A rustle sounded in the corner, followed by the pitter-patter of tiny, clawed rodent feet against the dirty, bloated linoleum that constituted the floor of the basement storeroom in the Kapoor bungalow, Karol Bagh, New Delhi.
Shashi, aka the mortal avatar of Goddess Saraswati, shuddered and shivered into a lying-down foetal position, tightly hugging her worn, flimsy blanket around her. She hated rodents. Never understood why Shiva’s son, Ganesh, still held on to his mouse-mount Kroncha. Not that it was any of her business what went on in the realms of neighbouring Gods and Goddesses. She wasn’t the nosey, gossipy type, unlike some other goddesses she knew. She had better things to do with her time.
That brought on a bitter smirk as she ran a miserable eye around the dark, dank almost-a-cupboard that served as her sleeping quarters these days in this earthly realm. Shashi, the middle-aged, mortal form she currently adopted, had run out of money after the charity she worked for in rural Haryana had shut down. Unable to get another job and incapable of ignoring the persistent and utterly demeaning demands from her mortal body for sustenance, she had to get a job as a maidservant. Saraswati huffed at her own powerlessness.
A vision of herself, resplendently dressed in an ethereal, white sari and lotus flowers, standing in front of her equally-resplendent consort Brahma in their heavenly co-realm inadvertently sprang to mind.
“It’s not them, it’s the Kalyug. I must help them,” she had thought towards him.
“There is no point. You will suffer needlessly. Let Shiva destroy them,” two of Brahma’s eyes had said.
“No! Give them one last chance. I will go down there.”
“The rules are different now Saraswati. You will lose your powers and have to live and die like a mortal. In your infinite wisdom, you must see how mortal-rehabilitation is an impossible task without divine intervention,” Brahma had frowned back at her with all of his faces to emphasise his point.
“Where there is wisdom, dear consort, there must always be hope,” her eyes had implored.
He had conceded. Reluctantly. And now, she understood why.
Saraswati knew suffering was part of the mortal experience, but couldn’t help but wish she had just a teeny-tiny smidgen of her divine powers right now. Four hands would have been extremely useful just this morning when she was trying to cook lunch. The Cook had taken the day off. Mr Kapoor had passed by the kitchen at some point, wrinkled his nose at the smells coming from within and announced he was lunching in the office. When Mrs Kapoor reminded him, in her unnaturally-loud voice, that it was Sunday, he coughed and said he had an important meeting. This, of course, made her think he was having an affair and put her in a bad mood for the rest of the day. Although, why Mrs Kapoor would think any woman would want to have an affair with her husband was entirely beyond Saraswati’s understanding. That his farts hadn’t burnt holes in all his clothing yet was a miracle even Gods probably couldn’t explain.
Still, Mrs Kapoor heckled her relentlessly throughout the afternoon and even cuffed the back of Saraswati’s head when she caught her singing while mopping the floor. This brought on an uncharacteristic surge of rage within Saraswati and she wished, for the millionth time since she had arrived at the Kapoors’ doorstep, that she could get back her powers for just one second so she could zap Mrs Kapoor and her ugly, fake-silk sari straight to hell.
What had made today completely unbearable however (and no, it wasn’t trying to clean the chronically-clogged toilet in Mr Kapoor’s bathroom) was the arrival of Ajeet, best friend to Dinesh Kapoor – Mr & Mrs Kapoor’s only child and the sona munda of their lives. 21-year old Dinesh was relatively benign – a quiet, young man who mostly ignored the household staff and stayed inside his room when he was home. His friend Ajeet, however, was a troublemaker. Saraswati had caught him looking at her many times in the last few months and today, he had announced he would be staying the night to help Dinesh with his application for his Master’s Degree in History. The bootlegged whiskey he had swiped from Mr Kapoor’s bar told another story, but Saraswati didn’t care as long as he stayed away from her.
She had conscientiously avoided close contact with men during this mortal stint. In her mind, she was committed to her divine partner, and would stay faithful to him. Not that the Gods ever let their heavenly commitments stop them when they took avatars. Vishnu went to town with mortal women when he came down as Krishna, a lament she had to hear non-stop from his consort Lakshmi, long after Krishna’s mortal stint was over.
But no, Saraswati had more important things to do. Like change the world and make mortals into better versions of themselves. If she ever got out of this hellhole…
Suddenly, she heard the basement door creak open and then shut with a soft click. Her heart started racing as she heard light footsteps come, tentatively, towards her. She scrambled to the far end of the cupboard just as Ajeet flung open the door. Her worst fears were confirmed – he was dishevelled and reeking of whiskey.
“Don’t scream and I won’t hurt you,” he slurred.
Liar, she thought. He would hurt her. He would ravage her in the ugliest way. And then, after it was over, he would go back to his home, shower and pray to her picture in his mother’s prayer room. He would call it Mata and sing praises to its purity. While the subject of his ablutions would lay in his friend’s basement - broken and covered in his filthy seed.
She opened her mouth and felt his fist slam against it before she could utter a sound. The pain blurred her vision and she tasted the bleeding flesh of her lips on her tongue. In her disorientation, she barely noticed his hands grabbing at her clothes, trying to dispose of them as quickly as his stumbling hands could manage. She writhed away, only to be pulled roughly back against him. She tried screaming again but only a sob broke through.
A shout, a banging sound and the basement light was switched on. Saraswati felt Ajeet being pulled away from her and heard a heated argument between him and Dinesh before the basement door slammed loudly. She held her torn clothes against her and sobbed uncontrollably. She couldn’t help it. She had never felt so violated in her entire existence. She cried not only for herself, but for all mortal women who had to endure this. And worse.
Dinesh stood at the cupboard door awkwardly and handed her the blanket Ajeet had flung away from her. He waited until her sobs had subsided before uttering, “Sorry,” in a cracked voice.
She nodded. This was part of the deal. Mortal suffering in all its Kalyug glory. A sexual attack would have happened at some point, her logic told her. She was one of the lucky ones.
She forced herself to look up into Dinesh’s face and say, through her broken lips, “I’m ok. Thank you.”
He saw her bleeding, swollen face and looked away angrily, “Why didn’t you lock the door?”
Saraswati would have laughed if she wasn’t worried she might start crying again, “There’s no lock on it. Not every woman has the privilege of a locked door in these times.”
He looked exasperated but said only, “If you tell Mummy, she’ll... his father is the…”
“I’m not going to tell her,” Saraswati knew better than to expect Mrs Kapoor to be her saviour, “I’ll leave in the morning before she wakes up.”
Dinesh took a long look at her. Then, he dug in his pockets and took out his wallet, “Here is Rs 2000. It’s all I have right now. Take some clothes out of the wash before you go.”
Saraswati looked at the notes between his fingers and bristled. To take them would be to tacitly accept what happened, maybe even forgive it. No! screamed her pride, her convictions, everything she had worked so hard for in the past. Then, she thought about the world that awaited her outside the front door. She swallowed, and took the money.
Trisha Das is the author of Ms Draupadi Kuru and a National Award winning documentary filmmaker
From HT Brunch, November 13
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