3.4 Free Form
A Midnight Tale
Words by Shreya Shah
Read stories within stories from the hills of Mashobra.
Illustration by Jishnnu B
Memories are like water running through a path, most of it flows away, but here and there, it pools into crevices harboring tales of love and loss. It then lies still, gleaming as jewels; waiting with immense patience for a weary traveler to notice, cup his hands, and drink gratefully from it.
Shaurvari Pratap gazed at the rapt expressions of her grandchildren, Kabir and Sia, and carefully chose the gem for the day. “This happened when I was ten-years-old, just like you Kabir…”
Shaurvari tended to ramble and this delighted her listeners. She would remember stories within stories because she was not making up anything. She was just retelling the memories of her life. Her grandchildren eagerly awaited the inky blue hour of twilight to hear the stories and Shaurvari had to employ great restraint and choose just one to share. Her son had come back after working for two years in the bustling city of Bombay and was mostly concerned with rules to discipline the children. He made her daughter-in-law employ a strict rule about their bedtimes.
Once, Sia had come to her, very upset. “Dadi,” she said, “is it true that one day you won’t remember as clearly as you do right now?”
Shaurvari took off her glasses and peered at Sia in astonishment. “What makes you say that, child?” she asked.
Sia sniffed, saying, “In school, Vikram told us his Dadu can’t remember little things anymore, such as what he had for lunch by dinnertime.”
Shaurvari’s brow cleared, “Well, your mummy’s cooking is unforgettably delicious. Even if I tried, I wouldn’t be able to forget it!”
Sia laughed but Kabir who had been standing solemnly by the doorway was not convinced. He was two years older than Sia and very perceptive. He thought his beloved grandmother was deflecting the topic. He came up to them, “Dadi,” he said, “from now on, I’ll write down all the stories you tell us. That way, in case you do forget, we can look back on our pages together and remember once again.”
Shaurvari smiled, but knew that he needn’t be so worried. If anything, she felt her memories become stronger with time. Everyday, a little incident that had been jostled to the back of her memory would present itself, sometimes with hesitation, often with flamboyance and she enjoyed retelling these tales tremendously.
The Prataps lived in a villa tucked away in the side of the hill of Mashobra. It was just a twenty-minute drive from Shimla, the summer capital of India during the British rule, and yet sometimes it felt like a different world. Very few tourists came by, and its solitude was undisturbed.
Shaurvari looked outside the window, and then at the great grandfather clock opposite her bed. She’d had a History teacher once, who had told her about “the golden hour” in Europe. “It’s wondrous,” she said. “Everything is awash with the rays of the setting sun, splashed with hues of gold and peach – the buildings and the trees and the streets and the people.”
Shaurvari had observed that in this part of the mountains, the twilight hour seemed to be a fitting tribute to the colour blue. Her little tin box of paints had four shades of blue, but she had invented a game of her own, looking at the skies and giving the colours names and personalities. There was the cornflower blue of an English sky, peeping at the heels of the setting sun. It usually gave way to a subtle periwinkle, then defiant streaks of aquamarine, and finally a languorous violet began to take hold. A deep sapphire would then roll out to reveal the essence of the sky, the blue of cores, of dark tales and deep desires that lasted well into midnight.
Kabir and Sia usually arrived at the time of the aquamarine part of the show, hastily putting their schoolbags away and impatiently washing their hands and faces (another strict rule but an old one) hurriedly taking their chairs besides her.
However, today they were quite late. They came with the scattering of the stars, and Shaurvari said, a tad severely, “You are quite late.”
Sia pinched Kabir. “It was all his fault! He wanted to eat peanuts on the way, Dadi!”
“Ouch!” Kabir said, annoyed but he would never pinch her back. “Dadi, this is the old fellow from Lakkar Bazaar! The one with the hand-cart; you know he hardly ever comes here now, so of course I had to get his special freshly-roasted peanuts.”
“That’s all very well,” Dadi said, grumpily, “but…”
“Here, I got some for us all to share,” Kabir said, shyly. “They’ve got a special lime and chilly powder on them.”
“Hmm! See what a good boy he is,” Dadi said happily. “Come, let’s eat them, and I’ll tell you about the time I used to take offerings to the temple too.”
