Kaya was walking home from work one evening, when she suddenly became aware of the familiar sinking sensation in her stomach. Familiar because she had experienced it numerous times in her life. It was her intuition, a forewarning of something to come. Something big. Something important. Sometimes happy, sometimes not, but each time this sinking sensation had accompanied an event that would impact her life in a major way. And this one was to be the biggest of them all…. but she didn’t know it, yet.
She continued down the busy street, winding her way forward through the throng of Diwali shoppers, the vegetable and fruit vendors, slum kids who were selling diyas and lanterns and calling out to each passer-by to attract attention to their colourful wares. On any other day she’d have loved the hustle bustle of the market, stopped by to gaze at the lovely sarees and dresses in the display windows, picked up a fruit or vegetable, admired the colourful wares of the slum kids. But today, she did none of that. The spirit of Diwali that she would have reveled in was lost out to her and the festive air failed to buoy her drowning mood. She was in a hurry to get to her place and call her aunt.
Her aunt was the only living relative she had now, and she was anxious about her safety. Her aunt’s name was Shakuntala Sharma, and she was a music teacher. Not a music teacher in a small municipal school, but a music teacher in a music village. A village built by her and her sister Sharmila, who was Kaya’s mother. The two sisters had devoted their lives to this music village, which they built on their ancestral land in Ranipur. Set admits the lush hills, a few hours away from Haridwar, this music village was as sacred to music lovers as the holy town itself. They called it Veena, after Goddess Sarawati’s favorite instrument. Veena was Kaya’s birthplace and had been her home for the first sixteen years of her life.
A month after her fourteenth birthday, Kaya felt a strange feeling in her stomach. She thought she was hungry and scampered off to her favorite guava tree in the village. She picked out a hard green one and a soft ripe one and ate them on the treetop. She looked out at the road that snaked around the hills, the guardians of Veena. Kaya loved to do this, sit on a tree with a fruit in hand, and stare at all that she could. The hillocks, the village pond, the fruit orchard, the vegetable garden, the dairy farm and the little cottages which were home to the students and faculty of the music school. She liked to look at all these places, but the one sight she loved most was that of the school building. The sprawling structure, with a large open courtyard and a number of balconies and classrooms was always reverberating with the sounds of music. A close second came the cluster of huts inhabited by the local villagers. These people took care of the village’s farms and animals, and the village trust took care of them. Kaya knew that her great grandfather had been a revered landowner in these parts, and a man of great wealth and compassion. Today, the village and a few hundred acres of farming land was all that was left with his daughters. She had once heard her parents discuss about the value of the village trust and even at that little age, she knew it was good money. She recalled that conversation as she looked at a black van approach Veena, and realized that her stomach still rumbled. This not hunger, she said to herself, this is something else. Wondering the cause, she traced her path back home. She arrived home just in time to see a solemn looking man alight from the vehicle and ask for her mother. She led them to the school building wondering who he was, and why her stomach sank lower than ever.
She had answers to all these questions before the hour had passed. The solemn looking man was a policeman, and had brought news of an accident. An accident that had taken away Kaya’s father and uncle.
Another accident a few years later was the cause of her mother’s demise.
By this time, Kaya had moved out of Veena. She had inherited her parent’s talent but not their undying love for music. She completed her education in Delhi and did a variety of jobs over the next ten years. Two years ago, she had joined a radio station as a jingle writer and moved on to host her own show. And this evening the familiar sensation was back. Though not always the bearer of bad news, it filled Kaya with dread. She tried to console herself that she had this feeling the day she topped her college, the day she got her new job and the day she became a radio jockey. But the dread would not leave her.
She reached home just in time to hear the phone ring. She picked up the phone with trembling fingers. The voice at the other end was familiar. It was Leela, her aunt’s maid. She confirmed Kaya’s worst fears. Her aunt was dead. Kaya was an orphan now.
She did not relay the details of her death, nor did Kaya ask. She was required at the village now; the village trust’s solicitor had requested a meeting with the last living member of the family. Kaya said she would leave right away. The next few hours were spent in making arrangements. She got the tickets for a late night flight to Delhi, and it was not until she was airborne, that the tears began to flow.
Kaya cried through the whole flight. Tears punctuated by muted sobs were all she remembered of the flight. She was picked up at the airport by a taxi, which would take her all the way up to Veena. She thought about the last few hours and realized her sinking sensation hadn’t left her. It had perhaps been with her all through the flight, but in her grief Kaya had felt nothing else. And now as she saw the passing countryside from her taxi window, she wondered why it was so. Is there still more to come? Leela hadn’t told her anything else about her aunt’s death. She had been healthy, so a natural death was out of question. Perhaps an illness, or another accident? Or a murder? No it couldn’t be. That was too far fetched to believe.
