In honor of my 60th birthday later this month, I share this story, which I wrote a long time ago, celebrating the spirit of love, community, and the wonder that lives in our hearts. Enjoy!
It was a hot, sun-bleached morning in late August, the month of monsoons and sultry rain. But the rains had been delayed by more than two months. The newspapers in the big cities of Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, were full of stories about people in villages in the hinterland dying of sunstroke, dying of thirst and starvation. Cattle were dying too. Their fly-blown carcasses could be seen from the windows of trains that chugged by fields dry as bone and baked by a merciless sun.
Mud huts lacked their usual covering of cow-dung patties. No rain meant no fodder, which meant no cows; hence no patties, no fuel to cook with. But then there was no food to be cooked anyway, so it didn’t much matter. Wells were dry. The earth itself was cracked and parched. Trees withered, their sap shrivelled in the merciless heat. The government of India proclaimed a state of national emergency. It issued communiques on All India Radio exhorting people to tighten their belts and stand in solidarity with the nation’s farmers, whose farms were disappearing into dust before their despairing eyes.
An army of astrologers, priests and pundits descended on the capital city of Delhi, intent on making their fortunes by predicting rain in three days, three weeks, or three years. During this time, they said, famine would stalk the land. The gods would have to be propitiated daily, even hourly, by generous offerings of ghee and gold, if the coming of Kaliyuga – the Dark Age – were to be averted by the prayers of these holy men.
In the tiny village of Gopinagar, which stood fragile and exposed in the middle of a broad plain near the bay of Cambay, the village elders had called a meeting to decide what to do. Nine year old Shantha, cradled half-asleep in her father’s lap, listened to the arguments swirling around her late into the night. The men’s voices, cracked and bleak, hung in the dusty air under the withered tamarind tree which, in better days, had sheltered many village meetings in its green shade. Now it served only as a reminder of the grim fate that awaited them all.
The crops were gone. The cattle were gone. The well was a dusty hole in the ground. The villagers had eaten the seed-grain that was to have been planted after the monsoons. The children were getting sick. Their eyes were yellow, their faces grey. Their bellies had grown round and protruberant. Their hair turned rusty red from starvation.
There was talk of sending a letter to the local Member of Parliament, begging for relief, but to do that someone would have to walk to the nearest town, some eight miles away, where there was a scribe who would write down their words for a small fee. For a further sum, he would take their plea to the post office and ensure that it went out in the mail. But they had no money to pay the scribe, to pay the post-office; and they were all too weak from hunger to walk the required distance. In better times, they would have ridden their bullock-carts into the weekly market in Midnapore, but the bullocks, too, were dead now. The men’s voices rose and fell as Shantha drifted off into a tugging dream.
In her dream it was early morning: that brief half-hour when the dew was still on the ground. The air was cool, the sky pearly with the first rays of the sun. Birds chattered in the paddy fields and preened themselves in the muddy waters of the village pond. She dreamed that, at this hour, before the sun had become fierce and burning, a great bird flew overhead. It wheeled like a hawk – a hawk whose wings spanned the whole sky – directly over her parents’ hut. Its wings were the colours of a peacock’s plumes, rich and glossy. But instead of an “eye” at the precise center of each feather, there was a round, gold coin which glistened and winked in the morning light.
This magical bird uttered no sound. But the great sweep of its wings as it circled the sky made a powerful whoosh-whoosh-whooshing that brought other members of the village to the threshold of their huts to gaze at it, open-mouthed with wonder.
As Shantha dreamed on, the bird circled lower and lower, until the shadow of its wings darkened the interior of her parents’ hut.
All around Shantha, people were screaming and crying, prostrating themselves on the ground below this mystic bird, this messenger from the gods. They believed that such a messenger could only be the bringer of bad news. Anything out of the ordinary was, in their experience, to be feared rather than welcomed.
In her dream, Shantha was the only member of the village still standing upright, face turned to the sky, following, with her eyes, the spiralling course of this Garuda, this mythical, magical beast. As she watched, it slowed its course until it was completely still, hovering in mid-air a few yards above her head. Then, with a final rush of its wings it swooped down until its great, hooked beak was directly beside her left ear. She felt the touch of it, cold and hard against her cheek, but she was not afraid.
Even as her mother and brothers shrieked and called on their household gods to come to her aid, Shantha felt a great peace. She felt herself enfolded in a love as supple and infinite as the sky. And she knew, with the certainty of one who is touched by the gods, that this was no ill-fated omen but the great god Vishnu himself: Preserver of that mortal world which was breathed into being by Brahma and which would be destroyed, in its last days, by mighty Shiva, the third face of their holy Trinity.
At that moment, Shantha turned her head and looked into the bird’s all-seeing eye. For a long moment, they gazed upon each other, and in that moment much was transmitted, darshan offered and received. And even though Shantha, in her dream, did not know the precise meaning of the knowledge she had thus gained, she knew that the course of her life had been altered forever.
The bird rose vertically, without any visible movement of its wings, and, in another moment, it was gone. Shantha slept on, waking only briefly when her father carried her in his arms back into their hut. The meeting had been adjourned without any decision being made, and the people of the village went to their beds that night wondering how many more nights they had left to live.