“I’m talking about our temple, the one that is hidden by the deodar trees, a little above our home. Now, there is a path to go up with those roughly hewn steps. But in those days, there was just the forest path. Narrow and thorny brambles. The temple is so beautiful, and the belief in the power of the Goddess so strong that it has always attracted devotees.
“We were always told to never go to a temple empty-handed. Even if all we could offer was just a pure thought, we knew we should give it with all the splendor of an offering. I believed, and still do believe in it very seriously. So I would take a little offering everyday.
“I asked for different things everyday. They used to be little childish desires at first. I would hope to eat caramel wafers from Minty Sweets that day, or sometimes I’d ask for an easy test especially in Arithmetic. Oh, how I hated that subject! Your grandfather used to find my despair for numbers very funny. Growing up next to each other hardly did well for our love-story, for we were very shy in those days. We even went to the same school. Well, the only good school in all of Mashobra. But our early marriage gave him a lot of scope to create mischief! One time, he took me to Minty Sweets, and pretended he’d seen his friend across the street and he hurriedly left me to do the mental math of figuring out how much change we should get back! I remember, we were to have a party the next day, and we had bought assorted sweets. Pink crunchy rose-toffee and chocolate walnut fudge. Caramel wafers, extra ones just for me, and fine black-and-white striped peppermints. You don’t get such fine sweets any more, let me tell you! But it was a true nightmare figuring the change out… anyway, I did manage but not before I forgot about my coyness as a newly-wed bride and gave him a piece of my mind about his antics. But did that stop him? Not at all!
“Each time I went to the temple, I always remembered to take a fine offering. One day, I remember I had woken up very early and padded outside to the left part of our garden, see? Near the old apple tree? It is on the boundary between our home and my mother’s home and if you crane your neck a little you can sometimes catch a glimpse of the temple, or at least the trees surrounding it. I’d heard my parents talking the night before. A local farmer had reported seeing a tiger near there.”
“Now, children this was a kind of legend. You know the tiger is sacred to the Goddess. To spot him is a magnificent stroke of luck and an almost definite guarantee that your wish would be granted!”
Kabir and Sia listened in awe. “If you’re alive after coming face-to-face with a tiger, that is” he muttered. Sia elbowed him.
“Mummy, Kabir, Sia, it’s time for dinner,” called out Mrs. Pratap.
“Not hungry,” chorused the children.
“Nothing doing,” Mrs. Pratap said. “But, it’s a fine evening. Let Papa come back, then we can eat here in the verandah, and listen to Dadi’s stories, all of us together.”
The door-bell rang, and Mr. Pratap came in. “Where are my little imps?” he asked with a smile. He put down his bag, ruffled Kabir’s hair and tickled Sia till she giggled uncontrollably.
“Wash your hands,” Shaurvari said with a wink at her grandchildren. Kabir and Sia were helping their mother take the dishes out to the table on the verandah.
They laid out the tablemats and Sia placed the wooden spoon-stand in the middle. Kabir ran out to their garden and looked at the lawn. Every evening, their little raat-rani tree rained down jasmines that blossomed at night and he knew it was one of Shaurvari’s favourites. He gathered a few and quietly dropped them in her lap.
She smiled at him radiantly and kissed his forehead. “Aren’t you hungry, child? Come, let’s eat.”
The food smelled delicious. Mrs. Pratap’s cooking was indeed very delicious. There were fresh green vegetables from their garden cooked in a rich tomato gravy, gently simmered lentils, potatoes tossed with basil and chilies, naans flavored with milk and saffron, and a bowl of crisp bright-green peas.
“The food is very nice, Meena,” Shaurvari said warmly to her daughter-in-law. “I remember, children, the first time I cooked peas. They were the first produce of the season and I had cooked them very carefully for they have a delicate flavour that needs to be enhanced. It’s easy to use a lot of spices but the real star of the dish is the simple, exquisite taste of just the peas. I was going to the temple that day, and I’d decided to take this dish as my offering. They were tiny green peas, bunched like florets, sweet and crisp. I ate quite a few of them raw before tipping them into the pan!”
Everyone laughed. Shaurvari gathered the jasmine flowers and put them carefully in the corner of her sari and tied them into a knot.
When the dishes were cleared, everyone gathered around Shaurvari again. “And what have today’s stories been about?” Mr. Pratap asked with a smile.
“All sorts of things, Rishi,” Shaurvari said absent-mindedly. She held the jasmine flowers in her hand. “Thank you for these. The more you look, the more you’ll see how beautiful Mashobra’s flowers are, Kabir.”
