The phone slipped on to her lap as Sneha stared into space, speechless, a tragicomic expression on her face. Her mother was at the other end, calling from a hospital in far away India. Her father had succumbed to hypertension and diabetes. Sneha could not console Anjali, nor say that she was relieved their years of ordeal were over.
It had been almost two decades that she had left home, never to return. She used to call him up occasionally, always with trepidation, because even from across the continents he managed to make her feel small and guilty. No matter how she tried, he had perfected the knack of putting her down. Nothing had dented his arrogance or diminished his demands. She was never good enough for him so she had stopped trying altogether to please him.
To give him his just dues, he had strived hard to give her a good education, in a Convent school, which no one in his family or village could boast of. He had made a few sacrifices too. But he had pushed her, beyond physical and psychological endurance, traumatizing her as he had done with her mother. Anjali had reacted submissively to his violence. She wasn't too well educated, had no gumption and nursed an eternal ray of hope - her 'pati parmeshwar' would change some day.
'Yeah, you poor creature,' thought Sneha, 'you might as well have hoped to see lions domesticated or fish flying in the sky.'
She was an extremely sensitive, giving, forgiving person, but her father had mutilated her spirit till she was driven to despair and clinical depression. It was the pits for her and when she could take it no more she had unsuccessfully slashed her wrists.
'Couldn't you even do this one thing with success?' he had sneered, his nostrils flaring with insufferable disdain. According to his convoluted logic she was very selfish and ungrateful. Why else would she repay 'all he had done for her' by disgracing him so.
'Do you know how humiliating it is for me to meet people's questioning gaze?'
'Can you honestly meet your own?' wondered Sneha, cursing herself for the failed attempt at suicide.
That's when he had the brilliant idea to send her to an ashram to be 'healed'. It wasn't worth spending on her for expert psychiatric treatment. Had he not already expended most of his earnings over a thankless daughter? He secretly hoped she would decide to stay on there as a recluse and he would be free of her responsibility.
So off she went with her mother to the ashram where a former neighbor wielded a great deal of clout. After a secret love affair had soured, she had renounced the world. Young, attractive and resourceful she had soon made herself indispensable to the swami. After that it was a perfunctory shift as head of the core group.
Aunt Dayama, as Sneha called her, welcomed them with great affection. She was all out to woo Sneha to follow in her footsteps. Mother and daughter were put up in a private, very luxurious room. They were honored as special guests. While certain rooms were restricted to them, they could wander freely in the sylvan surroundings, which were idyllic and therapeutic for her shot nerves; but Sneha could not come to terms with the ashram's sybaritic lavishness.
She had not seen Dayama's 'swamiji' even once during the week after her arrival there although she had joined the ashram's routine from day two. They arose before daybreak, spent an hour in devotion and prayers in the state-of-the-art meditation hall, followed by a simple breakfast. After that everyone was assigned duties to keep the ashram and premises clean and well-regulated. Before lunch, there was an hour and a half of satsang. A senior disciple would conduct these sessions, with another post-lunch question hour. Meditation, yoga and pranayam were taught to neophytes for a little over an hour, till six in the evening. Six to seven p.m., was the 'freedom hour' as Sneha had dubbed it. It was theirs to spend as they pleased. The disciples, kar-sevaks and newcomers were strictly discouraged from interacting with one another on a personal level. This suited her perfectly. She was very relieved to be shielded from the prying queries of nosy people.
Aunt Dayama was the only one who came and talked to her, waxing eloquent about his holiness, how he was spreading the light of love and wisdom to bring joy into his devotees' lives. He had spread his mission abroad too. She always accompanied him on his trips abroad and was now dangling that bait to lure Sneha.
'When will he see and bless me? I have been here a week now. Is he too busy for the likes of me?' asked Sneha, with sarcasm she could not hide.
'Shh... child. He is a mahatma and you cannot rush him. You have not seen him but he has been observing you and is pleased. He will give you darshan in his own good time. He is waiting for an auspicious day to give you exclusive audience. Perhaps on the coming purnima night, after his customary general appearance during the aarti. You have no idea how lucky you are!' said her aunt in the silky smooth tone she had acquired here. Her mother nodded in agreement with that docile grin Sneha often wanted to strike off her face.
'Dayama tells me that soon your life will change forever, Sneha. Pray and ready yourself for that great moment.'
A few nights later, her aunt and mom were all a-flutter as they conveyed to her that the awaited moment was finally going to arrive. Swamiji would perform some very important puja and then see her. After the evening aarti and a sumptuous supper prepared specially for her, both the tremulous ladies anointed her with sandalwood paste and gave her a ritual bath, with rose-scented water.
As she dressed in the bridal attire provided, she was told, 'This is the last time you will be decked in such finery. Once you have been initiated as a disciple, you will have to forego these clothes and jewelry, so make the most of it now.'
'And don't question him, the unbeliever that you are. We know what is best for you. Please be obedient. Be cheerful and receptive, blah...blah...blah...'
The two of them blabbered on, unmindful that Sneha had already tuned out. When she was lectured and coerced into something, she turned into an unfeeling, unresisting mannequin. Now, on the threshold of a life she had not dreamt of, her initial reluctance surfaced. She wished she had never given in to them.
As Dayama led her towards the special induction room, there was an eerie quietness in the buildings; the tall trees cast ghostly shadows in the dispersed moonlight. A soft voice bade them enter when Dayama knocked on the door. Sneha was sent in alone.
On entering the dimly-lit room, she was assailed by a strong aroma of jasmine from burning incense sticks. Her eyes began to focus, and she saw a portly figure seated on a carpet, hands folded, eyes shut, an anticipative smile on his chubby face. As instructed she prostrated before him saying, 'Jai Swamiji.' He opened his eyes and looked at her, hand stretched, palm open, to bless her.
'Come, you have nothing to fear. Sit up and let us talk.'
She sat up and began to answer his questions like an automaton. 'My poor child, how you have suffered. But you have come to the right place. I need girls like you in my ashram.' So saying he got up, sat next to her and put his arm around her to comfort her. Sneha shrank from the touch but he droned on, now passing his fingers through her thick, long hair left loose, now letting his hand slide ever so lightly down her back. He rose once more, went to a corner and fetched some white clothes that she would need to wear from the following morning. He put them beside her, sprinkled some holy water on her and mumbled what sounded like a mantra. She barely heard his voice. It could have been profanity for all she cared. If it was possible she had keyed herself out even more.
She sat stock still as he removed her jewelry, piece by piece. Then his clammy hands began to disrobe her and his eyes dug lewdly into her voluptuous body as if to exhume her soul. As he stripped her naked, he pawed her body, a cat playing with a rat before devouring it. She remained pinned to the floor, passionless, stonily impervious to his abhorrent heaving and thrusting. From somewhere far away, her disgusted spirit revolted, but by then the impostor had showered his 'special blessings' on her and slipped back into his deceptive role. He slunk out of the room. Somewhere a clock struck the midnight hour. That purnima night had plunged her life into perpetual amavasya.
~ * ~
Seventeen years later, remembrance of that outrageous incident still violated her. She shuddered. Teeth clenched, fists balled, eyes shut tight to blank out the awful memory, she croaked from her fetal position: 'Thanks mom, Dayama and most of all dad. I do owe you for all my misery. Hope some day I find it in my heart to forgive you. As of now, I cannot. And I will not ask your forgiveness. I do not mourn your death nor will I attend your funeral.'
She dragged herself into the bathroom, once again seeking ablution under the shower, scrubbing herself sore, to wash off the grime of that horrendous night.