibara. Finally all three parts were attached to the tent called tambuda. On both sides of the tent, were placed two kerosene lamps to light up the stage. I quickly learnt all this. I would help the elders in placing small items on the stage but I had no interest in the show itself.
I found Amar Singh’s story quite remarkable but it never caught my fantasy. While other boys, intensely watched Amar Singh killing Salawat Khan, I had eyes only for my mother. She would be sitting in front of the stage, singing folk songs to support the story as the stringed kathputlis were being skillfully manipulated on the stage. Her face would glow in the light of the lantern making her cheap ornaments glisten. Her soulful, melodious voice had some mystical power. I wanted to be like her.
The only show that enchanted me was baharupiya or impostor. A two-faced puppet enacting male and female was used here. Baharupiya’s folklore spoke of a man who met a woman he wanted to marry but whenever he approached her, she changed into a man. This would happen again and again. Though this was a funny tale, I saw it in some other context.
I didn’t know when I began to see myself as bahrupiya. The woman in me was beginning to stir to life. It wouldn’t be long….
I was growing up but my body of a boy was defying my soul’s yearnings. There were no activities of boys that I found interesting. Their boisterous and rough manners and their talk about visiting Kajari, the prostitute failed to ignite any passion. I had no such desires.
Another topic of interest that the boys fervently discussed was the process of being designated as puppeteers. The test was a tough one. I knew, being the eldest son, I would soon have to fulfill the preconditions. “You would be carving your puppets.” My brothers would say. I could read envy in their voice. They still did not know.
It wasn’t that I hated puppets. I loved to look at their pretty faces and dress them up. Baapu had once carved a miniature one for Pinky but it was my prized possession now. I dressed it as a girl and called her Radha. Grandma’s words stayed with me. “These marionettes are our real protectors.” She said.
“How?” I was curious to know.
“They know what goes on in our heart. They answer our questions.”
It somewhere was cathartic for a twelve-year-old boy, standing on the brink of adolescence and perplexed with the struggles of his body and social sanctions to know that he could share his secrets with someone. I shared everything with Radha.
Soon, I would be asked to hold my my seven shows independently with these wooden, stringed marionnets. I wasn’t worried about that.
It was becoming more and more obvious that I was different from the other boys. Maybe it was the way I walked or talked. The swing in my gait wasn’t suggestful of a boy, nor my fascination for dance. Unlike the boys jiggling vigorously on some odd song. It was how girls’ feet and hands moved; delicately and in complete rhythm.
My own younger brothers wouldn’t spare me now. “Soon you will be married but your lugaai will run away with someone.”
I wouldn’t answer. They wouldn’t stop.
“She would know that he is not a man.”
“I saw him the other day, wearing Amma’s ghagra choli. He was dancing like a woman.” They chuckled in amusement.
I could feel the beads of perspiration on my forehead but I stood quietly, taking the insult.
“Don’t talk rubbish. I will tell baapu, that you two stole money from his pocket and smoked beedi.” Someone shouted behind me.
I was saved that day by Pinky. She gave me a secretive smile and whispered, “Don’t worry. They will never trouble you again.” She knew.
Six months later, Pinky got married and left the village. I was alone again.
“Radha, why do I have to kill to pass the test?
I was seeking answers from those soulless eyes that just stared back at me indifferently. I hung my head in helplessness. I wasn’t ready for the sacrifice.
Out of seventeen years of my life, many were lost in fear and confusion. ‘If baapu comes to know that all I wanted was to dress up like amma or Pinky and dance? If he knew, that I yearn to have a body of a woman, that I wanted my breasts to grow and to be sensuous and curvy with a vagina to complete me as a woman?
This wouldn’t be pardoned. In the patriarchal society where masculinity and virility are parameters on which a man is judged, I was going to fail miserably. My soul was effeminated and I never felt like a man. Hard as I might try to hide, I could not deny that my heart fluttered at the sight of women’s clothing. ‘Radha, why I can’t I dress up like you? You know what I want, don’t you? She stared back at me.
I wish, I hadn’t told her. Had that not happened, life would still live under the pretense of normalcy. But was it normal? I had begun to relate more and more to baharupiya. I was guilty and ashamed of my duality.
Life has no undo switch and what’s done can’t be undone! You can only face the retribution of your actions and I did.
It was the night before my initiation ceremony. I had successfully earned from my individual puppet shows. Now was the time to finally confront the most dreadful part of this wretched tradition.
I was to make a sacrifice. A goat must be slain to seek the blessings of the Goddess. No tribe would dare break the rules set by the divine.
That night, there was a wedding in the village. We were invited to perform. Father did not want me to accompany. “Tomorrow is your big day. Stay at home and pray.” I nodded. Everybody went, including grandma.
