Dual Awakenings by Neera Kashyap
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There was no one at the site. Roshni had taken the school group to the Maha stupa because the children had heard that one of Buddha's bones was kept there as a relic. She had let me off the hook knowing I was in no state to monitor thirty wild children, rearing to go. The three-and-a-half hour bus ride had been exhausting, the kids chattering throughout like tireless monkeys. Then, the wait for the launch which chugged in like some ancient warship thrown out of balance. Before it could touch shore, local tourists had rushed up the narrow ramp while the passengers on board still struggled to get off, as the vessel thudded level with the ramp. Our school boys followed the locals in hot pursuit, and for a moment the ramp was just a live strip of kicking, shoving humanity till a crewman jumped into the melee, physically preventing the clamberers from getting in. A second launch chugging in added to the confusion as passengers tried to figure out if that would leave sooner. A man waded through the shallows and tried to get in through the window of the second motorboat but was pushed back into the water by flailing hands. It took us ten minutes to quieten the children down after the launch took off for the lake island of Nagarjunakonda. The deep blue rippling waters helped. So did the picturesque low surrounding hills thick with vegetation. A large bamboo basket bobbed in the river's eddies like a boat without a paddle. The chugging waves from our launch threw it into a spin.

 

On the other bank, Roshni and me stopped at the reception to buy a brochure and skimmed through accounts of scores of scattered ruins – stupas, temples, monasteries, burial sites, an amphitheatre, a bathing ghat – spread over 24 sqare kilometres. My eyes fell on the dark image of a goddess sitting on a pedestal, ornamented legs firmly apart. My finger pointed to the details and we read them together silently. Roshni looked at me intently and nodded. ‘Go,’ she said and turned swiftly around with our guide to herd in our straggling school trippers, her voice raised a few decibels higher than usual to make up for my absence.

 

The ascent to the temple was through a gently contoured hill path, shady trees interspersed with gnarled cactus, dry rods yielding succulent red flowers on a hillside of dry grass and red rock. Hariti. The goddess of fertility with five hundred children. Abundant, fulfilled. Till she turned to devouring all the children of Rajagrha to eat and feed her own five hundred. The Buddha intervened, hid her favourite child. She looked everywhere for this youngest son, wild with grief, till she came to the Buddha, wild with anger. In his presence she saw how the other mothers had suffered at the loss of the children she had devoured and she repented. The Buddha gives back her child along with his teaching, her children are converted and on Buddha's assurance, fed by the monasteries. She begins to live close to the sangha, is worshipped and given alms. A devourer of alms now, not of babies.

 

The hilltop overlooks the vast sweep of the Krishna River. I enter the large open quadrangle, walk to its edge to gaze at the blue river and the fiery rocks strewn over the hills. I see a tiny figure in maroon slowly climb up the slope I have just climbed. There are stone benches but I am not tired, just breathless. In a corner is a bench with a drain running along the wall. It might have been used by pilgrims to sit and wash their feet before entering the temple. A short flight of steps leads up. The temple is surrounded by a weathered brick gallery edged with a blackish stone; it feels ancient. Fourth century CE or was it fifth? I take a deep breath before climbing. Despite the dimness within, I see two more rooms on either side of the shrine, dark caves without light. Hariti’s tall wide pedestal allows space for circumambulation.

 

Her feet are plump and quite wide apart. On each of her legs she wears two thick anklets followed by a series of thin ones covering half her legs. Her hands rest above her knees. They are badly damaged but laden with bangles. Her belly is large and rounded. The lower garment sweeps in patterned folds between her knees. I can see her navel clearly. Her entire upper body is missing. She probably wore no top clothing. Her breasts would have been large and firm, her face stern but open like her breasts. I walk around the pedestal. Her hips are large. A patterned cloth runs across her lower back, the stone forming a deep fold. I place my palms on her hips. My hands feel wide apart. I feel her fertility through the cold dark stone. Five hundred children and a good husband.

