Roshni lay awake listening to the whispering voices coming from the balcony. She heard very little, yet what she heard was enough to freeze her being. Shock, disbelief, panic gripped her from head to toe.
“My God!” she cried and quickly covered her head with the blanket, as her teeth chattered with fear. The voices continued in conspiring tones. Roshni heard with a beating heart and a pounding head. “Did you make sure she is asleep?” asked a rasping female voice, a voice she could recognize anywhere in the world – belonging to her mother-in-law, Surpana.
“Yes,” came the reply. It was her husband Arvind. “When I left her, she was fast asleep. It was 11 pm at that time and now it’s close to 1 am. I checked again five minutes ago and she was still asleep. Don’t worry, she sleeps like a drugged dog.”
Roshni shivered as she felt the contempt in her husband’s voice. Mentally, she thanked the buzzing mosquito, whose incessant humming had woken her up.
“God helps in strange ways,” she thought, and this gave her the strength to listen. The plot was being made, and she was the victim. The means were being debated.
Kerosene was messy, an accident would implicate them. Finally, it was decided. Chloroform and strangulation, and a quick cremation that would take care of any autopsy required in case of official inquiries. Not that they would have anything to worry about. Her mom was too poor and helpless to fight this well-entrenched family.
She shuddered. The voices slowly became inaudible and abruptly ceased. Her husband came back to sleep. All was quiet.
Roshni lay very still, afraid to move, afraid to make even the slightest noise, until she heard the steady breathing of her husband. She took a deep breath and thought desperately, “I must save myself.” Slowly, desperation turned to quiet anger. “Is it a crime that I helped my brother? Is it a crime that I restored my husband from sickness to health? Why am I being punished?” she kept asking again and again throughout the grim night. Soon the answers would come back, “because they can get away with it, because her family was too poor to fight them, and because she had no place to run away to.” And as the questions poured out of her restless heart, she thought about the circumstances of her marriage and the winding path of her life that had brought her to this black night of anguish.
It all started with her father’s death. Her brother was in college and her sister in school. Her mother got a job and tried to make a life for them with her meager earnings, when suddenly out of the blue there came an offer of marriage for her from a well-to-do family. Roshni wanted to get a job and help the family, but her mother would not listen. She exhausted all her savings to get her married.
“That was a mistake,” thought Roshni. “When a poor girl marries a rich guy, you do not get love – you end up getting a master. Life,” she thought wryly, “is not Bollywood. The rich bride rules whereas the poor one slaves.” When she told this to her mother, she only replied, “It is destiny, beti. Goddess Lakshmi herself is knocking at your door. Besides, they are such a nice family. They are so polite and understanding. You won’t have anything to worry about. Maybe, you can even help your sister to get married. Think about it. Think how much it will help all of us.”
Roshni did not have a heart to refuse her mother. After a long time she saw her hopeful and happy. She didn’t want to take it away from her. “Maybe, it will work out,” she thought and consoled herself.
Two days after her marriage, the sweet talking, genial mother-in-law asked her to part with her jewels and valuables. She locked them up in her bedroom cupboard and forbade Roshni to even look at them. That same day, Roshni’s status changed from wife to maid. When she resented it and resisted, she was sent back home. There she saw her mother’s helplessness and unwillingly retraced her steps. “I knew you would crawl back here. Now get to work,” said Suparna as she pushed a pile of laundry towards her.
Seething inside but calm outside, she continued her docile existence. Eight months passed – eight months of cooking, cleaning, washing and backbreaking labor. Eight months of swallowing insults, enduring physical and verbal abuse and lonely days and nights. She wanted to run away, but that would affect her sister’s chances of getting married. So she stayed and endured and endured. And when she found that it was getting intolerable, an incredible thing happened.