It was already twilight. Moon was gradually rising. I sat on the floor near the front door, contemplating. ‘I want to run away’. I heard someone whispering in my ear. It was a woman’s voice. I looked up at the open skies. Radha was sitting in the corner, resigned and withdrawn. She seemed to have lost interest in my life. ‘Who wouldn’t? I am a coward.’
I knew where baapu kept the money. It wouldn’t be much but I could go away and lose this identity but I kept on sitting.
It must be late when I got up. The silvery light had entered the hut, glistening over the frugal items scattered around. I sighed loudly and abandoned the thought of running away. “There is nowhere to go.” I said aloud. As I turned around, my eyes fell on it. It was shimmering, looking abundantly rich in the celestial radiance. My feet involuntarily moved in its direction. I couldn’t resist. In that weak moment, I let go off the reins and my longings galloped to freedom. I had always kept my fantasies under lock and key, till that night. On so many occasions, I had smothered my desires but didn’t let them know. I understood it was my life which was at stake but that night, I was possessed.
I had heard people saying, moon has the power to turn people mad for sanity abandoned me that night. Moon was right on my head when I picked it up and wore that red ghaghra choli. A small cracked mirror split me into two.
I could hear the music from the wedding location. My favourite folk song was playing, ”Kesariya, balaama, padharo mahre Des.”
My feet found the rhythm and my soul was finally set free. If there was a state of nirvana, I must have touched that. Away from reality, I felt liberated. There was no looking back. Had I looked back then…..
I could never know how I reached where I was found. It was baapu’s stony stare that roused me. I was on the stage dancing alone. Music had stopped. There were hundreds of eyes staring at me in stunned silence. I stood there, as if naked.
I woke up next to find myself in a dark room. My body was in excruciating pain. As I ran my tongue on dried lips, they were swollen. It seemed my wrist was broken. I touched my forehead with the other hand to find a gash above the brow and blood was trickling down on the choli. I tried getting up but my feet were tied. Everything came back to me in a flash. It was baapu. His stick wouldn’t stop.
I lay there in a helpless state staring into nothingness for it was pitch dark and eerily silent. In my half conscious state, I heard the latch open. I had nowhere to run. So, I resigned myself to fate. Light from the lantern blinded my vision. I closed my eyes. Someone placed the lamp beside me. It was amma. Her tear stricken face spoke of her anguish. She sat down. She cleaned my wounds and applied turmeric paste. I did not say anything. Cascade of emotions were flowing incessantly on both sides but she went away without saying a word. I was again engulfed by darkness.
It must be morning when the door opened again. This time, it was baapu, standing with many other men from the clan. They came towards me, untied my feet and dragged me out of the room.
I cried in panic.
‘They are going to kill me.’ I understood.
Four of them lifted me in the air and I fell with a thump on a broken, charpoy. I heard my mother scream.
“Someone has cast spell on him. Some evil spirit is hovering over his head.” It was Pinky’s earnest voice. I tried to lift my head but my body was too much in pain. I tried to look from the corner of my eye.
Pinky’s cheeks were smeared with kajal. She was standing with folded hands, pleading. Baapu’s eyes had no mercy.
“Kaalu, the girl might be right. The boy has never behaved like this before.” My uncle supported.
“Take him to Ghori baba. He can drive away the evil spirits. These days he sits near the big temple.”
Baapu’s hardened face didn’t melt but he nodded.
My eyes fell on grandma. She stood away from others. Her eyes were coldly staring at me. I lowered my gaze for she had the look of a killer and it hurt more than my wounds.
My cot was picked up. I could see many following us. They were convinced. Some ghost resided inside me.
It must be noon for the Sun unmercifully scorched my lacerations and abrasions. Humiliation and misery wouldn’t end. I wish I were dead.
Unbearable pain and dehydration left me unconscious. When I came around, the sun was down and we had stopped. I was still lying on the cot. We were clearly away from the village. I looked around. We had reached the temple, situated much farther from our location, closer to upper castes houses.
Some elderly men were sitting under a lone, shadeless Babool tree. I saw my father amongst them. With folded hands, he squatted on the ground in front of someone. I recognized the head priest of the temple, Radhey Sham. I was surprised. We were not allowed to enter the temple. How was my father even permitted to sit closer to the priest? Where was the baba?
I saw them getting up and coming towards me. I sat there in tattered, dirty clothes soaked in blood; must be a disgustful sight. The priest came closer and I cringed, afraid that I would be hit. Instead he folded his hands and bowed his head.
‘Why is he bowing his head? I wondered.
Radhye Sham cleared his throat and addressed the crowd.
“All of you sit down and pay attention to what I am going to tell you. Kaalu Bhat, your son must be protected. It was a sin to beat him so mercilessly. I would pray to God to forgive you, for you are ignorant. You did the right thing by bringing him here. The exorcist no more lives here. He is in Haridwar but it seems God showed you the way or you would have killed him.
