I don’t know what I would do during this time of pandemic if I did not write every day. I am a pilgrim on this writing journey accompanied by other pilgrims. The only difference between me and them is that I am the live one who holds the string; the others created out of my imagination. Nevertheless, they make up who I am; living with me, breathing the same air I breathe. When my head fills with images, conversations, situations, humour and sadness, they take over, shadowy figures, each claiming a portion of that imagination as their own. My imagination becomes the skin on their bones giving them the ability to breathe and live.

***

The road is uphill as far as I can see. Will I be able to climb to the top? On the wings of a soft breeze comes the sound of a giggle and I immediately begin to feel better. Fiza, what have you been up to? Are you bothering your sister again? The dimples flash. I take her warm hand in mine and we begin the trek side by side. First stop Silchar where Fiza goes with her family. I almost tell her to be careful but catch myself at the last minute. She has a job waiting for her at the house her father has rented up there – a family getaway from the heat of summer. Fiza is brave, her mind filled with curiosity. She will be all right. I unwind a string, it is one of many, from around my fingers. Fiza is let loose. She will fulfill what is in her destiny.

Hoofbeats pound on dry grass; chant of a folk song fills the air. They are late. What was the delay? I ask. Prince Kunjan stopped to speak to his child-bride Kantabali who had to be woken. Only eleven. What an age to be married! I understand it has to do with tradition. At least, the groom is only seven years older, handsome and kind-hearted. The procession passes me, I smell leather and sweat, catch a glimpse of a girl’s face peeping from behind the curtain of the palanquin. She has the heart of a lioness. Her husband, the Prince is keeping pace with the palanquin although the horse he rides wants to gallop. With a gentle hand he reigns it in, then turns suddenly. I feel the intense gaze of those almond shaped eyes. There is a world of sorrow in their depths. Can you not change the outcome? they plead. I cannot, I say with regret, for your destiny is already written. You are brave, kind and a loving young man. You have work to do, work that will help others, especially the young girl Bina. She will become Kantabali’s companion and keeper of your story. So, go now, fulfill what is in your destiny. The face behind the curtain is no more. I let go of three strings, the last being that of the village girl Bina. She did not accompany us on this pilgrimage deciding instead to wait at the very top.

I know Chandni is keeping pace with me, I feel her quiet presence, my spirit rises to greet her for she is the one to have sustained me all these years. When I falter, it is Chandni’s gentle touch that steadies me. I see a strange light in the grey eyes. Diminutive and quiet, yet the personality comes through, strong as rock. I have poured out my heart in her and she knows it. When my tears will not stop falling, she dries them with a corner of her garment urging me to keep going, to never stop, for the world needs to know the story. Wise Chandni. She knows what even I don’t. She gently unravels the string from my hand, lets it fly up. She is going to join her ancestors and walks away determined not to miss them this time.

Shoma prefers her own company. A fast walker she outpaces all of us; her long legs lift and point as if running a marathon. Always ten paces ahead. When I catch up, she is standing still by the side of the road and by her stance I feel she is waiting. For what? I want to know. But she takes off once more. I am trying to keep the tall figure within my line of vision. She is on a mission, a pilgrim, doing penance. She is full of bravado yet her heart is filled with unshed tears. She must seek redemption. Shoma is afraid if Ma discovers the truth, she will stop loving her daughter. Shoma is convinced she should never have been born. Perhaps then her father would not have left her mother. Most of the time I ignored her pleas knowing her personality is complex, she looks inward like a true pilgrim. My duty is to teach Shoma to also look outward. She has a lot of work ahead of her and only when she recognizes why her life was spared after the accident, she will understand the reason she was created. I unravel the string and let it float up. Shoma feels the sudden lightness of freedom, and moves ahead, her assurance marking every step. A lingering fragrance follows in her wake. I watch with a mixture of happiness and uncertainty. I had to let her go to find her destiny. It’s what I do.

Asha, on hands and knees, is trying to hide behind the unruly mehendi bushes that line the road. Amused at her antics I cannot help smile when she gets up, snatches a bunch of leaves, then drops back to the ground. I know what she wants to do. She will take those mehendi leaves home to grind on the long stone Maaji uses to grind spice and apply the paste on her own hand and of course, Maaji’s. But first she wants to follow the procession of boys now heading towards the saint’s tomb near the pond. She has always wanted to see what happens there. I see trouble brewing but helpless to stop. Who has the heart to rebuke this mischievous imp? I feel a tug on my sleeve. Asha instructs me to let go of the string, she needs to find her own destiny. I do, as instructed.

Mariam is running after the caravan. Her mother, who owns a tea stall in the market, has begged her not to leave but Mariam promises to bring back great wealth. She overcomes Maaji’s resistance who gives in to her daughter’s demand. Mariam has started on a perilous journey and there is nothing I can do to stop her. At fourteen, she has a mind of her own. She is also wise and kind, two qualities highly sought after within a pilgrim soul. Her presence is a dream, my imagination, a heavenly glow. And also, very real. Taking care of everybody’s needs she seems to be everywhere. But she must be careful. Not reveal her true identity. A girl of fourteen travelling alone! Mariam is one person who took the string from my hand and wrapped it around her own. She will make her own destiny and I for one will watch with great interest as to what transpires. Brava Mariam!

***

These people inhabit the pages of the stories I have created. They are real, or as real as an author’s imagination can make them out to be. Each character is dear to me and I truly feel sad to let them go; but they have to move away, make room for the next ones to arrive.

Stay Safe. Be Well.

Purabi Sinha Das

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