Bhiku, the rebel monk, sent word to her that her brother, Suresh, wanted to meet her. Bhiku was known to almost everyone in the neighborhood as he was good in astrology, palm reading and had an uncanny ability to foretell events. The “rebel” epithet struck to him because at one time, he gave evidence against a ruthless extortionist who was robbing the vegetable and fruit vendors in his backyard, and also because as a monk he chose not to live in a monastery. Instead he chose a run-down garage as his “ashram” where many people stayed on or off under his tutelage. Bhiku served them food, medicines and most of all he gave them encouragement to begin life afresh. His wisdom gleaned from the school of hard knocks re-launched the lives of many people. Using his income from his abilities, he set about to fulfill the path set by himself - service to mankind is service to God.”
When Roshni heard about her brother from Bhiku, she felt happy. Some warmth crept into her life. After making sure that her mother-in-law was having her afternoon nap, she cautiously stepped out through the back door and ran through 200 yards of back lanes to reach Bhiku’s self-styled “ashram.”
Suresh looked happy at first to see her. But soon his face appeared lined with anxiety. Without mincing matters he came to the heart of the matter that he desperately needed money - 20,000 Rs. to pay his fees for the final exams in the College. She didn’t know what to do. She herself was penniless. “Please help me didi,” he pleaded. “I will repay every paisa of it. We are living hand to mouth. There was no option but to come to you for help.”
Roshni wrung her hands in frustration. What could she do? How could she help? She looked around like a hunted animal. Then, as she looked at Bhiku she had an idea, the idea of disguise.
“Come to my house dressed like a hermit. Today, being a Friday, my mother-in-law goes to the temple in the evening. Watch the window near the kitchen at the back of the house. If the curtains are opened, then come in, otherwise hide somewhere close by and I will seek you out. You can come in by the back door and you will gag me, tie me up, and take out the box which has my jewels. They are my jewels and that’s all I have, and it should be enough for your fees. Make sure you bring some tools,” she said. He hesitated. She saw his anguish and despair. He saw hers. They were brought up to be upright and hold their heads high. And here she was a virtual slave trying to make her brother a thief to reclaim what was rightfully theirs.
It took a lot of persuasion on her part to convince her brother. Finally, he agreed. Roshni rushed home and was relieved to see her mother-in-law fast asleep and also snoring. She made some tea and snacks and packed a portion of it for her brother. The cooking and the movement in the kitchen woke up her mother-in-law. “Here’s some tea and pakoras, mummyjee,” said Roshni as she set it on the table. “Oh my God, I’m getting late for the temple,” exclaimed Surpana. “Why didn’t you wake me up, you stupid girl? You’re just good for nothing. Don’t just stand there. Get the rickshaw while I get ready.” As Roshni went to hail a rickshaw, she kept her fingers crossed hoping that her plan works.
Finally, she managed to put Surpana on the rickshaw and waited for it to get out of sight. She ducked to the kitchen and opened the curtains and waited. After a few minutes, there was a knock and her brother entered disguised as a holy man with ashes on his forehead. In spite of the tense situation, Roshni couldn’t help laughing. “Shhh,” warned Suresh, “look out for anyone coming.” Roshni showed him the almirah and Suresh went to work while Roshni went back and forth to make sure no one was coming. After about 5 minutes, Suresh pried open the lock, and recognized the box which was in his mother’s possession for a long time. He then did the unpleasant job of tying up his sister and sealing her mouth with tape. Then he took the jewels.
“Are you going to be OK, didi?” Suresh asked apprehensively. “Yes,” Roshni replied. “Hurry now, go.” Suresh rubbed his moist eyes and bent down and planted a small kiss on her forehead. With a parting look filled with sadness, he left, promising to help his sister soon.
Her mother-in-law returned from the temple, saw Roshni gagged and taped and the jewels gone. In a fit of rage, she pushed the tape down her throat almost choking her. With great difficulty, Roshni managed to free one hand and push a pail of soapy water towards her mother-in-law. Surpana fell down cursing and screaming with pain. Arvind and his father, just returning from work, rushed to her aid. With grim eyes and set teeth, Roshni waited for her doom. She expected beatings, verbal taunts and abuses, and therefore was shocked at her new punishment – one month’s time in which she had to persuade her mother to buy an identical set of jewels or she could forget that she had a husband named Arvind.
