Nobody wakes up in the morning expecting to die today.
Yet he would die.
Because of events that took place late last night.
Right across the village.
She no longer trusted him. He wished he knew why. But nothing he said or did could change it.
As weeks turned into months, the unease and strain in their relationship grew steadily worse.
There were times when he was tempted to do something about it. To precipitate events. Provoke a reaction. Even if that meant it might end things forever.
But the thought of what would happen to their little girl held him back.
She was sure he was seeing someone else.
It had begun when she was pregnant.
At first, there had only been subtle hints.
A sly evasiveness. Ignoring simple questions. A strand of long hair on his shirt. A coolness in their interaction.
She wished there was a way to know.
To be absolutely sure.
Then she’d be able to walk away.
Even if it meant raising their daughter all by herself.
He was an imposing figure in a sparkling white trousers and cotton shirt, a scarf bordered in party colors draped over his shoulder.
He stood under the tamarind tree like all other villagers.
His head was bowed in respect to the elderly figure seated in front of him.
The holy man.
He was passing through on his long, lonely pilgrimage. Clad in only a dirty saffron loin cloth, hair hanging in long, matted strands, a chain of sacred beads adorned his neck.
Nobody had seen the sage before.
Maybe he arrived late last night. Or early this morning.
What was strange is how quickly word spread. The farmer who stopped to offer him a drink of water on the way back from tilling his field that morning reported on the stranger’s divinity and noble countenance.
The aura of energy and strength that radiated from his presence.
“My fingers tingled when I handed him the glass.”
All day, people from far and near had come to see him.
Some spoke with him. Asked questions. Got answers.
Many were happy. A few, worried.
Someone told the politician.
With elections just around the corner, he wanted to know some things about his future. So he stood, respectfully, in the presence of the old man.
A few minutes later, after listening to the seer’s words, he hurried away.
Those who were closest to him said they saw a faint smile flit across his face.
“Maybe I should go and see him, sister.”
“Of course, you should, Kala. I mean, you’ve worried about this too long. It can’t continue. You’re growing paler and weaker. He can help you.”
“But how can he help me? How can anyone help me?”
Her friend grabbed Kala by the shoulders.
“Listen. My husband says he is divine. A holy man. He will help you. I know.”
“Hmm… I’ll think about it.”
“No. Don’t waste time, Kala. Who knows how long he’ll be here. Go right now.”
“If you’d like me to, I’ll come with you.”
“No, no. That won’t be necessary. Can you please keep an eye on little Chitra for me?”
“Sure. Now, go…”
And so Kala found herself under the tamarind tree, too.
Waiting to seek counsel from a wise man on her troubles.
The sage looked up. He saw a pretty young woman, her face pinched and anxious.
Kala bent to touch his feet.
As her head touched the ground near him , she felt the tingle of energy.
His calm brown eyes fixed on hers. He spoke in a quiet, melodious tone.
“Your problems are your own creation. Fear nothing, my child. The real danger is one you are not even aware of.”
Her brief surge of relief was suddenly clouded by a new fear.
“What do you mean, oh holy seer?”
“You have a child. A girl. She is in danger.”
Kala felt the blood drain to her feet, the world spinning around in a slow circle as she lost balance, almost falling to the ground.
“Be calm, child. Her destiny is already decided.”
“What can I do about it, sir?” cried an agitated Kala.
“Help fulfill it. Go to the temple at Kovur. Offer 108 coconuts to the deity.”
Shankar thought she was going crazy!
Never before had she been so insistent upon anything.
But the old man’s warning had left her agitated. She wouldn’t hear of putting it off by even a day.
So they left by the evening train to Chennai.
He carried along an old sack. It had 108 coconuts.
The train was practically empty. In the unreserved compartment, they saw an old mendicant in saffron robes sitting in front of another well-dressed young man wearing a neatly pressed blue shirt and cotton trousers.
His wife gave a soft cry and immediately prostrated herself in front of the old sage.