The crowd gasped. I was flustered. He began speaking again. I tried to pay attention, ignoring my pain.
“This boy has a soul of a great devotee. Kaalu Bhat, it is no ghost that troubles him as you thought. It is God’s own directions for him. Are you aware of Ardhnarishwar?
Villagers shook their head in unison.
“Once Goddess Parvathi told Lord Shiva that she wanted to live his experiences. The Lord obliged by conjoining his half body with her. So, Ardhnarishwar was formed and revered by all of us. Similarly, many of our Gods transformed into women to save this world. Lord Vishnu, on many occasions turned into a woman called Mohini and protected the world from Asuras. Haven’t you heard of Draupadi’s androgynous brother Shikhandi who was instrumental in killing Bhishma Pithama?”
I couldn’t make head or tale of this discourse but knew that I would live if this plump, bald man with a big belly be able to convince my folks that I did not need to die.
I never really had any faith in God but I knew some bigger power had come to save me today. I knew it was Radha.
This revelation was profound and I felt enlightened. I got the message, loud and clear, ‘puppets have divine power.’
He was still speaking.
“He was born in your caste but he is a much higher being. Leave him here. He will be purified and would stay close to the temple. Many people would benefit from his blessings. From now onwards, he is no more your son. He is the temple’s property. He would sit at the steps of the shrine and bless the lesser mortals.”
I saw my baapu getting up. He stood in front of Radhey Sham. He fell on his feet, taking full precaution so as not to touch them. Radhey Sham in reflex moved back and raised his hands. “Go home now.”
And they all went away. They looked at me one last time with folded hands asking for forgiveness from distance. I was still lying on the cot. This all happened so suddenly that I couldn’t even react to the expressions that I saw for the first time in my baapu’s eyes. It was sympathy. I was perplexed.
A month had passed since I was left outside the temple. My wounds had almost healed. My hand was fixed by Radhey Sham’s herbal paste. The priest had been kind. Surprisingly, he gave me ghaghra choli to wear. I accepted everything gratefully. That I was alive, was a miracle.
As, I sat that day, outside the temple complex bathing under a hand pump, I realised, I was excited. Despite my lower caste, my status would be raised above ordinary folks. This was no less than a fairy tale.
The news of this unusual event had spread like fire. Outside the temple premises, a huge stage was constructed. People were curious to see how a lower caste man turned out to be God’s messenger. So, they came in huge numbers. My eyes were searching only for my mother. I just wanted her forgiveness.
I never anticipated such a huge crowd. A microphone was set on the stage and Radhey Sham was beaming. “How did he convince other priests?” People were whispering. Over the years, Radhey Sham’s considerable clout around the region had made him influential. It was understood that Vikram Rathore, the richest man in the region, was being supported by him in the upcoming elections. Little did I know I was a guinea pig in this political drama.
Rathore, along with his daughter came as the chief guest. His daughter, Mohini lived in a big city. Her plain red saree was draped gracefully around her slim figure. Several lustful eyes followed her as she climbed up the stage and sat down on the floor in front of me, her back towards the spectators. I was surprised. She smiled at me but I looked down. I hadn’t ever interacted with women of higher caste. The priest got down the stage to welcome her father when she quickly slipped something in my hand. “Get out from here before they get a chance.” She whispered and moved away.
My shock must be written all over my face. I looked around. Did anyone notice? People seemed to be busy talking. I was scared to even look at what she left in my hand. I hurriedly hid it in my saree pallu and tried to calm myself. Radhey Sham was back and rituals began.
It was a long procedure before I was declared purified. People cheered and shouted. I had never ever seen such an overwhelming throng. I felt like God.
It was late night before everyone left. I was still sitting outside gazing at the night sky when Radhey Sham showed me a small room near the outer wall of the complex.
“This is where you will sleep. In the morning, take bath, put on the saree, cover your head and sit near the last step of the temple. Don’t talk to anyone. Just bless them and whatever they give, deposit it with me.” I nodded my head. He looked at me strangely or was it his tone? I felt a little uneasy.
He went away closing the door. I removed the saree and sat down on the floor. ‘What a day!’ I mused. The incredible day’s events replayed in my mind and my heart felt heavy. I knew why. I was missing home. I wasn’t able to spot my mother anywhere . ‘So, she didn’t come’. A tear rolled down my cheek. I held my saree close to me and my fingers felt it.
I had completely forgotten about Mohini. I opened the knot and a piece of paper fell down. It had something scribbled on it. It was useless, for I was illiterate.
I still kept it under the mattress and got up to drink water. I couldn’t open the door. It was locked from outside.
Next day was a tiring one. I sat on the steps till noon. Many people visited the temple out of curiosity. They brought fruit, milk and some of them gave some money too. I brought them and handed over to the priest. He gave me two bananas and some milk. Evening too, the same routine was followed. For dinner he gave me two bajra rotis and a raw onion. My stomach was demanding more but I had no courage to ask.
