It was another beautiful morning in the village. The sun had come up in the eastern sky and the village was now bright with a gentle glow. The cold hadn’t cleared fully, though Holi was over and people had stopped taking bath in warmed water. The bakul trees swayed gently in the soft breeze, as though in some light trance born of an intoxication of which only they knew the secret. Or maybe they were in some sweet dream of a near future when the sacred feet of a dark child would take steps under them, sending unspeakable ecstasies into their grateful hearts. Small herds of cows stood idly here and there, soaking the warmth of the early morning sun. Goats nibbled at tufts of grass growing here and there. Something told you that deep within, far beneath the serenity and beauty of it all, the morning hid some deep sorrow. Maybe, it was the distant hills that told you of it with their stoic silence: they seemed to be so still.
There were already a group of men under the banyan tree, some sitting and others standing in various poses. Their talk was whispered, as though they were afraid someone might overhear. And they were talking of what they always talked about these days – Kamsa and his wickedness. “The time for the incarnation has come,” one of them said. “True, it is impossible to tolerate Kamsa anymore,” added another. The others nodded their heads vigorously, fear making them look left and right with frightened eyes even as they did so.
It was time for me to go to fetch water from the Yamuna. This was the part of the day’s chores that we women enjoyed best. It was our own time, with no men around. The walk to the Yamuna took no more than fifteen minutes, and fifteen minutes to walk back. But we were never back before an hour – and it was certainly not filling water in the pots that we spent the remaining half hour. That was time when we shared among ourselves everything that women always shared. This part of the day made the rest of the day meaningful – just as sleep made the day meaningful. It put everything in its place. It cleansed us – of the worries, the pains, anger, disappointments of the day gone by. It was as though when we came back from this daily chore all that was sad and mournful that had been in us earlier was washed clean of us. Giving place to hope, to longings, to desires and yearnings, to all that made life beautiful. Making us feel as though we were born fresh. No woman in the village missed this part of the day if she could.
I called out to Sita, Durga, Uma and others of my neighborhood and we all took our pots in hand and started walking. From a few houses away we could hear Gauri calling the women of her neighborhood. Usually there were some twenty women in the group as we went to the Yamuna. I looked forward to this part of the day. I enjoyed the walk as much as I enjoyed the company and the talk, especially in weather as pleasant as this. It was a pleasure to lose myself to the music of anklets and bangles and the sounds of happy chatting as twenty of us walked together.
A cloud of disappointment floated into my mind when I thought that I would miss the walk soon – my pregnancy was fast advancing. But then, that disappointment was nothing compared to the joy of what was coming – this would be our first child. A thrill passed through me at the very thought – nothing, nothing in the world, is as thrilling to a woman as the birth of her first child. Marriage makes a girl a woman, true, but it is her first child that makes her truly appreciate what it means to be a woman.
Nanda wanted a girl. But I told him it was going to be a boy, for that is what I wanted. “A mother’s wish is always more important than a father’s,” I told him and he laughed.
Nanda always laughed. And I imagined him laughing with our child soon. He was a very cute child, our son – seemed to be made of butter. As I suckled him, a joy that I had never experienced seemed to fill me. An image floated into my mind: that of Nanda playing with him in our courtyard. He was chasing Nanda all over the courtyard, his laughter sounding like a hundred temple bells ringing all together. Then I was chasing him with a tiny stick in my hand, and he turned around and looked at me, smiling, and then continued to run. I threw the stick down and called him into my hands. He turned around and ran back, and jumped into my hands, laughing.
Peels of laughter.
It was my friends. They were teasing me. They were looking at me with eyes full of mirth, trying hard to control their laughter and failing miserably. There was no need for words – they knew where I was lost and I knew they knew it.