Kaya reached Veena in the afternoon, and headed straight to Leela’s cottage. Leela looked pale and weary, and made Kaya eat something before meeting the lawyer. But she was very quiet. All of Kaya’s attempts to learn the cause of her aunt’s death had been futile. Each time she broached the subject, she was met with nothing but a stoned silence. Exasperated, she left for the school administrative building, where she was to meet Kailash Pradhan, the lawyer.
She was intercepted on the way by the Kumar family – Paras, his wife Nalini and their son Vaibhav. They broke into loud sobs upon her sight and Nalini crushed her in a bear hug. Paras Kumar was her father’s cousin and Kaya was most surprised to see them in Veena. She had first met at her father’s funeral, and disliked them instantly. She despised their excessive show of concern and over the top affection display. She began to ask them what they were doing in Veena, when a portly man emerged from the school building. He introduced himself as Kailash Pradhan and ushered Kaya in the building for the meeting. She was thankful to be rescued, but did not miss out the scowl on the faces of the Kumars at the sight of the solicitor.
Kailash Pradhan told Kaya that he had been managing their family’s finances for 40 years now, and even though had never met Kaya in person, he knew a great deal about her. He told her that her aunt’s death was a result of an accident. She had been on the way back to Veena after meeting him at his office three days ago, when her car was crushed by a landslide in the hills. Kaya wondered why Leela would not tell her as much, and she nearly missed Kailash Pradhan’s last remark. “It seems strange indeed that each one of your family members have died in the same way” Kaya’s gaped at that remark. The possibility of foul play in the sudden death of each of her family members had never occurred to her until now. And now she began to wonder if a decade old scheme was brewing to wipe out her entire family.
Kailsh Pradhan echoed her thoughts, and said that her own life might be in danger. The villagers thought the family cursed, and that perhaps explained Leela’s behavior. They apparently did not want to associate with her, afraid that she carried the curse like a disease, and would pass it on to them. He asked if she was interested in running the school now. If not, he advised her to sell the property and live comfortably with the money. But who would but so much land? And here in this remote area? Kailash Pradhan told her that several ayurvedic spas had opened up in the area, around Haridwar and Rishikesh. Selling this property would not be very difficult. He estimated the worth of this land, and combined with the trust, he named a sum that made Kaya’s jaw drop. She had no idea how rich her family had been. And in spite of all that, they had never lived in luxury. The meeting ended with Kaya consenting to put the property on the market and moving to a hotel in Haridwar for ease of communication between Kailash Pradhan and herself. He was to make all the arrangements and send for Kaya the next morning. By then, he advised her to be careful. It was then that Kaya asked him, “ What would happen to the trust if I were to die now?”
“Your living relatives would become the direct benefactors “
“ But I have no living relatives!”
He smiled, “The Kumars”, he said and left the room. Kaya sat there; numb from all the information she had just received. Her family member’s deaths, the Kumars being in Veena, the villagers’ fear of being cursed, the large family fortune, and the selling off of her home was too much to handle at one go. She sat in the office till it was very dark outside, and the sounds of the night became prominent. She reached her aunt’s cottage and settled on the sofa. She had taken a circuitous route to avoid meeting anyone, and had succeeded. She had especially wanted to avoid the Kumars. Such hypocrisy! They were barely acquainted, yet in the afternoon Nalini had made such a spectacle of herself. There hadn’t been the barest glimpse of grief in her eyes. She was clearly putting on an act. For whose benefit? Kailash Pradhan? Could they know that they would be the direct benefactors of the trust, if anything happened to her? With these and a hundred other thoughts spinning in her head, she fell asleep on the Sofa.
Kaya woke up to the sound of the phone ringing. It was early morning and her head felt heavy. On the line was Kailash Pradhan, with the name and address of her hotel room. He had sent a car for her, and she was to leave right away. He also mentioned his having talked to a hotelier friend, who had expressed interest in the property. Kaya moved out of the cottage, and started toward Leela’s to collect her bag. She was glad for the early morning fresh air, which helped clear her brain. Veena looked so beautiful in the early morning, when the sunlight caressed the mountaintops, reflected off the shimmering pond, and cast long shadows about the trees. She looked around ruefully, a hundred happy memories of her childhood flooding to her mind. She saw the smiling faces of her parents, aunt and uncle, heard the morning ragas, that filled the air at sunrise, the early morning Aradhana was a daily ritual at Veena. Her reverie was broken by a muted scream of anguish. She looked around to discover a group of people at the other side of the pond. Kaya could hear angry, animated voices speak as she approached the group. But they fell silent as they spotted her.
A young girl was standing at the centre of the group, apparently being reprimanded by the others. Though no one said anything anymore, the tension in the air was electric.
“What is going on here?”, she demanded to know.
“Kaya beti, this is a matter of the village folk. We will handle it ourselves. God knows, you have enough problems of your own to take care of”, the speaker was an elderly man, whom Kaya recognized as the supposed chieftain of the village. She was taken aback at his words, for had her aunt asked the same question, it would have never met such a reply. She nodded at the old man and turned away.
