July 6, 2004
The young man moved with inexperienced and nervous jerks, his naked brown body splayed on the floor. Sweet hazy smoke wafted through the room, out the curtained window into the courtyard. It was a sweet aroma, of ground nuts and Kasturi leaf.
“The elders call this sucking the mango,” Bala smiled, rising from the young man’s side. Her consort was breathing slow and deep, hair damp with perspiration. “I think of it more as a banana.”
“Be happy Navin, this is the way of love. Smile.” The girl took the boy’s hand and graciously straddled him. Her countenance was peace, and she began to rock upon his body with a lulling sway, as the banyan tree moves. “The position of andromaque. The elders say the great lover Krishna would lay for hours under his beloved Radha.”
Navin began to thrust his hips, sinuous muscle straining against smooth thighs. Bala breathed in bliss, eyes wide and piercing her consort. “The overlap, Navin,” she sighed. “You must learn Vatsyayana’s methods to become a great lover.”
They closed their eyes and began to drift towards a more perfect union. Moist flesh shimmered in the lamplight, entwined bodies dancing. Bala’s body heaved, her smooth young melons cradled in Navin’s curious fingers. They continued to rock, flexing and squeezing. Impulse and passion swooned in their brains, euphoric intoxication. Bala kissed her lover’s mouth, tasting sweat salt and Kasturi incense.
The boy began to sit up, rippled abdomen flexed and filled with a pleasant pain. His courtesan reached behind him, grasping his spine, wrapping her legs around. “The lotus,” he whispered, biting her ear, a single strand of saliva falling away like a silver earring. Wide eyes revealed her approval.
“You are learning, Navin.” Her words came slow and soft. With renewed intensity Navin pierced her, feeling the warm internal embrace. Legs encircled, arms entangled, breathing aligned, they pulsed in a slow dance of meditative euphoria.
Like the rocking of the elephant train, crushing through dense brush. Like the flags on the temple mount, whipped to frenzy from the cold northern winds. Like the wash and the waves of the southern sea, shimmering like oldest memory.
She clenched her yumi, feeling him respond. Fire spread from inside, tingling her skin, wringing the blood from her heart. Navin dripped sweat and moaned, muscles finally weakening. A final breath in harmony, Bala’s nails across his back.
Then Navin rolled away from her, quickly standing. Bala remained as a lotus, her eyes closed as he dressed. “You taught me well today, Bala. You will be a great teacher one day.”
She said nothing as he went, and did not rise until long minutes later. She lifted the coin purse he had left next to the incense burner. It was generous. Navin was pleased. She was pleased. The scented smoke lifted from the room, past her naked skin and sensuous lips, into the night air.
Looking to the window, the stars were friendly faces over the streets of Barsana, and the black forest beyond.
Amongst silky swath of jewels, a single diamond eye fixed her gaze. “Kamadeva, the lord of love. His eye is on me.” She had felt his touch in the deep throes of her passion.
The incense continued to float on the warm Indian currents, through halls of courtesans and throne rooms of Kshatriya lords, lairs of servants and the poor cold dens of Harijan, the untouchables. It languidly rose above the streets for a moment, tickling the nostrils of a sleeping makata monkey, into the forest. The smoke glinted in the rays of the moon, then broke free, dissipating into the black abyss beyond.
The golden orb, Surya, came rushing over the mountains and through the forests. Then it was over the horizon, eclipsing the rooftops of Barsana. The heat from the rays started the movement of the day, the bustle of activity and duty. Today brought with it celebration, the Holi festival.
Orange, green and red streamers arched over the streets, allusions to the wealth and dazzling spectacle of Kshatriya palaces to the south. Barsana held a special importance for this wide reaching celebration. It was the home of Radha, Krishna’s lover and companion.
Her eyes fell suddenly open, as though the morning rays possessed tiny prying fingers. For when Surya revealed his face, the frightful echoes of the wilderness were silenced by the bustle of Barsana. The droning insects faded away with the morning light, to the gentle murmur of merchant calls and transactions. The beasts in the darkness fled to their snug, hidden lairs away from the splendor of the sun.
