The Pillar of Shiva
The train pulled into Bhilwari Station with a belch of smoke and a scream like a dying rakshasa. An assorted mass of pilgrims, tourists and journalists surged down the platform to board the train, blocking those few who needed to disembark.
“Come on.” Ravi pulled Siddhu’s arm. “We’d better hurry before someone takes our seats, media reservations be damned.”
But Siddhu was riveted by one of the many scenes unfolding before his eyes on the railway platform. On one end of a crowded bench sat a thin man in frayed clothes. On his lap was a little girl in a dirty white dress. She couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. The man slapped the girl repeatedly, his face expressionless, his eyes marble-hard. She cried, tears running down her face. Still the man did not stop.
Ravi glanced in the direction in which Siddhu was looking, and snorted. “No man so beaten down that he cannot find it in himself to abuse his wife or child.”
Siddhu shook his hand off and walked toward the man. “You fool, you’ll just make it worse for her if you interfere,” hissed Ravi, following him.
Yes, perhaps. But he had to do something. Why did no one else intervene? Was there such indifference in Bhilwari? One would have thought, so close to the pilgrimage site, that it would be quite the opposite. But Siddhu had been struck by the raggedness of the town, the meanness of its dwellings, the stench of its open drains. Just another poor town in the North Indian plains, left behind by the giant strides made by the rest of the country.
Until, of course, the Shiv-ling — a pillarlike representation of the God Shiva magically appeared, putting Bhilwari on the national news map. Perhaps the rush of tourists would generate some income for the town’s residents, but Siddhu doubted it. Already the middlemen had appeared, sniffing for profits, edging the local competition out. A Mumbai conglomerate had bought up some rundown buildings and converted them into hotels. But Ravi and Siddhu had stayed at a government guesthouse, complete with mosquitoes, power outages and bed bugs. The Delhi Daily per diem rates did not stretch so far as to cover the cost of air-conditioned rooms.
Just another poor town in the North Indian plains, left behind by the giant strides made by the rest of the country.
Siddhu approached the bench where the man sat, slapping the child. He had no idea what to do next. He cleared his throat and the man glanced up, puzzled and suspicious.
“Why are you hitting her?” said Siddhu. He had meant to sound authoritative; it came out more like a bleat. Everyone on the bench stared at him with undisguised interest.
The man looked him up and down with a sardonic eye, taking note, no doubt, of his horn-rimmed spectacles and crisp cotton shirt. “What business is it of yours?” he demanded, pushing the girl away and standing up. This close, he smelled of hooch, the illegal home-brewed alcohol that killed thousands every year in places like Bhilwari.
“I work for a paper,” he said. “If I see injustice—”
“Injustice!” The man spat. “Live my life and give me yours, then we’ll talk of injustice.”
“But nothing is served by hitting a child,” said Siddhu desperately. “Girls are the wealth of families. What harm can she possibly do?”
“Wealth? Harm?” The man laughed, revealing stained and broken teeth. “This chudail killed her own mother. My Imra died of the blood fever, screaming for mercy.” Abruptly he grabbed the little girl’s hair. He pushed her toward Siddhu so that she stumbled and fell against him. Siddhu caught her arm and steadied her.
“How much will you give me for her?” said the man.
“What?” said Siddhu, taken aback. “What do you mean?”
The man shrugged. “Eight hundred rupees and she’s yours.”
“For God’s sake, Siddhu,” said Ravi from behind him. “Let’s go. The train’s about to leave.”
Afterward, he would never know what impelled him to it. It was stupid, it was illegal, it was wrong. But he emptied the contents of his wallet and threw them in the man’s face. The whistle blew and they ran down the platform, Siddhu dragging the weeping child behind him. Only when they had boarded the train and removed six people from their seats through a mixture of threats, bribery and cajoling, did he confront the enormity of what he had done.
“Eight hundred rupees and she’s yours.”