Another tie to Veena had been severed. The people of the village did not consider her as one of their own. This should lessen the pain of leaving forever. But would it? Kaya mentioned the incident to Leela, and was again met with silence. She silently went about serving breakfast to Kaya, and then continued with her chores. Kaya’s mind went back o the happenings of the day before, and she realized with a jolt that today was Diwali. For the past seven years, she had never been home for Diwali, and each time had wondered what it would be like. She had wanted to be home for the last seven years, but something or the other had kept her from coming. This year too, she had been denied leave. But now that she was in Veena, she wished for things to be back to before.
Silently, she picked her bag and told Leela of her plan. Leela surprised her by saying that the Kumars had moved out too. Good riddance, thought Kaya, and walked to the school building where the car would arrive. As she waited up for her transportation, she realized that the sinking sensation had never left her. It was pushed to the far recesses of her conscious self, but it was always there. And that puzzled and scared her at the same time. When her pick up arrived, Kaya was more than ready to leave. With a last wistful glance at the place she called home, she sat down in the car.
Soon, the vehicle was snaking down the winding mountain road, and Kaya was apprehensive of what was to come. She wondered if her life would ever been the same again. Though she was not particularly close to Kaya, her aunt’s death had left a void that she already began to feel.
“Now I have no family, and soon I will have no place I can call home”, she tried to push this thought out of her mind, but it kept coming back to trouble her.
Suddenly the car lurched forward, and Kaya’s head banged against the dashboard. She looked up to see why the driver braked so hard, and she saw the girl standing in the middle of the road. The girl wore a forlorn look on her face, and both the girl and her expression seemed familiar to Kaya. It was a while before she recognized her as the same girl who had been the centre of attention of the group at Veena.
“What is she doing here standing in the middle of the road, so far away from home?”
The car’s driver had moved out and was screaming at her for being so careless. The girl was close to tears and seeing the expression on her face, Kaya’s heart melted. She stepped out of the car and motioned for the driver to be quiet. She then beckoned the girl and sat her down in the car.
“You are from Veena, right?”
The girl nodded.
“And you were standing near the pond in the morning?”
She nodded again.
“You ran away from there?”
A slight nod followed.
“You want to go back?”
She looked up at Kaya with moist red eyes and spoke for the first time. “ No, please no”
Her voice was tearful, and her tone pleading. Kaya asked the driver to continue to the hotel and turned her attention back to the girl. She gave her a drink of water, which the girl gladly accepted.
“Whats your name?”
As the journey continued, Kaya learnt that Kajri was the granddaughter of the village vaid. Her mother had died at childbirth, and her father moved to a nearby town and re-married. After that, she had come to Veena to live with her grandparents. Now, her stepmother wanted to marry her off to a widower, and her alcoholic father did not object. Even her grandparents, and all the villagers wanted her to agree to the proposal.
“But why do they want you to marry an old man?”
“Because I told them I wanted to learn music and be a singer like Shakuntala Mausi. She has taught me ever since I came back”
Kaya was surprised to learn this. Her aunt was particularly choosy about the quality of students admitted to Veena, and teaching one of the village children was unheard of. Kajri must be really good. The very next moment her surprise turned into anger at the villager’s behavior. They wanted to ruin this girl’s life just because she wanted to learn music! Preposterous!
The remainder of their journey was covered in silence, and Kaya reflected upon the happenings of the day, especially the incidents with Kajri. She now had an idea what had been going on around the lake when she had interrupted them. She could also perhaps understand the unwillingness of the villagers to let her in on a sensitive manner such as this, but what she could simply not comprehend was Kajri’s standing in the middle of the road. What was that girl doing, so far away from the village, in the middle of a deserted mountain road? Only one possibility came to Kaya’s mind, one that chilled her, one that she didn’t want to believe, and one that she hoped was not true.
Soon, they reached Kaya’s hotel, and when the car came to a halt, Kajri looked unsure of what to do. As Kaya began to alight, she noticed Kajri clutch a piece of paper that had been lying unnoticed on the seat of the car.
“What is that? “, inquired Kaya.
“This, nothing “, was Kajri’s timid reply. Her eyes were downcast and she put up little resistance when Kaya tried to take the paper from her hand. The paper was crumpled; the writing was smudged, but legible. As she read it, Kaya realized it was a letter – a letter written by her aunt to someone called Charulata. The name sounded familiar to Kaya, but she could not place it immediately. The letter was written in a very impersonal manner, and contained a recommendation. Kaya now remembered her aunt’s friend Charulata Bhandari who lived in Benaras. She was an accomplished singer, and discovering new talent was her passion. Kaya’s aunt had included in her letter, a generous praise of Kajri’s raw talent, and hoped that she would train under herself someday. Kaya handed the letter back to Kajri and persuaded her to join her in her room.
