A Lamp Facing East: A story by Veena Narayan

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A Lamp Facing East: A story by Veena Narayan

"I am a yakshi, not your common vulgar blood sucking vampire but a yakshi."

I have lived on this spreading banyan tree for three hundred and forty eight years now and watched the world go by along this road. Now the road is a glistening black tear mark on the landscape. When I first came to live here it was a mere dusty path along which men and bullocks trudged slowly by. The only tell-tale sign of my existence are the oil blackened blocks of granite beneath the main trunk of the tree on which there are broken remnants of clay lamps. Otherwise, I have been forgotten. Not completely though. People have these waves of forgetfulness and sometimes a decade goes by without any mention of me. And then someone brings back the fragile thread of the long forgotten tale and I’m back. People then look up with apprehension at the thickly spreading branches and the gnarled aerial roots and the shards of clay that lie in mute testimony of my presence. Then the tales of my exploits begin to be told again and again gaining in colour and minute detail until they exhaust themselves and peter out; only to be revived by a tired old voice on a lazy afternoon.

I am a yakshi, not your common vulgar blood sucking vampire but a yakshi. Skilled in the sixty four different arts including the art of seduction, many of my kind have gained a place in the pantheon of goddesses. They enjoy places of pride in great temples as minor goddesses worshipped on the outskirts away from the main deities. But my lot has been different. In spite of close to three and a half centuries of being not a single lamp has been lit under my tree in sincere adoration. And so I have remained condemned to this realm of existence which I once exulted in but which is now desolate and lonely.

There was a time when I enjoyed my powers and was proud and confident about my invincibility. Like any other creature of destiny, I’ve involved myself in the lives of mere mortals and paid the price. But for the past few decades, I’ve held myself away, in the hope of an end, a passing on. The story of my becoming is common̶ – common as the dirt beneath your feet, common as the crows that caw day and night from the branches of my tree. Killed by my husband because I chose to protest when his lustful eyes were turned on a wisp of a girl, all of sixteen, I could have turned the other way. I could have let history repeat itself as it has done tirelessly over the years in the case of women like me born into the bonds of aristocratic morality. I was the wife and custom forbade him from marrying any other while I lived. She would only be a mistress, they told me, the old women of his house who had lived through countless such episodes and worse. But I protested. It was as though I was drunk. Drunk with what I believed was the power of the right. I was right and I should be heeded. That was how the world worked. How wrong I was! On looking back after all these years, wasn’t I drunk too with pride? A pride that comes from faith in the basic goodness of human nature. I often wonder.

Rendered powerless by a blow from the coconut scraper on my head, I was still conscious as he and his cronies tied the grinding stone to my feet and threw me into the family pond. It was his ordinary everyday voice that maddened me with the desire for revenge. Three hundred and forty eight years later I can still hear it within me, his calm ordinary everyday voice instructing his men to tie the stone with a strip torn from my own garment to make it seem like suicide. As though any one would ever presume to question him about the manner of his wife’s death! No one would have dared. But he was afraid of the Learned Council. I was surprised that he was. As I sank into the water and the wetness crept into my bones I remember this fierce desire to get back at him. It was this fierce overpowering desire for revenge that made me what I am today.

I remember my joy, my exhilaration when I found myself standing behind him as he performed my last rites wet with the water of the very pond where he had thrown me. I raised a wind so fierce that it blew the funeral torch and doused the flames that had already started feeding on the feet. It sent him and all the mourners scampering for safety into the vast interiors of the house. Only, they did not know that it was not safe, had never been. My body lay there on the funeral pyre and rotted. I would not allow them to cremate it. Not that they did not try. They brought the most powerful exorcists of the land. The theatrics continued for some time, the chanting of strange mantras, the huge complex drawings with rice flour and turmeric, the hysterics, the wringing of the necks of fowls, the waving of neem twigs, the hammering of nails into wooden figurines. But the priests knew as well as I that they were powerless.

