A short piece of creative writing, taaken from my Roadside collection (1992-2017) - originally published on LinkedIn, November 7, 2016.
Her name was Kusum. She had been walking in front of me for a while now and I had slowly fallen into her pace and into the rhythm of her body and I had seen the truck coming towards us as the pinpoint head on a whirling funnel of sand and dust.
She was a figure in a cloudscape. Whirlwind bound. All I could see was her backside in rags and the lotus prints of her feet on the desert sands and the tray on her head and the glasswork on it, and the pinpoint truck getting closer, un-pinning, un-pointing, still silent, but dragging a ten headed monster of turbulence and invisibility in its wake.
She was an apsara. A nymph of spheres. Unborn. And unbegotten. She was beyond intrusion. Beyond harm. She would be safe.
I don’t know if I should be telling you this because conversations between mortals and other beings are supposed to be potent spells that keep their tantric magic for just as long as they remain within the realm of well-kept secrets, but here we go, in my walking days I actually did tend to pray quite a bit, as at that time I was contemplating on some utterly complicated stuff with regard to atman and anatman, or is there a soul?, or is there not?, while I gently negotiated my way down from the foothills through the basin of the River Ganga, towards Prayaag, and yonder, to Sarnath near Varanasi, where the wheel of the dhamma was brought into motion and I longed to be riding on its tail wind.
It was really quite a bit of a walk, but I trod with time on my side and a stack of enlightening thoughts in my head.
Raam Raam, I said. Let her be safe.
But my prayer got unheard.
She was walking in front of me and I had gradually descended into her pace and into the teen-taal rhythm of her body when the silence of the setting sun burst out in bleeding as it got struck in the back by the roar of the engine and now the truck got really close. I was about three hundred feet behind, trying to unite with her footsteps, but now I could feel the Ashok Leyland thunder and blast and I remember very well that in a flash I wondered why for goodness sake the driver didn’t blink and why the girl kept walking and walking and walking and didn’t budge not even an inch and then when it was way too late I shouted, yes, I must have shouted, I must have been shouting to her although I cannot recall the exact words but I am sure I was shouting, while all of it, the evening sun and the road and the girl and the tray and the glasswork and the truck and my thoughts and my shouting and I got engulfed by particles marticles sarticles darticles and nothing but whooooosh.
When Goddess Dawn has risen up for glory, it says in the Rig Veda, in her blanket splendour like the waves of waters, she renders the pathway all easy and fair to travel, revealing herself so benign and so friendly, and we see that she is good, and her lustre is shining, and her splendours connect the road we must take to the heavens.
Dawn, thou makest bare thy bosom, and showest us thy way.
Her name was Kusum. A flower. She was not even eight years old. With the sand and the dust settled and the evening sky turned orange and red, we found ourselves sitting together on the tarmac, still warm of the day and simmering and now carpeted with the fragrant flower buds of her blood. The tray lay bent midway. The glasswork in pieces. Sharp and mingled and violently out-of-place, but surprisingly peaceful in a late ray of sunlight, with edges red and greasy and having done their life threatening work.
She did not speak. She did not cry. She stared.
I knew this by heart, back then: Uttisthata jaagrata praapya varannibodhata, kshuraasanna dhaaraa nishitaa dustayadurgama pathah tat kavayo vadanti.
Arise! Awake! Approach the great and learn. Like the sharp edge of a razor is the road, the poets say, indeed so hard to tread and difficult to cross. Arise, awake, and stop not till the goal is reached!
When I saw that her right ear was dangling down on her shoulder and a small shard of bottle green glass was protruding from her skull just above the dark red well of life from which her atman, or anatman, or whatever, was flowing rapidly down, and when I had finished thanking Dawn for having re-emerged upon us, in a flash, I shook off my satchel laden with books in order to get to my backpack in which I knew I had a bottle of Bisleri, unopened, unlike the conch shell of her ear, to wash her, and some bandage with which I could try to keep her head from further emptying itself on the road.
On the tarmac, into the dust, fell a fresh copy of the Katha Upanishad, from which I had just recited a verse, Hans Wolfgang Schumann’s In the Footsteps of the Historical Buddha, by that time in tatters, Dharmanand Kosambi’s Essential Writings gracefully edited by his granddaughter Meera, Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara, one hundred poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and We Indians by the late Khushwant Singh.
This was painful, I know, but with a mantra in mind that to abstain from material possessions is key, I could not care less at the moment and I was quite ready to leave behind the printed matter of sacred texts and the other writings, unread but not forgotten, like a sermon heard - and even the poems, now stained with the dark and throbbing fluids of her Ganga.
