Anu's dilemma

I entered this story for a short story writing contest on the theme "Hope", organized by Asha foundation at Austin. It won the first prize :) So the proud owner of a medal, two certificates and a book called "Timeless Wonders" by Robert J. Moore presents to you, Anu's dilemma:
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Anu was confused, very confused. After all, how do you expect a six-year-old girl to figure out what to do with the gift of Shishu? "Use it wisely", the Tantrik[1] had told her, and tied the little amulet around her tiny arm, in exchange for the five-rupee note that she had found earlier in the morning. She was quite happy with the exchange --- that little piece of paper was not any fun: this amulet was a nice shiny cold thing to wear around her arm. The Tantrik, or the village god-man, was highly regarded by the women in the village. On many occasions she had seen her mother sneak out to visit him along with the neighboring 'Pishima'-s (aunts). Usually, the occasion was to get his blessings for Haren-master's son's success in exams or for a big harvest in the upcoming planting season. The men in the village were not very fond of him, and Anu had learnt not to mention his name in front of her father.

However, she liked his black flowing robes and his graying beard. He had a deep booming voice and spoke funny things, and always amused the children with the clatter of his metal tongs that he carried in his backpack. Today, Anu had spotted him walking by the paddy field and had inquired about the value of her new-found treasure --- the five-rupee note. The Tantrik told her that he had something far more valuable than that little note, and decided to give it to her because she was such a nice kid. He had showed the glittering steel amulet on a black thread and called it the secret weapon of the goddess Shishu[2] who lived in the forest nearby. He had special contacts, and therefore he had obtained it. Now he was giving it away to Anu for the small price of the note, and forbade her from showing it to her parents. The power from the amulet was usable only when it started itching: she could then take it off and throw it away in the pond after chanting anyone's name. The goddess Shishu would come and take care of that person.

There were a few people who Anu might have named just then. The two girls in the neighborhood, Parvati and Binodini used to tease her a lot. She had had a little hair-pulling match with both of them together when she was younger. But soon afterwards the two neighbors had fought with each other and Binodini and Anu became friends. When Anu beat Parvati at "Kit-kit"[3] recently, Binodini had clapped the hardest. All these girls were the same age: Anu and Parvati were born within a month of each other. Binodini was younger by a year or so. But she had not returned Anu's marbles, and therefore Anu was tempted to use the amulet on her name as well. Then there was the rich snooty girl, Anima, who lived on the other side of the village and came to play once in a while but never shared her dolls with them. But Anu didn't really know what was supposed to happen to the person who asked the goddess to "take care" of. Therefore, although the amulet was itching now in the evening too much, she was not sure who to name and she didn't want to take it off and throw it either.

But maybe the amulet could help someone too, Anu wondered. There was her cousin brother Ripen who always got the bigger piece of the fish whenever he came to visit them. Anu did not like fish so much, and so held no grudge, but wished that he could play with her whenever he came. Ever since the doctor at the government hospital two villages away had told them that Ripen had some disease that needed very heavy medicines to cure, Ripen wasn't allowed to play with her anymore. Apparently it needed a lot of money, and they didn’t have it. He was weak even earlier, but now everybody had become extra careful around him. Ripen used to be very good at the local Pathshala[4] where he went to the class with her, and Anu felt proud whenever he solved the sums in the maths class where everyone else struggled. "He's my brother", she would brag to Parvati who sat beside her, her face beaming with pride. But now only his bright eyes stood out from behind the emaciated frame, and he even failed to finish all the squares on “Kit-kit” that other day. Little Anu had felt very helpless that day --- she had run crying to their parents, shrieking, when Ripen had collapsed on the courtyard while making his jumps. He would not get up and was seemed to have suddenly fell asleep there. Her parents had sprinkled water on the little boy’s face and woke him up. Soon afterwards, he was taken to the hospital and then all his games were banned. “Only a few days more”, people would say about Ripen whenever the topic came up. His mother used to come and silently weep alongside her own mother while she sat talking to Ripen at times --- she never understood why. Anu believed that he’ll get well after some days… but she wanted him to get well sooner. She thought for a while, and then threw the amulet into the pond while she softly uttered, “Ripen”.

