The train was scheduled for 8 in the evening so I had enough time to spend with the city which had been my home for the last six months. My bags were already packed and gathered in the middle of the room. Having informed Shankar that I was going out, I made my way towards the ghat.
Sitting on the steps of Dashashwamedh ghat with a lemon tea in hand, I realised that Benares had always had a certain charm. I beheld the Ganga in front of me, the sun glistening on its surface and the rhythmic waves dancing. I sipped on the tea and stared into space, fixing my eye on a boat standing at the shore of the other side of the holy river.
I wished I could see her one last time before I left the city. I didn’t know why I had a feeling that I would never return to Benares again, that some unknown divine conspiracy would prevent me from coming here. I was constantly tormented by the lingering loss that gnawed at my heart.
I closed my eyes and there she was–a clean white saree draped across her chest–heaving up and down–her hands poised and her head tilted to the left. She stood there, sophisticated, in the middle of my consciousness, mocking my cognitive abilities to hold her in place, her eyes, glowing, calling me.
“Dada.” A soft voice brought me back to reality. I looked around to see Shankar sitting beside me. “I knew you would be here.”
I smiled. Shankar was my cousin brother. He had a string of shops in Benares and lived there with his wife and a 6-year-old son.
“So you will not sell it?” He lit a cigarette.
“No,” I replied, not looking at him.
“It’s a lot of money, Dada.”
I saw him looking away, knowing it was futile to even try to persuade me.
I sighed again, heavily, which didn’t release the stress I thought it would.
When we came home, it was around 6:30 p.m. and I knew my time here had ended. The railway station, Mughal Sarai, was particularly crowded when we reached there. I didn’t have much luggage, only a suitcase with my clothes and necessities, and a bag to carry the Canvas and other essentials.
I sat down on a nearby bench to wait for the train to arrive. Shankar had come to see me off but I wanted desperately to be alone for a while; to drown in my own misery. To be honest, I didn’t want to go. My head felt heavy.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a soft sound of footsteps emerged from the chaos and lingered in my ears. I looked around, frantically searching for the source. She appeared from the faceless crowd, her eyes smiling at me. I jumped up, ecstatic and out of my senses. I ran into the crowd, but she seemed far. I ignored the faint voices of someone calling me. I fixed my eyes on her.
But after a while, I couldn’t see her anymore. Hazy figures of people walked across me. She had vanished just as easily she had appeared in my mind. Someone pushed me from behind and I fell down, unable to hold my balance. I realised I couldn’t see properly. Confusion and frustration clouded my senses as I heard the signal of the train. I glanced at my watch. It was 8:25.
I got up fast and ran ahead. The last bogie of the train I was supposed to be in whizzed past me. I stared at the departing train, benumbed.
I sat up, dazed and gulped down a bottle of water on the side table. Breathing heavily, I switched on the lights. For a moment, I stood still, allowing my eyes to adjust to the light and my nerves to calm themselves. I was sweating profusely.
She was here.
She was right here, standing beside my bed, peering at my face. Or was it a dream again? Why did she seem so real?
I had first seen her in Kolkata, in my home as I slept. She appeared in my subconscious, smiling with her eyes. She was in Benares, standing in front of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple or that was what it seemed like. I couldn’t sleep for the next four days.
She occupied every empty space in my mind. Her profound presence was driving me to the brink of insanity. On the fifth day, I took the train and reached Benares, resolved to find her.
I didn’t tell anyone about her, because simply no one would believe how real she was and because she was sacred, just like the river Ganga.
I didn’t dream of her for the first month of my stay in Benares. I had gotten frustrated and decided that I needed a physical manifestation, evidence of her existence or else I would go crazy. In a frenzied burst of emotions, I drew her from my memory. I was shocked at how well I still remembered her.
When I completed it, she appeared in front of me again, colourful on the canvas. She was beautiful.
When Shankar saw the painting, he at once remarked that it would bring a lot of money since I was a painter.
“Not for sale,” I told him.
Presently, I removed the veil from the painting on the easel in my room and looked at her.
Where are you?
The next morning, Shankar asked me what I planned to do next.
“Would it be inconvenient for you if I stay a few more weeks?” I asked bluntly. He looked lost for a few seconds.
“No, of course not, Dada. What are you saying? You can stay here for as many weeks as you please. It would be a pleasure,” said Shankar.
