“Waiting for Karaga” by Amal Singh

I remember the scent of the east wind that shook the bare, spindly branches of the jamun tree, making the onyx black fruit fall off and roll across the slopes of my bank and drop into my waters with a plop. That wind is no longer there. Neither is the fruit, or the tree for that matter. There are only memories, and it takes a special sort of strength on my part to hold on to them. I am getting tired of waiting. Waiting for Karaga.

In those memories is a girl named Rani. Small, chirpy, her arms thin like the branches of that tree. Her feet and her face are what I remember the most though; the former when she sat on the rocks and dipped them inside my waters and the latter when she leaned over to look at her reflection. The first day she came searching for the jamuns, found a couple, ate them and then shook all over. The face she made! It was the taste, of course. Those jamuns were stale and had grown sour. She spat the seed out, making sure not to do it inside the water. But she did take a handful of water to drink, to ward the taste away. A part of me here, a part of me in her hands. A part of me became a part of her, forever.

She came again the next day. She kept looking over her shoulders, as if someone was following her. Sitting down at the exact same spot as before, she dipped her feet in my waters again. I was unusually cold that day but I made an effort to warm the general area around the girl. She was only wearing a thin salwar kameez and I didn’t want her to catch a cold. I also made an effort to not talk. Talking scared them.

For me, time is a slow, sensual thing. The memory of its broken seconds lingers on my surface. The moments slow down to a crawl and embed themselves inside my countless drops. Other times, I can see time rushing past me, like a child taking its first steps. The moments with Rani were a mixture of both.

The third day she spoke. She had brought an earthen pot with her. She was humming a song which I still remember to this day.

“What song is it, child?” I asked. She stopped singing, and glanced furtively around.

“Who speaks?”

“It is I, child. The lake you are taking your water from.”

“Lakes don’t speak,” she said, her voice shaky. The earthen pot had tumbled away, some of my precious parts splashing on the rocks. I didn’t mind. She was a scared little child.

“Some do,” I said in as reassuring and calm voice I could manage. She sat back down, grabbing the ghada with her left hand.

“It is a folk song,” she muttered under her breath. Then she started to hum again.

“I like the song. What is your name?”

“Rani,” she said. Some confidence had seeped inside her voice now.

“Queen. Rani. You will be Queen someday.”

“There are no Kings or Queens now. Amma says I will be married off to some suitable groom in two or three years.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to explore the city. Ben… Bengalu….”

“Bengaluru,” I corrected her. “What will you do in the city?”

“Sing. I like to sing.”

“A very noble pursuit, my child,” I said.

“Thank you. I… I have to go. Amma is waiting.” She quickly dipped the ghada into my waters. She hesitated a bit – eyeing me as if seeking approval – then filled it anyway and left. I didn’t mind.

Many people came to my shores, then. They washed their clothes, quenched their thirst, or on an especially hot summer day, bathed themselves. I have seen young couples having their first embrace and kiss on my shores; I have seen innocence getting trampled; I have seen moss grow on stones that were once smooth; I have seen care and neglect; I have seen Rani grow up.

I saw her happiest when she was eleven. Running along my shores with gay abandon, playing tic-tac-toe on the rocks with chalk, playing colony, hide and seek and whatnot. She looked as if she knew a secret. Her face showed it. She used to wink at me, and as a wink back, I would send bubbles on the surface. She placed bets with her playmates, claiming she knew my name, claiming she could talk to me and order me to do anything. It was harmless, and I wasn’t offended. I happily obliged and she won money for rasgullas in return.

“Is your name really that long?” She once asked me. There was a sparkle in her eyes, unusual even for her.

“Call me Vaidehi,” I said. “I like that name.”

“Vaidehi. I like the sound of it.”

“So, how’s school?”

“School, urm…” she hesitated. Her earlobes were a bright shade of pink.

“Don’t you want to have a form, some day, Vaidehi? Like a real woman… or a man… anything?”

“There is something you’re not telling me, Rani.” I tried to nudge her in the right direction.

“I have told you everything, Vaidehi.”

“Not everything. I can tell.”

“There’s a boy…,” she hesitated. “At school.”

“Now we’re talking.”

“He… His name is Shabbeer Ahmed.”

“And…?”

“Nothing. I… I think he is okay.”

“Is Rani in love?” The pink on her earlobes became a bright shade of crimson. She hid her face in her palms. I rushed my waters, my own sign of happiness and approval.

“Ssshh…” she said. “If Amma or Babuji hear about this, they won’t let me set a foot outside.”

“Nobody but you can hear me, dear. Water drops don’t talk.”

“You don’t understand…”

“But I do, Rani. I do understand.” I had seen ages come and go, and I had seen friendships turn into animosities. I understood her situation perfectly. If only there was something tangible I could do.

“Tell me. Will I get to see him, someday?” I asked.

“You may.” She chuckled. Rani was brave. So brave.

*
She was nineteen years old when I realised how much she had grown since I first saw her.

“You look beautiful today,” I said.

“Thank you, Lake Goddess,” she said, trying to sound conversational. There was something off about the tone of her voice.

“You’ve never called me that,” I said. “What is it that bothers you, Rani?”

“I don’t want to meet them. I came here for some quiet time. I think I want to run away.”

“Did Shabbeer talk to his Abbu-jaan?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Ask him. Then talk to your Amma. Promise me you will talk to her.”

