This short story became SPIXer (Most popular story) on 18 May 2013 and won INR 500 (US$ 10)
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
‘I still travel back to savour the day when I received this girl in my school. Her small, yet so bright eyes glittered with an aura of thousands of suns. In these many years, she moulded herself to become the most graceful creation of mine ever. She is the greatest gift bestowed onto me by Lord Shiva.’
The audience nodded enthusiastically as her Guru spoke of her.
‘With a beauty that knows no bounds, with her moves which can even melt a stone, she is a name that needs no introduction. Giving about hundreds of stage performances worldwide since her arangetram last year, she has not only gained the much deserved name and fame, but has also catapulted India’s rich culture into the pool of world arts.’
He rose his tempo in excitement as he announced, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, it’s my utmost pleasure to present this year’s Kalaimamani Award to my very own beloved student, a world-class classical prodigy, Parvathi Kumari.’
And the hall burst into a thundering applause.
As she walked past the spectators who were gaping and showering praises at her beauty, she suddenly felt a kind of emotional tinge growing in her heart. A kind of grief insidiously embraced her elation. It went on to become heavier and heavier. I wish I could have them with me.
As she ascended the steps to the podium, she could hear the people shouting praises, whistling and applauding behind her. Amidst this entire clamour and the emotional turmoil going on inside her, she forced a smile and bowed thanks to the mass present there cheering for her.
Then out of nowhere, she heard something from the audience. It was as if the sentence came filtering through all the others that were resonating in the hall.
For an instant, her eyes flickered with surprise. She tried to catch a glimpse of the person who said it. Her gaze strived hard to pierce through the cloak of darkness which had enveloped the whole audience in it.
And then she heard it again.
‘Your mom is waiting for you, honey……’
Before she could realise, the whole world around her blacked out…
She woke up with a shock; her face was sweating, her pupils dilated.
This was the third time she had experienced this dream since last month. Though nothing of this sort had happened at the awards ceremony last month, it had sowed these seeds of nightmare in her brain.
Is this some kinda signal? Are they waiting for me?
‘Yes, I’ve to find out who they were, and what happened to them. I have to know the reason. The reason of my loneliness’, she resolved finally.
Next morning, Parvathi called her PA and got him cleared off her schedule for the whole week. Gearing up all her paraphernalia in the next one hour, she left for the airport.
She knew where she had to start from.
As the tyres screeched on contact with the tarmac at Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, she woke up startled from her mid-noon nap. Finally landing upon the Hyderabadi soil, she headed to her ‘only home’.
As the cab drifted her away from the airport, the pleasant breeze entering through the window, welcomed her back to home. Her mind played back her reminiscences of Mother Claudia’s Home which was her only world.
Like others, she remembered very little of her early childhood. Destined to walk upon a bed of thorns, most of her upbringing had been quite smooth rather. She never felt the lack of her mother’s love which was incessantly showered on her by Sister Jenny there. But as planned by her stars, she was soon turned into an orphan again when her most adorable second-mother died all of a sudden in the May 1990 Andhra Pradesh cyclones. She was just three years old then.
Soon after her death, the responsibility of the orphanage came under the hands of the financing trustees and Sister Maria was made the in-charge. In spite of the change, care of the children staying there was never compromised with. Especially Parvathi’s.
In the meantime, Parvathi grew up into an epitome of beauty. Her beautify was captivating. As was her talent. Her dance. Soon at the tenth year, she had been taken under the patronage of Acharya Kulashankara Nair to learn Bharatnatyam from him.
As the sedan jumped upon a speed-breaker, she broke herself out of the trance she had entered into. Soon, the huge archway of her first home materialized before her eyes.
Nothing had altered. The playground, the rooms, the mess, everything was same as it had been the day she left; only time had changed. After taking a brief recce of the place, she headed to the matron’s office.
As she neared to the door, she realised it had been converted into an accounts office. Soon she spotted a peon and asked him for the directions.
Strolling through the corridor, she reached to the other wing of the building and reached at the matron’s door. Her lips broke into a smile as she saw the nameplate. Sister Maria is still here. She knocked at the door and a voice from inside replied, ‘Come in.’
As Parvathi entered the room, a tall buxom silhouette in tunic facing the window caught her attention.
‘Sister Maria?’ she pried.
The nun turned around inquisitively only to stare in disbelief for the next few seconds at her totally morphed child.
‘Parvathi?’ she paused for a second unable to believe. ‘What a pleasant surprise!’
And both darted on to embrace each other. The room lit up with happiness as the souls deprived of each other for years now bashed in their tears.