"Who did you name?", asked a familiar voice suddenly from behind and Anu turned around, startled. It was the Tantrik; he had crept up silently behind her while she was busy wondering about the power of the amulet. In the darkening hours of the evening, the paan-stained teeth of the Tantrik, along with his black robes and beard scared her a little. But she stood up bravely to him, her little heart pitter-pattering inside, and replied, “Ripen… I want him to get well so that he can play with me”. The Tantrik was suddenly intrigued --- nobody named a near and dear one when asked this question. He lived out of the money he made out of amulets and other ‘divine’ goods he sold to five villages nearby, carefully avoiding the men while he made his rounds. “Joi Shishu debotar joi!!” was all he had to shout, and people would bow. Sold for only a rupee, amulets, threads to tie around your arm, or special black kaajal[5] to ward off evil were his most popular divinities: he always got a rupee or two by offering them at the villages or at the fairs. His major hauls were of course at the large pujas[6] or when he had to accompany people to the cremation ghats[7], and then he stashed the money up in the burrow of the old Banyan tree below which he lived. Dead people paid a lot, he often thought; but at present his problem was this live little girl who had went back to staring at the pond.

“Hey you silly girl!”, he called and walked up beside her tiny frame. Anu looked up, and he asked, “It is getting dark… don’t you want to go home?”. “No, the goddess Shishu will come and promise to me that she’ll take care of Ripen”, she replied adamantly. The Tantrik tried to argue, - “But how will you know?”.
- “Oh I will know… she will make a splash in the pond, maybe”
- “But if the goddess doesn’t come?”
- “Oh she will… I’m sure. My mother says that if you believe and pray hard enough, all your wishes are granted. But this amulet was especially from the goddess to you, right? So I am sure she will come… maybe she has been held up by something”

The Tantrik was a bit sad now. He had managed to get five whole rupees instead of the usual fee of two rupees for the amulet. They sold pretty well everywhere in the region: after all, the villagers almost always had a feud with their neighbors, and therefore they needed to be “taken care” of. He tried another angle. “You know, the goddess punishes whoever you’ve named… she does not cure them”. Anu was aghast, “Oh then I must stay here! I must tell her not to punish him but to take care of him! Oh please, please not him… if she must punish, I am ready to get punished. I will stay…” However much he tried, the Tantrik could not sway her from her little post beside the pond. He tried to offer her little bangles, her little note back or even another alternate amulet. But nothing seemed to move her. She must see the splash in the pool. To everything she would answer, “What will I do with it? I need Ripen to get well”. Money, trinklets, gold… nothing seemed to work. After some time, the Tantrik also ran out of excuses, and sat down beside her.

In the cold evening with darkness creeping around them, the two of them sat in silence. In his head, he began recollecting all that he had offered this girl. Gold, money, little pieces of silverware and silver; all carefully gathered and stashed away in that trunk in the burrow. He suddenly realized that he had actually never had a good look at its contents all this time: he just brought them and added them to the fortune. The total, he thought, was huge: but beside the total list of things he had collected over the years, one little girl’s voice echoed constantly: “What will I do with it?”.

Conch shells began ringing out from the houses far away. The pious women lit lamps and offered little batasha[8]-s to the gods and goddesses in their homes every evening, and blew conch shells to herald the evening. The sun had long gone down, and along with the sound of little insects in the trees nearby, the soft weeping of a tiny six-year-old flowed to his ears. “I really didn’t know --- I thought the goddess will heal whoever I name, not harm him”, Anu was weeping. She reached over, hugged his foot and broke down sobbing. “Please, please, O Tantrik baba9, you know her well, right? Please ask her to not punish Ripen… ask her to punish me however she wants”, Anu kept repeating. The sight of the tiny frame in the red spotted frock hugging his knee and weeping inconsolably made something snap inside the towering black-robed frame. The Tantrik broke down himself now. How could he explain to this little six-year old that what he had been telling all along was a lie? How could he tell her to stop weeping? How could he make the little girl’s wish come true? The immovable faith and hope in the six-year-old could not be shaken by all of the glittering gifts and stones he had stored up in the banyan’s burrow. He too shared the helplessness of the little girl beside him.

Anu had now left him and sat there with her head between her knees, silent and crestfallen. The glittering lights of the village stood out like a beacon from afar. The Tantrik also saw the lights, and spied the little girl beside him. He stood up. Stealthily he crept behind Anu, picked up a brick, came back and stood beside the little girl, lost in thought. He looked up towards the sky. Covered among the dark leaves, very little sections of the sky were visible --- it was all dark. But then he spotted the pole star, his lucky charm; where his home was. The heavy brick now weighed down on him, while the quiet moonlit pool lay out in front of him, silent and serene. After all, he thought, it was just a piece of stone he held. He threw the brick into the pond. It fell there with a loud splash.