As the two of them made their way to the hotel reception, Kaya was more than ever aware of her familiar sensation. She looked around the lobby and was surprised to find Kailash Pradhan waiting for her in the lobby. He covered the distance between them with rapid steps and asked her what kept her so long. He had been in the lobby, waiting for her arrival for almost 30 minutes. This information surprised Kaya. Kailash Pradhan had always displayed the impatience of a busy man. He had always carried himself with the air of a successful and important man. This was supported by the fact that he had in one evening lined up a prospective buyer for the village. Why he should be waiting in a hotel lobby for Kaya’s arrival was lost out to her. Kaya said that she had not been aware of any particular urgency to get to the hotel, and had taken her time leaving Veena. This reply seemed to irritate the man, and he began to usher her towards the elevator. Kaya turned and called out to Kajri, who had been standing a few feet away while the exchange between her and her lawyer took place.
Kailash Pradhan immediately looked at the slightly disheveled girl and inquired who she was. On being told so, his irritation increased, and Kaya even detected a hint of anger on his face. He demanded to know her entire story once they reached upto Kaya’s room. That had been Kaya’s intention since reading the letter, but she did not like Kailash Pradhan’s highhanded manner.
There was an uncomfortable silence in the elevator that took them to Kaya’s fourth floor room, and it prevailed even after they had entered and settled down. Kajri’s story came out in a steady stream of words, Kailash Pradhan grim all the while.
“How did you meet Kaya?”, he asked when she had finished.
“She came near the pond when everyone was…”
“No, how did you meet her afterwards?”
“I hid in a truck, and got down when the driver stopped. I hid behind some bushes till they were gone, and then waited on the road for a vehicle to come by.”
“And if none had? That is not a well-traveled road. What would you have done alone on that mountain road?”
“I… I didn’t think of that…”
“You didn’t?”, the scowl on his face deepened, and with that, Kaya’s dislike for him. It was clear that the man did not believe her story. What he wanted to imply though, was lost out to Kaya. He would have gone on in his ridicule, had Kaya not declared time for lunch. She asked Kailash Pradhan to brief her about the meeting with his friend, and how they should go about will the deal. Her trick worked, over lunch, all they discussed was business. The lawyer was still vary of Kajri, and did not reveal any names or the amount of money involved.
After lunch, he asked for a private conversation with Kaya, and outlined the specifics of the deal. Apparently, the procedure would take three days, and Kaya would be required only at the time of the actual signing of papers. As Kaya got up to leave, he said, “But, there is one thing you have to be very careful about”
“That you do not interact with any more strangers”, the stress on the anymore was deliberate and there was no doubt that he referred to Kajri.
“Any particular reason for that advice?”, her tone was icy.
“No logical reason. Just caution. Caution arising from the fact that the death of all your family members was a potential murder”
To this Kaya had no answer. Even she had admitted the possibility of this being true. And even though Kajri was from her village, she knew nothing about her or her parents.
“I’ll be careful”
“And what do you plan to do about her?”
“Well, she wants to go to Benaras to learn music from Charulata Bhandari. I want to help her reach there.”
“Very well, I shall make the arrangements for her journey, and get in touch with Mrs Bhandari. You stay in the hotel. Don’t go about trying to make arrangements for her”, his tone was reprimanding.
“Am I supposed to be under house arrest?”
“Its for your own safety Kaya, that you remain low profile. In addition to your unseen enemy, there is also the wrath of the villages to consider”
“The wrath of the villagers?”
“Yes, they are bound to react when they learn that you will sell this place”
And it suddenly hit her. Something that she had not considered. If she were to sell the village, and a spa was to be built on the land, the villagers would be forced to move. They would have to leave their homes. The situation could turn messy. She now understood Kailash Pradhan’s intention in moving her out of Veena in such hurry, as well as his advice for a low profile. The man was only trying to shield her. It was at this moment that Kaya decided to place her complete trust in Kailash Pradhan, and do exactly as he said. But try as she might, she could not suppress the sensation in her stomach, which rose to a crescendo at this moment. Her head told her one thing, her instinct, the exact opposite.
Kaya reached her floor in a state of absolute confusion. As she approached her room, she heard voices inside. The manager of the hotel was present, along with another staff member. They were apparently talking to Kajri, who seemed hysterical. The party fell silent as Kaya entered. Kajri ran to her and declared the manager was trying to throw her out of the hotel. Kaya turned to the manager who explained that Kailash Pradhan had arranged for a separate room for Kajri. They were merely escorting her to her room. It was after ten whole minutes of coaxing that Kaya managed to convince Kajri to move to a separate room.