Bala crept over to the curtained courtyard window, weary from morning hunger pangs and the soreness inherent to her craft. Wrinkled Sahiba, the house mother, was hanging a vivid orange streamer across the balcony. Bala frowned, sucking her lip. Sahiba was a harsh woman, concerned more with monetary gains then spiritual fulfillment. But she had been a renowned courtesan years ago, and a difficult teacher to Bala.
In the distance, Bala glanced the dirty haze of holika fires still burning. The elders had taught her the meaning of the cleansing fires years ago. Prahlada, the son of an ancient King, worshipped the mighty Lord Vishnu. His father, being an evil man, deeply resented Prahlada’s piety. The King attempted to murder his son many times, but failed again and again. Finally, the King’s sister Holika, said to be immune to burning, sat with the boy in a huge fire. As legend went, Prahlada emerged unscathed, while the wicked Holika was consumed in the flames.
The cleansing fires protected the people of Barsana from demons and evil spirits. But Bala liked to think of the festival in happier terms. Today marked Lord Krishna’s victory over the demon Madhu, in ancient Braj. For Bala, Holi was a celebration of Krishna, and Radha, pride of Barsana.
Her musings were swept away as Kamini glided into the room. “Up early today, Bala. An exciting day it will be.” Kamini was like a sister to young Bala, experienced but friendly and helpful.
“There will be many men in Barsana today, Bala. Rich men who will drink wine and come to visit courtesans,” Kamini smiled, pulling at her black curls, twisting them into a makeshift braid.
“Kamini, why do you always think it is only money that I want?” Bala pouted, walking past the older girl and out of her room. “The elders say our greatest gain is from teaching, not taking.” Kamini followed as they entered the place where food was prepared.
“Oh I know that, bahan, but when you are young and beautiful, take rupees over learning. That is the wisest choice, Sahiba will tell you the same.”
Bala kept her mouth shut, lips pressed tightly together. She sliced a fresh mango into pulp, then poured it into a mug of goatsmilk yogurt. “Of course old Sahiba would say that. How could she ever have been a great lover with that scowl and that wrinkled face? Elephant’s ears are smoother!”
Kamini laughed, a surprising loud exclamation, her teeth like white stones jutting from brown earth. “You had better hold your tongue Bala, bahan. Sahiba will double your chores.”
Bala stared lazily into the bright orange drink in her hands. “Come,” said Kamini. “Let’s go outside. The Nangoan will arrive before long, you must look your best.”
Kamini walked to the door, brushing Bala with the tip of her long braid. Bala tasted her panna, the smooth mango pulp massaging her gums. Then she sighed and walked for the door, chest high, eyes seductive. Into the sunshine.
Surya was halfway through his ascent, but his warmth had stoked the city into frenzied preparation. Cattle and oxen waded through the throngs, sovereign citizens in their own right. Merchants garnished their bazaar tents with bright streamers and flags. Laborers paused in the streets, letting heavy loads sag on their shoulders as they imbibed the commotion.
With a broad smile, a young virgin sat beside the street, plying her father’s wares. A handful of large sacks lay open, spilling forth brilliant pigments of crimson, pink, dull gold and bronze. It was a worthwhile business, for many new silk traders had arrived from the north. These colors would adorn the garments of the celebratory crowds. Scattered dust lined the walkway in a collage of colors. It would touch the feet of many travelers and pilgrims, leaving trails of brilliance through the streets of Barsana. Everywhere gulal, the rich red powder of Holi celebration filled the air and covered the ground.
Holi day was like no other, when the bottled joy of a year coalesced into spectacle and celebration. The fruit and grain merchants cooked in the streets, filling large plates of khoya Gujias and Batashas for all to enjoy. Drummers on a tree lined hills filled the air with rhythm, beating skin drums with the intensity of Shiva’s own musicians. Young Shudras, artisans and servants of the village leaders, deftly strummed Tamboras and Sitars, a siren’s sweet call of longing and tradition. These were the sounds of spring, of Holi, in Barsana.
It was past noon when the men from Nandgaon arrived, covered in thick stalks and padding. Their arms were taught with strength, but their faces radiated the joy of the festival. They would run through the streets, sweat melding with gulal until it flowed thick like blood.
Young Bala sipped her mango panna as she watched the Nandgaon men. Orange swaths of cloths covered her nubile form. Tiny sprinkles of fiery gulal glistened on her brown skin.