Sister Maria made her sit close to her on the couch and pampered her as they submerged themselves into a plethora of joy, love and tears. Outside, the sun began to take leave to relieve its tiredness. But inside, the two discussed about each second that had passed by in these ten years.
At five-past-thirty, one peon interrupted their talk by coming to notify the in-charge for the evening prayer. Suddenly, both of them realised how the minutes had sprinted by in the last few hours. The nun began making arrangements for the prayer continuing her talks with Parvathi.
Soon Parvathi realised she had to find a room too to stay tonight. But the ultimate motive to have visited there had still not been accomplished. And she didn’t know how she would ask her.
Sister Maria’s old experienced eyes caught her drowned into some whirlpool of thoughts.
She placed back the copy of Holy Bible on her desk. Coming near to her, she caressed Parvathi’s head and asked, ‘What’s the matter, dear?’
Realising that there was no way to back out now, she decided to blurt it out, everything she had in her mind about the dream. And so she did.
After listening to every word of it, Sister Maria smiled with a calm expression on her face. ‘It’s quite natural for you to get such thoughts in your brain, honey’, she relaxed her. ‘When special ones like you achieve great heights in their life, they always look around to see those faces applauding them for what they achieved. But they also search for some specific faces. The ones which would rather come to them to kiss them on their forehead and cry with their happiness.’ She paused for a breath.
‘But they’ve never seen these faces. So that becomes the black hole of their happiness. And that’s what is happening with you too.’
‘Yeah I know that’, Parvathi replied with her eyes wet, ‘but I want to know about my parents. I want to know who my parents were.’ She took the nuns palm in her hands and pleaded for help. ‘I want my original identity.’
The line made the smile vanish off her face. Sister Maria was struck with a beam of confusion and fear. How can I tell her the truth?
Regaining her composure, she suggested, ‘Why don’t we discuss that on our way to the prayer, huh?’
Parvathi reflected over her day back at her bathroom in the hotel. How a sudden impulse had brought her this far to search for the truth, and the only place from where she hoped to get a start had turned out to be a null. Sister Maria couldn’t recollect anything about it. But there has to be someone or something who knows about it, she thought.
The water from the shower flowing down her slender body relaxed every tissue of it. She couldn’t figure out what to do next.
Back at the orphanage, Sister Maria was staring at the crucifix hanging at her wall, trembling with a feeling of guilt. The guilt of hiding the truth. She had to end this. Taking out a diary from her desk drawer, she made a call.
A male voice, 290 miles far answered the call, ‘Hello.’
‘Yeah, how are you?’
‘Nothing’s fine. She’s back’, her voice trembled.
‘Your kid…. And she’s asking for something.’
He swallowed the lump in his throat. ‘For what?’
After a brief moment of pause, she answered.
‘Her actual identity.’
The sun had barely risen over the horizon, when Parvathi left Hyderabad for Tirupati. Roughly 300 miles by road, the taxi had barely made it to the half. But she thanked God that she left for it early morning so she could complete the nine hour journey by four in the evening.
Last night had been a totally unexpected turn in her fate. She had been watching television at her room when her cell-phone rang. It was Sister Maria on the opposite line.
‘Yeah Sister, it’s me’, she replied recognising the old voice.
‘There’s one person who can help you find what you seek.’
She stood up from her couch. ‘Who’s it?’
‘Your Acharya. Only he would be able to help you.’
‘Thank you, sister! Thanks a lot!’ Parvathi jumped with thrill.
‘God bless you, dear.’ She disconnected the line.
Her Guru, Acharya Shri Kulashankara Nair was one of the renowned dancers of the southern peninsula. Mastered in almost all kinds of classical dance, he was revered as the Nataraj of India. Settled at Tirupati, his school of performing arts had turned out to be the Nalanda for art enthusiasts.
Dancers since generations, the Nairs had served many royalties since time immemorial. Being the patronage for a multitude of dancers, they had given India some of the best dancers till now.
A man widely known for his philanthropy in whole southern India, he was also one of the trustees of Mother Claudia’s Home. It was there where he had seen this sweet little girl Parvathi and the potential she possessed within her.
And now, she was dashing to him looking for answers.
‘So what is it you’ve been hiding from me all these years?’ she asked with revulsion. ‘And why? I want everything starting from scratch!’
The question had been quite a direct aim and subtle, though Guruji was prepared for this since last night.
He took a deep breath and started, ‘You must be already aware about the Devadasis. The religious temple-dancers.’
‘Yeah’, she replied sceptically. Her knowledge of Bharatnatyam had given her a glimpse about this shady cult.
