ChandriyaVana, 05.45 AM.
The aroma of the besan ladoos infiltrates his nostrils, pushing him to the land of the living. He jerks his hands. Nope. I’m still tied to the flagpole. I can’t believe I dozed off.
The chains jangle as he shifts position and the teasing colours of dawn appear over the horizon. The fire, burning all night, utters a dying hiss. A death rattle before collapsing. The dancing embers captivate his gaze, burning brightly.
Bright as the tiger. What am I thinking? No, tigers, please. Sheesh.
His brows furrow as he gazes around. The peachy skies contrast with his mood; his mouth dips.
Why hasn’t the Goddess Vanyakshini arrived? Am I not worthy of a sacrifice? Is she angry?
Mamung hailed from a tribal village steeped in traditional values. The village abutted a lush yet wild forest, and Goddess Vanyakshini was their fiery protector. Each year, at the beginning of the harvest season, the villages honoured her with a human sacrifice, hoping to appease her, praying for a fecund harvest. The tribal reaped bajra, a large part of their livelihood. But year upon year, the next generation appeared less inclined towards pleasing their goddess. Their modern outlook made them renege their age-old customs for the newer, less bizarre ones. In the earlier days, the Naivedyas willingly identified their first-born sons as the sacrificial tools for the goddess, but now they ignored the dictum. Wheat farming kept their coffers overflowing and their bellies full. Who wants to please the forest goddess when the lands are so plentiful?
So, the villagers voted for Mamung to be sacrificed this year. The chief’s dislike for him ensured his nomination. In his eyes, Mamung was an abomination, an aberration of nature. And what best to serve Mother Nature than an offering, however weird, of her own? Therefore, Mamung finds himself hogtied with an array of sweets tantalizingly placed before him; ruing the day he was born. The absence of Goddess worries him. Has she turned her back on the Chandri Tribe?
His nose itches. In the night, the Piiding Khotu, the brass rod holding his hair knot in place, had fallen off, and the flowing tresses tickle him. He eventually resorts to the rope knots to ingratiate himself. Relief floods through him as he rubs them against the spot. The crucial job attended to, he ponders about his situation. A gentle breeze is rustling through the leaves; it ruffles his hair, tickling him again as his lungi flutters. His attention is drawn to the azure skies where a murmuration of starlings races with the winds. They temporarily block the rays streaming through the treetops. Mamung watches with fascination as the birds fly in an ever-changing pattern, expanding and contracting. Finally, the penumbra obscuring the sky clears, and the mist covering the forest dissipates under the sun’s growing heat. The rumblings emanating from his stomach reach his ears, and he eyes the ladoos. The sight of the gleaming balls, each resplendent with the silver foil, beckons him. Their aroma, a siren call. He examines his bonds, realizing they are flimsy, busies himself in escaping them.
The hair on his neck tingles, and he senses someone watching him. A musical tinkling emanates from a shower of mist that apparates. From the froth emerges Goddess Vanyakshini, with the silver anklets and their minuscule bells on her shapely feet swaying. Her long lustrous mane blows gently around her slender shoulders, and her almond-shaped eyes twinkle, a hint of amusement in them as her full lips curl. She places one hand on her curvy hip and an index finger on her chin as she tilts her head to watch him. Mamung stops struggling as he stares at her. He takes in her dusky skin, complementing her white dress. One of her four hands is holding a sapling while the other hangs onto a sickle. Titters escape from her as Mamung prostrates before her.
“Rise, human!” Her voice is as musical as a Gandharva’s song.
Mamung tries to stand swiftly, but the chains hinder him. Vanyakshini snaps her fingers, and lo-and-behold! He is free! He looks up in surprise, and the goddess shrugs.
“I thought you’d never show up! The village elders said you come at night, but when you didn’t make an appearance, I thought I had offended you.” His voice peters out as her face falls. “Have I said something to upset you? I’m famous for shooting my mouth off. I just keep yakking, and then I get nervous. And when I get nervous, I tend to talk even more. It’s a vicious circle of endless blabbing. I think I’m doing it again. I’ll shut up. But before I do that, can I say how beautiful you are? I had expected you to resemble the mythological Yakshinis. All fearsome, with skulls and tongue hanging out. And, blood. Oh, yes! With a bloodied tongue protruding amongst sharp fangs, dressed in a loincloth. But you are glorious.” Vanyakshini’s eyes glaze over. “I’m doing it again, aren’t I? This time I’ll be quiet.”
He pantomimes zipping his lips as Vanyakshini smiles. “Don’t stop on my accord. I quite enjoy your… talk. It’s amusing. The village elders are right as I appear at night, but nowadays, it’s such a task to get out of bed and apparate.” A deep sigh escapes her. Mamung notices an expanding grey cloud forming above her head. Slowly, it covers her like a translucent sheath. Her shoulders droop, and a frown makes the glabella its home, nudging the third eye aside. She hunches; a shadow of her former happy self. Now, she’s just a colourless mass levitating. The only hint of colour comes from the dropping green sapling.