There was a nip in the October air, which turned into a chill as the evening came. Kaya looked out of her window and saw the streets shining with all the diyas and the sounds of prayers seemed to be emanating from every nook and corner of the holy city. The realization of her being all alone in the world hit her harder than ever, and she felt stifled. Suddenly, the room felt too small to hold her and her emotions. Kaya walked out of the room, and decided to go for a stroll in the garden. As soon as she stepped into the garden, the chilly air struck her, and she hugged herself. Living in Mumbai, she hadn’t needed any warm clothes. She only had a light travel jacket and a shawl that she had been wearing over her jeans since yesterday. During her walk, her thoughts ran to Kajri and she realized that Kajri had no warm clothes either. She was still wearing the light Salwar Kameez that Kaya had seen her in earlier that day. If the evening continued to grow colder, Kaya was sure she would fall ill. She abandoned her walk, went up to Kajri’s room and announced that they would go shopping. They had no warm clothes, and Kajri would need some decent everyday clothes as well if she were to go meet Charulata Bhandari. Kaya went to her room, collected her handbag, and they left for the market.
They shopped for clothes and laden with bags, they made there way back. The Diwali festivities were picking up all around them. People were pouring on to the streets, some to light the firecrackers and some to watch the display. Still others were making their way to the banks of the holy Ganga to pray.
Suddenly, Kaya had this urge to go to the riverside. She felt as if the river was calling out to her. She knew that the arti would begin in a few minutes. She wanted to be there and join the masses in offering prayers. She wanted to pray for peace. Peace for her deceased family’s souls, peace for her own soul. She wanted strength to go through this time. She wanted a direction to make the correct choices.
“I want to go to the river bank and join in the arti. Do you want to come?”, she asked Kajri.
“No, you go. This is the river in which my dadi drowned. I am never at peace on its banks”
“Very well”, Kaya said and turned to leave.
“Give me your packets”, she called out “I’ll take them to your room”
Kaya handed all her bags to Kajri and moved to the riverbank. The arti began almost as soon as she reached the Har ki Paudi. The prayers went on for the good part of an hour, and as soon as it ended, a magnificent display of fireworks erupted across the evening sky. In spite of herself, Kaya enjoyed watching them. Kaya sat on the riverbank for a long time, gazing at the river, as if trying to seek the answers of the questions that bothered her. She shut out all the sounds in her surroundings, and recounted the events of the last two days. She pondered over each event, thought and re-thought about every thing that bothered her. She must have sat there for hours, and would have sat through the night had the sudden noise not broken her reverie.
She snapped out of her trance when she heard it. It sounded like dozens of sirens blaring together. Turning back towards the market, Kaya saw a near pandemonium. Dozens of vehicles were blaring past – police cars, ambulances and fire engines. People were running about in all the directions. She stepped on the street, trying to make her way past the crowd, the sinking sensation greater than ever. She turned around a corner and gasped. Her feet were rooted to the ground and the sight in front of her would be stamped in her memory forever. A four-story building engulfed in towering flames. The building where Kaya would have been had she not gone to the attend the arti. The realization hit hard, and along with it came another one. Kajri was still in the building! Kaya tried to move closer to the hotel, but her progress was hampered by the enormous crowd. Every inch that she moved closer to the burning building, her feeling of dread deepened. There was chaos all around her. Finally, she managed to reach the edge of the crowd, and was as close to the building as the fire fighters allowed. A frantic activity was in progress. The fire fighters had managed to bring the fire under some control, but it still threatened to engulf the adjacent building. The residential building had been evacuated by the police, and all the residents stood by, helplessly watching the raging battle before them, hoping that the fire loses, and their homes and belongings remain safe. But the glowing beast had no intentions of losing. Slowly, but steadily, it began approaching the residential building, and before the eyes of the entire crowd, the top storey caught fire. Suddenly, a piercing wail shot through the night, audible above the noise and chaos, and it caught the attention of the crowd as well as the firefighters. The crowd because of the extreme anguish in it, and the fire fighters because of the originator. Apparently, a young woman had sneaked past the authorities and had entered gotten too close to the entrance of the building. A burning block had landed on her foot and he resulting scream had everyone’s attention. She was whisked away from the scene and the police suddenly put up ropes barricading the area. Every one of the by-standers was being driven away by the policemen, and Kaya had no choice but to leave.
Kaya moved in the general direction the crowd seemed to be moving, with her mind in a daze, she moved on and on, until she suddenly realized that the crowd surrounding her had dwindled a great deal. She looked around her, trying to guess where she was, trying to fathom her next move. She had no money, no credit cards, and no papers with her at the moment, for her purse had been taken to the hotel by Kajri. A while later she saw a dharamshala, a small neat looking structure, and a small crowd outside its door. As Kaya moved towards it, she heard the quiet murmurs and the soft sobs that came from the crowd. They all stood facing an aristocratic looking man, who somehow seemed familiar to Kaya. He stood listening to them with a sympathetic look on his face and as Kaya neared the group, he turned to talk to a short man standing next to him. The man next to Kaya said,
“Balwant Babu is so generous. He has opened the doors of his dharamshala for all the people affected by the fire today”
“Yes, at least our families have a place to spend the night. We don’t have to worry about that.”
Kaya knew she should’ve felt relieved at that, but somehow she didn’t. She was uneasy even as they were led into a dormitory. A few cots were aligned against the walls, which were filled up soon, and most of the crowd stood huddled in the centre of the hall. Kaya walked to one of the windows and looked out into the night, trying to gather her thoughts. The initial shock and panic was wearing off, and Kaya thought about her next move.
