She Spoke in Tongues - 3

Glory Sasikala

Chapter 3 of a serialized novel, by Glory Sasikala

Think of me and I'll be present
full and bright or just a crescent

When catastrophe strikes and the carpet is slipped from underneath your feet in one single moment, and life as you knew it is gone forever, it’s hard to feel secure again, trust again. The ‘what ifs’ prevail. What if it happens again? One feels the need to anchor somewhere, and that anchor most of the time is belief in a higher power, one that will be there and protect you and see you through it all.
Sitara and Sheila had left for school and Yamini and Sushanth for work, and Tharani was alone at home. Tuesdays were half-day off from her tailoring as she always visited the temple. She had her bath and donned a crisp cotton sari. Her hair was wet and she left it open. She never wore slippers to the temple. It was a kind of penance, and it always pertained to the fulfilment of some particular prayer. She picked up her basket of flowers, her offering to God, and left for the temple.
She prayed, and then, circled the temple thirteen times. Tired out, she sat down on the steps to the pool. It felt very peaceful to just sit there and rest and feel the cool breeze. Temples were a respite to so many tired and seeking souls. An added advantage was that they were always open and welcoming. For women, going to the temple was also a time to socialize. They sometimes came in groups and exchanged news and enjoyed each other’s company. One such group of three women now sat quite close to Tharani, just behind her and she could hear their conversation, without actually eavesdropping. Heart-to-heart talks among women are so universal that it would not have mattered much if she did.
“I got my chums. Again,” said a young woman. “I don’t think I’m ever going to conceive.”
“You’re doing it right?” asked another, mischievously.
“Of course we’re doing it right. We know the right way.” All of them were laughing now.
“I shouldn’t be laughing,” said the young woman who could not conceive, “I think my husband is not interested in me.”
There was an awkward silence. Then one of the other women said, “Why do you think so? Don’t you…?”
“We do. Once in a while…once or twice a month. He’s not there emotionally. It’s all so…perfunctory now.”
The other woman said, “Happens all the time. Work pressure. And, with time, it does become kind of mechanical.”
“It’s not that. I feel…I’m sorry but I feel he’s seeing someone else.”
Silence again.
Then one of the other women said, “Would you be willing to take some risks - I mean real risks – to get him back?”
“Anything! I would be willing to do anything! Why? Can you help me?”
“Well, they say there’s this forest spirit. It…she…something…lives in the forests of Kauri Hills. It comes on the way to Yercaud, some three hours from here. A lot of trains go that way, and most of them stop at this station for only two minutes. You’ve got to be fast getting in and out of the train. Also, I think there’re no houses there. Just these hills. They say they’re so high, they could be mountains.”
“How many trains go that way?”
“Quite a few of them. One or two local ones too.”
“And, well, you go up to the foot of the hills, and a little further.”
“It sounds scary. Are there people there?”
“No. It’s very risky. Anything can happen.”
“Anyway, you have to take some gifts. The forest spirit likes food. Cooked vegetarian food. Don’t use garlic or onions or ginger. Don’t take uncooked food. Don’t take the food in vessels. Use banana leaves and tie it with thread. Don’t use rubber bands.”
“You must also wear a bright yellow sari with a green blouse and leave your hair open.”
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know, but that’s what they say. Maybe to look like a tree with yellow flowers or something.”
All of them laughed.
“Who told you that?”
“It’s folklore in my village.”
“Do you know anyone who’s gone there?”
“One of my neighbours in my village got her daughter to go because she wasn’t getting pregnant. It’s an aphrodisiac made out of choice leaves, fruits, twigs, and other stuff. The forest spirit gets it for you.”
“She conceived the very next month. It was a miracle.”
“Do you want to go?”
“I don’t know. What else should be done?”
“You must go barefoot.”
“But that’s hillside! Full of stones and thorns besides being so very hot!”
“You’ll have to bear it.”
“Okay. So then?”
“So then, you draw a circle around yourself with stones for protection. Then you place the food outside the circle, and then you wait.”
“How will the spirit know I’m there?”
“That’s the strange part. It always does. It always comes. It’s like it can smell humans.”
“Brrrr! It all sounds very creepy. I’m not sure I care for my husband all that much.”
The women went into peals of laughter, and Tharani was smiling too. She listened some more.
“Well, you’re the one to decide.”
“Can I take someone with me?”
“Apparently not. And you can’t tell anyone where you’re going either.”
“You’re purposely making this very difficult, aren’t you?”
“No re, I’m not! This is how it is. The spirit has different concoctions for different things, for infertility, for diseases, and even for purposes. Like if you want to rob a bank, there’s leaves and twigs for that too.”
“You’re kidding me!”
“Well, yes, I couldn’t help doing that,” said the narrator, sounding guilty, “But the rest is true. The spirit can read your mind.”
“What language does it speak?”
“Some forest language, I guess. But its gestures are very clear.”
“How does it look?”
“Strange looking, I heard. It’s a woman alright, but one like you’ve never seen before.”
The conversation continued, but Tharani felt she had heard enough. She got up to her feet, picked up her empty basket and walked back home, deep in thought.
Tharani was up before dawn the following Saturday. She had bought all the ingredients the previous day and finished the cutting and grinding, and now she set about preparing a complete meal. She made rice, sambar, rasam, some other hot curries, some mixed vegetable side dishes, and some cutlets. She was an excellent cook, but it had turned out to be quite a challenge to prepare dishes devoid of ginger, garlic and onions, Indian food being all about spice and tangy flavours. But, well, it was all done and tasted very good. She carefully packed it all in banana leaves by placing the leaves on newspapers. She then folded each leaf carefully and tied it with twines. She then placed all the food in a big cloth bag. She paused for a while, wondering if there was anything else that needed to be done. Then she brought out another big cloth bag, folded it and placed it on top of the food. After all, that was the purpose of the visit. If she was going to be given something by the forest spirit, she would need a bag to bring it back in. 