“We are usually three people only. Another person, that, too a family member would only enhance our days,” Sulekha, Shankar’s wife smiled at me. But I knew they were uncomfortable, rather frustrated at my weird behaviour.
I followed a simple routine: I went out at precisely noon after having lunch; I roamed the area around the ghat and returned at 7 in the evening; I spent some time with my brother’s family and went to my room at 10.
After two weeks of incessant search, I had little hope left of finding her. Nevertheless, I couldn’t deny the faint streak of optimism alive in heart, beating irregularly. The sense of stark hopelessness is too scary for me.
Slowly, I had irked my brother to the point that one night he expressed his concerns. “Dada, you are obsessed?” It seemed like a statement more than a question so I chose not to answer.
“You have an exhibition in a month! What are you going to show everyone? If you want to paint here, I can provide you with anything you want, but this cannot go on. Are you listening?”
I looked at him. He was visibly annoyed.
“I don’t feel like painting.”
“You don’t feel? Cancel your exhibition. You would lose a lot of money, but you don’t care!” He left the room.
Was I obsessed?
It might be because my mind was not my own anymore. It tried to tell me something which I was not capable of understanding. Something was haunting me, tearing me apart and I didn’t know what.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I was losing my mind. Extreme pain shot through every nerve. I could feel myself going down a quagmire, the sand pulling me in, the reality merging with illusion. I couldn’t recognise what was real anymore. I saw her often for mere seconds before she vanished into thin air every time. I couldn’t get out of bed for two days. The room was spinning.
On the third day, I went out for a short walk to the ghat. The doctor had examined me the day before and said that I had had a nervous breakdown.
The cool breeze that hit the crook of my neck soothed me. The Ganga appeared calm and serene. I lit a cigarette.
Suddenly, I saw her standing in front of the Vishwanath Temple. The cigarette fell from my hand.
My nerves panicked as I felt I would lose her again. I stood there, unable to move a single muscle. She turned around, her serene eyes calling me. I gulped down a lump at the back of my dry throat.
She started walking down the ghat. I followed her. She turned down a narrow alley. I was careful not to be too close. She seemed too real. For a moment, I was euphoric realising she was real, that she had a physical existence. My bliss knew no bounds. A different kind of pain emerged in my mind and body. I knew nothing except her.
We walked through several narrow alleyways. She could surely sense me lingering behind her.
I felt we had a relationship. We had a silent communion, a secret from everyone’s prying eyes. We had something sacred.
Presently, we reached a cul-de-sac. She turned around.
It was almost 6 in the evening. The sun was glistening at the horizon, sending streaks of red light around. She shimmered under the stream of the coruscating light.
I loved her. I loved her more than anything else in this world. She was everywhere, in every atom. She was in me, she was me.
She smiled divinely, her whole body sparkling. Her eyes moistened. She said something, silently. I could feel her.
All of a sudden, she started walking towards me. I was frozen to the ground. I looked at her face. The white saree was draped across her chest. Her hands were poised and her head tilted towards the left. Her suave manner touched my heart.
Slowly she came in front of me and didn’t stop. She came forward and passed through me. I was numb.
Slowly, I turned around. She had vanished.
“Call me when you reach Kolkata,” Shankar called out. I nodded and waved at him.
The train departed from the Mughal Sarai railway station. It had been a week since my encounter with her. Two nights later, I had found a photograph which had fallen from my diary.
It was a twenty-year-old picture from when I was just ten years old. I was smiling, an innocent smile of pure happiness. Standing beside me was Tara, my childhood friend, who had died ten years ago when our life was just about to begin.
My hands were shaking when I looked into her eyes. Her smile was divine, bearing a striking resemblance to the one I had witnessed just two days ago.
I had decided that I would return to Kolkata and start painting again.
The voice of a hawker brought me back to reality. The breeze hit my face. The trees, houses and the people seemed to be running in the opposite direction.
I opened the bag that carried my Canvas and other essentials for painting. I took out the painting and looked at it. I wasn’t surprised when I found the Canvas empty.
1 A broad flight of stairs leading down to a river.
2 The main ghat of religious importance in Benares on the Ganga river.
3 Traditional clothing for Indian women.
Ramyani Bhattacharya is a 19-year-old student at South Point High School, Kolkata. Being an introvert, writing is her escape. She has her own blog at WordPress.com which receives a good response. She is an avid reader and has more than one favourite writer. Nevertheless, Paulo Coelho and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are closest to her heart.