 

I breathe deeply before moving to face her. I place my hands firmly on her knees. They slide down her legs over her anklets to her feet. I crouch, head bent. I feel my exhaustion return, the sense of a crushing sorrow. Four miscarriages, spontaneous abortions they called them. Dark spots turning into a rush of clumpy blood. One I scooped it out from the commode with my hand, the piece no bigger than a shrimp, curved and soft. A baby – mine? Again and again, empty sacs, no heartbeat. How is it that after no heartbeat I had still felt pregnant – with nausea, constipation, exhaustion? And you had five hundred children, killed others' children to feed them!

 

Through coursing tears I feel a torch beam shine on me, then switch off. Like me, this visitor breathes hard. I see him feel his way to the room to the right of the goddess's shrine. He is a Buddhist monk. Outside, the light feels harsh.

 

A rounded column rises from the centre of the quadrangle. The bench on which I sit has an inscription of a bow and arrow. Kamadeva's bow releasing passionate love. No surprise. Hariti, after all was the goddess of love, fertility, bloodlust. With her head and heart missing now. I wait for the monk to come down the steps. He comes unhurriedly, smoothens his maroon robes before sitting on the bench next to mine.

 

We sit quiet. He examines an inscription on his bench with deep interest, tracing it with his forefinger.

 

‘Why do you think Hariti took to killing other peoples' children?’ I ask abruptly. ‘With all those children and a happy marriage, she was already being worshipped as a goddess.’ Blurting out my thoughts this way feels unfamiliar, as if it is someone else's implosion.

 

He did not answer at once. He finished tracing the inscription as if recognising something, then turned to gaze at the river. His face was weathered and deeply lined, his head a grizzled grey. He turned fully towards me before speaking, his eyes shining, saying that he believed that there were two sides to Hariti, a fertile happy side and a side which rages.

 

‘But why kill the children?’

 

‘Killing children is a symbol, a symbol of helping mothers bear their most grievous losses. By praying to her or by offering her gifts and sacrifices, women offer her their losses and hurts, the causes of which most don't understand.’

 

This was bewildering. ‘But wasn't Hariti carrying out her own curse from her previous life? She was pregnant, the wife of a cowherd. Those five hundred rich drunk men forced her to dance at a festival till she fell and miscarried,’ I exclaimed.

 

‘So she let loose a curse that in her next birth she would take revenge and eat all the children of Rajagrha? There is another version that says there was lust that drove her to seduce those men. Who is to say? What does it matter? Lust, fear, revenge – they all have to be faced by us before we can let them go. The Buddha helped Hariti by teaching her awareness. She became aware, controlled, felt health and happiness in herself, so could help others as a goddess.'

 

I could hear voices make their way up the hill. 'Just like that?’

 

‘Yes,' he smiled. ‘Just like that.’

 

Why do you think I am losing my children, I felt desperate to ask. But his animated face was impassive and turned towards the river.

 

A shrill childish voice echoed from a distance: ‘Hey Praful this place is a stadium with heavy acoustics, man! Praful,’ came the shout. ‘Praful … Pra ... ful … full ... full … full...' the quadrangle echoed back. I thought echoes occurred in enclosed spaces, not empty. Maybe it’s these hills or the river that calls back. A family of four walked into the heart of the quadrangle. The monk prepared to leave. Our eyes met, mine pleaded. He swung his maroon bag over his shoulder. ‘Near Vishakhapatnam, there are rock-cut caves in Sankharam village. There the idol of Hariti is whole,’ he said and was gone.

 

It was late by the time I reached home. The apartment smelt of tandoori chicken. I had given the maid the evening off as Rohan said he would make us biryani for dinner. The television flickered in the bedroom – watching television with the lights off, his favourite mode if he could help it. I headed straight for the kitchen. The remnants of the chicken and its foil wrappings jutted out of the garbage can. I checked the fridge for the biryani. There was none. I sat on the stool to gather the hurt in the pit of my stomach.

