“Good evening ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to another episode of ‘Heart-to-Heart with Ganesh’. This is Ganesh Nambiar, your host for the evening.” Taking a regal bow, he continued, “It gives me immense pleasure to announce that today we have someone very important in our studio. A man who, I am sure, needs no introduction. So without further ado, let me present to you, His eminence, Swami Shankaranandji Maharaj!”
A man of about fifty stepped onto the podium. Clad in a saffron overall, he towered over his host by a good 2 feet. With a mass of unruly curls and a long beard, Swamiji looked quite intimidating. But there was no mistaking the aura of tranquillity emanating from him. As usual, it had the desired effect on his audience. They rose from their seats and broke out into a thunderous clap.
“Pranam Swamiji.” Ganesh folded his hands with reverence. “It’s an honour and privilege to have you with us today.”
Swamiji smiled, “Thank you for inviting me.” He then turned towards the eager and inquisitive faces of the people sitting in front of him and thought for the umpteenth time,
I don’t deserve this! They don’t know anything about me.
“So, let’s start by getting to know you first, Swamiji.” Ganesh said as soon as they were seated. “Tell us about your parents, your childhood.”
‘There is no salt in the daal. Is this the way you cook for your husband?’ A slap landed on the left cheek of the woman serving him. Before she could recover, a few kicks on her abdomen sent her flying down on the ground. Their ten year old boy stood watching this from a distance. Trembling with fright, he waited for his father to leave. Only then did he run to his mother.
Swamiji : Well, I come from a small village called Karna. My father worked as a ticket conductor at the railway station. And my mother was a typical village woman who stayed in the house, cooking and taking care of us. Actually, I was very close to her. I was devastated when she passed away.
Ganesh : It seems she had a great influence on you.
At least, he could answer this truthfully.
Swamiji : Well partially. Whatever I am today is only because of her and my Guruji.
Ganesh (smiling): I have never seen you getting agitated. Did you inherit such a cheerful disposition from your mother?”
A small crowd had gathered around them, half cheering and the rest betting on who would emerge as the winner. The odds were pretty much on the bigger boy. Like a man possessed, he was showering punches on his opponent, a boy half his weight who now lay half dead on the ground.
“Move ! I said move aside.” The growling teacher meandered his way in and pulled him up by his collar. “What the hell do you think you are doing ?”
The boy was drenched in sweat and panting heavily. Pointing an accusing finger at his classmate who was now being helped up by some of his friends, he complained, ” Master ji, he stole my pencil!”
Through a fit of coughs, the other lad also managed to splutter, “No.. I… did… not.”
This angered the boy further and he moved forward threateningly only to be halted by his Master ji.
“What’s the matter with you? So much anger! That too at such a young age.” Shaking his head, he said gently, “It’s not good for you son. Not good at all.”
Swamiji (smiling) : The man who becomes angry never does a great amount of work and the man whom nothing can make angry accomplishes so much! Isn’t that so?
Ganesh (nodding) : Absolutely. And that brings me to my next question. Apart from being a spiritual leader, you are also one of the prominent social activist we have in our country right now. Gay rights, gender equality at workplace, inclusion of all kinds of disability, protection of farmer’s rights…the list is endless. Tell me, what is it that drives you?
What if I told you that I am a murderer and this is my way of atoning for my sin?!
A few people were walking down the footpath that ran along a long row of shops. Most of them passed without sparing a glance at the small blanketed bundle huddled on a torn piece of clothing. Those who did, paused to shell out some coins into the twisted aluminium bowl placed securely on its lap.
Nearby, the shutter of one of the shops went down and she realised that it was time to wind up her business for the day. She pulled out a wrinkled hand from underneath her blanket and delved it deep inside the bowl. The coins jingled.
Just a handful but enough to get her a piece of roti!
Dragging her arthritic limbs towards the small restaurant, she placed her earnings on the counter and stretched her bowl forward.