“When I was a little girl, just discovering the hills around our home, I loved getting up early to pick wildflowers. Dawn is the best time to go gathering. The hills glint emerald in the morning sunlight. Here and there, flowers peek through and I picked the fallen ones happily— the bright red rhododendron that fit in my palm and can be cooked into a fragrant curry, the fire-wheel Daisy that’s smaller than my finger, the blush-pink blossom that can be pressed into a bookmark, and the butter-yellow floweret that deepens into golden as the day turns.
“Oh yes, back to the story. So, I heard the tiger had been spotted again. When you’re young, you always think miracles are within reach. I decided if my offering was special enough, I would be guaranteed a sighting.
“I tried to make my offerings as interesting as possible. The dish I cooked for the first time was just the beginning. I’d pick the rarest flowers, the brightest piece of cloth, a plate of freshly-made sweets. Yet, I never did see the tiger.”
Her tone was wistful, and Sia put her head in Shaurvari’s lap. “Do you think you’ll ever see him, Dadi?”
Shaurvari smiled. “I certainly hope so. But many years have passed since a tiger has been spotted in these parts. But yes, I do hope that I will see him, one day.”
“Maybe he watches over us silently,” Sia said seriously.
“Maybe,” agreed Mrs. Pratap. “Now, shall I bring out the strawberries and cream?”
The next day, Shaurvari sat knitting by the window. She was watching Kabir and Sia join five other children, just as fresh-faced and pink-cheeked, as they formed a busy little group to make their daily trek towards school.
Mrs. Pratap came to her, with two cups of steaming tea. “Have a little tea, Mummy,” she said soothingly. “It’s cold, shall I get you a sweater?”
“No, no. Why don’t we get some of the red flowers today? We can make that curry.”
“Okay. I haven’t had the curry in so long!”
“Earlier, it used to be called raani-phool, or flower of the queen. There used to be dozens of trees, but only planted in the royal orchard. No one else was allowed to have it! A passing bird must have dropped the seed elsewhere though, because slowly the trees started mushrooming all around Shimla. Anyway, by then the royal rule had all but dwindled. The British arrived, you know. And then many years later, the flower was made into the state flower. So of course, it also became easily accessible.”
“You know so much,” Mrs. Pratap marveled. “I’m very happy that Kabir is writing down all your memories.”
Shaurvari shrugged. “I remember everything.”
“Indeed,” Mrs. Pratap said gently. “But what if we forget? I believe he’s doing it more for us, anyway! I’ll remind him of this story when they come back from school, so that he can write it in his notebook.”
“Sukhi came to sell her fruits today,” Mrs. Pratap said after a few minutes. “She’d got apples from Shimla. I told her we have our own tree, but didn’t want her to feel too bad. So, I bought some.”
“Very good,” Shaurvari said. “Let me see them.”
They went to the dining room where Mrs. Pratap had placed them in a blue-and-white ceramic fruit-basket.
“They are a ruby red,” Shaurvari said. “They will be very juicy. Our apples are wonderful, but even the best one from our tree cannot shine like this!”
Mrs. Pratap was sure the fruit-sellers employed some tricks for that – she had heard rumors of them rubbing wax on the fruit but she said nothing. Besides, she washed them very thoroughly.
They sat in companionable silence besides the window watching the frosty air. “I think it will snow today,” Shaurvari observed. “It’s very early, so it might be just a smattering. But can you feel it? There’s that sharply pleasant chill that heralds snow.”
“Oh, we can light the fireplace then. Hasn’t it been a relief, to have an electrical one? It was so clever of Rishi to install one.”
Shaurvari nodded, but her mind was far away. She remembered when they used to stack the little room by the side of the villa with logs of wood to build a fire. There used to be a stable too, which was now a store-room for old toys and furniture. Once, she and her husband, Mohan, had gone to the little room to check the supply of logs. They had gone at different times, and by coincidence found themselves there. They had just been married a month and were still getting used to the idea. Despite being neighbors, having gone to the same school and being friends nearly their whole life, it had been a different and slightly strange feeling to view each other as husband and wife.
Mohan grinned, and took a few small logs in his hand. “Come here,” Mohan had said. “I want to show you something.”
Hesitantly, Shaurvari followed him, and they went to the stable.
“You know how to build a fire?” Mohan asked.
