Vishnu's Debt: Ajanta Paul

Ajanta Paul

Divya looked at Naresh across the hospital aisle. Her eyes were red with lack of sleep, face taut with worry.

"It's alright," Naresh assured her. "It's a matter of only a few days, and then everything will be fine."

Just then a nurse came out of the doctor's chamber and handed Divya a sheaf of reports and prescriptions explaining to her the tests that needed to be done on Naresh before his operation could be carried out.

Young as Naresh was, he suffered from a rare cardiac condition and required a complicated surgery to get his health back.

To make matters worse, or was it better, Naresh had few relatives in the city. His mother had passed on long ago and his father had aged prematurely, becoming in the process, quite incapable of handling a crisis of this sort. So it was left to Divya to manage the present medical emergency as best she could.

It was Divya who had decided on this hospital after consulting her friends and acquaintances and she who accompanied Naresh to the doctor's visits and the various diagnostic tests.

It was just as well that they were engaged. The status somehow lent a legibility to the role that Divya perforce had to adopt under the circumstances. It was a difficult period for her though she never complained about the demands on her time and attention.

It was not the physical strain so much as the mental stress that took its toll on her. To counter the feeling of helplessness these days Divya sought solace in a small temple near her home. She found a strange peace as she meditated before the deity.

In the course of her frequent visits to this throbbing centre of religious activity Divya sometimes found devotees striking bizarre bargains with the deity in return for prayers granted. Some devotees, Divya discovered undertook the most rigorous penances imaginable - sitting for days without food or water in the lotus position; dragging oneself to the temple (not walking) and returning the same way; or flagellating oneself in some other remarkable way.

These experiences gave Divya an idea. She became hopeful of driving a deal with the Almighty. She would undertake a penance or sacrifice, something precious in return for the full recovery of Naresh. Yes, she would do that. The more she thought about it the more she liked the idea. Surely God would be convinced of her sincerity once she gave up that thing most valuable to her.

With this pact in place Divya could dispense with the excruciating anxiety that debilitated her much of the time. When she sounded out the plan before Priya, her friend, however, she discouraged her, urging her to steer clear of such superstitious mumbo jumbo.

Well, now Divya was in a quandary. She decided to approach the temple priest regarding the validity of her plan. Old Shyamsundarji was surprised. He had assumed that this girl was a modern young woman who had no interest in penances and other such practices. However, he welcomed the idea and encouraged her, saying, "If you have to do a penance or relinquish something, give up that which is really, if not most precious to you."

Divya considered the priest's words. If anything was precious to her it was her long mane that rippled down to her knees. It cascaded down in jet black waves attracting the admiration of one and all.

The day  Divya had her head shaved in the temple precincts she tried to behave as though it was any other day. Well, it was, too. What was the big deal? It was a small thing she was doing for Naresh in return for a long term guarantee of his health. She tried not to look at the locks as they fell to the ground in a steady drizzle of darkness.

The myth went that Vishnu in the Hindu pantheon had run up a huge debt to finance his marriage. Loyal followers often sacrificed their hair in mitigation of that debt. Well, that was one of the ways of looking at the matter, Divya mused.

When it was finally done Divya felt curiously shorn and vulnerable. She looked down at the ground, bit her underlip and held back the tears that threatened to engulf her. Despite her brave resolve a few drops trickled out so that the geometric design of the floor tiles lost its definitive shape and struggled to reassert its intricate motifs having become smudged like the patterns of life in those inexplicable twists of fate. Fortunately for Divya it was a passing moment and she soon became her normal self.

Divya donned a scarf to cover what she felt was her ugly and exposed head and sailed through her work with a breeziness she was far from feeling. When folks pointed to the scarf Divya just shrugged and changed the subject.

The day of the operation arrived. Naresh had been admitted to the hospital several days ago for the tests to be run and the necessary monitoring to be done. In due course Naresh was wheeled into the operation theatre. Divya sat shivering in the waiting room outside. Mohan, a distant cousin of Naresh was there along with Divya's friend Priya who kept up a patter to divert the former.

Really, relatives have this distressing habit of falling ill or getting admitted in hospital just when the professional front is at its most demanding. Mohan kept tapping his foot impatiently or looking at his watch as if through these actions he could expedite the hands of the clock. The rest of the time he kept flicking through his social media accounts on his phone to keep himself updated.

"Here, have some coffee," offered Priya, holding out two cups of a strong instant variety for Divya and Mohan. Divya who had her eyes closed, had been praying fervently, "O God, if you return my Naresh to me I shall offer you the sacrifice of my hair again and yet again. Just extend your hand and heal him."