Could it be that the essence of life was a mere few items in my bag? I was in haste and I did not assign even a fraction of expensive time to delve deep down and reach for the bandage, so I took a fresh kurta I had bought just a few days before on the market in Muzaffarpur and I tore it while with my other hand I took her ear and flapped it upwards into its place where I held it with my thumb pressed down onto her delicate skull where the piece of glass had flowed down from by now, like a paper boat on a river, or had it disappeared into the abyss of her brains? – anyway, it was gone, and I wound my kurta around her head and I wound it and wound it and wound it and I pressed hard and I hoped that the blood would stop flowing and she did not speak a word and her name was Kusum and she had been walking in front of me for a really long time and I had slowly agreed to the pace she had set and settled into the rhythm of her lotus feet and yes I had seen the truck coming towards us first as the pinpoint head on a whirling funnel of sand and dust but I had shouted at her way too late and now she was sort of lying in my arms like a helpless little kitten desperately looking for the essence of existence from her mommy’s bosom but I was not the Goddess Dawn and I was not sure that I could really help her or anything.
What to do? For a whole long while she did not speak a word as she lay in the swan’s embrace of my arms, like wings, her eyes open, looking away towards some ethereal place high up, that I could not fathom, the only sign of her inner self in that one and lonely tear, that had left a snaily trace on her dusty cheek, connecting the innermost core of her left eye with that one drop of salty substance, upright on her skin like a tiny devotional stupa, the kind of which I had seen a few months before, in the first few days of my walking quest, my pad yatra, at Lumbini, marking the spot on which Siddharta had first seen the light of day, the boy and future Buddha who would become the conqueror of all suffering and the liberator of mankind.
Her name was Kusum. She survived.
Crickets in a cloudscape.
We were quite alone on the road, Kusum and I. The tarmac stretched straight like the track of Arjun’s arrow at both sides towards as far as one could see. Softly, the night came down in a blanket of cloud, as the crickets started their evening raga from the mustard fields surrounding us. I once read that crickets, but only the males, produce their typical chirping sound by stridulation, which is the unlikely word attributed to the rubbing together of certain body parts. Now if you would care to pardon my biology, in the cricket’s case the stridulatory organ par excellence seems to be located on the tegmen, or forewing, which is said to be smooth and glossy and leathery and very much the kind of texture that one would like to rub something against. Along the centre of such a forewing runs a vein, it is said and written, with comb-like serrations on its edge, forming a file-like structure - while at the rear edge is what is claimed by connoisseurs to be some kind of scraper. The cricket’s chirping, then, is produced as the tegmina are held at an altogether certain angle to the body and rhythmically raised and lowered, which causes the scraper on one wing to rasp on the file on the other - while at the same time, the central part of the tegmen functions like the kaddu of a tampura, being covered by a sclerotinized membrane, which resonates and amplifies the volume of sound, as does the pocket of air between the tegmina and the body wall. Ooooommmm.
For some time it was really hard for the David Attenborough in me to keep my mind from drifting away on all this and more of such biological wonders, while I gently rocked her on my wings, in a soothing purr – till it came to me that she had quite fallen asleep on my drone and we had become one body with the clouds now and I covered her even more, with my dark green coloured dushala, as we sat there on the roadside and I tried not to shiver because the night had become unexpectedly cold and damp and normally I would have walked some more in order to get to the next village or so and I would have tried to spend the night there but now I did not know how to get up and going without brutally forcing this helpless and abandoned man-cub from her peaceful slumber.
We sort of gently sat there in the darkness, together filling a void of absence, enveloped by a chrysalis of cricket buzz. There was no traffic and there were no passers-by. I saw no light and heard no voice. She breathed, slowly, deliberately - and so did I.
The broken glasswork was still on the road. Untouched, unused. Somewhat pathetic, like run-down sparrows with carmine linings on broken wings. Useless, forlorn, colourless and hollowly deep.
We sat there, together. She breathed for life, with every inch of her body. She breathed for spirit. And for atman. Or anatman. Or whatever. Soul, un-soul, what did I know.
She breathed for the both of us.
Thus, we spent the first vigil.
Of course I would not sleep. It occurred to me that I should probably sing a life giver's song, or plead for life, like Savitri, notoriously, once did so well for Satyavant, luring Yama, God of Death, into the realms of her charm with poetry and loving kindness. But would my kirtan and my metta do? If Yama came? Would I be good and strong enough? Most surely I would not?
Then, I thought of the village, unseen and unsmelled, that was bound to lay across, in the barren mustard fields, where pie dogs were heard howling at the darkness, where shelter and care were sure to abound, and whence the kusum in my arms most certainly hailed from. Would not her parents be restless, shrouding her absence with sorrow and lament? Would not her folk mind a lot?