“Congratulations,” said Ravi, once he had recovered his breath. “You are a father! No need for the expense of wife and wedding. Your mother will be so pleased.”
“Shut up,” said Siddhu, gazing at the child. She sat hunched on the wooden seat opposite him, taking up as little space as possible, her eyes big and scared. What was he going to do with her? Perhaps his mother would have some ideas ― after she had finished berating him, of course. Siddhu winced inwardly at the thought of his mother’s reaction to an urchin being brought to live in her spotless South Delhi mansion. Maybe he could give her to an orphanage.
“What’s your name?” asked Ravi, but the girl shrank from him.
A vendor appeared, hawking snacks. Siddhu bought three cups of tea, and a cone of roasted peanuts for the child. She devoured the nuts, as well as the packet of glucose biscuits he had brought along.
“Poor kid,” said Ravi. “He must have been starving her.”
That was easy to believe, with her pinched face and stick-thin body. She looked less frightened after eating, as if bad people would not have given her peanuts and biscuits. She pushed the hair out of her eyes and said, “Am I going home?”
“Home? Sure,” said Siddhu, stalling for time. “Do you want mango juice?” He waved a tetra-pack of Frooti in front of her.
She did want it. She sipped the juice through a straw with obvious enjoyment. Siddhu discovered that her name was Parvati and she was about six years old. She had never been to school and he spent the rest of the journey teaching her the alphabet.
It was early evening by the time they arrived at their destination: Phulwha, a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. Before the Shiv-ling was discovered in a soybean field on the edge of the village, the train hadn’t bothered stopping here at all. But now there was a weekly stop and the six families that constituted Phulwa had been overwhelmed by all the attention they had received. The owner of the soybean field had been interviewed by all the national dailies and news channels. Siddhu could remember the first interview word for word, as it had appeared on the news two months ago:
“Tell us about the day you found the Shiv-ling in your field.”
“It was Choori the cow. She’d gone missing and I found her tracks wandering into my last field, the one that borders the forest. I followed the tracks, worried about my cow. That’s when I saw the black pillar rising from the ground. I forgot all about Choori, I can tell you.”
“Did you try to touch it?”
The farmer had touched his ears, an expression of reverence crossing his seamed face. “Oh no, not me. It has come from the heavens, or maybe it has sprung from the holy ground. We worship it, but we do not dare touch it.”
Siddhu himself had never believed the story of the lingam magically sprouting from the ground in the middle of a soybean field. A bunch of unscrupulous priests was the more likely solution, although why they had chosen Phulwha was beyond him. But he hadn’t been able to duck out of this assignment to put a new angle on the initial news story.
“We worship it, but we do not dare touch it.”
And the new angle? It made Siddhu cringe even to think of it. Their boss, the potbellied, chain-smoking cousin of the Delhi Daily’s owner, had summoned them to his airless office, leaned across the table and whispered, “UFOs.”
Apparently, he thought the Shiv-ling was a spaceship. If Siddhu wrote an article about alien spaceships, it would spell the demise of his journalistic career. If he didn’t, it would spell the demise of his job. He couldn’t figure out which was worse. He needed his salary, however pitiful, if he was to have any hope of moving out of his parents’ house. He was twenty-four, out of college for two years, and this was the first steady job he had held.
At least he had Ravi, his stocky and cheerful photographer friend, for company. And now he had a little girl called Parvati to take care of. The irony of her name was not lost on him. Parvati was the wife of the God Shiva, after all, and the Shiv-ling was a symbol of Shiva the Destroyer. Much good her name had done her so far in her young life.
The train screeched to a halt and disgorged its occupants. A scant few stayed on to travel to the next town, but for the most part, people had come to gawk at the miracle of Phulwha. They’d stay the night, chanting Shiva’s name, and take the train back the next morning. Some devout few would stay longer, camping in the fields and trampling what was left of the soybean.
