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My village was located somewhere along the coast of Kerala, where civilization had met the sea and they had a good marriage. The sea, like a good husband provided the village with all it needed to live. A bountiful harvest for the fishermen, and a calm demeanour for their little boats to go in and out as they pleased. The village had flourished, it had turned into a port from a humble trading post. But the people living here, they never forgot their roots. Deeply religious, they celebrated every festival regardless of religion with ecstasy similar to the gods drinking soma. But the most celebrated festival was that of the Mahadesha Mahaparva.
During Mahadesha Mahaparva, everyone in the village got into their boats, the rich in their kettuvallams, and the poor in their wooden fishing boats and sailed out to a distance into the sea. At the end of the journey, everyone lit their diyas and set them to sail in the sea. My grandmother, in her raspy, yet sweet voice, told me the tale of why this was done.
“When the gods lost their immortality, they churned the ocean. They did this with the help of their arch enemies, the Asuras. They did this so that it would give them the elixir of immortality. But while they were the churning the sea, a terrible poison erupted from the Mandhara parvata they were using as a rod to churn the ocean with. Everyone, the Devas and the Asuras, started praying for liberation from the agonising pain it was causing. Lord Mahadeshwara, heard their pleas. He came down from his abode, and gathered all of the poison into his hands. And then he drank it.As he held the poison in his throat, his throat turned blue. And he became known as the Neekanth”
Every time I remember this story, a smile creeps into my face. Mahadesha Mahaparva was a thank you to him, for not allowing the poison to remain on earth. And the entire village gathered to celebrate it.
And on one such Mahadesha Mahaparva, I met her.
I woke up at three in the morning. My family wouldn’t be leaving our ancestral house for a few more hours, but I could never sleep during the night before the festival. As I walked through the empty corridors of the house, I heard a cough coming from my grandmother’s room. I rushed to it.
“Awake already, grandmother?” I asked her.
“If I wasn’t awake little one, I wouldn’t be talking to you.” she replied.
My grandmother always called me little one, even though I was going to be twenty in a couple of months. I think that when someone has lived as long as my grandmother, everyone appears to be a little one, no matter how old they are.
“Get ready, little one. You don’t want to get caught in the madness for the bathroom once everyone is awake.” she told me with a smile on her age worn, wrinkled face.
I gave her my best smile, one that I always reserved for her and ran to the bathroom. My family is colossal, and even though our ancestral house is quite large, somebody thought it would be a good idea to put only 3 bathrooms for the entire house. As a result, once everyone woke up, they would take part in the daily ritual of running to the bathroom and screaming at whoever is in it.
After the bathroom madness had ended and everyone had piled on into our kettuvallam, we set sail. The sun hadn’t risen yet and the darkness made us all shiver. The little kids, frightened by the rolling motion of the boat, were clutching to their mother’s saris. The older ones were leaning into the sea, to show that they were not afraid of it, despite their parents and the sailor’s numerous threats. The adults were constantly checking on the boat, their children, the number of diyas present, whether everyone is still on the boat, and the wind direction, so that the boat wouldn’t crash into anyone else. I let the general din of the boat take me into its fold and started chatting with some of my family, whom I hadn’t seen in ages.
We reached our pre designated spot to release the diyas. Everyone felt excited now, and I looked at the horizon to see that the other kettuvallams and boats were already starting to release their diyas. My eyes sparkled from all the lights that I saw. I exclaimed rather loudly, “It feels like the stars have fallen onto the sea!” The adults laughed at this comment, while the other children were themselves mesmerized by the sparkling lights of the thousands of diyas being released. Each of us took turns to go into the little boat suspended from our kettuvallam and released a number of diyas.
We all rushed to the temple of Lord Mahadeshwara, to seek his blessings. The temple priest knew our family very well and immediately ushered us to the front, so that we could look at the Mahadeshwara murthi adorned with a number of flowers and ancestral ornaments. After which, he presented each of us with the mangala aarthi, an open flame that is offered to the Mahadeshwara murthi while chanting many, many mantras, interspersed with the names of everyone in my family. After which, we all sought the blessings of the temple priest, by touching his feet. After blessing each and every one of us, he sent us to the temple courtyard, for the sumptuous breakfast that had been prepared by the temple.
An enormous tarpaulin had been set up in the temple courtyard, lined with rows and rows of tables. My family rushed in taking up so many spots at such random positions, it felt like somebody had thrown a grenade and everyone had scattered. Me, I choose a secluded spot, because whatever the temple cooks prepare, was the most delicious food I had ever tasted. The delicious aroma of the food prepared assaulted my senses, and I momentarily closed my eyes to take it all in.
My sensory delight was interrupted by peals of heavenly chimes. I opened my eyes to locate the source of that divine noise, and that was when I saw her.
She seemed to be an apsara, a celestial dancer in the courts of heaven, who was sent down to earth by mistake. Everything about her appeared to be sheer perfection for me. The way her eyes sparkled, her hair, a shimmering waterfall, her lips, a sensuous rose come alive which enclosed the prettiest pearls I had ever seen. Everything about her, from the way she looked to the way she moved felt like a musician of the highest order composing his magnum opus.
“Hi! Mind if I sit here? This place is getting rather crowded”
I stared at her speechlessly. Was this goddess actually talking to me?
“Ummmm, it is okay if you don’t want me to sit here.”
I almost screamed out no. After taking in her face for a few more seconds, I tried to speak. My brain seemed to have liquefied into nothingness and my tongue felt as heavy as lead in my mouth. But somehow I managed a “No problem at all, you can sit here.”
