‘In the arms of Mother Ganga,
To sleep the sleep of the stainless once more.’
Rakesh grew weary of fishing for customers, his line coming up empty each time. It was getting dark now, and the lights along the ghats were beginning to glimmer as the winter sun dimmed. Rakesh rowed his boat towards the eastern bank, as he always did this time of the evening, right after the Ganga Aarti ceremony at Dashashwamedh Ghat. He pulled his black woolen scarf more tightly around his head as the fog began to thicken, settling on the water like a last breath. By the time he had reached the middle, the fog was so thick he could see no more than a couple of yards all ahead. The water around his boat shone a slippery black, but just by his left oar, a small area the size of his sneaker glowed with a vivid white radiance. At first glance he thought it must be a flower candle, one of dozens set on the Ganga after sunset by pilgrims and tourists (and some a mixture of both). Rakesh loved to watch them, after those who lit them had made their wishes and moved on, bobbing on the river’s undulating skin, a mirror universe of fallen stars.
But it wasn’t a flower candle. It was not a reflection on the surface even. It was something emanating from below. Rakesh leaned over the side, straining his eyes to try to understand what he was seeing. What could it be? When he ran his fingers across the surface the light parted into ripples. When he withdrew his hand the light merged again at the same spot. He shivered a little and thought about home, of warming his hands at the kitchen fire where Ma was waiting for his return. But how could he leave without finding out what it was? He took off his clothes fast, and dived in.
Rakesh had bathed in the Ganga over a thousand times, but when he opened his eyes under the water, it occurred to him that he had never done so before. There was nothing before him but a murky blackness, and a sudden breathless panic gripped his chest. He was about to return to the surface, when he saw it. Shimmering just below him. He mustered up some courage and swam down towards it. His hands make contact with the riverbed, soft with sediment, and then, something smooth and round and cool slipped into his palm, as if propelled by its own motion. He shot back up, bursting through the water with a huge exhale and clambered over the side of the boat. He sat and stared at the thing in his hands. It felt like marble, was the shape of a ripe fig, and the size of a two rupee coin. And the colour….not white exactly, but as if all colour had blended into it. The light it gave off was so strong, that when he closed his small hand around it, his fingers became outlined with the red glow of his blood. Rakesh got dressed, wrapped the stone carefully into his headscarf, and hurried home.
As soon as he entered the house, Ma’s scolding was upon him, but he didn’t mind. He made fast work of his sabji and rice; Ma in her shrill hurried voice telling about the call from his elder brother, and the hardships of driving produce trucks across the Punjab to New Delhi. She spoke, as she always did, of how much she missed his father, who had found moksha at the cremation ground just two months back after a long illness, and how much harder everyone had to work now that he was gone. Rakesh was only twelve, but had been taking tourists on the Ganga for two full years. The whole world came to Varanasi, it seemed. Many Indians still called it Benares, after the British who couldn’t pronounce all four syllables correctly. But Rakesh preferred the older name; the one his grandfather always used. Kashi, the ‘luminous city’. The Japanese came in droves to Varanasi but were the worst tippers. Americans were scarce, but tipped the best. But the best money to be made was from the South Indians who came in hordes during the holy months to bathe away their sins.
Ma sent him to bed early without any TV as a punishment for being late, but it was exactly what he wanted. He waited and waited, until he could make out the soft kitten purr that was the sound of his mother’s sleep. Only then did he dare to take out the bundled scarf from his jacket pocket and unwrap it under the blanket. It shone like a full moon against the black wool. Moments of light, like miniature lightening strikes, danced across the surface. He closed his fingers around it, watching his blood light up between his fingers. He sensed a pulse run up his arm and fill his chest with a gently exhilarating power. He wrapped it up again and returned it to his jacket pocket. When he woke up the next morning Rakesh felt as if the world was waiting at his feet.
He took the stone to work with him the next morning, and kept it in his pocket. He didn’t look at it once, he didn’t dare, in case someone saw it; a customer or worse, one of the other boatmen. They were all older than him, and would surely take it from him. But he felt it, pulsing from inside his pocket. He caught five customers that day, which was four more than usual. It’s bringing me luck, this stone, he thought.
That night, Ma was cursing when he returned, but not at him. The electricity was out again, and she couldn’t get the kerosene lamp to stay lit. She said she’d been trying for ten minutes.
“Look. It lights but goes out right away.”
“Let me try,” said Rakesh. He struck a match and held it against the wick. It bloomed into flame and lit up Ma’s gentle smile as he replaced the glass shade.
“It hasn’t gone out,” she said in amazement.
Rakesh took out the money he’d earned that day and placed it in front of her.
“You’re a lucky one,” she laughed. “I’ll make you special sabji for dinner, with extra aloo, the way you like.”
She called him ten minutes later to help her light the fire.
“So funny,” she said. “With me it refuses to stay lit.”
The days and nights passed, and they all brought good things his way. He caught many customers, who treated him kindly and tipped well. He held the notes to his forehead in gratitude to the gods, and in the evening time, he crossed the Ganga, moored his boat on the eastern bank, and walked the half mile to his village, where he proudly offered the money to Ma, who hugged him tightly and put extra aloo in his dinner. But she started to rely on him to light the lamps and the fire because whenever she tried to do these things, the flames just sputtered for a moment and then went out.
After seven days, Rakesh had earned more than he usually did in a whole month.
“We’re not getting any customers these days,” his fellow boatmen complained. “This shrimp is catching them all.”
When he caught himself in the mirror, he liked what he saw. He flipped up his jacket collar and smoothed down his curly black hair with his right palm. On Saturday, he hurried home early to help Ma with the fire. It seemed to him that she was very tired these days. He found her lying on her mat, a cold sweat on her forehead. He took out the seven one hundred rupee notes he had made that day and pressed them into her hand.