“You know we will mercilessly beat them,” said Kamini. Bala’s companion was older by a year, and far more experienced.
“I know. Kamini you act as though I was a young tiger cub, lost in the mountains.”
“Oh you are not so innocent,” the girl smugly grinned. “I heard you last night with your young merchant.”
Bala nudged Kamini. The latter laughed, the long tight braid a twisting, treacherous cobra on her back. Both fell silent as their gaze fell upon the struggling mass of men.
The hordes formed a long canyon, walls of colored streamers and screaming faces. Through this treacherous passage surged the padded men, yelling and shouting traditional prayers. At the roiling forefront, a mock battle raged, male against female. The women of Barsana, pious and reverent worshippers of Radha, were draped in long red robes and wielding long bamboo staves. They violently assaulted the outsiders, cracking the hard shafts into the grass padding, flesh and bone. Shouts of pain interspersed the chanting and cheering. Nandgaon men stumbled in the onslaught, injured with lacerations and bruised limbs.
But like invading jungle ants they marched forward, driven much like insects. Tradition, passion, celebration, joy, pleasure. Necessity.
The fighting would surge till it reached the summit of the temple grounds, Radha’s final resting place. The fury would subside and the chanting prayers would fall to a drone. Gulal would fill the air like thick rain. But the moment Bala would remember most was a frozen slice of that furious intensity, that very violent, physical union of male and female.
It was in those moments of chaos that Bala first saw him, a face in the crowd. He moved past bodies as though he were swimming through a fast current. Strong, confident strokes. Eyes always on his goal. He was moving gradually towards the courtesan’s house. Another sweet sip of Panna tingled her tongue as she studied him. He was certainly an outsider, not even the most regal Kshatriya lord looked as honorable. Or as alien. Even at this distance, intensity roared within him to match the conflagration of holika.
“Do you see him?” Kamini asked slowly, bracing herself against the wall as stood on her toes. “That stranger, moving towards us.”
“I do, Kamini,” Bala whispered, perturbed that Kamini had seen him. Bala wanted him the moment she saw him, but now Kamini would steal the prize.
“He is beautiful. Lord Krishna himself I’d say,” Kamini laughed, white teeth glaring. “Well, I saw him first, Bala. I’m sure you will find a man very handsome. And today, very rich I’d imagine.”
The face grew larger as the man approached, supported on strong shoulders. His rich purple and green garments flashed through gaps in the crowd. Bala held her breath as he moved up through the crowd, moments away from the courtesan house.
“Bala! Kamini!” Bala winced and saw Kamini visibly sag. It was the sharp voice of the matron of courtesans, old Sahiba. “Where are you two?”
The stranger in the crowd had suddenly disappeared, nowhere to be found. Both young women froze with downcast eyes as Sahiba stepped outside. “Ah, here we are. Did you enjoy the Nandgaon men? Especially voracious this year, put up quite a struggle. Next year both of you should be part of Radha’s temple defenders. It is a privilege for any Barsana woman.”
Bala let out her held breath in a whispered sigh. Sahiba turned towards the young girl like a pouncing tiger. “Ah, Bala, young one. How was your young merchant, Navin? I received word that he is very successful this season. Has he been enjoying himself?”
“I have taught him the teachings of the elders, and the methods of Vatsyayana…”
“Has he paid you?” Sahiba interrupted sharply.
“Yes mother,” Bala sighed, already reaching for the coin purse tucked under her pink waist sash.
Old Sahiba held out her hand, unblinking eyes ticking away the passing moments. Bala picked two of the larger coins from the purse and set them slowly in the matron’s wrinkled palm. The courtesan matron provided lodging and training for the girls in exchange for a percentage of their earnings. Both girls knew this well, but Sahiba’s fastidiousness always inspired reluctance.
“Put your money away, Bala, today is a time for celebration! Holi is not a selfish and greedy consumption of pleasures. Holi demands respect for the teachings of the elders. Your joy must be aimed with a certain intent, respect for Lord Krishna and Lady Radha. Act in accordance to her wishes, and follow the teachings of the elders.