“Thanks a lot. My feet were killing me. I’m Sahana by the way.” She said in a single breath.
“Varun”, I told her, still unsure as to where my ability to speak had gone off to.
“Is it your first time here? I am just coming back from those huge boats and I have never seen a sight like that all my life.”
“You should wait till the evening, when the real festival begins. Tell you what, you should come with us to the beach for the end of the festival.” Okay, that might not have been an entirely innocuous offer, and I hoped she wouldn’t take it the wrong way. But a larger part of me hoped she would say yes.
“Thanks for the offer. That’d be lovely.”
She said yes. That was all I could think about, she had actually said yes. This was a first for humanity everywhere. I wanted to dance and sing and prance about, she had actually said yes.
Our conversation after that became about everything and nothing. With every dialogue we completed, I was becoming closer to her. It was as though a Bollywood director was standing in front of us and directing the scene.
I was in love with her. Head over heels, hopelessly, irrevocably in love with her. It may not have been love at first sight, but it sure as hell felt like love as we kept on talking.
I took her to my favourite spot on the beach. Since the entire village was still busy in the temple's festivities, we had it all to ourselves.
I told her the stories of how the village had come to celebrate this festival. And why it meant a lot to the fishermen that the seas weren’t poisoned. She listened to me intently, her doe like eyes alive with expression. Time flew by as we stared out into the ocean and wondered about its vastness.
I don’t know when, but at some point of time, on that beach, under the shade of coconut trees, to the sound of gently lapping waves, I took her hand in mine. She smiled at me, and then squeezed my hand lightly. I think that was when I actually fell in love with Sahana. Her deep eyes, her shimmering hair, and the way she smiled at me, like I was the most important thing in the world. And I never wanted to let go of her.
Where does the time go, when you are spending it with someone you love? Before long it was already midday and we had to leave the beach for lunch. I realized she was still holding my hand as we walked back towards the temple for our lunch. After another quick round of blessings from the gods, we had a hurried lunch so that we could be with each other again.
We went to the village fair, a modest little collection of rides and menageries so that we could spend some more time together. All my life I had actually thought about how people would fall in love and would act so impulsively. Only then did I realise that when you fall in love, the how’s, why’s, what’s don’t really matter, as long as the lovers had each other. It sounds cliché, like something, someone would say in a movie, but I guess one has to be in love to actually realise what those feelings are all about.
I take her back to the beach again, without actually telling her where I am taking her to.
When she realises that we are back at the beach, she looks puzzled and asks me with her lilting accent, “Why are we back here?”
“Watch the horizon, you’ll get to know in a few minutes”, I reply to her without trying to spoil the surprise.
As we watch the horizon, I put my arm around her, and she does the same.
And then a tiny little pin prick of light appeared across the horizon.
“Every year, after we set the diyas afloat in the sea, they return to us. They symbolize the prosperity and happiness that this village has enjoyed, year after year.”
We see the tiny little pin pricks multiply, and soon they become clearly defined. The entire sea seems to be struck alight now. The stars have come back to us.
She looks at the entire display, and then hugs me.
“Thank you, that was beautiful!”
She looks into my eyes, and as I stand there hypnotized by them, she raises her lips to mine and kisses me.
Both of us are speechless after the kiss has ended. We descend into a comfortable silence, neither of us knowing what to tell the other. After a while, we start walking back towards the village.
I stop all of a sudden, and she stares at me with a puzzled expression on her face.
“Something wrong?” she asks.
“Yes, I’m in love with you”, I reply, sending up a silent prayer that she accepts.
She hesitates for a second, and then tells me that she is going back to North India. She apologises profusely, but I’m shattered. I let go of her hand, and walk away. She doesn't try to follow me.
I had no idea with whom I was angrier at, was I angry at myself for falling in love with her? Or was I angry with her for not telling me this beforehand? Or was I simply angry because it was so unfair?
After I had covered a considerable distance, I start to simmer down. Maybe we could try a long distance relationship. Maybe I could get a job there. There were so many maybes? Maybe there was still a chance for us?
I run back to the beach to see if she is still there. I run back to see if there is still a second chance for us.
I reach the beach, the waves still lap the sand noisily and the breeze still blows softly.
But all the diyas have gone out.
She isn’t anywhere to be seen.
I reach my ancestral home with a heavy heart and the knowledge that my nascent relationship was over, before it had begun. I rush straight to my room and bury myself under the blankets. There are no tears in my eyes, and that somehow makes the entire thing worse.
I hear someone clear their throat at the door way. I take off my blankets, to see my grandmother standing there.
“Who was she? The one that broke your heart?” she asks.
“I don’t even know her last name grandmother. I’ll never find her again, will I?” and with those words the tears start flowing, as though a huge dam had burst inside me.
“There, there, little one” she says trying to console me. She comes and sits at the edge of my bed and then gives me a hug. “If you are meant for her, you’ll find her again. Just like those diyas find the shore every year. Sometimes some get lost. But sooner or later, they all find the shore.”
I try to give her a smile but I can’t. She sits with me for some more time, stroking my hair gently. She hums me a lullaby which I can hear only in snatches. Eventually, I fall asleep.
I wake up, wondering whether the entire thing had been a dream or was it reality. I try to take my mind off things, by wandering the corridors of the house. When I am near my grandmother’s room, I hear her coughing and I rush in.
“Still awake grandmother?”
“If I wasn’t awake, would I be able to answer you little one?” she replies.
And this time I do smile, I give her the smile that I always have reserved for her.