A calm crimson was unfurling across the horizon as the glorious sun prepared to bid farewell. I marveled at the beauty all around. Mother nature’s love was an alluring puzzle. No words were spoken, and yet all her children understood her. Birds knew it was time to return to their homes, swooping and rising through the skies as they flew to their loved ones. Flocks of fawn pranced about, stealing few more moments of play before a dark blanket spread all over. A gentle breeze blew, caressing the sparkling river.
My lap was overflowing with fragrant jasmine flowers. Stringing them into garlands gave me immense joy. The sight of bubbly girls and sprightly women adorned with garlands was mesmerizing.
This was my favorite time of the day – when the ashram turned mellow and mystical. I would lose myself in the soothing calm and peace. The sacrificial fires would glow golden, and those would be the last few moments of silence before a flurry of steps and excited voices would float all around. Saffron clad boys would return, having spent their day wandering in the forest-collecting wood and wildflowers, studying herbs and nature. Boys at various stages in their life; some tall, some short. Few in a hurry to grow up while many still finding joy in embracing their mothers. In the warm hug, the mothers would forget their worries and express gratitude for the safe arrival of their sons.
The boys would then finish their ablutions and race to join their fathers. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, they would chant the hymns. Their eyes closed and hands folded in obeisance to the Gods. Devout women would go around lighting earthen lamps. Solemn tones would echo in the silence, bringing with them positive and hopeful vibes. The serenity would reflect in the glowing eyes of the womenfolk-wives proud of their husbands, mothers pleased with their upbringing.
Beauty is not a blessing always, and I learnt this lesson when I came to the ashram. In Bhoomiloka, my beauty had become my bane. As the wife of the great sage Gautama Maharishi, I commanded a great deal of respect from all the residents. But underneath the veil of respect lay deep contempt, jealousy, and hatred towards me.
Brahma, the Creator, must have been mighty pleased on creating me. He desired to create a woman who would be even more beautiful than Urvashi, Indra’s greatest Apsara.
And now I, his prized creation, was suffering because of his vanity.
The other ashram women despised my milky skin, long flowy hair, and voluptuous body. They craved to have what I had. If only they knew… I would willingly throw away all this to have what they had-loving husbands, devoted children.
My husband blew the conch, marking the start of the rituals. As if on cue, all the boys and men joined him in chanting the hymns. He poured fresh ghee and lit the ceremonial fire. A heavenly fragrance of ghee, milk, sugar, cow dung, and sandalwood enveloped us. The holy fire crackled, and the golden flames danced, reaching for the skies.
Beneath the silhouette, I caught sight of young men exchanging furtive glances with their newly wedded wives. My heart fluttered at the way their women clutched onto their upper garment. Their cheeks reddening, lips quivering, chest heaving up and down with anticipation of what the night might bring.
The sight filled me with rage. I wanted to feel the tingling, and experience the magic of two bodies becoming one. How I craved to exchange a secretive glance with my husband. I desired his passionate touch and warmth. I longed to feel the pleasure and endure the pain. I wanted to feel the bliss of womanhood.
Vedic chants resonated in the air, but peace and calm evaded me. Unknown to the world, the turmoil within me continued simmering. The chanting reached a crescendo, and so did my unrest. My heart wept silent tears when young boys stood up to pay obeisance to me first, and then to their mothers. Their act reminded me of my barren womb. Their homage to me was because of respect and not love.
How I wished my barren womb would generate with life. I yearned to hold a child to my bosom and shed tears of happiness. My entire being ached for the feel of tiny soft lips suckling at my breasts. I pined to experience the blessing of motherhood.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. My beauty wasn’t enough to splash love in my husband’s heart. It failed to ignite sparks of desire in my husband’s loins. My life was devoid of love and happiness.
The evening rituals were almost over. A tranquil cloud spread her arms over the ashram. The residents dispersed to their respective cottages, but my husband remained seated near the homa kund. I went and occupied the vacant spot next to him. Even though we were right next to each other, I knew I had to cross many oceans to reach him. As always, he did not notice my presence. And when I rose to leave, my absence didn’t affect him.
My empty cottage beckoned me.