“I should get in touch with Kailash Pradhan”, she thought, “I should’ve done that, instead of drifting with the crowd and coming here”
She left the room in search of a telephone, silently thanking him for making her memorize his office and residence numbers. Outside the room, the corridor was deserted. The diyas that were perhaps lit for Diwali celebrations had extinguished and a faint smell of burnt oil lingered in the passage. The sound of an occasional firecracker could be heard in the distance. Kaya reached the end of the passage, where a large sign was hung on a wooden door. It said Balwant Pradhan. The door was shut, and Kaya turned back. Her tired feet seemed to walk on their own to the dormitory, where mattresses had been brought in and strewn about the floor. Kaya fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow, but she slept fitfully. Her sleep was punctuated by strange dreams and visions, and finally she did wake up. She was surprised to learn that it was early morning; she had tossed and turned nearly the whole night. Many people had left the dormitory, and Kaya guessed they had gone to check on the fire.
She decided to call Kailash Pradhan and then go back to the site of the tragedy to get news of Kajri. She went down the same passage that she had seen the previous night. This time, the door was slightly ajar and Kaya peered inside. The room was dark, and looked like a small office. Kaya was about to leave when she caught sight of a small ray of light. It appeared to be coming from under the opposite wall. She could make out the shape of a large door, and the light was creeping out from beneath it.
“ This must be the outer office, probably the secretary’s. If someone is there in the inner office, I can probably get to use a phone.”
She moved towards the door, and as she approached it, the voice from inside the room became audible. Kaya paused, and lifted her hand to knock when the she heard her own name. Her hand stopped in mid-air and she strained to catch the words of the conversation.
“This is good news Bhaiya, the fire chief practically confirmed her death. She is now out of our path”
Kaya froze as she heard the words. Who was the she that was being referred to?
“Do not be hasty. How can the fire chief confirm Kaya’s death?”, said a cold voice. A voice that Kaya recognized immediately. A voice that Kaya had been hearing for the last two days. It belonged to Kailash Pradhan.
Kaya was so shocked to hear that voice, and specially its cold tone, that she almost missed the words that were said. Do not be hasty, how can the fire chief confirm Kaya’s death? Her death? Kailash Pradhan wanted a confirmation of her death? What was going on?
“Arre Kailash babu, they have found a body on the top floor. On that floor, only one room was occupied. And that was Kaya’s. So the body has to be hers. And it’s a female body, that much they have confimed.”, said an oily voice that again seemed familiar to Kaya.
“Aur nahi to kya? Now what more do you want, a DNA test?” , this voice was immediately recognizable. It belonged to Nalini- Nalini Kumar. And that meant the oily voice had to be her husband. Paras.
What were the Kumars doing here? And talking with Kailash Pradhan, Kaya distinctly remembered the looks on the faces of the Kumars when they saw Kailash Pradhan in Veena. And his own face had shown no pleasantness at their site. And now they were sitting her in this place, discussing her death, like partners in crime. The fact that they were indeed partners in crime was revealed to Kaya by the next words spoken by the lawyer.
“You people make unnecessary haste. What was the need for you Paras an Nalini to come to Veena. Especially since I told you not to? The fact that you are the last living relatives of Kaya would’ve escaped everyone’s mind till the trust was actually transferred to you. Why couldn’t you people remain quiet? And did you have to wail and make that show of grief in front of Kaya?”
The cold tone was gone. He now seemed agitated and the was nearly shouting.
“Kailash bhaiya, ant bhala to sab bhala!”, it was the voice that had earlier spoken about the fire chief confirming Kaya’s death “And with a brilliant scheming mind like yours, we’ve actually killed three birds with one stone. The girl gets out of our way; We get all her money and the land to build a new spa; and I get rid of my old hotel building. You are an absolute genius. Telling that girl that the accidents were probably murders, getting her out of the village, putting her on the top floor of my hotel, and then getting that good for nothing rogue Rasbihari to create the fire from the diyas. Even if there is an enquiry, it will look like an accident. An absolute foolproof plan.”
This flattery had its effect and Kailsh Pradhan seemed to mellow down.
Kaya had heard enough and she didn’t need her intuition to tell her that she could not be seen by these people. She needed to get out of this place. She crept out of the room, and fighting the urge to run, walked out of the dharamshala as fast as her feet could carry her. And all this while, one question loomed in her mind. “Whose was the body that was found on the top floor?