Mamung is surprised to find himself feeling sorry for the forlorn goddess. Ignoring his predicament, he says. “Goddess Vanyakshini, what happened? Are you okay?”
The grey cloud stirs and clears, Vanyakshini re-appears, shaking her head. “No, puny human. I despair at the way things are spanning out. It’s wrong.” Her countenance changes abruptly. Her eyes glower, and steam (literally!) zooms out of her ears; the tight curls whispering away. “NOTHING persists! Everything has changed! No one worships me anymore! Everything humans held sacred is now just words printed on the holy scriptures. The decline in morals is appalling! I’m fed up with this insolence! The sanctity of devotion is lost. I’m being neglected? How it hurts to be a section of society where no one wants you? Where you are ignored? Even seen with contempt.”
Mamung smiles as he looks down, shaking his head. “Not an inkling.”
Angry gestures punctuate each word she speaks. A spark accompanies each movement. Small fires light around them. Mamung stares in horror as the flames lick his feet! Vanyakshini continues her angry tirade, not aware of the growing havoc around. He jumps to avoid the approaching fire, drawing her attention. She snaps, and everything restores to its former self. Except for Mamung. He cowers on the ground, fearful for his life.
“Rise, human. I won’t hurt you!”
“But you do…” he gulps, “… eat the other sacrificial humans, don’t you? How am I any different?”
Vanyakshini nods, her eyes pinch thoughtfully; all traces of anger disappear. “That’s true. I enjoy toying with the offered human prey and eventually feeding them to my pet tiger, Bholu. So, you’re right.”
“You have a pet tiger named Bholu? What sort of name is that?” Mamung arches his shapely eyebrow.
“An excellent sort. Are you intentionally trying to annoy me, human?”
“No. No. I apologize, devi. Bholu is a fantastic name. Such creation can only erupt from the fountain of your intelligence.”
“I concur.” She dazzles him with a smile.
“So, am I forgiven?”
She waves at him, and Mamung ducks to avoid the flares sparking. “Yes. Excessive human flesh is making Bholu obese, and anyway, I’m depressed. In no mood to play. In fact, I don’t think I’m up to accepting more of your human sacrifices. I’ve had enough.”
“You’ve had enough? Do you think we enjoy it?” Mamung’s eyebrows juggle, incredulous.
“Why would you keep sending humans, huh?” parries Vanyakshini.
“To please you! We don’t enjoy being killed!”
“You don’t? Huh. And here I thought there was some sado-masochistic thing happening. Hmm. So this is how being wrong feels like?” A wondrous expression crosses her beautiful face.
“No one likes to die. We have… had a line of warriors, Naivedyas, who’d give up their sons to please you.”
“Aha! I wondered why you humans only sent men. Why not women? Are they not enough for a sacrifice?” She cocks her head, examining him. “Or maybe, your lot thinks only men can please me?”
Mamung raises his shoulder. “The village elders make the rules. So just to clear the air, you won’t be feeding me to the wondrous Bholu, am I right?”
“Right.” Mamung’s body relaxes, and a genuine smile lights up his face. Then, confusion reigns.
“Why am I still here? Can I go home?”
“Do you want to go home?” Vanyaksini’s eyes gleam with curiosity.
“Not particularly. It depends on what you’ve in mind for me.”
“Oh, I’m thinking of keeping you for myself.”
“And what can I do? Have you taken a look at me? I’m a square peg in a round circle.”
“What complicated language you humans spout! All of humanity has dual selves–the masculine and the feminine. Including gods. How does it matter which form metamorphoses externally? Inside, we are all the same.” Vanyakshini’s brow furrows. “All this unwarranted attention on gender issues is taking you away from the real focus–Me. You should spend more time thinking about me, but all you do is fight over silly, irrelevant things.”
“You are right, devi. Devotion is dying a slow death. Much like the fire out there.” He pointed at the smouldering embers, barely eking out any warmth. “Initially, religion was like fire: warm and life-supporting. But like the fire has an edge, religion did too. Many unscrupulous folks exploited it to warm their hands. And now, people’s faith over it has diminished… or is diminishing.”
The human and the Goddess stare at the remnants of the fire. “Perfect analogy, sapiens. Many eons ago, gods were worshipped at the altar of humanity, but now…” whispered Vanyakshini, “now, I don’t know what future holds for us. Though Bholu claims he knows. Or can find out. But he is full of beans.”
Mamung tried to decipher what the goddess is mumbling but failed and instead asks. “Now what, Goddess Vanyakshini?”