“Sir, yesterday my door was locked from outside”. My meek voice was met with expressions that bared his fangs; the good Samaritan!
“So, why do you think, you are here? Do you really think, you are God sent?” His mocking voice reverberated inside my soul but it just did not make sense. “Good, that you noticed. Now, go and get ready. Put on the other shimmery saree I gave you. Your real work starts now. I heard from your folks, you dance very well. Tonight, we will see. Rathore sahab’s car will be here in an hour.”
Mohini’s words were ringing in my ears. I was numb with shock. I absently walked inside my room and my hand instinctively searched for the latch but there wasn’t any. Panic gripped me. There was no escape.
My vulnerability had left me open to exploitation. ‘I must run. I can go home. Grandma will shelter me.’ Then I remembered her cold, eyes. ‘No, she won’t. Nor would anyone else.’ I knew now, who was impostor, the real bahrupiya.
Just then the priest called by my new name, “Are you ready, Shanno?” I didn’t answer. I quickly dressed up and came out.
There stood another man and my last hope fled at his sight. He was well built and huge. I would be dead if I tried to resist. I quietly followed him. There was an old black car standing outside. The hulk pushed me inside and before I could gather my wits, the car had picked up speed. It must be fifteen minutes drive when we reached a dark, desolate place. It was an old haveli. Only one room was lighted upstairs. I looked around for something to save myself. Nothing!
The horrors of that night would never leave me. I was sent back, hurt, bruised and ravaged by the demons who took away everything from me, including my faith in goodness and humanity. As I entered the temple premises, the sky was witnessing its first light. Dawn was breaking but I was broken and disillusioned. I limped back to my room and cried inconsolably. Finally, exhaustion hit me and my eyes closed. I woke up suddenly to some loud voices outside my room.
“ No, you cannot go inside. I forbid you.” Priest was telling someone.
“Is it? Punditji, you better stay quiet or I will send you to jail. Let me tell everyone what a fraudster you are! Mohini roared as she entered my room.
“Get up. We don’t have time. If my father comes to know, we both will be killed.” The urgency in her voice brought me to my feet. “Put on this Kurta pajama. Hurry up!”
I nodded and quickly put on the clothes. We ran. As we were rushing through the backdoor, a nail jutting out of the wall, caught her yellow dupatta. She didn’t wait to retrieve it. The same car was waiting. We sat and the driver drove at the breakneck speed.
“The train leaves in ten minutes hukum.” The driver spoke while driving. “Here are the tickets.” He threw them behind. Mohini picked them up. “ Shabaash! Gopi you are a gem. Drop us at the station and go back to the temple. On the back gate, my yellow dupatta awaits you. Dispose it off. The pundit will not open his mouth. He knows what I can do. Let this be known that Shankar ran away.”
“Yes, hukum, but what about Rathore Sahab?”
“Don’t worry, I left a gift for him. He won’t come after us.”
It was only when the train had left the station, I looked at her and asked. “Why did you take risk for me?”
“Shankar, I live in Mumbai. It is a very big city where all sort of people are accepted. Neither are you sick nor God. You are as normal as I am. Your preferences, caste and gender do not define you. Your work, your kindness and your acceptance of others make you human.”
“ Now, what?” I was suddenly filled with despair. “What would I do?”
“Don’t worry. I work for an agency which helps homeless and destitute people. You will be fine.”
“ Hey, Shankar repeat the last step. Keep your hands straight and feet pointed. Yes, now it is fine.” Saloni smiled. “ How fast this boy has picked up.” She thought. “ It is true when you are hungry, only then you appreciate food.” She mused.
“Shankar, sleep now. It is past midnight.” Mohini sleepily chided Shankar who was still struggling with the new dance steps.
“No, didi, Saloni ma’am will be annoyed. You are paying for my dance classes. I must learn to perfection.”
“Shankar you are doing well. Believe me. In the last one year, you have carved a niche for yourself. Soon you will be completely independent. Saloni ma’am is very happy with your dedication. You are her best student. I am sure you will win the dance competition.”
“I want to, didi. Not only because I would dance the best but also because I want the whole world to know that a beautiful woman reside inside this body of a male and I accept her as my identity without fear and shame.”
“Shankar, I am so proud of you but promise me one day you will go back to village and tell them the same.”
“Yes, I will.” And I did. Nothing had changed there. “You have grown so thin, Shankar but I can see, you are happy.” Pinky smiled.
Bapu stayed away till the last day. Grandma’s eyes were moist when I told them my story but I knew they didn’t believe me. For them, I was a pardesi now. They heard me out of respect but I promised myself never to lose hope. It would happen… one day for sure….
As I was leaving, I heard amma calling from behind.
“Shankar, you forgot this here.”
It was Radha.