‘You see…since time unknown to us, these Devadasis have been mentioned of in our scriptures and culture. Originally conceptualised to marry the Gods and keep their devotees happy, they enjoyed their respect and pompous lifestyle in the temples as well as in the courts of their patrons. It was also completely normal for them to please their devotees physically whenever needed and bear their child.’
‘Wait a minute! But why are you telling me all this?’ Parvathi asked.
‘Because your mother was one of them.’
That fell like a rock on her heart. Guruji continued.
‘Like others, your mother had been basking too in the glory of her obedient patrons, until her beauty caught attention of one of the local Zamindars. Your mother was just fifteen then.
‘Her beauty had sky-rocketed the lust inside him. And to get her, he made unimaginable donations to the temple and coerced the priests to send her to him. Finally it was agreed upon.’
Parvathi listened to her Acharya with rapt attention.
‘Soon in a few months, it became clear your mother was bearing a child in her womb. According to the traditions, she returned back to the temples to continue with her spirituality until she gave birth to you in next summer. She was only…’
‘Oh…’ she interrupted him in between, ‘…you mean to say I’m that Zamindar’s progeny?’
Parvathi couldn’t believe whatever she was hearing. Acharya caressed her back realising the storm that was going inside her.
‘At the age of only sixteen, she had her baby girl. You. She was mad with delight. You were the most valuable gift of her life. Until the Black Year. In 1988, the Andhra Pradesh government, imitating its bordering states, also passed the Devadasi Act thus putting a full-stop to every activity of them in the temples and around. The foundation of this thought had been placed by some of the British Imperialists back in pre-independent India. Declaring their activities as illegal and branding them as temple-harlots not only put an end to their rich era, but also looted them of their social respect. This was followed by a huge exodus of Devadasis to nearby regions, thus pushing them into the darker caves of prostitution and child-trafficking. This began the wheel of sexual slavery in the name of God.’
‘What happened to my mother?’
‘She went back to her love. Your father. To get a shade for you. But fearing boycott from the rest of the society for giving help to a Devadasi, he didn’t accept both of you.’
Her face clearly depicted how much hatred she was filled with after hearing this about that man.
‘Then what did she do?’ she enquired, her eyes getting watery.
‘After staying for a few days there at Kapila Teertham, she went empty on financial resources. Also she was worried about you. As a result, she arrived here and approached Sister Jenny explaining her condition; and she agreed to take care of you.’
‘But where did my mother go?’ she asked alarmed.
‘Realising she had no alternative other than diving into the world of prostitution, she left for Gudivadi. Those days, it was growing itself into a hub of flesh-traders. From there, she landed up in Raichur in Karnataka.’
Parvathi was not ready to believe any word he was uttering. She broke down completely. At a moment, she wished not to have begun this quest. Everything she was getting to know was hurting her more than she had anticipated.
Her teacher reached to her and taking her in his arms cajoled her.
‘Don’t take it all as a negative energy, honey. Your mom had the guts to take such a decision for your safety and well being. She didn’t want to expose you to her indecent world. Whatever she did was just for you, Parvathi, only for you…’
Though those words brought some relief to the storm in her head, she couldn’t just refute another query that was blowing tantrums inside her.
‘But, how do you know about all this, Guruji?’ she asked, her eyes unnecessarily putting the question-mark on her face.
His eyes rolled with confusion as this question confronted him. Taking a deep gasp, he added, ‘Me and Jenny loved each other.’
Parvathi’s eyes popped out hearing this. She very well knew nuns aren’t allowed to marry; also Guruji was already married. Still?
‘Whenever we used to see each other, she would talk about your mom and you. We both used to cuddle you as our daughter, a gift sent by the Gods. But the day she left this world, I got shattered. And along with that, I even forgot I had a daughter there waiting for me; until I saw you again seven years later.’
‘But why did you hide these facts from me all these years?’
‘Let me show you something and it’ll clear away your doubts’, he said as he went inside and came out with an envelope in his hand. He pulled out a letter and handed it over to her.
Turned weak from storage since all this years and revealing a distinct old-paper smell, the letter unfolded in her hands. She read it carefully as if she was reading her life’s prophecy.
Tears dropped like pearls on the letter and smudged the writing on it. Her heart filled with respect for her teacher as she came to know about the reason being her mother’s insistence of not disturbing her career in between.
Looking at her mother’s signature at the last line, she shot a glance towards her Guru. He nodded his head with love splashing from his eyes, ‘Yes…you have your mother’s name.’
The next morning, she boarded a flight to Bangalore from Tirupati. She was on the last step to her quest. The last obstacle from meeting her mother.