As they stepped off the train and onto the mud-and-grass platform, Parvati slipped her hand into Siddhu’s. It made him feel oddly protective of her. They made their way through the crowd to the single dirt track that led to the village compound.
“Are we going home?” she asked again.
“Yes, yes, soon,” said Ravi. “We just have to talk to some people here first. Then we’ll take the train back to Bhilwari and you can go home.”
He had barely finished speaking before Parvati let go of Siddhu’s hand and ran ahead of them.
“Parvati, come back!” called Siddhu. But she was soon lost to sight. He darted ahead, pushing through the throng of travellers, scanning the faces of children.
Ravi caught up with him. “You check the village, I’ll keep an eye on the crowd here,” he said.
Siddhu headed for the village. But although he searched for over an hour, he saw no sign of the child. There were simply too many people milling about ― she could have been anywhere, behind anyone. He returned to the train tracks, hoping against hope that she had somehow made her way back there.
He darted ahead, pushing through the throng of travellers, scanning the faces of children.
Ravi paced the platform, all by himself in the thinning crowd. When he saw Siddhu, his face lit up and he hurried over to him. “Any luck?” he asked.
Siddhu shook his head. “I wonder what made her run off like that,” he said, keeping his voice light despite his anxiety.
Ravi put a consoling hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, she’ll be fine. The kid has to be street-smart to have survived in a place like Bhilwari. Maybe she saw someone she knew. We’ll find her again. Phulwha is a small place.”
“We could tell the local thanedar,” said Siddhu, “or maybe get help from the men guarding the Shiv-ling.”
Ravi removed his hand. “Are you crazy? What are you going to tell them, that you bought a little girl? They’ll put you in jail and then I’ll be stuck with a very different sort of assignment. I can just see the headlines: Journalist-turned-criminal locked up for trafficking.
“Look Siddhu, we’ll search for her in the morning. Meanwhile let’s finish what we came here to do. I’d rather not stay in this crazy place any longer than necessary.”
It did feel a bit crazy. What should have been a peaceful evening, with the sun setting over distant fields, and only the sound of crickets and an occasional bark, had turned into a mela, a fair. People were camped everywhere: under trees, off the dirt track, in the courtyards of mud-walled huts. Inside a makeshift temple in the centre of the village, a group of men and women led by a priest sang bhajans. A few enterprising beggars had set themselves up just outside the temple; their wheedling voices mixed with the chorus inside until it was hard to tell them apart.
“Look at them,” said Ravi. “Religious fervor is good for business. Who shall we start with?”
“We can do interviews later,” said Siddhu. “Let’s go see the Shiv-ling. We may find Parvati there.”
Ravi agreed and they headed for the Shiv-ling. It wasn’t as easy as simply walking there, of course. You had to follow a set path at set times, marked out by stones and guarded by the villagers, a couple of policemen and a bunch of priests. There was a fee to be paid ― for the upkeep of the temple and fruit and flowers for the ceremonies ― and then you could walk around the lingam once, never stopping or you risked being trampled by the masses behind you. Joining the queue, Siddhu found himself as irritated as he had ever felt as a child when forced to accompany his mother to famous shrines.
But he forgot his irritation when they actually came in sight of the so-called Shiv-ling. It rose from the middle of an empty field, a massive black pillar, silent and majestic. He had memorized the statistics, of course: nine metres high and four metres in diameter, curving at the top like a true Shiv-ling; but to see it with his own eyes was something else. If it was a hoax, it was a magnificent one. The priests were to be congratulated. He wondered how they had managed to make and transport something of this size.
Siddhu flicked open his phone to take a few photos. Ravi was busy clicking away behind him. Videos were a no-no, and they had to content themselves with still photos. Most everyone around him was trying to take selfies and it was hard to get a shot without someone’s arm or grinning face in it, but at last he managed, just as they were about to circle back to the starting point. He kept his eye out for Parvati, but to his frustration could not spot her anywhere.