Yamuna was still flowing in her sleep and I felt bad about waking her up. There was such calm about the way she flowed. That was another reason why I loved the Yamuna. She was always so serene, as though nothing could upset her. As though she had surrendered to existence and accepted whatever life brought to her. The eternal journey had its ups and downs, but nothing affected her rhythm. She flowed on in a tranquility that was amazing. Oftentimes I have just come here, either alone or with just a single friend, to sit quietly on her banks and allow her serenity to flow into me. I loved it.
We had already washed our hands and feet and then entering the Yamuna filled our pots when I suddenly heard a wail from across the river.
Looking up, I saw a woman standing alone on the other bank. It was she who was wailing.
I had never heard a woman wailing like that, so deep, so tortured, was her sorrow. It did not seem to be coming from her heart, but from some part of her far deeper than her heart, maybe her soul itself. The cry of a woman’s unutterable anguish. Anguish so terrible it was as though not one, but a hundred, a thousand, maybe a million women were wailing. As though every female soul on earth was wailing at once.
The sorrow in every woman’s heart, past and present, came out in that woman’s wail.
And then I heard the trees around her wailing with her. I heard the kadambas, the mangoes, banyans, peepals, jamuns, all wailing with her. The bamboos in every thicket began to wail with her. Then I heard the ashokas, the mandaras, jabas, kaminis, champas on the banks of the Yamuna wailing with her. Now the distant hills joined her tortured soul’s wail. And from nearby I suddenly heard the Yamuna herself wailing. The wind was wailing. All earth and the sky were wailing.
When I looked into the eyes of my friends, there were tears in them. They stood motionless in the weeping Yamuna, tears running down their cheeks.
It was the lament of life I heard coming out from that woman across the river. All existence wailing.
Perhaps this was how Sita wailed when Rama abandoned her in the jungle, I thought.
I left my pot on the ground and walked towards the woman, wading across the Yamuna. As the waters of the Yamuna touched me, I felt shaken as I had never been shaken.
Across the river I held the woman to my breasts for a long, long time, until her wails became silent sobs that shook me with their agony. Then I led her to a large stone under a kadamba tree.
I asked her of her sorrow.
It took her a long time to be able to speak.
And then she told me of Kamsa. She told me of the first child of hers whom Kamsa held by its feet and dashed against a rock, scattering its brains all over. And of her second child. And of her third child. And of her fourth child. And of her fifth child. And of her sixth child… Each of whom Kamsa had held by its feet and dashed against a rock, their white brains mixed with red infant blood scattering all over the empty courtyard where he had done it.
Then she told her about her seventh child whom she had lost before he was born.
And then she was unable to continue. She just sat there, the woman who had given birth again and again and had witnessed the heads of her infants being dashed against rocks by her brother.
Her hands lay over her swollen stomach, protectively. They shook in terror, in unspeakable sorrow.
My body trembled as my heart’s weeping became unbearable.
I made her stand up. I stood before her. I took her hands from her stomach and placed them against my own swollen stomach.
And I told her: Your child shall live. Mine shall die for his sake.
Devaki looked at me with disbelieving eyes. With horror-filled eyes. With eyes that held more sorrow than before. A thousand times more sorrow. And bottomless horror.
I took her by her hand and led her into the waters of Mother Yamuna. There, standing knee deep in Yamuna’s dark, sacred waters, I pledged solemnly: Devaki, your eighth child shall live. My child shall die for his sake.
Walking back across the river with unwavering steps, I no more felt the pressure of water against my legs. Looking down I saw the waters of the Yamuna had parted and given me way.
I walked on wet sand over which the Yamuna had flowed until a moment ago. Flowed ceaselessly for a hundred thousand years.
Now she had parted to give me way.
Surging waters waited on both sides as I walked along the path she had made for me.
From the riverbanks, I heard the music of numberless birds that had suddenly begun to sing in a sweet chorus.
Heaven showered a slight drizzle on me.
The child in my womb moved.
I heard a voice calling me Mother.
The voice had come from the middle of the river.
Looking up, I saw the Mother of the Universe looking at me.
The smile in her eyes was beautiful beyond words.
Note: The story retold here comes from a traditional Bhojpuri song.