“Fortune is shining on you,” she said, her eyes dull with fatigue.
When Ma was asleep, Rakesh pulled out the stone from his jacket pocket, as he had become accustomed to doing every night, and crawled under the blanket to gaze at it. His dark eyes filled with delight in its luminous beauty. Ever since he had found the stone he had felt special and large, not ordinary and small. But his feelings were mixed. He didn’t seem able to share his good fortune. He was constantly anxious that someone might discover it and take it from him. A large portion of his earnings went to a series of doctors, who came to the house, took Ma’s pulse and listened to her heart, prescribed small pills and wrote large bills. None of them seemed to know what was wrong with her.
As usual Rakesh got up two hours before dawn and rowed across the river to Meer Ghat, where he sat on the boat waiting for the tourists to trickle sleepily out of their guesthouses so they could experience sunrise on India’s most sacred river. He gazed into the calm water, his mind filled with turmoil. He tried to recite the long Hanuman mantra that his father had taught him for when he found himself in trouble, but he could recall less than half. The stone felt like it was burning a hole in his pocket with this secret that burned in his heart. Offerings of marigolds and books filled with purifying mantras in red ink floated past. I must seek the advice of Guru ji, he thought at last. Guru ji was the family guru. He meditated all the time in a small khaddi tent on the eastern bank near Ram Nagar, the dilapidated fort and home to the last King of Kashi until his death a few years back.
“Acha, a mani stone, said Guru ji, turning the stone over in his delicate hands. “These are very rare. How did you come by it?”
Rakesh told him the story.
“Acha, but this is stolen property.”
“I didn’t steal it,” retorted Rakesh indignantly. “I found it.”
“Found it, did you? Ha! Do you have any idea what to do with it?”
Rakesh admitted that he did not.
“A thousand years is just the beginning. You must go into the forest this full moon from the south side. There you will meet the ones who know.”
It was five days until the next full moon, and they passed slowly. Ma became weaker, and Rakesh stopped working the boats to look after her. He lit all the lamps and fires in the house and cooked for the both of them. The night of the full moon, after dinner, he made up an excuse to leave the house. Ma nodded weakly.
At the tree line on the southern edge, Rakesh hesitated to go further. An even older name for Varanasi, his grandfather had told him, was Ananda Bund, Joyful Forest. But he always avoided this place, home to all his village fears. Robbers who slit your throat for five rupees, lonely spirits who pick your heart clean, and fat-fingered flesh-eating demons. The trees shut out the moonlight, and Rakesh turned on the flashlight on his mobile phone. Guru ji hadn’t told him how deep in to go, so he kept on walking. After a few minutes, he heard something that sounded like a baby’s cough. A short soft hagggghk! that came from up ahead.
He continued to the edge of a small clearing filled with moonlight. What he saw there made him dip behind the trunk of a tree in fright. Seven cobras the length of rowing oars were gathered in a circle. Black and shiny as wet buffalo. The one nearest to him made the hagggghk sound and spat a glowing object onto the earth where five others already lay. It was a stone exactly like his. Rakesh felt a stab of pain in his chest. He’d believed his stone to be one of a kind, something meant only for him. But here were six of them, all the same, all radiating with the same inner fire.
As if it had sensed his agitation, the cobra froze upright and rotated its head in his direction. Its eyes were orange as cremation.
“Come out from there,” it hissed.
Rakesh stepped to the side of the tree trunk but didn’t move forward. He pulled the stone from his pocket and held it out in the middle of his palm.
“Ah yessssss. So young,” said the snake.
The others nodded their heads slightly as if in agreement.
“He hasssss the sssssseventh sssssstone,” said the orange-eyed snake, though his mouth didn’t move at all while he spoke, and the other snakes all hissed in unison, so loudly that Rakesh had to cover his ears.
“Sssssso young,” said one.
Then each snake took up a stone into its mouth and slithered in the direction of the river. All except one, that dipped its head and brushed Rakesh’s trouser legs as it passed.
Rakesh kept his distance, but didn’t lose sight of them, the stones giving off enough light to for him to follow easily. When they reached the water’s edge, the cobras reared up as if preparing to strike, and the stones in their mouths seemed to shine more brightly. There was a sound like the dipping of an oar, and a woman emerged from the river and moved to the shore as if carried on a tide.
She was dressed in a long white sari. Her thick black hair trailed behind her and disappeared into the water, dripping with water droplets shiny as jewels. Her eyes were slightly downward cast, her nose sloped gently, a silver ring nested in one nostril. Her lips were wet and the palest of pinks like the clouds of Kashi moments before dawn. She stretched out her arms and cupped her hands, whereupon each cobra lowered its head and placed its stone gently inside. When all six stones were in her hands, the woman turned ever so slightly in the direction of Rakesh. He couldn’t seem to look at her for more than a second at a time. The stone began to get hot in his hand until he could barely hold onto it any longer. The orange-eyed snake nodded, and he knew what he had to do. He made a few shaky steps forward and awkwardly placed his stone along with the rest. As he did so, an enormous wave of relief washed over him and he almost fell to the ground.
“Go home,” said the woman, resting her gaze upon him with eyes deep as Arabian wells. “Your mother is feeling better now. She has lit the lamps, and she is waiting.”
Really beautiful story. thank you xo
Thank you, Frances. It was an honour to write it.
I like the photo of the boy. But all along I kept thinking he was getting radiation poisoning. So, can you explain to an Asperger what the allegory meant?
Ha ha….can I explain it to an Asperger? No 🙂