The Exiles

They were six: Kirti Prabha, Chandra Bhaal, Sulochana, Munni, Som Nath and Lopamudra. Chandra Bhaal was thirty-two then, and Som Nath twenty-two. Lopamudra, the new bride, had entered the house on the third of the same month in which her father-in-law had lost his life on ninth. No, her traditional mother-in-law had not followed the tradition. She had neither called her a bad omen, nor had she allowed anyone else to do so. They had left Jabalpur for Varanasi exactly when the curfew was lifted for three hours on Monday, February thirteen, 1961.

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Lopa could never forget the day and date as the life long custom of her family, that she had always observed, was broken that day. Her family was the leading brahmin family of Ujjain. Her great uncle was the head priest of Gwalior Riyasat. Since as long back as she could remember, they had always observed the day long fast of Maha Shivratri in their Ujjain house. It was the real test of her devotion and she had failed. She was so preoccupied with the questions related to prolonging her immediate life that she could not think about the next ones. It had slipped clean out of her mind. Fear works in its mysterious ways.

Her first exposure to Varanasi was through a panoramic view of the ghatscape from above the Malviya Bridge. They were not acquainted then, the ghats and she, so she had felt only a little curiosity, nothing else. Fate had brought her to stay near one of the most popular Shiv temples of the place popular for its temples and for being the city of Mahadev just one day after she had forgotten the Lord of the City Himself. They had entered Kedar temple area early in the morning, as Niranjan had planned. It would have been very difficult for the truck to enter the narrow galis once they were clogged with the post eight o’ clock traffic.

They were accosted with the clanging of the Kedar Temple bell and partial chiming of the bells from the same and other temples of the gali. She had travelled from death to the City of Death; from oblivion to sudden realization of the day of the Lord of Death. She suddenly remembered that she had forgotten her life-long custom of keeping the fast on Mahashivratri. With that realization an unexplainable and unknown fear descended and enveloped her whole being. She did not speak much, to anyone, as she was the new bride in the family.

So, her going totally speechless went unnoticed for the whole day, till, at night, Munni tried to discuss the sleeping arrangements with her. Munni was her only friend in the house and Lopa could overcome her fear and shyness only in her presence. They had become friends in Jabalpur. So, her not communicating at all made her worried. Munni had a speciality: once her stomach was full, she could sleep even with one thousand worries playing kabaddi in her mind, and dream about them in various permutations. She dreamt about Lopa, hunger, worries, speechlessness and death that night. Kirti and Sulochana snored freely and loudly their way through the night. Bhanu was downstairs with the other males of the family. Lopa did not sleep.

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