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As the weeks tumbled into months and Neha’s hopes kept shedding with her endometrium, her desperation grew. She pestered Nalini, to contact Padma and the sadhu. Nalini kept putting her off till gradually her despair crossed over into obsession.
She eyed every child with a crazy craving. No matter where she was - at the bazaar, in a park or a mall - she would pick up children, hug and kiss them. Her sunken eyes and unwarranted fervor scared the kids; alarmed parents and nannies. She was shunned, often shooed off from places she frequented.
Her husband, still unaware of her secret tryst with the sadhu, tried to console her one night. Deep concern etched his soft voice. “Look, Neha. It is okay. I am with you. I don’t mind being childless, why are you getting so worked up? Just see what you have reduced yourself to. Alright, I know you have to deal with taunts and mean words. But what is the worst that can happen? You will not be included in certain ceremonies and a few women will ostracize you socially. Don’t let that…” and she burst into inconsolable tears. Rather than allay her despondency his words only accentuated it.
“Nalini, please, please, I must meet swamiji again. Tell him I am ready to do whatever he says to be blessed with a child. Anything. Please?” she sobbed into the phone one day. She could be dissuaded no more. Moved by her plight, Nalini contacted Padma.
More than a fortnight passed by in agony. Then Padma came to visit her when her husband was at work. She furtively slipped in, making sure she hadn’t been spotted by nosy neighbours.
“Listen, I met him yesterday. He was furious and refused to do anything more for you but I somehow managed to pacify him,” she whispered, shocked by the apparition before her. Hope flickered anew in Neha’s misting eyes as she hugged the cheaply perfumed Padma.
“What else did he say? What should I do? How much will it cost me? Do I have to meet him again? When do….”
“Hold it, Neha. I have come with full instructions from him. First give me a cup of tea and then I will tell you all.”
As Neha prepared the tea, Padma let herself wander around the house noting its luxury with a hungry eye. Going back to the kitchen she sat on a stool and asked Neha to pull up another next to her.
“Listen, this is the last time I am helping you. And so is swamiji. He believes you have no faith that is why it didn’t work the first time. This failure is humiliating for him. Anyway, let’s think ahead now. The next moonless night is still many days away. You have plenty of time to do the swami’s bidding.” She sipped the tea noisily.
A cockroach appeared and scurried off the table top towards an overflowing dustbin in the farther corner, as if unwilling to eavesdrop on the sinister schemes of humans.
Padma continued conspiratorially, “This is your only hope left. The swami will perform a very special puja for you but for it to be successful he needs you to be co-operative.”
“Oh, anything, everything, whatever he wants from me.”
Padma looked at her long through narrowed eyes and was assured Neha would go to any length to attain motherhood. Her barren status filled her with guilt and shame.
“Okay. I will meet you again at the same spot as last time. I will take this gold necklace you are wearing, as my fee,” she drooled. “Because this puja is exceptional, the swami will take twenty thousand rupees. Cash. You have to bring triple the quantity of the paraphernalia you got the last time. And come wearing black. It is very essential.”
“Is that all?” Neha was visibly relieved. She would have given a lot more.
“There is one more thing.”
“You will have to offer the blood of an infant. It is your job to get one,” Padma dropped the bombshell.
Neha’s newfound hope exploded into piercing shards of hopelessness and dread.
“B..b..b…but where can I get one? And h…h…how can I d…d…do this?”
“Do you want your own child or no?” The voice was icy, calculative.
“I do, I do. Desperately! But…this way?”
Padma was irritated. She pulled out a piece of paper from her bag.
“Memorise this name and address than burn the paper. This person will do the needful for just rupees two thousand.”
The paper trembled in Neha’s hand like it had ague. Padma eyed the necklace as she saw her dither. Somewhere a baby cried.
“Listen you fool,” she whispered hoarsely. “There is this demented woman. Some idiot got her pregnant and she’s due within the next few days. She doesn’t need the child. And you will do the baby a good turn too by not letting it grow in this callous world. Imagine its life on the streets with a mad mother, no father. You will give it salvation.”
As Neha struggled, between her avarice and goodness, Padma slunk out of the house pocketing an expensive watch lying around.
Ah! The vulnerability, the rapacity of an obsessed mind! Padma’s well aimed darts struck bull’s eye!
On the appointed day, Neha accepted the innocent babe in exchange for a paltry sum. It was inert, drugged to keep it quiet. Her clammy hands held it to her bosom as she hastened into a dark lane, almost running. A cat jumped on her nearly clawing the bundle out of her clutch as she stifled a scream.
“Keep this baby,” she heard a voice. It was her own. “But he will not accept it. He refused to adopt one, will he take in an imbecile’s child?” she argued with herself. “He will never accept it. Nobody will. I will at least release it from certain doom.”
Who can understand the vagaries of a mind enmeshed in its own convoluted reason?
She thought someone was following her but each time she turned only darkness yawned back at her. Perhaps her gasping conscience was trying to catch up with her. Walking through many twists and turns, she finally returned to the rickshaw she had hired.
“Quick. I have to reach in the next half-hour.” Her voice came muffled through the pallu that covered her head and face. She dabbed her neck and chin with one end as she chewed on her dry lips wondering if the driver had seen her face.
Getting off at a designated spot, she paid him and staggered towards Padma lurking in the shadows.
“Move, fast. But first give me the necklace.”
Neha grunted derisively through her anxiety wondering what had brought them together – fate or greed? But she would speculate on this later. She handed over all the rest of the things needed for the puja as also the money for the sadhu.
As they entered the ominous burning ghat and the potbellied frame of the swami loomed into view, Neha’s quickened steps echoed her thumping heart. She thrust the dormant baby in his hands as if to get its weight off her conscience. She completely deadened her mind to its feeble protest. There was no turning back, she knew.
“Padma has the rest of what you wanted. Give them…” But Padma had disappeared. She looked around for her only to be blinded by sudden light.
“Police! Freeze!” ordered an authoritative voice.
Neha was flabbergasted! Caught red-handed there was nothing she could do or say in her defense. The sadhu and she were taken into custody and the baby, stolen from a nursing home, mercifully united with his heart-broken mother.
“How did this happen? Where did Padma disappear? Did she warn the police? And the baby? She lied to me, oh God, what was I about to do?” The questions cascaded with her tears but there were no answers, only fear and greater confusion as she pined away in jail. Her husband visited her frequently. He had assured her that he would hire the best lawyer and try to get her as light a sentence as was possible under the circumstances.
In court he testified that she had been fixated on a child of her own and had reached a near crazy state of mind but he was not ready to believe that she would go to this extent to have her longing fulfilled. He wasn’t even aware of her meeting with the sadhu. He did everything possible to save her from being convicted for buying the child with intent to slaughter.
Her friend Nalini was questioned too. She reaffirmed his statements giving a graphic account of how Neha had been slowly losing her mind in her desperation. She claimed to be unaware of Padma’s dealings and knew nothing about the sadhu. She had just informed Padma that Neha wanted to see her. That was her only involvement in the whole affair.
Search was on for Padma. The sadhu was jailed for nefarious activities. Neha was to be interned in the jail’s psychiatric ward. As she was being led away, she looked from her husband to Nalini and back with a sudden, sickening realisation.
“I won’t be in for too long. I’ll get back at them” she vowed to herself.