He followed her lead, with their daughter.
“Dheerga sumangali bhava” (Be blessed with a long, happily married life!)
As the holy man blessed them, Shankar thought to himself, “If only he knew, maybe he’d have chosen another benediction!”
“Everyone has but one destiny. It’s all pre-ordained. Fated.”
Varadha snorted. A sober rationalist steeped in self-determinism, such thinking was anathema to his kind.
“Nonsense! I can choose to walk to the door and jump out of the train and kill myself right now.”
The mystic smiled quietly.
“Then why aren’t you doing it?”
“Because I don’t want to, see?”
“No. Because you’re not meant to.”
The old man’s parochialism annoyed him. He had just spent three years outside the country. He had studied advanced quantum physics at the world’s top university.
But in just the first week back home in the village to visit his family, he had encountered a series of irritating throwbacks to the dark ages.
Superstition and myth ruled over science and logic. Intuition and omen outranked analysis and research. Was it any wonder, then, that progress had been so slow?
The old man’s soft voice broke into his thoughts.
“What if I told you that you were meant to die today?“
“What if you did?”
A note of belligerance mingled with a tinge of fear in Varada’s voice.
“Well, would you believe me?”
“No. Why should I? Are you a soothsayer?”
The man smiled again. “I’ve been called that.”
“You mean you can predict the future?”
“No. I can read it. What’s already been written.”
“Written where?” Varadha pointed at the expanse of bare skin that had been getting worryingly wider lately. “On my forehead?”
The man just grinned broadly in response.
“Can you only tell the future?” asked Varadha.
“No. Even the past. Come, show me your palm.”
Reluctantly, Varadha held out his right hand. When the bony wrinkled fingers touched it, he felt a jolt of energy flow through his body. Just as abruptly, the feeling vanished.
The sage seemed to be in a trance. He stared, unblinking, at the lines and ridges criss-crossing Varadha’s palm. Then he spoke in a flat voice.
“There’s an abandoned building on the outskirts of your village. It was once the site of a famous temple of Lord Shiva. Countless worshippers thronged it. But now, nobody knows about its days of glory. Time has passed it by.”
Varadha’s brow wrinkled in concentration. A vague memory stirred in his brain.
A story his grandfather once told him as they walked home from the fields, past the old barn where Varadha played with his mates. A story about an ancient temple of the great Lord that had been razed down by a regent of the Mughal emperor.
But… how could this old fakir possibly know about it?
Surely he was just guessing!
He looked at the seer’s face. It was calm, serene, glowing strangely in the dim interior of the compartment.
“What you believe is your truth“ the sage said, in a voice that was barely a whisper.
Varadha returned to reading his newspaper.
The silence between them remained unbroken for the rest of their journey.
“But what about the long strand of hair on your shirt? Surely that was a lady’s. How are you going to explain that away!”
“Silly woman! So that’s the reason you’ve been acting so strangely? You thought there was someone else?”
“Don’t evade the question,” said Kala angrily. “Answer me!”
“Ok. But it’s not romantic. More a tragedy.”
“I don’t want your fairy tales!”
His face grew serious.
“Do you remember Devi?”
Kala recalled the homely, middle-aged woman who was their neighbor a few years ago. Constantly harassed by her drunken, good-for-nothing husband, she ran away from home one day and never returned.
The husband vanished shortly afterwards, and rumor had it that he had murdered her and fled.
“One evening, when I was returning from the field, I found Devi lying in a ditch by the side of the road. She had twisted her ankle badly. She said she was trying to escape from her husband and go back to her family, when she got hurt.”
Despite herself, Kala was caught up in the story, curious to know what happened.
“What did you do?”
“She was terrified her husband would find her and drag her back. She begged me to help. So I carried her on my back to the abandoned farm outside the village. For a week, I brought her food and things she needed. When her ankle got better, she went back to her village.”
Shankar paused, lost in thought, staring out of the window at the changing landscape.
“I like to think that I helped save her life, to change her destiny,“ he murmured quietly.