The next morning, Shantha woke early; so early that even her mother was still asleep. She felt herself transformed, buoyant as a bird, with a nameless joy which started in the region of her heart and spread its fingers into her belly and out through all her limbs. Into her mind there flashed an image. Before she had time to consider it, she ran out of the hut.
Her skinny legs pumping as fast as they could, she made her way down to the wadi, the dry creek bed beside which their village was nestled. Avoiding the thorn bushes which nipped at her bare feet, she ran down into the middle of the wadi and there she began to dance. She twirled her slender body around and around. She stamped her feet, raising clouds of red dust around her. She wove intricate patterns in the dusty air with her arms and swiveled her head from side to side. Her long black hair, disheveled from sleep, swung to and fro to the beat of an invisible drum. Her mouth was stretched wide in a joyous smile.
A moment later, she began to sing. Shantha sang a song no one had ever heard before, in a language she did not know. Its melody was simple and haunting, with a rising lilt and a pronounced beat. It had the same celebratory joy as the dance she was still dancing, as the dance that was dancing her. She sang on and on as the sun rose in the sky, untiring and energetic as though she had just eaten a bellyful of dal and rice.
Some of the villagers, waking to this joyous sound, dragged themselves down listlessly to the edge of the wadi. They squatted there in small groups, wagging their heads from side to side as they discussed Shantha’s peculiar behaviour. The village headman said she was surely possessed by a demon. He was soon surrounded by a group of villagers who agreed with this diagnosis.
One man suggested a fool-proof way to exorcise the Rakshasa who had possessed the child’s body. Tie her to a tree and burn tulsi leaves on her belly, he said. No-no, protested another. Draw a circle of protection around her with chunam. Then read the Bhagavad Gita aloud until the demon, unable to bear the power of the holy words, slinks away. The village midwife suggested rubbing Shantha’s head with mustard oil, then placing two lemons and a green chilli on her chest to drive away the evil spirit.
This last suggestion was met with derision. Where would they find a lemon, or green chillies? Waah-waah! Such stupidity! An elderly woman maintained the child was merely delirious from thirst and starvation. This hypothesis met with the approval of several other women, who murmured agreement. The village headman sent two of his children to summon Shantha’s parents.
Weak from hunger and thirst, Shantha’s parents shuffled slowly towards the wadi from their hut. Walking into the circle of their neighbours, they were greeted with much shaking of heads and sober commiseration.
Shantha’s father ventured down into the middle of the wadi. He tried to put his arms around his daughter, pleading with her to return to their hut and lie down in its shade. Her eyes remained closed. The expression on her face was ecstatic. The muscles in her throat rippled as she sang. She danced with her head flung far back, her hair flying in the dusty air. Her father commanded her, in his cracked, hoarse voice, to stop, to return to their hut. Shantha remained oblivious. She danced and sang with a single-minded grace and purity of purpose that excluded everything else.
Meanwhile, Shantha’s mother, surrounded by the women of the village, maintained an air of resolute unconcern. The women looked at her out of the corners of their eyes. She ignored their whispered warnings, their damp palms which patted her sweating back and arms. Cradling her elbows in her hands, she kept her eyes fixed on her daughter. A small smile came and went on her sun-chapped lips.
Eventually, the women, rebuffed, left her alone. They gossiped and speculated about her alarming lack of concern for her child. One of them called on the gods and rolled her eyes skyward in automatic tribute. A second later, she gasped. Trembling with excitement, unable to speak, she pointed to the sky.
Dark clouds were racing in from the west, obliterating the sun. The women around her cried out, pointed, clapped their hands. Excitement spread like lightning. Within moments, the entire village had forgotten about Shantha and her astonishing behaviour. They were laughing and weeping. They praised Vishnu and embraced each other in a transport of joy. The monsoons had finally arrived.
The first drops of rain were met with jubilant cries and prayers of thanksgiving. The villagers opened their parched mouths and let the blessed rains fall directly down their eager throats. The drops turned into a deluge, and people were squatting on the ground in the rain, allowing its sweet coolness to soak through their clothes and drench them to the skin.
Nobody noticed that Shantha was no longer singing or dancing; that, indeed, Shantha was nowhere to be found among the celebrating throng. Only her mother saw Shantha open her arms joyously towards the sky as though welcoming a friend, or a god. She watched Shantha being pulled upward by an invisible force which bathed her entire body in a blue-green glow before she disappeared, leaving no trace of her passage through the glistening rain.
For many years after, the villagers speculated about what had happened to nine-year-old Shantha in that year of the terrible famine and the magical monsoon. None of them came near the truth, however, because Shantha’s mother never spoke to anyone in the village of what she had seen that day. Only in her old age did she break her silence, when her younger sister, Lalita, came to visit her from Midnapore. Late one summer’s night, as she sat combing Lalita’s hair, she whispered to her the true story of Shantha’s disappearance.
For the rest of her life, Shantha’s mother placed daily offerings of fruit and flowers at a small shrine she had made near the edge of the wadi, between the roots of a mango tree. The shrine was simple: a flat rock with a natural hollow into which she poured oil and floated a wick. Lighting a lamp for her daughter who had flown away into the sky so that her village and her people might live and prosper.
(How about you? If you have a story about wonders and miracles that have unfolded in your life, or around you, I’d love to hear about it. Let’s share our miraculous stories. From the smallest fingertip to the vastest star, they remind us of who we really are.)