“Bhaiya ! Ek roti.”
It was peak business hours. People were thronged around the cash counter, some shouting out their orders, the others waiting for a vacant seat.
The man sitting behind the cash counter, took no notice of the old haggard. He collected the coins quickly and carelessly threw a burnt roti in her direction. Hadn’t she caught it at the right moment, it would have landed at her feet.
Enraged, she peeked at him from behind the veil of her blanket.
Who did he think he was? Didn’t she even deserve to be treated as a fellow human being?
Exasperated, she started towards her shanty.
It was all karma! There was no escaping its consequences.
So lost was she in her thoughts that she failed to see the speeding car nor hear it’s loud honk.
The show lasted much longer than what he had anticipated. Flanked by the producer at one side and the host on the other, Swamiji now hurried towards his car. His driver rushed to open the passenger door for him. After a brief farewell and shaking of hands, Swamiji bend forward. But stopped suddenly and frowned up. There was some sort of commotion across the street.
Few men came running in.
“An old woman has come under the wheels of a car. It sped away before we could get hold of it. Please help us take her to the hospital.”
“Bring her in,” ordered Swamiji.
They brought a bundle soaked in blood and laid her down on the backseat of his car. In no time, the pristine white cover began turning a crimson red. The disapproval on the driver’s face was evident but Swamiji turned a blind eye and instructed him to drive as fast as he could to the nearest hospital.
The operation took more than 5 hours. It was almost 4 in the morning when the doctor finally came out and declared her to be out of danger. All this while, Swamiji had sat outside waiting patiently. Now he rose to leave.
Three days later, he was informed of her being shifted to the general ward. A week went by and she was said to be making remarkable progress.
It was one such morning when Swamiji deemed it appropriate to visit her. The woman had been given a private room at his request. He smiled from the door way.
“Hello! May I come in?”
They had taken her off the tubes this morning. Now, she struggled into a sitting position. She started fumbling for something to cover her face and then gave up.
Well, hadn’t the doctors and nurses seen her like this?
For the first time since her accident, Shankaranandji got a clear look at her. He was instantly taken aback.
She was watching his expressions. Running a hand over the scars, she laughed sarcastically, “Scared of these Swamiji?”
“I… I.. am sorry. Please forgive me. But, how did you get them?”
“Let’s say they are the retributions for my sin,” she muttered bitterly. Leaning back against the pillows, she sighed. “But I wasn’t always like this you know. They didn’t call me the ‘Madhubala of Karna’ for nothing! Men fought over me. They sometimes went as far as…”
Swamiji’s head started spinning.
‘Madhubala of Karna?!’
Masterji was speaking and scrolling something on the blackboard. Shankar tried hard to concentrate. But his eyes kept on wandering outside to the large peepal tree located in the courtyard of their school.
His mother’s body was found hanging from one of those big trees in their village.
He still couldn’t believe she was gone. One morning she was waking him up for school and the same evening he was sitting beside her lifeless form. Now who would chat and laugh with him? Who would worry if he came home late? Moreover, who would he go to during times of distress?
He took his head in his hands and wept silently.
At lunchtime, Shankar realised that he hadn’t brought his tiffin. Afterall, there was no one to prepare lunch for him. His father ate his at the railway canteen. Not that he bothered whether his son ate or not!
He sat fidgeting with the buttons of his shirt when he heard the bell ring. As the students ran back into their respective classrooms, he quietly slipped out of the school.
The little pond on the edge of the hill was his favourite spot. For a long time he sat gazing at the glistening water, lost in thoughts about his mother. Finally, he got up and started walking in the direction of his house.
Shankar stopped short in front of the main door, it was unlocked. That was unusual. Did it mean that his father was home then? Wasn’t he supposed to be at the railway station?
Tentatively, he stepped inside. A faint sound reached his ears and he plodded towards its source. The moans increased as he came closer to the bedroom. Shankar peeked inside through the half opened door. The sight that met his eyes sent his blood boiling.