“Follow me.” He pockets the ladoos surreptitiously.
Walking through the dense forest is an experience of a lifetime for Mamung. Where Vanyakshini’s feet fall, the path automatically clears, the trees skipping aside, allowing her passage. As she glides, they greet her like an old friend. Mamung is amazed to hear their voices, some baritone, some husky, and some like his, hoarse. A cross between the two biological realms. He feels a sudden kinship with them.
“I didn’t know trees could talk,” he remarks.
“Oh, yes. Who do you think makes a sound when a tree falls in the forest?”
Van Mahal, 08.15 AM.
After strolling for a short while, they come across a clearing with dewy sunshine peering at them.
The word clearing is clearly a misnomer. Nothing is clear here. Heh.
Ahead a cumulonimbus of clouds descends on earth. Fluffy white cottony clouds surrounded them. He hesitates at the edge as the clouds swallow Vanyakshini, but follows her. Inside the cloud castle, instead of the subdued darkness as Mamung expects, there is joyous light. Fireflies illuminate every corner!
He has never seen anything as beautiful. Sparkles of fireflies strutting around for their ladies, and brightening everything. It’s mesmerizing. They gather around in concentric circles, illumination galore. Their prospective mates buzz in response, spurring them on. Vanyakshini didn’t notice the splendour around her as she marches ahead.
She is probably used to it.
The short tunnel opens up into a large airy room where a strange creature, dressed in tiger skin, sits in a lotus position, chanting a hypnotic mantra. It has the pot-bellied upper body of a human, and its lower half is of a tiger. Complete with the paws and a swishing tail. Which for, the time being isn’t swishing at all but coils around the creature. Black-coloured stripes are methodically drawn on his face. As soon as they enter the room, the creature’s eyes shoot open. The amber eyes glow as the black irises zoom into Mamung, making him nervous. It licks its lips.
“Down, Bholu. He is my guest,” commands Vanyakshini. The creature backs off immediately, its tail swiping sideways.
Left. Right. Swish.
Bholu? He is most definitely sprouting a tummy. Haha. But Mamung involuntarily moved closer to Vanyakshini.
“Bholu, meet Mamung.” How does she know my name? “Mamung, this is Bholu. He used to be a tiger who once ate a yogi, but before he could eat the legs, a hyena walked off with them as our fierce Bholu snored. That’s why as a punishment and a lesson, his lower body stayed faithful to his feline existence.” Bholu emits tiny moans that still shake Mamung in his proverbial boots. Bholu’s human head, with its tight curls forming a black halo around it, bobbles. I wonder if it can talk.
“Greetings, Mamung. I’m sorry if I eyed you hungrily. Our esteemed goddess here has put on me on a diet of carrots and cabbages. And your human pheromones… were divine.”
Bholu stares in the distance while Mamung feels mildly nauseous.
Why does he speak in a firangi accent? Do I smell? Is Bholu cannibalistic or just feral? Or, like me, his feet lie on either side of the equation?
“I see a brilliant future for you,” Bholu says.
“Bholu claims he can peer into the future. He keeps pestering me to try it out, but I can do it myself. I’m a goddess, after all.” Vanyakshini continues.
“A goddess who thrives on the shrinking devotion and is losing her powers,” mutters Bholu.
“I heard that! I see a lot more of carrots in your future, my rotund Bholu,” retorts Vanyakshini. It has the immediate effect of wiping the smug smile off Bholu’s face and shutting him up.
Mamung’s eyes flicker between the two parrying combatants as they exchange a verbal rally, with Vanyakshini emerging as the clear winner.
“Mamung will help me increase my flock of devotees. Won’t you, human?” Her eyes glint dangerously.
“Yes. Yes. I know all about the human’s proclivity towards modern life.” Mamung is all smiles and fake bluster.
“Let’s go to the war room to formulate a strategy.” Vanyakshini beckons the others to join her. War room? Formulate strategy? Gulp, I can’t even pray to the gods for help.
Bholu rises with awkward movements, swaying for balance. Mamung moves to steady him.
“Thank you, full-bodied human. Tigers aren’t used to the lotus position. Our tendons cramp up.” Bholu flexed his… paw. What else will I see today? The Fates, hiding behind the clouds, take that statement as a challenge.
The airy war room has a whiteboard. It’s the belly of a white tiger lying on its back with its paws in the air. What’s with the tigers, man?
Vanyakshini uses her hands to pantomime writing–and just as magically, words appear on the belly of the beast.
- Increase worshippers. Pronto.
- Stop the sacrifice?
“A peek into the future can help us understand what’s in store for us, Yakshu,” says Bholu.
“I’m not sure if peeking anywhere will help me.” A dejected Vanyakshini slumps on a fluffy brown chair. On closer inspection, Mamung realizes they are the arms of a cuddly grizzly bear.
