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Antara Mukherjee
“Luminous Shadow”
Antara Mukherjee

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At sunrise each day, Malvika cycled to the temple with her basket of flowers. Her internal clock attuned to the circadian rhythm, nudged and propped her on feet much before the village rooster could crow her neighbours from their sleep. After a few clanks on the tube well that snaked shivers through her skin and spurted chants of the morning prayer on her lips, she sat by the woodfire and cooked sambar rice for her elder brother who was paralysed bottom down since birth. In that same hour, she rode off to the main market, closer to the town, and brought back bundles of flowers to be sold as offerings to the temple. With her eyes set on the golden gopuram of the century old temple, she pedalled to race the sun before it could be anchored into the sky.

Splashes of muddy rivulets trickling down the stone steps greeted her at the bottom where she sat with the cold seeping into her as she sorted and threaded the fresh flowers with her fingertips. Throughout the day, her cash box jingled with coins as she worked through bunches of marigold, jasmine, chrysanthemum, oleander–stuffing her nose with their fragrance. Thick garlands woven in alternating colours fetched her a higher return, though the regular visitors were more inclined to purchase an assortment of loose flowers, holy basil leaves, and incense sticks. Within the premises of the temple, Malvika felt safe. Along with footwear, people also shed their cravings on the bottom steps and the predatory stares were dilated with devotion, as if the divinity of the Lord himself moved through them.

In her half-saree worn with a wreath of kanakambara, Malvika, the flower-girl, had become a fixture on the temple steps, since losing her mother a year back. The pain and loss which had seemed in surmountable at first, had bowed her into a humble acceptance in the past few months. If there was some good in everything that happened, she did not know but was grateful that rather than working as labourer for the village landlords, she was at the service of the Almighty Lord. She was a part of him that made her a whole. This business, she had inherited from her late mother who had been a flower seller at the temple since she could remember. This had been their only means of livelihood, as her father had left them, soon after her birth. It was not only the birth of a girl child that had left him devastated but also the burden of fathering a paralysed son, their first born, that had seemed too daunting. The mother with her two children, however, had thatched a loving nest and she provided for them whatever little she could, until one day, they lost her too to an unknown illness.

“How much for a garland?” asked a man running his finger through the silver thread. “And do you have coconuts?” 

She tore the husk from the coconut shell and slid a garland along with the rest of the purchase, asking for the total amount.

As he paid her, the man started taking off his slippers beside the coconut sack. She stood up at once and snapped, “Arey, are you new to this village? Can’t you see these flowers? Does anybody keep shoes next to holy offerings?”

The man accepted his folly and went towards the shoe counter as directed.

“God only knows where such people come from,” she muttered to herself as he left. The holy offerings needed to be kept pristine, untouched to be considered worthy of being served to the Lord.

It was rather an unusual day for little after she resumed work, the sight of an old woman tumbling down the enormous steps jolted her up on feet again. She rushed and supported her head in her arms, recognising her as one of the regular customers. The woman was in pain, moaning with her eyes shut. She wiped the blood from the gash on her chin and fanned her with the loose end of her half-saree. The quivering bundle that the woman had become, she needed to be supported by few of the onlookers who then helped her to be seated on the steps. Meanwhile, Malvika hurried to her shop and brought back the discarded leaves of a marigold flower. She crushed them on her palm and applied the coarse paste on the slit skin. The woman squealed in pain but recognising the bitter scent of the flower, felt assured at once.Within minutes, she had regained herself and thanked those around.

“Aah, chinnaponnu, how do you know these things about the marigold flower?” she asked, recognising her face.

“Amma used to apply it when we came home with playground injuries,” Malvika said. “She’s no more.”

“Aha, lost your mother at such an early age? What to do, we all have our own griefs to suffer.”

She tried getting up but shrieked saying, “Ishwara! These steps. Climbing them feels like a punishment now. My old bones can carry me no more.”

Malvika supported her on feet and said, “God is everywhere­­. Why do you have to come to the temple then?”

“What you’re saying is not wrong. But…where will I get these flowers and the temple prasadam? My days would be incomplete without them.”