The most logical conclusion seemed Kajri. The fire must have started when she was in Kaya’s room, probably putting away the bags. Kaya thought about Kajri – her slightly scared expression when Kaya had first seen her, the intimidated look throughout the car journey, she had no regrets about leaving her family, her so-called home, she was full of hope for her musical future, eager to learn and train under Charulata Bhandari. Kaya recollected the brief time they had spent together, and realized that Kajri – waiting to blossom into a beautiful flower, had been nipped at the bud. She had been strangled in her cocoon just as she was ready to come out of it. Kaya felt her anger rising at the greed of the man called Kailash Pradhan. The lawyer, the liar, the cheat, the murderer. Hot tears began to flow down her cheeks, and as she put a hand in her pocket to draw out her handkerchief it brushed against a soft paper. The moment Kaya drew it out of her pocket, she realized it was her aunt’s letter addressed to Charulata Bhandari, praising the talent of the young girl called Kajri, who was coming to meet her carrying this letter. A tear fell from her eye; and Kaya moved the paper to prevent the drop falling on the writing. She must’ve folded the paper and thrust it in her jeans’ pocket while entering the hotel. And there it had remained till now, a reminder of Kajri. She put the letter back into her pocket and moved on. She arrived again at the banks of the Ganga, and looked out at the devotees having an early morning dip in the river- seeking absolution of their sins. Kaya wondered whether all sins were pardonable. If Kailash Pradhan took a dip in the Holy water, would his sins be absolved? She sat on the riverbank, her emotions raging from anger to grief. Kaya tried to figure her next step. She couldn’t hide on the streets for long, she couldn’t linger in this city for long. She had to get out. And leave the bunch of crooks to enjoy her family’s wealth.
As she sat gazing into the river, every now and then her thoughts would drift to Kajri, and her aunt’s letter would leap into her mind. Kaya felt that she was in such a filmi situation. On her radio show, she would sometimes elaborate a situation and asked her listeners to call in and tell what they would do if stuck in it. She had once asked them what they would do if they were stranded in a foreign country without any cash. A husky voiced girl had called her, in fact Kaya had felt that the caller was probably a boy, and the nature of his answer forced him to pretend otherwise. The caller had given a filmi solution to her filmi problem. But it was a fairly simple one. Sell your jewellery. Kaya considered it, and counted her jewllery pieces. A small diamond ring and matching diamond earrings, a thin gold chain about her neck and a lone silver anklet on her left foot was the jewellery that she wore. All of it together was probably worth seventeen thousand, but she had no clue how much she would get if she tried to sell it. And after taking the money, where would she go? She would get out of this city, but she couldn’t go back to Mumbai or her job. Kailash Pradhan had probably told them of her death, and if she were to go back, he would definitely come to know. And the second time, she may not be so lucky. Her despair turned into anger as she realized that she had no options. And deep in her heart, rose a desire for revenge, to leave them as helpless as they left her. Kaya could not spend the rest of her life watching her back. But, as she calmed down, her old rational self took over. Revenge was best left to movies and novels. Kaya had to get on with her life. Her life? What was left inher life? What could she go on with? And with that, she once again thought of Kajri, the girl who had been eager to get on with her life. And then, a thought entered her mind. She wouldn’t get on with her life, she would get on with Kajri’s life. Kajri had taken the death meant for Kaya, and Kaya would take the life meant for Kajri. It was an unfair barter. But, destiny had chosen it for Kaya. She would forever be grateful to Kajri for the gift of her life. But now, she had to get to Benaras.
Kaya decided to use her caller’s trick. She walked into a medium sized jewellery shop and urged to meet the owner, who turned out to be a portly middle-aged man.
“Yes madam, what would you like to see?”, his tone was doubtful, as if he knew the real purpose of Kaya’s visit. Maybe it was due to her disheveled state and distressed voice.
“Sir, I need your help”, Kaya began.
“Hmmm, a victim of the fire tragedy? “
“Yes..”, Kaya was surprised.
“Sell or mortgage?”
“Madam, do you think you are the only one who wants to use her jewellery? I have had at least seven people in the last one hour who want money.”
“Oh, I want to sell it.”
“Are you sure? We keep the mortgaged items safe for one and a half years.”
“I am from out of town. I want to sell”
“Ok then. What have you got?”
Kaya pointed to her ears handed her ring to him. “They are a set”
“These are branded?”
“Yes” She told him the brand.
“Certificate?” He enquired, “Do you have the certificate?”
“No, it is at home.”
“Tsk tsk. Too bad. The re-sale value of this brand is high, but not without the certificate. Anything else?”
She showed him the chain. He took all the pieces from her and examined them. They completed the transaction, and Kaya walked out with ten thousand rupees in her pocket. She had to haggle a bit, and she was pleased with the negotiations.