All done in the kitchen, she neatly arranged the food for the children on the dining table. She had, of course, cooked for them as well. Sushanth wasn't there. He had left for Bombay with Vineeth the night before to help him set up his business, and hopefully, if all went well, join as partner later on. “If all went well” depended on her and the forest spirit. He would be back the week after. Tharani then cleaned the kitchen, washed the dishes, and then made herself a hot cup of coffee. She moved to the hall, and sat there in the porch, watching daybreak. She then washed up the cup, had a bath, and donned a yellow sari with a green blouse. Her hair was wet, and she left it open. It was now just about half past six. She then picked up the bag, went over to Yamini and shook her awake. Yamini opened her eyes and looked sleepily at her mother. “Yamini, please close and lock the door. Come!” She had explained to Yamini that she had some work the next day involving the temple and offering prayers. Yamini hadn’t asked any questions. She was her mother’s biggest ally, never questioning anything she said or did, but lending complete support.
They moved to the hall, and Tharani went out and Yamini closed and locked the door. Just as she was moving away, a voice called out from the porch, “Maaaaa!! Where are you going?” It was Sitara.
Tharani looked back in despair. She waved at her to go in. “I’ll come and tell you. Go inside! Listen to your sister.” 
None of which registered in the little girl’s mind. “I’m hungry!” she now shouted.
“Food is there on the table. Eat the food and stay inside.”
“I’m going out,” said Sitara, “To play cricket.”
Tharani stopped in her tracks and looked at this defiant daughter of hers in despair. “Okay, but be careful and be back home by afternoon. Don’t go out after that.”
“When will you be back?”
“I don’t know. It will be quite late.”
“Why are you dressed like that? And where are your slippers? Are you going to the temple?”
Tharani felt like going back in and whacking the little girl. “You go in and stop shouting. Please obey Sitara!”
“Okay. Please buy me something to eat.”
“Okay,” said Tharani, “I will. Take care of Sheila,” she added cunningly, because Sitara, for all her tomboyish ways, or maybe because of them, was very protective of Sheila. “See that she doesn’t get into mischief.”
“Okay,” said the redoubtable Sitara, and withdrew from the porch.
Tharani made her way to the railway station, bought her ticket and made her way to the day train that would be going to Yercaud. She had made her enquiries and knew that this train would stop at Kauri Hills for two minutes. She got into the last carriage in the hopes of getting down and letting the train pass by without being noticed too much. She sat down near a window and looked out. The train started to move, and she was on her way! She was supposed to get down at the Kauri Hills Station some three hour later. She kept a keen look out. About two hours and forty-five minutes into the ride, she got up and made her way to the door and stood there, waiting. Everyone else was seated, and they looked curiously at her as she stood there, but no one said anything. In India, people accepted these strange appearances and behaviour. It was obviously some form of worship and they understood that. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the train slowed down and moved into what seemed to be a valley, with hills looming almost immediately from the tracks on both sides. Tharani looked with alarm to both right and left. The hills were high; they were the Ghats. She peeped out the door and saw a tiny station. Kauri Hills. The train slowed down and stopped and she got down. Almost immediately, the train picked up speed and was gone. She stood, looking around the station. It was nothing more than a platform really, with a room at one end, apparently for the station master. A lady stood there with a green and red flag in her hand. Tharani smiled at her, but the lady did not smile back. She looked curiously at Tharani, and then she came over. She was a pleasantly plump, middle-aged lady with squiggly hair done in a plait. One leg was shorter than the other and she limped. However, there was an air of confidence and command about her that belied this rather drab appearance. She was obviously a railway employee. Financial independence is a wonderful thing. It's possibly the best thing that can happen to a person.
“You’re here to see the forest spirit?”
“Yes,” said Tharani, apprehensively, “Is it true?”
“You don’t believe?” asked the lady.
Tharani shook her head. “I don’t know. I’ve heard.”
“It’s true,” the lady, nodding, “You have to go there!” She pointed to the hill on the side of the station, outside it. It was so strange to see a hill start right outside a station. “Go a little further up and wait. You have come prepared?”
“Yes,” said Tharani, “I have brought vegetarian food cooked without ginger and garlic and onion. I’ve packed them in banana leaves.”
The lady nodded approvingly. “You will be okay. Just make a circle with stones and wait.”