“Why paati, why do you fret?” said Malvika, without giving it much thought. “I could bring them to you. And maybe even the prasadam?”

The old woman turned towards her with a glint in her eyes. Malvika smiled and led her down the steps, feeling important with the settlement.

The next day, she reached the temple a little before time. The temple priest seated before the idol of Lord Shiva was engrossed in puja preparations. He took his share of flowers and dismissed her with the wave of a hand, continuing his chant of Sanskrit verses, interspersed with the rapid jingling of a tiny brass bell. She skittered down the steps, to set up her shop. There was a hop in her foot and a song on her lips. Once the morning aarti was over, she wrapped some loose flowers along with a string of jasmine, woven as a gift for her paati. She tinkled through the winding narrow streets of the village and reached the house. A small unkempt garden held her at the gate. She rattled the iron bar in anticipation. The old woman appeared in a waddle and ushered her in. She took the flowers, inhaling the scent of jasmine in a deep long breath, breaking into a smile.

“So, you’ve kept your word then,” she said.

Thereafter, Malvika toured those winding roads everyday with her delivery of fresh flowers. The word spread, and the neighbouring houses in the vicinity urged her to bring them flowers as well. “A little extra, as delivery charge,” advised the old woman, encouraging her to develop her business sense. The women treated her with kindness and talked among themselves about how her clothes carried a whiff of camphor and incense sticks, reminding them of the temple. The orders increased with time and she accepted every demand. Besides the profit, she saw her work as a service to the Almighty. She believed that Lord Shiva himself had taken pity to her circumstances and had bestowed her with such an extraordinary opportunity.

Malvika spent all her time, stolen from work, to accompany her older brother who remained confined within their home. Every day in the afternoon, when she returned home for her daybreak, she cleaned him, fed him and sometimes even surprised him with a treat of sweets. “Stay away,” he would say. “I’m a bad omen. I’ve destroyed everyone around.” Whenever he grew this pensive, she distracted him with tales of Gods and Goddesses that she had learnt from the temple and spoke about her customers. Together they sipped their hours in strings of pouring coffee, finding in each other some sort of a refuge. She curled her fingers to throw shadow puppets on the wall and sometimes shone the hand held mirror in his eyes to control his bawls.

The incremental income helped them greatly, as now they could afford household necessities like soaps, towels, a table fan and also a small cooker. The bulb in their room could be lit every evening that soon ushered their neighbours, who came by to enquire about the motherless children. In a few months, the cotton mattress, stinking of stale urine was replaced with a new one along with an oil cloth and fresh bed sheets that bloomed flowers for the brother. The roof of their house was badly in need of repair and Malvika was determined to save enough before the monsoons, so that they did not have to live like the previous years, surrounded by pots and pans.

Malvika had to now purchase a bigger bulk of flowers from the market, as her business kept flourishing. Her dark silhouette looked animated against the sprouting dawn as she pedalled uphill, struggling to balance the two sacks on either side of her bicycle.  And yet, she felt like a failure each day. Despite all attempts, she reached the temple, inevitably late. The priest sometimes grew anxious and reprimanded her for slackness. But Malvika had resolved to exert a little more, ride a bit faster, harder, so that her muscles could comply the increasing load. However, back in the temple, there was more trouble brewing for her. While she was away for those few hours of delivery, several visitors to the temple, were left to pray empty handed, without any flowers or offerings. Each toll of the temple bell reverberating far in the distance indicated the count of devotees, she had missed. Complaints came pouring from these irked people, who rebuked the absence of the flower girl from her designated spot. “Pookarivandacha? Where is the flower girl?” they enquired, feeling ruffled. The temple priest was asked to intervene and after a few initial warnings, she was asked to either curtail her delivery service or vacate the premises.

“It’s a responsibility, Malvika, that you seem to have taken far too lightly,” said the priest.

“While after your mother, the task naturally fell on you, I have a niece, who is eager.”

It sounded like a death toll to Malvika, who cursed herself for profiteering through a service carried by her family through generations. She found herself torn in a dilemma and spent the next few days pondering over the issue, breezing through her schedule hurriedly. What she needed really was a helping hand, someone who could simply man the shop for a few hours.