“Of course,” Shaurvari said.
“Great. I’m going to build one here.”
“Inside?” Shaurvari asked.
Mohan laughed at her expression. “Relax, there’s no longer any hay. It’s a disused stable, Shaurvari. Plus, look how big it is!”
“That’s true” Shaurvari said slowly.
Mohan chose a spot and started building the fire, whistling a little tune. Shaurvari still remembered the melody. He added kindling. “This is how a great fire is built” he said grandly. He struck a match, and sat down.
Shaurvari sat opposite him. They spoke about many things, about her daily routine and his day at work, about their favourite food and the books they both liked to read. They decided to hire a tonga for the next day, to go to the market and watch a movie in the old British theatre. They relaxed as the night heightened, until suddenly they heard a little plop!
Shaurvari looked up at the sky. “Oh!”
Mohan looked up too. “There’s a hole in the roof?” He observed incredulously. “We’d better fix that.”
“Look!” Shaurvari said softly. “Look, it’s about to snow.”
They watched as tiny snowflakes fell in a flurry, chasing each other, and then falling into the fire. Slowly, the fire went out.
Shaurvari shook her head and brought herself back to the present. They had a strong and steady love. She couldn’t believe it sometimes, when she really thought about it, that he wasn’t physically with them. Her Mohan was solid, dependable, always with a ready smile, and tuneless whistle. Mohan with so much life and energy, to have him separated from her was a cruel twist of fate. She felt him in her thoughts and actions everyday. Sometimes, Mohan seemed very far away. But most often, he seemed extremely close. “Soon” she’d often whisper to him. “Soon, we’ll be together.”
“Look, here comes the snow” said Shaurvari softly. Powdery fine snow dotted the landscape in a matter of moments. The bright red apples glistened.
“I think I’ll go to the temple” Shaurvari said.
“Shall I come with you?”
“No, I just feel like taking a walk.”
“Okay, Mummy. But do come back soon, you know it gets dark very quickly nowadays.”
Shaurvari touched her daughter-in-law’s cheek gently.
She put on her coat and wrapped a shawl around herself. She paused. What should her offering be? She took a bright pink cloth and chose the shiniest apple from the table, and wrapped it carefully within.
Though the temple was in the part of the hill above their home, it took about ten minutes to get there. It was an uphill path, and it would be too dangerous to make the visit once winter began in full-force. Today, the snow fell very lightly, like a dusting of powdered sugar.
Shaurvari put on her shoes, and let herself out the gate. She walked slowly, savouring the crisp pine-scent in the air. The walking path dipped a little, then twisted in an undulating cure, disappearing amongst the trees. When she went round the curve, the river emerged in view the valley below. It shone cerulean and was shaded milky blue in some places; the snow hadn’t yet reached the valley. She paused, as she always did. The vision of the river is sudden and the onslaught upon the senses is pleasant.
“Perhaps I should start using Mohan’s walking stick” Shaurvari told herself. “The rosewood one that Rishi brought him back from Bombay is quite nice.”
She walked slowly, remembering taking the path as a girl. Nothing had changed, she still went with the same hope of seeing a tiger, and having her wish granted. Everything had changed; her thoughts went towards loves separated from this world by a flimsy veil, awaiting her arrival. Shaurvari sighed with a heavy weariness.
She had reached the temple. She bowed in front of the Goddess Durga. She always found peace in a temple. She had heard that the wise men of ancient India constructed temples in tandem with the magnetic force of the earth, so that one physically felt aligned with the elements, and therefore at peace upon entering. The Goddess looked at her benevolently. The priest was nowhere to be seen and Shaurvari made a note to tell Rishi. The temple was technically within their premises and the priest lived in a little cottage beside the temple. A sudden gust of cold wind ruffled her hair, and she breathed in the air, thinking longingly of reading poetry by the crackling fire. She placed the apple carefully in the inner sanctum, and brought her hands together in prayer.
She walked quietly amongst the dark green of the trees, the soft sprinkling of snow, and the pinpricks of lights from faraway houses; she could swear she saw the gleam of a golden coat and the swish of a tail.
About Mysticeti’s friends:
Shreya Shah is a writer and educator based in Mumbai. Her words have been featured by Verve India and Vogue among others. You can check her recommendations from her book shelf at Tea Time Tales.
Jishnnu B creates visualization, illustrations and immersive narratives