I walk down to the river while the village lies asleep. Not the wisest thing for a woman to do, especially in a place like this, where rumours float like the mist that drifts in from the Yamuna, and where the image of a woman should be as pristine as the white sheets that flutter in the temple courtyards. Clean, crisp white linen, so vulnerable to fraying. How long will it take them to discover I’m gone? How much time do I have till they hunt me down, ready to drag me back to the bedlam that awaits me – and this time ensure that I never leave again. They do not believe me, no one does. Not even my husband. He looks upon me with concern and pity, but then why would he believe me? Knowing that I love Kṛṣṇa more than him. He’d rather rubbish Kṛṣṇa’s presence, turn a blind eye. Which is why I have come here now, to prove him wrong. To prove them all wrong.
My elusive lover with whom I’ve held secret rendezvous over the years. He, who picks his time and place to surprise me – predictability not being one of his strong points. Sometimes he meets me by the forest, sometimes in the temple courtyard and at times even in the fortress of my husband’s home but the river bank is his favourite. For years we have wandered, finding ourselves on strange shores, and now the river of fate has brought us here – the final cycle of time. The last age before the river loops back to its source, but the Yamuna is capricious like him. It churns out surprises and there is no limit to the things that wash up on its shore.
My feet have just touched the dangerously smooth edges of the bank, when I hear him. The notes of the flute flutter in the air, melting on my skin; sweet, like the honeyed creaminess of the panchamrut. I savour it. A thin veil of mist wraps the river and its bank, making it impossible for the feeble human eye to see. But I do not need to see Kṛṣṇa to know he’s around. The music of the flute is enough. Who else can awaken the soul and touch the essense of every life that surrounds him, but my Kṛṣṇ? I hurry towards the sound of the music. I want to gift him with words that drench the white pages of my diary with blue ink- his favourite colour. But his music is haunting and it drives the poetry out of my mind, submerging my senses. I keep struggling to remember the verse, ignoring the hissing air around me. I search the misty bank for him, slipping and stumbling on the cold, wet rocks until something cold and scaly brushes my foot sending a shudder through my body. A slow vile hiss echoes back to my ears and I only have a second before I see the brown, coiled snake- hood spread, spitting angrily, ready to strike. A scream builds up in my throat but the river has swallowed my voice. I can only gasp, willing myself to scream, to run. But I’m helpless, held captive by the gaze of the Naga’s beady eyes; measuring me up before it sinks its fangs into my skin. I do not want to die, not here on the bank, not without seeing Kṛṣṇa. Fright has frozen my limbs. I stand petrified as the serpent launches itself in the air, aiming for my neck. I scream then. Shrill and piercing- it comes crashing from somewhere deep within, as if my voice has suddenly broken loose. It echoes across the tide, ripping through the mist until I feel like the Yamuna has sucked out my very soul.
The music stops. A cold wind begins to blow from the East, and a light illuminates the ghostly fog around me, as if the sun itself is about to rise. The dead weight of the snake is coiled around my neck, and a part of me wonders why I am still alive. Or perhaps I am not. Maybe I am already dead and this is heaven, and this maze is nothing but bits of clouds floating around. But then a path clears amidst the mist and Kṛṣṇa walks through with a smile, as I sob, wrapped in a coil of death.
“What are you afraid of, Meera?” he asks smiling.
“The serpent.” the words come out as a strangled whisper, wrestling with fear. I can still feel the cold embrace of the reptile around my neck, like a hideous noose.
Kṛṣṇa chuckles, “ What serpent?”
I’m shaking so hard that I can barely speak. “Around my neck…help me!” I want to scream with the blind paralysing fear I feel rising within me. But the fear, itself, I find has ebbed away, leaving only a hysterical need to laugh or scream. Kṛṣṇa is inspecting his flute, an absent smile playing on his lips. He carefully checks the peacock feather that is fastened at the end of the wooden pipe, and finds it is bent by the wind. But he doesn’t seem to mind it. He doesn’t grudge the wind. A sudden anger begins to boil within me. How can he stand there, so calm and smiling when I lie here dying. Why does he not free me from the snake, or just take me into his arms in my final moments. I want to cry out with the agony that twists inside me but before Kṛṣṇ, I have no voice. All I can do is look at him, paralysed and numb.
I watch his fingers straighten the feather out carefully. “That’s a lovely necklace you’ve worn around your neck, Meera.”
Shaking, I glance down, almost expecting the snake to strike again, but there is no serpent. All that hangs from my neck is an entwined string of amber beads. Kṛṣṇa laughs. My hesitant fingers stroke the warm stone, trembling before I looking up at him. Anger, irritation, fascination, surprise. How he mocks me! Here I am standing at the edge, risking my life and honour just to meet him and he laughs! But he did save me, as he always has.