“Having said that, I encourage both of you to employ our craft with skill and foresight. Many young men want to taste the pleasures and wisdom of Barsana. But let me tell you this, a tiny bit of wisdom I have gleaned from years of life. Looks can be deceiving. There are many strangers in Barsana today. Choose a lover who is honest and true. Seduction is a gift of the female. Remember that Bala, Kamini.”
Sahiba turned from her charges, watching the crowds move in waves through the alleys and tree lined walkways. Her firm countenance seemed to absorb the commotion of her surroundings without reaction. Perhaps she was deep in recollection, of a lost day from the past. Once, she had stood seductively on the wayside, full of bodily passion and intensity. Once, the overwhelming aura of Holi celebration had surged through her senses. She was a kindred spirit, dancing about the holika fires, raising her voice in song to the skies, to the elders, to the gods.
But no longer. Sagging flesh fell to a frown, and the eroding constant of necessity shaped her single-thinking mind. The vigor of youth was gone, and longings had sunk to a whisper. But Sahiba remembered what passion meant, what it echoed and beckoned. She remembered gulping incensed air, forcing her figure into desperate contortions. She remembered connecting with the soul of another. She remembered the wisdom of the elders, scored into her brain like a hot brand.
Today, something beckoned, a hint of that ancient intensity of being, Shiva’s lingering smile. But today the scent was foreign, the prophet of an alien wisdom. She turned from the sashes, thick gulal and the joyous faces. With complacent understanding, she acquiesced. Today’s strange mingling intensity was not for her to discover. The yoke of discovery had passed to Bala and Kamini.
The drums and chanting songs subsided as she stepped inside, leaving the two girls. Surya’s burning face was veiled, leaving Sahiba contemplating in the dim half-light. She could only hope the wisdom of the elders would bring fulfillment to her charges, enchanting courtesans of Barsana.
When the matron had left them, their eyes immediately returned to the crowds, to scan for the beautiful foreigner.
“Have you ever been with a man who did not need to be taught? A man who made you feel like a child, before pleasures of the flesh were revealed. Just to be held in his arms, wide eyed in wonder. Have you ever been with such a man, Bala?”
“I have longed for it many times,” Bala responded mechanically.
“That’s what I see in him. Those eyes, I have never seen such a thing.” Kamini seemed reflective, her gaze leveled on the horizon. “I can only imagine…”
“How great of a lover her really is,” Bala finished the thought in her own mind. “Perhaps Kamini. But remember what Sahiba told us…”
“So I have finally found her, the beautiful Lady Radha…”
Bala and Kamini jumped at the voice, and the stranger was before them. He stood tall, clothed in deep purple and gold garments. Gold ornaments hung from his belt and neck, tiny figurines of forest animals and ancient symbols. He wore a long ceremonial knife at his side, scabbard adorned with glittering jewels and precious stones. Yet his eyes were his most prized possession, deep black wells of concentrated energy.
“You are speechless. Yet your beauty speaks poetry to me.” The floating gulal seemed to vibrate around him, and small specks landed on his dark cheeks. The stranger stepped forward. Away from Bala, towards Kamini.
“I am Shekhar, a traveler to Barsana.” Kamini was clearly dazzled, glazed eyes and mouth half-agape.
“Have you come to seek a lover?” Kamini mouthed, ritualistically.
“I have found her,” Shekhar responded, “the most beautiful woman in Barsana. If you will be so kind as to take me inside, we will celebrate Holi in a way to make all the elders proud.”
Kamini’s dark cheeks grew pink for a short moment. The she regained her composure, gently taking Shekhar’s bejeweled hand. “Then come lover, let us retire.”
The richly dressed stranger entered with Kamini on long strides. Yet just before he left her sight, Bala caught his eyes again. Deep and dark, full of passion, intelligence. Beckoning. Then Shekhar turned away, and his eyes flashed bright red, if only for a single moment.
Bala inhaled deeply, fighting back envy and self-pity. The shadows were growing long, and there would not be many more visitors to the courtesan district today. The celebratory throngs would spend time with friends and relatives, feasting on khoya Gujias and sweet Batashas. She would be alone.
Surya began to bid farewell to the glorious day, leaving long shadows along the walkways and under trees. The colored streamers hung limply, and their color seemed to fade in the dimming light. People mulled about, eating and talking. Barsana was becoming mellow with the onset of night. The blistering ferocity of Holi was gone; people now sought the gentle warmth of companionship.