I lay on the straw mat listening to the sounds from all around-a newborn’s cries, a child’s gregarious laughter, hushed whispers, passionate moans. I absorbed them all. Then I searched for sounds in my home, but just an echoing silence greeted me.
A crescent moon was playing hide and seek with the ebony clouds. The dark skies seemed empty and lifeless, just like my life. Another dull and lonely night awaited me, and soon the shadows of sadness took me in their lap and rocked me to sleep.
A musky breath tingled my senses. Warm hands cradled my face, and with a slow, unhurried pace ran all over me. Wet lips caressed mine and swept me away to an unknown, enchanting abode. Gentle golden streaks welcomed me. Birds sang mellifluously, butterflies fluttered, and flowers bloomed in a glorious dance. I twirled around to soak in the beauty. The magic faded away as I realized it was a dream.
It was all just a dream. My solitude was proof of his absence.
I woke up to a golden vermillion splashing across the skies. Memories of the previous night tugged at my heartstrings as I made my way to the river. The gurgling waters understood me, my unfulfilled desires, my angst, and my incomplete life. A few women were already in the river, laughing and splashing water on each other. Their raucous laughter died down on spotting me. Their hands involuntarily folded, and they bowed down their heads. I acknowledged their presence and blessed them wholeheartedly, but I knew I could never become one of them.
With the clay pot ensconced in my waist, I climbed uphill in search of a spot away from the laughter and happiness. The gentle water welcomed me, and in her kind touch my tears flowed freely, soon becoming a part of her. An intoxicating floral fragrance interspersed with the cool breeze. Love birds cooed and cuddled. Like a shy bride, the skies were blushing in sun’s warmth. A pair of deer were engaged in an amorous dance-unabashed and bold. Bees buzzed above vivid petals, while thin stalks swayed in the zephyr’s touch. A melodious birdsong flowed through the air, quenching my parched soul. Nature’s unrestricted display burgeoned my senses and fueled my longing.
The waters parted as I stepped onto the banks. An emptiness greeted me as my eyes veered downhill. While I had been immersed in witnessing nature’s romance, the rest of the women had completed their ablutions and proceeded towards their homes. I knew I should be headed back, too, but I entered the waters again, musing over my fate.
My heart pulsed as the calm river stirred without a warning. The clouds rumbled with fury, and the deer duo ran apart from each other. The air felt heavy, as if laden with misery and mystery. Is mother nature warning me? Is she signaling an impending doom? I failed to read her signs until much later, when it was already too late. Gautama’s reflection floating beside mine held me, mesmerized.
‘Am I dreaming? Is this really you?’ My lips parted, and a hushed whisper escaped my mouth.
‘Ahalya.’ His hand rested on my waist. I felt the water droplets clinging to my body evaporate into the sky. An unknown, unexperienced tingle ran to my toes. A celestial fragrance numbed my senses. It felt surreal.
My skin sizzled as his fingers locked with mine and he led me away from the river. My heart raced in disbelief, in anticipation. A surge of heat passed through my body as his eyes glowed with excitement. He stepped in closer and held my face in the well of his palms. ‘Ahalya, I have wanted to be with you since forever.’
My eyelashes fluttered under his warm breath. My chest heaved up and down as his soft lips brushed against mine. My love-laden eyes closed in complete submission as the mist of conjugal bliss enveloped me. I knew he could feel the uproar rising within me. He held my shivering frame with a firm yet gentle grip, and we lay down on the lush carpet. The skies darkened, and the river forgot to flow. The winds remained silent, and a blanket of flowers and leaves covered our bodies.
His feathery touch sent a fiery rush all over me. Like the waves, we rose in unison-up and down, up and down; together, firmly entwined. Tears flowed from my eyes as a volcano burst within me, but they were not drenched in sorrow. A flame of ecstasy ran wild in my veins, but the blaze didn’t singe my insides. My screams matched the thundering clouds, but they were not pleas for help.
I wanted him to stop. I wished for him to go on.
There was happiness in the tears, a thrill in the burn, and a mysterious excitement in my cries.
How is this possible? A pain that gives so much pleasure. Is this how the women in the ashram feel when their husbands lie down next to them at night?
I shut my eyes closed. I wanted this dream to never end.