The rumours spread through all the villages of the Blue Hills. That the big lord had had his wife killed and that she had turned into a yakshi so fierce, that she did not allow her body to be cremated, that she was so powerful that the wind and the rain and the very god of fire obeyed her, that the chief exorcist himself had been distracted from all his exorcizing smitten by her enchanting beauty and that she was biding her time and would do her killer to death. Kill him I did. But I took my own sweet time and reduced him to a nervous wreck who jumped at every sound and died a dozen times a day. No more the calm ordinary everyday voice for him; it was now a perpetual squeak of terror. There was more pleasure in seeing the decay set in and his power and wealth erode as the house slowly emptied of its inhabitants and the vast beautiful abode done lavishly in the best teak, turn into a deserted hollow shell inhabited only by its master and his most faithful servant. The endless grounds that had stretched for acres around became a wilderness into which no one who valued his life would step forth. The pond, into which I had been thrown, turned still and green as no beautiful women of the household sat on its banks and chattered as their maids rubbed them with scented oil and washed their hair with the juice of hibiscus flowers. The coconuts from the trees dropped down when they were ripe and not even the greediest of housewives dared to venture in to pick them up and the mangoes and the jackfruit and the nutmegs ripened and fell down and decayed beneath the very trees that had mothered them. Even the birds avoided the place and flew quickly by. A heavy darkness reigned even during daytime.

And I? For the first time I drank of power and freedom. And to this day I know not which was more intoxicating. I would open my knee length hair and walk down a village path hips swaying and anklets tinkling. Not for me the demure waiting by the forest paths and the pretence of being a damsel in distress. That was how yakshis were supposed to prey on men; resort to guile and deception. That went against my grain. If men befriended me, they knew what they were in for, untold pleasures, wealth, power and certain death. And yet there were countless who came my way. They came and lit lamps that faced south under my tree. Help them I did but I made them grovel at my feet for the pleasures, the wealth, the power, the seeming invincibility and finally, for their lives. It was funny how they fooled themselves into believing that they could trick me and escape. Defeat me with such puerile devices like an iron stylus or a holy book. Their stupidity was appalling. And so was their ego. Every man who sought me over the centuries was just a variation of the one that killed me and so every lamp that was lit under my tree has always faced south.

But of late I had begun to tire of the endless cyclical nature of these friendships. A man lights a lamp facing south under my tree. He becomes my lover. He gains power and wealth through my help. He starts thinking of himself as invincible. He wants me to be submissive and servile. I kill him. Another man lights a lamp facing south under my tree. Was there no passing on? Was I to be eternally punished to remain in this state of being for wanting to take revenge on someone who had wronged me? Perhaps there was a hierarchy in this sphere of existence as well an equally unfair pecking order.

This thought of passing on came to dominate my mind. And at some point of time it came to me that I had to be forgotten to pave the way for me to pass on. And to enable this I kept silent. No matter how tempting the lamps lit under my tree, no matter how attractive the men, I did not break my silence. I nourished this desire to be forgotten; completely. When you learn that for the past decade and a half not a single voice in all the villages of the Blue Hills has spoken of me you will definitely admire my restraint. And I felt my powers wane as I faded from memory. It was difficult, but rewarding. But I sometimes caught myself thinking, how much longer? I gazed down at the oil blackened granite blocks at the base of the main trunk of the huge banyan tree my home and think of the countless lamps that have been lit there over the centuries. Will there not be even one facing east? Will I never be a goddess? Even a minor one, worshipped on the periphery of great temples?

I knew not why I even cared. With powers like mine I could be the main deity, the presiding one. Yet these mortals to whom beings like me are linked in many and mysterious ways would not think me worthy of it. And my yearning grew heavy within me and dragged me down like the very grinding stone that was tied to my feet all those centuries ago. It was something I couldn’t suppress; this yearning to be a goddess, to be venerated to be acknowledged for the powerful being that I was. And to add to my worries I had begun to sense that in the past few months my powers were again growing. No one in any of the villages of the Blue Hills talked of me anymore. Of that I was sure. But why was I becoming stronger?

I was in this particularly pensive mood one afternoon when I noticed a strange veiled figure walking down the village path towards the pond in front of my tree along the mud path. My pond as I call it is the only source of fresh water for the villagers and so the women have to come to it to collect some every day. Not all of them have to depend on the pond, only the poorer ones–those who had no land to dig a well in. The richer households all have their own private wells. The women come in groups, thinking that safety lies in numbers. Though I have never attacked women, they fear me more. Or maybe it is themselves they fear. But in recent years they often come alone and at odd times as I have been inactive and their fear seems to have died down.

