“Kiran, what have you on your ears?”
“Bangles,” she said pushing aside the wayward locks from her ears.
“What? Bangles on your ears?” And he saw for himself the two bangles around her ears.
“Yes. Where else shall I wear them?”
Kiran was still very innocent. Not innocent as the world knows the innocent to be. But call it the innocence of wild flowers. She did not have the poise of flowers cultivated in modern gardens, whose life is sustained by various nutrients; whose beauty is maintained by constant pruning and trimming; which temporarily adorn the shining, coquettish tresses and which grace your flower vases for a while. Wild flowers are not like this. They are shown by nature, natured by rain. They remain invisible to the fickle glance, untouched by worldly winds. Such is their life – simple and artless, beautiful and virtuous, fragrant. As long as they are alive they flourish on their own, and when their end comes, they shake themselves free in the lap of mother earth.
The sky was clear blue, beautiful and expansive. The leaves still. Evening was descending. From the far away crest of the mountains, the golden rays looked down. Who knows what this one dying ray was looking for in such an impervious nonentity like the forest grove? Who knows who it was staring at so intently? Was it trying to express love for its amorous playground or was it trying to look out for what was happening leaving us aside – how can I tell? Whatever it was, there was indeed a sense of expectancy in that look. And I, I stood devouring the rays of sunshine radiating from her big eyes. Whether one looked at the stars in the sky or at her shining bright eyes, it was all the same. We, so far away from the stars, can only see their vibrant glitter in the sky; it is difficult to penetrate into their mystery and to know whether their inert glow is indeed emotionless or are they really happily engrossed in themselves. We lack the eyes that can fathom the depths of their profound, hidden selves.
I stood nearby, holding on to the branch of a mango tree. The picture of her trying to show me the bangles she had on her ears kept coming back to me. If the epic-famed, Lord Krishna, the mischievious butter-thief, could bring down the innermost defences of young belles, or if Noorjahan could knock the bottom out of Shahjahan’s cruel heart with the simple gesture of shooing away a pigeon from her hand, why could not this extremely beautiful girl, sitting by the river side in the shade of the tender spring blossoms of the mango tree, win my heart with her simple, affectionate stance?
Kiran, somehow, invariably presented herself before my eyes everyday. She would sometimes fill her mantle with raw mangoes and sometimes braid a garland of maulsiri flowers. But never before had her childish innocence touched my heart the way it did today. Who knows what good or bad omen had so destined that suddenly this wild creeper appeared even lovelier than the flowers of paradise. Who would have guessed that putting aside all conventions and wearing bangles on her ears instead of the wrists, would have such a captivating effect? What out of the world attractive had these inexpensive bangles? But then, had the village belles enamoured of Lord Krishna, even dreamt that a wooden flute would have the power to make them shed their veils and have them dancing?
I quickly took off those bangles from her ears and slowly started pushing them up her fingers, on her wrists. A strange agitation overcame me at that moment and these words escaped my lips, “Kiran! I’ll never forget what has happened today until I die. It has touched the very core of my heart.”
Her big eyes grew even bigger. I felt a sharp pang and immediately made for the cottage where Yogishwar lived. It was amazing how my heart did not stop beating.
There was a time when people could experience the ecstatic joys of heaven living in this mundane world. It would be asking for the impossible to have the fine shades of the Harichandan foliage on this earth. However, we did once have forests, under the cool shade of which even the Gods used to descend on earth and spend some time. The perennial youth and freshness of Panchvati too was here, which captivated Ram at the very first sight. Those who lived there never missed garlands woven out of the heavenly amartaru flower and the cool, fine spray of the waters of the gurgling Mandakini. There were forests as extraordinary as Nandopavan. The shade of the Kalpvriksh would undoubtedly bestow tranquility. But could there be anything better than the shade of the Kadam tree? None of us has ever witnessed the divine festivities at Nandanutsav; but on this very earth of ours there have once been festivities which made nature and night both feel cheated and seeing which hundreds of heavenly nymphs stripped the Nandan grove of all its blossoms to rain Parijat flowers on those taking part in the celebrations.
Times have now changed. We no longer have forests where Krishna could think of descending from Go-lok to play the flute for a moment or two. No longer do we have beautiful cottages, the sight of which could fill the heart of Ram with joy, nor are there sages who could teach religious precepts to the most erudite, religious Dharamraj. Even if there are freak occurrences of one or two such scholars, they have not yet come to light and have not bewitched the people. But how long will they remain aloof and unknown? How long will this world allow unworldly things to happen? It is ever possible to steady oneself on the billowy bosom of the ocean of the world?