When the last shadows of the day dripped from the trees like liquid night, Bala turned from the street. The first sounds of the jungle began to encroach upon Barsana: screams, hoots and low moans. The last speck of red gulal dust settled into the brown dirt just as the sun disappeared into the unknown horizon, the unfathomable west.
“To be alone,” thought Bala, sitting in her room, watching the shadows in the courtyard. “To fail at my calling. To watch the festival but not to be a part. Not to belong. To be empty.”
Young Bala brought a smoldering wall torch down to her small pot of incense. Slowly the crystallized resin and herbs accepted the heat, releasing their potent scent.
“Yet how can I be selfish, to ignore the blessings I have? My fate is but a grain of sand to Brahma. It is foolish to regret a single day.”
In her musings, she remembered the struggle of the Nandgaon men, pushing ever forward through the surging crowd, into the storm.
“That is what we are, our great civilization, noble Barsana. Pushing against the darkness of the forest and the mountains. Against destruction. That is why we celebrate. I will not weep for my own misfortune, but rejoice in the fortune we all partake.”
Through the walls a slight tapping seeped, and the giddy whispers of lovers. Kamini and Shekhar were beginning to dance.
Bala’s thoughts shifted, and she remembered the fierce women in red, Radha’s chosen. Violently defending the temple mount with bamboo staves. Fighting with passion and intensity, only to be pushed back. To fail, in defeat. Every Holi, Radha’s chosen would fail, to let the Nandgaon men reach the summit. Yet every year the battle raged anew. And she was filled with sadness, and a loathing pang of fear. “How do I know? How can I be sure and confident?”
Blue flame burned in her incense dish, a steady consumption. She could make out Kamini’s distinctive moans growing in vivid realization. Perhaps the stranger was whispering sweet poetic verses as he danced.
The thought of the stranger did not ease her doubt, but allowed her to find its place. “Everything moves according to the gods,” she repeated, meditatively. “The wisdom of the elders is what allows our city to glow bright in the darkness. The blessing of the gods gives of peace.”
Silence seeped into the floor and the walls and Bala’s skin as she sat, watching the incense burn. She focused on the word peace, formed the ohm in her mouth, letting it slowly rise from her lungs, past her throat and tongue.
Then like a nightmare in the blackest nights, a weeping scream rose from Kamini’s den. Bala continued to breathe, but the ohm of peace was dead inside. Only cold fear lingered behind her eyes, at once both uncertainty and primitive realization. After a final glance towards the darkened courtyard, she dashed to Kamini’s quarters.
Kamini hung limply in a harness of intricate ropes and cables. Her smooth brown flesh protruded delicately through the gaps, forming a statue of curves and forms. Long lacerations ran along her legs, arms and belly, weeping thick crimson tears. Below, a large metal dish collected her blood. She was still alive. Another glance caught dark eyed Shekhar, already moving.
At once he was upon her. One hand pinned her to the wall, the other grasped her throat, seizing up any cry for help. He moved like the wind, or a wild animal. Without thought, only instinct and the deepest, darkest passions of necessity.
He spoke, his voice rumbled like an earthquake, at first only menacing and rageful. Then the syllables and words drove into her inner mind like lucid glass, splitting the haze of disbelief. His was a look from which she could not turn away, a voice she could not ignore. “When you were first pierced, penetrated by that first male touch, did you not bite your lip in fear and pain? Did you not feel your body split apart, rended by the force of man? Blood soaked your sheets, and you were terrified.” Bala tensed, watching Kamini drip away into the metal bowl.
“But it was tradition that kept you sane, kept you anticipating more. It was the teachings of the elders that you trusted. It was Kama’s firm touch, reaching into your inner soul.”
The dark man clenched his jaw and his fist was a metal vice on Bala’s tender neck. “Pain is Kali’s will. Blood and pain are her sacraments.”
Bala screeched through her constricted throat, a raspy whisper. “Shiva protect me from Kali….”
Shekhar grinned through his clenched jaw and let out a deep, belly laugh. “You know nothing of Shiva. Shiva, the essence of divine consciousness and being! Shiva spawned the festivals and your kind, courtesans and entertainers. When are you more alert then when you are threatened? I can feel your pulse beating through your flesh!”