Last night, her teacher informed her about the possibility of finding her mother at Raichur in Karnataka. Earlier, one of the cities falling under the Nizam’s princely state of Hyderabad, now it was infamous for its wide-spread sex industry. And Parvathi’s mother was a part of it too.
After landing at the IT city of Karnataka, she took the bus to Raichur which was roughly seven hours from the capital.
Reaching there at six in the evening, she booked a room at a motel and took a shower to refresh herself. She was waiting for the right time.
Silencing her hunger, she went back to her room to change. Undressing herself, she walked up to the closet and chose the correct apparel to wear for tonight. To get into them, I have to be one of them.
At the end, she looked at herself in the mirror. Everything looked perfect. At ten p.m., she left her hotel room for the streets.
The area wasn’t like she had expected. Most of those depicted in the movies showed bright fancifully lit areas with women giggling and smoking cigarettes on the streets. This was quite distinct from that. It was dark and the air putrefied with the smell of alcohol and smoke. She could see very few women on the streets, and those on the streets didn’t really look interesting to her.
For the next one hour, she roamed in the deserted streets from one hotel to another asking about her mother. The hotels sort of worked as brothels for the clients and customers. She faced the harsh reality of their world after visualizing all that was happening around her.
Tired of this, she entered a small pub like shop there to get a feel of the environment inside and relax. It had filthy surroundings with men similar to those in the B-grade movies stalking at her. The seemingly less number of females inside the room made her feel a little insecure.
My mom has spent more time amongst them. I have no reason to be scared about, she motivated herself.
Just then, a pair of middle-aged women came giggling around her at the bartender’s table and ordered beer. Their overtly decorated faces assured Parvathi of them to be sex workers.
They were seductively staring at the men across the table, when Parvathi decided to interrupt.
The women turned to look at her and their face turned pale in a few seconds. They both exchanged some weird fear between their eyes.
‘Can you tell me where else in nearby Raichur can I find some clients?’ asked Parvathi hoping to search some other places.
‘Well, there’s another place on the outskirts of the city near the highways where you can definitely have a shot’, one of them replied.
‘Okay…thank you’, Parvathi smiled back and rose up to leave the shop.
‘Didn’t she look so much like Parvathi?’ murmured the other woman in her partner’s ears.
Parvathi froze there for a moment. They did say about Parvathi. What do they know about my mother?
She turned back and asked them again, ‘Did you say I look like someone?’
Surprised she had overheard their talk, the women nodded in unison. ‘One of the bi*ches here quite resembled you. We thought she arrived back from the dead.’
‘From the dead?’ enquired Parvathi.
‘Yeah last month only she died of HIV/AIDS at one NGO hospital. Thank God, she’s gone. Every customer wanted her. Not a single used to look upon others. She had doomed our business since long.’
‘By the way, what was her name you said?’ Parvathi asked, sweating from her head to toe, with her heart pumping like hell.
Unable to gulp the truth, Parvathi left in search for the Sisters of the Cross of Chavanod headquarters next morning. No, that can’t be true. They’re lying, she reassured herself.
Eventually after an hour’s search, she found out the organisation and begged for information about her mother to the authorities.
One of the receptionists escorted her to the Reverend’s office, where she was made to confront with the reality of her mother’s loss. The whole complex echoed with her cry. In a snap, all her dreams of taking her mom back with her, shattered. She was so less far from realizing her fantasies, but time had again proved its iniquity.
Mom waited for me so long, I myself delayed it.
The Reverend comforted her by giving her a letter her mother had written for her. She also told her about all activities her mother had done to bring out others like her from the ring of prostitution. In her last days, she had even helped little girls rescue from being a Devadasi at their respective villages.
Parvathi read the letter:
I don’t know if this letter would ever reach to your hands or not, but I have the assurance in my heart that wherever you are, you are in very safe hands. If you ever come searching for me and don’t find me, then don’t lament over this, honey. Just look into the eyes of these kids whom I have saved from getting into the fire in which I was thrown into. You’ll find me there. The light to your mother’s life still runs in their heart. They are the truth behind your mother’s untold legacy.
Please forgive me.
Still today, Parvathi lives. In the souls of those whom she saved. And in her daughter’s eyes.
Author’s note: This story is fictional, but the ‘Devadasi cult’ mentioned in here along with the facts about their exploitation including the Sisters of The Cross of Chavanod really exist. To this date, according to the Ministry of Women Welfare, there are still about 38,400 Devadasis who are pushed into this abyss of sexual slavery in the name of God.