After their kilometre-long circuit around the field, they split up to find and interview the villagers. But the villagers all had a single story to tell by now, and most of them expected to be paid for it. Anything original had been lost in the weeks of interviews and photo ops with various politicians and television personalities.
If it was a hoax, it was a magnificent one.
The UFO angle was pretty weak. No one had seen any flashing lights in the sky or heard strange noises the night that the Shiv-ling appeared, but Siddhu felt sure that, given enough cash, they would. It was a depressing thought. His depression deepened with the night, coupled with his anxiety about the missing girl.
Around midnight, when a gibbous moon rode high in the sky, he met Ravi in the village compound. It was a bit quieter now; many people had gone to sleep, curled up in blankets wherever they could find a spot. One group still chanted Om Namah Shivaya inside the temple, and an impromptu tea stall was doing brisk business.
Siddhu and Ravi bought cups of tea and settled on the stone steps of the village council house to compare notes. A lone lantern hung from the porch, throwing its flickering light on their faces.
“I haven’t seen Parvati anywhere,” said Siddhu.
“She’ll turn up, I expect,” said Ravi, rummaging in his bag. “Do you want to see my pics of the Shiv-ling?” He withdrew his camera and Siddhu leaned over to look at them. They were better than the ones he’d taken with his phone, but not much.
Ravi frowned as he scrolled. “It’s too dark to see clearly. Maybe we can take some more pics in the morning. Hey … what’s that?”
It was a grainy shot of the pillar, dark against the red evening sky. But what held Siddhu’s eyes was the blur of white and brown at the base of the pillar. It looked like a person ― a small one.
“Someone in white running in front of the Shiv-ling just when I clicked this?” Ravi shook his head. “That doesn’t make sense. No one’s allowed near the Shiv-ling. Must be a deer or something.”
Siddhu stared, and for a moment Parvati’s face stared back at him from the screen. He blinked and she was gone. He rubbed his forehead; what was wrong with him?
Ravi complained about the photos and groused about their stupid assignment, but Siddhu barely listened to him. His mind kept whirling around the face he had glimpsed on the phone. What if it was true? What if she had somehow slipped past the men guarding the entrance to the field and gone to see the Shiv-ling up close? She might be scared and lost, wandering in circles.
“I think this is a good time to sneak past and shoot video of the pillar itself. It will be something no one else has done.”
Siddhu started. Taking videos of the Shiv-ling was forbidden. If they were caught, there would be hell to pay. But it would give him a chance to look for Parvati. “Okay,” he said.
His mind kept whirling around the face he had glimpsed on the phone.
“What?” Ravi stared at him, astonished. “I expected more resistance from you. You’re getting to be quite the risk-taker. First the girl, and now this.”
Siddhu stood, feeling his face heat up. “How are we going to get past the guards?” he said.
“With this.” Ravi dug into his bag and withdrew a gleaming black bottle with a well-known label. “Indian scotch, the finest on the planet. This is 58% alcohol. We’ll have them drunk in no time.”
Ravi strode off, clutching the bottle. Siddhu followed with some misgiving. It was a low trick, and besides, what if they didn’t drink?
His fears proved unfounded. The remaining few men at the starting point of the path were relaxing around a small fire, smoking beedis. No pilgrims were about: the last holy circuit had been at 10 p.m. Ravi inserted himself into their circle and produced the bottle. He introduced himself and Siddhu, pouring drinks and chattering non-stop.
Siddhu sat beside him, envying him a little. How easily Ravi made friends and got people to loosen up. Not for the first time, Siddhu wondered if he was in the right profession. A journalist had to be bold and thick-skinned. He had to be a go-getter, willing to knock down doors that refused to open. Not like him, diffident and introverted. He’d much rather write a poem than an article about fake Shiv-lings or UFOs, but the problem was that poems didn’t fill your stomach, they didn’t make you money. At least he had a job right now. By winter, he figured, he would have saved enough to make the rental deposit on an apartment of his own.