His father was in bed with that woman! The one who had pushed his mother to the brink of suicide.
Blind with rage, Shankar sprinted to the small kitchen. Immediately, he went on a rampage shoving aside spoons, impatiently kicking away bowls that came in his way and digging into the various steel containers. He was rummaging through the shelves when he finally found what he was looking for.
The butcher knife which his mother used to cut meat!
He held it against the light of the sun and saw the sharp pointed edge shine with pride.
Clutching it tightly in his hand, he rushed back to the bedroom.
It took me a second or two to realise that I had been stabbed in the back. Wincing with pain, I turned back and saw my lover’s 15 year old son standing with this big knife in his hand. It was smeared with blood. My blood!
His father was shouting at him while he stood there immobile, his eyes wide as a saucer, gaping at me and his knife alternatively, as if unable to believe what he had really done. The pain was gaining momentum and I was struggling to stand still. Finally, my body gave up the fight and I slumped down on the ground. But not before I saw the boy throwing away his weapon and running out heedless of his father’s cries!
He ran. Across the street, through the narrow lanes, among the paddy fields, to the railway track. A train whistled in the distance. Without any further thought, Shankar jumped up onto the goods train. Once inside, he realised the enormity of his actions.
How could he kill someone? What had come over him?
For two whole days that he stayed inside the train, he slept hoping he would wake up realising that everything had been a nightmare. But the guilt refused to go and came back repeatedly to haunt him in his dreams. On the third day, when the train stopped at a small and unknown station, he disembarked. It was night and except for a small group of sages, there was no one on the platform.
Frightened and unsure about where he would go now, Shankar stood gazing at the group until one of them approached him.
“Are you alone son?” asked the man with white hair and beard. “Would you like to come with us?”
The kindness in his eyes tugged at his heart. Shankar agreed.
Guruji took him under his wing and thus began a new chapter of his life!
When I opened my eyes, I found myself in a hospital. The nurse told me that some of the villagers had brought me there. When I asked about the father, she said that he had been arrested and released later.
In a few days I was well again. When I went back home, I saw the sarpanch waiting outside. He was accompanied by a herd of other villagers. On seeing me, he drew closer and snarled,
‘You can’t stay anymore in this village. We don’t want another scandal here! Your mother has made arrangements for you to live with her sister. Here!’ He threw a small bag at my feet. ‘ Take this and leave. Don’t you dare show us your face again!’
My aunt lived with her husband in the city. I had no option but to go to her. Little did I know that another misfortune awaited me there. My infamous scandal had reached her well before my arrival. My aunt didn’t want to shoulder the responsibility of a fallen woman.
As soon as I reached her place, I was informed of this boy whom my uncle and aunt had chosen for me. They didn’t bother to ask for my consent and married me off the very next day.
Well, you can guess what happened next. All these scars that you see now are the culmination of his heinous acts.
I finally managed to escape though but had trouble finding work. My face was enough to scare people away.
But does your stomach understand all this? No! All it wants is food.
I have been begging since then.
Madhubala buried her face in her hands and sobbed. Swamiji sat staring outside, wondering at the sudden turn of events.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t curse myself for being instrumental in killing a mother and ruining the life of an innocent boy,’’ she lamented. ‘’I know I am paying for my sins. But tell me Swamiji,’ Wiping away her tears, she looked him straight in the eyes, ’’Haven’t I paid enough?”
Shankar stared at the distraught woman sitting in front of him and suddenly felt a heavy weight lift off his chest. The guilt he had been carrying for years finally ebbed away.
He smiled at her kindly and said, “Yes dear, there is a limit to retribution and punishment. And that is why I believe, God has given you a second chance at life. We have a centre for the old and destitute women. Would you like to stay there?”
Madhubala fell at his feet in gratitude.
And for the first time, Shankaranandji Maharaj felt worthy of his name as well as title!
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