The strange veiled figure was walking down the village path. I was sitting on my tree and had just come back from a visit to my ancestral house. I had spent just fifteen years of my life there. Yet I crave to visit it sometimes. I had grown nostalgic for my mother though she has been gone these many centuries. I remember her quiet tread along the shadowy corridors of our house her cream and gold clad image reflected in the polished black oxide floor. I remember her putting me on a makeshift swing along with my sister and how I swung higher and higher for a glimpse of the world beyond the house and grounds and how with each swing her face would grow constricted with anxiety and the maids would laugh aloud at her concern. I had gone to swing from the same tree last night and since then I’ve been in this pensive mood thinking of old times.

The road in front of my tree was deserted as it was that time of day when everyone was either asleep or trying not to sleep. Though it was evening the heat was intense and in the blazing sunshine I could make out the tiny black figure as it made its way down the road. The gait indicated that it was a very young woman. No woman would take a stroll down the road at that time of day. She walked at a leisurely pace. And why was she fully veiled? No woman in these parts wears a veil. A few wear a length of cloth draped loosely over their shoulders to cover their hair only when they see a strange man or an elderly male. So who was this fully veiled young woman? She was not of these parts as her stance was different. It spoke of a different culture and upbringing. Imagine my surprise when she stopped at my tree and went and sat on a rock by the pond. She sat so still and for so long that I began to get restless.

I assumed my old woman’s disguise and appeared with a bundle of dried twigs on my head on the road leading into the village. When I reached the pond, I threw down my bundle of twigs and sat on a stone beside her. She turned her head to me but was not inclined to talk. I observed her closely. She sat absolutely motionless gazing at the blazing blue of the pond.

I ventured in my old woman’s wheeze, “What’s the time dear?”

She turned slowly to look at me for a long moment. Then she raised the sleeve of her veil to look at her watch and I noticed a large ugly scar that spread from her wrist to her fingers.

“A quarter past five,” she replied.

The voice surprised me. It was hoarse and raspy like the voice of someone who had barely escaped being strangled. Her eyes smiled but immediately they were clouded with pain as though the very act of smiling was painful.

“Ah,” I began glad for the opening this offered and asked, “Do you belong to the East Fort Family? Don’t remember seeing you before. Though my memory is not something you can rely on,” I rambled.

There was a long pause before she answered.

“You are right. I’ve never come to this village before and I belong to the Hill Top Family. I was born and brought up in the north.”

“Aaahhh! I must have known your grandmother....” I pretended to recollect.

“You surely must have, but all of us know you very well. My mother used to tell me countless stories about you. I know you very well from her stories.” The voice from behind the veil grew sad. “My mother is no more.”

She paused again.

“And in the past few months I have been thinking about you a lot.” She stopped abruptly and the sentence hung in the air.

She must have mistaken me for some other old woman from the village. But she made me uncomfortable. There was in her a total lack of fear. But then why should she fear a harmless old woman?

I could see a few women walking towards my pond. The heat had lessened as the sun had disappeared behind the blue hills. Sunsets come suddenly to this part of the country. Above us the homing crows that inhabited my tree were creating a ruckus. The women drew nearer. They had colourful pots on their hips. They were coming to get water for the night’s cooking. She noticed them too and got up quickly. She was as eager to avoid them as I. She then wordlessly proceeded to my tree. From an inside pocket of her long black robe she took out a small earthen lamp, a cotton wick and a little bottle of oil. She set the lamp on the small pedestal at the foot of the tree and lit it. Then she turned it in such a way that the flame faced east. She turned to me.

“I know you were the Big Lord’s wife,” she said gently and then she used my given name which even I had forgotten. “You are Umabai, the Yakshi of the Blue Hills! My mother told me that if ever I was in trouble I had to just ask you and you would help. I’ve been thinking of you constantly for the past few months. Please help me.” She joined her palms in salutation turned around and hurried away. I sat high up on my tree and gazed long at the tiny lamp that faced east. No tears came because I had forgotten how to cry.

She knew who I was! In all my years of existence this was the first person who had addressed me so calmly and with so much respect and dignity. It was a total absence of fear. What did the girl want? I was used to dealing with men and their desire for power and wealth. But they were always afraid. It was their fear that made them respectful. Those who feared me not wanted nothing from me. To them I did not exist. What did this slip of a girl want? And why was she veiled?

