Giridhar’s mind was a tug of war of emotions as he walked down the old beaten path. It was his turn this week to shop for vegetables and rice. Guruji was not happy this morning. He had flown into a rage and slapped one of the new pupils for serving food slightly cold. The sound of the slap still kept ringing in Giri’s ears.
Giridhar tried to think of the last week. His father had visited the Ashram. Guruji had told his father that Giridhar showed a lot of promise. He was respectful and asked very pertinent questions during the discourse sessions. With this kind of perseverance he would go far. A smile manifested itself on Giri’s face. Then again, should he be happy? Had the not the Upanishads preached, “Indifference in victory, indifference in defeat”?
He passed by Shilpa’s house. Shilpa was a bride of God. While her soul belonged to the Divine Lord, her body belonged to any man who had the means to pay for it. During each of his visits to the village market, Giri got the impression that everyone was obsessed with Shilpa, her lovers and her sensuous beauty. He had had glimpses of her whenever he passed her house. He had seen her move with the majesty of a peacock and observed her soft delicate features.
This time he did not see Shilpa. A carriage stopped by Shilpa’s house and out stepped a well-dressed young man.
“That’s the fiend, Mohan,” a passerby said.
Giridhar had heard so much about Mohan. Mohan was the spoilt son of the Zamindar. He had heard the villagers’ gossip about Mohan’s infamous reputation. Mohan was wasting away his family’s fortunes on gambling and women. He had his father’s backing and used it to his advantage. His carriage often sped through the village streets causing damage to the villagers and their property. His father had bailed him out of any mess that he, Mohan got into.
Giridhar proceeded to the village market. This time the villagers were talking about Neela, Shilpa’s young daughter. She had her mother’s good looks. Shilpa had guarded Neela from the lustful eyes of the men who came to visit her. Why would she do that? What other options did the daughter of a Devdasi have? Why was Shilpa fighting a lost cause trying to prevent her daughter from joining her line of trade? There were rumors that a childless family in Shilpa’s neighborhood wanted to adopt Neela.
Giridhar bought all that he needed. The villagers seemed more preoccupied with their gossip that shopping took longer than usual. After his shopping was done, Giridhar loaded his booty on his back and commenced his long journey home. The return trip was always harder, with the weight of his bags, bearing down on his thin back.
He was nearing Shilpa’s house. This time a crowd was gathering on that street. He recognized two law officials by their red turbans. They dismounted their horses and entered Shilpa’s house. Unable to control his curiosity, Giridhar asked one of the passersby what had happened here.
So much had happened while Giridhar was at the market. Mohan had got a glimpse of Neela during one of earlier visits to Shipa’s house. Overflowing with lust Mohan fantasized about her ever since. Mohan’s well-paid spy, a ten-year-old street urchin, had followed Shilpa for a few weeks. He had given Mohan an accurate report of her daily routine.
On this day, at this time, Shilpa would be going to visit one of her most valuable clients. While visiting men was not a common practice among Devdasis, exceptions could be made for the right price.
Mohan entered Shilpa’s house in the guise of meeting her at this time but all along he had set his mind on seducing the young and innocent Neela. He did foresee Shilpa returning earlier than usual that day.
When Shilpa entered her house, she was shocked to find the front door open. She then saw Mohan’s fancy umbrella resting against the wall. Then she heard her daughter’s shriek of agony.
After this everything seemed to happen in a fleeting instant. Shipa rushed to the kitchen and seized a large knife. She ran to the source of the noise. She spotted the vile creature in the bedroom. It had pinned her daughter on the floor. Neela was half naked crying out helplessly. Fate had planned Shipa’s return at the right time. Shilpa’s arm flew up and came down in a flash, the knife puncturing Mohan’s back and proceeding into his flesh. She raised the knife up and brought it down equally forcefully several times. The room reverberated with Mohan’s screams and Neela’s voice frantically begging her mother to stop.
The terrorized neighbors ran out of the street, spreading the news that blood-curdling screams were heard from Shipa’s house. The news spread like wildfire, until it reached the long arm of the law.
Giridhar then saw the two men drag Shilpa out of the house and onto the streets. He was amazed to see her shake off their strong hands that bound her and walked unaided as the men escorted her on the street. Then he looked at her face. He saw the impossible.
Shilpa looked so surreal. Her face was serene and pure. The serenity was infectious. Neela was crying out to her mother. Shilpa glanced once in her direction. Neela no longer cried. A transformation came over Neela’s face. Neela no longer looked like a child. She looked like a saint. She looked like her mother.
Shilpa looked like a Goddess. With short, dignified footsteps she walked away from the scene. She was walking into the harsh destiny that awaited her. She was a portrait of calmness.
As Shipa disappeared from view, the memory of her peaceful face from just moments before came back to Giridhar. He silently prayed for her. Then another image came to him. It was the picture of Guruji lashing out at the young boy earlier that day. Shipa’s face reappeared, spreading a feeling of peace inside him, drowning his discomfort.
Soon Giridhar saw the lifeless body of Mohan being carried out of Shilpa’s house. He saw the relieved expressions on the faces of some of the people in the crowd. Superstition had it that the sight of a dead body marked a new chapter in an observer’s life. A loud thud was heard as Giridhar dropped the bags he was carrying.