The dying embers of a funeral pyre lent a shuddery eeriness to the burning ghat. It was a moonless, torrid night. A bat suddenly screeched out from a tree overhead, startling Neha. Strange shadows flitted on the river that was almost invisible on this ominous night, as it gurgled past. Across on the other bank, a dog wailed long and loud, making her flesh creep. Involuntarily her hand reached out to Padma’s in the dark. Padma patted her hand reassuringly and whispered, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.” Neha wasn’t so sure as beads of perspiration began to trickle down her temples. Her hands were clammy, her mouth and throat went dry and her heart beat wildly. She wanted to flee this place where even the dead did not walk at night. She had lied to her husband and in-laws and now regretted coming here with a stranger.
There was a rustle in the bushes to her left. A figure emerged from the trees and walked towards them. Neha was petrified but Padma stood up with alacrity and pulled her up. Dragging Neha towards the looming figure, she fell at his feet.
“Jai Bhole Nath. Follow me” growled the sadhu, loud enough for only their ears.
Neha stood rooted. Padma who was both excited and impatient, pushed Neha ahead fiercely and they were soon in front of a pyre that crackled greedily as it devoured the lifeless flesh. It lit up the sadhu’s dark face, haloed by matted hair and an unkempt dirty beard. He wore only a loin cloth with ash smeared all over his body. The garland of bones adorning his thick neck spooked Neha out totally. He nodded at Padma and then turned his piercing gaze on Neha. She felt ice in her bones; like being impaled by the stealthy, unflinching eyes of a fiendish reptile.
“Swamiji, this is Neha. She has been married for eight years but has no issues. I told her you had the powers to bless her with a son.”
“You have come to the right place”, said the sadhu. His thin lips parted, in a grimace more than a grin, revealing stained teeth. “Come close to this fire, to my right. You will be definitely blessed with a son, but after he is seven years old, I will make him mine. Only if you agree to that, will I go further or you may leave right now,” said the sadhu imperiously.
Paralysed as she was, Neha heard a strange voice pleading distantly, “No swamiji. Please don’t turn me away now. I will do whatever you say. Just grant me this boon.”
“Have you brought what I had asked for?” He looked at Padma.
“Yes, swamiji. Neha give your bundle to him.”
Again like an automaton, Neha handed over the bundle she had carried with her – five thousand rupees in cash and gold jewelry. She had also brought along a coconut, a packet of incense sticks and some flowers. The sadhu signaled that she should put it all between them.
Now he began to chant mantras and sprinkled some powder onto the pyre, which leapt with a splintering sound, into bluish-green tongues licking the air. Without really seeing, Neha noticed that he kept pulling the powder and whatever else he threw into the fire, from a well polished human skull. Totally benumbed now with an all consuming desire for a son, she was ready to go through anything. The intensity of the incantations rose with the smoke from the pyre. Her eyes began to burn and water; the ears were deaf to all other sounds. Without a pause, the sadhu now picked up the coconut and flowers and threw them into the flames. Then he tied an amulet on her arm and sprinkled her hair and shoulders with ash, a frightening gleam in his eyes. He began to chant faster and with renewed ferocity.
Neha seemed to sink into a limbo. She began to sway dangerously. Then she stood up and began a bizarre dance around the pyre, twirling, croaking, loosened hair flying around her like bats from some netherworld.
When she awoke the next morning, she felt groggy. Her eyes smarted and she felt a dull ache in her whole body. She looked around at the strange room. When she heard her friend Nalini’s voice it all came back to her – the burning ghat, the sadhu and Padma.
“Nalini, how did I reach here? Where is Padma? And the sadhu? Oh God. How can I go home like this? What will I tell my husband? I feel awful, Nalini.” She began to sob.
Her friend soothed her fears, reminded her that she would soon be a proud mother and that last night would be a landmark in her life. Then she handed her a small packet. There was some greenish powder in it. The sadhu had given it with the instruction that she was to mix it in a specially made pumkin halwa and ensure that her husband ate it on the next moonless night.
……to be continued