Anu looked up, startled. “Did you hear that? Did you see that??”, Anu stood up and was very excited suddenly. “Yes, of course… that must be the goddess!”, he replied. “Did you go and talk to her? Did you tell her that it was all a mistake?”, Anu was full of questions and looked up earnestly at the Tantrik, hoping for an answer to all her questions at once. He said, “Yes, it was all a mistake”.
- “So, will she not harm Ripen, then?”
- “I told her that… he’ll get better”.
- “Really??!!”, Anu was ecstatic. Tears were flowing down her soft little cheeks --- tears of joy. She ran and hugged the Tantrik again. But then a sudden thought clouded her. “But will the goddess Shishu come and take me away? Will she punish me?”: there was a palpitable fear in her heart. The Tantrik lifted her up and perched her atop his arm. He wiped tears off the little cheeks. “No, little one, the goddess said she was not angry with you at all!”, he assured her. After a long time, Anu smiled. The Tantrik smiled too. A great load had been lifted off the chest of both of them. Anu felt light and happy. The Tantrik walked with a slightly lighter step too. They started walking home towards the lights. Anu kept chanting, “Joi Shishu debotar joi”(Victory unto the Shishu goddess!). For the first time in his life, the Tantrik also repeated it sincerely: “Joi Shishu debotar joi”.


1. Tantrik - A village godman, usually believed to be skilled in the occult arts.
2. Shishu - Etymologically means ‘child’, the villagers referred to this Shishu as the local goddess.
3. Kit-kit - A game played by little children in India, where they skip and jump through numbered squares on the ground.
4. Pathshala - The village school.
5. Kaajal - Black soot, used as an eyeliner.
6. Pujas - Ceremonies for gods and goddesses.
7. Ghats - Designated places by the side of a river, where cremations occur.
8. Batasha - A sweet candy made out of sugar --- usually an offering to gods.
9. Tantrik-baba - The word ‘baba’ is often appended to the name of a divine or god-like person to signify respect.

Comments

  1. Congratulations :)

    Knew you had it in you!

    Sky

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  2. A very nice story indeed :) and yes, congratulations

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  3. You make me so proud of you.

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  4. Sky, although I am tempted to make fun of that statement and twist its meaning, I will not. Thank you, really, for having faith! :)

    Anonymous, sooper, eh? Thank you, whoever you are!

    Anurag, welcome! And thanks a lot... will visit your blog sometime. :)

    Pallavi, thank you! :)

    Anonymous, really? Well, thanks... whoever you are! :)

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  5. You twist that and you know I will be sharpening my knife to twist in your heart fella!! Be scared, be very very scared!

    Sky

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  6. beautiful narration...u really got down to the soul of the story as if u were present right there and now..never really struck me u could pen something like that environed by the rigid work culture and discipline demanded by an american university..what are you doing there ??!!-Ms NMA

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  7. Good piece of writing Sudipta. Reminds me of the only short competition I participated in. Guess what, I won too!

    Oh yes, the glossary the end was icing on the cake.

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  8. Sky, mere dil se khilwad na karna!! :P {Sorry, couldn't control this one! :D}

    Miss NMA, humare jalwe aur bhi hain... aage aage dekho hote hain kya :D

    Kalyan, oh congratulations!! And thank you, of course! :)

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  9. Whoa! Congratulations!!! Awesome stuff! :D

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  10. Read ur story after a long time.
    Still as sharp as earlier

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  11. Hi buddy..I ve read ur blog.. ur style of writing is good.. i ve added ur blog as my favotites.. Please reciprocate by blogrolling me.. It wud definitely help me gain a page rank. hoping 4 a +ve reply.. visit my blog http://ruudsarena.blogspot.com/

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  12. Ossum...Congrats!!!!!
    You owe a big party :)))

    Planning to publish a book? :D

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  13. Just came across you blog and have to say - love your writing skills. awesome short story - congratulations! tomar jonne amar sharodiyo shubheccha roilo.

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  14. Sayesha, bhai!! Thank-you... thank you!! :)

    Animikh, thank you... it keeps me from feeling old :)

    Tarun, welcome onboard! And thanks for the compliments. I usually link to other blogs only after I've followed them for some time and if I like them. I will visit your blog and link to you if I do.

    Manasa, you're the second person who has asked me to publish a book consisting of short stories. :) Thank you so much.

    Mala, welcome onboard! Thanks a lot --- your comment made my day! I'll visit your blog soon. Tomakeo janai sharodiyo anondotsaber shubhecha. :)

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  15. You clearly have a gift for writing. A very nice story, and the words flow beautifully. Well done !

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  16. Zhu, you are very kind. Thank you so much! :)

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  17. Hey.. Thanks for visiting my blog.. I ll keep posting interesting and informative articles.. I ll keep visiting your blog too. Thanks for the reply

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  18. Congratulations!
    That was a great story.

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  19. Tarun, yup... thanks.

    Parijata, thank you... your comment made my day :)

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  20. Suchitra, thank you, and welcome onboard. :)

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