“I hope you are gone before I am back from an important political meeting,” her husband said with disgust written all over his face. She nodded meekly and started packing her bags, her face lined with worry. Anxiety surrounded her with painful questions. What would her mother say? How would her brother react? How would they manage society’s incessant glare?
It was dark when she started to go to the station. She was about to leave, when she suddenly heard loud voices in the distance. The noise and the shouting increased as the crowd came near the house. They were carrying somebody and as they came nearer, she had a weird feeling that it was Arvind. And she was right. He had been beaten up.
Someone told her that Arvind had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and the assailant had mistaken him for another unpopular political party worker. Her mother-in-law swooned, and Roshni did not know what to do. She retraced her steps unwillingly and tried to revive her mother-in-law, while instructing some men to take her husband to his room and to fetch a doctor. She spent the whole night attending her husband and administering the pain killers and other medicines the doctor had prescribed. The whole night her mother-in-law cursed her for bringing bad luck. Needless to say, her trip to her mother’s house got postponed.
For two weeks, Roshni diligently took care of Arvind. From a bandaged, bleeding, partially crippled man, she nursed him until he was whole and normal again. Within one week after Arvind became normal, Roshni heard those whispering voices.
“How ironic,” she thought. “Restoring his life has earned me a death sentence.” She looked around their room. “Six more days to live,” she pondered. As the idea of death took hold of her, she had an overwhelming desire to fight back and survive. Like a trapped bird, she looked for an opening to go free. Her thoughts circled her, desperate to find a way out. Suddenly she decided. She must plan to escape.
Surprisingly, her mother in law was very nice to her the following day. She even asked her to come to the temple with her. “Maybe she is playing to the gallery. Public opinion does matter,” thought Roshni bitterly. And then the thought crossed her mind.
“Yes, mother,” she replied meekly, “I will go with you.”
As the well-dressed ladies were on their way to the temple, a procession blocked their way. They took a detour. The traffic was heavy. Suddenly, a heavy truck loaded with furniture hit a parked car shattering chunks of glass everywhere. One such large piece of glass hit her mother-in-law and she lost her balance and fell down on the hard ground.
Roshni panicked and would have made her escape, but the crowd closed in on them and a police van stopped. There would be inquiries and she couldn’t run from the police. She postponed her plan to escape, called a rickshaw and took her mother in law to the hospital. Surpana was in the emergency room for over 15 hours after which she was discharged and came home. Her husband and son embraced her and welcomed her with joy. Only Roshni stayed back, hesitant, timid, not wanting to attract unnecessary criticism and ridicule.
“Roshni beti, come and sit beside me,” said her mother-in-law in an affectionate tone. Roshni stood rooted to the spot, shocked and stunned. She even looked behind her to see if she is calling someone else. “Come, dear, don’t be scared. “ Still hesitant, Roshni moved slowly looking intensely at her mother-in-law. There was no trace of the old malice and hatred in Surpana’s face. Her face looked tranquil, serene, calm and full of love and concern. Arvind and his father were all shook up with expressions that seemed to say, “Has she gone mad?”
Yes, Surpana looked, thought and acted very different. She spoke of strange things, of strange worlds and strange visions. It seemed as though she had gone through the jaws of death and reclaimed another spirit for her body. The new Suparna laughed a lot, was never angry, asked the servants about their families, shared their problems, fed the birds, worshipped nature, admired the roses and spread cheer and happiness all around. She also did not show any inclination to perform too many pujas and rituals. Quite a change from the old Suparna, whose life was full of puja, religion and rituals.