 

‘Hi Anj ... you back, how was the trip?’ came his cheery voice.

 

‘Where is the biryani?’ I asked.

 

'Oh ... I thought you said you'd be late and would eat on the bus. Did I get it wrong, honey? Sorry. I'll put something together.’ He opened the fridge. ‘Grilled sandwich. Cheese, capsicum and tomato. Give me ten minutes. Just ten.’

 

My exhaustion entered my heart, stayed there. The shower didn't help, nor did the grilled sandwich. When Rohan asked about the trip, I slipped a little stone image of Hariti into his hands – full torso, full breasts, fully jewelled, seated on her pedestal, legs wide apart. I had showed the image to our guide after buying it. He said it was a replica from a shrine in Kausambi where she had been whole, housed now in the Allahabad museum. I tried to tell all this to Rohan but the room was dark and full of his cigarette smoke with the television still on. He clambered on me with his terrible need, like a child's, insistent, chaotic, burrowing in, burrowing interminably like a mole needing to nest, to eat. I didn't need this. I needed to mourn. I needed to mourn.

 

He had mourned too, rushed me to the emergency room on two occasions. We had made decisions together, twice to take medicines to clear out the blood, twice to go in for surgery to clean out the stuck tissues. He had been with me for every scan, every scan without a heartbeat. He had held me and cried with me. Why then was the exhaustion only mine?

 

Even before I woke the next day, Rohan was dressed, smart and dapper. He was travelling into the interior towns to meet his regional sales team – to motivate them, plan targets, meet targets, get promoted, and stay ahead. He watched me wake up in the mirror as he applied serum to his hair, grinned at me in the glass. ‘And you are supposed to be the schoolteacher, rising early for both of us. Can you please make us some tea now?’ The room still smelt of smoke. I gave him tea and toast, then shuffled off to shower.

 

During recess at school, Roshni and I tried to talk over the din of the staff room. She looked her usual self, plump and relaxed, her greying hair gathered for the day in a neat topknot. ‘Anju, what can a whole image do for you that a broken image cannot?’ she asked in her no-nonsense tone. ‘Why do you want to go to some village to see the whole image of this goddess?’

 

When I hesitated, she asked if I wanted to pray or do some ritual or something or if the monk had given me some mantra to chant. ‘I wish he had’, I said, 'but he gave me nothing except a lot of wisdom that I couldn’t really understand'. ‘Then why go to Vishakhapatnam’, she asked. ‘Its more than 600 kilometres away and it’s not as if the monk told you to go’. Would I take Rohan with me, she asked? No, no, no, I said, Rohan won’t go there, no.

 

Roshni softened. ‘My grandmother is from a village which is really part of Vishakhapatnam. She worships a goddess called Erukamma. Ammamma once told me the story of this goddess. She was an ordinary woman like us. One day she was caught stealing children in the village and eating them up in a secret place on the outskirts. A man from the Erukala caste of basket weavers chanced upon this sight. He cut off her head, so she got the name from his caste, Erukamma. After she died, people became afraid that she would take revenge and generally spread death and disease around. So they began to worship her as a goddess in this small busy temple of Dondaparty, so she would protect them, not kill them off. You know Anju, she is worshipped headless, her head lies chopped off on the ground! And my old Ammamma often goes there alone, to offer her fruits and coconuts, saris and blouse pieces each marked faithfully with turmeric and vermilion! They say Erukamma is vegetarian but Ammamma has heard she accepts animal sacrifices on special occasions!’ Roshni paused at the edge of her chair. ‘If you go to this Buddhist place, I could arrange for you to spend the night with my grandparents.’ The bell rang to announce the end of recess. I thanked her, my eyes blinking back tears.

 

I chose to go when Rohan was travelling, spending two nights on the train and one day at the site – nobody would know, nobody would ask. Rohan never called from work unless I messaged an emergency.