There is a beautiful forest near Rishikesh; not just beautiful but extraordinary beautiful. It cannot compare with the amorous Edenic arbours of Pramodvan, but it has all the dignified grandeur of Chitrakoot or Panchvati. It does not urge people to sensuous revelry in the silvery moonlight; on the contrary it feels the heart with such divine inspiration that one experiences the eternally spiritual and rare moments with the entire universe. It is there that one can see the eternal glory of the Ganges or experience the profound trace permeating the whole forest. Who can tell what this fickle mind will wish to have there – rich, deep and unearthly joy or a calm, pleasing death?
It was in this forest that Yogishwar had built himself a cottage. Yogishwar was true to his name, though it was not right to call him of this world. His entire being was either dedicated to the goddess of knowledge or merged with the eternal peace of the Brahmalok. And that young girl illuminated the whole forest like a beam of light descended from heaven. Hers was not the life of a person enslaved to worldly snares. It was like the playful dance of free and unhindered rays of light – as though the unbridled, fragrant, pure winds coming from the Malaya mountains went about touching every branch and flower of the forest, or a tangible, unending melody was playing with gay abandon, wafting on the air or the waves of the sea. I was the only mundane representative of this world there. It was just I alone who used to drag her and her father into this complex world of mortal beings.
For some years past I had been a regular visitor to Yogishwar’s cottage. It was my father’s command that I should go there and study the scriptures. My father and Yogishwar had been friends since their youth. That is why Yogishwar showed such consideration to me. Kiran was his daughter, a veritable, and the only, light in that cottage. The incident that I described earlier happened on a day in the very morning of which I had completed my studies and when, as instructed by my father I took with me a pair of yellow cloth pieces, five gold coins and two gold bangles for Kiran. Yogishwar returned everything but meanwhile Kiran had taken away the bangles.
It is a mystery why he kept quiet at that moment. And what an irony that Cupid unfurled his banner there on the very day I turned away from the scriptures.
The next day I went to see Yogishwar. I do not know what he was teaching Kiran, who was sitting by his side. He had a somber look. As soon as he saw me he got up and putting his hands on my shoulders spoke in an ecstatic tone, “Narendra! My time to depart has come, I hand over Kiran to you.” Saying this he put her tender fingers in my hands. Two drops rolled down from the corners of his eyes. I was a little bewildered. Did he know everything? Had his penetrating eyes looked into my inner being? He had not stay alive for a second longer and left us, me quivering and Kiran with dazed eyes.
Deep silence prevailed. Even the breeze of the forest came to a standstill. Both of us walked silently with Kiran leaning against my shoulder. I heard a strident voice from within, “Alas, Narendra! What is this you are doing? To which garden are you taking this blossom of the forest? In which worldly bonds are you going to enslave her independent heavenly life?”
A pebble dropped on to a sheet of water cannot create a permanent hole. The water, of course, may be displaced for a moment, but soon it comes back undulating and the hole disappears for ever. The ways of the world are similar. Even if Almighty Devendra himself were to come down on this crowded earth, it would soon change him into a worldly being. It is thoroughly impossible for anyone to remain the world and still remain unaffected by its worldly ways. It did not take more than two days for Ram to cry out, ‘O Janki, O Janki!’ and he kept wandering from forest to forest in search of her. The same fate befall Vishwamitra, who did not take more than a few moments to succumb to the ways of the world.
Kiran also met with the same fate. There could not have been a greater contrast between life in the completely independent lap of nature and her rigorous bondage to the worldly snares. What a fall! Her divine innocence and her natural air of freedom did not take long to get robbed. The spotless luster of that blossom of the forest got transformed into the deceptive attraction of an artificial garden of the world. How could she now even get a single moment for fixing her gaze heavenwards and entering into a silent communion with the space above. How could she rejoice and partake in the pure fruits matured in the exalted air of Malyanchal?