When she explained the situation to patti, the old lady told her that she had failed to see the obvious. “What chinnaponnu! You have help right at home; your brother! Don’t look so surprised. He could watch over the shop for a few hours while you are away. You have overshadowed him for too long.”

After all, it was a quiet temple and all her brother was required to do was to take the exact change for the flowers, from a few spill-over devotees who came after the morning aarti. It was a just a matter of few hours and Malvika agreed that though her brother was not entirely capable, he was well-suited to be staged as a neat proxy. Besides, nobody could cheat him; not before the eyes of Lord Shiva.

So, the next day, as soon as the morning aarti dissolved into the air, Malvika, brimming with the vitality of the rising sun, mounted her paralysed brother on a vegetable cart and steered him towards the temple. Newspapers had to be arranged on the ground and she carefully shifted her brother behind the stack. Repeating the instructions, that she had already rehearsed with him the night before, she skilfully tucked up her long skirt and sped away in her cycle to cater to her steady base of customers. A fine balance between duty and business she had been able to discover at last. Besides, this move also supplemented as an engagement, an employment for her brother, which she thought would reduce his mood swings and bawls. It could also mean that, with time, she could take on more deliveries and resume her position at the flower shop only after the daybreak, in the evening. However, that was not meant to be.

“Tring, Tring,” rang her cycle as she approached the temple, back from her deliveries. There was commotion at the bottom of the temple steps, and she looked around searching for her brother. People had gathered and were screaming, arguing.A strange bitterness surged within her and she hurried, making her way through the crowd. To her horror, she discovered that her stall had been pulled down, the flowers were torn and scattered around,and people were beating her brother, some with sandals. She rushed and fell over him, pleading them to stop, taking the lashes on herself.

“Why are you beating my poor brother? What could he have possibly done?”

“What he could have possibly done?” said one the devotees, glaring with anger. “He has brought disgrace to the temple, our village. This pious holy abode which we have preserved through generations has become impure because of this horrible beast.”

There were fresh lashes and a few people now stamped and kicked their bundled-up bodies. She begged them, joining her hands and even touched their feet, urging for them to stop, to explain. The sight of her brother lying almost senseless,while still being kicked wrenched her soul. She began sobbing hard.

The temple priest appeared, and the crowd immediately cleared around him.

“It’s a shame that we have to see this day, Malvika,” he said. “Look what your greed has done to the temple.”

He pointed to the bottom of the stone steps, where there were only the remains of her shop. The soil where her brother was seated was soaked dark and the newspapers had gone soggy, still holding some of the yellowish fluid in which the ruins of her fate floated. She had witnessed it earlier, several times; the uncontrolled flux, the stench and the embarrassment. This time it had come trickling to drown their means of livelihood.

Malvika felt muted for words and stretched over her belly to seek his forgiveness.

But the priest announced, “You are discharged of your duties right from this moment.” The devotees cheered and clapped, and he gestured for them to quieten down. Before leaving he added, “And, from today, the door of this temple is closed for you. You are banished from entering its premises.”

Malvika, sat there looking defeated, in acceptance of her sin. She had failed her brother, failed her Lord. In a while, the crowd dispersed, talking among themselves, pelting them with their leftover curses. She remained there unmoved for a long time as the colossal temple fell over them with its dark looming shadow. The golden gopuram looked luminous indeed in the bright afternoon sun.


Issue 91 (May-Jun 2020)

  • Editorial
    • Semeen Ali : Editorial Musings
  • Short Stories
    • Aditi Mendiratta: “Loss and Sticks”
    • Adrita Mukherjee: “The Dress”
    • Antara Mukherjee: “Luminous Shadow”
    • Essam M. Al-Jassim: “Three Flash Fictions from the Gulf States”
    • Gita Viswanath: “Paper Gods”
    • Madhu Chittarvu: “Roaches –A horror sci-fi story”
    • Naina Dey: “Jesus in the picture”
    • Neil Goswami: “The Quest”