Ravi shook his shoulder. “Time to go,” he whispered.
The fire had damped down. Clouds covered the sky. Two of the men were arguing in low, drunken voices. Another lay flat on his back, snoring. The last cradled the empty whiskey bottle, smiling vacantly at the embers.
Siddhu rose. Ravi was already walking ahead of him, beyond the glow of the dying fire. Siddhu ran to catch up, fearful of losing sight of him. In a few minutes the darkness was complete. He switched on his phone torch and hissed, “Wait for me!”
Ahead of him a pale blur solidified into the shape of his friend. “What’s the matter, are you afraid you’ll get lost?” said Ravi, grinning. “Switch off the light before someone sees us.”
“Idiot,” muttered Siddhu, pocketing his phone. But he couldn’t help feeling relieved. It was quite a different experience, walking alone down that path in the pitch dark, than it had been earlier that day surrounded by the adoring throngs. From somewhere ahead came a crashing sound in the undergrowth, and Siddhu felt his neck prickle. He hoped it was just a deer.
In a few minutes the darkness was complete.
A little later he bumped into Ravi. “What?” he said. “Why have you stopped?”
“It should be somewhere here,” said Ravi. “If only the moon would come out, we could see where to go.”
Right on cue, the moon sailed out from behind the clouds. The pillar of Shiva rose before them, black and impenetrable. Ravi inhaled sharply. “Much more imposing at night, isn’t it?” he murmured. “Come on.” He struck out across the field.
Siddhu had no choice but to follow, although by this time he would have given anything to be back in the safety of the overstuffed village. Surely Parvati could not be here. He must have been mistaken. He had just been worried about her, that was all.
Up close, the pillar dominated the perspective. It blotted out the sky, blotted out all rational thought. Siddhu reached forward and touched it: cool, hard stone.
“What’s it made of, do you know?” he asked.
“Shaligram,” said Ravi, “a black stone found only in Nepal.” He traced the stone with his fingertips. “It’s what has the scientists stumped. How did they do it? How did they bring it here? It’s the most elaborate hoax of the century.” He took out a light pen. “I’m going to illuminate it now. Step back.”
Siddhu stepped back. Ravi shone his light on the pillar. There was a blinding flash and Ravi cried out. Siddhu ran to him, heart thumping. What had happened?
Ravi lay on the ground, unmoving. Siddhu felt for his pulse. It was faint but steady. He slapped his cheeks. “Wake up, Ravi. Come on.” But it was no good. He was out cold.
Siddhu stood and turned to face the pillar, stomach clenching. It looked the same as before: a vast, dark shadow brooding over the night.
“Are you here to see my home?”
He almost fell over in shock. Parvati leaned against the pillar, smiling at him.
Siddhu stood and turned to face the pillar, stomach clenching.
He licked his lips. “Your home? You mean the Shiv-ling?”
“Come,” she said, “I will show you.”
He turned to the prone form of his friend. “What … what about him?”
“He will be fine,” said Parvati. “Are you coming? I have so much to show you.”
She walked along the side of the pillar. He followed her, teeth chattering in fear, because what choice did he have? It was the biggest story of his life, and if he let this one go, it would haunt him all his remaining days.
As they walked, it seemed to Siddhu that the pillar grew in size, so they never reached the other side. But at some point, Parvati stopped and said, “This is the door. Welcome.”
A door swung open and, without quite walking, Siddhu found himself inside.
No, outside. It was bitterly cold. Snow crunched under his feet. The sky was speckled with stars. They were in a moonlit valley ringed with jagged mountains. Siddhu wrapped his arms around himself and shivered. “Where are we? Where have you taken me?”
“My home,” said Parvati. “Is it not beautiful? Look at that mountain, the highest one. On top of it is a cave in which I meditated for eons.”
“Beautiful,” he said, hugging himself, “but very cold.”