Suparna was a changed woman and the most marked change was the way she treated Roshni. “Handle her like a tender flower. Not one tear should fall from her eyes, nor her heart should know any sorrow. Our daughter-in-law must be treated with respect and dignity,” she would often tell her family. And since her word was law, it followed that Arvind and his father were good to Roshni.
But Roshni was still puzzled and wary. The dramatic U-turn stunned and froze her. She could not easily forget her old life full of dread, and was still afraid to face her mother in law in spite of her kindness. “Hope this strange new behavior does not go away anytime soon,” she thought, hoping that all this was not a dream. “Yet what a difference it makes,” she observed, “this just goes to prove that a woman is another woman’s worst enemy.”
For a time, Roshni stood lost in thought. She wondered at the strange world outside of Time that subdued the dragon-like Suparna. Bhiku had at one time mentioned how Time does not exist in the spirit realm, it’s all consciousness at different levels. Suddenly, she thought of Bhiku. Yes, Bhiku who lived his life somewhere between this world and the other, was the right person. He could shed
some light about the wondrous new world and its inscrutable mysteries.
“Bhiku could talk to anyone,” she thought “besides he has a simple way of explaining profound truths. At one time he said “Maya, or illusion, is similar to following a relative truth. For example – a two year old child would prefer a balloon to possessing a million dollars whereas an adult would choose a million dollars.” Both of them have their version of reality limited by passage of Time. “This is essentially the theory of relativity,” he had said. “Yes,” she decided, “I must talk to Bhiku. Maybe he can tell what happened to Suparna, and most importantly if the change was permanent, only then I can truly relax,” she said to herself.
As if in response to her wish, Bhiku arrived to tell her that her brother had passed his engineering. It was then that Roshni asked Bhiku to talk to Suparna. “Find out if she has really changed or is it another ploy to get rid of me,” she whispered.
Bhiku took his time. He had an instinct for such things. “Timing is all important,” said Bhiku, “you have to wait for the right time. Wait patiently and the words will pour out from the heart that has been to the twilight zone beyond Time and Space.”
Bhiku showed up after a week. Roshni followed him to hear her mother-in-law speak.
“What can I say, Bhiku,” said Suparna. “How can I explain what happened to me in those 60 seconds when the doctors pronounced me dead. All the clinical signs of my life had vanished. I wanted to say, no I am not dead, but no one heard me. Suddenly, I felt myself rising to a great white light, a blinding light that exuded love, happiness and immense peace. It was pure bliss. I basked in the all-embracing love. But it did not last long. The light suddenly vanished followed by dark storms full of evil shadows. I felt a cold chill and a fear that is hard to describe, a stark fear that oozed through every pore of my being, making me shiver like a reed in the wind. I trembled as the unshakeable awareness of death tunneled me down into a black hole. I felt like I was being swallowed by the inky darkness of night. Panic stricken, I asked in a voice quaking with fear “What have I done? Why am I going through this torture?”
Beyond the surrounding blackness, I caught a glimpse of the fast vanishing light. I prayed for it to come and to my eternal surprise, the light was right beside me.
“Why did you abandon me to such evil shadows,” I asked the white light.
“Because your heart has become evil,” replied the light.
“But how can I be evil? I have always prayed, fasted, donated to charity, performed exacting rituals, visited religious places, and have lived a life full of faith. How can you call me evil?”
“Yes, you did all that, and the world may even call you the epitome of piety. But the great unknown cannot be fooled. It can sense the spirit behind your work. All that puja, religion, and piety cannot wipe out the crime of greed, the greed that made you stoop to the vilest of deeds, of killing another human being, your own daughter-in-law, and you dare to cloak the darkness in your heart with a sanctimonious piety! Shame on you.”
I shuddered. The evil shadows were closing in. I prayed again to the kind light. “Help me, please help me, I am very sorry, please give me a chance, please” I pleaded.