 

Vishakhapatnam smelt of the sea though I couldn’t see it from the railway station. Roshni had said it was cobalt blue in colour. A number of cab drivers surrounded me just outside the station. I knew I would have to pay a round fare plus waiting charges for the day. From the sweaty persistent group I chose a middle-aged man with a protective sort of look who didn’t haggle. The route to Bojjannakonda turned out to be on a national highway – a fast inland route that brought me within an hour to a remote area full of green fields and hills that rolled into the distance. No river.

 

My cab driver, Bhasavan kept the few persistent guides at bay and sat down on a red rock as if to keep guard. From below, I could see the semi-circular niches under which images of broad-shouldered Buddhas sat in meditation, surrounded by figures that didn’t appear to meditate but stand around or emerge from the rock’s depths in attendance. Steep steps rose to these figures carved near hilltops, railings provided for support. Here Hariti’s temple was at the foot of the hill, not at the top.

 

She is whole, nearly life-sized. She sits on a lotus throne, her right leg coming down at an angle, heel raised, her left leg folded beneath her. Her lower garment appears in folds along her legs, drapes falling straight down to her foot and in semi-circles. The garment is tied with thick knots at her waist. Knots in stone. Her upper torso is naked, her breasts large and round, the right slightly damaged. A sacred thread runs between her breasts, joins her waistband. Her right hand is raised, thumb and forefinger joined. In her left she holds her baby. I look closely at the baby – it holds a fruit, a pomegranate in its left hand. Hariti is heavily jewelled – heavy necklace, heavy earrings touching her shoulders, heavy bangles and the anklet that is visible. She wears a tall crown. Her face is slightly damaged, her eyes closed. I stare at the stone circlet behind her crown. It depicts five children, probably representing her own five hundred. They are in different postures. The one in her hand would probably have been her favourite son. The pomegranate? Seeds of fertility, what else? I touch it first, then her undamaged breast. Her face is serene, despite the damage. She seems to see from behind her closed eyelids. There are two goddesses on either side of her shoulders holding fly whisks. I look at her five children again, they frame her face and crown in fluid continuity.

 

I don’t know how long I spent inside the temple or wandering about the caves and the monasteries, the stupas and the prayer halls. I notice wells cut out from rocks that stored water sixteen hundred years ago. I realise I have not had food nor water all day and that I am not exhausted. Bhasavan rises from the rock as he sees me come down the steps. I ask him if there is time for me to see the sea before my train leaves. He nods.

 

On my request Bhasavan drives me to the quietest beach of Vishakhapatnam. Sitting on the sand, watching the tide, it comes to me. Hariti’s five children framing her face flash in my vision. Rohan was the eldest of five children. His father died when he was ten. He had had to play father to his siblings, two brothers and two sisters. He had to shoulder every responsibility his mother gave him, willing or unwilling. He had to do well in studies, he had to cook in her absence, he had to pass a tough competitive exam, he had to teach his siblings so they did the same for various careers, he had to manage his mother’s finances. He had to get a good job. After he did all this, he steered clear of his family – all of them. My breathing feels rapid but deep.

 

He didn’t want children, didn’t want them at all. Didn’t want the responsibility. He only appeared to. But didn’t I want them more than he didn’t want them? Perhaps I did, but it didn’t work because I ended up playing mother to him – catering to his every need, his every whim, his every desire, as all he seemed to want of me was to be a child again.

 

A lost childhood. A lost motherhood. I look at my watch and struggle to rise. An anxious Bhasavan is striding towards me.

 

It is only then that I notice that the sea is a cobalt blue.

 

*


Neera Kashyap has worked as a newspaper journalist, researcher and editor on environment and health, and as a social and health communications specialist. She has published a book for young adults with Rupa & Co titled Daring to Dream,2003. Her stories for children have been included in five prize-winning anthologies published by Children’s Book Trust. As a literary writer of creative essays, poems and short fiction, her work has appeared in various online and print literary journals including Out of Print, Out of Print blog, Earthen Lamp Journal, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Papercuts and is forthcoming in Indian Literature. She lives in Delhi.