The following week Padma was visiting the Maa Bhavani temple in the plains. It was a special invitation to her father for the ‘mahapuja’. But the king asked her to visit with her ‘beau’ Keshav.
Padma was awkward, especially since Aarti was barely visiting her and she couldn’t reveal her arrangement with Keshav to anyone. She hated that she was all set to lose two of her closest friends.
Since the puja was at night, a special security entourage was put together. Padma had texted Aarti about the visit and she hoped her friend would make it tonight. She missed her…
Padma couldn’t forget the man who had saved her a week ago and wanted to talk to someone about her feelings. Usually, Aarti would be all ears and give her advice on what she could do. But tonight, she felt lonelier than ever…
The dark orbs mesmerized her
Clouded her waking Chimeras
The fathomless pool of melancholy
Life showering distressful volley
Dressed in the traditional Navvari she walked next to Keshav. They approached the bottom of the 35 step stone stairway built during the reign of Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj. The stairs made from stones were steep, and today they were covered by a thick red carpet to welcome the princess.
Padma looked up at the visible temple’s dome with an orange flag proudly flying atop in its royal splendor. The crescent moon smiled down upon her, and she shut her lids, breathing in the fresh mystical night air. Instantly the narrowed dark orbs gleamed in her mind’s eye, and she shuddered as she opened her lids.
The temple was the lone structure on the top of the hillock surrounded by a dense growth of wild trees and bushes spread around the boundary walls. A part of the security moved and checked for any danger signs. On their clearance, she began her ascent along with Keshav, holding the ‘puja thaal’. The silver plate had a coconut, betel leaf with the round betel nut and a floral garland. The marigold fragrance reminded her of when her mother would string a garland for their in-house temple.
Little Padma would sit nearby as the select help and her mother and grandmother who would be visiting them during occasions, dished out baskets of floral bliss. The help would speak about different topics and her mother would advise them on various queries, be it a simple marital squabble or health concerns.
A drop of water fell on her jerking her out of her reverie. Padma blinked and came back to the present. It looked like it would rain soon, just like her life the weather was unpredictable.
The climb was tedious with her saree. She had worn light pearl jewelry vetoing the palace tradition of donning heavy gold jewelry and the only precious piece on her was the ‘nath’, the nosering an heirloom from her mother. The queen had always worn it for any religious or royal event.
A large mother of pearl in the center surrounded by rubies flanked with golden leaves sought the design by leading jewelry designers. Her maternal grandmother handed down the intricate pattern to her mother, and now Padma wore it. She was expected to wait until her marriage but the piece felt as if her mother was with her. Padma blinked back tears as she missed her mother… The crescent-shaped red bindi completed her tradional look.
The temple was lit up and Padma was enthralled by the ambience. It was a welcome break for her given her turmoil these days. Padma presided over the puja as Keshav accompanied her, keeping distance as she went about the rituals. He was dressed in daper clothes that made him look like a thorough politician. Padma’s heart went out for her friend who was probably struggling in every way just like her but was doing his best for the palace and the province.
The beautiful eyes of the idol spellbound her. Her mother often described the idol to her. As a child, she wasn’t taken along because of security concerns. And today her wish to see the Goddess was fulfilled… if only her mother were here.
During the ‘Aarti’ Padma stared at the mesmerizing eyes of the idol as if the stone sculpture was having a conversation with her. Padma was in a daze as the cacophony of the temple bells and the hymns engulfed her. The visual blizzard of the oil lamps all over, and along the perimeter of the temple, the staccato of the decorative electric lights, all but consumed her.
She was on auto-pilot as they walked outside and strode along the heavily guarded perimeter. Keshav was a little behind her with the security guards spread like a halo. Padma felt claustrophobic and wanted nothing more than to escape the little gathering.
A group of villagers was waiting for a glimpse of their future queen, and she couldn’t disappoint them. It would help her father’s cause as well. The support of the tiny villages in their province meant a lot for them.
At the backside of the temple, as she continued to walk barefoot, there was silence, the jingling of her anklet the only piercing sound accompanying the nocturnal discordance by the creatures of the dark… how she wished to see them. Her love for nature she had inherited from her mother now threatened to strangulate her. She wanted to go… just for a while. But cutting loose was next to impossible.