And now she was ready to leave the city. She would get to Delhi by bus, and then catch a train to Benaras. She walked to the bus stand and enquired about a bus to Delhi. It seemed to her that there was one every half an hour. So all she had to do was buy a ticket, and get going. Kaya purchased a ticket, and while she waited for the bus, she spotted a dhaba right opposite to the bus stand. The place was quite crowded. People were constantly moving in and out of it. And as she came close to it, a variety of smells hit her nose at the same time. Poories, Pakodas, jalebis, boiling almond milk, all from the huge kadhais placed outside the dhaba. And suddenly Kaya’s stomach gave a lurch. And she realized she hadn’t eaten anything since the previous day’s lunch. She entered the eatery and found herself a table at the far corner. She ordered a king’s fill and gorged on the food when it arrived. She took longer than she had intended to, and after paying her bill, rushed out of the dhaba into the busy street. She had to cross the road to get to the other side, and hurried on for the fear of missing her bus. She was about halfway across, when a speeding black car turned the corner, a few hundred meters from where Kaya stood, and rushed in her direction.
Kaya tried to leap out of its path, but there was traffic on the other side now. She frantically looked at the incoming car, and her froze at the spot. Her eyes met the eyes of the front seat passenger. The shock in them equal to the fear in her own. Kaya’s heart beat very fast, and stomach tingled with apprehension. But, her feet seemed to be rooted to the spot. She tried, but she couldn’t move her legs. Time seemed to have slowed down, and those few seconds; everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. Going back would mean colliding into the traffic on the other side of the road. Moving forward would be rushing into the path of the speeding car, or walking into the hands of the very people from whom she was trying to run away. This and a thousand other thoughts passed through her brain before she could comprehend what was happening. She was so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she hadn’t realized that the car was swerving. The driver seemed to have lost control of the car. It was now heading straight towards Kaya. Just as it came within a few feet, she turned sideways. At about the same time, the driver turned the car as well. The car had spiraled totally out of his control, and the wild turn had caused it to completely block the other lane. For a fleeting moment everything seemed all right, but it was not so. A large loaded truck was coming down the road, its speed a little more than what should’ve been. The driver braked hard, and the sound of the air brakes could be heard all around, but the truck did not slow down enough. Still at a good speed, the truck driver made a frantic attempt to avoid an impact, and turned towards other side. The truck hit the side of the car, and dragged it diagonally across the road for a few meters. Suddenly, a bus turned the same corner that the car had a few seconds ago, and the car was sandwiched between the two large speeding vehicles. The sickening crunch of metal against metal filled the air.
Kaya was horrified, she had stood transfixed from the moment the car had turned, she was still in the middle of the road. She could have been hit. A few people gathered around her and ushered her to the side. As if in a trance, reached the side of the dhaba and sat on a chair outside it. The people asked her if she was fine, for she looked pale and shaken. The owner of the dhaba came out and asked one his boys to bring hot ginger tea for her her. As she sat there sipping the tea, and watching the commotion on the street, she noticed a few buses emerge from the bus stand. One of them was Kaya’s. The next few hours passed in a daze, and Kaya had a bleak memory of ambulance and the police approaching. The bus had no passengers, and both the bus and the truck driver were injured, but the passengers of the car were all dead. Five battered bodies were laid down by the side of the road, and covered with white sheets. Dark red spots began to appear on the sheets as the people tried to identify the victims. All they could determine that there were four males and one female. But only Kaya knew who they were. Kailash Pradhan, his driver, Nalini, Paras and Vaibhav. All the people in Haridwar who had seen her, who recognized her. And now they were all dead. She didn’t have to fear being discovered anymore. She was free. She was Kaya no more. She was now Kajri. With this thought in her mind, she thanked the dhaba owner and crossed the road. She went to the bus stand, and was on her way to Delhi on the next bus. She felt free, like a bird flying out of her cage, into a new shy, to scale new heights. No one would ever know who she is, and she would do what her mother had always wanted her to do. Devote her life to music.
The ten thousand rupees that she had gotten were enough for her to reach Delhi. She bought a couple of clothes, a few basic necessities, a travel bag and a ticket to Benaras. With her past behind her, she reached the house of Charulata Bhandari. Charulata Bhandari read her old friend’s letter, and looked at the cotton salwar kameez clad girl from head-to-toe. She led the girl to a large room where her students were practicing. The gentle sounds of the sitar and the melodious voices practicing ragas filled the room. The atmosphere was calm and happy, and she immediately felt at peace there.
“I would like to hear you before I can begin with your training.” Said Chaurlata Bhandari.
She looked at her and nodded. She sat down on the floor, and closed her eyes. For a moment her mind was all blank, and then a thousand memories rushed through. She was back at the village, in a tiny room, a lady sat facing her, a veena in hand, teaching her raag Bhairavi, asking her to sing along. She did, she sang with all her heart and when she opened her eyes, Charulata Bhandari stood smiling at her. She had moved from reality to memory and back. Her years of training in Veena came back to her in a flash, and her talent had shown. Charulata Bhandari sat down beside her and said
“You have a very good voice, and it will be a pleasure teaching you. Welcome to my school”
She smiled and said thanks. They both got up and Charulata Bhandari hailed one of the girls and instructed her to take the new girl to a room. She picked up her back and turned. Just as she was about to go, Charulata Bhandari called her back, looked deep into her eyes and said,
“Did anyone ever tell you?”
“You have your mother’s eyes”