Do they even have normal furniture around here? He loses track of time and the conversation, gazing everywhere with suspicion.
“What do you think, Mamung?”
“I… think it’s a good idea. We should totally go for it.” He has no idea what they’ve been discussing. Hope it’s nothing dangerous.
“This is the first time your boy-toy has shown signs of intelligence. Usually, they’re such duds. Taste funny, too.” Bholu’s amber eyes glowed with appreciation as Vanyakshini nods.
“You’ve finally convinced me, cat!”
“Yes!” Bholu pumps his chubby, dimpled fist in the air.
“What’s the plan?” Vanyakshini asks, her lips curving in a smile. Plan? She pats the head of the white tiger, and it rolls over. Screen time over.
Bholu closes his eyes, places a hand on his forehead, and mews as he thinks. “I’ll project the visions from the future onto Polly. When do you want to do it?” Polly?
“No better time than now. How about 10… no 25 years in the future?”
“Righto! Let’s start.”
Vanyakshini summons the white tiger, Polly, and it falls into position, exposing its hairless underbelly. Bholu begins to vibrate as he chants under his breath. Just like false contouring on television sets, a band of solid colours appears on the belly. Slowly it clears to reveal a hazy picture.
“By God, it works! The roly-poly one did it,” exclaims Vanyakshini. “Lights off, please.”
One by one, the fireflies stop glowing, and the room plunges into darkness, with Polly as the cynosure.
War room, 10.43 AM.
The ‘screen’ comes alive. It focuses on a landfill that’s choc-a-block with detritus. Mamung yelps as Vanyakshini grabs his hand, “This is ChandriyaVana! This is happening here!” They share a shocked look. “Where’s the forest? Where did my green valley go?”
She shakes her head slowly as comprehension dawns. “You humans engulfed the forests. Maybe, even killed all the animals.” A terrified squeak escapes from Polly as its eyes widen with shock. The picture suffers from a mild tremor, but the professional Polly swallows its fear and stays still again.
On zooming in, they realize the debris is nothing but idols and pictures of all gods and goddesses along with the other ritualistic paraphernalia. A truck honks as a guard mechanically opens the gate. It judders inside as the driver calls out to the guard.
“Last lot! We’ve emptied all the former places of worship.”
“Right on target, too! Else Supreme Leader, Mr. Naringah, would’ve been most displeased.” Both men shudder at the idea of an irate Naringah.
The truck dumps its contents on the overflowing grounds. Another guard starts the incinerator. A gasp escapes Vanyakshini as conveyer belts, carrying its celestial load as a sacrificial tool, speed towards it. The incinerator accepts the proffered goods with a hiss and, in no time, swallows them. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Meanwhile, the broken and damaged idols stare into the skies they once ruled. Betrayed by their very own. The eyes open, unable to prevent their imminent quietus. Unable to close their eyes.
The screen flickers and eventually fades out as a different picture colours the screen. A montage brings the screen alive. People, along with the underdogs, are living in harmony; women holding leadership positions. There’s compassion, love, peace, and humanity is an all-time high. Utopia reigns.
The gods are conspicuous by their absence.
The show ends as Bholu comes to. He stares at the others’ flabbergasted faces.
“I thought the present was tragic enough.” Tears pool in Vanyakshini’s eyes and fall unchecked on the ground. Bholu and Mamung stare helplessly at each other, unsure of how to comfort her.
“We can bring about a change. Come to think about it, it’s already blossoming! It’s not the follower numbers or flock quantity, but what matters is there’s peace.”
Vanyakshini doesn’t hear and slumps as a man and half-man rush to help her. She lays her head on Mamung’s shoulder, wearing a shroud of vulnerability. A strange, protective feeling surges within him at the sight of her dejected visage.
How to help her?
A teardrop falls on his arm. It’s like a wax seal, it seals his will to help. Mamung lowers his head, thinking. He dwells upon their rituals; the commonality amongst them is deriving benefit from the act. Then it dawns upon him: religious practices have become a barter system. Blind faith didn’t persist, and it’s no wonder it perished. The gods may be invisible, but their impact is visible. Humanity has realised that God isn’t found externally but within themselves. That, we are the hosts. We are the gods.
He mentally reels back to the images where women from all walks of life are at society’s forefront: fearless, like tigresses. Where transgender, like him, are welcome. I want to live there, too.
He turns to Vanyakshini, who reads his mind, follows the trails of thoughts. The actual power of a goddess isn’t in being worshipped but in being emulated. Absorbing her strength to heal, to nurture, to hope. We don’t need to worship blindly, but follow the tenets. Be content with themselves. Be content within.
Faith persists, it finds its way. Accepting chance, adapting to it and keeping the faith. True worship is being true. Illuminate within. Illuminate out.
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