She looked towards the wall and her eyes fell on a little opening. The rains must have damaged the wall and the cemented part looked fresh. As she thought of a plan, the lights went off, surrounding them with darkness. Only a couple of oil lamps glistened dutifully as the security guards on that side scampered towards her. She heard them and saw their sillhoutes.
Then, as if there was some celestial interference, it looked like a tuft of breeze stormed upon them, blowing the lamps off and plunging them into total darkness.
As she grappled with keeping a footing on the ground with the ongoing chaos, she heard some clicks and felt a thud next to her. That was followed by another thud, this time accompanied by a groan.
“What the hell is going on? Padma…?” Keshav yelled somewhere behind her. Fear of the unknown surfaced, and she was reminded of that night on her birthday.
The cumulation of sensory overload from the evening closed in upon her, and her heart raced. She rarely got anxiety attacks these days though they were rampant for a few months after her mother had passed. But now she was losing the reins…
And what were those sounds? She heard a couple of thuds and screams more. Were they attacked… wait… were they gunshots? Yes they were. She sat on her hunches even as she got hit by a couple of running bodies and she fell. She thought she would be trampled to death… but suddenly someone held her arm and pulled her up.
Her voice caught in her throat as she couldn’t make out anything but it was a strong silhouette of a man probably covered in complete black. The man hoisted her on his shoulder as if she barely weighed anything and ran towards the wall. She heard the crashing of the wall part, newly repaired and soon he was running through the trees.
The haphazard growths of bushes pricked her flailing arms but what held her attention above everything else was that tinge of the vanilla deodorant. Oh God… was it him again?
He kept moving, and she could no longer hear the chaos in the solitude of the dense growth.
Somewhere deep in the outgrowth, he put her down and as she stared at him trying to figure out his face in the misty redolent darkness. He pointed towards her hip. She looked down and gasped, her saree pallu had fallen, exposing her blouse-covered bust. She was top-heavy, and her chest heaved as mixed feelings of embarrassment and desire shot through her body. She was stunned and glued to the ground, unable to move. Before she could react further, he bent down and lifting the pallu, placing it around her shoulder, covered her upper body.
Holding her pallu end close to her as if her life depended on it, she shivered. Suddenly it grew darker and the petrichor earth drew her attention. It was about to rain…
It didn’t just rain; it poured… and she was drenched to the core. He dragged her towards a huge tree and turned her so that her back touched the tree trunk and he stood facing her, his arms above her head as it covered her. He was a tall man, and though it reduced the impact of the downpour, she still was drenched.
She looked up, trying to read his face, rather the eyes visible through the slits in that thing he had worn over his face. She raised her hand to touch him, not knowing what she was doing.
He grasped her wrist and shook his head. Suddenly there was a flash of lightning and in that brief staccato, she saw his eyes… the same black orbs that had her under their spell. And at that moment, they bored into her. The thunder rattled around her loudly and suddenly, she felt the energy drain out of her. She hugged him tightly.
She felt him still under her arms and, after a few seconds, felt his heavy arm on her back as he patted her. Was he trying to console her?
She inhaled his fragrance mixed with the rain and felt safe in his strong presence. It felt like she knew him for ages.
Slowly he moved her back and the rain had reduced to a drizzle.
“Do…do I know you?” She asked him, her voice filled with tremors due to fear and cold.
He didn’t reply.
“They were gunshots, weren’t they?” She asked again.
She felt him nod.
“You were there last week… in that club too…?”
Again, no answer. But she wasn’t someone to give up.
“Just… who are you? You have saved my life twice already… I would be dead if not for you…”
Just then she felt him stiffen and turn around as if hiding her behind him. It was then she heard the footsteps too.
“Princess? Are you there?” She heard Keshav call out. The footsteps were more, indicating he had come to look out for her.
Suddenly her savior moved away from her and disappeared…
She was united with Keshav and safely escorted back to the palace through some hidden route she hadn’t known existed before. No one spoke to her about what had transpired… she was escorted to her room.
Later as she slept, the enigma in dark overalls hovered in her mind.
Who was he? Why was he there… everywhere?