Parvati smiled. She had grown taller somehow, older. “You are funny. Come, I will show you a warmer place.”
Sunshine. Tall trees and enormous red flowers. A waterfall cascading over grey-green rocks. Siddhu collapsed on the soft grass, his mind reeling. It can’t be, he thought. She can’t be.
“But I am,” said Parvati, “in every woman. Every man too, though he deny it.” She was taller than him now. Her thick black hair fell like a curtain around her face. He wanted to run away from her. He wanted to grovel at her feet.
“Why me?” he said weakly.
Her face was neither young nor old. Her eyes were no longer completely human. “Because,” she said, “you served me in your own way. Would you like to see more?”
She did not wait for his response.
They stood at the edge of a vast, deep blue lake that reflected the white clouds scudding across the sky. A flock of swans took flight from the surface of the lake in perfect synchrony. Siddhu couldn’t take his eyes off the flying wedge, even as it grew smaller then vanished into the distance.
“Souls,” said Parvati, “the wise ones who are untouched by the material world and yet give light to others. Now I will show you the other kind.”
Hot and dry, the sun unbearable on his skin. They were in a desert. Dunes stretched as far as Siddhu could see. Nothing grew, nothing lived except a vulture, circling the pale, unforgiving sky.
Parvati waved a hand at the barren ground. “This is what happens to a man who loses his humanity. Here too I have a place.”
“Please.” He licked his lips. “Can you take me back?”
She laughed, the sound of tinkling ice and ringing bells. “What, child, are you afraid?”
“This is what happens to a man who loses his humanity. Here too I have a place.”
Night and moon and the smell of crushed soybean plants. Siddhu found himself back in the field, trembling next to the great pillar. Ravi was sitting up on the grass with a befuddled expression. Parvati knelt next to him, her face serene.
“Look, Siddhu,” said Ravi. “I found Parvati.”
Siddhu didn’t say anything; he couldn’t speak. He hauled Ravi up and chivvied him back to the path, Parvati following behind. They stumbled back to the village. Siddhu didn’t dare look down or behind, but at some point, someone slipped a small hand into his. He clutched it tightly, and something flooded into his heart ― hope, relief, wonder ― no, none of those. It was something else entirely, something he could not name.
The next morning, the pillar was gone. The village was in uproar, swinging between grief and elation at the double miracle.
Siddhu, Parvati and Ravi boarded the train back to Bhilwari, and then on to Delhi. There was hardly any space in their compartment and they had to sit on the floor.
“What are you going to do about her?” said Ravi at last, when they were drawing into Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station. He had been quiet for most of the journey, just looking now and then at Siddhu, at the girl, and then back at Siddhu.
Parvati was asleep, her head cradled on Siddhu’s lap. “I’ll take her home, of course,” he said.
“Your mother …” began Ravi.
“I’ll move out,” said Siddhu, and as soon as he said it, he knew it was true. He could see the stained carpet, the broken banisters of the three-storey walk-up in North Delhi that would be all he could afford after losing his job. He could see the twenty thousand Ravi would lend him instead of buying a new camera for himself. He could see Parvati in a grey and white uniform, grinning at him and waving from a school bus. He could see the poems he would write late at night, poems that would touch the hearts and lives of all who read them, for they were infused with the power of what he had seen. And would they not feed his soul too, would they not give him the strength to carry on when Parvati left him, as she inevitably would one day?
But that day was still far off, and as they dismounted into the chaos of Hazrat Nizamuddin, Siddhu thought of what a fine thing it was to walk with Parvati’s hand in his, her face turned up to him with a trusting smile.
Born and raised in India, Rati Mehrotra currently makes her home in Toronto, Canada. When not working on her magnum opus – a series of fantasy novels based in a fictional version of Asia – she writes short fiction and rather unreliably posts updates on her blog ratiwrites.com. Her short stories have been published at Apex Magazine, AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Abyss & Apex, Lamplight and Inscription Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Rati_Mehrotra