I felt apprehensive. Overcome with doubt. What was it that I had left undone, which could have moved the state we were in towards a better outcome?
With the coming of the second vigil I got overpowered by an all-pervading urge to act and I decided to wake her and speak to her, urgently, questioningly, admonishingly, severely, yet lovingly, as a father would to a long-lost child.
Stridulation interrupted, she looked at me and the milky ocean in her eyes seemed smaller than I remembered and although she did seem to hear and understand my questions and my worries and my doubts and my fears she did not say a word and I decided to call her Kusum, which means Flower, as she kept staring at the messed-up glasswork ahead. Was it the glassware that had separated her from being the kusum that she still was, to me, even with her head bandaged in the best of my kurtas and her ear dug somewhere deep inside the womb under the makeshift turban I had draped her head with?
She could not go home. Not possibly. She had broken the glass. She would be held responsible. Her folk would be furious.
Once upon a time, in a piece of secret teaching known as Kathopanishad, when Nachiketa had noticed that his father had been selecting a bunch of second-rate goods to offer to the gods, he resolved to do better than that and he went to his daddy and said “I am one of your most prized possessions, am I not, responsible and all, and I wonder to whom among the gods you will be offering me?”
Does it surprise us that Nachiketa’s old man was not too fond of the way in which he was criticised by the boy for being frugal in his dealings with the gods? - And so he said “I shall give thee to Yama, Lord of Death."
Thus it happened that Nachiketa arrived at Death’s doorstep, but since Death had just gone out for a short holiday, Nachiketa had to wait for no less than three full days and nights before he was asked in by one of his Lordship’s uncanny yet able attendants. As it turned out, Lord Yama was in no mood for insults or broken promises and he kindly said to Nachiketa that “since you have waited for three nights, ask now for three boons”.
This was fine and Nachiketa proceeded forthwith to ask a limitless amount of peace-of-mind and shanti for both his father and himself. Which was granted, easy enough.
Next, Nachiketa wished to learn how to set up a user account for an augmented reality game called fire sacrifice, which is an altogether serious business and a hanky-panky normally reserved for only the highest ranking of divinely admitted cronies, and although Yama was understandably less keen this time, he had no other choice than to comply.
For his third and last boon, brave Nachiketa asked fearsome Yama to be taught the enduring mystery of what comes after death, a congenital question, frankly, which was met with astonishment, bewilderment and sheer unbelief by Yama since not even the great Lord of Death seems to be able to fully grasp what comes after death, let alone would be given to explanations thereof.
Nachiketa, urged by Yama to ask for anything else, such as wealth and fortune for himself and an almirah full of silk sarees for his mother if she wanted, “ye daulat bhi le lo!”, got a wee bit annoyed by Yama’s refusal to comply. Not taking 42 for an answer, our hero could not but remind the Lord of his hitherto unanimously praised and pukka reputation in steadfastness and sticking to one’s word – whereupon Yama, with an air composed and unflustered and secretly pleased with the apparent stubbornness and unrelenting inquisitiveness of his disciple, at last started elaborating on the intrinsic nature of the true self, the atman, yes, the soul and not the not-soul, the human soul itself, which is believed to exist and persist even at yonder side, so he said, and which should be realised by the devotee to be inseparable from, nay, identical with the brahman, or the supreme divine spirit, or the vital force in the existence of the universe.
“That art thou,” said Yama, “and thy goal, the goal of the wise, is to know this all-encompassing soul”.
Thus having learned the wisdom of the atman and the brahman from Yama, Nachiketa was freed from the cycle of births.
Her name was Kusum. She was seven years old. She had been walking in front of me as I had slowly fallen into her pace and into the rhythm of her body - and although I had seen the truck coming towards us, first the pinpoint head on a whirling funnel of sand and dust, but later swelling and rolling by like the ire of Indra, I had not shouted at her nor warned her off the track or anything, but instead I had found myself sitting on the tarmac throughout the first two vigils of a seemingly random night, sad yet blessed, with a flower in the wings of my arms, listening to the poets, studying biology, staring at broken glassware and talking to Yama, Lord of Death.
And she survived.
Blissfully seasoned by a lifetime of living, studying and working across continents, from South Asia over the Middle East to Europe, Francis Laleman (Beyond Borders), originally an academic researcher in India Studies, a social worker and an educationalist, has been spending the best part of his career in envirmonments of learning & development, instructional design and community organisation. His creative writing, and the Roadside Confessional Writings series in particular, is a means to use storytelling as a tool to help learners find a way through the deep dark woods of moral & ethical dilemmas and decision making.