But when I opened my eyes, I knew it wasn’t a dream. The crushed petals and leaves were proof. My thundering heart was a witness to my elation. My drained body was testimony to our unison. Gautama had finally fulfilled my longings and desires.
I had experienced womanhood.
I was complete now.
I’ll go home first, you come in a while. A wave of desires rocked me as I remembered his parting words and took a dip in the cold waters.
I felt anew as I walked on the path strewn with fallen leaves. For the first time in all these years, the thought of going home filled me with joy. The water spilling from the pot mirrored my racing heart. I couldn’t wait to be with him again.
Alas, my dreams shattered when my eyes met his. Standing outside our home, he greeted me with a steely gaze. A strange coldness had replaced the warmth and thrill from moments before.
‘Ahalya,’ he thundered, ‘where were you?’
My hands trembled. The clay pot slipped from my waist and landed on the ground with a crash. Just a while ago he had looked at me with loving eyes, and whispered sweet nothings in my ears. Just a few moments ago, our bodies, heart, and soul had become one. And now his eyes were filled with rage, his voice thundering with accusation, and his body shaking with anger.
What is the meaning of this? What could be the cause of this outburst? But before I could speak, his next words unleashed a wave of terror and shock.
‘Were you with another man?’
Was he questioning my chastity?
I was yet to make sense of his words. But for some reason, my thoughts veered to that precise moment when I had ignored nature’s warning.
The love I received, the thrill I experienced. Was it all wrong?
He sneered, not letting me speak. ‘A sinned woman deserves no place in my holy hermitage. You are a disgrace, and a terrible example to all.’
My head spun as my eyes welled up. Hushed whispers rose all around. Pitiful, scornful words causing deep hurt, piercing like sharp daggers. Years of veiled jealousy were now out in the open.
‘Curse her’ said many.
‘Abandon her, ‘ said a few.
She deserves a second chance, said none.
She might be innocent, said none.
These people had never really loved me. Their accusations didn’t matter. But my husband’s denunciation crushed my heart. He held his head high, and announced, ‘you have fallen into the depths of sin. I have no option but to disown you, abandon you, curse you.’
Was it not he who had held me, touched me, loved me? Had I sinned?
I fell limp on the ground. My life had been sucked out of me cruelly. His curse roared till the heavens. Angry winds arose, causing havoc in their path. The sun hid behind the clouds, fearing the ascetic’s temper. A cacophony of bird calls rang in the air. Children ran into their huts, overcome by fear.
His loud voice boomed above the din. ‘Ahalya, tell me the truth. Did you not know you were with another man?’
I said nothing. My gaze lingered on the pieces of clay sprawled on the muddy ground. In those broken pieces, I found strength and the answer to my predicament.
His enraged voice broke my reverie. ‘Ahalya, I am willing to forgive you if you can prove your chastity. I will absolve you from the curse if you plead for forgiveness.’ He looked all around. His respect was at stake.
I stood up, clutching a piece of the pot.
‘Oh! Gautama, the wound you have inflicted upon me would never heal. You pronounced your verdict and declared me guilty without even giving me a chance to speak. And now, you are willing to revoke the curse? You want to give me a second chance. You want me to prove my chastity so that we can be man and wife again. But let me tell you, you stopped being my husband the moment you questioned my virtue. There’s no relationship without trust, and even if I can satisfy your queries, the cracks will remain forever.’
My life resembled the pot-shattered and crushed beyond redemption.
‘I am more than willing to live a cursed life. It’s a shame if I have to justify myself. I don’t wish to prove anything to you or the world.’
I swallowed the sea of grief and stepped out of the ashram gates, holding my head high. For the first time in all my years at the ashram, I saw admiration and respect in the eyes of the women who had despised me all this while.
My tears froze as I slowly turned into a stone. But I wasn’t sad. I had experienced love, joy, and sensuous passion. Even if it was only for a moment; those fleeting moments were worth all the accusations. I had chosen my dignity over a relationship that was devoid of respect, faith, and trust.
I have no regrets.
As regards the truth, it is for me to know, not for anybody else.
The truth rests deep inside my heart, and it would remain safe with me. Forever.