Kala kicked herself mentally.
She had suspected her husband of infidelity – when his only ‘crime’ was an act of kindness.
The sage was right.
“Your problems are your own creation.“
The train was on time.
Passengers stumbled out on to the suddenly crowded platform.
Porters screamed. Hawkers yelled. And amid the confusion and chaos, skilled bearers guided luggage-laden wagons through the thronging mass of humanity.
“Side. Side. Move aside, please!”
The words weren’t needed. The annoying squeal of ungreased wheels scraping on metal was enough to repel all but the most tolerant, or deaf.
In the distance, Varadha spotted an intriguing scene. A cart was piled up high with massive crates that wobbled alarmingly from side to side with every tortured turn of its wheels.
Ahead of him were the couple with the coconuts. And their little girl.
The old man had vanished.
Varadha hadn’t seen him alight.
“Funny old man! Thinks he can read the future. And the past.“
Shaking his head in wonderment at the superstition and baseless belief that guided many of his fellow citizens, the young scientist stepped briskly into the stream of people.
He had work to do. A plan to carry out.
A goal to reach.
Destiny couldn’t be trusted to do it for him!
A moment later, however, he changed his mind about that…
Everything was happening in slow motion.
Varadha saw the bag rip open. A coconut rolled towards the cart.
The wobbly wheel struck it with a bump, and broke from its axle.
The creaking wagon, loaded way past its limit, tilted crazily. Sparks flew as the metal edge struck the cement floor with a loud screech.
And then, the boxes began to tumble.
There was a flash of red.
The little girl!
She had wandered away from her parents, to chase after the rolling coconut.
And she was right in the path of the falling crates!
There was no time to think rationally. Varadha acted on instinct.
He flung himself forward, his arms stretched out, grasping desperately at the red skirt.
The tips of his fingers felt fabric.
He clutched at it.
He felt the cloth rip. But not fully.
The force of his movement yanked the frail little girl back.
She stumbled for a few steps. Lost her balance. Fell on her rump. And sat there in shock, wailing loudly.
The force of his momentum carried Varadha right under the avalanche of wood and metal. He hit the ground with a bone-numbing thud… as the first heavy container fell on his back.
Others followed quickly.
Varadha felt the breath squeezed out of his chest. It was as if some iron fist held it in a giant vise.
He was choking.
With a desperate effort, he tried to suck air into his starving lungs.
But it was useless. He was being crushed under a load no human body was ever designed to take.
His vision blurred.
Through a bright yellow haze, he saw a flash of red. It was far away. Out of the throttling crush of the weight around him.
A part of his mind understood that it was the little girl.
That he had saved her from her fate.
He still couldn’t breathe.
The roar of voices around him grew loud, then fainter… and eventually, it faded away into nothingness.
Varadha focused on the patch of red.
His entire world was turning red, now.
And then black.
All was silent.
There was no more pain.
Varadha was at peace.
At the funeral, villagers remember seeing a stranger.
An old man who stood at the edge of the group of mourners, watching silently.
Afterwards, they saw him take the fork in the road back home that led to the abandoned barn on the outskirts.
A villager returning from a trip to the neighboring village said that he saw a fakir dressed in saffron robes walking towards the abandoned farm.
No one saw him leave it.
The next morning, the boys ran excitedly to the village headman’s house.
“Sir, sir… Come quickly,” they cried.
“Quiet. Shh! Shhhh… Shut up, you lot.”
He waited for the hubub to quiet. He pointed at one of the lads. “You, Hari. Tell me. What’s the problem?”
Hari stuttered in his agitation.
“Sir, an idol has appeared inside the old barn. You must come and see it immediately.”
When they arrived at the run down building, the village was stunned to see an ancient black idol.
It represented Lord Shiva, the Destroyer of the Universe.
Across it was draped a cloth.
It was saffron.
I hope you enjoyed this short story.
If you did, you’ll love my book “The Icedrop“.
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