There was an ominous silence. I felt like it was the silence of the grave. After what seemed to me like an eternity, a booming voice spoke to me in stern tones, “You will get one chance, a chance that has been denied to many others, only because you prayed sincerely. The great unknown rewards sincerity, knows how to punish and knows how to forgive. Go back and make amends. Remember, do not try to fool the world anymore. Whatever you do will echo beyond this world and many more.”
Soon, I heard voices. The doctors seemed amazed that I was alive.
I felt that I had come back from the jaws of death but touched by the gentle wisdom of the Great Beyond which replaced the greed in my heart. Once the blinding greed was destroyed, I could see clearly. Money cannot buy me the bliss that I experienced briefly. And I yearn for that bliss and will do whatever I can to get it. Therefore, I am here to make amends to Roshni and to help other deluded souls in the grip of power and greed who make life intolerable for those around them. I have a lot to do and may the guiding wisdom from the radiant zone never leave me.”
Bhiku and Roshni looked at each other. Bhiku who was unconventional said “that is exactly my view. I never let myself forget that all our actions finds its echo in eternity, one way or another. No one who has sensed the twilight zone can ever be the same.”
“But Bhiku, how do you know all this?” asked Surpana.
“Because I have been there – I mean to a timeless zone where relativity vanishes,” said Bhiku. It’s a long story. But to make it short I will say it all started with an astonishing sight. I was a student studying Physics. It was the last year of my MS degree. One day I was pondering a problem in quantum Chemistry when I was jerked to consciousness by the ground under my feet heaving and shaking due to several wild animals running loose. Suddenly, a ragged looking man emerged seemingly from nowhere, held up his hand and the bunch of wild animals stopped in their tracks. The man slowly turned his head, fixed his eyes on me, walked a few steps and vanished. I stood like I saw a ghost and with the shock soon lost consciousness. After sometime I woke up but I could never forget those eyes that seemed to invite me to follow him. Since then I could not stop thinking about the mystery of the man from an ethereal dimension about whom I could not figure out. I started reading books after books, driven by an insatiable urge to find answers, until I came to reading a very unique book called “The Tao of Physics,” written by an Austrian born Physicist, Fritjof Capra.
Everything made sense after I read that book. It connected profound unshakeable truths from ancient mystics of the East and the theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. I felt proud of my country which had found such deep truths thousands of years ago. I also felt ashamed that it has sunk down to such depths. During the process of introspection, I also gleaned some wisdom from the Timeless world beyond all of us and marveled in the flights of peerless minds into dimensions far beyond the borders of human consciousness.”
Bhiku paused for a bit wondering if anyone really followed him. After some thought, he continued, “Since then, I’m living with the hope that one day, I will be able to translate the spirit of “Tao of Physics”- which is to celebrate the Scientific and metaphysical aspects of Hinduism while also helping the needy and the neglected.”
Bhiku lingered for a while after revealing his life’s mission. He felt his message was lost except for the last part regarding the needy and the neglected. He started to say something, but Suparna nodded and suddenly broke the pin drop silence, “Somehow, I feel I can understand and have a sense of what you are saying. It’s sort of like you are groping in a dark room trying to figure out what the different pieces of furniture are when suddenly a switch is turned on and you can not only see the objects but can see their positions in relation to one another.”
“Yes,” said Bhiku, happy to get a response, “The same multi storied building which looks so huge on earth, looks like an ant when you view it from a plane. It’s the same eyes, but the truth that it sees is relative to your position in space. In other words what you see with your senses is only a relative truth. To get to the absolute truth you have to transcend Time and Space. In popular terms it means you transcend the relative truth or Maya.”
Suparna overwhelmed by Bhiku’s thoughts and knowledge apologized for her past behavior. “It is so sad that like many people I judged you just by the way you look. In my arrogance I even treated you as a beggar. Now I know, you are following your inner soul that has linked to another dimension yet have remained here and tried to make the world a better place one deed at a time.”
And as they kept conversing, Roshni heaved a huge sigh of relief and mentally thanked the leading light, which had dispelled the haunting darkness in her life.