For a long time I stayed up on my tree, not knowing what to do. If I went to her and asked her how she wanted my help, I would be breaking the rule I had made for myself. And again I would get involved in the messy affairs of these humans. And I was curious to know what she wanted. This was the first time a woman has asked for my help. The women who had come earlier had only begged me to spare the lives of their men. In the end my curiosity got the better of me. Maybe this was my way to passing on, I reasoned. There was no point in holding back. I was who I was.

The night was far gone when I changed into a cat and slipped into the compound of the Hill Top Family house. It was one of those old double storeyed tiled houses that had a central quadrangle open to the sky. I circled around cautiously and found one lighted window on the first floor and decided to check out. I sat outside on the ledge and peeped in. Sure enough she was there inside. But what floored me was that she immediately came to the window and said in her rasping voice that somehow managed to laugh, “Do come in.”

I squeezed myself in through the wooden bars and sat on one of the chairs. She was still fully veiled but her eyes betrayed her amusement. I was vexed. I was so used to fear and subservience and self-abasement. This would take time to get used to.

“How is it,” I asked unable to conceal my annoyance, “that none of my disguises are effective as far as you are concerned?”

“I don’t know. Somehow I am aware of you.”

There was an awkward silence for some time and then she resumed, “It feels quite odd talking to a cat. Why don’t you do something about it?”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Well, turn into Umabai. You are Umabai,” she asserted. Was I?

So I transformed into Umabai and could not help taking a sideways peek in the mirror at the dressing table. I saw a dignified young woman in there. Her hair was gathered into a large bun just above her left ear. Her traditional cream and gold upper cloth was tucked in above her right breast. Her bare shoulders glowed. Around her slender neck was a choker whose tender gold leaflets fluttered and caught the light at every small movement. But her eyes made me turn away. They were bottomless black pools.

“Oh! You are beautiful.” She laughed again but this time her teasing laughter did not vex me.

“Why are you veiled?”

In answer to my question she silently began to remove the various parts of the full veil. First the part covering her face came off and I could not help a gasp of horror. I have seen a fair amount of blood and gore in my time. But this was horrifying beyond them all. A large ugly scar covered her forehead and large part of her nose and her entire upper lip were missing. She next took off the headscarf and the top of her head was bald though hair grew luxuriantly from the sides. It was as though someone had poured liquid fire down her head and the fire had licked her eyebrows but her eyes were miraculously intact. It had eaten her nose and chewed at her upper lip so smiling and talking were painful. She took off the loose black outer gown and I could see the way the liquid fire had flowed from the scar on her neck. That explained the rasping voice. There were scars on her arms and doubtless there were others beneath the bright red dress that she wore. The scars on her petite feet were lighter. We stood together in silence for a long time and then I spoke in the gentlest possible voice.

“Which man did this to you?”

“Oh,” she said and her voice was disinterested. “He said he loved me. When I told him I did not love him he turned up one day and attacked.”

I sat hunched up on a chair and shivered. The coconut scraper and the ordinary everyday voice and the heavy grinding stone tied to my feet and the wet, wet pond all came back to me in one clear continuous vision. And I thought I had forgotten everything.

When I looked back into her eyes the laughter was gone and I knew what I saw in them very well. I had felt it intensely for so long – that maddening, ravaging desire for revenge.

“I am your way to passing on,” she said quietly. “I am the new Yakshi of the Blue Hills. Kill me and I will be eternally grateful to you.”

As soon as she said it I knew it was true. I sat quietly thinking about the long years of terrible silence and crushing loneliness. Was it worth it? One look at the horribly mutilated face and I knew what was the right thing to do. It was she who made it easier for me.

“Don’t worry,” she said calmly, “someone like me will come along for sure and I too will be able to pass on. The world hardly changes.”

As I embraced her lightly and bent my head towards the jugular, the beauty of the dawn breaking outside was unbearable.

***

Veena Narayan is a writer who quit her job a couple of years ago to devote more time to her writing. She is an alumna of the University of East Anglia Creative Writing Workshop conducted in Kolkata in March - April, 2013. She is currently working on her first novel. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Literature and Aesthetics. She lives in Kochi, Kerala.

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