When this youthful girl had her worldly incarnation, it became difficult to even recognize her. Now she started bedecking herself with red shirts and green sarees, a vermilion mark on her forehead, her mind captivated by bracelets, earrings, necklaces and ornamental waistbands. Whenever she emerged on the moonlit terrace in her full finery the spring breeze would carry the fragrance of the jasmine flowers worn by her and fill the verandah where I sat. then some maddening fragrance or heady wine would so intoxicate me that I would immediately dispatch a small note written on a flowery, colorful letterhead containing my amorous wails to her through the maid, Juhi, or would rush to the market to buy for her Cuttack jewellery or imported bangles. Even so, at this stage also, one could see in some rare moments, on her lustrous body the beautiful signs of heavenly origin like the happy memory of an earlier birth. And then for some time that very divine image would dance in my ken and my external behaviour could not remain unaffected by that inner joy.
With such a life two years went by living in Muradabad. Then one day I went to see a dance performance at Mohan’s house. And lo and behold, my eyes met – not merely met but became one with, and got lost in the eyes of a divine danseuse. Fresh youthfulness, sweet throat, artful, supple movements and dazzling brilliance-what else was needed to make the mind go astray? The danseuse was not only a dancer but one who made everyone dance around her. At first sight it was impossible to believe that she belonged to this world. She looked like a flame, and stupefied the spectator. My friends egged me on to move forward on the primrose path. The union did not remain confined to the eyes alone, even the heart was dragged into it.
The result was predictable. Religious instruction spread over a long period, one revered for centuries as Laxmi, family prestige, the sacred bond of love with the wife, each one of these was engulfed in that fire of lust. The fire became increasingly fiercer. The oily, flattering eyes and speech of the danseuse added fuel to the fire. The house and the family were all set aflame. I too felt as though I was burning, but the more I burnt, the more I wanted to burn.
Five months passed – but the mind was still inebriated. I kept offering fanciful gifts to her – silken sarees from Benaras, Persian jackets, a pearl necklace, earrings from Cuttack – all this I offered at the red stained feet of that bewitching temptress. Kiran had turned into a cold, wintry creeper – flowerless and leafless. What else could a wife do? The one to whom she was eternally bonded, who was her life-partner, he himself was sold out to another woman. Then what of these? Were they not mere baubles, sometimes adoring one and sometimes another? As for me, I would spin endless excuses to Kiran during the day and come evening, I would shamelessly load the danseuse with pearls – this was what my life was reduced to. Then one day the secret was out. Kiran fell to the ground in a swoon. There were no tears in her eyes nor any compassion in mine.
It was a rainy night. A slight drizzle fell constantly. Moonlight was playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. Lighting streaked every now and again from behind dark clouds. Who was it that the lighting was trying to see from behind the dark closed doors. And why did the clouds intermittently groan out? I didn’t have the time to give all this even a thought. I had returned frustrated from the portals of the danseuse; neither the moonlight nor the clouds above mattered to me. Stuck half way to heaven, Trishanku had undergone untold misery, but my case was worse since I had to return from the very doorstep of heaven.
What a shame! Had I been left with even a single ring on my fingers, I would have offered it at her feet.
Entering the house I called out to Juhi, if Kiran has anything left on her person, bring it to me instantly.”
No voice answered in return. Meanwhile a dark cloud passing over my head gave out a cry of deep pain. My head reeled and I lost no time in rushing upstairs.
I looked into every box, but found nothing. I broke everything open, but to no avail. There were only cobwebs in the cupboards and a lizard sat pretty in the vanity box. Angrily, I rushed towards Kiran.
As I neared her, I felt something was amiss. As a lifeless, helpless dummy she reclined against a pillow. The moonlight filtering through the window seemed to have taken her into its fold and a whiff of breeze fanned her body. There was an undescribable grace on her face. Perhaps there was still a little life left in her! Her eyes were vitally lustrous. Perhaps life tarried there a while before departing. I called out again, “Kiran, Kiran. Have you any piece of jewellery left?”
“Yes,” she muttered feebly.
“Where is it? Let me see.”
She pushed aside her veil gently and the very same bangles adorned her ears.
Her head slid down the pillow and her eyelids drooped. That last remnant of life got lost somewhere – was it waiting only for this moment?
My eyes turned to her face and I saw the same bangles, they even ringed the ears in the same fashion they had done earlier. With lighting speed my memories came flooding back. Dushyant had at last identified the ring and the long-forgotten Shakuntala came to be recognized at that moment. However, Dushyant was lucky, he was a great emperor and had thus succeeded in his long and frantic search for his beloved. But my Kiran was not alive and I could not find her even by staking my life. As for reaching her in the other world – I wish a petty mortal like me had the power to do so.
At long last the stupor was over. Truth stared me in the face. All illusions melted away. But alas! There was now nothing to see except pervasive darkness all around.