“Is she scary?” asked Tharani.
The lady shook her head, “They are forest people. They are good.”
“They?” asked Tharani, startled.
“Well, they’re hill tribes. What did you expect?”
“I thought she was a forest spirit.”
The lady laughed, “You could call her that. They’re strange people, almost like animals, climbing trees and up the hill. She is one of them but she is the only one who will come out to meet people.”
“Why only her?”
The lady shrugged. “We don’t know what the rules are or whether they even have any homes or rules. You will like her. She is kind.”
“Oh!” said Tharani, taking in all the information. “Do a lot of people come here?”
“No,” said the lady, and her eyes hardened and the smiled vanished. “Not even desperation will bring anyone here to this lonely place. It takes a kind of temperament to do that.”
“What kind?” asked Tharani coldly, sensing the hostility.
“The kind that is not afraid to die. The kind that is capable of anything.”
Tharani stared coldly and steadily back at the lady. She understood that the woman meant that she was capable of murder. What would she know? She, who had never been uprooted from her country, never knew what it was to lose everything and start from scratch.
“Why are you here?” she asked the lady.
“I’m the station master. I’ve been posted here. I shall leave by the afternoon train and a railway guard will take over. He will also leave by the 6.30 train. It is the last one.” She did not warn Tharani that if she missed that train, she would be alone here in the night and there was no electricity. Anyone who had the guts to come to a place like this had surely braced themselves against all odds. Coming here meant they were okay with being alone in pitch darkness with the possibility of being eaten up by animals or being raped or murdered. They had bought themselves a one-way ticket, especially someone like Tharani who had actually come without knowing anything for sure.
Tharani picked up her bag and made her way out of the station. The woman called out to her, “If you’re carrying any weapons, you’ll be killed. If you’re unarmed, you will be protected.”
Tharani paused. She then came back to the woman, took out a knife from within her blouse and handed it to her. She then took out another one tied to her skirt and gave that one too. She then put her hand inside the big bag that she had folded over the food. She took out a small pistol and gave that one too. The lady looked on with horror but had the wisdom to keep quiet.
Tharani then turned swiftly and left the station. The hills started abruptly from the station. Thankfully, the slope was gradual and she was able to climb to quite a distance without much difficulty. But soon, she entered the forest part of it and the trees were close together and there was little sunlight. It grew progressively darker as she moved uphill, now very slowly and painstakingly, for it was quite steep. She stopped several times to catch her breath. She looked up and saw a kind of clearing a little further. She decided that was her destination. She took a deep breath and continued to climb till she reached it. It was quite a bit of open space, almost circular. She placed her bag on the ground, and sank thankfully to the ground and took deep breaths, till her breathing normalized. She looked around. She could see tiny rocks all over, so she picked up some and made a circle around herself, wide enough to allow her to sit comfortably. She then removed the big cloth bag, set it within the circle and placed the bag of food outside. She had brought a bottle of water. She took a swig and then sat down and waited. She did not feel the least bit foolish in all that she did. It was faith that had brought her this far, and faith made it all very real to her.
She was there a good two hours, just sitting there. It was all very peaceful although not very quiet. They were all natural sounds, of birds singing, squirrels squeaking, crows cawing. Thankfully, and strangely, no monkeys had appeared and taken pot shots at the food. In fact, she had not seen a single monkey. Squirrels ran around, birds chirped, branches swayed in the breeze, but these things apart, it was all very peaceful. Twice, she heard the rumble of a distant train. And then, suddenly, the birds flew up into the sky in alarm and she looked up. She heard a rustling noise. And then, she saw what appeared to be a white light moving swiftly from tree to tree towards her. Her heart raced and jumped to her mouth. She got up to her feet, and then stood transfixed. The light was now quite bright, a soft glow. It stopped at about 10 feet from her. As her eyes focused, she could see that it was a woman. The woman glowed! She emanated a soft radiant glow. Tharani had never seen a stranger sight. She saw a very beautiful woman of indefinite age. The figure was perfect and light and athletic. She was naked except for a skirt of some sort made out of leaves waist down. She had a chain of wild flowers around her neck. Her hair flew wildly around her face, surprisingly soft and shiny. Her skin