His ebony skins shimmers in the fast fading darkness as dawn breaks through the clouds- when Kṛṣṇa walks, the sun rises to light his way. Mesmerised, I watch him, the anger wilting away under the force of his sheer presence. His dark skin is stung with a tinge of blue, as if it were kissed by poison. Other than that, he’s still the same. Almond eyes, a serene smile on his lips, the wind lightly fanning his handsome face. A face unmarked by time or age. “Sometimes, I wonder if I’m imagining you,” I whisper.
“Then you have a very beautiful imagination, Meera.” He laughs.
I can’t help it, as if guided by the pull of an invisible magnet, my hand reaches out to touch his cheek. “Why didn’t you show yourself to them? They came looking for you yesterday; after I was forced to reveal where I got that pot of butter from.”
“It was an incredibly useful pot, wasn’t it?”
“Very clever,” I say pulling a face, “Very ingenious of you to make it churn out butter by the gallons. They thought they were going to drown in it.”
Even as I say the words, even as I tell myself that I should be angry with him, I forget my own counsel. My hand reaches his cheek, it floats on it for a second before passing through.
I pull it back, slightly startled. He laughs again. I hate his tricks at times.
“The town thought I was some sort of a witch. The people would have almost stoned me to death, had my husband not intervened.”
“That was awfully nice of him,” he says, smiling.
“He’s calling me mad now. Why did you do it? Why did you put me in trouble and disappear?”
He smiles and touches my cheek, brushing away the moisture. “I did not disappear, I was right here as I always have been.”
“Then why didn’t you show yourself to the others?”
“Then why couldn’t they see you?”
He smiles. “How can they see me, Meera? They don’t even believe I exist.”
At that moment, I hear them coming. The lash of their wooden staffs on the river stones shatters the silence. The mist is stripping away now and I turn to see the lights of their lanterns as they march over the river bank, towards me. I prepare to face the inevitable with a drowning heart. At the very centre of the angry mob is the stoic mask of the man I married. Even from the distance, I see the sudden black hate flare up within his eyes as he sees me, and points me out to the others. The mob moves along with him like thunder clouds follow lightning. He brought them with him- the attendants of the asylum. I turn to warn Krsna, but he has disappeared. All that surrounds me now is a cold howling wind.
My husband probably wants to hang me this very minute for adultery but it’s hard to prosecute a woman for being unchaste if her lover is nowhere in sight. So this is how he is going to punish me, by banishing me to a place worse than death. An overwhelming need to run grasps me, but it will be useless to try. Where can I run? If I can run at all over these slimy rocks? They will eventually hunt me down, pulling me back to the hell that awaits, kicking and screaming. They know no mercy, no compassion. Just the smell of the crisp green notes with which my husband has greased their palms. So, I steel myself and wait. Like a woman marked to die.
My husband reaches me first, his black eyes drilling into mine, as he bends down to come face to face with me. “How many times have I told you not to go wandering around at odd hours, Meera,” he hisses.
He shakes his head, his finger tracing my face from temple to my ear, where he tucks back a strand of stray black hair behind my ear. “Too late, my darling. You have disgraced me for too long.” He steps back, and nods at the attendants, who advance towards me, the white of their uniforms gleaming in the sun, like a burial shroud. I look at my husband, but his face is a mask again, only the hate in his eyes makes him human. It’s the same mask that I woke up to every morning. For ten years I have remained a woman bound in duty at home and in bed, and now, for what he thinks is my betrayal, I must be silenced behind walls of echoing chaos. The attendants grab my arms just above the elbow, their fingers tattooing themselves in my skin.
“Bhoj Raj?” I look at him shocked.
“I can’t help it, you have done this to yourself,” he whispers, shrugging, “I’m sorry, Meera.” I watch him with a sinking feeling. And then a wild panic begins to grip my heart.
“Be gentle with her,” he tells the attendants, “She doesn’t know what she’s doing. Please be gentle… Why Meera, why? Why do you choose to pursue this insanity?’
“I’m not insane,” I scream suddenly, thrashing against their hold, “stop them, Bhoj Raj. I’m not mad.”
“It looks like we’ll have to start the electric shocks,” One of the attendants whisper.
“Let me go, I’m not mad!” “Kṛṣṇa! Tell them, show them you’re real!” I search for Kṛṣṇa but the river bank is empty.
“He was here,” I tell them, “He was here talking to me a few minutes ago, playing his flute. That’s how I found him- by the sound of his flute. Look, he even gave me this necklace. It was a snake, he turned the snake into these beads! I’m not lying, he was here, sitting on the rocks playing his flute.” My protests are rolling off the stony banks, plummeting the water. The attendants grip me tighter and begin pulling me away with force now. “Kṛṣṇa… why don’t you show yourself?” I cry. The cold wind slaps my face hard. The river is growing turbulent, the mist begins to roll in again, and with it comes the music. The notes of a flute, taunting and mocking, playfully skipping away onto the waters of the Yamuna. They falter, and then finally halt in stunned silence.