Bala’s eyes embodied her fear, great pulsating globes in her skull. The clench of the man was undeniable. Kamini moaned below, vomiting thick crimson. Her form shuddered and Shekhar seemed to imbibe the final movements.
“Pain spurns us. These mortal coils fail when we fear the sting of death! When the spilling of blood ceases to arouse. Look at the men of Nandgoan. They run through pain and beatings in respect for the elders, yes. But it makes them alive. They come closer to that holy union of consciousness and spirit, to embrace Shiva. Kali knows. She knows.”
His grip lessened and Bala could see him shift his weight. The blood of Kamini drained slowly now into the metallic bowl, her heart finally silenced. The dark foreigner dipped his fingers into the bowl. His eyes were distant, in a trance, seeking that holy union somewhere in his treacherous mind. He lifted the crimson juice to his lips, ever so softly embracing his fingers. Voice a whisper, words flowed from his throat, “With my mind to you mistress Kali, I drink of your sacrament, in worshipful respect….”
Bala was frozen in terror. “You are…demonkind.” Nausea seeped through her, as a liquid draining down her throat to her stomach.
Shekhar’s fist again clutched her throat like a noose. He stared into Bala with his bottomless orbs, his beautiful eyes. She shuddered but could not turn away.
“Your blood will spill like rain, seeping into the cracks of the underworld, until Kali’s demons scream in ecstasy for the feast. Your frail skin will give way to the torrent, a red flood from your core. What is Kamadeva’s final wish? To be devoured with pleasure. To experience a love so great, to disperse and join the elements, food for the gods. And as your life seeps away, your concentration drains, you will focus on a single being, a single face. My face.”
Shekhar reached for his bloody knife, but his gaze never left her.
“We will lock eyes, match lips as you shower me in lifeblood. I will drink your inner core, and you will exit to eternity knowing Shiva’s fancy was fulfilled. Shiva, the destroyer, and hence the renewer. Bleed, Bala, into rebirth!”
Bala’s frozen gaze watched the ornate blade move towards her throat, but a tremendous thud brought her back. The knife stopped, then fell from Shekhar’s hand, clattering into Kamini’s sacrificial bowl. Bala looked up, to the sweeping red robes of Radha’s chosen, and the stoic mask of her matron mother. Sahiba stood still, white knuckle grip on a thick battle stave. Shekhar slumped to the ground, spinal cord severed from the perfect blow.
“Vile, vile, vile,” Sahiba muttered, letting the horrible words dribble from her lips. Her staff quivered slightly but did not drop from ready position. The matron’s unflinching gaze never left poor Kamini’s butchered form.
A terse wind blew in from the courtyard, ruffling red robes. It brought with it the drone of the jungle; the chattering of tree bound primates and the harmonious symphony of insects.
Sahiba gestured to the ornate dagger, soaked in Kamini’s blood. Bala bent slowly to grasp it, watching the keen edge as though it was an unholy viper.
Shekhar breathed shallowly on the dusty floor, his arms and legs twisted into odd angles from the fall. Sahiba’s blow had rendered him completely paralyzed. Only his wandering eyes confirmed the life within him.
No words passed between the three, only instinct and driving passion. Sahiba’s wrinkled face tensed into a wooden mask. Bala’s shoulders heaved with immense weight, and sweet sweat dripped from her brow to her lips. Broken Shekhar merely stared into her eyes, but that was enough.
Ever so slowly Bala bent, gravity pulling every inch of skin, wearing away every string of ligament and muscle. She was intimately aware of the knife handle, of the jeweled crevices and ancient carved writings. The colors seemed to seep into her skin, black, red and violent. Necessity.
Without a break in the flow she carried out the course, razor knife-edge severing the strangers neck. Shekhar’s beautiful eyes continued to stare, his own deep, intense embrace. The pain and finality of her cut drove him on, forward and downward. She watched as the fire churned in his pupils, and she lovingly let it push her towards orgasm.
Arterial blood sprayed like mist from his severed throat, then fell, peacefully like gulal. In the distance, a young fawn screamed, tiger claws sinking into its flank. The festival was over, the sun hidden beneath the world, and the elders seemed to echo in their resounding laughter.