was dark and flawless and glowing. Her features were perfect. But it was her eyes that drew Tharani’s attention as they focused so strongly on her. “Sea green,” she said under her breath. But as she stared, it became clear that the white of the eye was actually yellow and the pupils were deep blue. “Yellow and blue!” Tharani exclaimed under her breath. The Spirit stood there, nonchalant and at ease, sizing her up. And then she smiled, showing perfect and even white teeth. Tharani folded her hands in homage, knelt down to the ground and bent down so her head touched the ground. She then got up to her feet. She decided that this was indeed the Forest Spirit for although it was quite clear that she was a woman, she was definitely not an ordinary human being. The Spirit came forward to stand quite close to Tharani, but still out of the circle. Tharani could smell the faint, fading fragrance of the flowers around her neck, and some other, very pleasant smell. She could feel the strength and vibrancy of the Spirit at close quarters. The Spirit then smiled at her again. She said something in a high-pitched voice, and then started dancing around the circle. She chanted as she danced. She then stopped once again in front of Tharani, reached out and placed a hand on her head. And while Tharani had almost died of fright just moments earlier, she felt a peace descend on her the kind she had never felt in her life but had always longed for. It felt like her longings, cravings, searches all ended in this all-engulfing white peace. Her heart beat slowed down and became a steady rhythmic beat. She felt protected and safe. 
They stayed in a state of timelessness, thoughtlessness, connected and only feeling. Then, slowly, slowly, the Spirit withdrew her hand, first easing the pressure, and then, removing her hand. And she smiled deeply into Tharani’s eyes, and Tharani felt she was in the presence of one who loved her deeply, understood her, and did not judge her for who she was. She felt like a child in the presence of its mother. The Spirit then bent and took the food basket, and gestured to Tharani. “Wait here,” Tharani interpreted. She nodded, “I will wait.” And in one swift movement of light, the Spirit disappeared.
Tharani waited again, this time leaving the circle to find a place to pee. She then came back to within the circle. She was quite hungry. She had eaten in the train but it now seemed like a long time back. But there was nothing to eat. She had not kept any of the food for herself as she did not know if it was right to do so. So she drank some water and waited. Hours passed and it grew darker. Tharani was aware that it was evening, maybe early evening. She might miss the train, but there was nothing she could do about it. She dared not leave. But soon after, she again heard the rustle of leaves, and in swift movements of light, the Spirit appeared once again. This time, she came straight to Tharani. She had a basket woven out of palm leaves. She placed the basket within the circle and Tharani could see that there were leaves, fruits, twigs, and flowers in it. She looked askance at the Spirit and the Spirit gestured.
“Grind,” interpreted Tharani, “Then take a little bit. Add to water. Give to drink. You don’t drink. Okay?”
She nodded to the Spirit, “Okay.”
And she once again folded her hands and knelt and bent so her head touched the ground. When she got up, the Spirit had left.
She picked up the palm basket, placed it within the big bag that she had brought, and left for the station.
The railway guard looked at her from above his horn-rimmed spectacles. He was in his white and white uniform, a rather nondescript man in his late fifties, possibly retiring soon. He then went back to his newspaper and to doing sudoku. He had seen crazy females before and wasn’t surprised at all.
“When is the train coming in? asked Tharani. 
“Half past six,” he said, not looking up.
“I’m hungry.” said Tharani. He pushed a biscuit packet that was on the table towards her.
“Do you want some tea?” he asked.
“You can make some there.” He pointed to a side of the room where there was an electric kettle and two cups and saucers and some tea, milk powder and sugar. “Could you please make some for me too?”
Tharani nodded. She made two cups of tea, set one in front of him. She opened the biscuit packet, took three biscuits and setting them on her saucer, walked out to sit on the bench outside.
The train arrived almost on the dot at half past six. The railway guard showed his flag till it stopped. Tharani had earlier washed the cups and saucers, and the man had taken his bag out and locked the door to the room.
So now, all they had to do was board the train. He waited for Tharani to get in and he followed her. He watched her make her way with her bag to an empty seat. He followed, shaking his head and muttering to himself, “Crazy women! Only these many reasons why they do such things. Man there, man not there. Man good, man not good.”

[To be continued ...]
Setu, December 2018

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