Divya took the proffered cup and sat sipping it. In her mind's eye she saw her lustrous hair growing back again and she, mindful of her promise shaving every last strand of it to appease the deity who had given Naresh a new lease on life. Of course, she would do it as many times as was required of her. She would do anything to see Naresh back on his feet and leading a healthy life.

While Divya was thus occupied with her thoughts her name was announced on the public address system and she was asked to report to an anteroom adjacent to the operation theatre. Heart thumping and ears ringing Divya quickly made her way to the place. One of the assisting surgeons, still in his surgical gown, removed his mask and informed her, "The operation has been successful. Your patient is stable. However, this post-operative period is crucial. We shall keep him in the ICU for the next couple of days for observation."

The smell of fear and uncertainty that had been lingering in her nostrils dissipated in the wake of the liberating news and Divya drew in deep draughts of air into her lungs as she thanked God profusely for his kindness.

Once Naresh was discharged from hospital Divya took care of him round the clock giving him his medicines, supervising the preparation of nourishing diets and generally attending to every detail of his post-operative care.

A green stubble of hope began to cover Divya's heart as Naresh gained in strength slowly but steadily. There now, the pain had lessened somewhat; he could sit up in bed; his appetite was improving; not to miss, he actually took a few steps, and so on.

Divya's hair, too, had begun to grow back and a glossy furze shone on her head like a tight fitting cap. Soon enough she could discard the scarf that had been her defence against the world. She flung away the violet, blue, green and yellow pieces of muslin which had been her faithful accoutrements in the past few months. These splashes of colour swirled into a rainbow of hope in the sky of her faith.

As the year sped by on gossamer wings a date was finalized for the marriage of Naresh and Divya. Naresh's father was able to snap out of his customary apathy sufficiently to begin the nuptial negotiations. The traditional bridal wear, the red Benarasi saree was duly bought along with the ornaments. Divya, Priya and the rest of them would occasionally run their hands over the smooth material of the wedding saree marvelling at the silken texture of the cloth. It held the promise of a whole new life in its weave and folds.

Even as the wedding preparations were on in full swing something happened that challenged all of them. A strange disease afflicted Divya. Her hair began to fall out in clumps. At first she wasn't unduly worried. Seasonal alopecia sometimes affected both men and women, as far as she knew. She consulted several doctors, at first with hope, then with faith and finally in despair. To Divya's horror her hair loss just kept worsening in the most unimaginable way.

The wedding day arrived in due course. Naresh stood in the beautifully decorated mandap in the evening as the rituals were about to begin. He looked, starry eyed, at his bride sitting demurely by his side. The soft strains of the shehnai mingled with the sounds of festivities to create a music of great intensity where it was possible to get lost in the soaring notes as also in the plaintive plangencies of pain.

The friends of the bride flocked around her fussing over her attire, accessories and make up. Once the ceremony was over the newlyweds stood receiving the guests. They made a handsome couple, he in his designer sherwani and she in her maroon kanjeevaram silk saree. In the queue to wish the couple stood a young woman in a bright red scarf.

There was quite a bit of speculation regarding this misfit of a guest. Mohan, one of the cousins of the bridegroom, was overheard telling a relative, "See that girl over there? She's a friend of Naresh. In fact, Naresh was supposed to…" he dropped his voice to a whisper at this point and muttered something conspiratorially before announcing, "By the way, she's completely bald, did you know?"

"Yes, someone pointed her out to me," returned the relative. "Apparently she was struck by a virulent and untreatable type of alopecia which took away her hair in a matter of a few weeks," she clucked sympathetically.

When the subject of their remarks came up to the head of the line she smiled sweetly holding out a parcel for the bride. Seeing her Naresh started visibly.

"Divya! You!" he cried looking at her as though he had seen a ghost.

"Niti," called out Mohan. "See who's come to wish you."

Niti looked out shyly from beneath the heavy veil of her bridal saree.

Divya adjusted her scarf which was actually a carelessly cut piece of what had once been a gorgeous red Benarasi saree. As she wished the newly married couple a long and happy life together the hint of a tear sparkled on her lashes like the diamond in Niti's ear.

Divya looked straight into Naresh's eyes but he wouldn't meet them. He shifted his weight from one well-shod foot to another looking uncomfortable and embarrassed till the hubbub of the occasion resolved the situation for him.

When Divya turned to leave, a rainbow of hope arranged its chiffon swirls of colour round her head dressing it in a radiant coiffure, making her look every inch the princess that she felt deep down within her. She left the venue, head held high, confident that she had played her part in paying off Vishnu's debt.


1 comment :

  1. Very well written. Intertwines love and duty along with human folly and betrayal. Kept me glued till the very end. Well done!

    ReplyDelete

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