“It’s not that simple,” she said and sat down on the rocks. She started pelting small stones into me. They skipped thrice before submerging inside me. The stones hurt, but I took the hurt. Rani was more important.

“Tomorrow is Karaga, dear. You don’t want to run away when a festival is near. You don’t want to run away at all. Don’t do this.”

She didn’t say a thing. There was silence after, only broken by my own agitated waters and her shallow breathing.

“Sing to me, will you?” I asked of her. And she sang like she had never before. The next day, at Karaga, I didn’t see her.

*
Karaga itself was once a wondrous thing; a ferocious celebration of an age old promise Draupadi made to the Veerakumaras. I remember the fireworks; I remember the half submerged bodies of devotees in my waters; I remember the melodious chants, a chorus which was loud enough to reach the gods, or the soul of Draupadi herself. Now it is a hollow thing, much like me. Now, it is just a formality, search of a promise which time and men have broken.

Now they build these giant walls; red, yellow, crumbling, the dust mixing with my waters becoming a part of me. A large portion of me has receded, and I find myself shrinking inwards. I wonder if the parts of me which now reside inside others feel a tug from me. I wonder if they recognise me.

Bengaluru whispers to me, and says terrible things. Things which are now happening to me. I am now poison, my water now bitter and rank. No children visit my banks now; no lovers left to love, no festivals. I am a broken thing. I had hoped to grow fierce and majestic, like Krishna’s avatar.

Now, today, at the eve of this hollow annual celebration, I wait. It has been three years since I last saw her. All I see now are people wanting to appease me, when there is no rain. They pray to me, pray to my waters when it is they who have made it dirty. They hope to cleanse their malice inside my waters, hoping that I’ll consume all their sins. I shrink every day, but I hope for them to keep coming back. I hope for them to realise that I am much like them, very much mortal, shrinking, decaying, until only a drop is left of me.

I see her! Heavens, I see her. She is garbed in a red, bridal dress. Her head is bowed, and she is accompanied by a tall, lanky man, garbed in white. He is the groom perhaps. But she had told me that Shabbeer was short in height and muscular… But that was years ago. Maybe he had grown tall.

The couple approaches me. Rani’s steps are measured, her gait restrained. Accompanying the couple are other elders. Families. I wait.

Rani doesn’t look up. I can’t see her eyes, which are shrouded in a ghunghat. The groom’s head is held high, as if proud of some achievement. It is not Shabbeer, I realise.

She stops near my banks. There are no more stones around me now. There’s just mud. And more mud, and moss and dead things. But Rani doesn’t fear any of those. She bends down and dips her hands in my waters. I don’t have time to warn her. I am not pure anymore. As if in an act of defiance, she removes her ghunghat and wets her hair from the water she took. No one says a word. Her lips are pursed. Her eyes are red.

“How are you, Vaidehi?” she whispers.

“I have missed you, Rani. Look at you, a grown woman.”

“Today is Karaga. I am sorry I didn’t keep your promise.”

“It is not that simple,” I say.

She cries and gets up, turning around. I rush my waters, whatever remains of them, and try to say many more things. If only others would listen. But they don’t listen. They never have. According to them, according to everyone, water doesn’t speak. Water doesn’t have stories to tell.

*
Memory fails me. Time is none of the things I felt it once was. Once a lake, then a pond, I am little more than a puddle now. The last Karaga was two years ago. Or perhaps three. Or five. I have forgotten the sound of the city, the smell of trees in the evening, of jasmine and henna, the warm bread-like aroma of obbattu wafting from sweet shops. I have forgotten the sights of the city in evening. The ones who left me in this state tried their best – or worst – to resurrect me to my former glory. One year, I was sustained, and contained in a square enclosure, moss and algae eating off the walls of the cement around me. Slowly, inevitably, the decline began, and they soon realised I was beyond saving. I prefer to think the other way round. They are beyond saving, and it is not my hatred that is talking. I feel sad for them. I feel sad for Rani.

Now, I am a mere gulp of green, muddy water collected between a bunch of rocks. If only there were a wise crow, thirsty enough. The east wind comes, the same old one which is firmly ingrained in my memory, refusing to go. I recognise it. But it doesn’t bring any scents, or memories. It brings a sound; a sound of someone singing, far away, from the depths of the city. It is Rani. Her voice is honey with the slightest touch of cinnamon. Her voice is the sound of water over smooth stones by a river bank. Her voice is sharp as the crackle of the first Diwali fuljhadi. It is so distant, yet so familiar. It feels like a part of me. This is enough. I will hold her voice till the last of my drops dry away. She drank from me, once. A part of me is still a part of her. Forever.

THE END


Bio: Amal Singh is a professional screenwriter currently living in Mumbai, India. His web-shows are on YouTube, while his fiction has appeared in Syntax & Salt, Mithila Review, among others. He is constantly in search of meaning in life and drowns his sorrows in copious amounts of tea. He tweets at @jerun,_onto.

About the story: Amal Singh says, “Karaga is one of the most famous festivals celebrated in Bangalore. Also known as Karaga Shakti Utsav, it’s a celebration of Draupadi’s promise to the Veerakumaras, while also being a festival respecting water. However, during the last few years, lakes in Bangalore have borne the brunt of pollution, spewing poisonous froth everywhere, making the festival itself meaningless. In my story, a lake mourns this decline, while also savouring her last meaningful connection with the society.”

Truancy 5, December 2018